It is one thing to be unable to sleep, he has discovered – to toss and to turn, to punch your pillow in frustration. It is quite another to have become accustomed to it – to crawl into bed in the solemn knowledge that what you are attempting to do is an exercise in futility.
Ash has not slept in two, three days. He is not afraid – or, rather, his mind is not afraid. His body, on the other hand, is well accustomed to fear. It spasms awake at the brink of sleep in expectation of some cruel treatment. A bucket of frigid water tossed over his prone form. A sudden assault of sound, of light.
He knows he is safe aboard Discovery, knows that, though he may not be entirely liked, at least nobody here means him any harm. He would feel less at ease in an Earth hospital or (god forbid) a psych ward, his actions almost as restricted as they were inside that Klingon cell. Here there is work to be done – work that, as chief of security, he can attend to as he sees fit. He is charged with protecting a great many people, and in this sense he is indispensible. They cannot cart him away at the first sign of a crack-up.
(He struggles to remind himself of this, sometimes, when he is falling asleep at his workstation and Specialist Burnham has to nudge him awake. Or when he becomes dizzy after the mildest of sparring sessions).
At least, he thinks, he is not aboard the Yeager. Here there is no over-eager roommate to be concerned about him, no cloying sense of camaraderie pervading the halls of the Discovery. He feels vile when he catches himself entertaining this notion, but it is nevertheless a relief to be able to stroll from deck to deck without having to explain himself. The Discovery is a different ship at night with the frenetic energy of its scientists confined to quarters; a dreamlike quality to its rounded corners, the muted lighting Ash still cannot determine the source of. He thinks of the Klingon ship, of its noise that never seemed to cease even when they were (he presumed) docked. The way it shrieked and groaned, as if clawing its way across every inch of space by the tips of its fingernails.
The Discovery is possessed of a churchlike hush. One now broken by the hiss of boiling water somewhere in the shadows of the mess hall. Ash’s heart-rate spikes, a hand unconsciously scrabbling for his phaser (another one of his body’s small betrayals) but it is only Captain Lorca, lurking by the synthesizers, the espresso he’s mixing so black it looks acrid. There is a furtive, unfriendly air about him that reminds Ash of a jungle cat, shoulders squared and lips pulled back, growling. It’s gone the moment he realizes he’s being watched, his countenance immediately lightening. He doesn’t look quite happy (but, then again, Gabriel Lorca rarely looks very happy about anything) but he is at least being civil for Ash’s sake.
‘Lieutenant Tyler,’ he grunts, empting a sachet of sweetener into his cup.
Ash hovers in the doorway, wondering if he should leave. People wandering the length of the ship in the small hours of the morning aren’t typically longing for company. He’d know.
‘What takes your fancy?’
Ash starts. ‘Sir?’
Lorca gestures to the synthesizers.
‘Oh, I, uh.’ He fumbles over his words, something about Lorca’s steady gaze and the empty room tipping him off balance. ‘I’m not hungry. I was – I was passing by and I thought.’ He frowns, considering. ‘I don’t know what I thought.’
He struggles, in fact, to recall just how he made it here from his quarters on the junior officers’ deck.
Lorca squints at him. ‘Either my eyesight deceives me, or you, young man, have not slept in days.’
Ash grimaces. ‘Your eyesight is fine.’
‘Ah.’ Lorca returns the expression with sympathy. ‘It’s the bed, right? Too soft?’
(And he’s just shy of the mark there. His bed could be as hard as a rock and it wouldn’t matter – it would still bring to mind the one in L’Rell’s quarters, silky grey sheets as viscid as some kind of caul.
But he can’t tell Lorca that).
‘Yeah,’ he agrees, hoarsely, ‘No chance of me sleeping in the brig tonight, sir?’
‘Ha ha.’ Lorca tosses away his wooden stirrer, sipping his drink experimentally, even though Ash is fairly certain it must be scalding. ‘Don’t worry,’ he adds, a moment later, ‘I felt the same way after slumming it in the barracks during basic training. Not that that’s comparable to torture, mind you.’ He pauses, smiling lopsidedly. ‘Well. Just barely.’
That startles a laugh out of Ash. Lorca seems startled too – either by Ash’s reaction or his own, sudden volubility, it’s difficult to tell. He downs the rest of his espresso in one gulp, hasty, it seems, to be on his way.
Only he does grasp Ash’s shoulder as he passes him in the doorway, pausing just for a moment. Ash struggles not to melt into the touch. During his torture, he had forgotten what it was like to be touched with kindness, rather than malice. It still shocks him, two weeks now into his recruitment.
‘Y’know, there’s an ergo, in the physical therapy room,’ Lorca calls as he’s walking away, ‘If you’re planning on staying awake, that is.’ When Ash fails to respond, the captain glances at him over his shoulder. ‘You were on the rowing team. At the Academy.’
Ash nods, mutely. Yes, he was. This, too, he had somehow forgotten.
‘Goodnight, Lieutenant Tyler.’
‘Goodnight Captain,’ he says, softly.
billet spied, bolt sped
across the field, crows fled
aloft and wounded, left one dead
A facet of war often left unexplored, Ash thinks, is its static nature. There will often come days – sometimes weeks – of uneasy ceasefire, both the Klingons and the Federation retreated behind demarcation lines, licking their wounds. During these periods there is little left to do but run drills and perform maintenance checks – nothing anybody would want to read about in a history book.
It would be erroneous to say that Ash is bored, although he feels a certain dismay at being tasked with work that could just as easily be relegated to a computer. He is tired, and feels at times as if he is sinking into a nadir for which he has no name, and without the adrenaline of combat pulsing through him it is difficult to curtail this sensation.
Captain Lorca seems to share his sentiments. It has not escaped Ash how strained and irritable he becomes when they are forced to dock in Federation territory. How impatient he is with Vice Admiral Cornwell and the rest of the war committee. During these meetings Ash feels as if he is intruding on something personal – intimate – especially where Cornwell is concerned. The way she speaks to Lorca, sometimes, reminds him of a mother gently chastising an unruly child. He is certain that she loves him, and that it has hurt her to see him made so brutal these past few months. Ash can’t picture a time when Lorca was not like this: quick to anger, fiercely stubborn, the very core of him pulled taut as a bowstring.
After leaving the conference room he will often shrug Ash off, humiliated, perhaps, that his chief of security has witnessed him being spoken to in such a condescending manner.
In these moments, Ash finds himself resenting Cornwell for her attempts to wrest the Discovery away from Lorca, though he knows her concerns are well founded. He is beginning to feel the same, savage loyalty to this ship as the rest of her crew. A kind of fondness one feels not for a place or an institution, but for a person, distinct from Starfleet, from the Federation.
(Or perhaps he just feels that way about Lorca).
It is normal, he rationalizes – normal: to be slightly in awe of one’s captain. Onboard the Yeager, Maranville had possessed many admirers, to such an extent that it had become the subject of a great deal of scuttlebutt. Ash had never been quite as enchanted as the others. Maranville was an excellent captain, but he was also just a man, greying at the ears and full of human failings. Sometimes he felt like what people were really in love with was the ideal – that sought after fourth pip on their insignia.
(But, then, reasons the logical, less diplomatic part of his subconscious: Captain Maranville never rescued you from a Klingon prison cell, now, did he?)
These internal debates fray at Ash’s nerves more than his physical trauma, his insomnia. He wagers he would not be analyzing his own feelings in nearly so much detail if it weren’t for that place, which had made him forget for a time what it was like to be a human being, with human thoughts and needs – human desires beyond the next warm meal, or a quiet place to sleep.
In the space of seven months L’Rell had taken a man of sound mind and body, chewed him up and spat out something frightened and hungry and wanting. He just isn’t sure exactly what he wants.
‘How fares our man of the hour?’
Ash doesn’t startle. He’s become used to Lorca lingering outside the physiatrist’s quarters. He often wondered if he’s listening in – if he even needs to (he’s not sure where hacking into the ship’s medical logs would fall on the captain’s sliding scale of morality). Besides, it’s not as if Ash is telling Doctor Ngô anything Lorca hasn’t already been made privy to.
‘I’m hardly the man of the hour anymore,’ he mutters, setting off towards the combat simulators, as has become their custom. He likes to shoot something after being made to recount his own sexual assault for an hour and a half. ‘It’s been – what? – a month now? Shouldn’t it be someone else’s turn?’
Hearing his tone, Lorca softens. ‘She’s wearing you down, huh?’
Ash halts in his stride, deflating. ‘Doctor Ngô is a… beacon of Hippocratic integrity.’
‘You can say “nag,” lieutenant, I promise I won’t tell.’
Ash sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘Sir, with all due respect, how much longer is this going to drag on for?’
Lorca blinks. It occurs to Ash that his tone could be interpreted as disrespectful. It occurs to him that they are surrounded by people, and that this is the kind of public behavior command might deem destabilizing. He’s too tired to care, really.
‘As long as it has to,’ Lorca says, carefully. He peers at Ash, as if he were a wild animal. Leads him by the elbow to a secluded alcove. ‘Tell me something: do you feel any better?’
‘Of course I do,’ Ash scoffs, ‘How couldn’t I?’ Lorca is still staring at him blankly. He doesn’t understand. Ash is speaking rapidly, quietly. ‘I’m – I’m eating well. I’m bathing regularly. I don’t have – the fucking Klingon Gestapo jamming bamboo under my fingernails. I can walk into a dark room and not immediately wonder where the first punch is going to come from. There is a lock on my bedroom door. Nobody touches me that I don’t want touching me –’
‘Lieutenant Tyler,’ Lorca says, and he sounds appalled. He sounds tender. Ash didn’t think he could be either.
‘What you are asking,’ he enunciates, slowly, ‘is if I feel like how I used to, before I was captured. And I don’t. I don’t feel that way at all, and I doubt I ever will again, no matter how many sessions you schedule for me with Doctor Ngô. Sir.’
Lorca considers this. He scratches at the back of his neck. ‘I… didn’t realize the psychiatric treatment was taking such a toll on you.’
Ash stifles a laugh. ‘You’ve been to therapy.’ He pauses. ‘At least, I think you have. Did you enjoy it?’
Lorca smiles, vaguely, as if remembering an old joke. ‘It was an instructive experience.’
They are interrupted then by Commander Saru’s voice ringing out over comms, requesting the captain’s presence on the bridge.
Lorca heaves a sigh. ‘Duty calls. I’m sure Lieutenant Rhys will be happy to train with you in my absence.’
Ash nods, understandingly, though he will likely not take part in simulations today after all. Lorca hesitates a moment before grasping Ash by the bicep and shaking him, just slightly.
‘I’ll speak to Doctor Ngô, see if we can lighten your sentence a little.’
‘Sir?’ Ash says, confused. He’d thought the matter decided.
Lorca smiles his lopsided smile. ‘You know, I’m sure the ship wouldn’t dissolve into anarchy if somebody overheard you calling me Gabriel every once and a while.’
‘First name baseis is a prerogative extended only towards officers of the same or similar rank,’ Ash recites in lieu of cogent argument. His mind appears to be giving out on him.
‘Christ, you sound like Burnham.’ Lorca finally releases his grip on Ash, after what feels like an age. ‘Look, it’s just a thought. No need to get your panties in a twist.’ He claps Ash on the shoulder as he leaves in search of an elevator. ‘See you around, lieutenant.’
‘See you around,’ Ash replies, sounding painfully strained even to his own ears. Gabriel, he mouths, silently, and can’t help but feel a rush at how easy it might be, to cross that line.
He wonders what Captain Maranville would have to say about all this.
‘Physically, you’re holding up,’ Doctor Culber pronounces, helping Ash out from beneath the medical scanner. ‘These contusions to your calf muscles and femorum are probably what’re causing the stiffness at night, but that’ll fade in time. And you can expect to experience some nausea and dyschezia as we reintegrate certain foods back into your diet, as is often a symptom of prolonged periods of starvation.’ Quickly, he consults his PADD, though Ash has noticed during his visits to the medbay that Doctor Culber makes an effort to consult his patients on a face-to-face basis rather than simply relying on data. Ash both admires his work ethic and wishes he’d be a little more impersonal.
‘Now –’ kind eyes, crinkling at the edges, ‘— your migraines. Are they still persisting?’
Ash nods, dejectedly. ‘I take the pills, and I’ve been trying to limit my screen time, but it’s –’
‘Difficult on a starship, I know.’ Culber smiles sympathetically. ‘Unfortunately, until we’re able to determine whether this is a nervous problem or something instigated by the physical trauma you underwent during torture – which, given the sheer extent of your injuries, is like searching for a needle in a haystack…’ Culber sighs, curtailing his lecture. ‘Until then, we can only treat the symptoms, not the cause.’
‘I don’t…’ Ash frowns, racking his memory, ‘There were so many procedures…’
Culber scrolls through his PADD. ‘As far as our sensors can tell, they’ve not tampered with the eyes themselves. There are certain chemical imbalances in your body that could be affecting your ocular receptors, however –’
Ash shudders, burying his face in his hands. ‘So it’s not just my organs.’
‘Organs, muscles, cartilage…’ At Ash’s pointed stare, Culber confines himself. ‘No,’ he admits, glumly, ‘It’s not just your organs.’
Ash stares down at the whitewashed linoleum, at Culber’s dorky rubber nurse’s shoes.
‘I know it’s awful, not feeling like your body belongs to you.’ He bends down so he is at eyelevel with Ash. ‘Have you spoken to Doctor Ngô about this?’
Ash avoids his gaze. ‘‘S not really her wheelhouse,’ he says, quietly.
‘No, but, then, it’s not really anyone’s wheelhouse.’ Culber tilts his head. ‘Have you considered confiding in the captain?’
‘Why would I do that?’ Ash demands, more curtly than he intends to.
Culber is unfazed. ‘Well, for one thing, he’s the only other person onboard this ship who knows what the inside of a Klingon prison looks like. For another…’ Culber pauses, considering his text words carefully, ‘As chief medical officer, I’ve been made privy to certain things… I know that what he went through aboard the Buran affected him deeply. I cannot imagine the pain, the guilt he feels. And, while I don’t agree with every decision he has made as the captain of this ship… I know that he feels an immense responsibility towards this crew. Towards you, especially.
‘And, if you want my honest opinion,’ Culber glances at the nurse on duty before lowering his voice, ‘I think that he’s overextending himself. It could benefit both of you, to speak to each other…’ Culber glares into the middle distance, thinking, Ash suspects, of Paul’s long hours. ‘Could benefit all of us, actually.’
‘I wouldn’t want to bother him.’
Culber raises an eyebrow. ‘Has he ever given you the impression that you were bothering him?’
‘I – no. No, he’s been very generous with his time.’
‘Yeah, he likes you,’ Culber says, as if speaking to a simpleton. Ash is beginning to feel like one. ‘It’s a rare occurrence that he treats one of us with the respect they’re due – appreciate the attention while you’ve still got it.’ He nudges Ash conspiratorially. ‘Don’t let Michael take up all of his time.’
‘And what do they have in common?’
‘Hm?’ Culber, preparing to leave, glances up at Ash from his PADD.
‘Captain Lorca and Specialist Burnham. A hero of the Federation and a convicted mutineer. What could they possibly have to talk about?’
Culber purses his lips, shifting from one foot to the other. ‘Their – ambition,’ he answers, plainly, and Ash can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment at his choice of words.
He wishes he had something more to show for himself.
The transmissions are old, unremarkable. A broadcast fragmented beyond recognition by solar winds; Captain Lorca only allowing Lieutenant Commander Airiam to sift through the information because she could process data faster than anyone else aboard Discovery, and because they have little else to do. The transmissions turn out to be shipping details – months out of date, bouncing around the heliosphere of a long-abandoned star system like an old-fashioned screensaver.
Ash nevertheless feels bile rise to the back of his throat as the strident tones of Klingonese fill the conference room, harsh and uncomfortably familiar. Hidden behind his back, he allows his hands to clench into fists, fingernails cutting into the flesh of his palms.
‘The samples appear to be innocuous,’ Airiam is explaining, as optimistic as only an android could be in the face of Lorca’s withering stare, ‘However, without sufficient knowledge of Klingon movements in this quadrant, it is admittedly impossible to pinpoint any information that might prove pertinent to future missions.’
‘Lieutenant Commander Airiam would like to make contact with the U.S.S. Herakles, which maintained an outpost here before they were repelled by hostile forces,’ Michael furthers, ‘If we cross-referenced the data collected by its communications team –’
‘We would likely turn up nothing,’ Lorca says, clearly irritated. He gestures to the holographic display rotating in the center of the table. ‘Look, this is – bullshit. Some Klingon mook complaining to HR.’
Michael blinks. ‘Might I remind the captain that the “bullshit” contained within these transmissions – stereotyped expressions: nothing to report, for instance – could prove invaluable to Federation code breakers?’
Lorca waves a hand. ‘Klingons cycle through ciphers at random. The chances of us decoding a contemporary transmission in the time we have are – miniscule.’
‘Do you have any better ideas?’
‘Well, as a matter-of-fact –’
‘Can we –’ Ash’s voice emerges from his throat at an embarrassing pitch. Everyone looks to him in askance. ‘Can we… turn that off now?’
Michael nods, quietly shutting down the display system. He can feel her stare on him like a living thing; can hear Airiam’s optics whirring as she studies him.
‘Lieutenant, your heart-rate –’
‘I’m fine,’ Ash says, a little too loudly, ‘Captain, you were saying?’
Lorca, too, is watching him. ‘No, we’re done here… It’s been a long day for everyone, and, besides,’ he smiles flatly at Michael, ‘I’m not even sure I have a proper rebuttal. Lieutenant Airiam, you may contact the Herakles.’
Airiam inclines her head graciously. ‘Sir.’
‘But use a discreet channel, for fuck’s sake.’ Lorca is already scowling down at his PADD. ‘… You’re dismissed.’
Ash makes a beeline for the door, Michael falling into step beside him. ‘Are you –’ she begins, only to have the captain butt in.
‘Lieutenant Tyler, may I speak with you a moment?’
Michael purses her lips – worried or irritated, it’s always difficult to tell with her.
‘I’m fine,’ Ash mouths, and she drops her shoulders, yielding. The door slides shut behind her with a pneumatic hiss, and Ash feels something within him shudder and give out.
‘Sir,’ he says, weakly. He has to get away. ‘I apologize for interrupting. I’m not myself today. However, the nature of the transmission had nothing to do with my –’
‘Sit down, lieutenant.’
‘You’re having a panic attack,’ Lorca says, calmly.
Ash laughs, only to immediately regret the waste of breath. ‘No, I’m not.’
‘Yes, you are. You need to settle down before you hurt yourself.’ Lorca nods towards a low ottoman. ‘Sit.’
Ash does as he’s told. It’s easier than arguing. He feels, suddenly, exhausted. There is a weight inside him like an anvil, pressing down on his spinal column, his ribcage – quashing his very life force. He longs, with almost delirious fervor, to sleep. He wants to lie down forever.
‘This happen often?’ Lorca asks, plainly, almost disinterested.
Ash shakes his head. ‘Not since – I escaped,’ he sounds like a drowning man.
‘Do I need to fetch Doctor Culber?’
Again, he shakes his head, the movement sending razors of pain skittering around his skull. ‘Please – don’t.’
Lorca lowers his PADD, hands raised in acquiescence. ‘Alright.’ He pulls out one of the roller chairs from beneath the conference table and plants himself on it like a vulture, surveying Ash carefully. ‘Alright.’
Ash is too far-gone to feel uncomfortable at the sudden, pervasive attention. He focuses instead on regulating his breathing, lowering his BPM. He wishes, for a moment, that he’d been raised a Vulcan like Michael – capable of achieving mastery over his emotions, to distance himself from them like spraying coolant on a wound. Unrealistic ideation, he hears Doctor Ngô chiding him, Michael suffers just as much as you do.
Yes, but she doesn’t show it –
‘— of course have to go on your Starfleet record.’
Ash drags himself out of his reverie. He has been breathing too slowly, too shallow – there are black stars blooming at the edges of his vision.
‘Repeated, debilitating attacks,’ Lorca says, looking grim, ‘They’d have to be documented. If command caught wind of it, they could halt your progress. Might pull you out of active duty altogether.’
Ash wets his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. He has sweated a lot. ‘That’s… your call to make.’ He realizes he’s trembling under the cold blast of the ventilation system.
Lorca massages his temples. In the relative darkness of the conference room, the lines of his face seem more prominent, more abundant. ‘I like you, Tyler,’ he says, wearily, ‘You’re a good soldier. It would be… a blow to Discovery, if we were to lose you.’ He looks up then, blue eyes flashing dully, palely. ‘However, I fear that keeping you here is a cruelty in its own right.’
Ash swallows around the choking lump in his throat. ‘I will do whatever you think best, captain.’
‘Yeah,’ Lorca sighs, ‘That’s what I thought you’d say.’
Ash does not remember for how long they sit there in the gloom, only that, somehow, he makes his way back to his quarters, and that he manages to shower and dress for bed without triggering another episode, dwelling on his uncertain future. He wonders whether Lorca dismissed him, or if he eventually found the will to just stand up and leave. He wonders if Lorca is still there now, or if he has gone off to attend to some other matter in his no doubt busy schedule.
The creature that stares back at him from the bathroom mirror is a straw man, entirely unrecognizable. Ash flexes the fingers of one hand, but it is as if his mind is floating in a quiet pool, his body an incidental object. He pulls back his fist and considers punching the glass, if only to elicit some feeling – he considers the trouble that maintenance would have to go to to repair the damage and lets it limply drop to his side.
He is out of sorts.
at the wall in the mirror
The days drag on as if suspended in molasses. Ash waits, and waits, for news of his dismissal. Waits, and waits, for the moment he is told to hand in his uniform, his badge, his barest semblance of an identity.
The order never comes.
If he was sleeping badly before, it is rare now that he gets more than an hour’s shuteye. Cyclical, his nighttime ambulations bring him once more to the mess hall. Lorca is there (of course he is), along with a pair of junior officers, relegated to gamma shift for some misdemeanor or another. Ash lingers by the synthesizers until they have left before pulling up a chair opposite Lorca. He does not wait to be offered a seat.
‘What are you eating?’ he asks, inanely – too tired to care if he is being inane.
‘Stuffed peppers,’ Lorca answers, cheerfully. He lifts a forkful of the stuff for Ash’s inspection. ‘It’s halal. I know you don’t practice, but Doctor Culber mentioned you still adhere to certain edicts.’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Lorca munches down, scrolling through his PADD as he does so. Ash feels a twinge of annoyance.
‘The attack,’ he says, sharply. Lorca glances up at him, eyebrows raised. ‘You didn’t report it.’
‘No,’ he agrees, sobering, ‘I didn’t. I informed Doctor Culber and left it at that.’
‘I suppose I should thank you.’
‘You shouldn’t. It was unprofessional of me, and it’ll probably come back to bite you in the long run.’ Lorca pauses, poking at his stuffed peppers. ‘But… I do know what’s it’s like, to feel stranded. To have to work just to stay sane. Doctor Ngô probably wouldn’t approve of my saying this, but I think we all do it, from time to time. It seemed unfair to deprive you of the one thing that’s helping you cope.’
Ash stares at him, stunned, confused, absurdly grateful. And then he can’t stare anymore because he has to shut his eyes to the harsh fluorescent glare, to Lorca’s excruciating sympathy and the threat of his own impending tears.
‘I’m so tired,’ he croaks, and it is as if the words are escaping from the withered throat of some desiccated corpse. He has no energy left to spare.
Behind the branching membrane of his eyelids, he sees Lorca’s shadow rise and fold away his PADD. A moment later, he feels his hand clasp his shoulder, Ash’s deadened nerves leaping to the touch like dust.
‘Come on,’ Lorca says, simply, ‘You need a drink.’
The walk to the officers’ deck is silent and interminable. They pass several people on their way there but are scarcely acknowledged (people tend to give Lorca a wide berth). Ash jumps when Lorca’s domotics system greets them at the door.
‘Vocal identification required.’
‘Captain Gabriel Estevan Lorca,’ Lorca says, with the long-suffering air of the perpetually impatient. ‘… And guest,’ he adds, firmly, before Ash has a chance to step through the doorway. As he follows Lorca into the sitting area, he wonders whether or not he just narrowly missed being shocked or vaporized.
‘“Estevan”?’ he repeats, repressing a smile.
Lorca jabs a finger at him. ‘Don’t make me regret keeping you on.’
He disappears behind a corner in search of drinks. Ash takes his absence as an opportunity to observe his surroundings. For a captain’s quarters, he’d been imagining something more stately, but for the most part the décor very much resembles that of his own room. More personal effects, perhaps, but even those look as if they come out of some Starfleet catalogue – a rubber plant (poorly cared for), a coffee table book of Andorian hot spring resorts, some kind of Newton’s cradle clacking away on a nearby shelf. Ash wishes there was a photograph of Lorca as a boy, hefting a football or showing off a prize trout – anything to make him feel on equal footing with the man.
‘What’s your poison, lieutenant?’ Lorca calls, ‘I got Altairian brandy, Bajoran voodai, a bottle of Grand Premier I never got around to opening… Bajoran ale, if you drink like a girl… Aldebaran whisky…’
‘Pabst Blue Ribbon?’
‘Oh, ha ha.’ Lorca emerges with a stout, black bottle labeled in a language Ash doesn’t recognize, the cork sealed with wax the color of persimmon. ‘Yridian moonshine – liable to knock out all higher brain functions, but I think we’re both in the mood to self medicate tonight.’
‘Is the war truly going so badly?’
Lorca, sunk back on the chaise lounge, shakes his head sardonically. ‘On the contrary, it’s going very well. So well that it could be over within the month, in fact, if the Admiralty would grant me prerogative. Which they won’t.’ He presses the balls of his hands into his eyes, sighing deeply. ‘“Cowards die many times before their deaths,” lieutenant, “but the valiant never taste of death but once.”’
Ash, saddened and strangely irritated, still hovers in the entryway, his hands clasped behind his back. As if only just remembering his presence, Lorca beckons him over with an apologetic expression.
‘Pour for your elder, would you?’ he says, gesturing to the bottle on its low stool. Ash dolls Lorca out a generous glass, serving himself only what could be considered polite. The liquid, amber and strangely viscous, smells unpleasantly of nail polish remover.
Ash hesitates before handing Lorca his glass. ‘I’ve already lost one captain,’ he says, stubbornly, ‘I won’t lose another.’
Lorca raises an eyebrow. ‘Why, Lieutenant Tyler, are you criticizing my ability to command?’
Ash shakes his head. ‘Of course not.
Lorca scoffs. ‘You’re not even drunk and you’re already running your mouth. Gimme that –’ Lorca snatches the moonshine from Ash, downing a great deal of it in one gulp.
Ash stares into his own glass dejectedly. ‘I only meant that you would be sorely missed.’
‘By who?’ Lorca exclaims, roughly. Ash opens his mouth, then quickly decides against saying what just popped into his head and snaps it shut. Lorca nevertheless spies the look on his face and softens. ‘Shit, would you listen to me? Rambling on like a sad old bastard… I’m sorry, Tyler. Sometimes I forget not everyone around here hates my guts.’
‘Nobody onboard Discovery feels that way.’
‘Ha. And here I was thinking you were providing me with honest criticism.’ Lorca regards him thoughtfully. ‘And what about you? Of all of us, you perhaps have the greatest of reasons to be angry, to want justice. So why don’t you?’
Ash sips his drink, feels the icy-hot burn of it all the way down to the pit of his stomach. He understands, now, why some people drink to center themselves. ‘Sometimes, I feel angry,’ he murmurs, ‘Sometimes I feel so fucking angry.’
‘And what do you do, when you feel this way?’ Lorca is leaning forward, subtly. Ash thinks he has never seen him this engaged in conversation before.
‘I – what do I do? Nothing, I… I wait it out, like any other useless feeling.’
‘But is it useless?’
‘Yes! Yes, it’s –’ Ash pauses, thinks about what he is trying to say. ‘What L’Rell did to me was… It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t necessary and it was cruel. But the likelihood of my ever seeing her again is next to nothing. I don’t hate the Klingons. I just hate her. And you can’t stake the lives of millions of people on a matter as petty as revenge.’
‘How… poetic of you,’ Lorca mutters, and for just a moment Ash thinks he sees the captain’s mouth twist in disgust. But it is late, and he is imagining things.
Ash swigs another mouthful of moonshine, feeling bold. ‘Do you remember the name of the Klingon who led the attack against the Buran?’
Lorca is silent for a long while, his eyes downcast. ‘No,’ he answers, eventually, ‘I do not.’
After that, Lorca doesn’t want to talk anymore – just go about the business of getting thoroughly drunk. Ash can’t fault him for that.
He speaks to fill the silence. At first about trivial matters: the new uniform designs, the mess Tilly had made of the mess hall last week, a camera blind spot on the observation deck couples have apparently been utilizing to illicit ends, that he’ll have to have fixed. About his ever-lengthening list of duties; about how he seems to have become nocturnal, and now has to do his work at night because of how often he loses focus during the day.
Lorca listens patiently – he doesn’t offer Ash any solutions, but he doesn’t offer any criticisms either. When Ash’s glass empties he tops it up almost to the rim, and again after that.
Ash finds himself talking about his time at the Academy. About how ambitious he’d been, how hopeful. He had only been aboard the Yeager eight months when the Battle of the Binary Stars occurred. When the Klingons found him he was already near death, the piece of shrapnel buried in his carotid artery the size of a steak knife. Ash had tried, desperately, to refuse their medics, but in the end he’d lain still and let them stitch him back together. He was ashamed because he knew that if they tortured him, if they asked him questions, he would answer.
But in the end they just tortured him.
‘You wouldn’t’ve squealed,’ Lorca assures him, slurring his words now.
But he had – he’d tried to. Sometimes he’d make up some lie or another if only to make the pain stop, but nothing he’d said was what they wanted to hear. In the end, he’d told them everything he could think of, both real and imagined, so that by the time Lorca arrived he was only repeating confessions they had already heard.
‘I’m a coward,’ he whispers, ‘That’s why L’Rell never killed me. Because she knew it would be more painful to live.’
Lorca’s head is tilted back at what must be an uncomfortable angle, and glancing up at him Ash wonders if he has slipped into some sort of alcoholic coma, and what the protocol for such an incident might be. He can imagine the talk. But Lorca is only resting his eyes.
‘I’m glad it was you,’ he murmurs after a great deal of silence, so quietly that Ash at first believes that he is speaking to himself. ‘I don’t envy you for what happened, with the Klingon. But I’m glad it’s wasn’t somebody else. You’re not a coward, Ash. You were just trying to survive.’
And, oh, it is an awful thing to be so perfectly understood. Ash feels a part of himself dislodge in the quiet blue-dark of Lorca’s quarters, the pent up misery rushing from his lungs in one great exodus. Lorca, half asleep – very drunk – doesn’t stir.
With a rare fluidity of movement, Ash slips from his seat to the shag carpet, knocking the moonshine on its stool as he does so, the liquid sloshing. Lorca cracks open one eye, the movement slow, reptilian.
Ash meets his gaze evenly. He’d expected to feel anxious, betrayed (as he so often is) by some unpleasant echo of his abuse: the phantom touch of L’Rell’s talons in his hair, perhaps, or the smell of her, powdery on the back of his tongue and reeking of incense. Instead, he feels at peace, his mind, for once, pleasantly blank. (He is also very drunk).
On his knees between the captain’s legs for what feels like the longest time, Ash wonders calmly which moment will be the one in which Lorca strikes him, outraged by Ash’s presumptuousness. Or maybe he will grimace and turn his face away, embarrassed for Ash – embarrassed by his own behavior, so lax in authority to have led a subordinate to believe he wanted – that.
In the end, he does neither of these things. Instead, Lorca sits perfectly still, his expression devoid of shock, disgust, approval or disapproval. His back is ramrod straight.
‘What are you doing?’ he says, lowly, finally.
Ash’s powers of cognition stutter and rear back to life. His lips are so dry they feel glued together. He swallows, the sound painfully loud in the suddenly oppressive silence.
His hands are, he realizes, splayed across the tops of Lorca’s thighs, the captain so unresponsive beneath his touch he may as well be a piece of upholstery. He surveys Ash a moment longer, then, as if coming to some sort of conclusion, sighs and shifts in his seat.
‘Get off the ground, lieutenant.’
Ash stands, a joint in his leg cracking in a traitorous attempt to add insult to injury. He is still bracketed between Lorca’s chaise lounge and his own seat. If he is to leave, he must turn away. He wonders if Lorca will shoot him in the back with one of his many exotic weapons. In this exact moment, Ash feels as if he deserves it.
‘There has evidently been some sort of misunderstanding,’ Lorca says. His gaze has the faraway quality of the deeply perplexed. Perhaps Ash’s assessment of him was incorrect. Perhaps he has never been solicited in this manner before.
‘Captain, I apologize,’ he stammers, his voice hoarse, ‘That was completely inappropriate, I – I… don’t know what came over me, but it’s –’
‘Look, Tyler, just – go, alright?’ Lorca buries his face in his hands. ‘I’m too drunk to discuss this right now,’ he says, muffled.
Ash lingers. Lorca looks very wan from this angle, his shoulders hunched, knees drawn upward.
‘Go,’ he enthuses, and Ash does.
He is, on the walk back to his quarters, strangely unruffled. He supposes it is a combination of both the alcohol and the late hour. It is only when he crosses paths with Ensign Tilly that the reality of his situation comes rushing in. By tomorrow, he will doubtlessly be packing away his few meager belongings. He will never see her, or Michael, or Detmer or Rhys ever again. His friends.
As if able to read his thoughts, Tilly stops in her tracks, brow furrowed. ‘Lieutenant Tyler?’ she says, and it is like her voice is coming to him from deep underwater, ‘Is everything alright?’
Ash mumbles something unconvincing even to his own ears. The corridor is suddenly very bright, and he wants to curse whichever crewmember ordered the lights brought to full capacity. Tilly reaches out to steady him, and in looking at her hands – as milky white as some night-growing thing – he is reminded of his own hands against the dark backdrop of Lorca’s trousers, and of Lorca’s sudden reticence, like he could no longer stand to speak to or even look at Ash. He is reminded of L’Rell, and the way she would bat at him carelessly, as if he were a much bigger creature, palms like sandpaper, and how Ash had taken it all without a word of protest.
Is he –
Did he just –
He feels himself stumble and retch. Tilly cries out as he sinks to the floor, sweating bullets. ‘Oh, oh no – oh god. D-Doctor! Somebody get Doctor Culber –!’
inside myself i have a moment to choose
to hold or to refuse
to shoot or to let loose
the cawing crow, the pulsing throat
After running half a dozen scans, the general consensus is that he passed out due to fatigue and nerves, although Doctor Culber is still righteously angry at Ash for mixing such a high concentration of alcohol with his medication. It is a testament to Ash’s addled state of mind that he’d completely disregarded the doctor’s warnings upon being offered the moonshine.
Ash apologizes profusely, making up some cock-and-bull story about a birthday present from a friend back at the Academy, how the label on the bottle had been written in Yridian and how standard drinks differed from galaxy to galaxy anyway. Ash has never been a particularly talented liar and he can tell that Culber doesn’t believe a word of it. He lets it slide, however – maybe because he can see that Ash truly is sorry; maybe because Culber can’t bring himself to deliver a lecture to somebody looking like death warmed up.
‘Get some rest, lieutenant,’ he says instead (as if Ash has gotten an ounce of it since arriving aboard Discovery).
Morose and humiliated, Ash shuffles off to change into his civvies. The fine network of scars crisscrossing his abdomen, his arms and legs, look starker than usual under the harsh fluorescent lights. The healing skin still bright and rubbery, Ash can’t help but feel they resemble seams in the paneling of a ship, or a droid. As if the whole façade of him could be peeled away to reveal something wet and red and writhing.
Lorca tracks him down, inexorably. Ash imagines there is no secret hiding place aboard Discovery that its captain has not already sniffed out (Ash has, incidentally, fixed the blind spot on the observation deck). He finds him in the physical therapy room, buried in the bowels of the ship because the heavy machinery can make a lot of ruckus. Crew aren’t allowed inside without an attending physician, but Lorca would know that, with his security access badge, those sorts of rules don’t apply to Ash.
At the sound of the door sliding open, Ash makes to dismount from the ergo, but Lorca waves him away, sitting down atop some medieval looking contraption with a contrite expression on his face. Ash doesn’t know what makes him more nauseous – the fact that he’s pushed himself to hard in his exercises, or that Lorca looks for all the world like he’s come to apologize.
‘Doctor Culber tells me you took a fall,’ he says, gently. Ash is silent. Lorca sighs and presses a hand to his brow. ‘I fear,’ he begins, and Ash has never seen him struggling for words, ‘that I may have given you the wrong impression.’
‘I shouldn’t have misconstrued your actions,’ Ash mumbles, ‘You were only being kind and I was reading into things.’
He glances up at that, and Lorca has that faraway look in his eyes again, hollow and desolate. Ash wonders if he’s misheard. ‘Sir?’
‘Did it ever occur to you that just because I hold the rank of captain, that doesn’t necessarily mean I embody those traits sought after in a leader. That I might have been manipulating you? That I am, in fact, not kind at all?’
‘Never,’ Ash says, honestly, and Lorca blinks at him in earnest surprise.
‘In my quarters, last night…’ The captain sighs, digging the balls of both palms into his eyes. ‘How do I put this? For a moment you reminded me of –’ a pause, and Ash sees Lorca’s face contort as if in pain, ‘— an officer who served under me, a long time ago. She – we…’
Oh. Ash releases the white-knuckle grip he has been maintaining on the ergo since Lorca walked into the room. ‘I understand, sir.’ And he does. The idea of a rebound isn’t exactly unprecedented.
‘I kept it professional,’ Lorca elaborates (and, god, Ash wishes he wouldn’t), ‘Contrary to what you might be inclined to believe, I’m not some dirty old man. But she was – spectacularly insubordinate. Always inviting herself into my quarters. Leaving me asinine little messages. Believe it or not, she was the one who introduced me to Yridian moonshine.’ He realizes he’s been rambling and grimaces. ‘You don’t want to hear any of this.’
No, Ash is tempted to shout, but restrains himself. He hates that he’s strapped into an ergo right now. He hates that he’s so sweaty.
‘I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you didn’t misconstrue anything. You’re a great guy, Tyler, and I enjoy your company. I just hadn’t anticipated how painful it might be, trying to – with somebody who wasn’t…’ He clears his throat. ‘Getting you drunk like that was entirely inappropriate, and if you choose to report me to the Admiralty I won’t deny the charges.’
Lorca hangs his head in a gesture of capitulation. Ash realizes he is expecting his decision now.
‘No,’ he sputters, and Lorca laughs, mirthlessly.
‘No, that’s – stop acting like you harassed me, or something.’ Ash leans forward, switching off the ergo. He has to fumble with the ankle braces several times before he’s able to disengage, he’s so angry. ‘I’m the one who tried to – suck you off.’
‘That being so, I’m still your superior officer. You may have felt pressured, even unconsciously, to return some sort of perceived –’
‘No,’ Ash snaps, holding up a hand to silence him, ‘No, believe me, I’ve been pressured into sex before, okay? I know what it feels like. Don’t lecture me on consent.’
Lorca is silent as Ash stomps around the room, shrugging on his sweatshirt, straightening the equipment, and generally avoiding any and all eye contact.
He still almost drops his keycard at the sound of Lorca rising to his feet. He can hear him approaching, slowly, as if Ash is liable to bolt. ‘I would never presume to lecture you. I apologise if it sounded that way,’ he says, very softly. There’s a pause. ‘You, uh. Forgot your yoga thingy.’
Ash accepts the foam roller begrudgingly. ‘It’s not for yoga,’ he mutters.
‘No, of course not. Calisthenics, right? …Here – sometimes the doors down here can be a bit dickey –’ Lorca says, arm outstretched to scan him through. Ash slams his hand over the keypad and kisses him.
Lorca grunts, taken aback, but allows himself to be shoved up against the wall. After so many weeks of self-imposed isolation, to suddenly have a whole other living, breathing person beneath his hands is astounding and slightly excruciating. Ash has to pull back before he passes out again, gripping onto Lorca’s shoulders like a dying man. The captain’s delta swims before his vision, twinkling at him meanly.
‘I can’t be a dead woman for you,’ he blurts.
‘Well okay,’ Lorca laughs, a little breathless. His hands have settled on Ash’s hips in a gesture that feels pleasantly proprietorial (he’s probably worried about you passing out too, reasons Ash’s logical half). ‘Should we take this upstairs?’ Lorca asks, casting his eyes upward – ostensibly towards the officers’ deck.
Ash gapes, his mind taking a moment to catch up with his mouth. ‘I need to shower,’ he says, dumbly.
‘Anything you want.’
The lights stay on, though not so bright as to appear clinical. When Ash exits the bathroom Lorca is working at his desk, glasses perched on the end of his nose. Seeing Ash’s reflection in the computer screen, he quickly folds them away, though not quickly enough to escape his scrutiny.
‘You really are an old man,’ Ash remarks, lightly.
‘And you’re insubordinate,’ Lorca replies, rising from his chair. He crosses the room to where Ash is stood stiffly in its center, hands dug deep into the pockets of a voluminous Starfleet-issue bathrobe. Lorca clasps his face firmly in both hands, tilting his head from side to side slightly, as if searching for something. As if mapping his skull.
‘Can I look at you?’ he asks.
Ash nods, but when Lorca begins to untie his bathrobe he hesitates. ‘Not, uh.’ He closes his eyes, the muscle beneath one of the lids spasming rapidly. ‘She did things to me, when… I haven’t even looked, really… Doctor Culber said –’
‘No below the belt, got it,’ Lorca says, unconcerned, and Ash thanks god that at least one of them has a way with words.
However, when he sees the full expanse of Ash’s upper body, that talent seems to abruptly vanish. ‘Oh, kid,’ he murmurs, smoothing his hand over the intricate patina of scars.
‘They won’t last,’ Ash assures him, weakly, ‘There wasn’t any infection. When the war’s over, there are clinics –’
Lorca presses his mouth to a particularly nasty notch of tissue on his shoulder, and Ash stutters into silence.
‘Aren’t you exhausted?’ Lorca breathes, his breath hot and damp against Ash’s bare skin, ‘Isn’t it exhausting?’
‘Holding yourself together like this.’
Ash laughs, miserably, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. ‘Yeah,’ he croaks.
‘Mm.’ Lorca hooks an arm around his waist. ‘Lie down and tell me about it.’
Culber catches him in the elevator a few days later – Culber on his way to treat a laceration in the cargo bay, Ash returning from a debriefing in Lorca’s quarters. If Culber notices his rumpled clothes, the bruise coming in bright red above his uniform collar, he doesn’t comment on it. His expression is uncharacteristically furtive.
‘How’re you holding up, Ash?’ he murmurs.
‘Better, thank you.’
‘Good, good.’ Culber smiles weakly, clearly not believing him. Another officer gets in on the next floor and Ash hopes that that’s the end of it, that he’s escaped the interrogation he can sense Culber had lined up, only for Culber to follow him when he steps off. Ash slows his pace obediently (it would be impolite to break into a run).
‘You know, I spoke to Captain Lorca.’
‘Oh?’ He must have been, miraculously, asleep.
‘Yes, I… Well, to be frank, Ash, I told him to suspend you from duty.’ Ash’s pleasant demeanor immediately hardens. He opens his mouth to complain, but Culber is quicker. ‘Not permanently! Just to leave you at the nearest star-base for a couple of weeks, to recuperate.’
‘I am recuperating.’
‘In the middle of a warzone? Like hell you are.’ Culber tugs at Ash’s arm, roughly, forcing him to stop. He looks grimmer than Ash has ever seen him. ‘He refused to listen to me – the captain. Told me I was being ridiculous.’
‘Because you are.’
‘Oh please, anyone aboard this ship can see that you’re not coping.’ Ash blinks, surprised by Culber’s sharp tone. ‘It was a bad idea, pulling you out of therapy. I advised him against it. But then, I thought: if anybody knew what you needed…’ Culber scrubs a hand over his beard. ‘I was wrong to steer you in his direction. You – you can’t rely on a man like that, Ash. Talk to somebody in your own circle – Michael or Detmer – Tilly, even. But not to him.’
‘Why are you all so convinced he’s –’ Ash stops himself. He sounds like a lovesick child. ‘He understands, alright?’ he says, vaguely, feigning indifference, ‘He’s the only one who –’
‘Who what?’ Culber tilts his head, ‘Who’s been tortured? I assure you, there are many people in Starfleet who’ve experienced –’
‘This is a hand –’ Ash interrupts, gesturing roughly. He feels an ugly kind of gratification to see Culber flinch. ‘You all say it’s mine, but it’s not. And it’s not just my hand, it’s – my whole body. My whole body, I’m like a passenger.’
Culber scratches his beard again, a nervous tic. ‘Body integrity disorder is also a common symptom of post traumatic stress.’
‘You’re not hearing me.’
‘You’re right, I’m not.’ Culber stares at him helplessly. ‘I don’t understand, Ash, but I want to. And in order to do that, you have to tell me the whole truth.’
Ash bristles. ‘I’ve told you everything,’ he hisses, ‘That’s all I’ve done since I arrived here. What more could you possibly want to hear?’
‘Whatever’s stalking you didn’t happen in a Klingon cell, Ash,’ Culber replies, calmly, ‘It’s happening right here, right now. And until you tell me what it is I can’t take any measures to help you.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘I think you do.’ Culber clasps his wrist, and Ash feels a sudden upwelling of gratitude. He must be frightened, must know there is a possibility, given his history, that Ash could become violent (Ash knows himself, he’s read the files). And yet: tenderness. ‘I also spoke to Captain Lorca the day you fell, in the corridor. He said you’d been drinking together.’ Ash blanches, dropping his gaze. Culber tugs at his arm, forcing him to meet his eye. ‘It’s not always a knife at your throat, Ash.’
Ash sets his jaw, centering himself. ‘I don’t know… what you’re talking about,’ he says, slowly, painfully.
Culber lingers for a long moment, bewildered, clearly upset, and then schools his expression into something more doctorly.
‘You’ve got friends here, Ash,’ he says, warmly, ‘myself included. It’d be a shame to see you go.’
It occurs to Ash as he is walking away that this is, essentially, what Captain Lorca had said to him in the conference room after his panic attack. Yet somehow, coming from Doctor Culber, the words feel less like a threat, and more like an affirmation.
Or perhaps he is just punishing himself.
There is a scar on Lorca’s back, just above his tailbone, too geometric in shape to be the result some freak accident. Ash traces the air above it repeatedly, hypnotically, trying to distract himself from the encroaching darkness beyond the bedroom door. Lorca has negotiated Ash’s lights policy down to just a lamp on the bedside table.
‘What about the girl?’ Ash murmurs, and Lorca stirs, snuffling, pulled back from the verge of sleep.
‘The girl you loved – the one who died. What was her name?’ Lorca lies very still. Ash clasps one warm shoulder, shaking him slightly. ‘Gabriel?’
Lorca is silent for a long while – silent so long that Ash eventually gives up and rolls away. A moment later, there is a dull click at Lorca reaches over and switches the lamp off, plunging them into darkness.
‘I told you not to call me that.’
this is my hand,
this is my wrist,
this is my arm,
this is my fist,
like a twisted vine wraps around, entwining