Rumour had it that Starbase One was haunted.
Kat heard the stories. The sudden drops of temperature on level 44. The communication channels that opened by themselves on engineering deck B, and the channels that wouldn't stay open on the hospital deck. Lieutenant Fulton swore she heard someone tapping out an SOS in Morse code from inside the Jefferies tube leading to the operations centre.
"Then, logically, your ghost must be human," Ensign Surell had said, and Fulton accused him of making fun of her, and by the time the argument was done, they were both on report.
Nerves were frayed. Kat wasn't surprised.
Eighty thousand people died when the Klingons took Starbase One. Starfleet officers. Civilians. Children. It was natural that people would look for a trace of them, a sign that their existence was ongoing. With four thousand people occupying a space designed to hold twenty times their number, they were bound to find ways to fill the empty, quiet spaces. It was irrational, but at the same time, it made sense. Just the sort of paradox that had drawn Kat to psychiatry, a lifetime ago.
It was easy to tell herself, by day, that the ghost stories were an attempt by a traumatised population to come to terms with the violence which had taken place here.
At night, she wished the air recyclers didn't sound so much like someone whistling. That the shudder of coolant pipes didn't sound like footsteps. That the environmental controls in her quarters didn't keep reverting back to her Andorian predecessor's settings.
The Klingons had only held the starbase for a week, but they managed to do a lot of damage in that time. Seven months after the end of the war, repairs were ongoing, impeded by shortages of personnel and materials.
The ghost stories probably didn't help. Turnover would have been unacceptably high had Kat not given orders to deny most requests for transfer. No one wanted to be here. Least of all Kat, but she was the highest ranking officer to survive the war, and she couldn't order people to serve on Starbase One if she wouldn't do it herself.
She was just so tired.
It was the silence that woke her up. The environmental system had reset itself for the third time that week. Kat lay on her back, looking up at the ceiling, feeling the air grow cold.
"The time is 0342."
She could see her breath.
With a sigh, she sat up, logged the problem with a weary-sounding engineer, and grabbed her gym bag.
By now Fleet Admiral Cornwell walking to the gym in her pyjamas in the early hours of the morning was as much a part of base lore as the ghosts. Not that she was meant to know that, but word got around, and her aide passed it on.
Before the base fell, there had been separate gyms for flag officers, other senior officers, lower ranks and cadets, and civilians. Now only two were functional, and they were open to everyone. Even at this hour, there were usually other people using the facilities.
This morning it was two kids. Cadets. Children. Earnestly sparring, although the care with which they touched each other, the nervous laughter as they landed on the mat, made Kat suspect they wanted something more.
She averted her eyes and headed into the locker room to change, thinking, I was never that young.
You were, replied the cruel part of her mind. That could have been you and Gabriel.
She shoved the thought aside and pulled her pyjamas off with more force than necessary, and, though she had come in with a vague plan of running, headed instead for the punching bags.
She tried not to think about Gabriel.
She had lost people in the war. Her mother. Old friends. Lovers. Colleagues. Every officer of flag rank between herself and the President of the Federation. And then there were the intangible losses. Her principles. A good portion of her self-respect. Most of her idealism.
She could mourn, and she did. And every day, she forced herself to get up, put her uniform on, and try to build something better than what came before.
She pulled her gloves on and gave up trying to turn her thoughts away.
Bad enough when she thought she was mourning for a once-stalwart friend, broken by trauma. To learn that that man was a replacement, a cruel duplicate from a parallel universe, who had lied and manipulated at every turn--
She didn't know how she was meant to deal with that. Especially when the facts of his existence were highly classified. On her own orders, too.
Clever way to avoid talking about it, though. Nicely done, Dr Cornwell.
She silenced the thought with a punch.
That man was dead. Gone. She didn't need to think about him.
But her Gabriel -- it nagged at her, like a missing tooth. Like the numb patch in the middle of her back where the surgeons inserted the implant that enabled her to walk. He was beyond her reach, almost certainly dead -- but it was the "almost" that she kept coming back to when she couldn't stop herself.
He's dead. She chanted it under her breath, following the rhythm of her punches. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead.
Decomposing in an anonymous Terran grave. Or disintegrated by Terran phasers. Or transported into vacuum.
She switched to round kicks, pivoting on her left foot as her right hit the bag, then swapping sides.
She hoped he died on the Terran Buran. Destroyed in a flash by the emperor's torpedoes before he had a chance to realise where he was. It was better than dying afraid and alone and in pain.
I'm sorry I didn't see the change until it was too late. I'm sorry I thought the worst of you. I'm sorry I let him lie to me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry--
The rhythm was broken. Kat swallowed her sob and threw all her grief and rage into a kick that sent the punching bag swinging wildly on its tether.
In the silence that followed, she realised the two cadets were staring at her.
"As you were," she muttered. Grabbing her bag, she went back to her quarters to shower, dress and apply enough makeup to disguise her exhaustion.
She was in her office by 0500, going over the starship reports which had arrived overnight.
Her aide arrived at 0630, bearing a pot of coffee, a croissant, and her schedule for the day. Security briefing. Intelligence reports. Station repair updates. A meeting with the JAG office.
Kat paused at that last one, pulling up the details. 1400 hours, Commander Finn Urquhart.
"You take that one, Julie," she said.
Commander Browning raised her eyebrows, but didn't argue. She was in her mid-forties, and would have been commanding her own ship by now, had they not lost so much of the fleet. She was a more than capable adjutant. Which was good, since she was one woman doing the job of a full staff, but Kat was all too aware that she hadn't signed up to be an administrator. If Kat could delegate some of her work, that was all to the good.
And if passing a meeting off to Browning meant that Kat could avoid a conversation with Gabriel's cousin, well, that was just good luck.
"You should keep that hour clear," said Browning. "Take a long lunch. Or a nap."
"Good idea," said Kat, allocating herself to the repair roster instead.
Browning rolled her eyes, but said nothing.
Starbase One's capture more than decimated Starfleet Command. Fewer than a dozen had survived: Kat, a handful of others.
The fleet itself -- the ships and starbases -- could be rebuilt faster than the people could be replaced. There was a personnel shortage at every level, but it was worst of all in the highest ranks. On average it took twenty years to train a starship captain, and only a handful of captains had what it took to be a competent admiral.
Starfleet as a whole would be close to full strength in a decade or so, but it would be at least fifteen years before all the empty chairs in Starfleet Command were filled.
Good thing I'm not planning to retire any time soon, Kat told herself.
Lately she had found herself daydreaming about updating her medical qualifications and going into civilian practice. Living in a house on a planet somewhere. Sleeping eight hours a night.
Typical. Wanting what she couldn't have.
She was just so tired.
As if reading her mind, Browning said, "When are you next due back on Earth?"
"Week after next." Kat poured herself more coffee. "I'd like to be able to tell the president that Starbase One can accommodate two more starships by then."
"I'll let Commander Smythe know. Xie'll complain, but--"
"Xie'll get it done. Xie always does."
"You should take some time for yourself while you're there," said Browning.
"You trying to get rid of me, Julie?"
"Admiral Drake says I'm not allowed to let you burn out."
"That's kind of her."
"No, she just doesn't want your job.”
Kat did take time off when she was on Earth. She liked to beam to unfamiliar cities and walk around aimlessly. Exploring the planet of her ancestors.
And if she happened across a stranger who wanted to go to bed with her — well, that was nice, too.
But that was between herself and her therapist. As far as her subordinates were concerned — hell, she didn’t care what they imagined about her sex life. It was separate from her work, that was all that mattered.
Browning asked, “Are you ready for your security briefing?"
Kat thought about Lieutenant Commander Cuxel and winced.
"I'll bring you more coffee," Browning promised.
Lieutenant Commander Cuxel was Andorian, and old enough to remember the founding of the Federation. Or so he claimed; according to his file, he had been a toddler at the time. He was one of the many officers who emerged from retirement to serve during the war, but as valuable as he was, Kat had quickly discovered there was a reason he had served for half a century without being promoted past lieutenant commander: he was supercilious, pedantic, and either incapable or unwilling to abbreviate his reports to accommodate the human attention span.
This morning's fleet security report included significant incidents -- a brawl between Starfleet officers and a squad of Tellarite soldiers on Starbase Sixty-Two; a failed attempt to access classified files; the murder of a Starfleet officer taking shore leave on Rigel VIII -- and smaller matters -- a stolen patent; two civilians arrested for identity fraud; a civilian shuttle straying into restricted space after its navigational systems malfunctioned.
Kat cut him off there, with thanks, and made a note to ask Browning to explain, again, that Cuxel needed to start applying some kind of triage to his reports.
Next. Intelligence. Admiral Shukar was as succinct as Cuxel was verbose, but between the raids along the new Klingon neutral zone and rumours of a new, expansionist regime on Romulus, the meeting still ran over time.
As did the next meeting. And the one after.
At 1445 hours, she emerged from her office, keeping her gaze fixed straight ahead, barely acknowledging Finn climbing to his feet and saying, "Admiral." Without slowing down, she said, "Commander Browning will see you, Commander; I apologise for the delay," and walked away.
Commander Smythe, Starbase One's chief engineer, put her to work replacing cable in one of the larger utility corridors. It was tedious, mindless work, just the sort of thing that could be entrusted to a psychiatrist-turned-admiral with only basic engineering skills. Measure. Cut. Clip into place. Repeat.
If it wasn't quite as restful as actual sleep, at least she wouldn't wake up freezing cold, or shaking from a nightmare, or haunted by--
She bit back her sigh, forced a smile onto her face and turned.
"Finn," she said. "I thought I'd missed you."
"And I'm trying not to take that personally. But I wanted a word."
Finn didn't look like Gabriel. He was taller than his cousin, slightly broader. Thick around the middle, and becoming jowly. He was the sort of man who, even though his uniform was technically crisp and perfect, always gave the impression of having just wandered into work in his pyjamas.
But he had the same blue eyes as Gabriel. And, though he was in his fifties, part of Kat would always see him as the baby-faced sixteen-year-old she had met all those years ago.
So she said, "I'm sorry, Finn. I just--" A wave of her hand took in the open conduit, the cabling, the toolkit.
He knelt with a grunt and started to measure cable.
"I've been doing this on Starbase Twelve," he said. "It's in better shape than this place, but not by much."
He measured and cut; she clipped it into place. An easy silence fell between them, until Finn said, "I wanted to ask -- I noticed that Gabriel's record is sealed. On your order, it said."
Kat concentrated on fitting the cable into its slot.
He said, "Discovery was destroyed, he was reported dead, we had a memorial. Then months pass, suddenly Discovery is back, everyone's alive and well. Except for its captain. He measured. He cut. "And that was when you sealed the record."
Kat said nothing.
"I know you probably can't talk about it," he said, "but I keep wondering if Gabriel did something wrong. Committed some sort of crime."
Keeping her voice even, Kat said, "Does that sound like something he'd do?"
"Well. After the Buran--" Finn's voice cracked. "I hate myself for wondering. But--"
"I understand." Kat fitted the last piece of cable into place.
Finn and Gabriel came from a big family. Lots of cousins. Lots of kids of cousins. And every single branch of the family had suffered a loss in the war. Finn had inherited custody of his first-cousin-once-removed, a teenage girl who lost both parents and an aunt.
She squeezed his shoulder.
"You're right," she said. "I can't tell you."
Finn's face crumpled.
"I'm sorry," Kat said, and gathered her tools and walked away.
Meetings. Briefings. Reports. Kat dismissed Browning at 1930, ate a light dinner at her desk, and finally left her office at 2205. She was aching with exhaustion, but knew that if she went straight to bed, she'd lie awake, mind racing, for another couple of hours.
So she changed into her pyjamas and settled on the couch with a PADD and a half measure of Saurian brandy. She always swore she was going to use this time to prepare for the next day's work, but usually wound up catching up on everything she'd missed that day.
She was beginning to think about going to bed when the comm chimed: a high priority message from Admiral Shukar.
"Admiral," he said, "is this channel secure?"
Kat tapped a control. "It is now. What's happened?"
Klingon incursions -- Romulan spies -- Tholian expansionism -- it had to be a dire emergency for Shukar to contact her like this.
"I've received word of an incident on Freehold Base," he said. "Approximately four hours ago, a--" He hesitated. "It would be easier to send the security footage."
A second display opened itself. Freehold Base's security systems were as haphazard and laissez-faire as everything else on the station; this looked like footage from a privately owned surveillance camera. The colours were muted, and there was no sound, but the picture was clear.
There was Philippa Georgiou, sauntering through Freehold Base as if she owned it.
She paused to examine something, but her body language suggested her attention was elsewhere. Tilted her head to keep the object of her attention in her peripheral vision.
A figure in the background moved, and, almost faster than Kat's eye could follow, Georgiou drew a long Klingon knife from its sheath and turned on her attacker.
The fight lasted only seconds. A passing Nausicaan set his phaser to widebeam and stunned both parties and, after a moment of awkward stillness, one of the local security goons dragged them off to holding cells and whatever passed for justice on Freehold Base.
"Did you see it?" Shukar asked.
"I did." Kat replayed the footage. There was only one clear shot of Georgiou's attacker's face. But she recognised it before she freezed or enhanced the image. She saw that face every day.
It was her own.
Kat said, "I can assure you, I haven't left Starbase One in weeks."
"Seven weeks and four days," said Shukar. "My apologies, Admiral, but I did check. I'm afraid we have to assume this is a deliberate incursion from the other universe."
"An invasion?" Kat wondered.
"Or an attempt to assassinate Georgiou. We don't have enough information yet."
"Where are they now? Georgiou and -- the other Cornwell?"
"The Freehold Base administration -- such as it is -- has agreed to hand them over to Starfleet as soon as a ship arrives to take custody." Shukar's antennae twitched disapprovingly. "A certain amount of bribery was necessary."
"Needs must, Admiral." Kat tapped her fingertips against the console. "Order Discovery to Freehold Base. Via Starbase Ninety."
"Yes, Admiral Cornwell." Shukar looked like he was waiting to receive an inevitable piece of bad news.
"I'll meet them at the starbase."
Shukar's expression didn't change, but his antennae drooped a fraction.
"Yes, Admiral," he said.
"Keep me updated. Liaise with Starfleet Security -- follow up anything out of the ordinary." Something nagged at the edge of her memory. Identity fraud. "I need to look into something. Cornwell out."
She stared for a second at the frozen image of her Terran counterpart. Same face. Same lines around her mouth and eyes. Same hair.
Same expression? Difficult to tell. She had certainly felt as hard as that woman looked.
Kat dismissed the file and reached instead for the day's report from Lieutenant Commander Cuxel.
There it was. Identity fraud. A Vulcan and a Kelpien attempted to book passage to Deep Space Station K-7 using false travel documents. A DNA scan identified the Vulcan as T'Shon, a junior officer in the Vulcan Expeditionary Group, currently assigned to deep space exploration on the other side of the quadrant.
The Kelpien government didn't keep DNA records on file, but that young man was detained along with his companion.
Kat sent orders that they were to be picked up by Discovery on its way to Freehold Base.
Then she went to pack.
Kat spent most of the three-day journey to Starbase Ninety reading Cuxel's dense reports and picking out the highlights she wanted Shukar to investigate.
A Tellarite attempting to break into classified Starfleet files. A civilian shuttle entering restricted space, the Betazoid pilot allowing the USS Farragut to escort her back to shipping lanes but putting off questions with the explanation that her navigation array had gone offline.
It might even have been true, Kat thought, remembering Commander Saru's report on Discovery's venture into the other universe. It had taken time for their systems to realign themselves.
She wished the Farragut had taken a moment to scan that shuttle's quantum signature. She issued orders to have it detained and scanned next time it tried to dock at a Federation facility, but doubted it would ever be seen again.
It wasn't an invasion, she thought, looking at the pattern. Just a series of incursions. Almost imperceptible.
And, until her counterpart turned up, they all involved aliens.
Slaves? Rebels? Burnham had reported there were only a few non-humans in the Imperial Starfleet, and her impression was that they needed to be more Terran than the Terrans to get by.
They're refugees, Kat thought.
The Federation must look like paradise to the aliens conquered by Terrans. And in its present chaotic state, with Starfleet resources stretched thin--
If they were refugees, they had all her sympathy. If she were a private citizen, she would do everything in her power to help them build a new home in the Federation.
As Fleet Admiral Cornwell, her first duty was to find out how they were entering this universe, and put a stop to it.
It was sickening. And she had no choice.
Are you sure? That's what you thought about destroying Qo'noS.
She pushed that thought aside.
Captain Una met Kat in Discovery's transporter room. She had served as Chris Pike's first officer on the Enterprise for four years, which meant she had seen stranger things, and more of them, than most Starfleet officers.
In the privacy of the turbolift, Kat said, "Have you been briefed?"
"I have. It was difficult to believe, yet somehow explained a great deal about my crew."
Coming from Una, one of the most stoic humans Kat had ever met, this was the equivalent of another person having a conniption. Kat wondered how Una was getting along with the equally reserved Michael Burnham. Or Sylvia Tilly, her polar opposite.
That was a distraction. Kat had slept very little on the journey from Starbase One, consumed with worry about -- everything. Tonight she'd have to take a mild sedative, and pray Burnham didn't come to her door at 0200 again.
She stifled a yawn and said, "Are the detainees on board?"
"One is," said Una. "The Kelpien, Lirenntin. The Vulcan refused to cooperate with us, and I thought, given the circumstances, it would be best not to force him."
"Good. But the Kelpien was willing?"
"I'm not certain he understood he had a choice," she admitted. "I tried to explain that he would be questioned, then returned to detention, but I don't think he entirely believed me. Commander Saru is with him."
It was strange to be back on Discovery. She had overseen her launch. Commanded her.
The decisions she regretted most in her life had been made on this ship, from the personal -- sleeping with the man she had believed was her friend -- to the moral: failing to argue hard enough against the plan to destroy Qo'noS, and installing the Terran Georgiou as Discovery's captain, deceiving a crew still reeling from the revelation of Lorca's lies.
She couldn't afford to be paralysed by guilt or self-recrimination. She had made grievous errors, and at every turn, she had been saved from the worst consequences by Michael Burnham.
Commander Burnham was waiting for them outside conference room four. She snapped to attention as Kat emerged from the turbolift, saying, "Admiral Cornwell. Captain Una. Lirenntin has been told to expect you."
If Burnham harboured any resentment of Kat for her decisions in the last days of the war, she gave no indication. Kat decided to take that as a good sign. Where Una was detached and ironic, Burnham was logical and earnest. Kat couldn't imagine Burnham was a good liar.
Except, she thought, Burnham had passed herself off as a Terran for over a week.
She opened the door to the conference room.
What shocked her about Lirenntin was not his physical condition -- he looked as healthy as Saru -- but his youth. She hadn't met many Kelpiens, but Lirenntin was by far the youngest. Barely out of adolescence, she guessed. Maybe as young as fifteen.
He looked at her, green eyes wide, threat ganglia erect, and whispered, "The inquisitor."
Commander Saru looked appalled, which under different circumstances might have been amusing.
"Lirenntin," he began to say, but Kat, taking her seat, held up her hand to stop him.
"I'm Admiral Katrina Cornwell," she said, keeping her voice low and gentle. "I understand it must be difficult to meet humans who look like the Terrans you escaped."
"She warned me," he said. "The Klingon. But--" he made a clicking sound -- "she was Inquisitor Cornwell's slave. I saw you, I thought--" He dropped his eyes.
"That she lied to you," said Kat, as if the words Inquisitor Cornwell's slave didn't sicken her to her core. "I understand."
She exchanged a glance with Burnham, who took the unspoken cue and said, "Tell us about the Klingon."
"She had a name," Lirenntin whispered. "Most of us don't, you know. I chose mine." He looked up at Saru. "I remember my mother's voice saying 'lirenntin', but not what it meant. I don't think it's what she called me."
"It's a concept," Saru told him. "It is difficult to translate, but in our language, it means … 'safety, a moment of respite where no danger can reach you'. It's very fitting."
"The Klingon," Saru reminded him.
"She was in the camp," he said. "Not officially. Just turned up one day. She had weapons. She said she was a rebel."
Kat wanted to hurry him up. But Lirenntin was a traumatised child, and pressing him would only make this harder.
"She killed the overseers," he said. "Helped us kill the guards and take their ships. She had a plan. We just did what we were told." He smiled at some memory. "She told us, the hardest thing about freedom would be learning to make decisions. And then she made us choose."
"Choose what?" Captain Una asked.
"We could go with her. Join the rebels. Or we could go back to our homes, if they still existed. Slip through the cracks. The Empire couldn't find all of us. Or," he looked up at Saru, "we could come here."
"What did she tell you about this place?" Kat asked.
"Another universe. With a Federation. Like the Empire, but different. No slaves. She said she had seen it herself, and it was strange, but better than home." Click. "Part of me wanted to join the rebels. I can't fight, but maybe I could help. But T'Shon said that was certain death. Survival is logical, he said. So we came here."
"She gave us coordinates in Freehold Sector. Told us to fire a tetryon pulse, keyed to a specific frequency, at a particular spot. That would open a gateway."
Burnham said, "It took a great deal of courage to come here."
"No. I just didn't want to die."
"Can you give us the coordinates?" Kat asked.
Click. "What will you do?"
"You're not the only ones coming through that gateway. There are Terrans, too. I'm going to stop them."
His eyes widened. "You're going to war against the Terran Empire?"
Kat started to say, No, but Lirenntin was speaking in a rush.
"I know where the rebels are," he said. "You can work together. She gave me the location of their base. In case--" He sounded embarrassed. "In case I changed my mind, she said." He hunched his shoulders. "She said I had courage. I didn't believe her. But maybe she was right, because I'm talking to you, while T'Shon's in a holding cell, telling himself that he's logical, not cowardly."
"She was quite right," said Saru.
"You don't have to come with us," said Kat. "The coordinates are enough. You don't need to risk your life again."
"No," Lirenntin said. "I do. The rebels hate Terrans. If you try to talk to them, they'll say it's a trap. If I'm with you, if L'Rell is there, maybe she'll remember me. I can vouch for you."
"L'Rell," said Kat. "L'Rell is my counterpart's slave?"
She couldn't pretend she knew L'Rell in any meaningful way. But they were connected. She respected her. Liked her, in a way.
And over there, that fierce, intelligent woman had been enslaved. To another Kat, a woman who had her face and all her worst instincts. Who had owned at least one slave. Who was guilty of God knew what crimes.
She hated that Katrina Cornwell, she realised. She had set out to find out how the Terrans were getting into this universe and put a stop to it, but now?
Now she wanted to destroy everything that woman had ever touched. Burn the Terran Empire down. Revenge for everything it had taken from her.
She said, "Captain Una, set course for Freehold Base."
By the time she returned to her quarters, Kat was too exhausted to let memories of her last stay in these rooms haunt her. Her bag had been stowed; she brushed her teeth and removed her makeup, peeled off her uniform and bra and climbed into bed in her underpants and tank top.
Her personal medkit contained a hypospray and a very mild sedative. Just enough to get her a full eight hours of sleep, and easily reversed in an emergency.
She hated taking it. Put off taking it for as long as she could, until she was too exhausted to function. It was perfectly safe, had no addictive qualities, but even after seven months of peace, there was still a part of her afraid that something might happen while she was sleeping, and she wouldn't be ready.
Stupid. But -- as she had once told one of her patients -- trauma wasn't rational. Not for humans, anyway.
She injected herself and took a deep breath, letting it carry her through the first moment of the drug's effect. Then she inserted the counter-agent and set the hypospray on her bedside table, close to hand for emergencies, and lay down, pulling the blanket up around her.
She fell asleep quickly.
She dreamed that she was on the Ship of the Dead, lying flat on her back, the deck cold beneath her, her body failing.
L'Rell loomed over her.
"Scream," she said.
Admiral Terral appeared.
"Captain Lorca advised against a rescue mission," he said. "His strategic analysis was extremely thorough."
"That's not Gabriel," Kat tried to say, but she couldn't form the words, and Terral was already walking away.
He was dead, she remembered. She had outlived both him and the other Lorca.
The knowledge gave her the strength to roll onto her stomach and, slowly, climb to her feet.
"Easy," whispered Burnham.
"She's right," said Philippa. The Starfleet captain, not the deposed emperor. "You should be kinder to yourself. Where's Gabriel?"
"He's dead," she whispered. "He died so far from home."
"So did I," said Philippa. "There are worse things."
"Like surviving," added Burnham.
They led her through a door, into--
It rang with the cries of the dead and smelled like a Klingon abattoir. She heard a moan in the distance, and realised it was her. Lying on the deck, spine damaged, slowly dying.
"We've been travelling in circles," she whispered, and Philippa laughed.
"You never left."
There was a door at the end of the corridor. The sight of it filled Kat with dread, but she couldn't stay here, where every breath tasted like death. She pushed Philippa and Michael aside and ran for it.
The door opened into a bright room, sunshine streaming through the windows. It held a bed, and the bed contained two people.
I've been here. This is a memory.
The younger Kat raised herself up on one elbow, resting her hand on Gabriel's chest, and said, "We can't do this anymore. I'm being promoted."
She had been worried. That he'd be jealous of her professional success, or resentful that it meant their years of not-quite-casual sex were coming to an end.
Instead, he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.
"Rear admiral?" he asked.
Gabriel grinned. "Ambitious."
"You know it."
"And I love it."
He pulled her into a long kiss, and Kat had to look away as he rolled on top of her.
I let you down. I failed you as your friend and your senior officer. You deserved better, and I'm sorry.
She turned to leave, but firm hands gripped her shoulders. She looked into Michael Burnham's face, and Michael said, "I meant what I said. Everyone comes home."
Kat woke up.
Everyone comes home.
Kat had regained consciousness in that charnel house, injured and in pain -- except for the terrifying absence of sensation in her legs. Opened her eyes and looked up into the face of a mutineer, a disgraced former officer handpicked by Gabriel as his new protégé for God-knew-what-purpose -- but she had felt safe. Because Michael Burnham was going to get her home.
Kat repaid her with betrayal, and Burnham saved her again. All Kat could do in return was restore her rank. It didn't seem like enough.
Her alarm went off. She got up to shower, dress and read the updates from Browning over breakfast. They would reach Freehold Base in four hours.
Lirenntin's coordinates for the rebel base put it in on a planet the middle of the Romulan neutral zone.
"That makes sense," said Burnham, looking at the charts. "They're the only real rival the Terrans have left."
"You think they're supporting the rebels?" Kat asked.
"That would be logical."
Kat looked around the conference room. The senior offices, joined by Tilly and Stamets, gazed back at her. Those who had served under Lorca looked cautious. She couldn't blame them.
She said, "Ensign Tilly, go over Lirenntin's data. Figure out if we can use the gateway. And then find a way to collapse the gateway between universes. Permanently."
Tilly shifted, looking uncomfortable.
"This is an unstable region," she said. "Spatially, I mean. Well. And politically. Messing around with subspace fields--"
"We're not the ones who opened the gateway, Ensign," said Kat. "Consider this a repair job. Make it as clean as you can."
"Commander Saru, keep working with Lirenntin, and liaise with Lieutenant Commander Cuxel of Starfleet Security. I want an estimate of how many refugees have arrived in the Federation, and what they'll need by way of resources, education, counselling. Next, Captain Una."
"If we have to enter the Terran universe--"
"Discovery will be ready to fight, Admiral."
"Good. Mr Stamets--"
"You want me to fire up the spore drive," he said.
"Are you up to it?" Kat asked.
"My spores are thriving. I'm a bit out of practice, but--"
"I meant you, Lieutenant Commander," said Kat. "Your first job's to undergo a complete brain scan. And remember, I can read the raw data -- so I'll know if you try to downplay any negative results."
Stamets nodded. "Yes, Admiral."
"And Commander Burnham. You'll be with me."
Michael nodded, apparently unsurprised.
Kat turned to the chief of security.
"Lieutenant Kuznetzov," she said, "did you serve on Discovery during the war?"
Kuznetzov was young, barely thirty, but everything in his file indicated a solid, competent officer.
He said, "Yes, Admiral, under Commander Landry and then Lieutenant Tyler. I know what we're going up against."
"We're taking custody of two Terrans: the former Emperor Georgiou, and my own counterpart. They are highly dangerous, and will be kept under guard at all times. No one--" she glanced at Burnham -- "is to have one-on-one contact with either Terran. We can do without Georgiou's helpful suggestions this time. Understood?"
"Yes, Admiral," said Captain Una.
Kat hesitated, conscious of the first dictum of command: don't let the crew see your vulnerabilities. But she couldn't ask these people to trust her -- again -- without offering something in return.
She said, "Mr Stamets, you're the only person who's actually met your Terran counterpart. What was that like?"
"Is it really a meeting if you're hanging out in a mycelial dreamscape?"
"Lieutenant Commander," said Una, but Stamets waved the implicit reprimand away.
"No," he said, "I'm thinking. It was--" He shook his head. "Imagine all your worst impulses, indulged. The nasty or bigoted thought that floats through your head before you can stop yourself -- but said out loud. And he was me." He looked at Kat. "I couldn't tell myself he was just another asshole, because I could pinpoint some of the the exact choices he made to get there. I knew him, and he scared me."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Commander," said Kat. "I understand."
Stamets looked doubtful. But for once, he held his tongue.
Kat and Michael attracted curious and hostile stares as they made their way through Freehold Base, but no one gave them any trouble except a drunk Klingon who, recognising Kat as a senior admiral, tried to challenge her to a duel to restore the honour of the Klingon Empire. He was quickly hushed by his Orion friends, who offered muttered apologies as they dragged him away.
Security facilities on Freehold Base operated out of a former Tellarite troop carrier, well over a century old, now part of the station's permanent infrastructure. A deputy looked Kat and Michael up and down and waved them through.
The station's chief of security was a stout Orion woman who stank of Klingon bloodwine. The smell made Kat's stomach churn, and she let Michael do the talking.
Federation prisoners. Held for Starfleet. Two human women.
"Yeah, I got 'em," the security chief said. "Had to put them in separate holding cells. The little one tried to take a piece out of the old one. Nasty. Don't see that from humans much. Coulda sold tickets."
"Were they injured?" Michael asked.
"Scratches. Bruises." The chief looked at Kat for the first time, blinked, and looked again. "Now, I know they say all humans look the same," she said, "but -- what is it? Sisters? Clones? Same pod clutch?" She burped. "How do you people breed again?"
"I want to see the prisoners before we take custody," said Kat.
"Suit yourself. Deputy'll show you." She resumed her seat and pulled out a bottle and a Klingon wine cup. "Time for lunch."
"Which one first?" Michael asked quietly as they followed the deputy through the narrow corridors. "The emperor or the inquisitor?"
"The emperor knows us," she said. "She'll have a story ready."
"The inquisitor, then."
"The inquisitor," she said.
The other Katrina Cornwell was sitting calmly on the bench in her cell, the very picture of patience. She was plainly dressed: brown leather jacket and boots, black shirt and pants. Her only ornament was a tiny piece of metal hanging from a slim silver chain around her neck. Other than a bruise on her forehead and two scratches down her cheek, she looked unharmed.
The inquisitor's eyes widened a fraction as Michael entered, but she smiled when she saw Kat.
"Admiral Kat," she said. "I never thought I'd get to meet you."
Of course the inquisitor knew her, Kat thought. She had the Defiant files, an immeasurable advantage over the Federation.
She said, "Inquisitor."
"Please. Call me Kate."
Kat found she was absurdly relieved that she and her counterpart used different diminutives. Different names meant they were different people.
"I'm glad we go by different diminutives," the inquisitor said. "It's like we're different people."
It was too much to hope that the inquisitor didn't see the way she froze for a moment.
Lirenntin had described the inquisitor as the chief of the Terran Empire's secret police, a notorious interrogator, and the power behind the new government which had risen from the destruction of the ISS Charon.
"But I think the guards were more afraid of her than we were," he had said. "Because slaves were too small for her to notice. The Klingon wouldn't talk about her."
Kat didn't think she had the skill to get such a practised interrogator to open up. Not without violating Federation law and her own bruised conscience.
Michael said, "Did you come here to assassinate the emperor?"
The inquisitor just smiled. "I thought you died with her on the Charon," she said. "But I've been wrong about a lot of things in the last couple of years. I'm starting to get used to it. Was it you who killed Lorca?"
"Georgiou," said Michael.
"Good." The inquisitor closed her eyes, like Kat when she was savouring a particularly perfect pastry. "I wish I could have seen it."
"You didn't know she was here," said Kat. "So you're on this side to track down the refugees."
"If that's what you're calling them." The inquisitor sneered. "Rebels, slaves, the useless dregs of the Empire. But they leave a vacuum. And attract attention. The last thing I need is the Federation invading the Empire."
"We have no interest in conquest," Michael told her.
"That's what all conquerors say. I know exactly how insidious your Federation is. I shouldn't have--" She stopped, drew breath, changed course. "What will happen to me?" she asked.
Kat crossed her arms.
"You'll be remanded to Starfleet's custody," she said. "What happens next is entirely up to me."
For the first time, she saw a flicker of fear in her counterpart's eyes.
Georgiou paced her cell like a caged animal. She rounded on Michael when they entered.
"Michael. Are you here to slap me on the wrist and tell me off for fighting?"
Michael raised her eyebrows and said, "I was under the impression you were defending yourself."
"And what is she doing here?" Georgiou looked at Kat for the first time. "Come here."
Kat saw no reason to disobey. She approached the forcefield and let the former emperor examine her face closely, trying not to let on how exposed she felt.
"Admiral," said Georgiou at last. "It is you. Have you met Kate?"
"I had the pleasure," said Kat.
"She wouldn't have hesitated to destroy one planet."
"Yeah, I got that impression. If you'd prefer her company--"
"Only if you give me a weapon." Georgiou resumed her pacing. "This is your fault," she told Michael. "You should have let me die on the Charon. Every day I live, I betray the Empire."
"Why not explain to her why you're here?" Kat asked. "Or let us do it? Or are explanations like apologies?"
Georgiou dismissed the suggestion.
"It's too late. Kate was always more loyal to the Empire than to me." Her gaze turned inwards, and she smiled slightly. "She and Gabriel were polar opposites in that respect. Until he turned. She did try to warn me." She looked at Kat. "I abandoned my Empire. Kate won't forgive that."
"But look what's happening in your absence," said Michael. "Rebels are helping slaves escape into the Federation."
"But you already figured that out," Kat added. "That's why you're here, right? To see if this gateway will get you home."
"I'll never be emperor again," said Georgiou. "I'll be killed as soon as I'm recognised. But--"
"You're homesick," said Michael.
Georgiou said nothing.
"Good news, your highness," said Kat. "I'm planning a little trip into your universe." She smiled. "You want a ride?"
Georgiou's nostrils flared.
But she didn't say no.
When the Terrans had been transported -- separately -- to Discovery, and Kat had finished paying the exorbitant detention fees, Michael said, "Admiral, may I ask what you're planning?"
"You may ask," said Kat. "The truth is, I'm still trying to figure it out myself."
"But you're not going to send the refugees back to the Empire?"
"Of course not. They're here -- they deserve a new life. But," Kat sighed, "I can't let more come. If Terrans follow--"
"I know," said Michael. "But remember, Admiral, they fear us, too. The emperor was willing to give us the information we needed to get back to our universe, just to get us away from her subjects. And you saw the inquisitor. Beneath her bravado, she's scared."
"I know." She wondered if Burnham saw through her own bravado that easily. "But the Federation cannot risk going to war with the Terran Empire."
They were approaching the docks, but Kat paused to lean against the railing and look down at the Freehold market below.
Freehold Base was not a happy place. Terrible things happened here: rape and murder, trafficking in drugs and weapons and people.
But it had a permanent population of a few thousand people, and three times that number in transients. There were children here. A group of Vulcans had established a little school. She could see a handful of Orion kids hovering on the edges of the crowd. Pickpockets, probably, petty criminals who might grow up to become worse.
Under the Terran Empire, they'd be subjects. Or slaves.
"What I keep wondering," she said, "is how the rebels came to have a gateway to our universe."
"L'Rell," said Michael at once. "She stole the information from the inquisitor when she escaped. Or the rebels might have scientists of their own. Voq's group had limited resources, but there were others." She frowned. "But the existence of our universe was highly classified. Only captains in the Imperial Starfleet were allowed to know about it."
"Maybe L'Rell stole that, too," Kat said.
Back on Discovery, Captain Una confirmed that the prisoners had been secured -- the emperor in guest quarters, locked and guarded, and the inquisitor in the brig. Kat would have preferred to see both Terrans in cells, but Lieutenant Kuznetzov preferred to keep as many decks as possible between the two.
Meanwhile, Kat was needed in the shuttlebay. While she and Michael were on Freehold Base, Captain Una had assigned Lieutenant Owosekun to locate the ship which had brought the inquisitor into this universe. It turned out to be a small, sleek one-person cruiser, heavily armed and very fast -- or so the chief engineer had surmised. The ship was locked down, and its security systems put one officer in sickbay, where Dr Pollard was optimistic about replacing his fingers.
"I thought," said Captain Una, "that since it's your counterpart's vessel…"
"Seems sound," Kat said.
She approached the cruiser with caution. Terrans were as paranoid as they were ruthless. Surely her counterpart had guessed they might meet while she was here. It couldn't be as simple as a plain palm lock.
But she had come alone, following escaped slaves. Without even a personal guard. She hadn't been prepared for the emperor. Maybe she hadn't prepared for Kat.
Kat put her hand on the lock.
The cruiser's computer said, "Welcome, Inquisitor," and with a soft click, the door unsealed itself.
The interior was small, but not cramped, and almost identical to its Federation equivalent. The only signs of its origins were the weapons locker -- larger than a one-person ship could reasonably need -- and the med kit, which contained three deadly nerve toxins alongside the standard first aid equipment.
A bag contained the inquisitor's uniform, the same sort of gaudy monstrosity that Discovery's crew had described, albeit in red instead of black. Kat tried to picture herself going to work wearing a gold breastplate, with matching shoulder guards and gauntlets. She felt ridiculous enough with the extra gold detailing on her fleet admiral's uniform.
A little box contained insignia and medals. Katrina Cornwell, read the back of the insignia. Imperial inquisitor. Her service number was the same as Kat's.
The computer's databanks held little more than star charts and the ship's logged flight plan.
"She left from the Oneiros system," Kat called to Una. Here, that was the location of Starbase Ninety. There -- if it held anything at all, it wasn't on the charts.
"We should assume she has back-up there," the captain said.
"A ship? A fleet?" Kat shook her head. "I need more."
It was like worrying at a wound. She didn't like the inquisitor, but part of her wanted to speak to her again. Watch her face. Watch her hands. A sort of sick vanity.
She summoned Burnham.
The inquisitor's injuries had been treated, and she had changed into a standard brig suit: blue, one piece, with restraints and lifesign sensors around her upper arms and chest. Her only sign of distress was the strain around her eyes.
She rose to her feet as Kat and Michael entered, squinting at the light.
"Computer," said Kat, "dim lights forty percent."
She could almost feel her counterpart relax.
"Don't expect me to thank you for that," the inquisitor said. "As far as torture goes, I'd call it amateur."
Kat said, "What's in the Oneiros system?"
"My ship," the inquisitor said. "And a garrison of Imperial troops. You should pay a visit. They'll give you a quick death. Even Pippa. Not that she deserves it."
"Philippa is only here because I brought her," said Michael. "Impulsively and against her will. Does that make a difference to you?"
"Please," the inquisitor said. "A Federation officer trapped in my universe would do anything to get home." She frowned at Michael. "Who destroyed the Charon? Was it you?"
"It was necessary for Discovery to get home." Michael raised her eyebrows. When she chose, she could be as bland and closed as her foster father. "Like you said. We'd do anything."
"There were over a million people on that ship. Civilians. Children. Slaves. What type of person are you, to let them all die?"
Don't let the Terrans goad you into revealing yourself was the first rule Kat had set for these interactions.
She said, "You count slaves as people, then? That seems unusual in a Terran."
For half a second, the inquisitor looked regretful. Then it passed, and when she looked over at Kat, her expression was once again bland.
"How's Gabriel?" she said.
Kat blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I think of him often. I know he must hate me by now -- you'll have seen to that."
The inquisitor stepped towards the forcefield, so close that a stray bit of hair snapped on the energy screen and fizzled into nothing. For the first time, Kat saw there was a fine white scar on her counterpart's upper lip.
"Believe it or not," Kate said, "I do miss him. Not just the sex -- though. Well." She smiled at a memory. "Does he ever talk about me?"
Kat swallowed. She could feel Michael watching her, willing her not to fall for the bait. But she knew the inquisitor. Understood every fleeting expression on her face, every restless flick of her fingers.
"He's dead," said Kat.
The inquisitor fell back, exhaling hard. There. She's horrified. She's in pain.
Kat knew exactly how she felt.
"How?" the inquisitor asked. She was already recovering, attempting to reassert control. Becoming angry. "I didn't send him back to die," she said. Her voice broke on the last word. "How?"
"Admiral," said Michael quietly, but Kat waved her away.
"I don't know," she said roughly. "He landed in your universe, and he never came back. He died there."
"No," said Kate. "I kept him alive. Hid him from the emperor. I had the gateway built for him. I sent him back to you."
And Kat believed her.
"When?" Kat whispered.
"Over a year ago," said the inquisitor. "Sixteen months. Stardate 1310.4."
On Stardate 1310.4, she had been a prisoner on the Ship of the Dead. The Terran Lorca was in command of Discovery. Could he have found and killed Gabriel before he could make contact with Command?
God, she was almost afraid to hope.
But she looked at the inquisitor, and saw that the inquisitor was thinking the same thing.
"He didn't go home," said Kate.
"He's working with the rebels," said Kat. "Sending the refugees--"
"--To the Federation." The inquisitor's grief had evaporated, to be replaced with tight fury. "We had a deal," she spat. "I let him go. He lied to me!" She stopped, mouth open. "And I had no idea."
Kat laughed at her. She was awash with conflicting emotion: hope, joy, anger, fear. But the inquisitor's surprise and outrage was unexpectedly satisfying.
She was still laughing as she said, "We're done here," and left the inquisitor alone.
Kat paused in an empty stretch of corridor and took a moment to lean against the wall, head buried in her arms. Just for a second.
Then she straightened up and turned around, saying to Michael, "'No Starfleet officer could survive alone'. Isn't that what we said?"
"He wasn't alone. He was a prisoner."
"But he was freed. She let him go before you even arrived." Kat wrapped her arms around herself. "He chose not to return."
"We were at war. Desperate. Dying. He had the gateway -- did he know? Did he choose to stay, regardless?”
Michael said, "We don't know what Captain Lorca went through, what his state of mind was. The inquisitor -- Admiral, she sounded exactly like L'Rell, talking about Ash Tyler. Before we knew--" Burnham stopped, concealing her own pain. "Prisoners can't consent."
"I know," said Kat. "I wrote him off too soon. I should have -- but, Commander, it's the duty of any prisoner to escape and report in. And he decided, instead, to compromise Federation security by sending refugees through the gateway.”
"We're going to bring him back, aren't we, Admiral?"
"You told me yourself, Michael," said Kat, "everyone comes home." She squared her shoulders. Command, Kat. Take command. But she said, "There are no good options here, Commander. Either Gabriel is so damaged, his judgement so impaired, that he was incapable of making a rational choice."
"Or?" Burnham asked.
Kat's chest hurt. "Or he's of sound mind, and I'll have to arrest him for desertion."
Kat despatched Michael to keep working with Saru and Lirenntin, and returned to her quarters for a long-overdue meal. She should have used that time to catch up on reports and correspondence from Starbase One, but -- the missing tooth. The phantom itch in the middle of her back. She called up the brig's security feed and watched her counterpart.
The inquisitor had to know she was being monitored. But her guard was down nonetheless. She sat, one hand over her mouth, the other tapping restlessly at her thigh. She looked thoughtful. Exhausted. Full of regret.
Kat watched the other Cornwell lean forward and put her head in her hands.
She knew that feeling all too well.
If someone walked in, the inquisitor would straighten up, her face once more a mask. Kat knew that feeling, too.
She could guess what was going through the inquisitor's mind. Anger, regret, self-recrimination.
Don't pity her. She made Gabriel her prisoner. Assaulted him. And then she has the nerve to say she misses him.
And, to make it worse, Kat didn't doubt her sincerity.
It sickened her. The way the other Lorca's gentle hand on her cheek had sickened her, when moments ago that hand had been around her throat.
And that's just one of the reasons you are the last person who should be dealing with this.
But she couldn't think of a better candidate, either. Not here and now, with the authority to do what was necessary.
Gabriel, my friend, what did she do to you, that you think you can't come home?
She started to put her head in her hands, then thought of her counterpart and stopped.
Enough of this. Kat closed the feed, finished her lunch and spent the next hour going over Lieutenant Commander Stamets's brain scans.
Then she made her way to Captain Una's ready room. She needed a second opinion.
"And you're quite certain your counterpart was being honest?" Una said when Kat had finished.
"I know it must seem irrational--"
"I've certainly heard of people lying to themselves."
By Una's standards, that was practically a joke.
"I think her emotional reactions were genuine," said Kat. "She was horrified when she thought Gabriel was dead. Surprised and angry when we realised he's working against her."
"Surmised, Admiral Cornwell, not realised," said Una politely. "And even if Captain Lorca worked with the rebels in the past, it doesn't necessarily follow that he's alive now."
"I understand that. But I have to know. If it was a member of your crew, Una--"
The captain nodded.
"I'd do all I could." She frowned, thoughtful. "We may be able to get confirmation. The inquisitor might believe she hid Captain Lorca from the Emperor--"
"But I doubt much escaped her."
En route to the guest quarters, Kat said, "Did you ever meet Captain Georgiou?"
"It's easy to confuse the emperor for the captain."
"I had no emotional relationship with Captain Georgiou," said Una. "I assure you Admiral, I'm rather good at compartmentalising."
"Yeah, I used to think so, too."
The ex-emperor was pouring herself a drink when Kat and Una entered. She raised the bottle in invitation.
Kat ignored it and said, "Bad news, your highness -- your inquisitor lied to you."
"She does that," said Georgiou calmly. "Hello, Una. It's good to see Chris didn't kill you in this universe. Are you sure you won't -- no?" She sat down, drink in hand. "What has Kate done now?"
In answer, Kat called up the visual log from the brig, cued to the inquisitor's nonchalant, "How's Gabriel?"
"I kept him alive. Hid him from the emperor. I had the gateway built for him."
"Pause playback," said Kat.
The emperor's face could have been carved from marble.
"Charles Urquhart," she said.
That was the name of one of Gabriel's grandfathers.
Kat said , "So you did know about the inquisitor's -- guest."
Georgiou's lip curled.
"She had an operative. A civilian she pulled out of one of her facilities. Gabriel's cousin, according to the records. A 'helpful' subject told me she had Lorca himself, but--" She shook her head. "No. He looked like Gabriel, but he was older. Smaller."
Kat swallowed. Gabriel…
"Perhaps a result of spending time in the inquisitor's 'facility'," Captain Una suggested.
Georgiou replayed the file. "I had the gateway built for him." She watched through to the realisation that Gabriel was working with the rebels.
Then she drained her glass and put it down so hard it cracked. She stared at it for a moment, then picked up the bottle and hurled it against the window. It shattered.
The smell of Andorian schnapps filled the room.
Kat and Una exchanged a look, but said nothing.
"And the lying bitch calls me a traitor." Georgiou got up to pace. "She swore her loyalty -- and all that time, she was opening my Empire to--" Words seemed to fail her for a moment. When she recovered, she said, "And him, with his--" She whirled around. "For the longest time, I suspected Kate of having Michael killed. He cleared her name. More lies?"
Unable to stop herself, Kat said, "And you want to go back to that place?"
Georgiou's nostrils flared.
"It was evidently good enough for your Lorca," she said. "He served the Empire well when he was Kate's. He personally killed over a dozen traitors. And you might have some romantic notions about the alien rebels, but they're responsible for unspeakable atrocities." She tilted her head back, looking down her nose at Kat. "Gabriel Lorca is a traitor in any universe. You're just too weak to admit it."
They left Georgiou to her angry pacing.
"She met him," said Kat.
"And he deceived her," said Una. "I doubt many people could attempt that and live."
Was Gabriel a good liar? He could clean up at the poker table, sure, but to fool someone as paranoid as Georgiou--
He personally killed over a dozen traitors.
Was that the man she knew? He had excelled at the military side of Starfleet. Was a security chief by thirty. Had sometimes called himself a soldier, and only half-ironically. His apparent strategic proficiency in the war had made sense.
But to kill in cold blood, even to ensure his own survival--
Maybe the other Lorca wasn't so different. And perhaps she had put her Gabriel on a pedestal. Remembered him, when she could bring herself to think of him at all, as a paragon, not a man.
You ordered the destruction of the Klingon homeworld. In cold blood, or as good as.
Maybe she had needed a paragon.
"Bridge to Captain Una."
The captain paused at a comms panel. "Una here."
"Captain, we've been hailed by a Klingon ship two sectors over. They want to know what we're doing so close to their border."
"Signs of hostility?"
"Well … they're Klingons."
Una said nothing.
"Not overt hostility, Captain," Bryce amended. "Yet."
"Good. Tell them we're conducting a rescue mission, and will be gone within twenty-four hours."
"And, Lieutenant Bryce? Please sound yellow alert. In case they do become hostile."
The good news, Ensign Tilly said, was that using the gateway would be straightforward; destroying it even moreso.
"The physical components," she said, "the actual gates -- are anchored in subspace. They're activated by tetryon radiation keyed to a specific frequency. I think they were designed so you wouldn't activate them by accident? And to destroy them, you just bombard them with more tetryons. Only," Tilly faltered.
"Only?" Captain Una asked.
"Only the bombardment has to come from both sides. Both universes."
"Simultaneously?" Burnham asked.
"I don't think so?" Tilly called up a holographic simulation. "I mean, if you're asking, can we shoot them on the Terran side, then use the spore drive to jump back here and finish the job -- there's a sixty-two percent probability that it'll work."
"What if we found an ally on the Terran side who was willing to take it on?" Captain Una asked.
"Probability goes up to ninety-four percent. It's just a matter of timing."
"Great," said Stamets. "Then all we need is a friendly Terran ally. Or to persuade the rebels that they should help us cut off their lifeline."
Kat stiffened at his insubordinate tone, but Una merely pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows, and Stamets muttered, "Apologies, Admiral. Captain. I spoke out of turn."
"You did," said Una. "How is the spore drive?"
"Reintegrated with primary systems, Captain, and we have a full supply of spores. Provided the admiral is happy with the state of my brain, we'll be ready to jump in four hours."
"As a matter of fact," said Kat, "your brain's in excellent condition. If we used the gateway to reach the Terran universe, would you be able to bring us back?"
She expected him to hesitate, but he said, "Absolutely."
"What if we bypassed the gateway all together?" Captain Una asked.
Stamets wrinkled his nose. "Maybe?" he said, stretching out the first syllable. "I've done it before, but I wasn't in great shape, then. And we were using Lorca's coordinates. I probably could, but--"
"We'll use the gateway," said Kat. "I don't want to risk our movements within the Empire."
She pulled up the charts from the inquisitor's cruiser, overlaying them against their own star maps and the coordinates Lirenntin had for the rebel base.
"This is our destination," she said. "The fourth planet in a system inside what we'd call the Romulan Neutral Zone. Captain Una, your tactical assessment?"
The captain called up a file which dated back to the Romulan War, a rough, monochrome image of a planet.
"According to historical probe data," she said, "the fourth planet supports humanoid life, but its magnetosphere was inimical to sensors of the time. Even today, unless the ecosystem has been radically altered, modern sensors would struggle to scan the surface."
"L'Rell gave Lirenntin the precise location of the rebel base," said Saru. "But all we know is that it's on the northern continent."
"And it might be crawling with Romulans," said Kat.
"We can't discount the possibility," said Una. "I propose jumping directly into a synchronous low orbit over the north pole. The magnetic distortions will make us difficult to see."
Kat had just enough technical knowledge to know that she should step back and let the engineers and scientists take this. Half of command training was about learning when to give the experts just enough freedom to do their jobs.
And when to reclaim control. When a consensus had been reached, she stood up and said, "We have four objectives in the Terran universe. One: to make contact with the rebels and find out how many refugees they've sent us, and where possible, who those people were."
Saru nodded in approval.
"Two: reach an agreement whereby they'll help us destroy the gateway. General Order One doesn't apply in the Terran Empire--" a decision she had made herself, an hour earlier, and damn the consequences -- "so I'm prepared to offer medical supplies and weapons in exchange. Under no circumstances will we share spore drive technology. The last thing we need is the Terrans getting another map to the Federation."
"I think we've seen proof that Terrans can't be trusted with the mycelial network," said Stamets.
"We could always offer Georgiou and Cornwell to the rebels instead," said Tilly. "Or, um -- not?"
"We don't bargain with lives, Ensign," said Kat. "But yes, our third objective is to send the Terrans back where they came from." She tapped her fingertips absently on the table. "Fourthly…"
Better to be matter-of-fact, she decided.
"According to the Terran inquisitor, Captain Gabriel Lorca -- of the Federation, not the Empire -- was alive as of stardate 1310.4. It's possible he's working with the rebels. If he's alive, I want him brought home. If he's dead--" she was impressed at how dispassionate she sounded -- "I want to know how. To retrieve his body if possible."
After everything the other Lorca had put this crew through, she almost expected them to argue. Or at least hesitate.
"Of course," said Saru.
Tilly put her hand over her mouth, eyes wide, and for once, she said nothing.
Stamets, manipulated and nearly killed by the imposter, said, "If he's alive, and we didn't know to look for him last time--"
"A reasonable oversight," said Saru.
"Of course," said Kat. "But one we can rectify." She looked around the room. "This is a good crew. Better than the other Lorca deserved. Thank you."
Her final job before bed was to check in with the rest of Command. Shukar's antennae twitched when she confirmed her intention to enter the Terran universe, but he didn't attempt to talk her out of it.
That task had apparently been delegated to Admiral Drake, who lingered after the others had signed off.
She said, "You're really gonna go through with this, huh?"
"Anyone, Katrina!" She threw up her hands in exasperation. "You're a Fleet Admiral. You wear too much gold to risk yourself like this."
"I have to do this, Erika. I need to be the one."
"I know you carry a great deal of guilt about Captain Lorca," she said. "I understand that. I lost friends, too, and if I thought I could bring them back--"
"My Terran counterpart's onboard," said Kat. "No one knows her as well as I do."
"No one does your job as well as you do."
Kat laughed. "Any of you could do my job."
"You know very well that's not true. Are you sure--"
"If you get yourself killed, Katrina, I will be very angry."
"You won't have time. Delegate it to Browning."
Erika huffed and closed the connection.
Two consecutive nights of proper sleep seemed like a shocking indulgence. Kat took another sedative anyway. They were due to enter the gateway at 0700, and she needed to be at her best.
If she dreamed at all, she had forgotten them by the time she woke up.
At 0557, she paused outside the brig and pointed at the oldest of the three security guards stationed at the door.
"Join me," she said. "I want a word with the prisoner."
The cell brig was in darkness, the inquisitor curled on her side with her back to the room.
Kat said, "Lights. Full."
And the inquisitor yelped, curling tighter, putting her hands over her head.
"Oh good," said Kat. "You're awake."
"And you're still an amateur." The inquisitor sat up, slowly pulling her fingers away from her eyes and blinking. "I don't know if this is sadism or a weird form of masochism, but you'll have to work harder to break me."
"I don't want to break you," said Kat. "I thought you might like to know -- we'll be entering your universe in an hour. If he's still alive, I'm going to bring Gabriel home."
"Oh, you're here for girl talk. Okay." Kate looked up at her, squinting a little. "You sure you want him back? He's not the man he was."
"Thanks to you."
"I pushed him too hard. I know. But I couldn't stand to see his potential wasted."
"Potential for what?" Kat asked. "Violence?"
"Among other things. He had the makings of a fine agent. A remarkable assassin. I might be biased, of course, but I've been reassessing a few things since we last spoke. Some unexpected deaths. Governor Kodos's death certainly looked like an accident, but…"
Kat's face must have betrayed something, because the inquisitor smiled.
"You're thinking it, too," she said. "If there was anyone that Gabriel would take pleasure in killing…"
Kat said nothing.
"The ironic thing is," the inquisitor said, "I thought he was the one man in the whole Empire who'd never betray me. I trusted him."
"So you failed. You didn't break him."
"What use is a broken man? I needed someone who could think for himself. Act independently. Make choices in a moment." The inquisitor frowned. "You … thought I raped him. That he didn't want me."
Mouth dry, Kat said, "So he wasn't a prisoner? He could consent?"
"'Consent'?" The inquisitor gave a sharp little huff. "He chose to be with me. And we were good together." She got up, approached the forcefield. "I guess I could thank you for that, but you weren't exactly on his mind by then. He liked it when I slapped him across the face--"
Kat flinched. Her counterpart laughed.
"I don't use sex to control my prisoners," she said. "There was nothing between us that he didn't ask for."
Kat stepped backwards.
"We're done," she said.
She was almost to the door when the inquisitor called, "Wait."
Kat was tempted to keep walking. Leave the inquisitor to her sincerely held, utterly reprehensible beliefs.
She paused. Turned back.
"If he's alive," Kate said, "will you let me see him?"
Kat walked out.
Seven to pass through the gateway. The trip was largely smooth, but uncomfortable: Kat felt as if her ears and stomach were being turned inside out, and judging by the expressions around her, she wasn't the only human having that reaction.
The Kelpiens were apparently unaffected. Captain Una had invited Lirenntin to the bridge for the journey, and he spent the time with his eyes wide and unblinking.
"I kept my eyes closed the first time," he told Kat over the noise of Discovery's engines. "Do you think--" He stopped, looking bashful.
She swallowed, regretting her earlier cup of coffee, and said "Do I think what?"
He leaned closer, so he wouldn't have to shout.
"Commander Saru says your Starfleet takes all species. Anyone can join, as long as they're able. Would I be? Able?"
You brave child, Kat thought, her discomfort momentarily forgotten.
"We would be honoured to have you apply," she said. "But may I offer some advice?"
"Don't do it right away. Meet the Kelpiens of the Federation. Learn your language. Learn to be free. You might find you don't want to follow orders anymore."
Silence fell as Discovery returned to normal space. Kat's ears were ringing, but the sensation lessened with every passing moment. She had a headache, but it was nothing she couldn't ignore.
Her attention was on the viewscreen, the twisted, shimmering form of Freehold Sector.
Burnham was right, she realised. The light was different here.
It took seventeen minutes for systems to be restored. This was where they were most vulnerable to Terran attack, but they drifted, undisturbed. When sensors came back online, the nearest Terran vessels were two sectors away.
Una sounded black alert.
The journey to the rebel planet took less than a moment.
Kat caught herself fidgeting, tapping her fingertips against her thigh. Crossed her arms to force herself to stop.
He's dead, she told herself. Odds of his survival are astronomical. The best you can hope for is to know how, and when.
"Geo-synchronous polar orbit established, Captain," said Detmer.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Owosekun, any sign of Romulan activity?"
"Well done." Una turned to Kat. "Good luck, Admiral."
Kat nodded at her team, but Una took her arm before she could follow them into the turbolift.
"Be careful, Admiral," she said. "Admiral Drake was extremely insistent that I not let you get yourself killed."
"Don't be fooled by the mother hen act. She just doesn't like my office."
"This is hardly the time for humour, Admiral."
"I'll be careful. I promise."
"That's all I can ask."
Kat's team consistent of Lirenntin, to guide and vouch for them; Michael, for her previous experience dealing with rebels; Saru, as the highest ranking non-human officer on board, and Kat herself.
She had forbidden Saru and Michael to carry weapons larger than a hand phaser, and to general dismay, Kat herself refused to go armed at all. She wore her standard uniform, no tactical vest.
It seemed like a good idea until the transporter released her and her primal monkey brain told her there were lots of weapons being aimed at her.
"Go," she told Lirenntin, and followed him slowly forward, hands outstretched by her sides. She couldn't see anyone, but she was quite certain they were being watched.
She told herself that she was only shivering because the wind was fierce and bitterly cold.
"Hello?" Lirenntin called. "I was given these coordinates by the Klingon, L'Rell, when she liberated Imperial Slave Facility Thirty-Two."
They were crossing a bridge, Kat realised. At the other end was a fortress. It looked like it had been designed to be defended by flaming arrows and boiling oil. But disruptor rifles and grenades probably worked just as well.
Every step brought them further away from cover. Made them more vulnerable to attack.
"My name is Lirenntin," he was saying, louder, now. "L'Rell helped me get to another universe, where there's no Empire. These people -- they're from that Federation. The Kelpien is an officer. They want to speak to who -- whoever's in charge."
Movement. One of the pillars at the head of the bridge dissolved -- a hologram -- and from it emerged a Klingon male.
He pointed at Kat, who had to force herself to hold firm. He's not your captor. He's a different man, he just looks the same, he's not--
"You brought us the Terran inquisitor," he said to Lirenntin. "But for betraying us, we'll kill you anyway."
He raised his weapon.
"Stop!" Her own panic forgotten, Kat put herself between the Klingon and Lirenntin, keeping her hands raised. She looked past Kol, wondering how many rebels were watching. She addressed the space at large. "I am Fleet Admiral Katrina Cornwell of the United Federation of Planets. I'm unarmed, and I don't want to hurt you."
Kol didn't lower his disruptor.
"We know you're sending refugees to our universe," she said. The wind whipped her hair into her face, but she didn't dare move her hands. "I sympathise with them. With you. I want to help you."
Kol laughed. "You? Help us?"
"I've seen them!" said Lirenntin from behind her. "I've been on their ships. It's not just Terrans in their Starfleet. Even their prison was safe!"
Kol tilted his head. For the first time, Kat noticed a tiny earpiece, visible only because it wasn't designed for Klingon ears. He was receiving instructions.
He kept his weapon raised while he listened. But apparently he didn't like his orders, because he ripped the earpiece away, threw it on the ground and crushed it beneath his boot.
His disruptor was trained on Kat the whole time.
"Please," said Kat.
"Keep begging," Kol told her.
She could sense Michael behind her, preparing to move, but before the commander could do something rash, a disruptor bolt shot past Kol, missing him by millimeters, leaving a scorch mark on his armour.
Kol swore and threw his disruptor aside.
The bolt had come from a stretch of ruined wall near the bridge. The air around it shimmered, and a man emerged from the holographic camouflage and jumped down, heedless of the heavy rifle he carried.
Human. Average height. A bit underweight, she noticed, and his beard and hair contained more grey than she remembered. A deep scar ran from the outer corner of his left eye to the top of his cheekbone.
"He said to let them pass," he told Kol. "Are you stupid, as well as ugly?"
Kol swore in Klingon, spat at Kat's feet and walked away. Other rebels emerged from camouflage and followed him, leaving the landing party alone with Gabriel.
His expression was wary as he approached her. There were new lines around his eyes.
He moved into her personal space.
She stood still and let him study her. His gaze was dispassionate. Cautious. He was, she realised, quite prepared to be disappointed.
At last, satisfied, he took a step backwards, not quite relaxed, but certainly less tense.
"Admiral Cornwell," he said.
They stood where they were. She realised she didn't know what to say.
He gave her a small, almost shy smile, and said, "Hi."
"Gabriel," Kat whispered, but the wind snatched the words away.
He said, "I thought I'd never see you again."
"I thought you were dead."
Because he had chosen not to come home. And, though he was visibly damaged -- that scar, she thought, he must have come close to losing his eye -- he seemed relatively at ease, certain of himself, holding his weapon as if it was comfortable.
She of all people knew how well a person could fake it to seem whole. Gabriel's trauma was effectively ongoing; it might be months before he felt safe enough to start letting go of the behaviours he had adopted to survive here.
And yet, she was irritated. Gabriel was looking at her, at her team, like they were supplicants, not rescuers. She was a fleet admiral, she shouldn't have to go all the way into a parallel universe to drag a wayward captain home by his ear.
He smiled at her, and for a moment she felt like she was facing the other Lorca, watching him smirk through a dressing down for risking Discovery and the spore drive.
"I forgot what an arrogant bastard you were," she said.
He laughed, but a violent gust of wind prevented him from saying anything. The next surge was even harder, almost knocking Kat off her feet.
Gabriel caught her.
"You should come inside," he shouted. "This'll go on for hours."
He kept his arm around her shoulders as he guided her into the fortress. Burnham, Saru and Lirenntin were right behind them, along with Kol and a dozen other rebels, all armed. Kat wanted to pull away from him, but if Gabriel was respected among the rebels, his visible and literal support might work to her benefit.
Inside, out of the wind, Kat said, "Let me introduce Commanders Saru and Burnham."
"Of the Shenzhou," said Gabriel, giving Michael a careful look.
"And Lirenntin, who brought us here."
His face darkened, but he sounded irritated rather than angry as he said, "L'Rell's got a lot to answer for."
Michael's attention was on her tricorder. She said, "Admiral, this storm may have come out of nowhere, but the atmospheric distortions will cut us off from Discovery within six minutes."
"They do that," said Gabriel.
"I assume that's why the rebels chose to settle on this world," Michael said.
"That, and the beachfront views." Gabriel turned to Kat. "Admiral, this could last for days. Let your ship know you'll be out of range. I don't want them to assume you've been killed and start shooting at us."
Are you giving me orders, Gabriel?
But she flipped her communicator open and hailed Discovery.
"You seeing this storm?"
Una's voice was crackly. "Yes. Are you safe, Admiral?"
"We're sheltering with the rebels." Which was not to say they were welcome, just that no one had shot them yet. "Apparently this could go on for a while."
"So we surmised." Una's next words were lost in static. "--atmospheric science division seems inordinately excited."
"I'm happy for them."
"Una? Captain Una?"
Silence. Kat's communicator gave the little chirp that said it was out of range.
"You're in enemy territory, in a hostile parallel universe, and your crew are conducting science experiments." Gabriel's dry tone couldn't disguise the wistfulness in his eyes. "God, I've missed the Federation."
"If you're done, Lorca--" A Tellarite woman appeared at his elbow, towing a portable weapons locker. "Weapons. And the Prophet wants a word with your--" she gave Kat a hostile glance -- "guests."
"Sarek survived Harlak?" Michael asked.
The Tellarite ignored her.
"They're not my guests," said Gabriel, passing her his rifle. She swapped it for a disruptor pistol, which he accepted and holstered automatically.
"Don't keep him waiting."
"He'll conduct a mind meld," Gabriel said as he led them through a warren of halls. "It won't be pleasant."
"He melded with me on Harlak," said Michael. "If he--"
Gabriel rounded on her.
"The Prophet is the only person who doesn't believe you betrayed us on Harlak," he said. "If I were you, Commander Burnham, I'd keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, and hope no one sticks a knife in my belly."
"How many rebels were lost?" she asked.
"Most of them. So humans turning up claiming to be from the Federation, or to have their best interests at heart, aren't greeted with a lot of trust these days. You'd better hope no Terrans have followed you out here. I can't protect you if you've brought them down on us."
"Discovery has an experimental propulsion system," said Kat. "No one followed us."
"Discovery. I've heard of her. My counterpart's ship."
"We took it back, Captain," said Saru.
He was marching them deeper into the fortress. From behind one door, Kat heard sounds of distress.
"Infirmary," Gabriel said as the noise receded behind them. "It only sounds like a torture chamber because we're low on painkillers."
Through an open door, she caught a glimpse of children.
"Are there kids here?"
"It's a long story."
"Captain," said Saru, "if the rebels don't trust human emissaries, perhaps I should speak for our party."
"No," said Gabriel. "You're not the senior officer. They'll be insulted."
"But these people have been good to me," said Lirenntin.
"I know." Gabriel stopped, turning to look him in the eye. Lirenntin was a foot and a half taller, but Gabriel reached up and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Look, kid, it takes more than a good meal and a proper bed to impress the rebels."
"Not because you're easily impressed, or gullible," Gabriel added, and his tone was paternal, kind. "But there's more at stake than one life, you understand?"
"Gabriel." A young woman emerged from a turbolift. Vulcan, Kat realised, and shockingly beautiful, with full lips and liquid eyes.
"T'Pring?" she said.
The woman -- T'Pring -- raised one eyebrow and, pointedly ignoring her, said to Gabriel, "Master Sarek is quite eager to meet your friends."
"Well, I was gonna show them the swimming pool next, but--"
"He's tired. Don't keep him waiting."
They entered the turbolift.
Michael had assumed that Sarek was killed when Georgiou destroyed the rebel camp on Harlak. His survival, Kat guessed, assessing his injuries, must have been narrow. Half his face had effectively blown off, leaving him with one eye, one ear and most of a nose. The scarring was partially covered by a sheet of synthetic skin; the rebels evidently lacked access to proper dermal regeneration facilities.
He had also lost an arm and leg, but these were replaced by prosthetics. Designed for Andorians, judging by the colour, and not properly integrated with his Vulcan physiognomy. He made his way across the room slowly, moving like a man in constant pain, although the only sign of relief when he finally reached the table and sat was a slow exhalation.
A young Vulcan man poured him water and helped him drink. Sarek's hands were too unsteady to hold the glass himself.
When he was, at last, settled, he looked at Burnham and said, "Michael. I thought you must have died on the Charon."
"I thought you died on Harlak. I'm pleased I was wrong." Michael put her hands behind her back. Mimicking her foster father, Kat realised. "I'm sorry. The emperor anticipated that I'd delay the bombardment."
"I assumed something of the sort."
"Did Voq survive?"
"Barely." With the bland look which Kat had learned was Sarek's version of a smile, he said, "His injuries were even more grievous than mine. But the Klingon body can endure a great deal. He is … elsewhere right now."
"I'm glad," said Michael.
"Gabriel," Sarek turned his gaze to Kat, "introduce me to your companion."
"This is Fleet Admiral Katrina Cornwell of the Federation," he said. "Admiral, may I present Master Sarek, known as the Prophet of Vulcan."
"Honoured," she said, bowing. "Are you the leader of the rebels?"
"One of them. Do I address you as Fleet Admiral?"
"'Admiral' is fine."
"Terrans, in my experience, relish their titles. Governor, inquisitor, emperor. Caesar."
"You can call me Katrina, if you'd prefer."
"I once had the privilege of meeting Inquisitor Cornwell. She did not invite me to address her by name."
"Yeah, we don't have much in common."
She was aware of Gabriel turning sharply to look at her, but kept her gaze on Sarek.
"Come here," he said, gesturing with his blue prosthetic hand. "Verifying your story will be an easy matter."
Unless she knelt, he would have to stand to touch her face. And he was injured and in pain.
Kneeling was necessary. It was kind.
It was not Terran.
Kat dropped to her knees.
His hand -- his organic hand -- was surprisingly cold.
He said, "My mind to your mind…"
Kat closed her eyes.
She had worked closely with Ambassador Sarek in the final months of the war. Twice, he assisted her in interrogating prisoners of war. And, on Discovery, Saru.
He had assured her that he did not inflict pain, that he could not access a person's most private thoughts, but only their intentions and emotions.
She hoped that was true in her universe, because this Sarek rifled through her thoughts, dispassionate but ruthless. Intensely curious. He flicked through her memories like the pages in a book, from the personal and private to the professional and banal. Her first day of school. A cup of coffee she drank in a quiet moment late in her residency. Sex with Gabriel. Sex with the other Lorca. Watching Emperor Georgiou take command of Discovery. Pinning a medal to Michael Burnham's chest. This is who we are.
Sarek released her, and she reeled, but waved the others away when they moved to help her.
She climbed to her feet slowly, and stepped away from Sarek, moving until the large table was between them.
"Please," he said. "Sit."
Kat obeyed, and Gabriel pressed a glass of water into her hand.
"Master?" T'Pring asked. "What did you see?"
Sarek said, "No Terran would be so horrified by their capacity for ruthlessness."
"Then she's from another universe?"
"Allow me to introduce my acolytes, Fleet Admiral," Sarek said. "T'Pring and Stonn, formerly of Vulcan."
"Honoured," said Kat.
Stonn said, "Where is your ship, Admiral?"
"How did you enter Romulan space undetected?" T'Pring asked.
"My vessel's quite advanced."
"No," said Kat.
"How many troops are on board?" Stonn asked.
Kat smiled. "The security department consists of about twenty-five officers."
"Twenty-four," said Saru. "Lieutenant Sh'f is on parental leave."
T'Pring raised one elegant eyebrow. "You intend to wage war on the Terran Empire with one ship and twenty-four soldiers?"
"No. She doesn't." Sarek steepled his mismatched fingers, exactly like his counterpart opening a negotiation. "Fleet Admiral Cornwell has had enough of war. Her objectives are smaller in scale."
"Can you help us?" Kat asked.
"I suspect you'll be disappointed. I don't know precisely how many refugees have entered your universe. L'Rell gives the gateway information to those she regards as trustworthy, and her judgement has always seemed--" he raised an eyebrow at Lirenntin -- "sound. But not everyone who receives that information uses it, and we have no way of knowing if they go on to share it."
Unacceptable. Kat glanced at Gabriel, who wore the bland expression of a man who knew he was in for a severe dressing down as soon as they didn't have an audience.
Saru said, "Our research suggests as many as twenty refugees have arrived in the Federation."
"I suspect you are vastly underestimating their numbers," said Sarek. "Those who have fled the Terrans know how to avoid official attention."
"What will you do with them?" Stonn asked. "Round them up and force them to come back here?”
"On the contrary," said Sarek before she could answer, "she intends to integrate them into Federation society. Educate them. Put them to work. In short, assimilate them."
"I want to give them the tools they need to become citizens, yes," said Kat.
"And if they don't wish to join your Federation?" T'Pring asked.
"There are other options. Worlds with different political systems, if that's what they prefer."
Sarek said, "T'Pring. Stonn. Please leave us."
The young Vulcans exchanged a look which Kat could only interpret as unhappy, but rose and departed without argument.
"I apologise for my acolytes," said Sarek. "They were quite young when we left Vulcan. They lack discipline."
"Admit it," said Gabriel, "you all enjoy it when they get to be rude on your behalf."
Michael looked down to conceal her brief smile.
"As for your second objective," Sarek said, "the answer is no, we won't help you close the gateway. Our ships are designed for brief incursions, not long journeys through Terran space. We can't spare the vessels, or people to crew them."
Gabriel said, "You can't close the gateway on your own?"
"Unfortunately, Captain," said Saru, "we need a ship on each side for simultaneous tetryon bombardment."
Gabriel shrugged. "Easy. I'll do it."
"You will not."
The words slipped out before Kat could stop herself. She regretted it as soon as she saw Gabriel's shoulders stiffen. Her tone was too harsh, too much like her counterpart.
But when he looked at her, the surprise in his face was mingled with respect.
"Captain Lorca is here voluntarily," said Sarek. "The choice to stay with us or leave with you is entirely up to him."
"I'm sorry," said Kat, "but that's not true. Captain Lorca swore an oath to the Federation. His duty is not yet discharged."
Gabriel was smiling.
"What?" Kat demanded.
"Nothing. Just been a while since I heard a casual apology like that."
God. He'd been here so long. Isolated. Abused. Fending for himself. And here she was, getting pissy because he was out of practice at working within the chain of command.
"You and your party are welcome to stay as our guests," said Sarek. "But our resources are limited. Anything you can offer in terms of food, medical supplies, weapons…"
Kat nodded. "Whatever you need," she said.
"I wish to speak to Michael alone," said Sarek.
Kat, Saru and Gabriel got to their feet.
"Your acolytes will sulk," Gabriel said, but he was smiling.
In the turbolift, Kat said, "Captain Lorca, will you introduce me to L'Rell?"
"She's running a mission with Voq," he said. "They're due back any day."
The turbolift doors opened, and Gabriel led them through the corridor and out into a covered courtyard. In better weather -- if this planet ever had better weather -- it would be pleasant. The storm gave it an eerie greenish light, but it was at least sheltered and less crowded than the fortress halls.
"Saru," said Kat, "take Lirenntin and start figuring out what the rebels need from us." She looked up at Gabriel. "It's time Captain Lorca and I spoke privately."
A group of Klingons entered the courtyard from another door. Among them was Kol, his eyes narrowing as he saw Kat.
"You're not really unarmed, are you?" Gabriel said.
"Of course I am."
"Are you suicidal?" He rolled up his sleeve and started to undo the wrist sheath beneath. "Take one of mine."
She didn't move.
"Take it. I have more."
"I need these people to trust me, Gabriel."
"Kat--" He looked like he was trying to remember a forgotten language. "Admiral. Nothing you do will earn the rebels' trust. To them, you're a Terran. Worse, you look like the inquisitor. Someone will try to kill you. Take the damn knife. Or my disruptor."
She could see him deciding whether to push the issue, and despite his insubordination, it was almost a relief to see that he wasn't completely destroyed, he could stand in front of a woman with the inquisitor's face and talk back.
"Fine," he said at last. "You'll need a bodyguard." He began to replace the sheath.
"The inquisitor had no complaints."
Oh. Not so good.
"Gabriel, I'm not--"
"Kate? I know."
"I'm not doing this out here. Let's go somewhere more private."
He guided her through the corridors and up a narrow flight of stairs, giving directions from behind as he shielded her blind spot.
Kat found herself acutely aware that she was in the presence of a man with a vast potential for violence. Heavily armed, sure, his hand hovering over his disruptor when they passed a pair of Tellarites, but it was more than that. A sense that he'd do whatever had to be done, and maybe not lose much sleep over the outcome.
She didn't feel threatened. She wasn't in any danger from Gabriel. But that wasn't to say he wasn't dangerous.
His quarters turned out to be a single room which contained nothing more than a low bed, a chair, and a shelf which held two half-empty bottles and a kit bag. A narrow window looked out over the courtyard, the view distorted by the forcefield which protected it from the elements. The window rattled in the wind.
"Be it ever so humble," said Gabriel, closing the door. "Okay. Spit it out."
"You're pissed." He smiled. "I'm not made of glass, Kat. I can take it." He sat down, legs wide, hands outstretched. "Hit me."
"I'm not angry," Kat lied. "I'm … concerned."
"You escaped the inquisitor sixteen months ago. Instead of coming home, you chose to stay here. To make the Federation vulnerable by sending refugees through the gateway." She was speaking slowly, keeping her voice soft. "I need you to help me understand why."
"'Made the Federation vulnerable'." He chuckled. "To what? Escaped slaves?"
"No one in the Empire knows about the gateway. The inquisitor told me--"
"She lied," Kat snapped. "I have her in Discovery's brig, Gabriel. She was arrested on Freehold Base. On our side."
He froze. Drew a ragged breath. Recovered himself.
"Kate's on your ship," he said.
He covered his mouth for a moment. When he looked up, his eyes were full of terrible longing.
"Can I see her?" he asked.
Kat said, gently, "Do you think that's a good idea?"
Gabriel blinked, and his vulnerability evaporated. He gave her a slow smile and said, "All due respect, Admiral, but I don't give a damn."
Kat swallowed her irritation. She sat down, perched on the end of his bed so he didn't have to look up at her.
"I realise you've been through a terrible ordeal," she said, "and it must be difficult to see me after what the inquisitor did to you. But--"
"What she did to me?"
"I had choices. Every step of the way. I chose."
"Did you think I was just a prisoner? Yeah, at first, but I decided, Kat. I slept with her, I killed for her, those were my choices."
"Okay," said Kat. "Okay. But none of that means it's easy."
He said nothing.
"If you wanted to talk--" I am the last person you should come to. She changed course. "Tell me why you stayed."
Instead, he said, "Fleet admiral. Looks good on you."
"Couple of weeks after I left Kate, the Charon was destroyed. All the reports said my counterpart turned up out of nowhere, at the side of the late Michael Burnham, and destroyed the imperial flagship rather than let Philippa defeat him again."
He leaned back, his gaze distant.
"L'Rell and I were with a different rebel cell at the time. I wasn't what you'd call popular. Took a lot of beatings. For some reason, no one seemed to believe I was from a different universe. Then the Harlak survivors arrived. And I found out there had been a Federation ship just a few sectors away. Commanded by my counterpart."
"I know he destroyed the Buran. And you -- Starfleet gave him another ship?"
"Against my recommendations."
The weakest of excuses. She should have known.
But Gabriel was on his feet and pacing.
"I saw the Defiant's files," he said. "She's from our future, did you know that? Eleven years ahead of us. Kate showed me the Buran file. What there is of it." He paused by the window, watching the storm outside. "My crew. I know he was the only survivor, but -- were there transfers? Did anyone get away from him?"
Mouth dry, Kat said, "Ellen Landry transferred out. She served under Lorca again on Discovery. She was killed in action."
He slammed his fist against the window and resumed his pacing. After two cycles of his tiny room, Gabriel picked up his chair and hurled it at the window.
A forcefield activated, the window held, and the chair broke.
Gabriel stared at the pieces.
"Pascal. Rallox. Ava. Shev." He sank onto the bed, his thigh touching Kat's. "If you asked me a few hours ago, I'd have said I couldn't remember what hope felt like."
Kat raised her hand to squeeze his shoulder, then changed her mind and lowered it.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"And you." He turned to look at her. "He fooled you, too, didn't he?"
She nodded. She was close to tears, but the last thing Gabriel needed right now was her useless guilt.
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
"Thirty-five years, we were friends. And you had no idea?" He ran his hand over the scar beside his eye. "He was that good?"
"Not perfect. He made mistakes, but I kept telling myself it was my imagination. Or trauma. Or--" Her throat was too tight to continue.
He sent me into a trap and told Starfleet there was no point organising a rescue. He left me second-guessing and doubting myself to this day.
This was unhelpful. She forced herself to breathe until she had control again.
Gabriel was saying, "My friends. My family. No one realised something was wrong?"
"I don't want your apologies." His voice was rough. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "I'll give you everything I can remember about the refugees I sent through the gateway. And I'll close it for you. Just … let me stay."
"No," said Kat.
Gabriel closed his eyes.
"You don't get a choice, Gabriel." Her voice was hard. "You're not done until Starfleet Command releases you from your duty. And I am Starfleet Command."
He looked away, smiling.
She said, "Is this amusing, Captain?"
"No. Just -- Kate takes that tone, sometimes. Usually when I've pissed her off."
"Not angry. I know. You said."
"Come home, Gabriel," said Kat. "You've been away too long."
"Kat, I have nothing to offer the Federation. Nothing worth--" He stopped.
"I know you were used for assassinations." Kat chose her words carefully. "It's normal to feel guilt or shame--"
"Don't recite textbooks at me, Katrina."
"You think I don't know?" She was on her feet, hands on her hips. Voice not quite raised, but -- firm. "Seven months ago, I ordered the destruction of the Klingon homeworld. A civilian target. It would have meant the deaths of billions. Genocide. And I gave the order."
"'Would have meant the deaths'," said Gabriel. "It didn't go through?"
"Michael Burnham found another option."
"So you're beating yourself up over hypothetical dead Klingons."
Kat narrowed her eyes. "You think I'm being self-indulgent."
"You didn't make the decision, and Qo'noS wasn't destroyed."
She said, "That must be why I sleep so well at night."
He gave a silent little hah.
They sat together, shoulders and legs touching, and Kat felt some of the tension between them slowly ease.
Then he said, "It looked like a bad war."
Reality came crashing down.
"You knew?" she asked.
"Yeah. L'Rell and I came through the gateway with the first group of refugees. I saw what was happening. And then I came back here."
Kat sighed. "I wish you hadn't told me that."
He scratched his beard. "You gonna have me charged with desertion, Admiral?"
"If I have to." She hesitated. "I doubt a psych board would find you competent to stand."
"I told you. I chose. I'll take prison over being made … helpless."
But his hands, she noted, were clenched.
"Come home," she said again. "We're all a mess. None of us are who we thought we were." She slipped her hand into his. "We'll figure it out together."
He looked into her face.
"Is that an order, Admiral?"
"Yes," she said.
Kat said, "You owe Commander Burnham an apology."
They were making their way downstairs to meet the rest of Kat's landing party. But slowly, because she wasn't done yet.
"I figured she was the other Lorca's pawn." Gabriel's voice was mild. "But apparently so was everyone else."
"It's thanks to Michael that there's still a Federation worth going back to."
"Philippa must be proud. Burnham's her protégée, right?"
"Gabriel," Kat stopped walking, "there's something you need to know."
Quietly -- the last thing she needed was for this to be overheard by rebels -- she filled him in on the death of Captain Georgiou, and the survival of the emperor. And her presence on Discovery.
"She's on your ship?" he said, "with Kate?"
He was as appalled as she had expected, but there was also fear in his face.
"And she knows about me?"
"Yes," said Kat. "I needed corroboration--"
"Admiral, Kate killed her daughter. And I was more or less her only alibi. Do you understand? The emperor will murder her."
"I can't imagine it'll be much of a loss."
She regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. If Gabriel had come to identify with his captor, even subconsciously, the last thing he needed was her open animosity.
But he just laughed and said, "She'd probably say the same for you."
Kat forced herself to chuckle, and said, "And what would the inquisitor think of my decision to give command of Discovery to Georgiou?"
"That you're a damn fool," he said at once. "And you probably had no other options."
"Felt that way."
She leaned against the wall, and he moved closer, barely raising his voice above a whisper as he said, "The Qo'noS mission?"
"And a bad one."
He opened his mouth to speak, and Kat felt for a second like she was speaking to her old friend. To a stable, reliable Starfleet officer. An almost-peer.
Someone who got it.
Then he said, "Worked out okay in the end."
And he turned and walked away, not looking back to see if she was following.
The fortress had a large hall close to the kitchen, full of tables, but meals seemed to be taken anywhere. Gabriel directed Kat, Michael and Saru to a separate, smaller room, and recruited Lirenntin to help him get lunch.
Part of Kat was glad he was gone, if only for a few minutes.
"What did Sarek want?" she asked Michael.
"He had questions about the Federation. About Vulcan, really. History, philosophy. He got me to play kal-toh with T'Pring and Stonn. I beat them." Michael shook her head in disbelief. "T'Pring is one of the most intelligent, logical people I've ever met. But she lacks discipline here. She knows it, and she resents it. It's…"
"Illogical?" Saru suggested.
"What did you find, Commander Saru?" Kat asked.
He opened his hand, spreading his long, double-jointed fingers. "Need. Despair. Anger. People driven to desperation and cruelty."
"You don't like them?" Michael asked.
"I find them troubling. From what Lirenntin has told me, there are many more Kelpiens in this universe than our own. But of the hundreds of people in this camp, he and I are the only members of our kind."
"The rebels are more diverse than the Terran Empire," said Michael, "but there's still a hierarchy."
Saru nodded. "And I fear that Kelpiens are at the bottom."
"They eat us." Lirenntin had returned, bearing a loaded tray. He put it down and said, "Terrans, Klingons -- to them, we're just livestock that talks back."
"He's not wrong," said Gabriel, setting down a carafe and glasses. "Watch out for Kol, Commander Saru. He and his buddies will happily deep fry your threat ganglia."
Kat said, "Is Kol respected among the rebels?"
"He has his own faction. All Klingons. They joined us for pragmatic reasons, but if he could persuade Voq's Klingon followers to switch allegiance, he'd take them and go." Gabriel was spooning a leafy vegetable stew into his bowl. "You know him?"
"On our side, he did exactly that. Stole Voq's ship, killed most of his allies, came close to uniting the Great Houses against the Federation." Kat served herself some of the green stuff and a warm pastry. Trying to sound nonchalant, she said, "I was a prisoner on his ship for a month. I'm not an admirer. What is it I'm about to eat?"
"The vegetable stew is a Romulan dish. Called viinerine. The pastries are hasperat. Pickled vegetables, a sort of cheese, and the Bajoran equivalent of peppers. Lots of it. Careful, it's hot." He took a bite, swallowed and added, "No meat. I'm more or less vegetarian, these days."
He wasn't wrong about the spiciness of the hasperat, but it lessened the bitterness of the viinerine. Kat decided she liked both, and took a few minutes to appreciate a meal from cultures she might never get to encounter in her own universe.
The carafe turned out to contain coffee, albeit a potent Klingon variation Gabriel called raktajino.
"The rebels run on raktajino, kanar and bloodwine," he said. "And Romulan ale, when we can get it. What happened to Kol?"
"Lorca destroyed his ship," said Michael.
"Huh." Gabriel mopped up the last of his viinerine and said, "You were his first officer?"
"No," said Saru, "I was. Commander Burnham had no rank at that time."
"Sounds like a story."
Michael hesitated, then said, "I committed mutiny. I was sentenced to life in prison. Lorca gave me an opportunity to serve, but it turned out to be something else."
Michael's tone was clipped. Not quite matter-of-fact.
Gabriel said, "Sounds like him. As far as I can tell, my counterpart left two universes full of people who hated his guts. You kill him?"
"The emperor did."
"That must have made her very happy."
"She seemed quite satisfied."
"Mutiny." Gabriel was studying Michael. "From everything I heard, you were an exemplary officer."
"Until I wasn't."
"Yet here you are," he waved his cup at her, "Commander Burnham."
"Lorca gave me a second chance."
Michael smiled. "Despite himself."
And if a convicted mutineer could have a second chance -- Kat could see what Gabriel was thinking as he studied Michael. And the moment when he looked away, his jaw setting again. Refusing to give in to hope.
Kat swallowed the last of her Klingon coffee and said, "Commander Saru, what's your assessment of the rebels' needs?"
Saru and Lirenntin had compiled an extensive list. Food. Basic medical supplies, from dermal regenerators to painkillers to simple dietary supplements. Air filters and power generators. Extra clothing and blankets.
"And toys and educational resources for children aged from four years or equivalent, up to early adulthood," Saru finished.
"How many kids are there?" Kat asked. "And why?"
She looked down and realised Gabriel had refilled her drink.
"They were slaves," he said. "L'Rell and I pulled about thirty of them them off a Terran transport two weeks ago."
"And their parents?" Michael asked.
"Scattered across the Empire, most of them. Some might be at the transfer station on Terran Outpost Four. That's what L'Rell and Voq are finding out."
"Why not you?" Kat asked.
Gabriel's face became closed.
"It's complicated," he said. "Look, Kat. Admiral," he corrected himself, "the kids -- I didn't plan for them to be here this long. When L'Rell and I realised what we were seeing, we attacked, grabbed them, and ran. Tried to run."
Kat smiled into her coffee. It was exactly like him. Cautious and thoughtful to a point, meticulous in his planning -- and then something unexpected would come up, and he'd make his choice without thinking of the consequences.
The thing about Gabriel, though -- in those moments, he usually made the right choices. Like rescuing children from slavery.
"Commander Saru, transmit your list to Discovery as soon as the storm lifts," she said. "How long have we got?"
"Approximately three hours, Admiral," said Michael.
"Well, then," Kat stood up, her veins humming with a cup and a half of powerful Klingon coffee, "let's make ourselves useful."
She despatched Michael and Saru to Sarek, to learn what they could about the rebels and the current status quo in the Empire. Intelligence about the Romulans would also be welcome, given how little they knew about that secretive people. Watch. Listen. Learn.
As for Kat herself, she got to work. The rebels had no doctors, only two former slaves who had belonged to a hospital. Even Kat, who hadn't practised medicine in years, was an improvement.
Or she would have been, if the sick and injured would accept treatment from her. All she could do was instruct the two medics on the use of a standard Federation medkit, which could treat a wider variety of species than anything available in this universe.
"Can you blame them?" Gabriel asked. "You look like a notorious professional torturer. I'd think twice before I let you inject me with anything, too."
"Can I help?" Lirenntin asked the medics. The younger one, an Orion man, shrugged, and handed him the tricorder.
"Come on," said Gabriel. "You wanna play Lady Bountiful? I'll introduce you to some more grateful patients."
The children regarded her with solemn caution, but unlike the adult rebels, they relaxed a little after Gabriel vouched for her. Kat spent the next couple of hours treating minor injuries and childhood diseases common across the quadrant.
Their emotional trauma was beyond her ability to diagnose and treat in an afternoon, but she made a mental note of its various manifestations: flat affect in Klingon and Orion children, emotional outbursts in Vulcans and Andorians. A reptilian boy whose species she didn't recognise was almost catatonic, and all Kat could do was keep him warm and teach one of the older kids to inject him with a standard nutrient mix.
There was no adult supervision. Teens cared for younger kids, and when Kat asked one pre-adolescent who was looking out for them, she pointed at Gabriel and said, "Captain Lorca."
Deep in conversation with the two oldest teens, a sleepy Klingon toddler in his arms, Gabriel seemed unaware of Kat's scrutiny.
Kat finished up with the last child, a Saurian, making a note on her PADD to ensure Dr Pollard synthesised enough scale pox vaccine. Then she drifted closer to Gabriel, the better to eavesdrop on his conversation with the young adults.
"Watch out for Kol," he was saying. "Give him a chance, he'll sell all of you back to the Terrans."
"It's hard, keeping the little ones in these rooms all day," said the boy.
"I know. It won't be for too much longer." Gabriel caught Kat's eye. "The admiral will be able to help."
"I can beam you up to my ship as soon as the storm lifts," she agreed, although, as she eyed the Klingon child sleeping on Gabriel's shoulder, she wondered how she was going to find appropriate homes for all these traumatised alien children.
"No," said the Tellarite girl. "L'Rell's looking for our parents. If we're somewhere else--"
"I need to speak to L'Rell, too," said Kat gently. "My ship's not going anywhere until that happens."
"You can trust Kat," Gabriel told her.
"No. We stay here."
"Our parents are either dead, or slaves," said the boy. "Waiting's pointless. We should have gone straight for the gateway."
"The Terrans would have followed us," said Gabriel.
"You don't know that. We didn't need to fight them."
"You're questioning my decisions in battle?" Gabriel's voice was low and hard. Like a captain confronting an insubordinate officer, not an adult dealing with a teenager. "We survived. If you'd prefer to die a slave, I'm sure Kol can arrange that for you."
The boy hissed, and walked away, heedless of the children who, sensing his anger, stirred nervously in his wake.
"What happened?" Kat asked.
"It's complicated," said Gabriel.
"The Terrans were chasing us," said the Tellarite girl, and there was an unmistakable note of hero worship in her voice. "Captain Lorca boarded the pursuit vessel. He slit the captain's throat and kicked the pilot to death."
Kat blinked. "He told you about it?"
The girl's eyes glowed. "He let me help."
When they were far enough from the kids' room that they wouldn't be overheard, Kat said, "Jesus Christ, Gabriel!"
"I needed someone to watch my back. She needed to see--"
"A violent murder?"
His lip curled.
"That Terrans die easily." He put his hands on her shoulders. Placating. "And I didn't kick him to death. I knocked him out and beamed him into space with the rest of the crew."
"And that's better?"
"These kids don't have anyone," he said. "And the rebels -- I won't say they don't care, but we don't have the resources to keep people who can't fight. Some say slavery is for people who are too weak to escape."
"Is that why you're not with L'Rell? You're protecting the kids?"
He glanced away. "Among other things," he said.
Evasive, Kat thought, but this wasn't the moment to push.
"If we can rescue their parents, we will," he said, "Wherever those kids go, I don't want to send them off alone."
"You were sending them to the Federation, though."
"Yeah," said Kat, "but I'd be planning to go with them. And I wouldn't have stayed away so long."
She rested her hands on his. She could feel the warmth of his body, smell his scent. If she leaned forward, she thought, and kissed him, he might kiss her back.
God, she had missed him. It was years since they had been intimate, but this was like being a cadet again. She had deliberately set her attraction to him aside when she was promoted. Put him in a mental box labelled Subordinate -- do not touch.
Now, even when she was irritated with him, she wanted him.
Kat looked up, studying his face. His scar.
If he kissed her back, was he seeing her, or her counterpart?
She stepped away.
A disruptor bolt exploded in the space she had just occupied, sending dust and bits of stone flying.
Before Kat could form a coherent thought, Gabriel had thrown her to the ground. He knelt over her, knife drawn, disruptor in his hand, and fired through the swirling dust.
His third shot connected with something. There was a grunt, and the thud of a body hitting stone.
"Stay where you are," he told her.
Kat nodded obediently, then climbed to her feet and limped after him as he advanced on her attacker.
A Klingon. She didn't know his name, but she recognised his face. He had assisted with interrogations on the Ship of the Dead, beating her when she refused to answer his superior's questions. More than once, he had left her with broken bones or dislocated limbs, hauling her along to the infirmary to get patched up before the next session.
Gabriel had a foot on the man's chest and his disruptor pointed at his face. The Klingon was half-stunned, conscious but unable to fight Gabriel off.
"You're new around here, right?" Gabriel's voice was reasonable. Friendly. "So you thought you'd earn Kol's favour by killing a couple of Terrans." He moved his foot to the base of the Klingon's neck and pressed down.
"Captain," said Kat.
Gabriel ignored her. "The first rule of the resistance," he said, "is that we don't attack each other. Did Kol cover that? No, he didn't, because he doesn't give a shit about anyone but himself."
He crouched, holding up his disruptor so the Klingon would see it was set to kill. "So I'm gonna let you live. You're gonna go back to Kol, and show him how a human took pity on you. And then you're gonna start passing the word that Kol is at best dangerous to the rebels, and at worst a spy for the Terrans."
The Klingon grunted, "No."
"Yes. Think about it."
Gabriel straightened up, set his disruptor to stun, and fired.
The Klingon lost consciousness.
Gabriel turned to her and said, "I told you to stay where you were."
Her attention was on the Klingon. She said, "You--"
"Didn't kill him. Which he won't thank me for." He holstered his disruptor and returned his knife to its sheath. "I told you to carry a weapon. This is why."
In a shaky voice, she said, "You giving me orders, Captain?"
"Suggestions, Admiral." His lips quirked in a thin half-smile. "Firm ones."
She was bruised, she had abrasions on her palms, and when she raised her hand to her cheek, it came away bloody. No serious injuries. Nothing that couldn't be fixed with ten minutes and a dermal regenerator.
But when she closed her eyes, she felt that Klingon's fists landing on her torso.
"Come on," he said, and put his arm around her, leading her away. "Let's get Lirenntin and wait out the rest of the storm in Sarek's rooms."
"Do you know his name?" she asked. "The Klingon?"
"Vorg? Vorch? Something like that? Why?"
Kat just shook her head.
"Not important," she said, and shrugged his arm away. The only thing worse than feeling so vulnerable was letting others see her like this. She concentrated on getting her breathing under control, crossing her arms to keep her hands from shaking.
She asked, "Is Kol really working for the Terrans?"
"Maybe. Probably not. But give the rumour time to fester, and he'll end up begging for Voq's protection. Or he'll be dead. Problem's solved either way."
She tried to find a way to answer that, but all she could come up with was, "How pragmatic."
If Gabriel noticed her dismay, he didn't acknowledge it.
Lirenntin was only too delighted to try out the dermal regenerator on her injuries, and used the trip back to Sarek's rooms to ask about Starfleet's medical school.
"Recruiting?" Gabriel asked as they entered Sarek's rooms.
"He's got time to decide."
Sarek's quarters included a large bathroom, where Kat took a few minutes to clean her face and run her fingers through her hair. Then she leaned against the sink and studied her reflection.
Professional, she reminded herself, you were going to be professional. Not thinking about kissing Gabriel, or letting him see how much his casual violence horrified her. Detach yourself.
The storm lasted twenty-seven minutes longer than Michael predicted, and every second dragged.
Gabriel spent the time playing kal-toh with Stonn and trading barbs with T'Pring, both of whom seemed to enjoy the respective challenges. But there were moments when Kat caught Gabriel staring off into the distance, fidgeting with the game pieces, one leg jittering. He'd catch himself and stop, but the movement would resume a few minutes later.
She guessed he, at least, wasn't looking forward to the storm's end.
At last, the storm lifted. Kat felt like the atmosphere itself was sighing with relief.
She accompanied Gabriel to retrieve his belongings. He didn't need help -- everything he owned here fit into one bag -- but she took the opportunity to say, "You don't need to be scared. You're coming home."
His mouth trembled, and she took the risk of putting her hand on his forearm.
Gabriel said, "Discovery is my counterpart's ship. 'Home' was the Buran."
Kat stepped back.
"I know," she said. "I'm sorry."
A spasm of rage crossed his face. Then she blinked, and it was gone, replaced with his apparently habitual half-smirk, and Kat found herself wondering if she had imagined it.
He slung his bag over his shoulder and said, "Let's go."
Gabriel took the stairs two at a time, leaving Kat trailing in his wake, almost running to keep up. Not, she thought, because he was eager to leave.
He just didn't want her to see his face.
To her surprise, Stonn waited for them in the entrance chamber. Gabriel clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Look after the kids for me?"
"Of course, Gabriel. T'Pring will join them shortly."
It was icy cold outside, but the sky was a clear, pale blue. The only evidence of the storm was the deep puddles and the fresh damage to the crumbling rocks.
"Ready?" Kat asked Gabriel as Saru opened his communicator.
He said nothing, but his jaw was clenched.
"Discovery," said Saru, "lock onto our signals. Five to beam up."
They materialised in Discovery's main transporter room, and Kat heard Gabriel release a breath as he looked up, letting the bright lights shine on his face.
His shoulders didn't relax. But a smile touched his lips for a moment.
Captain Una was waiting for them; she stepped forward, hand outstretched.
"Welcome back, Captain Lorca," she said.
He froze for a moment, then recovered and shook her hand.
"Proper lighting," he said. "I missed that."
Kat hung back, letting Una take the lead here.
"You've been away a long time," Una said. "Commander Burnham will escort you to sickbay for a full physical, then show you to your quarters."
Gabriel threw a look over his shoulder as Michael led him away, but Kat couldn't read his expression.
Saru was ordered to oversee the transfer of supplies to the rebels, and Lirenntin joined him.
Kat needed to speak to Una, to bring her up to speed on everything that had happened planetside, but first -- she looked down at her dusty uniform and said, "I'm going to shower. Captain, your ready room, thirty minutes."
She had a headache by the time she was dressed again. The raktajino was beginning to wear off. She took an analgesic and, when Una offered her coffee, she requested herbal tea instead.
Then they got down to business. The rebels and the Romulans.
"Given the intensity of the mind meld," said Una, "do you think Sarek has learned of the spore drive?"
"I'd be surprised if he didn't," Kat admitted. "But he probably knew of it already from Michael."
"He may reveal it to others."
"It's a risk we have to live with. Michael has more technical knowledge than I do."
"True." Una sipped her coffee, frowning slightly. "Perhaps we could come to an arrangement with Sarek."
"He's badly injured. Disabled. We could offer medical treatment -- better prosthetics, for example -- in exchange for his silence."
Una raised her eyebrows. "You dislike the idea?"
"I'd feel like we're taking advantage of his condition."
"If ever there was a time to be pragmatic, Admiral--"
"I know. I'll consider it."
"On the subject of pragmatism," Una said, "what will you do with our Terran guests?"
"I don't know." Kat sighed. "Throw them in the inquisitor's cruiser, set course for Terran space, and see who's alive when they get there."
"Have you considered offering the emperor to the Romulans?"
"What are you thinking?"
"That destabilising the Empire -- by supporting both the rebels and a fresh bid for power from Georgiou, for example -- would serve their interests. And ours."
Lessening the likelihood of Terran incursions into the Federation. Kat liked it, but--
"I'd sooner just wipe every mention of our universe from Imperial computers," she said.
She was being facetious -- mostly -- but Una nodded and said, "I imagine it's within Commander Burnham and Ensign Tilly's capabilities, provided we can gain access to the Imperial networks. I'll give orders accordingly."
"Thank you, Una. I--" Kat was interrupted by a message from Dr Pollard: she had completed Gabriel's physical, and the results were available for perusal at Kat's leisure. "Excuse me," she murmured.
Dr Pollard reported that Gabriel was slightly underweight and, as Kat had guessed, suffering from a mild vitamin deficiency, along with the effects of inadequate light, and minor liver damage consistent with excessive alcohol consumption. He was otherwise in generally good health, considering the scar tissue and other evidence of old injuries and possible torture.
Kat had to put the PADD down for a moment, so that Captain Una wouldn't see that her knuckles were white.
Pollard was more concerned about his mental health, describing his demeanour as superficially polite, but showing signs of hypervigilance; he was extremely reluctant to relinquish his disruptor, and insisted on keeping his knives. The doctor's background was in emergency trauma medicine, not mental health; she recommended further observation.
The report held no surprises. But Dr Pollard's list of old injuries (eighty percent of right ear replaced by synthetic prosthetic -- patient reports phaser burn; seven shallow scars on back -- patient declined to explain; deep scar on left shoulder -- patient reports stabbing; multiple broken bones healed with regenerators calibrated for alien tissue) was chilling.
It was the scars, Kat decided. Standard practice in the Federation was to heal injuries and erase scar tissue wherever possible. Where people had scars -- like Discovery's helm officer -- they were usually neat, precise, surgical. She could still remember the shock she had felt, seeing the rough geometric scars on the other Lorca's back. For a Federation officer, a starship captain, to have old injuries that were visible to the naked eye--
On the other hand, she thought, she had been tortured for a month, and all she had to show for it were nightmares and a spinal implant. She didn't want to carry a permanent reminder of what she had endured, but still felt strange, to look at her nude body and see that it was exactly the same as before.
Captain Una interrupted her reverie, saying, "I've assigned Captain Lorca to guest quarters on deck six. Close to you, and as far as possible from Georgiou."
"Good thinking," said Kat. "Thank you, Captain, I--"
She was cut off by a klaxon. Red alert. She and Una exchanged a look and, as one, stood up and walked onto the bridge.
"Report," said Una, taking her chair.
"Captain, the Terran inquisitor has escaped from the brig," said Owosekun.
"How?" Kat demanded.
"Locate her and lock that section down," Una ordered.
"We're trying, Captain, but--" Owosekun didn't take her eyes off her board. "She had a four minute lead, and she's in the Jefferies tube. Or -- she was--" An alert flared. "Update -- the medical station on deck ten has been raided."
"Cornwell?" Una asked. "Is she injured?"
"No," said Gabriel, stepping onto the bridge, "she's arming herself."
He looked around, and Kat knew he was taking everything in: Michael, claiming her station; the crew, pretending they weren't shooting him curious glances; Una in her chair and Kat beside her.
"Sensors will detect phaser fire," he said, "but Kate can do plenty of damage with nothing but a hypospray. Owosekun, where's she going?"
"Towards the bridge," said Owosekun.
"Lock it down, Lieutenant Airiam," said Una.
Kat had moved to the tactical station and pulled up the ship's schematics.
"No," she said, tracing the trail of drugged and injured officers. "She's headed for deck seven."
"Philippa," said Michael. "She'll kill her. Or vice versa."
Una said, "Lieutenant Owosekun--"
"Directing security to guest quarters, deck seven, aye, Captain."
"Captain," Lieutenant Airiam's voice was urgent, "transporter activity detected in Georgiou's quarters."
"They beamed down to the planet?" Michael asked. "That's suicide!"
"No," said Airiam. "The shuttlebay."
"Her ship," said Kat. "They're gonna signal the Empire." She turned to Airiam. "I need a site to site transport, now."
"Admiral," said Una, "I can't let you endanger yourself."
"You can't stop me."
"Admiral." Michael retrieved three phasers from the aft weapons locker. She passed one to Kat, another to Gabriel.
"Good," said Kat. "Lieutenant Airiam--"
"Just don't get yourself killed," Gabriel said as they prepared for transport.
"Just don't you forget which of us is which."
The transporter took hold of them.
They materialised on the edge of a chaotic scene: the emperor and the inquisitor, fighting back to back against four ragged security officers. All but one had been disarmed, Kat noted, probably, by the emperor, who had a kick like a--
Gabriel walked forward.
No, Kat thought. He sauntered.
He was facing the inquisitor, staying carefully in Georgiou's blind spot. The inquisitor froze when she saw him, so completely taken aback by his presence that he was able to grab her by the shoulders and shove her -- hard -- at Lieutenant Kuznetzov.
It took less than five seconds, and she was no sooner out of his arms than he had advanced on Georgiou, knives in hand.
"Computer," he said softly, "lights to one hundred and fifty percent."
It was bright enough that Kat had to squint, and the inquisitor, arms now restrained, dropped her head so her hair shielded her tightly closed eyes.
Georgiou's eyes were closed, too, but it made little difference to the accuracy of her kicks. She had prepared for this tactic, Kat realised.
But she was a fraction slower than before. And she didn't sense Gabriel coming up behind her.
He dropped to the ground and severed her left Achilles tendon.
Less than fifteen seconds from beam-in to restraint.
Georgiou went down, but she was still a threat, putting her weight on her knee to kick out behind herself.
The security officer managed to restrain her hands. Another pushed Georgiou onto her back and crouched, knee on her chest.
That's it, Kat thought.
Then Gabriel severed Georgiou's second Achilles.
Kat heard Michael's gasp of horror, but she couldn't take her eyes off Gabriel.
He straightened up and turned to the inquisitor, still restrained by Lieutenant Kuznetzov. He looked her up and down, taking in her messy hair and bloodstained clothes.
He reached out to cup her cheek. She closed her eyes.
"Hi, Kate," he said.
Discovery's crew were well trained, and didn't need an admiral to tell them what to do next. Restrain Georgiou and transport her to sickbay. Disarm the inquisitor, whose attention was wholly fixed on Gabriel, as if she had forgotten there was anyone else around.
It appeared to be mutual.
Kat swallowed the urge to apologise for interrupting, and instead opened with, "Did you get a message out?"
Her counterpart blinked in surprise and turned to look at her.
"No," she said. "But you won't believe me, and you'll turn my cruiser upside down until you figure out that I'm telling the truth." She smiled. Terrans smiled often, Kat had noticed, and rarely because they were happy. "Go ahead. I don't mind."
"Get her back to the brig," Kat told Lieutenant Kuznetzov. "Increase security. How'd she escape?"
"She claimed to be ill, Admiral," said Kuznetzov. He looked ashamed.
"Going forward, if she so much as looks uncomfortable, flood the cell with anesthezine gas and transport her to sickbay when she's passed out."
As the inquisitor was led away, Michael said, "Excuse me, Captain. Your knife."
Gabriel held it out to her, but his grip was so tight she had to peel his fingers off the hilt, careful to avoid contact with the sharp, bloody blade.
Kat realised several crew were watching them. Watching Gabriel. She saw a lieutenant lean across and mutter something to her companion as they prepared to clean up the trail of Georgiou's blood. She could guess the gist: Did we get the right Lorca? This one's as bad as the imposter.
"Gabriel," said Kat. "Come with me."
He let her lead him out of the shuttlebay and down to the armoury, but he baulked when Kat tried to take his phaser.
"Please," he said.
"No. Let me have your knives."
He held his arms out, and kept still as Kat undid the wrist sheaths. When she looked at his face, she saw his jaw was clenched.
"Easy," she murmured. She had planned to make him remove the knives in his boots for her, but -- no. Simplest to do it herself. She passed the lot to Burnham who locked them away as per regulations.
Gabriel remained tense.
"I'm sorry," said Kat quietly. Could she risk putting her hand on his shoulder? Better not to. "You're quite safe on Discovery."
"I promise," she settled for taking his hand and squeezing it, "if you need weapons, you'll have them. I won't let you go into danger unarmed."
"I apologise, Captain," said Michael. "I should have realised you'd find it difficult to confront the inquisitor."
Gabriel pulled his hand out from Kat's. "I want to see her," he said.
"Okay," said Kat, and both Michael and Gabriel looked at her in surprise. "Tomorrow," she added. "You need to rest. Commander Burnham will escort you tomorrow morning."
"Lucky her," Gabriel muttered. "Kat, I'm fine, I just--"
"You severed both Georgiou's Achilles tendons," said Kat, and a part of her marvelled at how even her voice was. "Does that strike you as a reasonable use of force?"
"The emperor is the most dangerous human I've ever met," said Gabriel. "She needed to be disabled." He added, "I could have killed her."
"I know," said Kat. "If any other officer had done what you did, I'd be furious."
"I don't want your pity, Kat."
He turned to Michael and said, "Commander, will you show me to my quarters?"
Michael glanced at Kat, who nodded, and said, "Certainly, Captain."
They left Kat alone.
She pulled a phaser rifle from the rack and set it to simulation. Activated the target range, took aim and fired.
The target registered a perfect shot, but simulated phaser fire directed at holograms wasn't what Kat needed.
She thought, Terrans probably use slaves for target practice.
She shot again. And again. And again.
She had never been much of a shot before the war. Just good enough to get all the certifications she needed. Competent enough that she wouldn't get people killed. Until Cancri IV, when she drew her phaser too slowly and hesitated to fire--
She was better now. Her reflexes were faster. Her aim had improved.
But she had no knife skills. Tactical knives were standard on away missions, but she'd only ever used one as a tool, not a weapon. Her fight with L'Rell on the Ship of the Dead was her very first knife fight, and she had finished up with her head being slammed into a power conduit.
She wondered how much force it would take to slice through boots and skin and the thickest, strongest tendon in the human body. Dispassionately, without anger. Violence, executed with surgical precision.
She was angry, she admitted. At Gabriel, at herself, at Burnham. At the inquisitor. At every officer who had witnessed that scene, who saw but didn't understand what was happening there.
And now rumours would spread, and it wouldn't just be his counterpart's actions that Gabriel had to live down, but his own.
She cancelled the simulation, deactivated the phaser and returned it to the rack. Now that she could put her anger into words, she could move past it and do her job.
Starting with finding out how her counterpart escaped, and just how much damage she did before she was captured.
Lieutenant Kuznetzov's briefing set it out in bald terms. At 1533, the inquisitor called for assistance, claiming to have a migraine from the bright lights. Two of the three guards went in to assist her, both armed, one carrying a medkit.
Kat watched the security footage several times. The inquisitor uncurled from her foetal position, grabbed the hypospray from the guard, injected her with a massive analgesic overdose and took her phaser so fast, the feed had to be played at half-speed to capture everything.
The second guard had his throat cut with a microscalpel.
The third guard was just drawing her weapon when the inquisitor emerged and shot her in the head.
That was when the alarm was sounded.
The inquisitor went straight for the Jefferies tube, and resurfaced on deck ten. Here she raided the medical station, combining the standard emergency medications -- painkillers, sedatives, a basic stimulant -- into a dangerous cocktail that would incapacitate a human, and do some damage to most other humanoids as well.
The first person to suffer the effects of this concoction was a junior engineer who stumbled across the inquisitor as she accessed the computer.
The second was a science officer who tried to intercept her as she made her way to Georgiou's quarters.
Both were in sickbay, in induced comas while the doctors tried to reverse the damage to their systems.
The inquisitor spent less than two minutes in Georgiou's quarters. Kat couldn't imagine what she said to persuade the emperor to trust her, but maybe it was as simple as self-interest. Let's put our differences aside long enough to escape, then we'll get back to killing each other.
Whatever the inquisitor said, the two Terrans beamed to the shuttlebay and made for the inquisitor's cruiser, only to be intercepted by Discovery security and then Gabriel.
Kat stopped playback before Gabriel reached the inquisitor.
"Engineering has confirmed the inquisitor didn't send a message," said Captain Una. "And sickbay reports the emperor will be back on her feet in twenty-four hours. I've given orders that she's to be sent to the brig upon release from sickbay."
"As long as she's kept away from the inquisitor."
"Commander Burnham has asked permission to sit with her."
Oh, Michael. Gabriel wasn't the only one with a complex relationship with a Terran.
She said, "That's up to you, Captain."
Kat turned down Captain Una's invitation to dinner in her personal dining room, and settled in for the evening with a pile of paperwork in her quarters. If there was an advantage to being in a parallel universe, she figured, it was the opportunity to catch up on all the reports she had only ever had time to skim before.
Michael sent a message at 2000, saying that she and Ensign Tilly had joined Captain Lorca and Lirenntin for a meal in the mess hall, and the captain seemed preoccupied but otherwise well. Kat spent a pleasant few minutes trying to picture Gabriel and Tilly in conversation.
"Dr Pollard to Admiral Cornwell."
It was a relief to set dilithium consumption reports aside.
"Admiral, do you have a moment to talk?"
She activated her viewscreen.
"What do you need, Doctor?"
Pollard looked tired and worried.
"Did you experience any physical effects of the trip through the gateway, Admiral?" she asked.
"Pressure in my head," said Kat. "Like my brain was trying to leak out of my ears."
"But you could ignore it?"
"You're about to give me some bad news, aren't you?"
"Only potentially bad, Admiral."
Kat sighed. "Hit me."
"The journey through the gateway had a physical effect on the human brain. It's almost imperceptible, and I don't foresee any long-term health issues." Pollard tapped a control, and a series of scans appeared on Kat's monitor. "Then I examined Captain Lorca. He's been through the gateway twice."
More files arrived: the results of Dr Pollard's scans that afternoon, and, for comparison, the results of his last physical on the Buran.
"The effect is cumulative," said Kat.
"Exponentially. I haven't had a chance to examine your counterpart closely, but going by preliminary scans, it looks like she's suffered similar damage."
"And a third trip?"
"It probably won't kill him," said Pollard.
Probably? She hadn't come all this way just to have Gabriel die on the return journey.
"Can the damage be repaired?"
"Discovery doesn't have the facilities -- and, to be honest, Admiral, no one on our medical staff has the skills -- but yes. I'm going to recommend treatment for all the humans on board."
"Have you discussed this with Captain Lorca?" Kat asked.
"Of course, Admiral." The doctor hesitated. "He … took the news well, but didn't ask any questions."
"That sounds like him."
"Dr O'Connor and I have some ideas for ensuring his comfort on the return journey."
"Good." Kat went through the scan results again. "The non-human crew--"
"Entirely unaffected. Even the Kelpien boy."
"Good. Thank you for your report, Doctor. Cornwell out."
She got up. Walked around her quarters and took five minutes to stretch. Then replicated a glass of whiskey -- synthetic and unsatisfying -- and sat down to take a good, long look at Dr Pollard's test results.
The damage was almost entirely asymptomatic, she concluded eventually. Gabriel probably suffered from chronic headaches and occasional dizziness -- it was too much to hope that he'd report his symptoms to the doctor, but that wasn't trauma, just stubbornness and a horror of being coddled -- but there was no cognitive impairment.
Pity, she thought before she could stop herself. That was the sort of evidence that could sway a board of inquiry.
Sickening idea. On multiple levels.
Her counterpart would probably approve.
Kat sipped her drink, but it had a bitter, chemical aftertaste.
She closed the scan results and turned to the intelligence gleaned from Discovery's previous visit to this universe. The USS Defiant.
Now the inquisitor's ship.
Their intelligence on the Defiant was piecemeal. But Gabriel, she thought, had lived on board. Been a part of its crew.
She could do something with that.
Her bones ached, and her head. It had been a long day.
This time, she didn't need a sedative to fall asleep quickly.
"--to Admiral Cornwell."
She lay on her stomach, wrapped up in blankets, and it took a moment for Lieutenant Kuznetzov's voice to penetrate.
"Kuznetzov to Admiral Cornwell."
This time she was already sitting up before he had finished speaking. Shit. Another disaster.
"Admiral, Captain Lorca insisted on seeing the inquisitor. He's with her now."
"Yes, Admiral. He wouldn't be turned away."
She activated the brig's visual feed. Gabriel and the inquisitor were standing in silence, watching each other. Gabriel had changed into standard issue Starfleet sweats. His fists were clenched.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Kat said. "I'll monitor the situation from here."
She closed the channel and expanded the visual display until she could see every minute expression on their faces.
Eventually, the inquisitor said, "You lied to me."
"I hope you're not waiting for me to apologise."
Kat smiled. So did the inquisitor.
"You weren't completely honest, either, Kate," said Gabriel, advancing on her cell. "You told me I had the only copy of the gateway information."
"No," said the inquisitor, "I said there were no copies in any computer databases. Mine was stored elsewhere."
"Did you kill the scientists, too?"
"You gonna lecture me about morality?" the inquisitor asked. Her eyes crinkled at the corners. "I've missed that."
"Liar." Gabriel sounded affectionate.
"Thief. I didn't give L'Rell her freedom for you to turn her into a rebel."
He laughed. "L'Rell makes her own choices."
"She was content, until you came along."
"I didn't do a damn thing to change her mind."
"Can I see her?"
"If she wants."
They were standing close enough that, if not for the force field between them, they would have been touching.
"Did you kill Kodos?" the inquisitor asked.
Gabriel didn't answer. She chuckled.
"Good," she said. "I had no idea, by the way. I thought it was an accident." In a playful whisper, she added, "Don't tell anyone. I have my reputation to think of."
"Funny. I spent the next few months looking over my shoulder."
"There was no need. You did good work."
"You trained me well."
He reached for her, but his fingers grazed the force field and he pulled back.
The inquisitor said, "I don't suppose I can persuade you to let me out?"
Gabriel laughed. So did she.
In her quarters, cold and barefoot, Kat exhaled.
"Worth a shot, though," she said.
"I think," said Gabriel, "I have you right where I want you."
"Is this revenge?"
"No. Maybe. I walk around this ship, and this crew, they look at me like I'm a monster."
"They did meet your counterpart. He had that effect on people."
"No. Me." He leaned his arm against the cell's outer bulkhead. "I'm going home, but I'm taking a piece of you with me."
"Good. You should have left sixteen months ago, instead of hanging around, undermining my Empire."
"Oh, it's your Empire now, is it?"
"Someone has to protect it." She raised her hand, and the force field sizzled as she reached for him, pressing her fingers against the field until the plasma intensified and she had to snatch them away. "Don't worry," she said. "Your Admiral Kat will look after you."
Gabriel said, "Kate, she can barely look at me."
"Then she's weak. Not to mention stupid, wasting an asset like you. She should give you a ship. A fleet."
"I don't see that happening any time soon."
Gabriel looked around, apparently for a chair. Seeing none, he eased himself to the deck, moving like he was in pain. The inquisitor followed, curling up on her side.
Kat closed her eyes.
"She took my weapons," Gabriel said at last.
"You're on a Federation ship," said the inquisitor. "Weren't you always telling me how safe they are? Who would attack you here?" She gave him a sleepy smile. "Except Pippa, of course. She's a bit pissed off."
"We have an understanding. For now."
Gabriel sounded as delighted by this prospect as Kat was.
"Gabriel," said the inquisitor, "you don't need weapons. Remember Kuznetzov? You are a weapon."
Gabriel closed his eyes and smiled.
"Thank you," he said.
They were quiet for a long time. Kat began to wonder if they had fallen asleep.
Then the inquisitor stirred and said, "Gabriel?"
"I wish you had stayed with me. I think we could have been happy."
"With our cute Terran kids?"
"And our cute Terran dog," said the inquisitor.
Silence fell again.
Eventually, Gabriel said, "Kat."
"What about her?"
"She didn't notice I'd been replaced. No one did."
"I thought that -- if anyone would see -- but I have a big family, Kate. I thought we were close."
"People," said the inquisitor, "will always disappoint you." She sat up. "What will the admiral do to me?"
"I'm not sure," said Gabriel. "I don't think I know her anymore."
"Because you've changed? Or her?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "I should go."
"Yeah," the inquisitor said. "You should."
Kat watched, stomach churning, as they climbed to their feet and prepared to part. They lingered.
"I missed you," said Gabriel softly.
The inquisitor looked down.
She said, "I wish to God I hadn't taught you to lie."
Gabriel walked away.
Kat closed the feed, wishing she hadn't watched this. That she had delegated it to Una or Burnham or Saru.
But she had made her choice. And with it came the consequences. The responsibility.
Gabriel's quarters were close to hers, and her command codes overrode his locks. When he returned, she was sitting on his couch in the dark.
He paused in the doorway when he saw her, then came in, letting the doors close behind him.
"You watched the security feeds," he said.
"Kate likes to give the impression she's omnipotent. It's really just extensive surveillance and a good memory."
"Oh, well," said Kat, "anyone could do it."
"From what I hear, you're running Starfleet more or less singlehanded."
"That's … slightly exaggerated."
"Mm." He retrieved one of the bottles from his kit bag. "Drink?"
What the hell. "Sure."
He poured her a shot of viscous brown liquid. It smelled like fermented fish oil.
"It's called kanar," he said. "It's an acquired taste." He took a sip, swallowed and added, "Helps to be desperate, of course."
It tasted like rancid tuna mixed with soy sauce. But it burned nicely on the way down.
Gabriel laughed at her face.
"I'm told that the people who make it had an ancient and beautiful culture until my counterpart came along and conquered them. Drinking that -- well, I have doubts." He had another swallow, then added, "Of course, it might be an elaborate joke at my expense. Helps me sleep, though."
"I'm beginning to understand the state of your liver," said Kat.
It was the wrong thing to say.
Gabriel looked down, swirling his drink, jaw set.
"Funny thing," he said, "the rebels live in tight spaces. Small ships. I've shared beds with L'Rell and Voq. Showers, too, come to that. But I had my privacy. Why are you here, Kat?"
"I didn't think you should be alone after that conversation." She hesitated. "I was worried about you."
He sat down beside her, lowering himself with a grunt of pain.
"It's funny," he said. "I didn't think I'd see either of you again. Let alone on the same ship. But here we all are." He tried for a smile, but his expression crumbled, and he swallowed his drink instead.
"I should go," said Kat, starting to rise.
Gabriel grabbed her hand.
"Stay," he said.
"I missed you," he said, his fingers tangling with hers. "Kate and I have a … complicated relationship. But you..."
She should have pulled away. Instead, she leaned in a fraction closer.
"I've missed you, too," she said. She reached out and cupped his cheek, letting her thumb graze his scar.
He closed his eyes, smiling.
"I like your beard," Kat said. "It makes you look distinguished."
"Like a distinguished pirate, maybe." Gabriel was stroking the base of her thumb. He said, "Do you remember the night we watched the Perseids?"
Kat smiled. "Do you?"
"I didn't drink that much." He moved in. "I remember," he said, "waking up with you the next morning, and thinking how right that felt."
His lips met hers, his beard soft on her skin. His free hand moved to the back of her head, bringing her closer.
"Gabriel," she murmured.
"'S funny." His breath was hot. "You kiss like she does."
Kat stopped, opening her eyes, but Gabriel held her in place.
--he kissed her too hard, holding her against him, and it was almost impersonal, the way he looked at her, as if she was a stranger he didn't care to get to know--
She froze and pulled away.
"This is a bad idea," she said.
"Going to bed with you--" And God, she wanted to. Even now, with her heart pounding and all her pent-up rage at the other Lorca. "It would unethical. I can't do that to you."
"If that's your only objection--"
His expression had become closed again, and he wouldn't meet her eyes.
He said, "I'm pretty damn tired of having decisions made for me."
"I'm sorry," said Kat.
"Yeah. I know." He picked up his drink, drained it, then reached for hers. "You're so damn apologetic. You didn't notice for over a year that I'd been replaced, but it's okay, Katrina, you feel really bad about it."
"You know why Terrans don't apologise? Because it's never enough. It's actions that count, not words. Well, I'm sorry you were a PoW for a whole month, I'm sorry you had to make hard choices and live with them. I'm really sorry you're tired and guilty and living with your own fuck ups." He stood up, staring out the window, her glass in his hand. "Mostly," he said, "I'm sorry you came back for me."
Kat said, "You don't get to speak to me like that, Captain Lorca."
"Fuck you, Gabriel." She stalked over to the door and turned to face him again. "You're disappointed in me? Good. It's mutual. If the psych evals clear you, I'll have you charged with desertion. Your career will amount to nothing more than rumours of the captain who murdered one crew and betrayed another."
Now he was afraid. He said, "Kat, please--"
She forced herself to breathe. Slow exhale. It wasn't just Gabriel -- this Gabriel -- she was angry at. Rage would make her cruel, if she let it.
She said, "I'm calling a briefing for 0800. I expect you in uniform, Captain Lorca."
She left him.
Gabriel presented himself at the briefing room at 0757, uniform perfect, hair and beard neatly trimmed. A picture-perfect Starfleet officer, provided you didn't look at his eyes.
When everyone -- Gabriel, Una, Michael, Saru -- was assembled, Kat said, "Good morning, all. It's time to discuss--"
She was interrupted by a hail from the bridge.
"Captain Una," said Bryce, "a rebel ship has dropped out of warp."
"Have they seen us?" Una asked.
"No. As far as our sensors can tell, they're preparing to land at the base."
"L'Rell and Voq," said Gabriel when the channel was closed.
Kat said, "Change of plans. Captain Lorca, Commanders Saru and Burnham, we'll beam down to the surface in thirty minutes. Commander Saru, please bring Lirenntin."
"Weapons, Admiral?" Michael asked.
"At least carry a phaser," Gabriel added.
"Fine," said Kat. "Saru, Burnham, tactical vests and weapons. Captain Lorca, you and I will have phasers, no vests." Before Gabriel -- or Una -- could argue, she held her hand up. "We're not here to wage war."
No one looked happy about this instruction. But no one argued, either.
The briefing was dismissed, but as the others dispersed to prepare for the landing party, Gabriel stayed behind.
When they were alone, he said, "Admiral, I owe you an apology."
"Yes," said Kat. "You do."
"I--" A muscle in his cheek twitched. "It's difficult," he said finally.
"I've forgotten what it's like. To have … someone watching out for me. I'm not used to trusting people. Even you. And feeling like I'm not in control, it--" He looked down. "I get angry."
He said, "I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm sorry."
"Thank you," said Kat. "I accept your apology." She stared at her hands. "I'm struggling, too. I don't have the detachment to be a good commanding officer to you, or anything like a therapist. But I can't be your friend, let alone your lover."
"Because of Kate."
"Among other things."
She considered explaining about his counterpart, how he had left her sick and confused and second guessing herself even before she was captured by the Klingons. And then she found out who he really was, and -- now, when she wanted company, she looked for willing strangers. Civilians who didn't recognise her. No promises, no commitments, no lies.
She kept her mouth shut. It wasn't his problem.
Instead, she said, "You get any sleep last night?"
"A little. You?"
"Couple of hours."
His gaze was distant as he said, "Kate could sleep like the dead. I used to tease her about it. Clear conscience, or none at all."
She didn't want to talk about Kate. She said, "Tell me about L'Rell."
Gabriel's smile was genuine. "She's like a sister. A little sister who can break me in half, mind." More seriously, he said, "Seeing you might be difficult for her."
"Because she was my counterpart's slave."
It always came back to the inquisitor.
"Did she hate her?"
"No," he said. "It didn't cross our minds. Hating her was never an option. Of the three of us, I don't know who was more surprised when Kate set L'Rell free."
"I assumed you ran away with her."
"No. No, Kate -- she -- it was complicated."
They needed to visit the armoury before beaming down. Kat tried, and failed, to think of something innocuous to talk about in the turbolift.
Gabriel said, "She freed fifteen slaves, all up."
"It's a lot, by Terran standards. What she did to me -- it went both ways."
Kat stared straight ahead, and said nothing.
In the armoury, they were each allocated a phaser and a standard issue tactical knife. Gabriel hefted his, frowning, but slipped it into his boot without complaint.
"It was L'Rell who taught me to fight with knives," he said as they headed for the transporter room. "She'll laugh if she finds out I'm only carrying one."
"I can imagine," said Kat.
Gabriel raised his eyebrows. "You know her?"
"She was sent to interrogate me when I was a PoW. Told me she wanted to defect, but it was just a ploy to get to a spy she'd embedded on Discovery." Kat smiled. "Now she's the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council. And a friend. I think."
He grinned, and she caught a glimpse of the old Gabriel.
"Good for her," he said.
The rest of the landing party -- plus Lirenntin -- was assembled in the transporter room. They beamed down to a landing site directly outside the fortress.
Kat let Gabriel take the lead, and he marched in like he owned the place.
They were no sooner inside than a familiar voice bellowed, "Lorca!"
And there was L'Rell, descending the stairs two at a time and striding across the hall towards them.
"You were right!" she was saying, "It was better than we could have dreamed -- and worse, too. How can we free four hundred slaves? Voq said we should abandon them, and I almost challenged him then and there -- but now we return to find your Federation is--"
She finally saw Kat, and all her vivacity faded away. She slowed, standing straighter and stiffer.
"--here," she finished softly.
"L'Rell, this is Admiral Cornwell," said Gabriel.
"My Kat, yeah." His hand was on L'Rell's arm, like a protective older brother. "She's here to bring me home."
"It's an honour to meet you, L'Rell," said Kat.
"Likewise. Forgive me, Admiral, the shock of seeing your face--"
She couldn't imagine Chancellor L'Rell of the Klingon Empire ever begging for forgiveness.
"I completely understand," Kat said.
L'Rell finally turned her attention to the rest of the landing party, greeting Saru with delight as he was introduced.
"Terrans allow some aliens to serve," she said, "if they're not too different. But one of your kind--"
"I fear I'm the only Kelpien in Starfleet," Saru admitted.
"I'm going to be the second!" said Lirenntin. "Uh. Hi, L'Rell. I … came back."
"You got caught." L'Rell sounded resigned, but she looked Lirenntin up and down and nodded with approval. "Good. I thought you had courage."
"That's the other reason Kat's here," said Gabriel. "The Federation's noticed our little underground railroad. So have the Terrans. Admiral Cornwell has Kate on her ship."
L'Rell recoiled. "The inquisitor? Here?"
"In our brig," said Kat. "Under guard." She looked around. The hall was crowded with rebels, most making no effort to disguise their curiosity about the landing party. "Is there somewhere we can talk privately?"
"Sarek's rooms. Voq's there already."
Kat saw Michael brace herself as they made their way through the corridors. Saru squeezed her shoulder.
"I'm fine, Saru," said Michael.
"Nevertheless. I'm here for you."
Ahead of them, L'Rell was exclaiming in delight over the Federation uniforms.
"So much gold!" she said. "And shinier than a Terran breastplate! Is it something innate to human biology, perhaps, this attraction to sparkly things?"
"So that wasn't you eyeing off the armour with jewelled shoulderguards on Kellis Prime?"
"And the colour! It brings out your pretty blue eyes!"
Gabriel looked away, smiling. But L'Rell, Kat noticed, kept her gaze on him as they entered the turbolift, and her expression when he wasn't watching was one of deep concern.
"Are you well?" L'Rell asked quietly.
"Just fine," said Gabriel. "Same as always."
"That's what concerns me."
Gabriel's jaw twitched. "Let's not do this here."
"As you like."
The doors opened and they emerged into Sarek's rooms.
Kat had only met Voq after his transformation into "Ash Tyler". As a Klingon, he was taller, broader. "Tyler" wasn't a slight man, but Kat had never seen him at his best; the impression she had was of a tall, slim human driven by fear and shame to make himself smaller.
Voq, she realised as he rose to his feet, had presence. A solidity and charisma she had never seen in Tyler.
He, too, had been grievously injured in the evacuation of Harlak. One arm and both legs were replaced by prosthetics, and unlike Sarek's, these were not disguised to look like natural limbs. Metal bones were visible beneath polymer muscles and tendons, and the fingers of his artificial hand ended in sharp claws. They flexed as he recognised Michael.
"Captain Burnham," he said.
She raised her chin. "Commander. Actually."
"Master Sarek says he was right. That you were no traitor."
"I didn't betray you," said Michael, "but I also didn't anticipate that the emperor would attack Harlak herself. I failed you. I'm sorry."
Voq merely huffed, not rejecting the apology, but not accepting it, either.
"Gabriel," he said, effectively dismissing Michael from his notice, "I returned to find Kol dead, amidst rumours that he was Terran spy."
"Shame," said Gabriel, sitting down, motioning for the others to join him. "You know how much I liked him."
"His supporters have given me their allegiance."
"Good for them."
Voq gave him a long look, but said nothing.
Gabriel leaned back, crossed his legs and said, "So what's this about four hundred slaves?"
Voq growled. "I told you to forget them, L'Rell," he said.
"And I told you I'd sooner forget my own mother." L'Rell turned, not to Gabriel, but to Kat. "After we freed the children from the slave ship, we found intelligence suggesting that some of their parents were still at Terran Outpost Four."
"And were they?" Kat asked.
"Some. And with them, nearly four hundred others."
"We don't have the resources to attack a Terran base," said Voq. "Nor do we have any way of separating the parents from the rest."
"No one will be separated," said L'Rell. "And no one will be left behind."
Sarek said, "I understand you are quite emotional about slavery--"
He was cut off by L'Rell's fist striking the table.
"I'll show you emotional, Vulcan," she snarled.
"Even if we had any chance of successfully attacking a Terran base," said T'Pring, "we don't have the resources to accommodate that many slaves."
"Experience tells us that few will be able or willing to fight," added Stonn. "Are we to turn the useless ones over to the Romulans?"
"The Romulans are little better than the Terrans," said L'Rell. "As for uselessness--"
"Enough," said Voq. "Gabriel's impetuous choices caused this problem. Let him -- and his Federation fix it."
Kat thought, Impetuous? Gabriel?
Severing Georgiou's tendons, even after she was effectively disabled. Planting seeds of doubt among Kol's followers on a whim. He let a teenager join a boarding party, for Christ's sake.
This universe had changed him. Exacerbated traits he had always possessed. He had learned new skills, and let old ones atrophy.
The Gabriel she had known was gone. Changed beyond recognition, maybe forever. She had known, she just hadn't wanted to admit it.
Time to stop looking at Gabriel and seeing a flawed version of her friend. She needed to deal with the man in front of her now. Take him as he was, and stop judging him against an idealised past self.
Compartmentalise, she told herself. You used to be good at it.
When had she lost that skill? Probably around the time Kol's goons started breaking her bones.
While Kat was distracted, L'Rell had pulled up a rotating holographic diagram. A small starbase, identical to any in the Federation but for the Terran insignia it bore. And -- L'Rell zoomed in -- the photon torpedo launchers and phaser turrets.
"Outpost Four," L'Rell said. "Every slave in the sector passes through for processing. It can hold a thousand slaves if trade is busy."
"And yet, according to your reconnaissance, it holds less than half that number," said Sarek.
"Trade's slowed down in the last six months," said Gabriel. "Political instability. Slave revolts. Runaways apparently disappearing without a trace. Terrans are nervous, and they're hoarding their assets."
"One might almost think someone was deliberately disrupting the Terran slave industry," said T'Pring.
"One might," Gabriel agreed.
"And Imperial Command has cancelled all slave transfers until further notice," said L'Rell. "'Investigations are pending', my intelligence says."
Investigations, thought Kat, like her counterpart's little jaunt to the Federation side.
"This slowing of trade," she said, "does that mean their defences will be relaxed?"
"Admiral," said Saru, "you cannot possibly be thinking--"
Kat held her hand up to silence him.
"I'm not thinking anything," she lied. "I need more information before I can make a decision."
"Officially, the station's defence systems are operating at full capacity," said L'Rell. "But it, too, relies on slave labour."
Kat rested her hand on her chin and watched the hologram rotate.
Four hundred slaves. Plus however many were permanently assigned to the starbase. Two hundred and fifty, according to a read-out displayed in English and several alien languages.
"Admiral Cornwell," said Michael, "even if Discovery could take out a Terran starbase, even if we set up beds in every cargo and shuttle bay and billeted people in quarters, we still wouldn't have room for six hundred and fifty refugees."
"No," said Kat. "We don't."
"And the rebels can't spare the resources to assist you," said Sarek.
Voq added, "L'Rell's principles are honourable, but I've learned to temper idealism with pragmatism."
"And you'll have no help from the Romulans," Gabriel added.
Lirenntin, who had watched in silence up until now, said, "But if we could find a way to save them--"
"I'm sorry," said Saru. "I have no desire to leave anyone in Terran hands. If it were feasible to end slavery in the Empire all together, I'd argue that we should do so. But we're alone in this universe, and one ship cannot hope to make a difference."
"Not one," said Kat at last. "But what if we had two ships?"
Gabriel looked over at her. A smile played around his lips, and she realised that he knew what she was thinking. And he approved.
Impetuous? she thought, I'll show you impetuous.
"Captain Lorca's not the only one who has spent too long in the wrong universe," Kat said. "It's time to reclaim the USS Defiant for the Federation."
For the record, this is how I reacted when I first had the idea of Kat deciding to steal the Acheron/Defiant:
YES, technically I'm the one writing this and making all the choices. BUT STILL.
"You're out of your mind," said Gabriel.
"Sounds like you approve," Kat said.
They were looking down over the entrance hall, watching as the children prepared to be beamed up to Discovery, while T'Pring oversaw receipt of the latest supplies.
"I do," said Gabriel. "That's how I know it's a bad idea."
"You lived aboard the Defiant for almost a year. How well would you say you know its systems?"
"Between L'Rell and I, we can tell you everything you need to know. But, Admiral--"
"We lost too many ships in the war. An extra Constitution class vessel -- even a very old one--"
"Won't make that much of a difference. So, Kat -- Admiral -- what's your real motivation?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, and said, "There are torture chambers on a Federation starship. Slaves. I can't let that stand."
"Okay." He leaned against the railing. "Anything else?"
Kat exhaled slowly.
"I want to destroy the inquisitor," she said at last. "I want to leave her powerless and scared. No ship. No empire. Nothing." She stared at her hands. "I could -- I will -- justify it as strategic. Destabilise the Terran Empire so they can't even think of invading the Federation."
"But it's personal," said Gabriel.
Kat looked up at him. He was close enough that she could feel the warmth radiating from his body. Smell the standard issue soap he had used to shower with. And, beneath it, his skin.
"Intimately," she said.
"Do you want to kill her?"
It took her a few minutes to decide. Eventually, she said, "No."
"Good," said Gabriel. "I know she's a monster," he said, "but I -- I'm fond of her."
"You don't need to apologise for that," she said.
"I'm out of the habit, anyway."
He looked down at Stonn and T'Pring directing the movement of supplies and children, his face soft.
"It's weird," he said eventually, "being around you. I don't know how to talk to you without screwing it up."
"That's funny," said Kat. "I've been thinking I have the same problem."
"Oh, good. It's mutual."
"At risk of making it worse," she said, "I have to ask -- do you see me as Kate?"
"No," he said, a little too quickly. Then he added, "You're similar. The same, in some ways. Taste. Smell. Kissing you last night was confusing."
She bit back the apology on the edge of her tongue.
"You're both careful," he said. "Considered. At least, that's what I thought, right up until you decided to hijack the Acheron."
"Says the man a Klingon called impetuous."
"Yeah." Gabriel scratched his scar. "You know what it's like. You gotta make decisions in a second. Sometimes less."
Kat's breath caught in her throat. She took a step back, wishing he wasn't watching her so closely.
"I know that look," he said. "I saw it a lot on the faces of people my counterpart screwed over. Discovery's crew, for example." He reached for her, then stopped himself. "What did he do?"
Kat forced herself to smile. "Screwed me over," she said lightly. "Same as everyone else."
"Come on," she nodded at the now-empty entrance hall. "Go get L'Rell. I want to be briefed on the Defiant's systems and defences at 1700 hours."
Gabriel and L'Rell claimed a deck twelve conference room for their work. Saru ensured that the children were comfortably installed in the smaller of Discovery's cargo bays, now fitted out with camp beds, bathing facilities and food synthesisers. Dr Pollard was with Sarek, working out what she could do for his injuries. Georgiou was transported to the brig; Lieutenant Kuznetzov gave orders that, as far as the inquisitor was concerned, the former emperor was still in sickbay.
Satisfied that matters were proceeding smoothly, Kat claimed an unused laboratory for herself and started going through the USS Defiant's service logs.
She was interrupted after an hour. L'Rell entered, a PADD in her hand.
"A list of slaves we sent to the Federation," she said. "As best we remember."
"I'm almost scared to look," said Kat. "How many?"
"Approximately three hundred."
"Well. As someone who doesn't have to track them all down back home -- congratulations. You did a good thing."
L'Rell relaxed. Marginally.
She said, "I told Gabriel I wanted to see the inquisitor."
"Oh," said Kat. "Okay. Yeah, we can do that."
"That is," said L'Rell, "I don't want her to see me. But--"
"I can show you the feed from her cell, if you want."
The inquisitor was just … sitting. Legs crossed. Arms by her sides. Eyes closed.
"She looks so small," said L'Rell.
"Were you with her long?"
"Eight years." Her clawed fingers touched the display. "Voq says I should hate her. He's correct, but also … wrong. He was a slave less than a month before he escaped. He doesn't know."
"It's normal for long-term prisoners to have complicated feelings for their captors," said Kat. "For humans, at least."
"So I've observed," said L'Rell. She shut down the feed and looked at Kat. "It's good that you came for Gabriel when you did."
Kat studied L'Rell. She seemed younger than her counterpart, less imposing. There was no disruptor burn on her jaw, just a long, thin scar which might have come from a knife. She was … earnest.
"Tell me," said Kat, "why wasn't Gabriel part of the reconnaissance mission to Outpost Four?" When L'Rell didn't answer, she added, "It's because he boarded the Terran pursuit ship when you rescued the kids, isn't it?"
L'Rell growled. In frustration, Kat thought, not anger.
"Voq said we were better leaving the children. Most were too young to fight, and how could we care for them? But I insisted, and Gabriel agreed. We made a plan -- a good plan. We would take the slave ship and run for the gateway. They'd be safe in the Federation -- and Gabriel would be home." She shrugged.
"And you? Would you have stayed?"
"I know who my counterpart is, Admiral Cornwell." There was a flicker of pride in L'Rell's eyes. "I was going to take the Klingon children to her. Let them grow up as sons and daughters of the Klingon Empire, and forget they were ever slaves. I was going to walk around Qo'noS as a free woman, and then I was going to come home and continue my work."
"And Gabriel would stay in the Federation."
"A fourth journey through the gateway would kill him. And he's been here too long already. He says the fight's not yet done, but--" she waved her large, grey hand -- "it's an excuse. I see that, now." L'Rell began to pace. "We could have evaded the Terrans. Lost them well before we reached the gateway. Instead, Gabriel turned back. Boarded their ship."
"Slowed you down. Attracted more Terran attention."
"He risked our lives on a whim," L'Rell growled.
"Did you know he let the Tellarite girl join the boarding party?"
"She's an able fighter. That was the only good decision he made that day."
Kat decided not to argue the point. She said, instead, "Do you know why he won't come home?"
"No," said L'Rell. "I asked. He will not -- or cannot -- answer."
The Defiant briefing took place in one of Discovery's larger conference rooms, the better to accommodate department heads and key crewmembers. If they were taken aback to find themselves being addressed by a Klingon and the counterpart of their former captain, they kept it to themselves.
"The ISS Acheron," said Gabriel, pulling up the ship's schematics. "Formerly the USS Defiant of the Federation."
He summoned the Defiant's launch schematics, letting them see the changes the Terrans had made to the Federation ship. Reinforcements to the neck between the saucer and engineering sections. Subnacelles. A larger deflector array.
"In 2268, the Defiant will be pulled into a temporal anomaly on the edge of Tholian space. It emerged in this universe, in January 2155. For the next forty years, the Defiant -- now the Acheron -- served as the imperial flagship. When the ISS Charon was launched, the Acheron became the base of operations for Imperial Intelligence."
He dismissed the Federation file and enhanced the Terran schematic.
"The Acheron is under the control, but not the command, of Inquisitor Cornwell. Acheron's present captain is one Jesminder Whelan. It's an unpopular posting. Prestige, but no autonomy. Not a lot of opportunity for conquest. The inquisitor keeps the Acheron out of combat. The crew rarely see battle."
"So they're soft," said Lieutenant Kuznetzov. "Out of practice."
"That'd make our job a hell of a lot easier," said Gabriel. "But no. Captain Whelan's predecessor drilled the crew constantly, in ship-to-ship and hand-to-hand combat situations. We should assume she does the same."
"Standard operating procedure for Terrans, then," someone muttered.
Gabriel smiled thinly.
"The Acheron also has four times the number of phaser banks and photon torpedo launchers that you'd see on a Constitution class ship in the Federation," he said. "She'll put up a good fight."
He moved onto the next displays: deck schematics, including crew quarters and weapons lockers.
"The usual crew complement for a Constitution class ship is two hundred and five, but the Acheron has only a hundred permanent crew. They're supplemented by slaves, and they answer only to Captain Whelan."
"How many slaves?" Michael asked.
"Approximately forty," said L'Rell. She enhanced a cross section of the lower decks. "Personal servants to the senior officers, and general labourers."
Saru said, "Will they turn against their Terran masters?"
"Perhaps," said L'Rell.
"We could easily take one hundred people," said Kuznetzov. "Even if some of the slaves supported them."
"I don't doubt it," said Gabriel, "but the Acheron also has a transient population of between eighty and a hundred and fifty officers in the Imperial Intelligence services. Political officers, undercover agents, interrogators, and assassins and miscellaneous thugs. They answer to Cornwell, and they will be absolutely ruthless in defending the Acheron. With the Charon gone, that ship is the control centre for the Empire. They can't afford to lose her. The Terran Empire's stability depends on Inquisitor Cornwell and the Acheron."
Kat raised her glass to her lips so no one would see her smile.
"Captain," said Una, "tell us about the status quo now the emperor's gone."
"The post-Georgiou government is complicated," he said. "The official story doesn't quite line up with reality -- but Imperial subjects learn quickly that, if there's a discrepancy, they should go with the official story. Maintaining that is part of Inquisitor Cornwell's job, and the Acheron is a key tool."
"Surely another Terran claimed the title of emperor," said Saru. "That seems to be how these people operate."
"I'm sure some wanted to," said Gabriel. "But -- okay, let me give you some context. Until the destruction of the Charon and the apparent death of Emperor Georgiou," he gave Michael a bland look, "the emperor had absolute power over almost two quadrants. But the Empire is on the verge of being overextended, and one individual can't control it alone."
He built a chart. At the top, Emperor Georgiou, resplendent in a gold breastplate and a sweeping, shimmering coat. Below her were six people.
"Georgiou had a ruling council, drawn from the Imperial Senate. The rest of the Senate," he added more faces below the council, "was kept fairly powerless. But there was always the hope that she might take a shine to you, elevate you to the council. Beyond the Senate," he widened the chart, "was the rest of the civilian government -- planetary governors, consuls, what have you. Then there's Imperial Starfleet Command."
The chart became larger. Kat could no longer make out individual faces.
"Starfleet Command answered only to the emperor," said Gabriel. "And it was toothless. The real power in the Terran Starfleet belongs to the ship captains. And Inquisitor Cornwell kept them in line for Georgiou."
"So," said Kat, "tell us about Inquisitor Cornwell."
Gabriel erased the chart with a wave, leaving only the emperor. He added two new figures to her side: the inquisitor, in her red and gold uniform; and Lorca. The other Lorca. Wearing the standard black Imperial uniform, his golden breastplate studded with medals.
The room was hushed. Kat wasn't the only one taken aback by the appearance of the Terran Lorca.
Still, she was grateful for the low lights. No one would see her hands shake as she poured herself a fresh glass of water.
"For a long time," said Gabriel, "Captain Lorca and Inquisitor Cornwell were the right and left hands of Emperor Georgiou. Lorca conquered the galaxy in her name, and Cornwell kept it under control."
"A triumvirate," said Captain Una.
"Right. And, like most triumvirates, the arrangement was unstable. Lorca," he said with contempt, "believed he was destined for greatness. And Kate is more loyal to the Empire than any individual."
"She's a true believer," said Kat.
"Yes," said L'Rell. "The inquisitor is an idealist. Principled, by Terran standards."
"Which only means she won't kill you for fun," said Gabriel. He sounded affectionate.
It made Kat want to throw up.
"As Master of Spies, she exists outside the main hierarchy. Until you removed Georgiou, the inquisitor answered only to the Emperor."
"And now?" Michael asked.
"If I understand the inquisitor's position," said Una, "she could have declared herself emperor after the Charon was destroyed. Her significant rivals were gone."
"She could have," Gabriel agreed. "She might have even considered it. But--"
"She doesn't want to be emperor."
Kat spoke without thinking. She believed in the chain of command, and, as a vice admiral, had enjoyed considerable autonomy within its boundaries. Her ambitions had never encompassed the rank of fleet admiral, operating with few peers and little guidance. It was like a highwire act without a net, and the fact that she hadn't fallen yet was no guarantee she wouldn't lose her balance tomorrow.
But she wasn't going to share that with a room full of subordinates. Kat sipped her water and dared them to ask her to elaborate.
"Right," said Gabriel. "The inquisitor works from the shadows. She has agents throughout the Empire. Political officers on every starship. Spies and interrogators at her command. To hold power openly would mean entrusting that to someone else."
"And she won't let anyone else become emperor, either," Kat realised.
"Sarek referred to the title of 'caesar'," said Michael.
Gabriel grinned. "She created a whole new system of government," he said, and he sounded proud. "The propaganda will tell you it happened spontaneously, but I know how she thinks. The Empire is now ruled by a council of twelve caesars, chosen from a mix of Starfleet and civilian authorities. Esther Satie--" the holo-imager updated as he spoke, displaying the official Imperial portraits of each caesar -- "Alexander Marcus, Gretchen Lui, James Komack, Brett Anderson, Nensi Chandra, Erika Drake, Robert Wesley, Amanda Grayson, Afsaneh Paris, Christopher Pike -- and, officially just one of twelve, but in reality the first among equals, Kate Cornwell herself."
"You're quite certain of this?" Una asked.
"She gets to keep her intelligence network," said Kat. "And I bet she has political officers watching all the other caesars." She looked at Gabriel. "Am I right?"
He nodded. "Kate's an idealist by Terran standards. But she's also pragmatic. And ruthless. So far, two caesars have stepped out of line. They were quickly replaced."
"This seems like a precarious arrangement," said Una.
"And that's before the rebel assassinations," said Gabriel. "Three so far."
"Four," said L'Rell. "A Vulcan separatist movement has claimed credit for Gupta."
"Really? Well, they wouldn't lie."
Kat pulled up her own display: the most complete map of the Empire they had, and the Defiant -- the Acheron -- in the Oneiros system.
"If we have control of the Acheron," she said, "we'll have access to Terran Intelligence. And their databases. The inquisitor controls the official reality of the Empire."
"If we can seize the Acheron," said Gabriel, "and if we can do it without alerting the rest of the Empire, and if we can take the ship without damaging its systems."
"And the slaves on Outpost Four?" L'Rell asked.
Kat leaned back in her chair, fingers steepled, and for the first time in seven months, she felt good about her choices.
"Everyone comes home, L'Rell," she said. "But first, we're going to wipe every trace of the Federation's existence from Terran memory."
Michael looked approving, Gabriel resigned.
He said, "You're gonna take the Acheron from within, aren't you? Play the role of the inquisitor."
"Why not? I have her cruiser, her uniform. Her medals." Kat smiled. "And her face."
Gabriel lingered after the meeting was dismissed.
"I want to lead the boarding party," he said.
"Out of the question."
"Admiral, Discovery has a small security complement, and they're not accustomed to fighting Terrans."
Kat raised her eyebrows. "They were trained by a Terran," she said.
"It's not the same. They--" there was no mistaking who he meant -- "won't hesitate to kill someone with a familiar face."
"And neither will you? Is that what you're saying?"
"Hasn't been a problem so far, Admiral."
"That's my concern," said Kat.
"You think I do this for fun?"
"No," said Kat. But only because I couldn't bring myself to even consider the idea until you said it out loud. But she said, "The last thing you need is more exposure to combat. Let alone against people you worked with for a year."
"Trust me," he said, "I won't let that stop me."
Irritation welled up in Kat's chest.
"Is that meant to convince me?" she asked. "Because I can't take the risk that you'll prioritise your personal vendetta against the Terran Empire over the success of your mission. Again."
Gabriel's smile was bitter.
"You've been talking to L'Rell," he said.
"She's worried about you. So am I."
"The Terrans were right behind us. I had to make a decision."
"And you chose to stop and fight. You put thirty children at risk."
"But they all made it out. So maybe you can stop second-guessing me." His voice was growing louder. He moved restlessly across the room, saying, "Even if you can bluff your way onto the bridge, the crew will turn on you as soon as the shields go down."
"I can handle myself."
"I know. But you need that boarding party to include the best. And for this? That's me."
He moved towards her. She took a step back.
"Maybe," she said, "if I understood why you didn't come home -- what drives you to stay in this universe--"
"I told you," said Gabriel, "I have nothing the Federation would want."
"Is that it? Or--" She was angry again. That he would fight her on this. On anything. That he had the fucking nerve to smirk at her. To be close to her. "You don't want to atone," she said, and this time she was the one advancing on him. "You want revenge."
"Katrina," he said, and reached for her.
"Sit down," she snarled.
Jaw set, he sank into the nearest chair, watching her like--
Like his survival depended on her whims.
"You'll do a great job," he said, and it sounded like he was having trouble speaking, "passing for the inquisitor."
Kat swallowed. She couldn't breathe, and she was damned if he was going to see her cry.
She turned, and all but ran for the door.
She locked herself in her lab-turned-office and tried to work, but concentration was impossible. She was angry. She was guilty.
She wanted answers.
She went to see the inquisitor.
Kate was still sitting when Kat entered. If she had moved at all in the last few hours, there was no sign of it.
She opened her eyes, took in Kat and the young security guard accompanying her, and said, "Rough day?"
"Tell me about your mother," said Kat.
She wasn't prepared for the raw loathing in the inquisitor's face.
"That useless slut," Kate snarled. "What do you want to know about her for?"
"Is she alive?"
"I have no idea. And I don't care. I ran away when I was twelve. Worked my way to Earth, got into the Academy. Never looked back."
"That's it?" Kat asked. "You never even think of her?"
"Of course I do. Every time I see this." She touched the fine scar that ran from her nose to her upper lip. "I kept this one especially. To remind me not to go back. I erased all the other marks she left."
The inquisitor stood up and advanced towards the forcefield.
"My mother," she said, "was more interested in finding her next drink and her next fuck than leaving a legacy for her daughter. She had no ambition. No pride in her Terran heritage. I had to make my own way. Build myself up from nothing."
"And look what you've achieved," said Kat. "'Caesar'."
Kat gave her a fleeting grin.
"I got the idea from the Federation. Mutual cooperation for the greater good of the Empire. Gabriel inspired me." She turned and sat down. "I suppose your mother prepared meals from scratch and had milk and cookies waiting when you got home from school every day."
"No," said Kat. "She worked long hours. She sometimes drank too much, and she wasn't always choosy about who she slept with. She expected me to fend for myself from an early age. And she was unambitious, too. Didn't care about rank. Didn't want to be a leader. It used to drive me crazy--"
She blinked, and a hot tear rolled down her cheek.
"When did she die?" the inquisitor asked.
"Last year." Kat wiped her eyes. "Klingons attacked the station where she worked. Half the escape pods were lost in the first strike. The witnesses I spoke to said she didn't even try to evacuate herself. Just led people to the remaining pods, then went back for more."
"How unspeakably noble." Kate's voice dripped with contempt. "Tell me, Katrina, why are you here?"
"I need to know." Kat moved towards the forcefield, keeping her voice soft. "How can we have such different backgrounds and experiences, yet wind up--"
"We're not the same," the inquisitor snapped.
Kat didn't bother to argue.
She asked, "What was your biggest failure?"
"Other than ending up in a Federation cell, you mean?"
"Other than that."
Kate leaned back, eyes closed, the back of her head resting against the bulkhead.
At last, she said, "When I received word that Michael Burnham was back from the dead with Gabriel Lorca as her prisoner -- I was so fixated on my Gabriel, I completely overlooked the truth. I taught Gabriel to pass for his counterpart, but I forgot it could go both ways. I was wilfully blind. And by the time I realised the truth, it was too late. I couldn't stop him. Couldn't save Georgiou. The Empire stood on the very edge of destruction, and it was all my fault."
"You were emotionally compromised," said Kat.
"I always swore I'd never make that mistake." The inquisitor's smile was tired. "I should have killed Gabriel when he was brought to me." She looked up at Kat. "Greatest failure. Your turn."
On the very edge of her peripheral vision, Kat could see her security escort, standing at the back of the room, looking like she was trying to blend in with the bulkhead.
Kat nodded slightly at the inquisitor: come here.
Very softly, Kat said, "The Federation was at war. And losing. Emperor Georgiou wasn't in my universe for a day before she offered us a solution: the destruction of Qo'noS."
"And you went along with it?"
"She made the suggestion to the Vulcan ambassador. He took it to the Federation Council. They made the decision and ordered me to implement it."
"I argued. A little. Not enough." Kat put her hands behind her back, the better to stop herself from fidgeting. "The final step in the plan was my idea. I gave Georgiou command of the mission. Passed her off as her late counterpart and sent her off to commit genocide for us."
The inquisitor laughed.
"That's it?" she asked. "I helped Philippa destroy Qo'noS years ago. I didn't lose any sleep over it."
"Then maybe we are different."
"She must have hated taking orders from you."
Kat's mouth twitched. "She didn't seem happy."
"I almost wish I could have seen it. Was her mission a success?"
"No. Michael Burnham found another solution."
"And all you lost was your moral high ground."
"How do you live with yourself?" Kat asked.
Kate gave her a pitying look. "You think I have no principles. Ask Gabriel -- I'm a loyal subject of the Empire. I do my duty." She swallowed. "Until he came along," she said, "I never wavered."
"Yeah, you freed fifteen slaves."
"And it troubles me. The way genocide troubles you."
This time it was Kat who laughed.
"It's not the same at all," she said.
"It's just a matter of scale. I undermined the Empire, and now I'm paying for it. What will you do to me, Katrina? You wanna punish me for your crimes? Make me suffer? Leave me in a Federation prison while you cry yourself to sleep over deaths that didn't even happen?"
Kat looked down.
"It's not guilt that drives me," she said. "It's anger."
"At what? Me?"
"Seems like a lot of people are relying on your good judgement. I don't know about you, Admiral Kat, but I don't make good decisions when I'm angry."
"Then how," said Kat, "do I stop?"
"I don't know," the inquisitor said. "Get drunk? Take pseudonarcotics? Permanently alter your brain chemistry? Or," she was apparently enjoying herself, "sit down with yourself and figure out who is causing your anger. Then kill them."
"I can't," Kat blurted out. "Georgiou already did that."
The inquisitor gave her an understanding look.
"Then you need to find another way," she said.
She found Gabriel in the ship's gym, along with Lieutenant Kuznetzov and half a dozen security officers. His jacket discarded, he was demonstrating a choke hold.
"You've gotta remember that Orions keep their artery lower down, closer to the shoulder. Starfleet doesn't train you to take down humans -- you can't just rely on muscle memory against Terrans.”
Kat leaned against a treadmill to watch.
"Commander Landry recommended going in from the front," said an ensign.
"That's effective, but Ellen was a lot shorter than you. At your height, Ensign…"
"Nilsson, Captain, Ana Nilsson."
"Nilsson. At your height, a grip from the rear would be better. But safest of all is shooting a Terran from a distance. They all carry knives, and trust me, they have a lot more training and experience than you do."
"Did you know Commander Landry, sir?" asked Lieutenant Kuznetzov.
"She was my chief of security for three years."
Gabriel gave Kuznetzov an assessing look, and Kat remembered what the inquisitor had said to him: Remember Kuznetzov?
Gabriel had killed this man's counterpart, she realised.
He was saying, "You took over from her?"
"Not directly. The guy who replaced her turned out to be a Klingon."
"Oh well," said Gabriel, "no one's perfect."
Then he finally noticed Kat, and stiffened.
"Admiral," he said.
She straightened up and said to the assembled group, "Will you give us the room, please."
It was not a request. The security officers departed, quickly followed by a lieutenant commander who had been using the heavy gravity simulator.
When they were alone, Kat sank onto the bench that ran along the side of the room and motioned for Gabriel to join her.
"I owe you an apology," she said. "Again." She rested her hands flat on her knees. "I haven't been completely honest with you."
"Just let me speak. Please."
If she hunched over, elbows on her knees, she could look at her boots and the floor, and not his face.
It still took a long time to find words.
"The other Lorca didn't step seamlessly into your shoes," she said slowly. "There were missteps. Conflicts. But none of it came to my attention at the time. The Buran was patrolling the independent frontier colonies. I don't know if you remember, but I was out at Starbase Twenty. We didn't get to talk in real time."
"I remember," said Gabriel.
"The first time I saw the other one in the flesh, it was right after the Buran was lost. He was -- he seemed shellshocked. But he was already lobbying for another command. He passed all the psych tests, and the board of inquiry cleared him of misconduct--"
Gabriel said, "How? How could they?"
"He said the Klingon boarding party had reached the bridge. The bridge crew were all dead, and he barely managed to get to an escape pod. He set the self-destruct remotely."
"'He said'." Gabriel's voice was raw. "Was there really a Klingon boarding party?"
"Who knows? The escape pod's logs backed his story up. But you've seen how Terrans manipulate information."
"So you gave him another ship."
"I argued against it. But he made a good case. So he got Discovery. Hell, Command practically begged him to take her. In the end, it was like he was doing us a favour."
"And you still didn't see it."
"No, Gabriel," she snapped, and stood up. "It didn't actually cross my mind that you had been replaced by an evil duplicate from another universe, because at the time, we didn't even know parallel timelines were anything more than a theory. I thought you were deeply traumatised, and being an asshole was your idea of a coping mechanism. And so did your moms, and your cousins, and your friends. Okay?"
Kat sat down again and put her face in her hands for a moment.
When she could speak again, she said, "He wasn't running around delivering human supremacist monologues at that point. He was … you. But harder. Picking fights. Taking risks. He didn't seem like a monster."
"No." Gabriel's voice was barely audible. "They don't, do they?"
"I slept with him."
He looked at her.
"I needed to make a connection. He kept pushing me away, and I thought -- if we were closer -- to have that intimacy again--" Kat shook her head.
"I remember, after Tarsus IV, you said--"
"I know what I said," Kat snapped.
The memory had flitted across her mind as Gabriel -- as the imposter pulled her tank top off. "You can use sex as a substitute for actually addressing your problems if you want, but it won't be with me." She had even briefly considered revisiting that decade-old argument. But she had wanted this. Pleasure. Release. A moment of respite with an old friend she--
"It was a rape," she said. "He knew exactly what he was doing."
Gabriel's hand hovered over hers. Then, changing his mind, he pulled away.
"Did he hurt you?"
"It wasn't violent. Until after. I startled him. He pulled a weapon on me."
"Please don't say anything, Gabriel. This is difficult." She went back to staring at her hands. "I told him I'd have him relieved. But … what was I going to tell Command? That I fucked a subordinate and now I wanted his ship taken away? And there was a peace mission. Well, a trap, we both knew it was a trap."
The words were coming out faster, now.
"I sent a vague message to Terral, and Lorca and I agreed on a rescue strategy if the talks fell apart. Which they did. But Discovery never came. It was Michael Burnham who rescued me from the Klingons, a month later. When I woke up from surgery on Starbase Eighty-Six, they told me Discovery had vanished. We found wreckage a week or so later."
"The Terran Discovery."
"Yeah. And I was so angry. On top of everything else. Captivity. The war. We were losing. Badly. But after nine months -- Discovery reappeared. Its crew alive and well. Except for its captain. And then I found out just who and what I'd --" She stopped. Breathed. "But there was no time to deal with that. The Klingons took Starbase One. And Georgiou proposed the destruction of Qo'noS. A quick end to the war."
"And you said yes."
"Eventually." Kat looked up at him. "It wasn't because of him. The decision didn't come from trauma. I have a lot of trouble keeping it all separate, these days, but I made that choice on my own."
"Yeah." He gave her a bleak smile. "I get that."
"Yeah. I guess you do."
Kat straightened up and, though he didn't touch her, Gabriel moved a fraction closer.
Some of the tightness in her chest began to ease.
"I've been angry since I found out about the imposter," she said. "I don't trust my judgement anymore. And I shouldn't, because I keep making mistakes. Which brings me back to that apology I owe you."
"Kat, I know what I said, but you don't have to apologise for--"
"I shouldn't have come."
She said, "I've found it difficult, being around you. And that's the last thing you need. I've been retraumatising you since I landed planetside. I'm sorry."
"I keep telling you, Kat, I'm not fragile."
"I know. You're one of the strongest people I've ever met." She rested her hand on the bench between them, palm up. After a moment's hesitation, he took it, interlacing his fingers with hers. "It was still wrong. I should have given Captain Una her orders and trusted her to complete the mission."
"So why'd you come?" he asked.
"Selfishness," Kat whispered. "I wanted to see you again."
Eyes closed, Gabriel squeezed her hand. He raised it to his lips and held it there, his breath warm against her fingers.
"Say something," said Kat.
When he opened his eyes, they were utterly bleak.
"I killed Shev," he said. "That's why I didn't come home."
"Tell me," said Kat.
"She was a rebel. Matt -- he was one of my counterpart's loyalists. Went around massacring rebels. Some, he took as slaves." Gabriel tightened his grip on her hand. "I killed him."
Kat wanted to say something, but she didn't dare to interrupt him.
"Afterwards," he said, "Kate let me free the slaves. Most left. Shev stayed. She didn't trust me. And for a Terran to offer to spare her life … I didn't understand, then, how that would seem to her. She attacked me. I killed her."
Kat put her other hand over his.
"Is that when you decided to stay?" she asked.
"Sort of. But I couldn't think about that. Kate would know."
"I remember thinking, I owe Shev a drink. If she still wants to know me, after the imposter -- I never imagined he'd kill my crew." Gabriel blinked, and a tear trickled into his beard. "He was loyal to his followers. If he had one redeeming quality, it was that he cared about his people. It didn't cross my mind that he'd destroy the Buran."
"When did you find out?"
"Night before I left. Kate--" He looked down at their hands. "Kate wanted me to stay."
"As her agent?"
"Partner. Husband, maybe. She talked about kids." His hand twitched. "Can you imagine raising kids in that place? What they'd grow up to be?"
She could, and it was sickening.
"It was just a fantasy," he said. "I wanted her to come with me." He attempted to smile. "Picture that meeting with Starfleet Command."
She tried to match his tone as she said, "I'm picturing your mothers' faces."
He tried to laugh, but choked.
When he had command of himself again, Gabriel said, "Finally, she played her ace. Told me I had nothing to go back to anyway. And showed me the Defiant's record. What there was of it."
"I had it sealed."
"And my service record. Ten years in the future. Classified Top Secret. I think that's when I knew I wasn't going home." He looked up at her. "I've seen the future, Kat. I'm not in it."
"So L'Rell and I found the rebels, and I figured I'd die for a cause. But I keep surviving. I'm … very good at that."
"Good," said Kat.
"Yes," she said firmly. "Gabriel--" Keeping her hands in his, she slipped from the bench to the ground in front of him. "You've endured more than enough. You've served your penance. It's time to come home."
"To what? A court martial?"
"Maybe," she admitted. "Is that what scares you?" she asked. "The loss of reputation?"
"I don't know," he said. "Two days ago, I thought I'd never see the Federation again."
"I've thrown all of this at you."
"I -- when I get home," he said, and Kat smiled and pretended she didn't sense the if which had almost slipped out, "what'll happen?"
"I'll bring you back to Earth for debriefing and psych assessment. You'll probably be kept isolated at first, I'm sorry--"
"No, that's good. I don't want--" His cheek twitched. "Debriefing. Psych assessment. You decide whether or not I'm court martialled and quietly cashiered."
"I don't think I should have anything to do with that decision," Kat said. "For what it's worth -- I think it would be a mistake to throw you out."
"I was angry." She took a deep breath. "Am. Angry. And you were being an asshole."
He didn't argue.
She said, "I guess I could try to have you charged with insubordination, but--"
Gabriel managed a flicker of a smile and shook his head.
"Assuming you have a choice in the matter," said Kat, "would you want to stay in Starfleet?"
"I don't know."
He fell silent. She didn't push him.
"I can't command a ship again," he said eventually. "Even if Starfleet would give me one -- even if you'd find people who'd serve under me, after what--"
He had to stop. Gain control of his breathing.
"That's not me anymore," he said.
"There are other ways to serve. You could teach at the Academy--"
"Yeah, cadets will be lining up to learn from the guy who killed his crew."
"--or move to Command. God knows there's enough empty seats on the general staff."
"Work for you? You need an adjutant, Admiral? I do know how you take your coffee."
She thought of the way he never let her cup stay empty. Automatically, like he had been trained to watch her, to see that she never wanted for anything.
"We can find a place," she said instead. "Regardless of your counterpart's crimes, it would be irresponsible to let your skills and training go to waste. We lost too many senior officers in the war."
"But as far as the Federation's concerned, I'm still -- him. The Terran Empire is classified."
"I think," said Kat, "that anyone who asks will be told that you were abducted and replaced with an imposter. The rest is classified, and that's all you have to say."
"Are rumours." Carefully, she reached up to cup his cheek. Ran her thumb down his scar, into his beard. "Is that what you're afraid of?"
His grip on her other hand tightened, and he closed his eyes.
"Empty days," he said. "They'll stick me in one of those bland little rooms with nothing to do but talk. And remember."
"You need rest."
"I need purpose. Eventually I'll be cleared for visitors, and my family will know I'm back from the dead. And it doesn't matter what we tell them. They'll see how I've changed. Know what I am."
"And what's that?"
He met her eyes. Challenging her.
"A murderer," he said.
Kat rose to her feet, ignoring the protest in her knees and lower back, and said, "I'm going to put my arms around you, if that's okay."
In answer, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close. His sob was muffled by her jacket, and she felt him hold his breath, trying to hold back the storm.
After a moment, he relaxed, still holding her, but breathing normally.
It might, she thought, be better if he let it go. Better for him. Not for the mission.
She was his senior officer. Not his psychiatrist. Not his friend. Not his lover.
But she closed her eyes and ran her hand through his hair.
"The first time L'Rell and I came through the gateway," he said, "I really meant to go home. We put in at Freehold Base -- had to pretend we didn't know each other. Not too many humans travelling with Klingons. I pulled up the news feeds. Needed to figure out where to send our very first refugees."
"That's when you found out about the war?"
"Yeah. One of our refugees wanted to turn around and go back to the Empire. I didn't blame her." She felt the tension growing in his shoulder muscles. "I should have checked in. I know that. But…"
As gently as she could, Kat said, "But?"
"Starfleet would have confined me for debriefing and evaluation. I'd have spent a year staring at the walls on Starbase One. No good to anyone. And Shev … Shev would still be dead. On both sides."
"You needed to be useful."
"I needed a reason to wake up every day."
Kat squeezed his shoulders and closed her eyes.
She couldn't say whether it would be enough to exonerate him. This was only the tip of the iceberg as far as his trauma was concerned, and anyway, she couldn't -- shouldn't -- be the one to make that decision. It would probably be months before Starfleet Medical could present their findings.
If he had reported in, she thought, he probably would have died on Starbase One with everyone else.
She tightened her grip on his shoulders and felt him lean into her.
"Listen," she said, "about your service record--"
"Best case scenario, I'm quietly court martialled and thrown out of the service. I know."
She couldn't discount the possibility. But as long as he wasn't aiming for some kind of preordained death--
Kat let go of him, stepping out of their embrace, resuming the mantle of command.
The part of her that was still a psychiatrist was appalled at what she was about to do. The piece of her heart that belonged to Gabriel quailed.
Well, she told herself, she was no longer a doctor, and God knew, she couldn't just be Gabriel's friend. Let alone -- she suppressed that thought. They had made their choices, and circumstances had only changed for the worse. Gabriel's ability to consent was compromised, Kate had seen to that.
You can use that, promised the ruthless, analytical part of her mind.
And she would.
But the least she owed him was honesty.
Kat said, "I'm about to do something unethical."
Gabriel raised his eyebrows. "Go on."
"You were right about the Defiant mission. You should lead the boarding party."
"I know you think I can't handle it--"
"I shouldn't put you in this position at all." She sat beside him, rubbing her temples. "Ninety percent of my job these days is admin. I'm a bureaucrat. And I'm okay with that. With the war over, I thought I was done making hard decisions."
"Kat, it's fine. I'll be okay." Gabriel gave her a passable imitation of his old, arrogant smile. "I won't let you down."
"I know," said Kat. "I'm pretty sure the inquisitor made it nearly impossible for you to disobey her instructions, and I'm prepared to take advantage of that if it means the mission succeeds and you make it out alive."
"Ah." Gabriel stared at his hands. "You make me sound like a well-trained dog."
"No, not--" Kat put her hand on his arm. "If she'd been successful, you'd have gone home, like she expected."
"Half-trained? That's not an improvement, Kat."
"I need you to follow orders and complete the mission." She looked at him. "Can I trust you?"
"Yes," he said.
"I've come a long way. If you get yourself killed, I'll be--"
She put her hand on his cheek.
"I've already grieved for you twice," she said.
"Third time's the charm?"
Their lips brushed. Just for a second.
It took all of Kat's self control not to reach for him and kiss him again.
"I'm ordering you to live," she said. "I know it's emotional blackmail--"
"Add it to the list of things for my therapists to deal with." Gabriel leaned forward to kiss her again. Then stopped himself and pulled away. "Are we ever gonna be okay?"
"I hope so," Kat admitted. "It'll be hard work. For both of us, not just you. I -- nothing prepared me for seeing you again. And my position ... I can't even think about it right now. This is hard."
She leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Gabriel put his arm around her.
Kat closed her eyes.
This sense of respite was an illusion, she knew that. They couldn't spend the whole evening cuddling on a bench in Discovery's gym. There was a mission to plan. Work to complete.
And she could still sense formless anger at the back of her mind, a constant bitter aftertaste to every thought. At least she had been able to escape it for a short while.
"How long have we been in here?" she asked.
"Too long," said Gabriel. "You realise they'll think we're having sex."
"On the bench? I'm too old."
"Low grav simulator?"
"Makes me queasy."
"I draw the line at the treadmill. Not in front of the humanoid combat targets."
Kat laughed and, reluctantly, stood up.
"Thank you for hearing me out," she said. "I'm sorry to dump my problems on you."
"No. It's good. I don't like having things kept from me." He rubbed his scar and added, "But you had every right--"
"No, I was being unfair." Kat shifted her weight, as giddy and awkward as a cadet. "Thank you for trusting me? With what happened to you. And -- why. Why you made your choices."
"I guess I was gonna have to tell someone eventually, right? I'd rather you heard it from me, than reading about it in a psych report." Gabriel retrieved his jacket. Pulling it on, he said, "The boarding party. I want oversight in planning, too. And I'll need access to Discovery's personnel files and security logs."
"Done. I'll have Captain Una inform Lieutenant Kuznetzov that he answers to you for this."
"Make sure she tells him it's not personal. I just have the experience you need." Gabriel bared his teeth. "The Terran Kuznetzov took it personally. I had to break his neck in the end."
Kat just said, "Try to resist the urge to share that anecdote with his crewmates."
"Don't worry. I've seen how they watch me. You, too. Your non-judgemental mask slips sometimes, Doc."
"Don't apologise," Gabriel said. "Your honesty means a lot. And you're not my therapist. Isn't that what you were always telling me?"
"Okay," said Kat. "Okay. It disturbs me when you make casual jokes about the violence you've experienced--"
"Committed." Gabriel leaned against the treadmill. His pose was casual, but he gripped the arm rails so tightly his knuckles were white. "I made choices."
"Yeah, that's what I told myself."
"And I'm so happy you're here," said Kat. "But what you've done, what you've become--" What the inquisitor made you, she didn't say. "You deserve better."
"Oh, Kat." Gabriel's face was bleak. "This is a universe where children are enslaved. Or eaten. Everyone deserves better."
Though there is nothing explicit, I rather pushed the boundaries of the Mature rating here. Just so you know.
Under ideal circumstances, a mission to capture a heavily-armed and extremely hostile ship would involve a hand-picked team and, at minimum, several weeks of preparation. Drills. Contingency plans. Painstaking analysis of every single variable.
Kat had the crew of the Discovery, a handful of rebel volunteers, and three days.
After everything that had happened, she was not terribly surprised that Gabriel had already given some thought to the practicalities of capturing the Defiant--
No, she reminded herself for the fourth time that day, it's the Acheron. You can't make that mistake again.
With Voq, Gabriel and L'Rell had captured half a dozen Terran ships -- small cruisers, slave ships, patrol vessels. Nothing as large or well-armed as the Acheron, but as Gabriel said, "It was a matter of taking our ideas for the Acheron and scaling down, not the other way around."
"Then you risk overconfidence," said Michael. "I'm concerned about some elements of your strategy."
"Everyone's a critic," said Gabriel easily. "What's the problem?"
"You suggest Admiral Cornwell brings L'Rell onboard as her 'prisoner'. I agree that we need someone on the Acheron who can rally the slaves, but--"
"This way, we hide L'Rell in plain sight. And Kate valued her. If the admiral claims to have recaptured her somehow--"
"The idea's sound," said Michael. "But your counterpart used the same ruse to get aboard the Charon."
"You used it to infiltrate Decker's camp," she told Gabriel.
He grimaced. "I'm predictable across universes."
"Perhaps." L'Rell frowned, considering. To Michael, she said, "The Terrans won't expect this from the inquisitor. Many high-ranking humans are capricious, but she is steadfast in her loyalty to the Empire, and she dislikes misleading her followers without reason."
Michael still looked doubtful.
Kat's concerns were of a different nature.
"I don't want to send you back to a ship where you were enslaved," she said. "Let alone put you in an agoniser. We can't ask that of you."
"You haven't. I volunteered."
"Dr Pollard's confident she can synthesise an analgesic which will protect L'Rell from the worst pain," said Michael.
"And she'll be armed," said Gabriel. "On sensors, her knives will look like part of her boots. L'Rell can handle herself."
"And I shall," L'Rell added. She smiled, revealing sharp, jagged teeth. "I'm looking forward to it."
Kat wished she felt the same way.
This mission was her idea, and its success was contingent on her ability to pass for her counterpart. Aboard the Def-- the Acheron were people who had served the inquisitor for years. Bodyguards. Slaves. Could she fool someone who bathed her counterpart every day?
"Don't talk too much," said Michael as they made their way towards the engineering lab. "A knowing silence will serve you well. The inquisitor watches, and smiles and says nothing."
"You've been paying attention."
They paused to make room for a training squad. The Terran Lorca's strict cross-training regime -- "turning scientists into soldiers", he had called it -- was paying off: the squad included a geologist and a junior engineer. And T'Pring and Stonn, the first of the rebels to volunteer for this mission. Kat suspected Sarek had sent them as his proxies; he intended to wait aboard Discovery to watch events play out.
Voq had, to L'Rell's dismay, flatly refused to be part of the operation.
When the corridor was free again, Michael said, "I'm interested in the similarities between us and our Federation counterparts. And the divergences. Of everyone I've examined, only one Terran had a significantly different upbringing to their counterpart."
"Are we back to the old nature versus nurture argument?"
"Nature combined with nurture, versus culture. If the Empire wasn't classified, I'd publish a paper."
In the turbolift, Kat said, "Starfleet has been going through the Terran Lorca's logs and files with a fine-toothed comb. He never broke cover, but there are hints that he was intrigued by your upbringing."
"But not enough to abandon his xenophobia."
"If anything," Kat admitted, "it only cemented it."
"Eighteen months in the Federation, and he refused to change. Georgiou's the same. She's seen the Federation at its best, and its worst, but--"
Michael's disappointment was palpable.
What a way to find out that your mentor had feet of clay, Kat thought. But there were advantages in seeing the worst of Philippa embodied by the emperor. Easier to overlook Captain Georgiou's failings. Though, God knew, Philippa worked harder than most people to overcome them.
She just said, "Captain Una tells me you and Gabriel have spent a lot of time with Georgiou."
"Captain Lorca provokes her. The emperor's responses are revealing."
"I look forward to seeing your reports." Kat's hand hovered over the turbolift's control pad. She hit pause and said, "What's your opinion of Captain Lorca's fitness for duty?"
Michael took a moment to consider her response.
"He's working hard to seem like a good officer," she said at last. "A good captain, albeit unorthodox."
"Like the imposter."
Michael didn't disagree.
"The crew have faith in his competence," she said.
"I like Captain Lorca," said Michael, "but I wouldn't want to serve under him in his present state."
Kat tapped resume.
"You'll be in Gabriel's boarding party," she said. "If, in your opinion, he's jeopardising either the mission or his life, you have authority to take whatever steps are necessary to safely disable him."
Michael's eyes widened.
"Captain Lorca gets home alive. Even if he has to be unconscious and restrained." Kat smiled. "Trust me, Michael -- get to know Gabriel, and one day you'll relish the idea of shooting him."
They arrived at the engineering lab moments after Captains Una and Lorca. Ensign Tilly, who had summoned them, looked slightly daunted at the plethora of gold shoulders, but she rallied when Una asked why she had called them.
"I was thinking," Tilly said, "about Captain Lorca's briefing on Acheron systems and routines. It sounds like the inquisitor doesn't spend much time on the bridge, and when she's there, she doesn't have access to the captain's chair, or any other controls."
"Right," said Gabriel.
Una said, "We're aware of that problem, Ensign."
"Well, I have a solution. A," Tilly faltered, "possible, partial solution." She pulled up a set of code. "I've written a subroutine which will infiltrate the Acheron's systems and transfer shield control to you, Admiral, at any console. Nearly any console."
"Go on," Kat said.
"We'll put the subroutine on a data chip. Once you're alone -- in your office, or your quarters -- just insert the chip and let the program run."
"And I can drop the shields from anywhere?"
"That … depends on the Acheron's firewalls. If it's the same as the ISS Shenzhou, yes -- but the Acheron would be first in line for upgrades. You may still have to get to the bridge, but once there, any console will give you complete access to all Acheron's security systems."
"And only me?" Kat asked. If she had to do this on the bridge, she risked attack as soon as the crew realised what she'd done. If the Terrans regained control as soon as she was incapacitated--
But Tilly said, "Only you, Admiral. Control will be locked to your palmprint."
"Okay. Good. Nice work, Ensign. I appreciate your initiative."
"As do I," said Captain Una, raising one eyebrow, "but I seem to recall assigning you a task--"
"Oh, yes!" Tilly pulled up a second screen of code. "This program will wipe all data about the Federation from Terran computer networks. It's finished and ready to go. I just whipped up that," she waved at her other subroutine, "before breakfast."
"I spent months trying to write a program that would erase the gateway data from the Acheron's databanks. I'm not even sure it was functional when I deployed it."
"I'm sure you did your best, Captain."
Tilly froze as soon as the words had left her mouth, with a look of horror so profound that Kat was moved to take pity on her.
"As I recall, Captain Lorca," she said, "you barely passed computer engineering at the Academy. Which probably explains why the inquisitor is right here on Discovery."
Tilly relaxed, and Gabriel gave her a thin smile.
Three days weren't enough. Kat wanted to announce she had changed her mind. Cancel the mission, leave the slaves to their fate. Take Gabriel home and forget this place existed.
Out of the question.
All she could do was prepare.
"Where are your quarters?"
She blocked Gabriel's punch with her arm and said, "Deck nine, section one."
L'Rell, watching from the sidelines, said, "Lower your arm a little. The inquisitor was stabbed in the shoulder when she was young. The wound sometimes troubles her."
Kat dropped her arm a fraction, then dodged the kick Gabriel aimed at her upper leg.
"Route from your quarters to your office," he said, avoiding the elbow she was trying to jam into his stomach.
"Take a left to the turbolift, ascend to deck four, take the second right, the first left, walk half a metre, and I'm standing outside."
"Morning routine," said L'Rell.
"Wake up. Be bathed--" Gabriel grabbed her by the hair and she scrabbled blindly at his hands, still reciting, "put on first -- layer of uniform -- eat -- be dressed--"
She was pinned to the mat and unable to fight him off. Gabriel used his foot to push her onto her back, and rested his shoe -- a light running shoe, thank God, not a boot -- on her chest.
Aching, bruised, heart pounding from the adrenaline, yet conscious of the taste of bile at the back of her throat, Kat said, "I yield."
He released her, and she sat up carefully, running a hand through her tangled hair. Gabriel and L'Rell were staring down at her, faces impassive.
"You're right," L'Rell said to Gabriel. "She doesn't fight like the inquisitor."
"If you're attacked," said Gabriel, offering Kat his hand, "stand back and let your bodyguard take care of it."
"That wouldn't be unusual for the inquisitor," L'Rell added.
"If you have to fight, make sure you don't leave any witnesses alive."
"That's not funny," Kat said, smoothing down her tank top.
"It wasn't a joke." Gabriel took her hand, turning it over to examine the bruise he had left on her forearm. He, like Kat, was in workout clothes. Unlike her, she noted, he had barely raised a sweat. "You okay?"
"Shaken," Kat admitted. "Last time I was in a real fight, it was with a Klingon."
"Who won?" L'Rell asked.
"I'm still not sure. But I'm only walking thanks to a spinal implant. Gabriel--"
She was interrupted by a hail from the bridge.
"Admiral," said Lieutenant Bryce, "it's the Klingon rebel, Voq. He's decided to join the mission to take the Acheron."
"Oh," said Gabriel, "he's decided, has he? What if I decide--"
"Tell them Voq will share my quarters," L'Rell said to Kat.
Kat gave orders accordingly.
When the channel was closed, L'Rell rounded on Gabriel.
"You have something to say?" she demanded.
"I think you can do better. But you know that."
"And you know I don't care. Admiral, may I--"
"Yes, show Voq around. Thanks, L'Rell."
"And don't break any bones," Gabriel called after her as she left the gym. "You'll scandalise the human doctors."
Then she was gone, and they were alone for the first time since--
Since their last conversation in this gym.
Gabriel forced a smile. "Speaking of broken bones--"
"I'm okay. Just bruised."
"And shaken, you said."
"I'll be fine. Nothing a drink and five minutes with a dermal regenerator won't fix."
"I told you not to go easy." Kat stretched, cataloguing the pain. "Is that how Kate trains?"
"In my time, she used to spar with L'Rell."
Kat's dismay must have been obvious, because Gabriel put his hand on her arm.
"You'll be fine," he said. "Get on board, contact Discovery, send us the Acheron's security data, drop the shields. If you do it discreetly enough, the Terrans will be protecting you from us."
"You make it sound easy."
"I know exactly how hard it is. And how dangerous. And--"
He stopped. Let go of her arm.
"Come on," he said. "I'll give you a hand with the dermal regenerator."
"You don't have to--"
"You need scars." His voice was flat. "Kate's covered in them. If you're on the Acheron long enough--"
"Okay," she said.
In her quarters, she replicated a glass of cold water, drinking it quickly before pulling her shoes off.
"Bathroom?" Gabriel asked.
Her ensuite was too small to comfortably hold two adults, and she was acutely aware of Gabriel's proximity as he healed her bruises and strained muscles.
"I gave Kate a black eye once," he said as he worked. "She insisted."
Before she could stop herself, Kat said, "How did you feel about that?"
"Not great." He took Kat's hand, examining the faint bruising on her knuckles. "You throw a better punch than you used to."
"Thanks. I work at it." She hesitated. "Was the sex with Kate rough?"
"Sometimes. Usually because I asked." A muscle in his cheek twitched. "Occasionally she decided."
And you couldn't argue, Kat thought. And this was the persona she had to inhabit.
He said, "The other Lorca, was he--"
"Violent?" She thought of the hand around her neck, the sound of a phaser charging. "The sex was unremarkable. Impersonal."
"Gabriel, are you asking if your counterpart was better in bed than you?"
His ears turned red. "It's inappropriate, I know."
"It is." But she put her hand on his forearm. "You really wanna know?"
"The sick thing," she said, leaning in close, "is that part of me was relieved to find out it wasn't you. Because I hated to think that you, of all people, would treat me like I didn't matter."
"Kat." His hand was on her hip. "You've always mattered to me."
She looked up. His beard tickled her skin as she leaned in.
Kat stepped back.
"Scars," she said.
"Right." Gabriel dropped the dermal regenerator. "Scars. Yeah."
He started with a mark on the back of her neck, running horizontally from the base of her hairline to her ear. Even cosmetic changes, purely superficial, took time. Kat caught her breath as he pulled her hair aside and hoped he didn't see the goose bumps on her arms.
She could feel his breath on her neck, and wondered if he, too, was hovering on the edge of arousal.
Needing distraction -- needing Gabriel to be distracted -- she said, "Why do Terrans keep their scars?"
"Depends which Terran you ask. Warnings to others. Reminders of victories. They like their medals, too."
"Okay. Why does Kate keep her scars?"
"Satisfaction, I think. It's a tally of all the enemies she killed, back when she had to fight her own battles."
Kat thought of the scar over the inquisitor's lip.
"And the people who hurt her, back when she was vulnerable," she said.
"Yeah. She likes to remember that she made it. Outlived them." Gabriel finished, stepping back to admire his handiwork. "Okay," he said. "Good."
The next scar started on her left shoulder. Gabriel pushed her tank top and bra strap aside.
"Why do you keep yours?" she asked suddenly.
He didn't answer at first, concentrating on running the collagen generator over her shoulder and down to the top of her breast.
Eventually he said, "I need to remember what I did to survive."
"Dr Pollard offered to erase it. The scar tissue." He was pushing the scar lower, cupping her breast to hold it in place. His hands were steady but his voice was shaky as he said, "She gave me that look when I refused."
"You know. That look medical professionals get when they're not being judgemental, they're just gonna put a concerned note in your file."
"Oh." Kat's voice was hoarse. "That look."
"Always thought you did it very well." He stepped back and gave her a rueful smile. "I'm gonna have to ask you to take your shirt off."
Kat did so, peeling off her tank top and unhooking her sports bra, throwing them both in a corner.
It wasn't as if this was the first time Gabriel had seen her bare breasts. Or touched them. He was, she thought, doing a fairly good job of seeming disinterested. Professional. Until he shifted, and she glanced down and saw he was half-erect.
She averted her gaze and clenched her thighs together.
The scar ran past her nipple, and her skin tingled from the collagen generator.
She asked, "How'd she get this?"
"You still friends with Sarah April?"
"Yeah, we get together for dinner, she tries to talk me into going back to medicine." Kat watched the fake scar deepen. "She did this? To Kate?"
"It was self-defence," said Gabriel. He dropped to his knees to get the angle right for the final millimetres. "Kate killed her."
"And Bob, later. But I'd say he deserved it." He smiled absently. "There. Done."
Kat studied herself in the mirror. Naked from the waist up, with that terrible mark running down her chest. And you should see the other guy.
"Are there more?" she asked.
"A few, yeah."
Knife wounds on her belly. A jagged scar near her right hip. As Gabriel got to work, she realised she should have at least retrieved her bra.
But good news, she thought, turns out the other night wasn't a fluke. You can be aroused by someone who isn't a stranger.
The thought made her wobble, and she grabbed Gabriel's shoulder to brace herself.
The bad news is, the person you want is the very last person in any universe you should sleep with.
She closed her eyes and tried to distract herself by assembling a list of equally poor choices of lover. Michael Burnham. Emperor Georgiou. Sarek of Vulcan. The inquisitor--
Which brought her back to Gabriel, adding the last of the detail to the mark over her hip.
"Finished," he said. Holding her gaze, he climbed to his feet. "Almost."
Kat belatedly let go of his shoulder.
Gabriel said, "One more."
The scar over her lip was so fine and light, it barely took a minute to add. But Gabriel lingered, one hand cupping Kat's cheek.
"I'd like to kiss you," he said.
"Bad idea. I know." He dropped the collagen generator in the sink and put his arm around her waist. "What if we just … agree to deal with the consequences? Together?"
"I don't want to hurt you."
"Then I won't ask you to."
Kat leaned forward and kissed him.
Afterwards they cleaned up and shared a light dinner of omelettes followed by fruit. No alcohol.
Then they went back to bed.
This time they couldn't quite summon the energy for sex, and settled for exchanging kisses and getting reacquainted. Gabriel's body was as scarred as the medical report had promised. Kat didn't bother trying to hide her dismay; she just ran her hand over his battered skin and kissed him.
Gabriel found the blank, numb place on her back that marked her spinal implant, and traced its outline with his fingers while quizzing her on Imperial protocols and procedures until they were too sleepy to think. Not exactly a traditional learning environment, she thought, but it was more or less how they had spent their third year at the Academy.
"And we got through that okay," she mumbled.
It had been a long time since she dozed off in Gabriel's arms. The other Lorca -- she didn't want to remember it, but it was impossible to forget -- had mumbled something about wanting her to stay, before rolling onto his side and falling asleep.
And with that memory, she was awake again, and all the troubled thoughts she had banished hours ago were back.
Gabriel, her Gabriel, was asleep on his back, one arm around her shoulders. Kat shifted, curling up against him, resting her hand on his stomach, cataloguing her concerns.
He couldn't stay the night. L'Rell would be at her door at 0600 to help her dress. It would be inappropriate for Gabriel to be in her bed come morning.
It was inappropriate for him to be there now. She glanced up at him, listening to his deep, even breathing. It wasn't that he mistook her for the inquisitor, she thought. But there had been a need in him, to give himself to her, to put himself in her power, and all without discussing it with her.
And she had enjoyed it. Maybe it was what she had needed, after the other Lorca. But the pleasure was soured by her sense of the fault lines in his psyche. Her scars were superficial; they could be removed as easily as they were applied. His ran deep.
But he was so warm, relaxed, his stomach rising and falling with each breath.
Kat closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
She woke up a couple of hours later as Gabriel launched himself out of bed and into the bathroom.
By the time his retching subsided, she was waiting in the doorway with a glass of water. He accepted it without words, drank it, then turned back to the sink to wash his mouth and face.
"That happen often?" Kat asked.
"Can I put my arms around you?"
"No." He stepped back -- involuntarily, she thought. "No. I just -- I need--"
Kat retreated. He might, she thought, benefit from a mild calmative, but she suspected the last thing he needed was to see her with a hypospray in her hand.
Damn the inquisitor. Damn this place.
Her fists were clenched, fingernails digging into her palms. Kat forced herself to open them and relax.
When Gabriel finally emerged, he was pulling his shirt on, rivulets of water still streaming down his face and into his beard.
"Don't worry," he said, and she could hear the effort it took to sound normal. "This happens all the time. It's not -- you know." He sank down beside her on the bed. "It's not you."
"You want to talk about it?"
"The Buran. My crew. The usual."
"Ah. The usual."
"I'm going back to my quarters," he said. "I need some space." He kissed her forehead, then her mouth. "Thank you."
"For sleeping with you?"
"For trusting me. And my choices." He stood up. "I wasn't exactly celibate with the rebels, but … it felt good. Connecting with someone who knows me."
"For me, too," Kat admitted.
Gabriel managed a crooked half-smile.
"I'll be back in the morning," he said, pulling his shoes on. "Help you dress."
"L'Rell said she'd--"
"I know. But she shouldn't have to do it alone."
"Gabriel," said Kat, "no one should have to do any of this."
He didn't argue. Just nodded and, with a vague wave which might have been a salute, left.
Kat climbed back into bed, curling up on her side with her arms wrapped around a pillow that still smelled of Gabriel. It was just after midnight; she had less than six hours of rest before she had to transform herself into the inquisitor.
She closed her eyes.
The alarm woke her at 0525, giving her a few minutes to get her bearings -- the thought, Oh God, it's today flitted through her mind, followed by, And I fucked Gabriel last night -- before she sat up and made her way to the shower.
She could be thankful for small mercies: the inquisitor used the same soap and perfume that she did, and didn't wear elaborate or exotic lingerie beneath her uniform. Kat pulled on plain black underwear and opened the case which held the inquisitor's clothes, both the uniform from her cruiser and everything she had been wearing when she was arrested.
Black tank top. Red pants, tighter than the Federation's Starfleet uniforms. Matching jacket with black detailing and a plain collar. Interesting that the inquisitor retained the trappings of the medical division, she thought, pulling on her socks. Was there more prestige attached to being an interrogator than a spymaster, or did she just relish the reminder that she could both heal and hurt?
Had the inquisitor ever thought of herself as a healer?
Kat wasn't hungry, but she forced herself to choke down some toast and a cup of sweet, black coffee. God knew what type of meals waited for her on the Acheron. "She has little taste for sentients," L'Rell had said, as if that made it better.
Don't think about that. Chew and swallow.
As Kol's prisoner, she had learned to choke down bowls of live worms. To save several hundred slaves, not to mention Gabriel and the crew of Discovery, she'd swallow anything they put in front of her, and smile and ask for seconds.
The door chimed at 0557.
"Enter." Her second piece of toast abandoned, Kat was sitting on the end of her bed, tackling the inquisitor's boots. "I thought you were exaggerating when you said these were challenging."
"They're designed that way," said L'Rell. Her voice was a little thick, and when Kat looked up, she saw the Klingon girl's face was bruised and bloodied.
She said, "Those aren't--"
"All real," said L'Rell simply. "I didn't want the Terrans to think you captured me without a fight."
"Voq helped." She grinned. "It's a good way to prepare for battle, no?" While Kat was parsing that, L'rell said to Gabriel, "Help the admiral with her boots while I examine her makeup."
Gabriel gave her a quick smile as he knelt before her.
"Klingon sex isn't what you'd call tender," he said. "Or quiet. Don't ask how I know. Suffice to say, the Vulcans wouldn’t share their earplugs." He tugged one boot over her knee. "You okay?"
Kat said nothing.
"Okay, not fine," he said. "But I'm no worse than yesterday. You haven't single handedly destroyed my equilibrium." He pulled the second boot into place and leaned up to kiss her. "If anything, I feel better."
L'Rell cleared her throat.
"Makeup," she said, dropping Kat's little cosmetics case on the bed. "The inquisitor usually applies her own. But I was trained, regardless. Look up."
Despite the sharpness of her claws, L'Rell's hands were gentle and steady. She took her time, but when Kat was released to examine her reflection in the mirror, she saw the application was flawless. Subtly heavier than what she wore every day, but not inappropriate, even in the Federation.
As she added the finishing touches to Kat's face, L'Rell said, "Kuznetzov has assigned Voq to the aft boarding party."
"So he's decided to care about slaves, now," said Gabriel.
"Even on the Acheron, slaves have heard whispers of the Firewolf." L'Rell wiped a speck of powder from Kat's shoulder and said, "Lirenntin will also be in that party."
"No," said Kat sharply. "I'm not sending an untrained child into combat."
L'Rell looked surprised.
"Gabriel and I have been training him," she said. "And he was a slave. This is his right."
"And he'll vouch for us," Gabriel added. "The slaves will trust him."
"If anything happens to that boy--"
"I know. I've asked Commander Saru to look out for him."
"No one in the Terran Empire has ever seen a heavily armed Kelpien before," she said. "I hope I get to see their faces before they die."
Gabriel was going through the small box which held the inquisitor's medals and jewellery. He said, "Huh," and pulled out the pendant Kate had worn when she was arrested: a thin cylinder of silver metal on a fine chain.
"I gave this to her," he said. "She wore it under her uniform."
L'Rell, finished, stepped back, and Kat stood still as he put it around her neck.
"It's platinum," he said, his fingers brushing her skin. "Raw. Retrieved from our universe while her scientists tested the gateway."
She put the pendant under her jacket. It was cold against her skin, and she shivered.
Gloves, gauntlets and rings she could put on herself, but she let Gabriel put the breastplate into place and secure it while L'Rell fitted the shoulder guards. Finally, they added the belt, with its holsters for a phaser and a hypospray.
When they were done, she said, "Activate mirror," and saw the inquisitor staring back at her.
"Close your mouth," said Gabriel. "Try not to look so--"
"Horrified," L'Rell finished.
Kat drew a deep breath and forced her expression to become neutral.
"Better," Gabriel said.
You're heavily armed, and you have bodyguards to ensure your safety at all times. You know everyone's secrets, and if anyone looks at you wrong, you can have them executed. You are the first among equals, the most powerful individual in the Terran Empire. You survived Gabriel Lorca and Philippa Georgiou. You are an impenetrable fortress of a woman.
She stiffened her spine and let her features fall into an absent half-smile.
"There," said Gabriel. "That's it. That's the mask she wears."
"Okay," said Kat. "Good."
It wasn't, but what else could she say?
Gabriel and L'Rell fell into step behind her as she made her way through the corridor, and she felt a twinge of guilt and horror that they fell so easily into their old roles, that she had put them there--
No, she told herself. He's a traitor and she's a Klingon, they should be honoured and grateful that you keep them alive and let them serve you.
The plan was to go to the bridge when she was ready to begin, but she had a better idea as she entered the turbolift.
"Let's test the disguise," she said, and instead directed it to the lower decks. The brig.
Georgiou was already awake. She was on her feet the moment she saw Kat.
"You," she snarled.
"Hi, Pippa," she said.
"We had a deal."
"We did. As you can see, my circumstances have changed." Kat nodded at Gabriel, standing blandly behind her. "Gabriel persuaded the admiral to release me. Begged, I assume."
Georgiou's nostrils flared.
"And you trust them?"
"Why not? You apparently liked these people enough to stay." Kat tilted her head. "Or did you miss Michael so much, you wanted to replace her with a cheap facsimile?"
The shot hit home, but Georgiou quickly masked her reaction. Her lip curled.
"Do you enjoy running my Empire, Kate?" she asked. "You were barely more than spacer trash when I found you. You only hold power now because I took pity on you."
"I hadn't forgotten," she said. "You were my patron, and I'm grateful." Did Terrans call it patronage? Too late. She continued, "I've asked the admiral to take pity on you, too."
"When Discovery's ready to leave this universe, you'll be allowed to stay behind. Anonymous, on whatever world she chooses. Isn't that what you wanted? She said you were homesick." Kat took a step towards the force field. "And I won't tell anyone. I won't order my forces to hunt you down and bring me your head. Isn't that kind of me?"
Georgiou sneered. "Unspeakably."
"Unless, of course, you move against me in any way. Or destabilise the Empire by allowing rumours of your return to spread. You'll want to keep moving. Live quietly. Why," she widened her eyes, as if a thought had just occurred to her, "you'll be little more than spacer trash. What a coincidence."
She laughed and turned on her heel before Georgiou could respond.
Outside the holding cell, Kat leaned against the wall, shaking.
"Did I pass?" she asked.
"Kate isn't usually that cruel," said Gabriel. "Georgiou bought it, but she hasn't spoken to Kate for sixteen months."
"Seven," Kat said automatically. "There was a temporal distortion--" Too late, she saw how pale Gabriel was. "Are you--"
"I'll be fine," he said, waving her hand away. "I just … wasn't as ready as I thought."
L'Rell put her hand on his shoulder.
"You did well," she told Kat.
"I enjoyed it," Kat admitted. "Is that terrible?"
"You Federation humans spend too much time worrying about feelings instead of actions."
"Are you ready, Admiral?" Gabriel asked.
"One moment," said Kat, and she stalked down the corridor to the inquisitor's cell.
She hesitated before unlocking the door. She couldn't bring Gabriel or L'Rell into this, and she found that, whatever happened next, she didn't want the security guards to see her counterpart vulnerable.
She went in alone.
The inquisitor was curled up on her bunk, eyes shielded by her arm.
"Lights," said Kat. "Full."
The inquisitor gave a sleepy, dismayed grunt and sat up, slowly, rubbing her forehead. Her hair fell into her face, and it took her a moment to prepare herself to straighten up and look at Kat.
When she did, she launched herself at the force field.
"What is it you want?" she demanded as the field snapped, repelling her. She landed awkwardly back on her bunk, but stood up right away, this time advancing towards Kat at a more reasonable pace. "Did Gabriel come up with this? They know me on the Acheron. You won't fool anyone."
Kat said nothing.
Kate said, "You can't have my ship."
"You don't get to decide that," said Kat.
The inquisitor was beginning to regain her equilibrium.
She said, "Billions of lives depend on the stability of the Empire. Families. Children. You don't want their deaths on your hands. You can't even live with thinking about destroying Qo'noS. And these are humans. Your own kind."
"They've never known any other way."
"No," said Kat, "because you keep dissent quashed and information controlled. Your Empire doesn't deserve to survive, and it's your fault."
"How many people have you killed, Admiral? Personally, with your own hands, not just giving an order. A dozen? Fewer?"
"I didn't think so," the inquisitor said. She returned to her bunk. "The first people to die will be aliens and slaves. Keep that in mind when you're 'liberating' my Empire."
She turned her back to Kat, pulling her knees up to her chest and covering her eyes once more.
Outside, Gabriel and L'Rell were watching the security feed. Kat joined them, but they lingered for five minutes, and the inquisitor didn't move.
"Remember," said L'Rell, "if slaves and aliens die, it will be because Terrans chose to kill them."
It was small comfort.
The spore drive put Discovery in a Mutara-class nebula within few hours' travel -- at warp one -- from the Oneiros system.
Gabriel accompanied Kat and L'Rell to the shuttle bay, where Burnham and Tilly were waiting for them.
"I've made some adjustments to my subroutine," said Tilly, handing Kat a chip. "There'll be a forty-three second delay between you giving the command to drop shields, and the shields going down. So you're not standing right next to the console looking suspicious as everything goes crazy."
"Thank you, Ensign." Kat slipped the chip into her breastplate. "That's good thinking."
"Remember," said Michael, "the most dangerous thing you can do is seem surprised. By anything."
"And don't go anywhere without your bodyguard," Gabriel added. To L'Rell, he said, "And you. Take care."
L'Rell laughed. "Of course."
"Give me a moment with the Admiral."
He led Kat into the cruiser.
"Be careful of Browning," he said. "She probably knows where Kate was going. She's perceptive and loyal--"
"I know," said Kat. "You've told me this."
"I just--" He worried at his beard. "Just remember," he said, putting his hands on Kat's shoulders, "if you're caught impersonating the inquisitor, they won't give you a slow death. Hang on for as long as you can. I promise," his hands tightened, "I promise, I won't leave you to rot in a Terran prison. Captain Una and I have discussed it. We'll come for you."
Kat put her hands over his and leaned forward, tilting her head up. Gabriel rested his forehead on hers.
"I'll wait," she whispered.
His fingers moved to the back of Kat's neck, the skin between her collar and her hairline. She shivered, shifting so their lips could meet--
"Enough," said L'Rell. She marched into the little shuttle, deliberately shoving Gabriel as she pushed past him. "I said goodbye to Voq hours ago."
"Yeah, I heard the screams from two decks away." He released Kat with a swift kiss on her forehead. "Remember," he told her.
Kat watched him leave.
Then she squared her shoulders, took the pilot's seat and sealed the cruiser. Discovery cleared them for departure, and she activated the engines and guided the little ship out of the shuttle bay and through the nebula at half-impulse.
"Right," she said when they were clear. "Setting course for the Oneiros system. Warp one."
"Don't be afraid," said L'Rell.
"I'm not," Kat replied.
But they both knew she was lying.
According to her cruiser's logs, the inquisitor had left the Acheron just over two weeks ago. Part of Kat was afraid that she had been away for too long, that a coup had taken place, her counterpart overthrown in absentia, and the whole plan would fall apart before it began.
But Captain Whelan cleared her for docking without hesitation, remarking, "Welcome back, Inquisitor," as the channel closed.
"Of course," said L'Rell when Kat confessed her fear, "they might prefer to save you for a public execution." She grinned. "That is a joke, Admiral."
"Don't call me that again." Kat's hypospray had been loaded with a long-term analgesic designed specifically for L'Rell's physiology. She injected L'Rell and replaced the ampule with a heavy sedative.
"Don't confide in me again." L'Rell held her hands up. "Shackles."
Kat restrained L'Rell's wrists and ankles, linking the bonds at her waist.
"You okay?" she asked when she was done.
"Just … don't forget about me," said L'Rell.
The cruiser touched down on the Acheron's shuttlebay deck.
Kat emerged to find Browning waiting for her, as short and stocky as her Federation counterpart, but with slightly deeper lines around her eyes and mouth.
"Inquisitor." Browning saluted. "It's good to have you back."
"Nice to be home."
Kat forced a smile.
"Fruitful," she said, and gestured for L'Rell to come forward. She led her 'prisoner' out of the cruiser, using the restraints like a leash. "This animal," she raised her voice slightly, so the surrounding crew would hear, "killed Commander Urquhart. You," she waved at a security guard, "take her to the agonisers."
"But keep her alive. I want her to suffer."
She watched them drag L'Rell away, her face a mask of -- she hoped -- fury mixed with grief.
"She was stealing slaves?" Browning asked quietly. "Alone?"
"She had a few associates on the other side. I've dealt with them."
"Dead." She had believed it for so long, it was easy to summon that sadness.
"Killed him. He never got home."
To Kat's amazement, Browning squeezed her arm.
"It might be for the best," she said, but there was genuine empathy in her face as she added, "My condolences, Inquisitor."
It was horror, not grief, that Kat swallowed. Don't give me kindness. I'm here to destroy all of you. Don't offer compassion.
She kept L'Rell in her mind as they made their way out of the shuttlebay, taken away to be tortured on the whim of a human.
"How's your head?" Browning asked quietly.
"It's been better."
"I have a surgical team on standby to repair the damage from the gateway. Now, if you like.”
"Later," said Kat. "I've missed too much already."
In the turbolift to the inquisitor's office, Browning nodded at the vast, blond man behind them and said, "I've had Ensign Vetter assigned as your bodyguard. Lieutenant Ghebo's wife was arrested last week for possessing dissident publications. He's being held for investigation."
"Pity," was all Kat could think to say.
"I know. It's a waste."
Kate's office was easily as large as Kat's on Starbase One, and equally lacking in personal effects. Kat couldn't bring herself to settle in that office, and in any case, most of her possessions had been lost or destroyed in the war.
But Kate had held the Acheron for years -- she was sentimental enough to wear Gabriel's gift under her uniform. Was it dangerous to reveal too much of oneself here? Or did the inquisitor prefer to seem like a person untouched by human emotions?
She had hoped that Browning would leave her alone, so she could sit at her desk and start familiarising herself with the Acheron's systems. Instead, Browning synthesised a pot of coffee and two cups and sat on the couch.
"Let me bring you up to speed on everything you missed," she said.
The Terran Browning was as efficient as her counterpart. She'd have to be: the Empire covered most of the quadrant and beyond, and the inquisitor was kept abreast of everything from a university professor's panegyric on the last years of Emperor Georgiou's reign to rumours of a heated argument between Caesars Grayson and Paris.
"Credible rumours?" Kat asked.
"I'm conducting further investigations," said Browning. "I'll keep you apprised of any developments."
"Speaking of Grayson, her half-breed son is serving on the Enterprise under Pike. He reports the captain is investigating the alien ruins on Tantalus V."
Kat sipped her coffee and said, "Curious."
"Indeed. Rather close to your own facilities, I thought."
"What does Chris want?"
"Spock surmises -- logically--" Browning sneered -- "that Captain Pike is seeking exotic alien weapons."
"And does Spock's logic suggest why?"
"Personal glory, insurrection, or intellectual curiosity." Browning drank her own coffee and added, "He considers the latter unlikely."
"Monitor the situation. If Chris thinks I'll hesitate to replace him--"
The inquisitor herself had given Chris the Enterprise. Or so Gabriel had told Kat. Yet another horrifying bedtime story for her nightmares.
"He, of all people, should know better," Browning agreed. "It's something of a race. Spock says there are a number of ambitious junior officers assisting in the search. If you'd prefer one of them to win--"
"Let's see how it plays out."
"Very well, Inquisitor." Browning made a note on her PADD. "That brings you up to date," she said, but she didn't move.
Kat didn't have to feign irritation as she asked, "Is there something else, Commander?"
"I thought I understood why the other universe is classified," she said. "The ideas they espouse -- they're dangerous. But it's more, isn't it, Inquisitor? Since you went away, I haven't been able to stop wondering about the other me. What she's doing. If she's Starfleet, or if she got away from the Federation. If she … believes."
Kat let the silence stretch until it was awkward.
When Browning looked like she was on the verge of withdrawing the question, Kat said, "Your counterpart is exactly where you are. Senior aide to their Cornwell."
"We're all products of our environment, Julie." Kat put her empty coffee cup down and stood up. "You're dismissed, Commander. I have some work to do."
She thought Browning gave her a sidelong glance as she departed. But it was, Kat told herself, just her imagination.
Alone, she locked her door, sat behind the inquisitor's large glass desk, and started calling up files.
One: the Acheron's current crew complement, including intelligence forces currently based on the ship and the slave manifest. And the ship's security systems, locations and access codes for weapons lockers, and internal defence systems.
Two: the whereabouts of the nearest Imperial starships. If someone on the Acheron managed to get a distress signal out, she wanted to know who would get it and how fast they could arrive.
Kat copied all this information into an encrypted file. And that should have been it, but--
She had the whole of the inquisitor's systems available to her.
She searched, Gabriel Lorca.
The first result was his service record, headed, Lorca, Captain Gabriel [Traitor to the Empire].
This time, she searched Charles Urquhart.
The results this time were fewer. Gabriel's grandfather, and the several hundred Imperial subjects who shared the name, and Gabriel himself. Bearded but unscarred in the picture, cheekbones hollower than the man she had left hours ago. Skin much too pale, eyes frighteningly blank.
The service record was that of an unremarkable civilian freighter captain, betrayed by his own crew and left to rot in a psychiatric prison on Tantalus V. Until, almost eight months later, the inquisitor pulled him out and offered him a field commission in exchange for his service.
What followed after that was a list of missions and achievements. Commendation and decoration for foiling an assassination attempt on the inquisitor.
Kat realised her fists were clenched. She gave him a medal -- a fucking medal. The Federation decorated him for valour, not--
She forced herself to breathe. Letting the inquisitor die would have been as good as signing his own death warrant.
And while she wasted time finding new reasons to hate the Terran Empire, L'Rell was suffering in an agoniser.
She opened the comm system. The inquisitor had access to a range of secured channels; she selected the one that was hidden from all Imperial Starfleet systems, including the Acheron's.
You'd better be out there, Discovery, she thought, and then the holodisplay resolved into Captain Una.
"Admiral," she said. "It's good to see your face."
"Trust me, the feeling's mutual." Kat tapped her console. "Stand by to receive security data and starship deployments."
Sending the file meant circumventing the Acheron's firewall. If the inquisitor's codes worked, the hole in the ship's systems would go unrecorded and unnoticed.
If they didn't -- well. She hoped Gabriel would find a way to get her out.
She sent the file.
No alerts appeared, no alarms sounded.
"Received," said Una. "Thank you, Admiral."
"I'm about to run Ensign Tilly's subroutine," Kat said. "Have the boarding parties standing by."
Kat held her breath as the captain's image faded. She felt isolated, vulnerable, and even her reflection in the window looked like that of a stranger.
She inserted Tilly's chip and ran the subroutine.
Shield control transferred, the display said. Then: Unable to lower shields. Please access from bridge.
"Shit," she said out loud.
Pressing her palms flat against her desk -- against the inquisitor's desk -- she told herself, You can do this. You survived Klingon torture and the other Lorca. She was walking into the lion's den, but as a lioness, not prey.
Kat squared her shoulders, checked her expression in the window -- neutral, but with an imperious tilt to her chin -- and walked out.
The bodyguard -- Ensign Vetter -- snapped to attention and saluted as she stepped out of her office, and followed her to the turbolift at a respectful distance. When the doors opened, she started to step in, but he moved in front of her, checking the space before standing aside to let her enter.
Would the inquisitor have known to wait? she wondered. At least this bodyguard was new.
"Did you know your predecessor?" she asked.
"Only by sight, Inquisitor."
Was he afraid of being tainted by association? Surely anyone Browning selected was completely clear. But maybe it wasn't enough to know you were a loyal Imperial citizen -- no, she reminded herself, Imperial subject. Maybe you were always at risk that someone -- an envious subordinate or insecure superior -- was going to decide that your loyalty wasn't enough.
How did people live here? How could they learn? How could one study, say, medicine if one's teachers were constantly in danger of assassination? Or was that method of advancement unique to the Imperial Starfleet? No, the fictional biography of "Charles Urquhart" saw him consigned to a psychiatric prison -- God, what a concept -- to make room for his ambitious first mate.
And then the turbolift stopped and the doors opened, and she stepped out onto the bridge.
"Inquisitor!" Captain Whelan was on her feet. "This is unexpected."
Kat looked bland. "Am I unwelcome?"
In the Federation, Lieutenant (junior grade) Jesminder Whelan was a science officer serving on Starbase Sixteen. She had been accepted into the command training program, but had deferred until her two children had started school.
Here, she was a captain at thirty-two, a slim woman with flat eyes and deep frown lines. She watched Kat move from console to console.
Whelan asked, "Is this an inspection, Inquisitor?"
"Call it a whim, Captain." Kat watched the ops officer until the young man was squirming, his ears red.
How to access shield control without making it obvious what she was doing? Any minute now, Kat thought, she was going to be stopped, questioned, maybe killed.
No, she told herself. You're not just the inquisitor. You're a Fleet Admiral of Starfleet. Act like it.
There was an empty station near the turbolift. Kat sat down and pulled up the feed from the brig. There was L'Rell, writhing and screaming silently. She hoped to God that was an act, that the analgesic worked. Would the inquisitor have bothered to mute the sound? It doesn't matter. Keep going.
She watched L'Rell until she sensed the crew's attention had moved elsewhere. A glance at her bodyguard revealed his eyes were on the viewscreen.
Barely moving, Kat pulled up shield control on a secondary display, rested her palm on the reader for a moment, and let Tilly's subroutine run.
Countdown. Forty-three seconds.
It wouldn't do to start moving quickly now. She watched L'Rell for seven seconds more, then stood up. Did she have time to return to her office? No. Best to wait for the boarding party on the bridge.
"Captain Whelan," she said, "begin preparations to depart the Oneiros system."
"Vulcan. I have some business with Governor Grayson."
"How sad for the governor's family. Lieutenant Shaw--"
An alert sounded at the tactical console, and the weapons officer began to say, "Captain, our shields just--"
And the boarding party arrived.
Kat was standing close enough to Whelan to feel the air buckle around them as Gabriel fired. Whelan went down, stunned, and for the briefest of moments, the bridge was frozen.
Then the Acheron's chief of security raised his phaser, only to be felled by Burnham. Ensign Vetter moved towards Kat -- to protect me, she realised -- and she automatically drew her own phaser and stunned him.
His last conscious expression was one of shock and profound betrayal, and as he landed on the deck, Kat realised he was barely more than twenty. Not old enough to hold the rank of ensign in the Federation.
Look, whispered the cruel part of her mind, he's a person, not a monster, and you've ruined his life.
She didn't have time for this. The helm officer had dodged the shot Gabriel aimed at her, ducking behind her chair with her phaser in one hand and her hip knife in the other.
Kat caught Gabriel's eye. He nodded imperceptibly and fired a shot just over the helm officer's shoulder, barely missing her.
It was enough to make her bolt, and Kat was waiting, hypospray in hand.
The sedative was almost instantaneous. The woman went limp in Kat's arms.
Tilly claimed ops.
"The bridge is ours, Admiral," she said.
"Nice work, all."
"Don't get cocky," said Gabriel, passing his phaser rifle to Kat and pulling a Terran model from the weapons locker. "That was the easy part."
Gabriel's boarding party consisted of himself, Tilly, and eight officers, including Michael Burnham. With Tilly at ops, he assigned four officers to defend the bridge while the rest of the team worked their way down.
Hefting his Terran rifle, he said, "All goes well, we meet Kuznetzov's team in the middle."
"And if it doesn't?" Tilly asked.
"Then we're fucked, Ensign." To one of the four who would remain on the bridge, he said, "Keep the admiral safe. First sign of trouble, beam her back to Discovery."
"Absolutely not," said Kat. "I'm going with you."
Michael, busy putting restraints on the unconscious Terrans, looked up, but said nothing.
As mission commander, Gabriel had the right -- maybe even the duty -- to override her. She shouldn't be risking herself.
But she had come this far. And she had to see it through to the end. About this, she was completely -- blessedly -- certain.
"Okay," Gabriel said at last. "But stay behind me." He said to Michael, "Your new priority is keeping the admiral safe."
Michael raised her eyebrows, no doubt thinking of the awkwardness of her position: ordered by Cornwell to watch Lorca; ordered by Lorca to protect Cornwell.
She just said, "Aye, Captain."
Gabriel flipped his communicator open. "Kuznetzov, how you doing?"
"Engineering is--" there was a crackle of an energy bolt -- "almost secured, Captain. Commander Saru's in the slave quarters. I think--"
Kuznetzov was interrupted by an alien scream of rage and the sound of something heavy being thrown.
"Never mind," he said when the background noise had faded. "The Klingons are back. Engineering's secure, Captain."
"Tell L'Rell I said, nice work. Lorca out." Closing his communicator, he said to Tilly, "Okay, Ensign, what have we got?"
"Every room has been sealed from the outside," said Tilly, "and I've closed access to Jefferies tubes wherever I could. Next--" she flicked a switch -- "all sealed areas have been flooded with anaesthezine gas."
Kat moved to watch the bioscanner readings over Tilly's shoulder.
"Okay," said the ensign when the gas had cleared, "that's sixty-two percent of Terrans unconscious."
"Only eighty-four to go," said Kat. Better odds. But still not great.
"I've locked down Jefferies tube access between decks," said Tilly. "That's twelve people taken care of."
"Seventy-two remaining," said Michael.
"The rest are moving around. I'll put them behind force fields where I can, but you'll have to take care of the others."
"Good work," said Gabriel. "Shorvon, Daniels, Xetra, Burnham -- Admiral. Let's go."
In the turbolift, Kat noticed that not only did Gabriel still have the Terran phaser rifle, but he had reclaimed the knives with which he had fought Georgiou.
He caught her looking and gave her a quick, hard smile.
"I want to take them down with their own weapons," he said. "Closure, right?"
Kat exchanged a look with Michael, but all she said was, "It's an unorthodox interpretation."
The turbolift doors opened, and she was almost relieved to get back to work.
Deck two was clear; all the team had to do was disarm and restrain the unconscious Terrans. Most were interrogators; Kat made the mistake of looking at the experiments they were running in their labs, and regretted it immediately. Just thinking about combining hallucinogens with nerve agents was enough to turn her stomach; she didn't want to see the simulations.
Deck three was uneventful, save for a Terran lieutenant who had suffered an allergic reaction to the anaesthezine gas. She was already close to death when Kat reached her; the woman was gone before Michael had opened the emergency medkit.
Kat recorded the time and cause of death -- according to her rank insignia, the woman was Lieutenant Tejaswi Singh -- and lingered, crouching beside the body.
Gabriel said, "Time's short, Admiral."
"It's a horrible way to die."
And she had given the order. She wasn't so naive as to imagine they could capture a starship with no loss of life on either side, but--
"She was a political officer," Gabriel said. "She spied on her own people for the inquisitor."
And if their positions were reversed, Singh wouldn't be grieving for Kat. She stood up, taking Singh's knife and phaser, adding them to the pack Lieutenant Xetra carried.
"Move out," she said.
On deck four, the turbolift doors opened into darkness, broken by a bright flash of phaser fire. Gabriel ducked and Michael pulled Kat against the wall. Ensign Shorvon wasn't so lucky; the air sparked and crackled as she was vapourised.
"Stay down," Gabriel said to Kat, and he advanced, waving at Daniels and Xetra to follow him.
"Go," Kat told Michael.
In the darkness she heard Gabriel grunt, and the sound of something heavy being slammed against bone.
The turbolift was the only source of light in the section, and even crouched against the wall, she was too visible a target. She had no desire to enter the fray -- in these circumstances, she might even be a liability to Gabriel and his team -- but she took advantage of the Terrans' distraction to crawl out into the darkened corridor and flip her communicator.
"Tilly," she said quietly, "don't speak, just raise the lights to two hundred percent."
The illumination was blinding, but the Terrans took longer to recover than Gabriel's team, which was just the advantage they needed.
When it was over, two Terrans were dead, three more stunned. And Ensign Daniels -- twenty-five years old, Kat remembered, and due for a promotion in six months -- was crumpled on the floor, his eyes staring blankly.
"Phaser to the head," said Kat, checking his pulse. "It must have been quick."
She closed his eyes, sick to her stomach.
"We'd have been next if you and Tilly hadn't flipped the lights," said Gabriel. He squeezed her shoulder and helped her to her feet.
One of the Terrans lay in a pool of spreading blood, his head smashed open. Presumably by the bloodied butt of the phaser rifle nearby.
"I guess I should thank you," said Michael to Gabriel, staring down at the dead Terran. "I didn't see him coming."
Gabriel just shook his head, saying, "Lieutenant Xetra, you okay?"
The lieutenant hesitated before zie answered, and Kat saw that one of zir secondary mandibles had been severed.
"I'll be all right," Xetra said at last, wiping the ichor away. "I can grow a new one in a week. I'm just--" Ze shuddered, and allowed Kat to hold zir shoulder for a few moments, until ze could adjust zir pseudoadrenaline levels and regain control.
Gabriel was frowning at one of the unconscious Terrans.
"Three turbolifts open on this deck," he said. "How'd they know which one we'd use?"
"You think they knew we were coming?"
Before Gabriel could answer, his communicator chirped.
"Ensign Tilly," he said. "Are you about to tell me someone else has access to internal sensors?"
"Yes, Captain. From the inquisitor's office."
"Browning?" Kat asked.
"Whoever it is has pretty high clearance," said Tilly. "And they were good enough to hide their activity from me. At least until they tried to access visual sensors."
"Definitely Browning," said Gabriel.
"The inquisitor's office has redundant life support systems. I can't knock her out remotely, Captain."
"We'll take care of it. Lorca out."
Gabriel snapped his communicator shut, frowning.
"I might be able to bluff her," said Kat.
Gabriel hesitated, looking around, assessing their position. Of their team of five, two were dead, and Kat had no illusions about her combat skills compared with him or Michael.
"Can you fight?" he asked Xetra.
"Good." Gabriel picked up the ichor-smeared knife which had cut Xetra's manible and put it in zir hand. "This is what's gonna happen."
Kat's thumbprint overrode the lock on the inquisitor's office. The doors opened to reveal Browning standing at Kate's desk, a phaser in her hands.
Her eyes widened when she saw Kat, but she didn't lower her weapon.
Kat stood in the doorway, letting Browning see that Xetra stood behind her, the knife in one hand, a Federation phaser in the other.
Kat said, "The Federation. They put a tracker in L'Rell."
"Used her against you."
Xetra pressed the phaser against the back of Kat's neck. She advanced a step, and Xetra took her place in the doorway.
Browning was watching Kat. Under her gaze, she felt an almost irresistible urge to apologise -- but that wasn't Terran.
"Let me guess," said Browning, "Lorca's death was exaggerated."
Xetra pushed Kat forward, making room for Gabriel and Michael to enter.
"And Michael Burnham, too," Browning said. "You two are like cockroaches."
"Put your phaser down," said Gabriel. "Believe it or not, I don't want to hurt the inquisitor."
Browning's nostrils flared. "You should have died on the Buran." Looking at Kat, she said, "For the record? The inquisitor has never once addressed me by my first name."
And she fired at Kat.
Xetra threw her aside, and Kat landed heavily against the wall. Pain flared in her shoulder, running down her arm.
Dislocated, she thought, but she was too shocked to do more than sit, trying to breathe. Browning was a force of nature, fighting Gabriel, Michael and Xetra at once, holding all three of them at bay. Kat knew she needed to do something, but the pain was overwhelming.
And worse, though she could feel the carpet beneath her useless hand, a piece of her was on the Klingon ship. Huddled in a corner of her cell after Kol wrenched her arm out of its socket, working up the courage to put it back in place, wondering how much more she could endure before she broke.
You don't have that time now, she told herself. You are on the Acheron. Your crew need you. You'll be safe as soon as Browning is stopped.
The shot Browning intended for Kat had winged Xetra; injured, zie, was easily disarmed and thrown against the wall. Zie landed heavily, zir antenna bent at unnatural angles.
Move, Kat told herself.
Gabriel had gotten Browning's phaser out of her hand, but she carried knives as well, holding both him and Michael back.
You need to move.
Kat took hold of her bad arm, clenched her teeth and, before she had time to reconsider, pushed it back into place.
Her vision went white, and she would have screamed, except that every ounce of her being was focused on pushing through the pain.
Then the joint popped back into place, the pain faded -- she was merely in agony rather than on the verge of passing out -- and when her vision cleared she saw that Michael was down and Gabriel was fighting Browning alone.
She understood, now, why he had taken Georgiou down the way he did. Burnham's reports of Terran prowess in combat, even the footage of Kate fighting the emperor on Freehold Base, hadn't prepared Kat for the uninhibited viciousness of Browning fighting for her life on her own turf.
Browning and Gabriel were evenly matched: he was stronger, but she was more agile. And they had clearly sparred together; Browning, Kat thought, might even have trained him.
You're wasting time.
She pulled herself to her knees, but any movement made pain spark down her arm again. Trapped nerve. This is why we tell patients not to reset their own joints.
Slowly, so as not to distract the combatants, she half-crawled over to Xetra.
Zie was unconscious, zir exoskeleton cracked where zie had fallen. Kat's knowledge of Formicoid medicine was limited, but Xetra's vital signs were stable. Zie was simply dormant.
Something shattered as Browning flipped Gabriel onto the inquisitor's desk, advancing on him with a knife in each hand.
Xetra's phaser lay half a metre away. Kat began to creep over to it. At least the ache in her knees was a distraction from the pain in her arm.
She wasn't going to make it -- Gabriel would be sliced open, he would die here, and she had promised to bring him home--
Her hand closed around Xetra's phaser--
And Michael Burnham climbed to her feet, squeezing the nerve at the base of Browning's neck.
Browning collapsed, unconscious, at Kat's side, blood welling up from a long cut on her abdomen.
Michael helped Gabriel sit up.
"Thanks," he said. His arms were bleeding; Browning had left long, shallow wounds along the backs of his forearms. "Huh," he said, looking at them. "Didn't even feel that." But his hands were shaking as he reclaimed his own weapons, saying, "Admiral? You okay?"
"Dislocated shoulder," said Kat. "I think I trapped a nerve when I replaced it." She allowed Michael -- who didn't look too steady herself -- to help her to her feet. "Nothing some painkillers won't fix." And minor surgery. But that could wait.
She looked down at the unconscious Browning, the dormant Xetra, and, clumsily, opened her communicator.
"Tilly," she said, "is sickbay clear?"
"Yes, Admiral, Lieutenant Kuznetzov's team got there about five minutes ago."
"Good. Beam everyone in this room to sickbay."
Browning sighed as the transporter took hold, and a line appeared between her eyes.
The Terran sickbay looked like any other, until Kat realised the default dosages for painkillers were a fraction of what they should have been, and all the dermal regenerators were underpowered. Which, she thought, explained the scars.
With Browning in an emergency stasis field, Kat injected herself with a strong analgesic and patched Gabriel and Michael up. They left to catch up with Kuznetzov, and Kat turned to her other patients.
Xetra was stable. Which was a relief, because everything from the biobeds to the hyposprays was calibrated exclusively for humans. Everyone else, she figured, had to make do.
Browning, secured to her biobed, had an array of minor injuries, mostly cuts and bruises. The most serious was the laceration on her abdomen, where Gabriel had come close to piercing her liver. Working one-handed, Kat drained the wound and began the painstaking work of stopping the internal bleeding and repairing each layer of damaged tissue. Straightforward work, but she was out of practice, and trauma medicine had never been her speciality.
If she got out of this, she promised herself, she'd update her skills in emergency medicine. Ongoing retraining and regular shifts in Starbase One's hospital. She might not be a doctor anymore, but by God, she would be able to fill in for a field medic in a pinch.
She liked this line of thinking. It kept her other thoughts at bay: awareness of the similarities between this Browning and her counterpart, the shocking youth of the Acheron's crew.
Browning stirred as Kat completed her work.
"Don't move," Kat told her. "I just performed emergency surgery. Anyway, the restraints are active."
"The inquisitor," said Browning. "Dead?"
"She's fine," Kat told her. "You thirsty?" As Browning drank, Kat said, "The inquisitor's on my ship. Unharmed. Pissed off."
"I thought you people didn't go in for personal loyalty. Shouldn't you be out to stab her in the back?"
Browning started to laugh, but winced.
"The inquisitor's my mentor," she said. "The Empire's better off with her in it. If that ever changes, maybe she won't deserve my loyalty anymore. She serves the greater good, not just her own ambitions."
She was, Kat realised, completely earnest. As devoted to the Empire as Kate. An idealist, in a sick sort of way.
It was disquieting to see how easily Terrans could be better people. Aspire to a better society. Meeting her own counterpart was one thing, but Browning -- the woman Kat knew was sensible. Pragmatic. Decent. But an idealist?
If you can't believe in your society, you need to find individuals who won't let you down.
And when those individuals faltered, there was always the knife in the back.
Gabriel and Kuznetzov arrived after forty minutes to report that the Acheron was secure.
"The Defiant," said Kat. "She'll be a Federation ship again soon."
Of the eighteen people who had beamed over from Discovery, four were dead and six injured. Two of the slaves who had joined them had also been killed.
"Lirenntin?" Kat asked.
"He's fine," said Gabriel. "Saru assigned him to stay with the slaves who couldn't fight. He did a good job."
"Ensign Tilly's organising a medical team from Discovery now," said Lieutenant Kuznetzov.
"And this," Gabriel indicated the silent Bolian woman by his side, "Is Ballin. She worked here in sickbay."
"As a slave?" Kat asked her.
Ballin looked her up and down, then grabbed her injured arm -- not gently -- and reached for a tricorder.
"I was a doctor before the Terrans came," she said. "Do you want this fixed or not?"
When Ballin was done -- moved on to the slaves seeking treatment for fresh injuries and old illnesses -- Kat joined Gabriel at Browning's bedside.
"She sedated?" he asked.
"I didn't want to talk to her," Kat admitted. "Gabriel," she kept her voice low, "Terrans -- they seem so young. Lost, some of them. How do you fight them when they seem so much like us?"
"You mean, do I tell myself they're monsters?"
"I don't, Kat." Gabriel looked at her. "I don't need to. I just kill them."
The Terran prisoners were divided up: officers went into the brigs and the -- locked but deactivated -- agoniser booths; everyone else was confined in the cargo bay, where the temperature was warm and the life support systems emitted a low, steady dose of anaesthezine.
It must seem like a nightmare to them, she thought, holding an oxygen mask to her face as she surveyed the scene. Knowing they were prisoners, yet too sleepy to even think about escape.
"Inquisitor," a woman murmured, "what did we do wrong?"
Oh yes, and to complete the horror, from their perspective, the inquisitor herself had turned on them.
"This is a waste of resources," said Voq. "These Terrans are useless. Keep the ones with valuable information, and beam the rest into space."
"Is that what you'd do?" Kat asked.
"Gabriel wouldn't hesitate."
"Gabriel isn't in command here."
When he was out of earshot, Kat said quietly to Saru, "Make sure Voq isn't left alone with the prisoners."
"Of course, Admiral."
It was early evening, and the day's exertions and tension were getting to her. But there was still so much to do. Kat made her way to her -- to the inquisitor's office, where she discarded her breastplate and took a quarter of an hour to clear up some of the debris left from the fight, telling herself that a change of pace was practically the same thing as rest.
Her lower back disagreed, and it was good to finally sink into the inquisitor's seat with a cup of coffee and a synthesised cheese sandwich.
She knew what her next move was -- take Terran Outpost Four, free the slaves there, do … whatever it was she chose to do with her Terran prisoners. And go home. But she had avoided specifics until she had control of the Defiant and better intelligence about the status quo inside the Empire.
The Defiant was hers. And intelligence was her counterpart's specialty.
Kat opened the inquisitor's files.
As the head of Imperial intelligence, chief of the secret police and the foremost of the caesars, Kate had access to more raw information than anyone else in the Empire. Uncensored histories. Reports on cultures the Federation had yet to encounter. Dossiers on billions of humans throughout the quadrant.
She wanted to dive in. Read everything. Learn everything. Flit from topic to topic as her whims carried her.
Indulging that impulse would be a waste of time. But -- she did need to learn how Kate assembled her data. What she prioritised. What she valued.
She started with the files ranked high priority. The disruption to the movement of slaves within the Empire. Acts of sabotage by rebels and dissidents. Slaves disappearing, as if they had left the universe all together.
She thought of the list L'Rell had given her. Only three hundred people had escaped to the Federation, but the inquisitor had come after them. Because they were valuable?
Or was she scared of the attention they might draw to her empire?
It wasn't the work of a moment to find an intelligence briefing -- for Georgiou, Kat thought, or maybe her predecessor -- on the Federation. A precis of everything the Empire had gleaned from the Defiant's computers a century earlier. Kat skimmed it, recognising her own writing style.
Yes. Kate feared the Federation. Feared the way its diversity, its multiplicity of voices, would aggravate the tensions she worked so hard to smooth over.
And yet -- she kept Gabriel.
Why? Did she want to confront her fear? Or was the counterpart of an ambitious traitor too valuable to waste?
Kate kept voluminous files on everyone she deemed a threat to the Empire. Her data on Lorca alone -- at one point she had three political officers assigned to the Buran. Watching him. Watching each other.
Kat opened a file at random, thirty seconds of footage labelled Emperor's Birthday. Georgiou, in her armour and robe, marched towards the camera. On either side, but a step behind, were Lorca and Cornwell. The emperor's left and right hands.
There was no sign of friendship between them. Lorca glanced at the inquisitor and a sneer briefly crossed his face, and it turned Kat's stomach, because she had seen that same look when she gave him an order he didn't like.
Behind them, hands behind her back, expression unreadable, was Michael Burnham. Young, no more than twenty-five at the very most, but already wearing a captain's uniform.
The shot changed. Georgiou ascended a dais, and Cornwell and Lorca took their places at her side, one level down.
Michael paused at the foot of the stairs. Georgiou indicated a seat, but Michael hesitated, her gaze flicking between her mother and Lorca.
The inquisitor watched her.
Then she took her seat, apparently unaware of Cornwell's scrutiny.
The footage ended.
Kat watched it through twice, then opened the inquisitor's files on Michael. Despite the age difference, Burnham's file was as big as Lorca's, following Michael's life from her birth -- there was a cursory examination of her parents, upstanding Imperial subjects killed in a Vulcan revolt -- to adulthood.
Assessing her as the future emperor, Kat realised, and finding her wanting. And she understood why: the Burnham of this universe was as intelligent as her counterpart, but untested, unreliable. Spoilt.
Kate killed her. And Georgiou will return the favour if she gets a chance.
Enough. It was getting late, and she wasn't achieving anything useful here.
She authorised Captain Una, Commander Burnham and Ensign Tilly to access the inquisitor's files and sent messages inviting them to examine everything and put together a plan for taking Outpost Four. Then she picked up her breastplate and the jacket she had pulled off after her second cup of coffee, and made her way to the inquisitor's quarters.
At first she thought they were empty, but something moved in the darkness, and Gabriel said, "Lights."
He was sitting on the couch, tactical vest discarded, field suit stripped to the waist. Like Kat, he was down to his tank top, and he looked as exhausted as she felt.
"I'm sorry," said Kat. "I thought--"
Gabriel stood up. "I shouldn't be here." He attempted a smile, but it slid away. "Habit."
"I could go."
"They're your quarters."
And they were: there was the bonsai baobab she had carried from assignment to assignment. There was the blanket she had made in med school, because she needed to do something with her hands while she memorised the anatomies of multiple species. Both destroyed along with Starbase Forty, like most of her other possessions, while she recovered from her captivity and the ensuing surgeries.
She realised she was still holding her breastplate and jacket, and went into the bedroom to put them down and peel her boots off, and to remove the pendant she had forgotten she was even wearing.
Despite everything, she realised, she had half-expected to find the inquisitor's bedroom decorated with whips and floggers and erotic art. But this looked like any senior officer's quarters -- larger, to be sure, and not even a fleet admiral enjoyed a bath large enough to hold two adults. But it was comfortable. Almost homely. Perfectly neat, despite the occupant's weeks-long absence.
And you can thank the slaves for that. Best not to forget.
Curious, she spent a few minutes going through the inquisitor's things. Her cosmetics were indeed the same as Kat's, along with her hand lotion and perfume. The bottom drawer of the bedside table held the same sex toys Kat favoured. At the bottom of the inquisitor's jewellery box was a small, plain ring, identical to one Kat had bought when she was eleven years old.
She carried it out with her, saying, "This is made from a piece of twentieth century Earth space debris. I lost mine years ago."
Gabriel was standing, holding a glass of something pale blue. He took a sip and said, "You should keep it."
She had been toying with the idea, but hearing it said out loud made her stomach churn. She dropped the ring, saying, "I don't want anything she's touched."
Oh, well done, Cornwell, she thought.
Out loud, she said, "You're not an object, Gabriel."
He drained his glass, poured another and sank slowly down on the couch.
"I thought I was doing well," he said.
Kat sat, taking one of the armchairs. Best to give him space, she thought.
"Took the ship," he continued. "Casualties, but not as many as I feared. I didn't -- I think I used reasonable force. At least, you didn't relieve me. Or get Burnham to stop me." His lips curled. "You told her to keep an eye on me, right?"
"I guess I'd have done the same thing," he said. "I thought I was okay."
He rotated his glass in his hands. Raised it to his lips, then set it down without drinking.
"I came here. Habit, like I said. And it felt like coming home."
Kat's throat tightened.
"I lived on this ship for less than a year. In these quarters for only part of that. But I walked in, and it was like I had never left. Like everything that's happened since was just a dream. And I was glad to be back where I belong." He scratched at his beard, then added, "To her. Where I belong to her."
"It's sick," he said, "but I was … happy. Here. I wish--"
"Go on," Kat said.
"Part of me wishes I could stay."
He stared at his hands.
"What did she do to me?" he asked. "I can't remember the last time I wasn't afraid. Every single day in this universe, I've been in danger. But I don't want to go home." He looked up. "Will you let me stay?"
Kat said, "No."
He hunched forward, and she had to resist the urge to touch him.
Quietly, she said, "If I wanted to break a person -- that is, if I had all my skills, and no scruples -- I might start by putting him in prison for a while. No contact with the outside world. No communication with anyone. No chance to build a routine. Maybe I'd drug him, sometimes. Or maybe the isolation would be enough. I'd leave him there for a while--"
Gabriel's voice was hoarse.
"Yeah. Yeah, that would be plenty of time. And when I was ready to remove him -- to rescue him -- I'd give him, oh, fresh food. Information, carefully vetted. Exercise. Conversation. Purpose." She found herself reaching for his hand, and stopped. "And choices. I'd always give him choices."
"So he doesn't feel powerless," said Gabriel. "You could even congratulate yourself on your kindness."
"Oh, I like that. And in the end," Kat stood up, wrapping her arms around herself so he wouldn't see her hands were shaking, "there might even come a point where I can trust him. Love him. Maybe."
The way she loved the blanket she had made with her own hands instead of synthesising.
"The thing is," she said, "Kate failed. If you were really her creature, you'd have left the Empire, just like she wanted. But here you are. Destroying all her hard work."
"But she's in my head, Kat. I can't seem to leave her behind." He rose to his feet, grabbing her forearm. "How do I get her out?"
"Time. Therapy." She detached his hand from her arm. "I'm sorry, but it'll be long, hard work."
"Last night, with you, I felt -- normal."
He reached for her again. This time, she allowed him to rest his hands on her upper arms, to draw her into a loose embrace.
"Healing isn't linear," she said. "There are good days and bad. Part of the recovery process is learning to weather the bad times." She slipped her arms around his waist. "It's difficult. And no one can do it for you."
"Michael said something similar."
"She'd know." Kat tilted her face up, resting her cheek against his. "Does physical contact help?"
"Yeah. You're solid. Real." His arms tightened around her shoulders. "The Federation isn't, anymore. Not to me. I know that sounds stupid -- I was on Discovery, I'm wearing a Federation uniform, but--"
"But now you're back here," Kat finished. She stepped back, out of his arms. "When you look at me--"
"I know who you are. You're wearing her face, but--"
"Okay. Good." Kat sank onto the couch and gestured for him to join her. She tucked her legs beneath her, but took his hand. "This," she patted his arm with her other hand, "can't last. When we get back to the Federation--"
"You still think you're bad for me?"
She didn't answer.
His voice was urgent, and he stopped. Surprised, she thought.
"Please," he said. "Don't leave me alone."
"You won't be alone. I promise, Gabriel, whatever Starfleet decides, you won't be abandoned. You'll have a team--"
She squeezed his hand, reinforcing the connection between them, and said carefully, "I spoke to Finn a couple of weeks ago. He misses you."
Gabriel shook his head.
"He grieved for you. Your whole family did."
"I watched him die." He pulled his hand out of Kat's. "He supported my counterpart, so Georgiou tortured him for months and shot him in front of me."
Kat shuddered. But she said, "That wasn't your Finn. Your cousin's alive and well on Starbase Twelve. I promise you, whatever you've done -- or your counterpart -- he'll be so happy to have you back."
"Changed? So what? So have they." She wanted to get up and pace, but settled for stealing the drink he had abandoned. It was sweet, and so alcoholic it took her breath away.
She decided that she liked it.
"Your family lost a lot in the war," she said. "Getting you back -- that's something."
His smile almost met his eyes.
"Am I being self-indulgent this time?" he asked.
"I'll allow it." She swallowed more of the blue liquor. "What am I drinking here?"
"Romulan ale." He pulled the glass from her hand and took a sip. "Not exactly something we can get back home. I'm almost gonna miss it."
He returned the glass to Kat, who drained it and leaned back, stretching her legs over his lap.
She was, she realised, now a little drunk.
Gabriel said, "Being here, I've seen too many of the people I care about die. At my hands, some of them. What do I say to Matt? 'Hey, you look good, considering the last time I saw you, I was stabbing you in the throat'? Assuming he's still alive at all."
"You didn't check?"
"Couldn't." He worried at his scar. "Just couldn't."
"He had a bad war. The Constellation took serious damage. Heavy casualties. But he made it."
Gabriel closed his eyes.
"Your moms are well."
"I figured they would be. Nothing touches them."
"They miss you."
"They didn't even notice I was gone."
He found her ankle and, rather clumsily, patted it.
"It's okay," he said. "I know what they're like. I never expected anything more."
"You might be surprised. Grief changes people."
"Gabriel." Kat sat up, pushing her hair out of her face. "Not many people could have endured what you have with such resilience. I admire that."
"I don't feel very resilient."
"No. But you are." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "That's how I know you'll recover from this."
He leaned against her, one hand in hers.
"My scars," he said.
"It's not just about remembering what I did. That's part of it, but--" He was searching for words. "I need it to be visible," he said. "Everything. My choices, and -- everything else. I can't go forward pretending it didn't happen."
"Yes," said Kat, "I understand."
His mouth found hers, and his lips tasted like tears.
They didn't sleep together that night. They were too exhausted, and even with a glass of Romulan ale in her system, Kat wasn't so far gone as to have sex with Gabriel in the inquisitor's bed. They stripped to their underwear and climbed beneath the covers, and the only physical connection between them was their hands touching.
Kat fell asleep quickly.
Her dream took her to Cancri IV, and as the Klingons slit her guards' throats, she thought, I should have seen this coming.
Not the trap. The nightmare.
A part of her mind remained lucid, urging her subconscious to take control. So she turned and ran, only to have L'Rell's clawed hand close around her throat.
"At least you will not die in a cage, Admiral," she said, slamming Kat's head into a power conduit.
Her own gasp woke her up, and she lay there, sweaty, sick to her stomach, with an ache -- entirely psychosomatic, she thought -- in her recently-injured shoulder.
After a few minutes, she realised she was alone in the inquisitor's bed.
Gabriel was in the living area, slumped in an armchair with his head in his hands.
Kat asked, "Did I wake you?" and she reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
He flinched, and she realised too late that he wasn't quite awake. But he was armed, and the little knife in his hand shone as he lashed out.
Kat ducked away, losing her balance and falling onto the couch, and it was the other Lorca she was seeing, his hand around her neck--
Gabriel had the same wild-eyed terror in his eyes, but he simply dropped the knife and sank back into his chair.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked.
She tried to say, Didn't even come close, but found she couldn't form words. Instead, to her horror, she started to cry. And it hurt, every sob felt like a stab wound in her chest and abdomen. She couldn't breathe, and she couldn't make it stop.
Gabriel just watched, and she wished she could control herself long enough to thank him for not trying to touch her.
Finally she managed to calm down enough to flee to the bathroom and hold a damp cloth to her face until she could breathe normally again.
One of the drawers contained the inquisitor's personal pharmaceuticals: anti-intoxicants, mild analgesics, nothing that would raise an eyebrow in the Federation. Kat injected herself with a painkiller.
Then she pulled one of the blankets off the inquisitor's bed, grabbed a pillow, and carried them out to Gabriel.
He had moved to the couch, staring at his hands.
"Here." She handed him the bedding. "Or I can take the couch, if--"
"This is fine."
He nodded to where it had fallen to the floor. Kat picked it up and slipped it into his sheath.
"Still think I'm resilient?" he asked.
"At this point, I'm wondering which of us has more impaired judgement."
He nodded, a bitter smile on his lips.
"Gabriel," she said, "I want to give you every support I reasonably can, but if you ever pull a weapon on me again--"
Her throat was too tight to go on.
"I understand," he said.
"Good," she whispered.
She managed to get a couple of hours of sleep, and if it wasn't exactly refreshing, at least there were no more nightmares.
Kat showered. Washed herself with the inquisitor's soap. Dried off with the inquisitor's clean towel, got dressed in the inquisitor's clean underwear and uniform. Applied the inquisitor's make-up, not quite as perfect as L'Rell had, but close enough. Who would get close enough to inspect her face in such minute detail?
She skipped the breastplate, and found a pair of flat ankle boots in the inquisitor's closet. It would do, for now.
Gabriel was still asleep, curled into a foetal position on the couch. Kat replaced the blanket, which had fallen, taking care not to touch him.
Then she went in search of the mess hall.
She found it busy: Discovery personnel mingled with former slaves, most of whom looked wary as they sat at the tables previously used by their masters. A handful started at her appearance. A Kelpien woman reached up to touch her threat ganglia. Puzzled, Kat realised, to find they weren't erect.
Lirenntin sat with Saru and L'Rell, deep in conversation. He caught Kat's eye as she ordered a croissant and a pot of strong, sweet coffee from the synthesiser.
Taking the hint, she joined his table.
"You look like you have something on your mind," she said when she had swallowed her first mouthful.
"I do." Click. "You've done so much for me, Admiral -- you and all your Federation people. You've been very kind."
Why does it sound like you're building up to an apology? Kat decided to nod, and concentrate on her breakfast.
"Yesterday, I stayed with the slaves who couldn't fight," Lirenntin continued. "They trusted me because I'm Kelpien -- and because I was free, but not armed." Lowering his voice, he said, "A lot of them are afraid of the rebels. They don't see much difference between the Klingons and the Terrans. But Kelpiens -- we're everywhere, and we're invisible, and we don't hurt people, because--" he gave a wry click -- "I suppose because we're the ones who get hurt."
"You're going to stay, aren't you?" she said.
"Part of me wants to go back with you," Lirenntin admitted. "I'd like to visit my homeworld. Join Starfleet. Learn things. But I can help, here."
Kat put her hand on his arm.
Saru said, "I'm disappointed, of course, for selfish reasons. But I'm also very proud."
"I," said L'Rell, "am delighted. And unsurprised." She grinned. "This is what the rebels have needed. Voq can't destroy the Empire alone -- not even Master Sarek can do that. We need people with great courage, great honour -- and more brains than ego." She turned to Kat. "Speaking of such idiots, where is Gabriel this morning?"
L'Rell nodded, understanding.
"Good," she said. "When you've finished eating, I'll help you with your breastplate."
On their way back to Kate's quarters, L'Rell said, quietly, "A bad night?"
"Bad enough." Kat considered confiding in her, but there was too much to tell. The other Lorca, her own captivity, and every bad decision that culminated in her and Gabriel effectively triggering each other.
And she was wary of the easy rapport she had formed with this L'Rell. Not because she mistrusted or disliked her -- more the opposite -- but she was conscious that she found the L'Rell of the Terran universe approachable and friendly because this girl had been enslaved by humans from childhood, separated from her own culture and language. Even her posture was more human than the woman Kat had met on the Ship of the Dead.
She pushed all that side and said, "Does Gabriel have bad nights often?"
"Sometimes they seemed to stop entirely, and I'd think, good, he's healing. Then it starts again." L'Rell shrugged. "Human minds are strange."
"Tell me about it."
Gabriel was up and dressed when they returned, greeting Kat with a smile that belied the dark circles under his eyes.
"Checking up on me?" he asked L'Rell.
"Helping the admiral dress." L'Rell looked from Gabriel to Kat, and added, "I'll get your breastplate."
"You okay?" Gabriel asked as soon as she was gone.
Kat could only give a non-committal hum in answer. "You?"
"Same." He reached for her, then stopped. "Guess I'm not the only one with Terran PTSD."
"Among other things. We're very bad for each other."
"And we used to be so good."
He was trying so damn hard. It hurt to watch.
"You don't have to flirt with me," she said.
"Sometimes I want to."
Kat put her hands behind her back. "If you need to be relieved--"
"No one would think less of you."
"I need to see this through."
L'Rell appeared in the doorway.
"My tactful withdrawal is done," she said. "Time to get dressed, Admiral."
This time, Gabriel just watched as L'Rell worked.
"How many of the Acheron slaves are joining the rebels?" he asked.
"A quarter, so far. Lirenntin might persuade more." L'Rell snapped the breastplate into place. "He's staying with us."
"I thought he might," said Gabriel. "He's a good kid."
"Another twenty-two want to go underground." To Kat, she clarified, "I know you think we sent too many slaves to the Federation, but they were just a fraction of the number we freed. Most prefer to go home, or to disappear on the edge of Terran space. They aren't ready to leave everything they know."
"And we didn't tell everyone about the Federation," Gabriel added. "For one thing, we didn't want to flood your universe with people who hadn't even made first contact yet."
"Eight people coming with us, then," said Kat. "You'll take care of the rest, L'Rell?"
"Of course. There are plenty of ships in the Acheron's loading bays." She tapped the back of Kat's hand. "Gloves, Admiral." And as Kat pulled them on, L'Rell continued, "All with disguised or blank transponders, courtesy of Imperial intelligence. I should thank the inquisitor."
She faltered, the inquisitor's gauntlets in her hands.
"Do you want to see her?" Gabriel asked.
"No," said L'Rell. "You?"
Gabriel didn't answer, and looked anywhere but at L'Rell's face.
His gaze fell upon Kate's dressing table, and the jewellery box Kat had left sitting open.
"Huh," he said, and swooped, picking up the platinum pendant.
"Sorry," said Kat. "I forgot to put it on. I guess I'm not used to wearing personal jewellery on duty."
"It's fine," he said, but his attention was on the pendant. He examined it for a moment, then slipped it into his pocket.
Kat raised her eyebrows.
"Thinking," he said.
"I called a meeting to discuss Terran Outpost Four," Kat said. "0700."
It was 0654.
"Meetings," said L'Rell as they made their way to the inquisitor's office. "With all the time you people spend in meetings, it's a miracle Federation humans ever left your home world."
The group assembled in the inquisitor's office were the people Kat had started to think of as the key players. Herself. Gabriel. Una. Burnham and Tilly. Saru. L'Rell, Lirenntin and Voq.
"What do you think of my new ship?" Kat asked Una.
"It's in remarkable condition, for its age."
"Barely looks a day over seventy," said Gabriel.
"I was wondering, Admiral," said Saru, "how will you explain its appearance in the Federation?"
"I won't," said Kat, sitting on the couch and gesturing for everyone else to make themselves comfortable. "That is, if anyone outside the Federation Council and senior command asks, they'll be told it's classified."
"There'll be rumours," said Gabriel.
"Good. I always need a laugh."
"So do I," said Voq. "I find it amusing when Terrans plead for mercy. What have you learned about Outpost Four?"
Kat waved at Tilly.
"Okay," the ensign said. "Michael and I were up most of the night going through the Terran files, and we found some amazing -- anyway. Outpost Four is basically a small starbase, used exclusively for the trafficking and, um, storage of slaves. Once in a while, it's used for crew transfers, but there are bigger, better facilities in the sector. It's an old starbase, and aside from defences, its systems are on the verge of obsolescence."
"We know this," said Voq. "L'Rell and I conducted our own reconnaissance a week ago."
Kat ignored him and said, "Go on, Ensign. Who's in command?"
"That would be one Rear Admiral Anthony Bailey." Tilly pulled up a visual of a middle-aged man. "His Federation counterpart's an architect. Never joined Starfleet, model citizen. The admiral's been decorated for proficiency with poisons and valour in combat, but honestly? His career's been pretty quiet for the last ten years. The intelligence dossier described him as 'loyal but unremarkable'."
"Other Starfleet crew?" Una asked.
"Only seventy-three Starfleet officers are currently assigned to Outpost Four, but there's another hundred Terrans from the Imperial Slaver Corp."
"Jesus," said Kat without thinking.
"Good," said L'Rell. "The slavers have less training than Starfleet. They're easier to kill."
"Weapons systems?" Kat asked.
"Sophisticated," said Michael, "and in better condition than the rest of the station." She took over the display, bringing up schematics: phaser cannon, photon torpedo launchers. "But that's the least of its defences. Starfleet's preparing to begin internal slave shipments again. In the last week," she glanced at Voq, "four ships have been assigned to patrol the sector and protect slave transports."
"I guess we should take that as a compliment," said Gabriel.
"A damned inconvenient one," Kat said.
He just shook his head and stood up, opening a tactical display. Star maps. Imperial troop movements.
"The ships patrol on a regular schedule," he said at last. "Between 0214 and 0307, the only starship within two hours will be the ISS Kissinger. If they get a distress signal out--"
"I have some ideas for jamming communications," said Tilly.
"--we'll have time for a getaway."
"'Distress signal'." Voq sneered. "This is the Acheron. Order them to drop shields, then lock onto every human lifesign and beam them all into space."
"That," said Saru with distaste, "is not how this crew behaves."
Voq said, "Gabriel, you--"
"I'm not in charge here," said Gabriel. "And last time I was, you didn't like how I handled things."
Voq shook his head in disgust and resignation.
Kat said, "The Terran Empire strikes me as the sort of place where the secret police turn up in the middle of the night to pull dissidents out of their beds."
"The inquisitor rarely conducted such arrests personally," said L'Rell.
"That would make her appearance all the more terrifying," said Michael.
"The prisoners, yesterday," said Kat, "they thought the inquisitor had betrayed them. Or that they failed her in some way."
"That's how she'd see it," Gabriel said.
"One hundred and seventy-three Terrans," said Una. "Some trained only to deal with slaves. Can we restrain them in fifty-three minutes?"
"Easily," said L'Rell.
"Before they can get a message out or arm the station's defences?"
"I'm pretty sure I can jam comms," said Tilly. "If Michael and Bryce can give me a hand going through Terran systems files--"
"The Terran tactical officers will not anticipate Discovery's unusual capabilities," said Saru.
"What capabilities are these?" Voq asked.
"Some kind of experimental propulsion drive," Gabriel told him, "but no one's authorised me to know how it works or what it's based on."
"Mushrooms," she said. She pulled up the tactical display again, overlaying it against the station schematics.
"Make sure you all get some rest today," she told her people. "We're going to have a busy night."
Kat asked Gabriel and Michael to stay behind after she dismissed everyone else.
"You won't be part of the boarding party this time," she told them.
"Kat," Gabriel began, but she held up her hand to silence him.
"I need an experienced captain in command of the Defiant. Commander Burnham will be your acting first officer and tactical."
If anything, his dismay deepened.
"I can't -- I'm not--" He stopped. "Would the crew accept me?" he asked. "After--"
"I believe they would," said Michael. "Your counterpart wasn't unpopular. We were proud to be his crew. And despite … everything--" Michael's pause could have encompassed shortcomings from Gabriel's friendship with a Klingon to severing Georgiou's tendons -- "many of us would be pleased to serve under the real Gabriel Lorca."
Gabriel looked utterly taken aback. He recovered, saying, "I guess these are the only people in Starfleet who know I didn't kill my crew."
But he was still reluctant.
"If it helps," said Michael, "you can be quite sure I won't hesitate to relieve you if you divert from our mission."
Kat raised her eyebrows, but Gabriel threw his head back and laughed.
"Okay, Commander," he said, clapping Michael on her shoulder, "it's a deal." He added to Kat, "I want Ensign Tilly at ops."
"Already in hand," said Kat. "You're both dismissed."
But Gabriel picked up one of the inquisitor's handheld scanners, and Michael paused in the doorway to watch.
He pulled the platinum necklace from his pocket and activated the scanner.
It projected a long string of numbers. Coordinates.
"The gateway," said Michael.
"And," Gabriel was scrolling through the display, "the frequency of the tetryon bombardment that activates it."
"And not," said Kat, "stored on any computer databases."
"Kept where only she could find it." Gabriel was smiling. "She was telling the truth."
Only in the technical sense, in Kat's opinion. But she held her tongue and watched him delete the information and return the necklace to his pocket.
There was almost a swing in his step as he followed Michael out. And Kat was, she realised, happy for him. A small piece of certainty had returned to his life.
Alone, she synthesised more coffee and got to work, reviewing the volumes of information about Outpost Four and its crew, and fielding the constant waves of intelligence coming in from Kate's agents and informants around the Empire. Most of these required nothing more than an acknowledgement, sent under Browning's ID codes. A handful, from senior agents and political officers, required personal interactions.
At least none of these people worked closely with the inquisitor. She smiled, made noncommittal noises, let silences stretch into awkwardness before Kate's vassals made excuses -- some almost bordered on apologies -- and signed off.
Was she convincing? She only had to keep up the performance a little longer. Days, at most. In twenty-four hours' time, she'd have control of Outpost Four. Or they'd all be dead. Or captured.
Her orders to Una were unambiguous: if this mission failed, she was to take Discovery back to the Federation. If Una could rescue anyone without risking her ship, she should do so, but her first priority was Discovery and its crew.
And if they succeeded, Kat would have to decide at last what to do with the inquisitor and the former emperor. And all her other Terran prisoners.
"The first people to die will be aliens and slaves," the inquisitor had said. "Keep that in mind when you're 'liberating' my Empire."
It galled her to admit it, but Kate was right: Kat didn't have the stomach for the casualties that would follow the total collapse of the Terran Empire.
Nor did she have the time or resources to see its destruction through. Empires didn't fall because individuals made one sweeping gesture. It would be long, difficult work, and -- like Gabriel's recovery -- it would take years.
Your own recovery, too. For once, the analytical part of her mind was kind.
What she had to do, then, was give the tools for dismantling the Empire to the people who could use them.
Time to visit Discovery. There was someone she needed to speak to.
She found Sarek walking around his quarters, stretching his new prosthetic hand.
"Looks good," said Kat, nodding at his face. They didn't have the time or facilities to perform a complete reconstruction, but the terrible damage had been replaced by realistic skin and thin, neat scars. "Are you in any discomfort?"
"None at all," said Sarek. "Although the sensations," he picked up a glass in his new hand, turned it over, then put it down again, "will take some getting used to."
"I have questions for you."
Sarek gestured for her to sit.
"When you fight the Terrans," she said, "how do you resist the urge to simply … take revenge?"
Sarek raised one eyebrow.
"What makes you assume I do?"
"The inquisitor has a dossier on you. You have a son in Starfleet."
"Spock and I haven't spoken in many years."
"But if he's posted to a ship, your rebels won't attack it."
"Coincidence. My son is a collaborator."
A human might have begun to pace, or at least avoided Kat's gaze. Sarek met her eyes, his expression bland.
"I cannot blame him," he said. "I raised him to believe that cooperating with Terrans was logical. When I began to have doubts, I kept them to myself. I didn't realise the depth of my error until Spock announced his intention to join Starfleet. After he left Vulcan, I joined the rebels."
"Do you think he'll ever change his mind? As you did?"
"I gave him the same tools I had. Logic. Curiosity. A sense of duty. He is, of course, also his mother's son. But I believe he is his own man."
This, Kat suspected, was as close as a Vulcan came to saying, I hope so.
"My I make an observation, Admiral?"
"You have an irrational hope that the Terran Empire can be destroyed and transformed into something better. Without excessive loss of life."
"I guess I seem very naive to you."
Sarek did not disagree.
"I've done a great deal of reading as I recover," he said. "Your history. Political treatises. Philosophy. Such works are forbidden in the Empire."
"So I've gathered."
"Nevertheless, unauthorised and dissident publications circulate. Even Terrans are hungry for new ideas."
"The inquisitor makes sure they never get far."
"It occurs to me that you're ideally positioned to change that, Admiral. Have you heard the word 'glasnost'?"
"Maybe?" It rang a very distant bell. "History was never my strong suit."
"It means 'openness' in one of the human languages. It described political reforms and an easing of censorship in the final years of an oppressive nation-state on your planet." Sarek raised one eyebrow. "The Acheron has complete control over Imperial information systems. And all dissident publications pass through the inquisitor's hands eventually."
Kat smiled. Yes. Oh yes, she could do something with this. She couldn't destroy the Empire in a night, but she could drop a stone in the pond and let the ripples expand.
"In the spirit of openness," she said, "I have the inquisitor and the former emperor in my brig."
Sarek looked unsurprised. Not that he'd show--
She continued, "Not to mention the rest of the Terran prisoners. I'm not quite sure what to do with them."
"Voq would call for a public execution. I'm inclined to agree with him."
"I know. I'm … uncomfortable with that."
Sarek's expression didn't change, but she sensed his disappointment.
He said, "My human wife had a saying: give them enough rope to hang themselves. Why not turn the Terrans loose in their slaver outpost? Arm them, and leave. Voq and I shall deal with the survivors."
"That feels like an abrogation of responsibility."
"Admiral," said Sarek, "you can only be responsible for your own actions. If violence ensues, that is a choice made by others."
Kat stared at him. She completely disagreed -- that wasn't how the chain of command worked. And yet, she was beginning to feel the stirrings of an idea.
"Sarek," she said, "I could kiss you."
He looked alarmed.
"But I won't."
"I'm relieved to hear it."
She stood up. "Thank you," she said, "for your counsel."
At 0214 hours, the Acheron decloaked over Outpost Four, its communications officer -- Discovery's Ensign Sommer -- signalling that the station was undergoing inspection in accordance with Terran protocol X-874, and ordering the crew to drop shields and prepare to be boarded.
The officer who responded sounded tired, confused, and -- if Kat was any judge -- impaired, either by alcohol or some other substance.
"But it's the middle of the night," she said.
"Yes," said Sommer, her usually cheerful voice an octave lower than usual, "and Inquisitor Cornwell is eager to begin her inspection. Shall I tell her this delay is your fault?"
"Uh, no, no, I'll -- dropping shields now. Please stand by."
"I guess this is where they send the Empire's dregs," said Kat.
"They can't all be evil geniuses," Gabriel said.
He was sitting in the captain's chair like he belonged there, and if he was still ambivalent about being in command, he gave no sign. With a skeleton crew in blue, the Defiant almost felt like a Federation ship again.
"Their shields are down, Admiral," said Tilly.
"Took them long enough," Gabriel muttered. He turned to Michael. "Don't take your eyes off their weapons systems, Commander. All we need is some cowboy deciding to be a hero."
"Transporter room's signalling, Admiral," said Sommer. "The first boarding parties are away."
"Good. Tell them I'm heading down."
The "Terran" boarding parties consisted of human Discovery officers, back in the uniforms they had worn on their last visit to this universe. People from every department had volunteered for this mission, but everyone wore security bronze.
All but five were already on the station; Kat's own team waited for her on the transporter pad.
She took a moment to square her shoulders, check that her sidearm and hypospray were in place.
Then she took position on the pad.
Sommer hailed from the bridge.
"Boarding party reports the station's secure," she said.
"Thank you," said Kat. "Energise."
Outpost Four was overheated and its atmosphere smelled of mould, a sign of inadequate life support maintenance. The lights were dimmed, still in night mode -- the better to leave the Terrans nervous and vulnerable -- but a few flickered here and there.
Slaves were kept on the lower levels, behind a separate layer of force fields. If the Terrans lived in relative squalor, Kat could only imagine what kind of conditions the slaves endured.
Flanked by her 'guards', she strode through the narrow corridor and into the central chamber where the Terrans were assembled.
Under normal circumstances, she guessed, this space was a combination mess hall, officers lounge and informal gaming facility. The lights here were turned up to maximum, revealing every stain on the faded, garish carpet.
The crew milled about between the tables. Most were still in their pyjamas, some clad only in their underwear or robes.
None, at least, were armed.
A flutter of fear moved through the prisoners as they recognised her, and they saluted and bowed.
Kat ignored them all as she marched through the crowd, keeping her gaze fixed on her target. She took her time: her task here was to keep the Terrans under control while a team from Discovery took over the station's defences and dropped the shields around the slave quarters.
Admiral Bailey was about her age, but looked older. His face had the puffy redness of a man who drank too much, and his eyes were bloodshot.
"Inquisitor," he said, his voice a rasp. "C-caesar."
He sketched a belated, sloppy salute.
"Admiral Bailey," she said. "Not quite the welcome I was expecting."
"If we'd known you were coming, Inquisitor…" He trailed off, throwing a glance at a nearby officer. Did we know she was coming?
The officer shook his head.
"Protocol X-874 gives me the right to conduct a surprise inspection on any Imperial ship or outpost," said Kat, keeping her voice even. "I'm afraid the officer on duty was hesitant to obey my lawful command."
"Drunk," Kat finished for him. "Or high."
He looked down.
"I hope I don't have to tell you about the problems we've been having with misplaced slaves," said Kat.
"I conducted the investigation personally. Do you know where the problem lies?"
Bailey shook his head.
"Here. With you."
Bailey looked up, his eyes wide. He was beginning to sweat.
"No," he said, "I swear, Inquisitor, I'm a loyal subject, I wouldn't--"
"Thirty enslaved children left this station and walked straight into rebel hands. Am I to believe that's coincidence?"
"Yes! I mean -- Inquisitor, please, if there's a traitor on board, I promise you, it's not me."
Implacable, she said, "Someone in your crew, then. In your chain of command."
"Then punish them. It's not my fault."
Kat wanted to slap him. Yes, the charges were entirely manufactured, but it was the duty of a senior officer to take responsibility for his subordinates. He had no business commanding so much as a garbage scow--
Look, you're angry again.
How would the inquisitor use her rage? Kat took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and didn't bother to hide her contempt for Bailey.
"Don't worry, Admiral Bailey," she said. "Everyone will get the justice they deser--"
She was interrupted by a red alert klaxon and the unmistakable impact of a photon torpedo against the station's defensive shields.
"Status report," Kat snapped at Discovery Lieutenant Commander Patel, who already had her communicator in her hand.
"The station just fired three photon torpedos at the D-- Acheron," she said.
Kat rounded on Bailey.
"Who's missing?" she demanded.
"Your crew were ordered to assemble here. Yet someone is firing weapons at my ship. Who?"
Ashen, he scanned the crowd.
"Papadopoulos," he said at last. "But she's yours, Inquisitor."
For a moment, she didn't know what he meant.
"She's the political officer you assigned to Outpost Four. Isn't she?"
The station shook again.
"Patel," said Kat quietly, "tell Captain Lorca to disable the station's shields and beam Voq and L'Rell straight to weapons control. Let them know there's at least one Terran loose in there."
"And remind Captains Una and Lorca that they'll be answering to Admiral Drake if they blow me up."
Patel gave her a look which said she had no intention of repeating that to a pair of senior officers. Sound judgement, Kat thought, good professional--
Something moved on the edge of Kat's vision. Bailey had come closer while Kat spoke to Patel, staying in her blind spot.
Close enough to hear our conversation over the alarms?
As the station rocked, he said,"'Admiral'? You're not--"
Kat drew her phaser and fired.
Good instincts. Fast. All that training has paid off.
The rest of Kat's team had their weapons in hand, and the station's crew, Starfleet and slaver alike, drew back.
The station's shaking intensified, and Kat wondered if Gabriel was intent on destroying it outright.
Then it stopped.
For a moment, everyone -- Federation, Terran -- held their breath.
Lieutenant Commander Patel's communicator chirped. She listened, then nodded to Kat.
"Station's secure, ma'am," she said.
"Good. I want these prisoners restrained." She scowled at the Terrans, daring them to challenge her, but Bailey's failure had killed their last defiant urge.
At least, she thought, he was only stunned. Her counterpart would have killed him.
"Restrain the prisoners," she told her people. "I'll be in weapons control."
Patel followed her out.
"Bodyguard, Admiral," she said. "Just in case."
"Aren't you an astrophysicist?"
"Yes, but thanks to the fake Lorca, I'm rated level 2 in hand to hand and small arms combat."
"It's an ill wind, I guess."
God, she was good at sounding normal.
In weapons control she found Voq, L'Rell and a dead Terran. There was no sign of the squad Captain Una had sent to capture this section.
"The political officer?" Kat asked, nodding at the Terran's body.
"She set a trap for your boarding party." Voq pulled up security footage of the squad being vapourised. "It was a disruptor grenade." He must have seen something in Kat's face, because he added, gruffly, "It is a painless death."
Judging by the Terran's injuries, she had not been so lucky.
"I lowered the shields around the slave quarters," said L'Rell. "Saru and the others are there now."
"Get down there," Kat told her. "You've got the most experience with this."
Voq remained. The mechanisms driving his prosthetics clicked and wheezed as he shifted his weight.
"There are three slave transport ships docked," he told Kat.
"Good. Take two. And strip this place. I don't want to leave the Terrans with a single weapon or working subspace radio."
Voq made a noise which might have been a laugh.
"Medical supplies?" he asked.
"Leave some. And food."
"Beaming them into space would be more efficient. And a kinder death than they would give us."
"I know. But it's not my way."
"No." Voq studied her. "When I met Burnham on Harlak, for a moment I felt hope for Terrans."
"I imagine that passed pretty quickly."
"Indeed. Then I met Gabriel, who fights like a Terran but claims to be something else. You, and Burnham, and the rest of your people -- you're different." His gaze was distant. "I lost more than my limbs at Harlak. I no longer had faith in people. I will never trust a Terran, but I used to believe collaborators could change. That the universe could truly be made better. I was a fool to lose that hope. I should have listened to L'Rell." He gave Kat a hard look. "Do not tell Gabriel I said that."
"My lips are sealed," said Kat. "Go recruit some more rebels, Voq."
Alone, Kat checked the time. It was not quite three am. They had eleven minutes to secure Outpost Four before the nearest patrolling starship was back in range.
At least, she thought, from what she had seen of the station's crew, the patrol ships were probably used to a certain sloppiness. Easy for Federation officers to impersonate the Terran dregs until the next window opened.
In twenty-four hours, Discovery and Defiant would be en route back to the gateway. Back to the Federation. Home.
But first, she had to deal with the emperor.
And the inquisitor.
Being a flag officer meant Kat could delegate the minutiae to Una and Gabriel. Treating the sick and injured among the liberated slaves, reuniting the children on Discovery with their parents, figuring out who would return to the Federation and how they would be accommodated -- it was all taken care of, along with securing the new Terran prisoners and, at Saru's suggestion, removing the cutlery most likely to be used as a weapon.
Kat, for her part, went over the list of officers killed in the taking of the Defiant and Outpost Four, and prepared messages for their families.
Then, her sense of triumph tempered by melancholy, she returned to the inquisitor's quarters, pulled off her breastplate and shoulder guards, and curled up on the couch with the blanket Gabriel had used.
At some point she woke up and realised she was still wearing gloves and boots. She hadn't gone to bed with her shoes on since the war.
She fell asleep again before she could do anything about it.
She woke again a few hours later with a crick in her neck and a full bladder. She pulled the gloves off as she made her way into the bathroom, dropping them on the inquisitor's dressing table.
Gabriel was asleep on the inquisitor's bed. He, at least, had stripped down to tank top and shorts, even if he hadn't made it under the blankets. He stirred as Kat passed.
He was awake when she emerged, freshly showered and wrapped in a towel.
"Sorry," said Kat, pulling a clean uniform from Kate's closet. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
"I was already waking up."
He stretched, watching her with a sleepy smile, and if it wasn't for his scars, and her own myriad aches, she could have pretended it was fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago.
He held out his hand to her and Kat abandoned good judgement and took it, allowing Gabriel to draw her down to the bed and into his arms.
Their lips met, and she gave up on trying to hold her towel in place.
Their first kiss, she recalled, had been in the Academy gymnasium, late in their second year, when they finally gave up the pretense of sparring. They spent most of the summer together, and they watched the Perseids, and visited Lake Victoria, and Berlin, and more. Exploring Earth while they made plans to explore the galaxy.
God, it had been easy then.
Gabriel's hand found the scar on her shoulder, and he stiffened, pushing her away.
Kat's breath caught in her throat, and she sat up, retrieving her towel.
"Sorry," he said.
Kat ran her hand over the scar on her upper lip.
"Time I got rid of these, anyway," she said, and she paused only long enough to put on clean underpants.
She removed the scars herself while Gabriel showered, and though she pulled on her pants and tank top, she held off on the jacket until he was out.
"I have my face back," she said.
"It suits you. Need a hand with your boots?"
"Don't bother. I'm just about done being the inquisitor." Kat pulled on the ankle boots she had worn yesterday. "I'll pick up my own uniforms on Discovery."
"Good." He sat on the side of the bed, looking at his hands. "Kat, about before--"
"You don't have to apologise."
"I know, I'm not -- it's just--" He was struggling for words. "Kate seemed to think I'd … go home and replicate what we had with you. That you and she were interchangeable."
"Coming from her, I could almost take it as a compliment."
Her attempt at levity fell flat.
Gabriel said, "I thought she was wrong. That she and I, and you and I, have different relationships. But now--" he looked up, but he was avoiding her gaze, "I find I want you to treat me the way she did. And vice versa."
Kat sat beside him, not touching him, but leaving her hand where he could take it, if he wanted.
"I can't go back to what I was before," he said. "I knew it last night, commanding the Acheron. And you--"
"We can build something new," said Kat. "Start with ourselves, separately. Get to a point where we can be friends again. After that, who knows?"
His hand closed around hers.
"I don't want to lose you again," she said. "I know I'm the one who said we should stop sleeping together, but a lot has changed since then."
"I may not even stay in Starfleet."
"Even if you do. If you come out of this still wanting--"
"I can't imagine not wanting you." He smiled. "Of course, that's my problem. That, and I pulled a knife on you night before last."
"Yeah. That was…" She couldn't put it into words. "We were always good together," she said at last. "If we can get to a point where we're not triggering flashbacks and panic attacks in each other, I think we might be good again." She shifted, putting her head on his shoulder, holding their hands in her lap. "It wasn't you who hurt me. And I'm not scared of anything you could want from me. You just need to ask."
He exhaled slowly and squeezed her fingers.
"Get dressed," Kat told him, kissing his cheek. "We have work to do."
On Discovery, Kat changed back into her comfortable blue uniform. She looked tired, she decided as she donned her rank insignia, but she could live with that. She was back in her own life.
Even if her next orders were to have her travel bag transferred to the Defiant.
She found Gabriel in the cargo bay where the children were accommodated. Only a few were around; the rest were on Outpost Four, being reunited with parents and relatives.
Those who remained had no one.
Kat counted two Klingons, a Saurian, three Andorians, a reptilian boy whose species she didn't recognise -- he had been almost catatonic when she first examined the kids; she was glad to see him awake and alert, if subdued -- and the Tellarite teenager whom Gabriel had allowed to join a boarding party.
She sat beside him on an empty crate, shoulders slumped, her eyes so swollen from tears that they were almost invisible. Gabriel had an arm around her shoulder; he looked up as Kat approached, and nudged the girl to let her know they had company.
The girl hesitated, then moved over to make room for Kat on the crate.
"Her mom didn't make it," said Gabriel.
Kat nodded; she had guessed as much.
"I'm so sorry," she said.
The girl gave her a blank look; clearly, apologies from humans were beyond her experience.
"I don't know what I should do now," she said.
"Come to the Federation," said Gabriel at once. "Same plan as before."
"But -- alone." She wiped her snout. "I didn't think it would be just me."
"The Federation will find you a foster family on Tellar Prime or one of its colonies," said Kat. "You'll be able to go to school. Grow up in safety."
"What about the others?" She nodded at the other children.
"You'll probably be kept together at first," Kat admitted. Finding culturally appropriate foster families with high enough clearances to get an idea of where their new children had come from was a job she would be very happy to delegate. Not to mention that one child came from people the Federation had yet to meet.
And then there were the Klingons. "Chancellor L'Rell, I have two Klingon kids who were captured and enslaved by humans, but not Federation humans, so let's not let this interfere with the ceasefire, okay?"
"I want to stay with you," the girl told Gabriel.
"Kid, I'm not fit to take care of an animal right now, let alone another person."
Her face crumpled.
"Listen," he said, "I promise, I'll do everything I can to watch over you. All of you. I won't just leave you on your own."
"And neither will the admiral." His eyes met Kat's. "We're not going to abandon you in a strange universe."
"It's true," said Kat, taking the girl's hand. "And there'll be other families, too. You won't be alone."
Slowly, she nodded.
"I'm sorry," said Kat, "I don't even know your name."
"She doesn't share it," said Gabriel.
"It's private." The girl stared at her hands, fidgeting with her cloven nails. And she said, so quietly that Kat almost missed it, "I'm Rella."
"You'll be okay, Rella," said Gabriel. "I promise."
Of all the slaves they had liberated -- nearly six hundred and eighty all up, including the children -- only ninety-eight chose to come to the Federation.
"You're surprised?" Gabriel asked.
"A little." Kat looked at the numbers again. Even some of the reunited families chose to stay in the Empire. "I know it's a big step, leaving your universe, but--"
"Better the devil you know," said Gabriel.
"And even if they don't join the rebels," said Lirenntin, "they can help. Some people are going to Freehold Base. It's a good place to disappear."
They were walking through the deserted corridors of Outpost Four. Through the combined efforts of Discovery's crew and the former slaves, the station was all but a shell. Weapons, medical supplies and any tools or technology that could be carried had been loaded onto various ships: slave transports, the assorted smaller craft the Acheron carried, even Admiral Bailey's personal yacht. There was a rumour that Sarek had appropriated the admiral's supply of contraband Romulan ale. The Terran prisoners would be left with slave rations, and water, and blunt eating instruments.
The former slave quarters, when Kat arrived, were small and dimly lit to her Federation eyes, but sterile, with adequate bedding and blankets courtesy of the Acheron's stores.
Not that the prisoners were grateful. They were housed in groups of four or six, depending on the size of the quarters, confined by forcefields -- slave quarters on Outpost Four had nothing so luxurious as doors -- and they watched sullenly as Kat conducted her inspection.
Commander Browning, Captain Whelan and Admiral Bailey were housed together. Bailey sat on his bed, looking defeated; Whelan was asleep. But Browning approached the forcefield as Kat neared.
"Will you leave us here to rot?" she demanded.
"That's up to you," said Kat.
Browning's nostrils flared.
"I'm giving you a chance."
"And the inquisitor?" Browning asked. "What will you do to her?"
"Don't worry, Julie," said Kat. "Everyone comes home."
At 0214, the rebels and most of the liberated slaves left Outpost Four.
They departed in waves. Voq left with the first group, aboard a transport ship with a false transponder and a full set of Imperial-issue photon torpedos. L'Rell, who was going with Discovery as far as the gateway, gave him an affectionate nip in farewell.
Stonn and T'Pring left with the third group. Their ship was only lightly armed, and would take a circuitous route through Imperial space to Romulan territory.
"It was fascinating to meet you," T'Pring told Michael.
"Likewise," Michael said. "Peace and long life."
"Live long and prosper, Michael."
Gabriel pulled Stonn into a long, culturally inappropriate hug, which Stonn patiently endured.
"T'Pring," said Gabriel when they had finally parted. "I'll miss you."
They clasped hands, the contact brief but so intimate by Vulcan standards that Kat did a double take.
When they were gone, he said, "I did tell you I hadn't been a monk since I left Kate."
She raised her eyebrows.
"It was for science," he added.
Michael, standing on his other side, choked.
Sarek was to go with the families. His farewell to Michael took the form of a long, private conversation.
"You know," said Gabriel, watching them, "if Sarek hadn't melded with Michael on Harlak, he'd have let Voq kill me. I owe her."
"We all do," Kat said.
"Starfleet's first mutineer -- she's never gonna make captain, is she?"
"It's a long shot right now. But stranger things have happened."
"If my recommendation ever counts for anything -- she makes one hell of a first officer."
"She's the reason we didn't go through with the destruction of Qo'noS," said Kat. "But that's not the sort of thing I can shout from the rooftops."
Sarek returned to them, offering Kat a bow.
"The rebels owe you a debt," he said. "I enjoyed meeting you, Admiral Cornwell."
"Likewise, Master Sarek."
"I hope I have the opportunity to speak to your counterpart in two days' time."
"Well," said Kat, her mouth dry, "that's up to her, isn't it?"
At 0250, Georgiou and Cornwell were led into Discovery's transporter room. Their clothes had been returned to them; despite their shackled wrists and ankles, they looked more like rival queens than prisoners.
Georgiou gave Michael a querying look. The commander kept her expression blank.
The former emperor's lip curled as Lieutenant Kuznetzov released her restraints. Cornwell barely seemed to notice; all her attention was on Gabriel.
"Well," said Georgiou as she was marched at phaser point onto the transporter pad, "are we to be beamed into space after all?" She looked at Kate. "What happened to your deal?"
The inquisitor finally took her eyes off Gabriel.
Enlightenment dawned. Both women turned to Kat.
"Hi," she said.
"I'm impressed," said Georgiou. "I didn't think you had it in you. Of course, I didn't think my Katrina could deceive me the way she did."
"You're constantly underestimating us," said Kate bleakly.
"I trusted you," Georgiou hissed.
"Well?" Kate turned to Gabriel. "What's your admiral going to do with us?"
He smiled, and his gaze was soft.
"She's giving you an opportunity," he said.
"Explain," said Georgiou.
"You'll be joining the rest of the Terran prisoners on Outpost Four," said Kat. "You'll find the slave quarters basic, but you'll have enough food and water. Which is more than I can say for the previous occupants."
"You won't have weapons. Or medical supplies." Kat glanced at the inquisitor. "All the Terrans are in good health right now, and I've seen what you can do with a medkit."
"Station systems are running autonomously," said Michael. "The ships patrolling the sector won't notice anything amiss."
"Until someone visits, and finds us dead of starvation after the rations run out," said Kate.
Gabriel said, "Commander Burnham and Ensign Tilly have created a very interesting subroutine -- you'll be able to drop the forcefields in a matter of hours. Provided you can all cooperate that long."
"A team building exercise?" she said. "Oh, Michael."
"An opportunity," said Michael. "I don't want you to die."
"I can take care of myself."
"I know. But just once, let me help you."
Kat said, "There's one slave transport still docked. If all three hundred and ninety-five of you make it aboard alive, the computer will allow you to leave the station."
"You think we can't override your computers?" Kate asked.
"Before the rebels come back to capture you? No."
The inquisitor pursed her lips.
"You think we're incapable of putting aside our differences long enough to survive?" She looked at Gabriel. "You know we're not monsters or idiots."
"Philippa lost her empire," he said. "You've lost your ship. You're both vulnerable."
"You're protecting me?"
The inquisitor's voice cracked as she spoke, and Kat could see -- even if no one else couldn't -- that she was on the edge of tears.
"I want you to live," he said, and, without waiting for Kat's permission, he stepped up onto the transporter pad, reaching for her. "I know we're destroying everything you've worked for. I'm not sorry. But I can't just leave you to be killed by your own people."
The inquisitor rested her hand on his cheek.
"They'll come for me sooner or later," she said.
"You're a survivor."
He kissed her, hands resting on her hips, and Kat couldn't look away as he pulled her closer and whispered something in her ear.
Kate closed her eyes, smiling as Gabriel slid his hands beneath her jacket.
"I've missed you," she said when they finally parted.
Gabriel just pressed his lips to her forehead.
"You saved my life," he said. "I won't forget that."
"I guess that makes us even."
There were tears in the inquisitor's eyes. She wiped them away impatiently.
"Oh." Gabriel reached into his pocket, pulling out the pendant and chain. "This is yours."
The inquisitor managed a watery smile as she put it on.
"I deleted the gateway coordinates," he added.
"Good. Go home. Let's get it over with."
Gabriel stepped off the transporter pad.
Before Kat could give the order to energise, Michael stepped forward.
"Philippa," she said.
"I know," said Georgiou. "I love you, too."
The former emperor raised her chin. "Certainly not," she said. "But I'll think of you," she smiled, "every day of my very long life." She looked at the transporter chief. "Let's get this over with. Energise."
The chief turned to Kat, who nodded.
As the Terrans dematerialised, she felt a fraction of the tightness in her chest ease. Flipping her communicator, she hailed the bridge.
"Engage the cloaking device," she ordered, "and set course to meet Discovery at the rendezvous point."
Discovery had already left, using the spore drive to jump to the Mutara class nebula on the sector's edge.
"Aye, Admiral," said Ensign Tilly. "At warp seven, we'll be there in three hours."
"Thank you, Ensign. Cornwell out."
The channel closed, she turned to Gabriel.
He gave her a smile which, under different circumstances, she might have found charming.
"I know," he said, "but it's complicated, okay? I'm gonna miss her."
Kat crossed her arms.
"Give us the room," she ordered. When they were alone, she said, "You gave her a weapon, didn't you?"
He didn't answer. Which told her everything she needed to know, but still -- she reached for his hand and rolled his sleeve up.
The knife sheath on his wrist was empty.
"There's an explosive compound in the necklace, too," he said.
"She killed Philippa's daughter. We can keep them from murdering each other for a few hours, but sooner or later, they'll be free. And Philippa doesn't need weapons to kill someone."
Kat said nothing.
"It barely changes anything. They still have to choose violence."
"And you're about to shatter the Empire. You're doing the right thing, but I still--" His cheek twitched. "I had to give her a chance."
L'Rell met them outside.
"Is she gone?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Kat.
"I armed her," Gabriel said. "A knife and a small explosive."
L'Rell said, "Good."
Kat, along with Michael and Tilly, had spent several hours attempting to triage the material the inquisitor had classified. Much of it was fascinating, and Kat could almost see Michael composing the papers she would never be allowed to publish. But the volume was overwhelming.
Instead, they inverted the task, separating the information which, if shared with the Empire, could only lead to massive loss of life. Gabriel and L'Rell were in a better position to make this judgement, but Kat was all too aware that the final choice lay with her. And she would never get to see the consequences.
Easier to start with something she was sure about.
"Ensign," she said, "connect us to the Imperial databases."
"Yes, Admiral," said Tilly.
Kat watched the holo-display light up with a visual representation of the web of data the inquisitor controlled.
"Okay," she said, "moment of truth. Run your subroutine."
Tilly nodded and tapped a button.
Pieces of the data web -- tiny fractions, available only to an elite few within the Empire -- began to disappear.
Such was the scale of the Terran Empire, it took almost thirty minutes for the last of the fragments to vanish.
"Okay," said Tilly. "That's it. All the information about the Federation's gone."
"Well done," she said.
Then, slowly, she pulled up the classified files.
She had excluded the personnel files and secret dossiers. Even, after a lot of debate, the lists of political officers and spies embedded throughout Imperial facilities. It wasn't as if they had anyone left to report to.
This database contained the true accounts -- with evidence -- of incidents the inquisitor and her predecessors had rewritten or erased. Unauthorised publications. Dissident material. Banned books. It would take years for an individual to consume it all, let alone begin to put it into context.
But the Empire contained trillions of humans, and even more aliens and slaves. People who were about to be exposed to new ideas. New histories. New choices.
Kat didn't hold much hope that the Empire would suddenly reform itself. But it was unsustainable in its present form; maybe, now, what replaced it might be better.
She put her hand on the DNA scanner and watched the Acheron's systems verify her identity as Inquisitor Cornwell.
She pulled up the Empire-wide comm system, selected all open channels and tapped, transmit data.
And it was done.
"We may have just started a civil war," said Gabriel.
"Good," L'Rell said. "Voq and I can use the chaos to rescue more slaves." She gave him an affectionate nudge which nearly knocked him off his feet. "You worry too much, Gabriel."
While the Defiant made the journey to Freehold Sector under cloak at high warp, Discovery was doing the trip in short jumps, meeting Defiant at predetermined rendezvous points.
Kat hoped Lieutenant Commander Stamets was having fun.
At the gateway, Gabriel would transfer to Discovery, making the trip back to the Federation under Dr Pollard's supervision in a properly managed sickbay. He said Kat was making too much of nothing, that he had lived with the gateway headaches for months and barely felt them anymore.
Kat overruled him.
L'Rell would leave them at the gateway, remaining to close it from the Terran side after Kat's two-ship fleet had passed through. Part of Kat wished she could ask L'Rell to come with them, despite all the complications that would bring. But she held her tongue; L'Rell had her work here, and there was no point indulging impossible fantasies.
They were just a couple of hours out from the gateway when a barrage of photon torpedos knocked them out of warp.
"Report!" Kat demanded, steadying herself on the back of the captain's chair.
"Warp drive's offline," said Tilly. "So's the cloak. Shields at ninety percent--"
Another shot rocked the Defiant.
"--make that eighty-five."
"Burnham," said Gabriel, activating the viewscreen's tactical overlay.
"Sensors are still coming back online," said Michael. "It's a heavy cruiser." She watched the display. "The ISS Enterprise."
"Ensign Sommer, signal Discovery," said Gabriel. "Michael, target their engines." He turned to Kat. "Admiral, if you can convince Pike you're Kate -- at least distract him for a few minutes--"
"How'd he find us? We're under cloak." She shook her head. "Sommer, hail the Enterprise, audio only."
"Channel opened, Admiral."
"Captain Pike." She hoped she sounded more angry than afraid. "Have you lost your mind, Chris?"
"I could ask you the same question, Kat." The holocomm flickered: the Enterprise was trying to force a visual connection. "Or whatever you call yourself. I know you're not the Inquisitor."
Keep him talking, Gabriel mouthed.
Kat used his chair's controls to allow the visual link. The Terran Pike appeared, identical to the man she knew at home, but for his uniform.
"It's Admiral," she said, "actually. How'd you find us?"
"Picked up an interesting toy on Tantalus V. Give it the right data, it can locate anyone in the known universe. When we received that data dump from the Acheron, I went looking for the inquisitor. Turned up two of her." Pike's smile did not reach his cold, flat eyes. "'United Federation of Planets'." He pronounced it with disdain. "You may have deleted the records, but some of us have brains. And memories. I've summoned every ship in range. I don't know how you got here, or what you've done to the inquisitor, but I won't let you--"
He was cut off by a photon torpedo blast. Discovery had arrived.
"Commander Burnham," Gabriel drawled, "if I could trouble you to fire at something--"
A torpedo hit. The Defiant rocked. With Discovery jumping in and out of normal space, it was beyond the reach of the Enterprise; instead, Pike was targeting the ship he could see.
"Shields are down to forty percent," said Tilly.
"Michael, lock onto the Enterprise's engines and fire."
"We can't defeat them," said Kat quietly. "Not without risking Discovery."
"Disable them and run." Kat turned. "Ensign Sommer, tell Discovery we're going to knock out their engines and make a run for it, and we'll need cover."
"How long until we reach the gateway, Tilly?" Gabriel asked.
"Three days at impulse, Captain."
Defiant was running on a skeleton crew; it had only half the minimum recommended number of engineers.
"Get down there," Kat told Tilly. "Get warp drive back online. Michael, take ops. Gabriel, I want you at tactical." She claimed the captain's chair. "Lock onto the nacelles with everything we have."
The resulting explosion was blinding, but when the gas and debris cleared, Enterprise was intact.
"At least they won't be going anywhere for a while," said Kat. "Helm, set a course for the gateway, maximum speed. The second we have warp, hit it."
L'Rell arrived on the bridge.
"Terrans?" she asked.
She growled. "Did you kill him?"
It took Tilly an hour to get the warp drive online, and she couldn't give them more than warp one point five. Kat took it, and was grateful.
Twenty minutes from the gateway, Captain Una hailed, her hologram materialising in front of the viewscreen.
"Long range sensors show six Terran ships approaching," she said. "They'll be in range in fourteen minutes."
We are so damn close, I will not let them stop us, Kat thought.
Out loud, she said, "Suggestions?"
"Taking on six Terran warships is a good way to commit suicide," said Gabriel.
"That's not funny."
"I'm not joking. Quick, clean death." Gabriel kept his eyes on the tactical overlay. "After what we've done to them, it's better than being captured."
"Let's keep that as a last resort," said Una.
"The Acheron can't outrun them," said Gabriel. "We should set her to self-destruct, beam over to Discovery."
People had died to capture this ship. It pained Kat to abandon it, but she saw no alternative.
"Okay," she started to say, but L'Rell interrupted.
"I can outrun them," she said. "My cruiser belonged to Imperial Intelligence. I can change its transponder signal. As long as they don't make visual contact, they will think they're chasing the Acheron."
"You'll be killed," said Gabriel.
"Have faith," she said. "I'll meet you at the gateway."
"No," said Kat. "It's a last resort, but we've always had a backup plan for closing the gateway. Just escape, L'Rell." She reached up to clasp the girl's shoulder. "I'm glad I met you."
L'Rell's eyes softened. "You, too, Admiral."
She embraced Gabriel, lifting him off the ground.
"You," she said. "Are arrogant and very foolish. I'll miss you."
"You're a brave idiot, L'Rell. I'll miss you, too."
She lowered him, and he raised a hand gingerly to his ribs.
"Nothing broken this time," he said. "You're losing your touch." He nodded at the turbolift doors. "Go."
L'Rell bowed, and left.
When the doors closed behind her, Gabriel's shoulders slumped a little. But he rallied, and ordered the helm officer to maintain course and speed.
"And see if engineering can't get us going a bit faster," he told Ensign Sommer.
At least, Kat thought, L'Rell's ploy worked. The six Terran ships pulled away, pursuing her into the asteroid belt on the edge of Freehold Sector.
"You think she'll make it?" she asked Gabriel, rising from the captain's chair and joining him at the tactical station.
"She'd be insulted anyone doubted it."
"When we reach the gateway, you'll beam over to Discovery. The one good thing about using the spore drive to get back to the Federation is that you won't be at risk."
He gave her a quick grin.
"I can't believe you had that up your sleeve all along."
"I wish we didn't have to do it. The first trip to this universe nearly killed Mr Stamets, and the return journey wiped out his spore supply -- and he overshot by nine months."
"In the middle of the war?"
"Part of the reason it went so bad." She surveyed Gabriel, his station, his long fingers resting on his console. "You did well in combat."
He just nodded.
"I wasn't kidding when I said dying in battle is better than capture. Especially for you, Admiral."
"Don't worry," she said, squeezing his arm. "We're almost home."
She spoke too soon.
Two minutes from the gateway, an alarm blared, and Michael said, "Terran ship dropping out of warp."
"Evasive maneuvers," Kat snapped. "Gabriel, target the enemy ship and fire at will." And damn Chris Pike to hell.
Discovery, too, was firing on the Terran ship, which tumbled away, damaged but undefeated.
"Admiral," said Michael, "Discovery is firing a tetryon pulse at the gateway."
"What? Hail Captain Una."
Ensign Sommer said, "Admiral, she's hailing us."
"Admiral Cornwell." Una looked imperturbable as ever. "More ships are coming. Discovery can evade them, but the sooner you enter the gateway, the sooner we can destroy it and come home."
The logic was inescapable.
Una added, "Admiral Drake was quite clear, Admiral: my first priority is to get you home safely."
"Can't argue with that," Gabriel muttered.
"Admiral." Una was beginning to sound slightly strained. "There's no time to debate this. Enter the gateway. In twenty-five minutes, Discovery will begin the tetryon bombardment to destroy it from this side." Belatedly she added, "Please."
"You're right," said Kat. "Helm, take us into the gateway. Captain Una, I'll see you on the other side. That's an order."
This time the discomfort began right away. Stomach twisting, ears ringing, and a growing pressure at the base of Kat's skull.
With some difficulty, she turned to Gabriel.
"Get to sickbay," she said.
"I'm fine, Kat." He swallowed, but rallied. "Just uncomfortable."
He raised his hand to his nose. It came away bloody.
"Huh," he said.
She couldn't move fast enough -- she couldn't quite make her limbs work -- but she forced herself, reaching him just as he collapsed into her waiting arms.
Gabriel was unconscious for about an hour.
Kat spent the time working: stabilising him, running scans, taking reports from Burnham on the closure of the gateway and, when the Defiant's comm systems were back online, checking in with Starfleet Command.
There was no sign of Discovery.
Kat instructed Michael to hold position, and returned to sickbay.
Gabriel was sleeping, and she decided to let him rest, pulling a stool up to his biobed and settling in with a PADD and the preliminary damage reports, her free hand resting against Gabriel's.
His fingers curled around hers.
Her neck and back objected -- strenuously -- to the chair.
She didn't move.
He woke up slowly, and even the Terran half-light was too much for his eyes.
Kat dimmed the lights further and said, "How do you feel?"
"Headache. Neck. Hurts." His voice was slurred. "Can't. Think."
"The gateway made a mess of your grey matter. Don't worry, it's reversible." She loaded a hypospray with a double shot of a weak Terran painkiller. "This will help."
"No." He flinched, and Kat froze. "Kate, I--"
She stepped back.
"It's Kat, Gabriel," she said. "I'm Kat. You're home. You're safe."
She held still, watching him process this.
"Acheron," he said.
"We stole the Defiant back," she told him. "Don't you remember?"
He managed a chuckle.
"Barely remember. My own name."
She approached him slowly, letting him see her blue uniform.
"You're Captain Gabriel Lorca. You're a decorated Starfleet officer and all-around pain in the ass. You're stubborn, brave and resilient as hell." Kat leaned against the biobed. "Sound familiar?"
"More. Or less."
"Good." She held up the hypospray. "This is a painkiller. Nothing else. Do you trust me?"
He tried to nod, but winced.
"Okay," he said.
She injected him, and watched him relax as the drug took effect. Her hand was resting on his chest; she had pulled his jacket off earlier, and she could feel his heartbeat through the T-shirt.
"Better?" she asked.
"Yeah." He closed his eyes for a few moments. "Gateway?"
"No sign of her yet." Her throat tightened. If her venture had cost the fleet its most advanced ship -- the lives of its crew -- not to mention the refugees on board -- but she kept the anxiety out of her voice as she said, "But it's only been ninety minutes. Last time they jumped between universes, Lieutenant Commander Stamets overshot by--"
"Nine months. Remember."
"If I have to."
There was a call from the bridge.
"Admiral Cornwell, we're receiving an urgent transmission from Starfleet Command."
"Put it through to sickbay, Ensign Sommer," she said. "I'll take it in the CMO's office."
There were no holocomm facilities in the Acheron's sickbay; Erika Drake's face appeared on the screen.
"Katrina," she said. "Thank God."
"Erika. It's good to see you, too."
"I can't help noticing," said Drake, "that you're not aboard Discovery. Or any Starfleet ship in our database."
"No," said Kat, "this is the USS Defiant, give or take a century and a bit."
Drake raised her eyebrows.
"That's going to raise some questions," she said. "Not to mention the paperwork. What will Captain Holloway say when he finds out his ship has been … duplicated?"
"He's not going to find out," Kat said. "The Defiant will need to undergo a full refit before it goes back into service. Plenty of time to give it a new name and history."
And had the Defiant arrived -- would it arrive -- in the Terran Empire complete with crew? Were Captain Holloway and his people condemned to die violently in another universe? Would it be better if she never found out?
"You look exhausted, Katrina," said Erika. "Where's Discovery?"
"I don't know."
Kat gave Erika a very brief summary of what had happened in the Empire, culminating in the Defiant's journey through the gateway.
"Did I do the right thing?" she asked when she was done.
"It's too soon to say. I'd have made similar choices, I think." Erika shook her head. "I hope we never find out if you did the right thing. Because if we do--"
"It means we've made contact with the Empire again. I know."
"How's Captain Lorca?"
"Stable," said Kat, "but I want to get him into surgery as soon as possible."
"Well, don't wait too long for Discovery. The Klingons have increased their presence in Freehold Sector, and we can't risk an incident right now. I can't give you orders, but if I was in your shoes, I wouldn't linger for more than twenty-four hours."
"Noted. Thanks, Erika."
"Commander Browning is preparing a precis of significant reports and news from the last couple of weeks. You'll receive it within the hour."
Please, tell her not to rush on my account.
"I appreciate it," said Kat. "Thank you. Defiant out."
Gabriel was dozing when she returned to his bedside, but he smiled when she sat down.
"Busy?" he asked.
"Always." But she took his hands, taking note of the faint tremor in his left one. "I have another hour's reprieve. Can I stay with you?"
"Please." He smiled, eyes still closed. "Talk."
"I'm not. Much of a. Conversa--" He frowned. "Talking's hard. I wanna listen."
"Okay. Any topic in particular?"
"'Cadet Cornwell. Please address the class on--'" He faltered. "Anything. I don't care."
Kat smiled. "It's funny you bring up Commander danVosk," she said. "I've been thinking about the Academy lately."
"We were inseparable in our third year. I took it for granted. Assumed nothing would change. Then we got our fourth year starship assignments."
Different ships. Distant sectors. Gabriel spent three months on night shifts; they didn't even get to communicate in real time.
They met other people. Fell in love or, at least, into bed. Confessed, forgave, did it again. Fought. Made up. Fought again just for the pleasure of the make-up sex.
In retrospect, she was amazed they had the time or energy for personal drama. He aspired to command, she was on the pre-med track; they each put long hours into study on top of ship duties. It took them a long time to figure out that long-term monogamy wouldn't work for them. Longer to figure out that they could love each other regardless.
She was surprised to realise she didn't miss being young.
"I've grieved for you," she told him. "I thought you were dead. Twice. And it was hard, losing you. Worse than if you had just died and left a body."
"Right. Your legacy -- your memory -- became complicated." She leaned over, cupping his cheek in her hand, letting her fingers trace his scar. "I put you up on a pedestal, I think."
"I know. But I needed that … idealised version of you. And our relationship."
"Now I'm back. Letting you down."
"No. Never that." Kat smiled. "I just … chose to forget all the hard parts. Figuring out what we wanted and how to get there. And then doing it again. And again. We aren't soulmates, we don't have a brilliant, pre-ordained romance. We just did the work."
"Back to the drawing board."
"I'll miss you."
Kat sat with him until he fell asleep. By then, Browning's outline of everything she had missed had landed in her inbox, and she replicated some coffee and moved to a more comfortable chair.
She was halfway through her second cup when Commander Burnham hailed.
"Discovery's back, Admiral."
"Good," said Kat, as if she hadn't doubted it for a moment. "I'm on my way."
There were deep shadows under Captain Una's eyes, and her hair was uncharacteristically messy.
"Admiral," she said, her voice a hoarse rasp. "How long has it been?"
"Six hours, Captain."
"Interesting." Una pushed her hair out of her face. "It seemed … much longer for us."
"Primary systems are operational. The spore drive is offline -- Lieutenant Commander Stamets has been relieved of duty while he recovers."
Which Kat took to mean he was high as a kite, and probably needed to be forcibly restrained from strapping himself in for another ride.
"Minor injuries, Admiral."
"Good. I want to transfer Captain Lorca to Discovery's sickbay, then set course for Earth at maximum warp."
"Yes, Admiral. I'll alert Dr Pollard."
"Thank you, Captain. Cornwell out."
Gabriel stirred as she prepared him for transport.
"Hold still," she told him. "You're being moved to Discovery."
She was tempted, but -- "No. You'll be in good hands with Dr Pollard."
His hand closed around hers.
"Please," he said.
"Kat. I don't want to go to sleep. And wake up to be told. That you're gone."
She touched his cheek, her thumb resting on his lower lip.
"I promise," she said, "that when the time comes, I will say goodbye. I won't just hand you over to your medical team and disappear."
"I don't want to be alone with strangers."
"I know," she said. "I won't abandon you."
He relaxed a little, and when two of Discovery's nurses arrived, he accepted the transfer without protest.
With no more reason to be in sickbay, Kat moved to the inquisitor's office and spent several hours working.
Browning's outline of everything she had missed was as succinct and precise as Kat could have wished, but there was a whisper of the Terran Browning behind every word.
Is she still alive? Does Kate still have her loyalty?
How long, Kat wondered, would she be haunted by Terran ghosts?
And how long would they follow Gabriel?
She pulled up his medical records, including Dr Pollard's latest scans, and opened a secure channel to Dr Sarah April of Starfleet Medical.
Kate killed the Terran Sarah. And her husband.
The Federation's Dr April smiled, her voice and eyes warm.
"Dr Cornwell," she said. "I'm sorry -- Admiral. It's good to see you."
"Likewise," Kat told her. "More than you know. How's Bob?"
"Kate gave Pike the Enterprise after she killed Captain April."
"Busy," said Sarah. "We see each other by appointment these days -- which is an unusual recipe for a successful marriage, but we're making it work. But I don't think you're making a social call, are you?"
"No," said Kat. "Do you remember my friend Gabriel Lorca?"
"The late captain of the Discovery."
"He's in sickbay."
Sarah raised her eyebrows.
"Recovering from thirty-four months of captivity, and acute brain damage. I'm sending you the most recent scans."
"Katrina, Captain Lorca was declared killed in action--"
"Seven months ago, I know. Start prepping a neurosurgery team. We're a few days out from Earth, but I want them ready to go."
"A handful of us will need surgery, too, but it's less urgent."
"'Us' meaning you're included?"
"I'm fine. Just a headache."
"I see." Sarah sounded skeptical. But she didn't push.
"Next, I need you to assemble a mental health team for Captain Lorca. Including people who can testify before a tribunal, if it becomes necessary. The highest possible clearance, please."
Sarah nodded. "Do you have anyone in mind?"
"No," said Kat. "Just -- no one who knows me, or has worked with me. I can't have anything to do with this."
"And not human," she added. "If you can find a non-human specialist in human psychiatry and mental health, that would be ideal."
Sarah made a note.
"Do you want to notify Captain Lorca's next of kin before his status is officially reactivated?"
"I--" God, who could she tell? Who would he want her to tell? "Hold off on that for now."
Kat told herself she was going to have a twenty-minute nap, and woke up six hours later, face buried in a pillow that still smelled of Gabriel.
She showered, changed into a clean uniform, replicated a plate of scrambled eggs and toast, and beamed over to Discovery.
She found Rella sitting at Gabriel's bedside.
"I've heard Cardassians like to argue," she was telling him, "and so do Tellarites, so I think Denek should come with me to Tellar. I know he doesn't talk yet, but he probably will one day, and I'd like--"
"Okay," Gabriel said. "I'm not the one you need to convince."
"But it's reasonable?"
"I think so." His eyes met Kat's. "We'll talk later, Rella."
Kat took the seat Rella had abandoned.
"You look a little better," she said.
There was a little colour in his face, and his eyes were more focused than before. His beard needed a trim, but that suited him, or would have if he weren't incapacitated. But the tremor in his left hand had worsened.
He saw her watching and tucked it under his right elbow.
"Haven't slept this much since the Buran," he said. "Not sure Nurse Sh'dann appreciates the screaming nightmares, though."
"I have Starfleet Medical prepping for you. Surgical and mental health teams."
"Great. My very own Starfleet-issue padded cell."
"Yeah, I know. You people hardly ever use leeches anymore."
"I know you're afraid." She took his hand. "I promise, you'll be protected."
"I can't even remember what safety feels like."
"I know." She brought his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles one by one, then let go. "With your permission, I'd like to tell Finn you're alive."
He licked his lips. "Finn?"
"Or someone else you trust? Your mothers?"
"Not them," he said quickly. "I don't want them to see me like this."
"One of your aunts or uncles? Or another cousin?"
He said nothing.
Kat leaned in close, hands on his chest. "Gabriel, you said I shouldn't leave you surrounded by strangers. Your status will be reactivated, and sooner or later, your family will notice."
He closed his eyes.
"You shouldn't do this alone," she said.
"When they see me--"
"They'll be as happy as I am that you're alive."
Gabriel's lips trembled.
"It's entirely up to you," Kat told him. "I won't make a move without your consent. But I think--"
She stopped, remembering what he had said about Kate. Giving him the illusion of choice, and congratulating herself on her kindness. How could he possibly take her at her word?
"Or you could call someone yourself," she said. "If you'd prefer."
"No," said Gabriel. He opened his eyes. "Call Finn."
What should she say? Starfleet had scripts for death notices, varied for species and culture but reassuring in their blandness.
There was, as yet, no standard form for notifying people that their relative's death had been prematurely declared.
Kat stared at the comm system for an hour, trying to imagine the conversation.
Then she took the coward's way out, and decided to record a message.
Finn, hi, yeah, you remember Gabriel? Your late cousin? He's very much alive. He's been to hell and back, and he misses you. Stop by Starfleet Medical for a visit, maybe?
She erased her first four attempts.
"Finn," she said at last, "a few weeks ago, you asked why I classified Gabriel's file, and I didn't have a good answer for you. I still can't tell you the whole truth, but he's alive, and he needs you. We'll be at Starfleet Medical in three days. Please be there." Her voice cracked, and she had to take a moment to wipe fat, hot tears from her cheeks. "Please."
Undignified. Your feelings are not his problem.
Her hand hovered over the delete key.
She hit send instead.
Twelve hours from Earth, Kat received a transmission from one Dr Tonuq, a dark-skinned Vulcan aged somewhere between forty and a hundred years old.
"Admiral," he said. "Dr April has assigned me to oversee Captain Lorca's long-term mental health treatment. She suggested I speak to you directly about his background."
Oh, you are perfect. Gabriel wouldn't have to fear bland, non-judgemental expressions from this doctor. Dr Tonuq had been studying and treating human patients for fifty years, and was considered one of the leading psychiatrists in Starfleet. Kat had heard of him, read his papers, but their paths had never actually crossed.
As of about three hours earlier, he had been given a top-level security clearance.
Thank you, Sarah.
"It's good to meet you, Doctor," said Kat, keeping her tone respectfully neutral. "Captain Lorca is fifty-five years old, born on Earth; he joined Starfleet straight out of school. He had a respectable, if unremarkable career, until an incident in May 2255 as he completed a mission on Pryor's World…"
On Earth, Gabriel was transferred to Starfleet Medical's facilities in Portsmouth, Virginia, and taken straight into surgery, leaving Kat to wait in a private lounge.
Officially, she was on medical leave. In reality, she was soon joined by Commander Browning, who brought her coffee, a danish and some fresh reports.
"I hope my next adjutant can meet the standard you've set," Kat told her, wiping away a pastry crumb.
Browning smiled, but said, "I'm not going anywhere soon, Admiral."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that." Kat presented her with a secure PADD. "I'm assigning you to take charge of Project Phoenix. Did Admiral Drake tell you I came into possession of a century-old Constitution class ship?"
"Yeah, but I thought she was joking." Browning's eyes were wide. "Time travel?"
"Among other things. You'll be in charge of the overhaul and refit of the USS Endurance. Everything on board now goes into Starfleet's classified archive on Titan. And when you're done, she's yours."
"Captain Browning of the USS Endurance. Sound good?"
Browning could only nod.
Gabriel had been in surgery for almost four hours when Finn arrived, bursting into the lounge with his hair rumpled and jacket half open.
"Where's my cousin?" he demanded.
Browning was already on her feet, saying, "I'll give you some privacy, Admiral. Commander."
Finn barely acknowledged her departure.
"Gabriel," he said.
"He's in surgery, Finn. Have a seat."
He dropped into a chair like a heavyset puppet whose strings had been cut.
"I can't give you the complete story," said Kat. "But thirty-four months ago, Gabriel was abducted and replaced by an imposter. That's the man who lost the Buran and commanded Discovery."
"And you let us think he was dead? We had a memorial! Kat, how could--"
"I didn't know!" Kat's voice wavered but didn't crack. "I didn't find out for another nine months, and everything was classified." She stopped to breathe. "There was no reason to think he was alive. I could only hope he had a quick death."
"It must have been difficult," said Finn, "living with that uncertainty."
He got up and paced the length of the lounge. When he returned to his seat, he had his temper under control.
"When did you find out he was alive?"
"A couple of weeks ago. Just a few days after I spoke to you."
"Okay. Okay, good." He rested his elbows on his knees. "Is he--?"
"He's been through a lot. Psychological as well as physical violence."
"Has he changed?"
"His primary coping mechanisms are still alcohol and sarcasm. But … yeah. He has."
"God." Finn was overdue for a shave; he scratched restlessly at his stubble, a gesture remarkably like Gabriel's. "Okay. What does he need?"
"Support. Someone to keep him eating and exercising and make sure he follows his medical team's orders."
"Someone to kick his ass when necessary. Check."
She said, "He's not ready to see his mothers yet. Or the rest of the family. He has a lot of shame."
"Over what was done to him?"
"And what he did." Kat pursed her lips, searching for words. "His captors put him to work fighting for their ... faction. But he escaped sixteen months ago. He stayed out past the frontier."
"Jesus." Finn's shoulders slumped. "Will he be charged with desertion?"
"That will depend on Dr Tonuq's conclusions. I'm recusing myself from everything."
"Good. Then you can help me--"
"No," said Kat sharply. "Finn, I'm so sorry, but I can't be part of his recovery. His chief captor was a woman … very much like me. Having me around will only make it harder."
Dr Tunoq agreed with that assessment, but his final remarks had stung.
"Tell me," he had said, "are you likely to return to psychiatric practice?"
She thought of her daydream, living on a planet, treating civilians. Returning to a life where only dozens of people depended on her, instead of millions.
"No," she said.
"Good. Based on your interactions with Captain Lorca, I would feel compelled to raise questions about your professionalism."
"When Gabriel's ready," she said now, "with his doctors' approval, he can get in touch. But it has to be his choice, freely made."
It was another hour before Gabriel was out of surgery, and longer before he was allowed to have visitors.
Kat went in first, and found him already getting up.
"Going somewhere?" she asked.
Despite his quick smile, his eyes were slightly. Still recovering from the sedative, she guessed, and pretending he was fine.
But his voice was clear as he said, "Kat, I've been lying flat on my back for days. I want to take a walk. Maybe get some food. Wanna order room service?" He reached for a PADD, but his left hand still trembled, and he couldn't get a grip.
Kat leaned against the doorframe and raised her eyebrows.
"Residual damage," he said. "Might go away, might need more surgery. Might be permanent." He sounded offhand. "May have to cut back on assassinations."
Kat managed a smile.
"I have a visitor for you," she said, and stepped aside to let Finn enter.
She had warned him about Gabriel's appearance, the grey hair, the scar, the deeper lines, but he still froze for a moment, taking his cousin in.
Then he said, "Do you have any idea what you've put us through? How many birthdays you've missed? Not to mention b'nei mitzvot, and don't think any of the kids will forget you owe them gifts." He stopped, his attempt at humour evaporating. "I missed you."
"Likewise," said Gabriel.
"I know we're not usually a touchy family, but--"
Gabriel pulled Finn into a hug, closing his eyes.
"My moms," he said.
"I won't tell them anything until you're ready. Do you have a place to stay?"
"I'm staying here for observation for the next few days. After that, I'll be assigned quarters. Debriefing could take a while. I think they wanna keep me isolated. "
"Screw that. Tell them you're staying at my place. Plenty of room. I've requested a transfer to the JAG office in New York." Finn released Gabriel. "You look like Grandpa Roger with that beard."
"Grandpa Charlie always said it made him look handsome."
"They were married. He was biased."
Gabriel nodded at Kat.
"Kate likes the beard," he said, "so it stays."
Kat was chilled, but she tried to sound light as she said, "That sounds like my cue to leave."
"Who's Kate?" Finn asked.
"Kat. I said Kat."
"I'm going," said Kat.
"Please." Gabriel grabbed her arm. "Stay." Quietly, urgently, he said, "Don't leave me."
She looked at his hand on her arm and pulled away.
"I can't," she said. "You know that."
"I can't do this without you."
Kat hesitated. Leaned forward and put her hands on Gabriel's shoulders, resting her cheek against his.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer.
"Please," he whispered.
"Don't do this, Gabriel."
"I'll miss you."
"Same." She closed her eyes and smiled as he kissed her. "If I stay, I'll hurt you. And vice versa."
"I need you."
"I know." She kissed his cheek and pulled away. "When you're ready, I'll be there. I promise."
Whether that meant sex, or friendship, or silent companionship. Or all, or nothing. There was a chance he might emerge from recovery wanting nothing to do with his captor's counterpart, and as much as the thought made her heart ache, she would have to accept it.
"When you're ready," she repeated, and forced herself to walk away.
She didn't -- she couldn't -- look back.
Her surgery was scheduled for the next day, at a different hospital. Until then, Kat's time was her own.
She should go back to her apartment. Continue catching up on all the work she had missed. Get a status report on the refugees. Check in on Rella. Start considering candidates for Browning's replacement.
She decided, instead, to take a walk. Watch the sun set and get an early dinner. Maybe she'd go home and work for a couple of hours after that, or maybe she'd just go to bed. Take a sedative, get a good night's sleep.
Maybe she'd finally start the process to get her therapist's security clearance upgraded enough that the poor woman could actually help her.
She wondered if L'Rell had made it to safety.
She wondered if Kate was alive, and hated herself for caring.
Kat found a bar that looked out over the river and ordered a glass of wine.
She had endless hours of work ahead of her, but for now, in this moment, she was contented. Missing Gabriel, but satisfied that he was safe, and in better hands than her own. Regretting her own choices, but no longer consumed by guilt.
Damaged, but stronger for it. Her ghosts were old friends.
Kat finished her wine and went home.
If you welcome every trespass
Then every tramp's a guest
Give what they would take from you
Then every theft's a gift
Doomtree | Little Mercy