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The Opposite of Hate

Chapter Text

 

 

“You’re joking.”

Philippa looks up from the PADD at Leland and hopes her disbelief shines through.

“Yeah, ‘cause I do that all the time at this job,” Leland deadpans. “Exactly what about this assignment is so difficult to believe?”

“Does that really bear a response?” Philippa rolls her eyes before tossing the PADD back onto Leland’s terminal. She strides two steps towards the guardrail that separates the upper level of their covert-ops vessel from the control deck. “I am your best agent on Qo’Nos, I built a spy network out of nothing, my work was critical to the war effort…”

Her lips work for a brief moment, before she whirls back towards Leland.

“Why, in the name of all Gods and hells below, am I being reassigned to the Discovery?”

Leland snorts at her scandalized tone, and Philippa glares at him.

“Well now you must be joking,” Leland collapses the PADD and pockets it. “You’ve got the clearance, surely you’ve skimmed their dossier. The thing reads like a holo-show collapsing under it’s own weight.”

Philippa smirks at that. She starts to walk around the curved second level of the starship, adding a slight swagger for effect, and Leland falls into step next to her. “An evil universe, a mushroom-powered teleporter …”

“…a transfigured Klingon spy and a nefarious doppelganger of their captain,” Leland finishes. Philippa shoots him a piercing look, but Leland only shrugs.

“The parallels are uncanny, Captain, you have to admit.”

“Don’t call me that,” Philippa snaps. “Do I look like a Starfleet captain to you?”

She gestures plainly at her tight black leathers, the only clothing she had found on Qo’Nos that had fit her intensely slim frame.

Leland, to his credit, doesn’t answer that. Instead, he takes a long, deep breath, clearly centering himself. Philippa waits for whatever her former classmate, now handler, has to say about this inexplicable assignment.

“Look, Agent Georgiou,” Leland finally responds, over-enunciating Philippa’s title as he does so, “The USS Discovery has access to some of the most powerful experimental technology in the galaxy, and they were caught flat-footed, twice, because none of those squeaky-clean idiot Starfleet scientists knew how to stay vigilant and watch for hostiles in their midst.”

Leland takes a step closer.

“We nearly had the war won, until Discovery’s traitor captain pulled them out of the known universe for nine months. How many millions died because not a damn person on that ship noticed their own captain was a barbarian?”

He and Philippa stare at each other for a long, tense moment.

That is your assignment, Agent Georgiou.

Leland’s voice is light once more, even as he exaggerates Philippa’s title. “Keep an eye on the Discovery’s personnel, investigate anyone acting strange, watch for nefarious intentions…perhaps not so cloak and dagger as your work on Qo’Nos, but I’m sure you’ll survive.”

Leland attempts to walk away as Philippa digests this, but she stops him with a hand to his upper arm.

“Why me?”

Silence hangs between them, weighting the stark emptiness of the catwalk scaffolding.

“Anyone in Section 31 could do this assignment,” Philippa continues. “And they would all be a damn sight less recognizable than former Captain Philippa Georgiou.”

It’s a good point, Philippa knows it, which is why this assignment is completely, utterly baffling to her.

“Little use in being a secret agent if everyone knows who you are, eh, Leland?” She gestures slightly with her chin. Leland smirks, and Philippa immediately regrets needling him.

He looks better when he scowls.

“Oh come now, Agent Georgiou, surely you can see how your identity would prove of service when it comes to gaining the Discovery’s trust?”

Philippa’s lip twists sideways. Something about that idea rubs her the wrong way, but she doesn’t feel much like analyzing the feeling at the moment.

“Hidden in plain sight, as one of the finest, most upstanding captains in Starfleet?” Leland continues in a jaunty tone. “This might be the best idea anyone has ever had.”

“Not possibly good enough to justify pulling me from Qo’Nos like this,” Philippa fires back. “I do good work there and you know it, so why in the hell would you—“

“Will you quit being so angry and use your damn brain for half a second?” Leland snaps, and Philippa pauses at the anger in his tone. “If it were my decision, I’d keep you on Qo’Nos, you’re far more useful there. No, these orders came from well above me, nothing I can do about it.”

The admission is enough to give Philippa pause. Warning bells go off in the back of her mind.

“Who—“

“I don’t know, Philippa—“ Philippa glowers at the rankling familiarity, but Leland, to his credit, doesn’t flinch. “But whoever it was had incredibly high clearance, just look at the sign-off number on your reassignment sheet.”

Philippa takes the proffered PADD from Leland, unfolding it and bringing up her assignment document. This time, she gives more attention to the digits at the bottom. A low whistle escapes her at the clearance number.

“I know, right?” Leland agrees. “No clue who at command gives that much of a shit about you, but good luck getting out of this one.”

Philippa only stares at the orders, and unpleasant emotion begins to crawl up the back of her throat.

Bewilderment, apprehension, and growing sense of outright fear…rather unpleasant feelings, ones she has not felt since waking up in that murky hospital room on Qo’Nos, hands tied to the bed, chest cavity on fire…

Leland takes the PADD from her, and Philippa realizes that her hands are trembling.

“Come on now, Georgiou…” Leland’s voice might even be gentle. “You survived for well over a year on Qo’Nos with half a heart and somehow built a thriving intelligence network in the process…this assignment should be like a vacation.”

Philippa manages a weak huff at that, even while taking a shaky step away from Leland. Some vacation, she thought. Undercover aboard a ship of decorated heroes, brave, courageous, clear-eyed scientists…

A ship containing the one person in the Federation who refused to be corrupted, who took the high ground even during the depths of a brutal, bloody war, finding a way to peace against all odds and all orders…

How could I possibly look her in the eye after what I have become?

So caught up is Philippa in these dark thoughts that she doesn’t realize that Leland has walked away, not until he is almost through the door at the aft side of the control deck.

“Leland!” She calls after him, and he turns around just before clearing the threshold.

Philippa opens her mouth, but quickly remembers where they are, who they are, and thinks better of it. Instead, she gestures broadly at her dark, leather-clad form.

“Did those orders come with any advice as to what the hell role I am supposed to have aboard the Fleet’s “finest science vessel?””

And to Philippa’s immense dismay, Leland smiles, a slow, wicked grin of indescribable amusement.

“You were a field medic for nearly a decade before enlisting in Starfleet, weren’t you?”

Silence.

“No.”

Discovery’s down a doctor—“

“Nope. No. Absolutely not.”

“You’re telling me that you can’t at least pull a passing grade on a nursing exam?”

“I won’t do it, and that’s final!”

 

* *

 

Philippa glares at Leland from her place atop the transporter pad, Fleet-issue duffel at her feet. The man is clearly trying not to laugh, and Philippa glares harder, hoping her intense, burning hatred might burn a hole through his stupid bald head and drop him to the deck.

“The uniform suits you,” Leland manages, biting his lip hard.

Philippa rolls her eyes to the heavens, wondering if they might leave her skull altogether. She shifts where she stands, feeling eminently uncomfortable in her newly replicated white Starfleet medical uniform.

Stupid sickbay whites

Philippa has always hated them…well, perhaps not hated, but as a former field medic, it always struck Philippa as patently ridiculous to put doctors and nurses in all-white clothing, as they would invariably get stained with some bodily fluid or other.

“We’ll beam you over to the Enterprise,” Leland continues as he walks around the transporter pad to the controls. “It’s been disabled by a stellar anomaly. The plan, as it stands now, is for Captain Chris Pike and few other officers to board the Discovery and use the vessel for further investigation of some type of signal patterns.”

“What will I be telling Pike, then?”

Leland punches several commands into the transporter room terminal, not bothering to look at Philippa as he does. “Pike has a falsified transfer order for you, but if he asks, just tell him you’ve come out of retirement to better serve the Federation. I know Pike, and if he’s at all familiar with the former you, he’ll fall for it, hook line and sinker.”

Philippa sighs heavily at this. She is familiar with Captain Christopher Pike as well, and knows that he certainly the type of man who would immediately believe the best of her, in spite of the inconsistencies with her cover story.

Despite her earlier misgivings, Philippa has to admit that she is beginning to see the sense in placing a Section 31 operative aboard the Discovery, if she can be so blasé about a cover and actually expect to be believed.

An overhead comm signal chirps.

Bridge to transporter room, we are within 500 kilometers of the USS Enterprise and closing.

“Acknowledged,” Leland barks without looking up.

It’s go time.

Within the hour, she will be aboard the USS Discovery.

Within the day, she might be crossing paths with one Commander Michael Burnham…

Philippa’s breath hitches. Her brutally repaired heart stumbles in her chest, and she wonders vaguely if she’d remembered to take her meds this morning. She clenches her teeth behind closed lips and slows her breath rate; nevertheless, the storm of black, whirling anxiety continues without mercy.

But before Philippa can even begin to voice her protests, to insist that this is a terrible, wrong-footed idea, Leland pushes the transporter controls to their maximum.

Philippa dissolves into golden energy upon the transporter pad, not missing Leland’s sardonic salute as her atoms decouple.

Once this mission is over, she will have him assassinated.

 

*

 

Leland stands still for several minutes after Georgiou’s matter transport. The engines of his ship hum around him, and the buzz of the ground beneath his feet indicates that they have jumped to warp.

On to the next assignment.

Many years of undercover work, of spying and assassination, of tugging strings and manipulating the rise and fall of nations, have given him a strange type of sixth sense. A special indicator of sorts, of what small actions might lead to a comparably huge counter-reaction, of which flap of a butterfly’s wing might cause a hurricane on the other side of the universe.

Something about this new mission involving his best agent is tugging at that sense, right now, at this very moment.

Still, despite the utter randomness of these orders, of Fleet Command forcing Georgiou to reveal her survival and assigning her to a ship that does not specifically require her expertise, Leland understands that oftentimes one must work with what they are given.

And planting a Section 31 agent in close proximity to the adopted sister of that half-Vulcan murderer certainly counts as such.

Command gets what they want, Section 31 gets what they want.

Leland cannot help a smirk at the comforting thought. Even after all of these years in the game, he still gets a special kick out of clever maneuvers such as these.

With a slight nod to himself, Leland turns on a heel and leaves the transporter room.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

As soon as they hit the transporter pad of the USS Discovery, Michael rolls out of Pike’s grip, slams her helmet open, and vomits across the warm metal surface.

She’s nearly incoherent with pain, it’s vibrating up her spine, across her pelvis, scattering her thoughts and scrambling her Vulcan controls into a dim mess, and perhaps two years ago, she could have fought through it, but now, after prison, after the war, after the Terran universe, after that…that red specter…

With her right hand, she grasps at the rock sample she’d collected on the super-massive asteroid, but feels nothing, nothing at all, how is that possible---

Michael’s thigh gives a particularly vicious throb, biles rise in her throat again, and she claps a hand over her mouth, taking a deep, shaking breath to force it back down. Pike is somewhere above her ordering a site-to-site transport, and Michael clenches his arm, gripping it tight as her molecules turn to energy once more.

She reappears in sickbay, materializing upon the bio-bed situated for the exact purpose of receiving transported personnel. The softness of the bed seems to help with the pain, just a little, but Michael still can’t manage to speak, still can’t get single word out through her clenched teeth, her rapid, high-pitched, shuddering breaths.

Sarek would likely not be pleased at this.

But Sarek has a Vulcan nervous system, and has never quite understood the Human concept of pain.

She feels the whir of a scanner, the hiss of a hypospray at her throat.

“Huh…femur fracture.” That’s Doctor Pollard’s voice. “Damn Burnham, we all had bets on when you’d come in with one of these, but none of us put any credits on a foreign body removal.”

Michael hears her voice, but it’s getting farther and farther away. The pain medicine kicking in, she reasons. She feels her leg being elevated, the hiss of curtains being drawn around her.

—metal must have been hot going in, tissue’s completely cauterized---

“—already out of it, we can get away with a spinal—“

An uncertain amount of time passes. There’s a pinch just above her sacrum, and Michael’s eyes flutter shut. She hears the grind of a machine, smells the characteristic scent of burning metal, she feels a hand squeeze her own, the furtive murmur of voices, one of which bears an uniquely familiar accent…

…one that she has not heard since that last, horrible day in the Terran Empire…

And perhaps it’s the chaos of the day, combined with the heavy drugs which are surely lowering Michael’s usually iron-strong walls, but Michael does not have the strength to fight against an emotional response, not now, not now.

Medical devices beep and whirl in the distance, lights flash and flicker, voices echo, and it’s easy enough, in this altered state of reality, to imagine her captain sitting in a chair next to the bio-bed, as she had done so many times in the years they had known each other.

Michael wishes fervently that she had been granted the chance to give Captain Georgiou the same consideration, but Philippa, a long-time occupant of the captain’s chair, had so rarely gotten injured during their seven years together, and the one time that she had—

--No--

Something tubular, and metallic slides around her foot, up her calf, coming to rest over Michael’s injured thigh. There’s a metallic click and the tube begins to apply pressure, but in a way that is comfortable instead of painful. The familiar voice murmurs, “Somehow I’ve never had the occasion to use one of these.

And you said you were a paramedic?” Pollard’s voice is dry and dubious, even through Michael’s drug-induced haze.

Yes, thirty years ago…

Perhaps this is all a dreamMichael has had many dreams of this nature before, where she would hear that wonderful voice and see dark waves of tumbling hair, and sometimes strong arms would wrap around her and she would disappear into an intoxicating, perfect scent, the one that she would give anything in the universe to experience just one more time…

But she was too late, both times…too late too late too late…

Tears bubble up behind closed eyes, one escaping to slide unbidden down Michael’s cheek.

She hates waking up from those dreams.

 

 

But eventually, the drugs wear off, the agony in her leg dulled somewhat by the bone repair cuff around her thigh.

Michael blinks her eyes open into the white light of sickbay. She casts a glimpse at the chrono set above Pollard’s office. Her voice is rasping, an acidic taste burning her mouth. “How long was I out?”

“Just forty-five minutes.”

Michael freezes in the bio-bed. She turns her head slowly, slowly, towards the voice uttering those words.

For a brief, crazy moment, Michael wonders if she died on that asteroid, if she was cast into parallel universe, a kinder one this time, because there, right next to her, stands Captain Philippa Georgiou, utterly resplendent in medical whites, her dark hair pressed into a braid and flipped across her right shoulder. She’s backlit by the white light of sickbay, which glows around her body and silhouettes her slim, stunning figure.

Like a halo, Michael thinks sluggishly, and fragments come to her suddenly, of that…that figure she’d seen on the asteroid, bathed in dazzling red light and surrounded by fire…

How many specters would she see today?

Philippa must notice the thunderstruck expression on Michael’s face, because she continues hurriedly, reading off a datascreen in her hands.

“You were collected from the unknown asteroid by Captain Pike and beamed aboard fifty-three minutes ago. You sustained a right femur fracture as well as a rather spectacular foreign body invasion to the surrounding tissue. We issued typical painkillers and spinal anesthesia before removing the object and applying the cuff...”

Michael touches the metal surface of the bone cuff, but her eyes are entirely locked on Philippa, her jaw slack, body numb, mind sluggishly working through the apparent data as the captain rattles off Michael’s condition…

“…still under mild sedation…”

It’s not possible…she died on T’Kuvma’s ship, she died in the throne room, I was too late both times, both times I failed…

“…treated the burns from the metal shard…”

…I was too late…

"…we expect no scarring…”

It’s not…possible…

The combination of joy and terror burns in her chest, hot and unbearable, and Michael wonders if that red being had taken her, if she is well and truly dead, her string of impossibly lucky survivals having finally run out….

Somehow, through all of this muted agony, Philippa is still speaking. “…and there’s more medication in that cuff on your wrist, so if you feel any pain, just press the button and it will administer—“

Philippa cuts off as Michael frantically jabs the button on the device at her wrist.

This is a sound plan, a logical plan, if she goes to sleep she can wake up with her brain reset, and then the world will make sense and this ghost will be gone—

“Stop it, Michael, stop!

Hands grab desperately at her wrist, pulling Michael’s fingertips away from the device, but it’s too late, Michael’s eyes are all but rolling back into her head as darkness presses upon her, as sleep consumes her wholly.

Dammit, Michael…”

It’s only in the half-moment straddling the line between sleep and wakefulness that Michael realizes that the hands grabbing at her own were warm and solid, and that the exasperation in that throaty voice is unmistakably, indelibly Philippa.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“You really nailed that one, Captain.”

Doctor Tracy Pollard’s voice is dry as a bone as she walks away to check on one of the injured patients from the Hiawatha, and Philippa cannot even muster the will to fire back.

Pollard’s take was so scathing that she had won the argument instantly.

Instead, Philippa spends several long moments staring at the limp figure in the bio bed.

To say that it could have gone better would be an understatement of biblical proportions.

What the hell had Pike told her?

But the look on Michael’s face had been unmistakable. Utterly drained of color, her eyes wide and dark, her body frozen still as a stone on the bio bed.

Like she had just seen a ghost, and it had prescribed rest and a position of comfort for her femur fracture.

Pike hadn’t told her.

Son of a bitch.

Philippa shakes her head as she checks the readouts on the screen above Michael’s head. She had dosed herself with one hell of a payload; it would be astonishing if she were to wake up within the next six hours.

“Still a flare for the dramatic, I see,” Philippa mumbles.

“--Excuse me! Coming through sorry!--”

A string of feminine yells grows louder from down the corridor, and in the next moment a red-headed young woman bursts into sickbay. From the pink tint to her skin and the quickness of her respirations, Philippa judges that she’s ran there. She recognizes the woman immediately, both from her pre-mission research and from the awards ceremony that she had watched from the Section 31 outpost on Qo’Nos.

Ensign Sylvia Tilly.

Scientific genius, spore drive engineer, and Michael Burnham’s roommate and presumed friend.

Certainly a good person with whom Agent Philippa Georgiou should acquaint herself.

Philippa straightens and plasters on a smile that is only half false.

“Good day, Ensign. Did you need something?”

“Oh! Um!…“

Tilly’s voice is slightly too loud for sickbay, and Philippa wants to flinch. She recalls the diagnosis of social anxiety she had seen in the ensign’s file.

“Yes. That’s um, that’s my roommate, I’m here to check on her.”

Tilly grins nervously and points at Michael in the bio bed. In the next moment, she does a truly comical double-take to look back at Philippa. Comprehension dawns in her youthful face like a burst of sunlight.

“Oh…oh my God, you—you’re—“

To her own surprise, Philippa finds that the smile playing at her lips is true and genuine. She nods along with the young woman expectantly, as if willing her along to the conclusion.

Captain Georgiou.

Tilly’s face is as bright as a star as she breathes the words, and she takes a step closer to Philippa as if she simply cannot stop herself.

“Oh my…—wait, but how are you alive? You died over a year ago, Michael saw it happen. Michael!”

Tilly whirls towards the asleep figure in the bio bed.

“Michael, wake up!” The words come out in a frantic yell as Tilly jostles Michael’s shoulders, but Michael’s eyes remain closed.

“Ahhh!” Tilly claps her hands to her face in distress. “Oh no, she’ll be so upset to have missed you.” She stares pleadingly at Michael’s smooth, unbothered face. “How could you be sleeping at a time like this?”

She whirls back to Philippa. “Is she okay? Please tell me she’s okay, Captain-- Uh…” Tilly looks down at Philippa’s medical whites. “…Doctor?”

Philippa snorts, unable to stop her amusement from finally bubbling over.

“’Captain’ is fine, Ensign, at least until I pass my nursing exam. And she’s fine.”

Philippa cannot help a fond look towards her former commander.

“She might sleep for a few hours, but no lasting damage.”

Physically, at least.

“Oh! Oh good.” Tilly slumps in relief. “It’s just, um…”

The ensign’s fingers play at the front of her body nervously. “Did she, um…happen to come in with anything? Like maybe a small rock or a…a big rock …or dust! Dust is good too!”

“I am afraid she was quite empty-handed when we received her,” Philippa answers, and Tilly slumps in disappointment.

Philippa cocks her head, wondering at the ensign’s reaction, at the relevance of the small rock or big rock or dust…a sample of the impossible asteroid they had encountered.

The part of Philippa that is a Section 31 agent senses the importance of this topic, and her next words come out as if scripted.

“Was the rock important, Ensign?” she asks, her tone a mixture of soft and curious.

“Yes! Yes it was, it’s just…” Tilly cuts off her babbling and looks at Philippa for a long moment, as if sizing Philippa up. “Are you, um…are you like, stationed on this ship now? Which like, if you are that’s great, although pretty crazy considering you’re presumed dead, which I would ask you about except I don’t want to be rude…”

Despite these assurances, Tilly looks like she’s practically salivating to know the answer. Philippa decides that it’s only fair trade, considering she is seeking information as well.

“I was presumed dead, Ensign.”

Tilly’s eyes are wide as Philippa speaks. She decides to edit the answer slightly, as this woman looks young enough to be bunking at the Academy. “But in truth, I was held on Qo’Nos for a very long time after the Binary Stars. And when the war ended I…got to come home.”

The story is short and sweet to the point of ridiculous, but Tilly beams so brightly at the end of it that Philippa wants to squint at what must surely be star-level lumens.

“That’s amazing, Captain! And now you’re here, on the Discovery? As a…nurse?”

“And now I am here, on the Discovery,” Philippa agrees with a smile. “As a medic and soon-to-be nurse.”

“Okay! But um…” Tilly’s face scrunches, and she puts her hands on her hips as she studies Philippa.

“Why?”

And for the first time in this extremely frenetic conversation, Philippa feels quite stumped. Whatever she tells this young woman must be sincere enough to be believable, but must sound like an answer her old self might have given, an answer poignant and generous and wise. As her mind darts from one possibility to the next, her eyes amble aimlessly from Tilly’s full figure to Michael’s sleeping form in the bio bed next to her--

“---Ohhhhh!” Tilly breathes. “Oh okay, that makes sense.”

Philippa’s teeth clack together as her jaw drops shut. Ensign Tilly is nodding as if Philippa had given her a fully coherent explanation with bullet points and a concise conclusion.

What the hell just happened?

But Tilly seems to be moving on, striding out from Michael’s bedside to stand before Philippa.

“Well then, since you’re here…can I tell you something really cool, Captain?”

“I would be rather upset if you did not, Ensign.”

In spite of her calculating intentions going into this conversation, Philippa finds herself warming to this bubbly young woman.

“Okay.” Tilly lowers her voice as if sharing a secret. “Well, before Michael left to go down the asteroid, I discovered that it was giving off intense mycelial readings—“

“—like your spore drive, yes?” Philippa clarifies.

“Yes!” Tilly beams. “Just like that! Which, I mean, is crazy, we haven’t seen any sign of those since, well…months and months ago, and then here it is, on this massive asteroid where that red signal was coming from, so I asked Michael to grab a sample, but I guess the sample didn’t make it…”

The ensign trails off and looks at Michael’s immobile form in the bio-bed.

Didn’t make it, didn’t make it…

“When she was first beamed to sickbay…” Philippa starts slowly. “Her right hand was clenching and unclenching, almost as if she were grasping at something…and only her right hand, not her left, so I doubt it was from pain.”

She turns back to Tilly. “Is there a chance that perhaps, she did get the sample?”

“But it didn’t make it through the particle transport…” Tilly breathes. “Which would mean that it isn’t…”

“…entirely composed of regular matter,” Philippa completes in a low voice, awed in spite of herself. “Which implies…dark matter?“

“Oh it implies a lot of things,” Tilly exclaims. “Dark matter, or dark energy, or even really intense regular energy, matter and energy are one and the same after all, according to Einstein, that’s the basic theory behind transporters…” Tilly is babbling once more. “An impossible asteroid…that-- that would explain the intense gravitational fields, even-- even the signal flare itself, if enough energy were released as radiation—“

Tilly’s eyes are wide as she conjectures, and Philippa imagines that her own are wide as well at the ideas she is spouting.

Gods, it’s been a time and half since she’s been exposed to science at this level.

“But why the red…?” Tilly continues in a low murmur. “And why here…and why in those other six locations too, specifically…and why was this the only signal that didn’t dissipate…”

Sickbay is silent for a moment as the questions hang.

“And—and y’know, the other weird thing is that the mycelial energy readings dropped by over seventy-five percent nearly an hour ago, and it was a seriously precipitous drop, Captain, here look—“

Tilly holds up her PADD, bringing up a quick holo with a flick of her fingers. Philippa studies the trend-line of mycelial energy readings picked up by the Discovery’s sensors.

Indeed, the energy levels seems to drop like a rock somewhere to the far right of the chart…Philippa’s eyes dart to the x-axis, time.

“Wait—that’s…” Philippa shakes her head. “That is…within ten minutes of Michael’s transport off of the asteroid.”

“What— Oh my god, really?” Tilly studies the graph harder, all but squinting at it. “Shit, you’re right! But did that happen before they got her, or after…Oh, I’ll have to take a look at the transporter logs, but either way, that’s effing crazy.”

Tilly’s face slides sideways to Philippa. From the slight widening of her eyes, she seems to consider what she’s said.

“Erm…sorry, Captain. They just—slip out, y’know?”

Tilly sounds utterly mortified, and Philippa offers her a comforting smile.

“Don’t worry, Ensign.” She leans in slightly. “I could not give less of a damn.”

Tilly stares at Philippa. Her eyes grow huge, and a slow smile spreads across her face. She looks star-struck.

Philippa wonders if she’s earned herself a groupie.

In the next moment, Tilly shakes her head, a near-manic smile twitching across her lips.

“God, what a day, huh? A super-dense mycelial asteroid filled with Starfleet personnel…” She starts to walk as she talks, all but pacing before Philippa, bouncing as her hands wave in the air.

“An impossible asteroid made of non-baryonic matter— explosive mycelial readings—a red energy signal appearing from—from nowhere, and disappearing to nowhere...“

Tilly stops her pacing. She looks towards Philippa.

We really need a sample of that asteroid.”

Philippa looks at Tilly. She shakes herself as an idea occurs to her.

“We’re in a crumbling asteroid field. Surely there are plenty of chunks being thrown around…if we’re quick, the Discovery might be able to capture one of them.”

Tilly’s jaw drops.

“Oh my God Captain, you’re a genius!”

And in the next moment, Tilly steps away self-consciously, her hands flitting at the hem of her jacket. “I mean like, of course you are, you’re a legend, I—I’ve read all about you, your story is really inspiring and you’ve done all these incredible things…y’know what, I think I’m just gonna shut up now.”

Tilly clamps her mouth shut, and Philippa smiles once more. Oh, to see innocence in the flesh like this.

“Well, Ensign?” Philippa prods. “Don’t you have asteroids to chase down?”

“Oh!” Tilly startles. “You are so right!” With that, she turns on a heel and runs out of sickbay, communicator already out.

“Tell Engineering to start mapping trajectories of rock fragments from the asteroid and meet me in the shuttlebay with a Gravity Capture Device…” Her voice fades as she speeds down the corridor, and Philippa spends several moments listening to her go.

And in the next second, she slumps in place, the exhaustion from the intense conversation catching up to her.

“Yeah, that’s Tilly.” Pollard’s voice emanates from a far corner of sickbay where she operates on the brain-damaged Tellurian from the Hiawatha. “I’d tell you you’ll get used to her, but I’m starting to believe that’s not possible.”

Philippa startles at the voice. In all of the excitement, she had forgotten the doctor was there.

And she’s been here the whole time, Philippa marvels, listening to us. Gods, the secrets these doctors and nurses must collect, just by keeping their heads down and working.

Perhaps going undercover as a Fleet medic was actually a good idea.

Philippa strides to Michael’s bedside to check her vitals once more, and makes a mental note to cancel Leland’s assassination.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Pink blossoms drift in the wind as Michael trudges through the courtyard at the side of Ambassador Sarek…her new father. Pain lances her chest at each step, but Michael forces it down, somewhere deep and fathomless. She can weep later, quietly, in whatever might be her bedroom here at this new house.

Red sunlight flickers through the leaves on the gnarled trees overhead, latticing the pavement before her in shadow. This quiet suburb is nice, Michael reflects. Soft, peaceful…unlike the chaotic, raucous Child Services outpost on Starbase Twenty-Two.

Michael imagines the possibility of a good life for herself, here on Vulcan. Where she might be taught to manage her emotions, which at all times threaten to overflow from her eyes, from her mouth. Vulcans have always been friends to her, at least back on Doctari Alpha…

Michael follows Sarek up the stairs as she remembers the life now lost to her. She misses her teachers, the subtle affection in the raises of their eyebrows, the gentle admonishments in slight shifts of their vocality…the mellow demeanors of her Vulcan friends, they way they would restrain their smiles and laughter, but nevertheless play soccer and Kadis-kot with Michael and the other Human children.

Michael knows Vulcans.

She can do this.

A beautiful woman appears from a side-room. Her Vulcan robe flows around her legs, her hair is long and dark, and her ears are rounded.

Ambassador Sarek’s Human wife.

“Hello, Michael. My name is Amanda. Welcome to our home.”

Oh no. Amanda’s voice is so sweet, so kind, as is her face, Michael remembers her mother, her mom, her mother’s beautiful face, her screams—

No, no no no. All of the preparation she had done leading up to this meeting, dashed at first sight of Human kindness, and in front of Ambassador Sarek no less—

Amanda reaches for her, but Michael withdraws, wrapping her arms around herself. The moment she brushes against kindness, she will break down, and that cannot happen now.

Not on her first day at this new home.

“What’s your name?” Amanda asks softly. She already knows, she has seen Michael’s file from Child Services, but this is an introduction, after all.

“Michael,” Michael mumbles, her gaze firmly fixated on Amanda’s neck. Amanda ducks down slightly to meet her eyes. And her gaze is kind, Michael notes, despite Michael’s obvious missteps in this interaction.

“I bless you, Michael… All my life.”

Amanda murmurs the Vulcan greeting, yet she puts forth so much love and affection in the words, anointing them in a thoroughly Human manner. Michael is both confused and awed at the inflection.

“Would you like to meet our son?” Amanda continues, and Michael nods quickly at this, allowing slight eagerness to overlay the shattering grief in her chest.

All of the years she had begged her parents for a baby brother, she recalls them now as she follows Amanda and Sarek up the stairs. A brother that she could play with, that she could teach important things to. A built-in friend that she could have for her whole life…

Michael is somewhat excited for Vulcan, but she is more excited at the prospect of a little brother. After losing everything…perhaps this might be a new start for her.

Sarek pushes open the unlocked door on the second floor. “Spock?”

Michael takes in the outline of a small boy at a desk on the far side of the room.

Her new brother.

“Spock. This is Michael Burnham. She will be staying with us. You will be teaching her the ways of Vulcan.”

Spock does not move, nor turn around.

“I expect you to be friends.” Michael picks up on the slight threat in Sarek’s voice. She feels strangely comforted at the change in tone; Sarek might be Vulcan, but he is still recognizably a father.

Spock’s hands move across his desk; with clever motions, he pulls an image from his terminal up and into the air.

A massive, roaring, howling dragon, rendered flawlessly in three-dimensional space. The holo-drawing writhes in the air, white and glowing, approaching Michael, Sarek, and Amanda where they stand in the doorway.

Michael cannot help but be awed, her jaw unhinging slightly. For a seven-year old boy to not only draw this creature, but to animate it as well?

This little boy, Spock, must be brilliant, Michael concludes. She wonders what she could possibly teach him, maybe soccer, maybe star mapping like Mom had taught her, maybe Spock liked Star Wars too, he is half-Human after all—

Spock walks through the dancing dragon, which disappears the moment he contacts it. He approaches Michael and Sarek where they cluster in the doorway, Amanda standing only a pace behind him, and Michael takes in the figure of her new little brother.

His ears are pointed like a Vulcan and he wears Vulcan school robes, but Michael picks up on the small tells that allude to his Human heritage…skin more pink than green, softer hair texture, though it is molded into the classic Vulcan bowl cut. He is quite little, Michael notes, by both Human and Vulcan standards. Michael wonders if he possesses Vulcan strength and resilience; she does not want to hurt him by accident.

She reaches out a hand, as her father had taught her to always do when meeting new people. Spock might be half-Vulcan, but he is just a child, his touch-triggered telepathy nescient and undeveloped. This is a safe action.

But Spock does not reach out to her.

Instead, he shuts his door in her face.

 

**

 

Michael knows it would be logical to remain on guard around Captain Pike…a strange captain who had shown up unannounced and took over the Discovery almost immediately.

Yet bonds forged in the line of duty are powerful indeed.

She had risked life and limb to save Captain Pike in the asteroid field, and he, in turn, had risked his own life to save her, coming back for her on that asteroid via questionable transport and straight into an imploding starship wreck.

Michael reflects on this as she strides through Corridor Three towards the turbolift.

These very bonds are a significant reason why Michael deeply cherishes her place as an officer in Starfleet. As a Vulcan foundling and the sole survivor of a terrifying racially motivated attack, Michael has always found it difficult to talk about herself with any type of depth. Privacy is a revered tenet of Vulcan society, and is the laws of Vulcan by which Michael was raised.

Still, this had certainly not assisted her in the process of making friends the natural way.

Michael rounds the corner, dodging a cluster of crewman carrying a large toolbox between them. She considers the social aspect of being a Starfleet officer, the idea of shared burdens, of risks taken for relative strangers, of the indelible connections she has made in the line of duty.

Such bonds are important, Michael concludes, to the well-being of a Human mind.

Michael presses the button to summon the turbolift, and wonders absently if she would have enjoyed bonds such as these as a member of the Vulcan Expeditionary Group.

But the point is moot; she will never experience life aboard a Vulcan-run starship, and to wonder about such things would only bring pain.

The turbolift compartment hums as it zigzags through the ship, and Michael’s thoughts wander to the ghost she had seen in sickbay…to Captain Georgiou, to Philippa

Michael quickly crosses her arms behind her back, allowing her hands to grip at the sleeves of her uniform. With eyes firmly closed, she reaches for her Vulcan controls. She breathes, recites the Fibonacci sequence to ten places, and by the eighth figure, she is relatively calm once more.

It should not have been possible…but then again…

So much of what happened today should not have been possible.

The doors to the bridge hiss open, and Michael takes in the view of her crewmates, now her subordinates, and beyond them, the infinite, glowing blackness of space. The stars, the planets, the vast, infinite universe itself, all separated from the crew of the Discovery by a mere two feet of transparasteel.

Michael sighs at the view, and considers today.

The dead coming back to life, matter and energy somehow interchanging, the mycelial network bursting open, seven mysterious energy signals, and an impossible vision of an unknown being…

Something important is happening.

Michael can sense it, just as she sensed it aboard the Shenzhou as they probed for an invisible enemy in the light of the binary stars. She strides to the left of the captain’s chair, passing ops and comms as she does, and squares her shoulders as she chimes the ready room door.

It was time to get to know the man that her brother had spoken so highly of.

 

* *

 

Lorca’s ready room is not designed for extended meetings, both Pike and Michael realize rather quickly.

“Walk with me, Burnham.”

They cross the bridge and re-enter the turbolift.

“Doctor Pollard seems to have done a good job,” Pike remarks with a significant glance towards Michael’s leg. “No trace of a limp.”

“Well, it wasn’t merely Pollard’s work, sir.”

Michael’s response is tight, her gaze cold and firmly ahead.

Pike sighs and shakes his head. “I am so sorry Burnham, it was my duty to tell you—“

Michael jerks her head to stare at him.

What—“

“She didn’t want any of her former crewmembers to get a nasty shock, believe it or not,” Pike interjects. “I was supposed to give you advanced warning, but then we hit the asteroid field and things escalated, we came up with that rather daring rescue plan, and it seemed unwise to risk emotionally comprising a member of my away team.”

Pike states his explanation in a way that is so matter-of-fact, so logical, that Michael finds herself mollified, despite her previous desire to start shouting.

She takes a breath and centers her thoughts. There will be time for emotional response later, and perhaps towards the responsible party herself.

Michael cannot help but acknowledge that she has been compartmentalizing in this way for a long time. She wonders at what point “later” might finally catch up with her.

“Why didn’t she come aboard with you and…and the others?”

Michael trips slightly at the memory of Connelly, and Pike seems to understand.

“She spoke to me before we beamed over, told me she didn’t want to make a potential scene, asked to be sent aboard separately. It seemed a tactful move, so I agreed.”

Pike looks at Michael as the turbolift opens.

“According to her file, she’s retired, and she gave no contra-indications when we spoke aboard the Enterprise, but…”

Pike stops Michael with a hand in front of her, and Michael turns to face him, schooling her expression into one of absolute neutrality.

“The news cycle records are public domain, and I’ve done my research on the Binary Stars.”

Pike looks at Michael for a long, intense moment, and Michael looks back at him, her face smooth and unbothered.

“You can trust me to be professional, sir.”

Pike merely raises a silent eyebrow.

“Noted,” he states, but from the tone of his voice, the concern in his brow, Michael gets the sense that the question she answered was not the one that Pike was asking.

Michael opens her mouth to clarify, but before she can say anything, Pike is walking once more, and Michael lengthens her strides to keep up. They seem to be heading towards the Deck 1 viewing bay, and she wonders how ridiculous it might be for her to steer them somewhere else.

Lieutenant Georgiou will be working sickbay until further notice, and despite her background as a paramedic, she is not cleared for away missions.”

Pike throws her an amused look.

“And I’m telling you this so you aren’t hit with any more unpleasant surprises.”

Michael gives him a clipped nod as she walks, ignoring his obvious amusement.

“Appreciated, sir.”

It was strange for a highly experienced and decorated former captain to not be cleared for away missions. Michael adds this to her mental list of questionable circumstances surrounding her former captain’s resurrection, as well as her current status as “retired.”

“Retired” doesn’t equate with a knife to the chest.

She considers asking Pike how he could reconcile Philippa’s apparent death at the Binary Stars with her obvious state of alive-ness at the present time, but she understands that the man has only just returned from a five-year mission and missed the entirety of the war.

What in the hell could he possibly know about it?

Moving on.

“Sir, I would like to go aboard the Enterprise, to see Spock.”

Pike stops once more, just before they reach the bulkhead before Deck Three’s starboard viewing bay. Michael anticipates the response before he says it.

“I’m sorry, Burnham, but…Spock’s not there.”

Michael closes her eyes and shakes her head slowly, a pained sigh leaving her chest.

“I suspected as much.”

Pike raises a curious eyebrow at that, and Michael clarifies. “He hasn’t answered my messages in months…I thought perhaps something happened to the comms systems on the ship, but since the Enterprise has returned from its five year mission…that is no longer a logical assumption.”

Pike nods softly. He gestures for Michael to proceed before him into the viewing bay.

Michael remembers her weighty conversation with Ash Tyler, here at this very place over three months ago. She hesitates for only moment before proceeding inside, and Pike follows her in. He walks slowly towards the viewport, speaking as he does.

“You know Burnham, Spock never spoke much about his family, but he did mention you quite often.”

Michael raises her eyebrow, and Pike quickly amends. “Not…as a sister. The way he spoke about you, I assumed you were an esteemed colleague of his from Vulcan.”

Michael’s lips twitch at that. She folds her arms behind her back as she reaches the viewport. “That sounds like Spock.”

“It does.”

Pike looks like he wants to smile. His silver hair glows in the light of the cosmos, his handsome face illuminated in the soft orange haze, and Michael remembers the bits and pieces that Spock had told her about his captain in the preceding years. She had often wondered what it was about Christopher Pike that had inspired such devotion from her prickly brother, but after their shared experience in the asteroid field, Michael finds that she is beginning to understand.

Pike takes his place next to her, and the light of the cosmos reflects off of the gold piping of his uniform. “I looked into your file, after we got news of the war.” He shifts somewhat uncomfortably. “After the news of, well…”

“My betrayal,” Michael states evenly, putting Pike out of his misery. “After an attempt on my life when I was eleven, it seemed logical to distance myself from my Vulcan family. You won’t find any records of my connection with House Sarek in the Starfleet database.”

Michael sighs and looks down at her hands. “But Spock is my brother nonetheless.”

“Wait, an attempt on your life?” Pike looks stunned as he shakes his head. “What—“

“Vulcan extremists,” Michael clarifies in a clipped tone. “They didn’t want a Human presence to contaminate their logic, so they took rather drastic measures.”

From his wide eyes and deeply furrowed brow, Michael calculates that approximately zero percent of this sentence makes sense to Captain Pike.

“Spock…told me a thing or two about that attack, over the years,” Pike finally murmurs, his expression downright nauseated. “That was you?"

"That was me."

From the complex emotions flickering across Pike's face, Michael would say that he is quickly reforming his initial size-up of her.

She wonders if perhaps she should not have told him this.

"They...they never found the culprits, did they?” Pike manages.

Michael’s lip twists. “They never looked for the culprits.”

Pike shakes his head at that. He looks out of the viewport, and Michael follows his gaze to the USS Enterprise.

“All of the Vulcans I have ever known value life in all forms,” Pike states, still sounding intensely shaken. “How could any Vulcan find it logical and just to take the life of an innocent child?”

He looks sickened beyond belief, and Michael finds that she feels almost touched at his concern. She looks out of the window towards the stars, remembering smoke and screams and blood, the explosion that had ruptured her eardrums, the black, endless void---

“I wish I knew,” she finally whispers.

But in the next moment, Michael remembers herself. With a deep, steadying breath, she controls her emotional response and continues in a steady voice.

“After the attack, I pulled away. I withdrew from everything, tried to become the best Vulcan I could be…but Spock never let me withdraw from him. In the following months, he would come into my room every night with a sleeping bag and sleep at the foot of my bed. He walked to the Vulcan Learning Center with me every day, when before, he wanted nothing to do with me…” Michael’s lips twitch at a particular memory. “I am uncertain, but I think he may have started learning martial arts so he could protect me.”

Pike smiles at that, revealing dimples that shave ten years off of his apparent age. “For all of his logic, Lieutenant Spock was an intensely loyal man…I was lucky to count him as a friend.”

“As was I…” Michael realizes that they have both reverted to the English past tense, and tears prick at her eyes. “Captain, do you know anything of where he might be?”

“I do.”

Michael jerks her head to look at him, and the urgency in her expression presses Pike to continue.

“Several months ago, Spock requested leave and I gave it to him.”

Michael cannot help her intensely dubious eyebrow.

Spock…requested leave?”

Pike gives a sardonic nod in acknowledgement of the point. “I know, quite out of character, but that’s just it, Burnham, he’d been acting out of character for weeks prior…withdrawn, distracted…like he’d encountered a problem he couldn’t solve…”

Michael follows his gaze out towards the cosmos, towards the USS Enterprise, now all but swarming with repair drones.

“And he never gave any indication as to what it might be?”

Pike shook his head. “He didn’t want to talk about it, not with me, not with anyone. He’s one of my bridge officers, I trust him implicitly. He asked for time and I gave it to him.”

“How long will he be gone?”

“I don’t know…he had months of leave accumulated…”

Michael closes her eyes at that, and a spike of cold fear twists in her stomach. She looks out the window towards the USS Enterprise, her brother’s home, where he, like her, had found a place in the stars, where he had grown into a man that Michael had been so proud of…

Memories rise unbidden, of the weekly letters Spock had written to her during her imprisonment, of the character witness he had provided during her trial, of the recording he had somehow managed to acquire of Captain Georgiou’s funeral, despite the Enterprise’s vast distance from Federation space at the time…”

The words spring to her lips almost of their own accord.

“Spock has always had my back, even when the world turned theirs. Especially when the world turned theirs.”

Michael turns to Pike, firm resolve in her voice. “I would like to go aboard the Enterprise before we leave. I don’t know what I expect to find, but…I have to.”

Pike merely looks at her, a strange expression on his face.

“Sir?”

Silence hangs between them, weighted as the depths of a neutron star.

“You’ve really not had an easy time of it, have you, Burnham?” Pike finally asks.

Michael opens and closes her mouth several times, for once at an utter loss at to what to say.

“You should go,” he declares, and Michael is saved from having to respond. 

 

**

 

Aboard the USS Enterprise, Michael does not know whether to be happy or terrified that her search has proven fruitful.

The seven signals float above her head like tiny stars, pulled from Spock’s drawing program that he has used since they were children. The red pulsing lights glow brightly in the darkness of Spock’s quarters, and Michael wonders what her brother might have been thinking when he drew these.

The words of his personal log ring in her brain as she stares.

The nightmares have returned. The same vision, again and again. In the event of my death, I have encoded it within this audio file...

In the event of my death…

“Why didn’t you talk to me, Spock?” Michael whispers as she gazes at the signals, the ones that exactly parallel those that Captain Pike has been ordered to decode.

It seemed that Spock had put himself on the same mission that Pike is currently on. How logical it would have been, for them to be on the same ship and working together.

Why didn’t he just talk to Captain Pike…why didn’t he talk to anyone?

And speaking of talking to captains…

In several quick motions, Michael has the data from Spock’s log downloaded and stored in an information chip. She strides from his room with purpose as she flips open her communicator.

“Burnham to Discovery, one to beam up.”

Time for more answers.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Philippa has been waiting for hours, but when the knock on her door finally comes, she finds that she is still not ready.

But when has anyone ever been ready?

With a long sigh, she unfolds her legs and rises from her meditation mat to open the door.

And in a mere moment, Michael Burnham stands before her, less than a foot away.

The former captain and commander look at each other, a long look that echoes like distant thunder in the scant space between them. Philippa traces Michael’s smooth face with her eyes, taking in features she’d thought for a very long time that she would never see again…

Dark eyes, full lips, once-straight hair now styled into short, tight curls on top of her head…

She looks different. But wonderful all the same.

“Did someone die?” Michael finally asks, gesturing with her chin at Philippa’s all-black ensemble, which Philippa feels quite a bit more comfortable wearing in the privacy of her quarters than the bright sickbay whites.

Philippa only gives Michael a weary look, and Michael seems to take this as a rebuttal in itself.

“I’m sorry, that was out of line. It’s been a…very long day.”

Despite the smoothness of her face, Michael stumbles on the word “day.” Philippa can practically feel the rawness coming off of her in waves, and almost instinctively, she stands away from the doorway and gestures for Michael to come inside.

Michael walks through the doorway and all but collapses in the chair next to Philippa’s desk. She looks quite like a puppet with its strings cut, and Philippa wonders what on Earth could have happened in the two hours since she left sickbay.

She considers turning the lights on as she meanders towards her bed, but the murky darkness and vague illumination from the stars outside the window seem to fit the mood. The silence continues as Philippa sinks onto the bed opposite Michael’s chair. She takes in the woman once more…the woman she had been so afraid of meeting in the flesh, and yet...

After first seeing her as a groaning patient in a bio bed, and now, as this hunched form on her chair, Philippa has to admit that perhaps she psyched herself out a little too heavily.

“I am sorry for the surprise, back in sickbay,” Philippa finally states, breaking the long and heavy silence. “I assumed Pike had told you…the plan was for him to notify my former crew before anyone saw me.”

She pauses and rolls her eyes. “I don’t know why I bother making plans.”

Michael huffs at that, but in the next moment the huff turns to a gasp, barely contained by a hand clapped over her mouth, and her eyes fill with tears.

Philippa blanches internally.

Gods, was it something she said?

“How are you alive?” Michael manages, her mellow voice shaking through the fingers over her mouth.

Philippa mulls over the long, torturous answer to that question. She looks away from Michael’s form, bathed in starlight and shadows where she sits in the chair across from the bed.

“You were right,” Philippa finally whispers, and Michael looks to her in confusion.

“Or perhaps it would be better to say, the Klingons were right, in their concept of martyrdom versus…symbols of defeat.”

Philippa stares down at her hands.

“The Klingon leaders, they gave T’Kuvma a pyre almost immediately…but they worked tirelessly to ensure that I would live. I am told that they came up with medical procedures that had never been conceived of before…rebuilt my heart from scratch. But they wanted me resurrected, so that they could humiliate me, and through me…Starfleet.”

The part of Philippa is a Starfleet medic is intensely curious to know how they did it, but the part of her that is a former Klingon prisoner, well…that part of her would rather it remain a mystery.

Michael is shaking her head on the chair. “But…they didn’t—“

Philippa cuts her off. “Leadership fragmented once the war had gone on several months. T’Kuvma meant to unite the Klingon houses but…” She closes her eyes. “…it’s hard to remain united without a clear leader.”

She looks down at her hands, unable to face whatever emotion might be pooling in Michael’s eyes, and continues.

“After I got my strength back, it became clear that there was in-fighting concerning my fate…what use I would be. I played them off each other for weeks, just to get myself an opening…and I escaped.”

Michael is looking at her once more, and Philippa senses her admiration, but it only sours in her stomach.

“It wasn’t impressive, Michael, I promise you…” She can still feel the squelch of the guard’s innards as she drove the shiv into his stomach, the rattle of breath from the attending physician as he struggled to breath through his collapsed windpipe.

“It was… not impressive.”

With a quick shake of her head, Philippa continues. “And then I was alone on Qo’Nos, with a destroyed heart, no connections, no grasp of the language. Things were…very difficult, then.”

A shadow falls over her, and Philippa realizes that Michael has moved her chair closer.

“I can’t imagine how hard it must have been.”

Philippa blinks, but doesn’t look anywhere above Michael’s chin. She doesn’t know if she has the strength to handle the sympathy in those brilliant brown eyes.

“Nor would I want you to.”

Philippa says the words and wonders where they came from. She, who hasn’t had a kind word to give to anyone in nearly a year.

Her lips work slightly as she considers the next part of her explanation.

“I managed to get my hands on a comm array, a good one, and I got a signal out to the Federation…they helped me in little ways, with the handful of contacts and caches they had on Qo’Nos… and I—“

Philippa cuts herself off. Michael Burnham is a brilliant woman, a clever woman, if she were to follow Philippa’s information to its logical end, there was a chance she could uncover everything.

“I…survived,” Philippa finishes lamely.

Michael only shakes her head. It looks like she wants to ask more questions, naturally. Philippa drops her gaze to her hands, hunching her shoulders slightly to appear small, fragile.

The questions do not come.

“But…” Michael finally shakes out a breath, and Philippa senses what’s coming. “But then the war ended, why didn’t you—“

She cuts off, pain apparent in her voice, and Philippa hears the words as if Michael had screamed them at her.

Why didn’t you come back?

Philippa sighs, and a wave of exhaustion presses down upon her.

Seems that this was what she had been afraid of, back on Leland’s ship when she had received the orders for this mission. So easy it was to threaten, to flirt, to joke, to swear, but Gods above, this relentless emotional honesty---

“I

I didn’t want you to see me like this.

She startles as fingers wrap around her own. With a quick look up, she realizes that Michael is crying.

“I’m sorry, Captain…Philippa, I am so sorry

Philippa’s mouth opens and closes, and she looks in shock from Michael’s tear-filled eyes to the hand gripping her own so tightly.

“I’ve wanted to say this to you for so long…so long…” Michael sniffles, rubbing her face with her unoccupied hand. “I am so sorry…I’m sorry I attacked you, I’m sorry I went against your orders…you were right—“

“Stop it Michael, stop, enough.” Philippa feels her hand move of its own accord, and before she knows it, she is brushing Michael’s tears away with her thumb. “You…you think I stayed away because I was angry with you?” Philippa huffs her disbelief. “Gods, of all the many things I had to be angry about—“

She cuts herself off, and can’t quite stop her fingertips from tracing at Michael’s hairline. Michael looks at her curiously, even through her tears, and Philippa quickly pulls away.

“I thought you were dead, Michael, for nine months I thought you were dead.”

Michael shakes out an exhale, rubbing at her running nose with a sleeve.

“Oh …forgot about that.”

“How nice it must be, to be able to forget.”

Philippa’s reply is more caustic than she intends, and she immediately regrets her tone when she spots Michael flinch.

“I’d just started communicating with the Federation,” she continues quickly. “…in Morse code, so as not to trip any Klingon sensors…they told me you were presumed killed in action…your whole ship gone, after a battle with the Sarcophagus…

Philippa remembers punching through the windows of the abandoned-building-turned-hideout at the news, she remembers screaming herself raw until her heart had twisted inside her chest and she’d dropped to the floor and waited for death to take her…

“…only three days before, Michael…”

Michael’s eyes are huge and swimming with tears, and this is enough to force Philippa to continue.

“And then…nine months I stayed on Qo’Nos…surviving…recovering…“

--Don’t ask don’t ask don’t ask—

“I knew we were losing the war,” Philippa continues quickly. “I knew we were losing…”

Philippa pauses. Then she smiles, a real, genuine smile. It’s small, weak, utterly foreign on her face, and Philippa wonders at the fact that she remembers how.

“But then you came back …you and this ship…” --this miracle ship-- “You came back from the dead, and you ended the war…Michael, I was so proud of you.”

Michael gasps out another cry at this, and her tears bubble over. Philippa takes her face in both hands, and tries to remember when last it was that she had offered comfort to another Human being like this.

“It’s alright…it’s alright…”

Michael only cries harder at this, and despite how strange this all feels, Philippa knows that situations only plummet out of control when they are allowed to do so.

Thus, it only makes sense to wrap arms over Michael’s back, to hold her close until she stops crying.

Philippa seems to recall some scientific studies, some articles somewhere testifying as to the healing power of contact, of the necessity of touch and tactility to the physical and emotional health of Humans.

But these thoughts are dim in comparison to the wonderful warmth of Michael’s body pressed into her chest, of the smell of Michael’s hair and how comfortably she seems to fit in the space between Philippa’s arms.

“I missed you…” Michael whispers into Philippa’s chest. “Every day I missed you…prison was hell, and this ship was hell, at least for a little while…but I think maybe could have withstood that, if only I’d managed to save you…”

Philippa sways a little at the admission.

“I’m sorry…” Michael whispers. “I’m sorry I was too late…I tried so hard to get to you, both times I tried…”

Both times?

Michael hugs her harder, and Philippa winces reflexively. She anticipates a sharp pain in her chest, and is confused when it doesn’t come.

“Sorry, sorry.” Michael pulls away immediately. Her eyes are wet and puffy, her nose running. She wipes it on her sleeve once more.

It surprises Philippa to feel dampness on her own cheeks, and she brings her hand to her face to verify.

Her fingers come away wet, and she stares at them in bewilderment.

“You know, all my life,” Michael murmurs in her lovely mellow voice. “Seems like I’ve only ever lost things…the universe just taking, and taking, everything…

Her voice is casting a spell over the room, dark and bathed in starlight, and Philippa finds herself enthralled, unable to break away.

“But this is the first time it has ever given me something back…”

Philippa wants to drown her voice, she wants to bury herself in Michael Burnham’s contralto and become one with starlight it contains…

But she remembers, in the next moment, just why it is that she cannot.

“I…I’m tired…”

Michael nods quickly at this. She takes a deep breath, shaking out her shoulders as she gathers herself.

“Of course, of course…I’m sorry, Captain, I’ll go—“

“I’m not your captain anymore, Michael,” Philippa denies in a soft voice.

Michael looks like she wants to say something, but closes her mouth before she can.

“What should I call you, then?” She finally asks.

Philippa considers the question. Lieutenant was merely her operational rank aboard the Discovery, she didn’t remotely feel like a lieutenant. Nurse? No, she’d not even passed the nursing exam yet.

Agent?

Absolutely not.

“Just “Philippa” is fine,” Philippa decides.

“Okay…” Michael whispers. “Okay, Philippa.

Her name sounds nice coming from Michael’s lips. This was a good decision.

“It’s late, I suppose,” Michael continues. “I’ll let you be.”

And she’s looking at Philippa again, with that raw gaze that makes Philippa feel so utterly seen…

Gods, who on Earth was this woman? This Michael Burnham, who was so different from the Michael that Philippa had once known? Her commander had been confident to the point of arrogant, bold to the point of reckless, had never spoken of her past with any sort of gravity, had never, not once, looked at her like that…with soft brown eyes spun from starlight, with wisdom in the alto notes of her voice…

“Goodnight,” Michael completes softly, before getting up and shuffling to the door. It hisses shut behind her, and it takes Philippa several moments to realize that the polite thing to do would have been to get up and see her out.

She shakes her head.

I’ve lived among wolves for too long.

Nevertheless, Philippa falls asleep easily that night. Her dreams are filled with the memory of Michael’s warm skin and soft voice, the first warmth and softness Philippa has experienced since being ripped away from her, all those many months ago aboard T’Kuvma’s flagship.

Perhaps this assignment was not so terrible after all.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Human beings can get used to just about any circumstance.

At least, that is what Michael Burnham is beginning to think.

The first morning, waking up in her bed the day after they had rescued Jett Reno and her crew from the impossible asteroid…a morning just like any other, except on that particular morning, Philippa Georgiou was alive.

Alive, and a mere one deck away.

Michael had felt a smile creep over her face until her cheeks hurt from it. She had curled up on herself beneath the blankets, as if that would somehow keep the unbearable joy from bursting from her body.

Impossibly, inconceivably, Philippa was alive.

 

The first evening, when Philippa had approached the table where she sat with Tilly and Detmer and asked if she might beg for a seat. Dinner had lasted two hours that night, and although no one had consumed any alcohol, Michael had felt almost intoxicated with her smiles and uncontrollable giggling with Keyla at Tilly’s obvious hero worship of the former captain turned medic.

(“There’s just too many amazing captains on this ship, Michael,” Tilly whined later that night as they were getting ready for bed. “How am I supposed to handle this situation?”

“Pick one to focus on,” Michael deadpanned. “And it might help you to know that in 2254, Captain Georgiou fell off the top of a shuttlecraft because she’d been infected with a spatial processing virus that made her believe that she was inside, piloting the shuttle.”

It had helped Tilly, to know that.)

 

The second morning, when Michael had woken up with a smile on her lips. The stars seemed brighter outside of her window, and there was new, sparking energy in each step she took. Philippa had not been at breakfast that morning, nor had she been anywhere that Michael looked that day.

This was strange, but Michael reasoned that the former captain had business of her own to conduct, and let it be.

 

That evening, when she and Philippa had talked late into the night about Michael’s time aboard the Discovery. Michael had been careful to edit certain parts, not going into the brief incursion in the Terran universe, nor the Shrine of Molor…she cannot even bring herself to talk about Ash.

It’s just too soon, too fresh. The mere act of looking at Philippa sometimes brings tears to Michael’s eyes; how could she possibly go about vocalizing the rest of it?

Nevertheless, Michael had found herself stone-faced and shaking by the end of the tale, her heart full of hot shards of glass at the memory of those horrible days, of Ripper’s agonized screams and Ash’s hands around her throat. Philippa had looked…shaken, would probably be a good word for it, a look that Michael was not used to seeing on her captain.

Michael did not realize until quite a bit later that Philippa had not offered up any memories of her own.

 

The third evening, when Michael had gone to Philippa’s quarters and discovered Philippa Georgiou and Jett Reno, both drunk as skunks on the floor beside the bed. Michael had stammered out a few apologies, but both Georgiou and Reno insisted (with varying levels of coherence) that she join them.

The next several hours are a blur, but Michael remembers several toasts, a roasting contest that Philippa had won easily, and Reno weeping quietly on Michael’s shoulder, thanking her over and over again for rescuing her and her patients from the asteroid.

 

And here Michael and Philippa are today, on the fourth morning after they had rescued Jett Reno and her crew from the impossible asteroid. Doing an early morning workout together, as they had done thrice weekly for nearly two years before the Battle of the Binary Stars.

Philippa sinks slowly into her stance, shifting her weight over her bent left leg. Her arms are held long and still in their outward positions, and she curls them in a slow graceful circle until they are perpendicular to the ground.

Tai Chi resembles the lowest forms of Suus Mahna in some ways, Michael has to admit as she follows the movement a step behind Philippa.

The very lowest forms.

She remembers the training they used to do together, before the war…suicide sprints across the Shenzhou’s shuttlebay, heavy lifts and squats while draped across each others shoulders, sparring until bruised and near-bloody, and Michael would fall into bed sore and aching, with a smile across her face…

What changed?

She is certainly not complaining, however. Her head is still pounding from whatever the hell they had consumed last night.

Michael sweeps her foot across the floor, mirroring Philippa’s steady, flowing movements. It is rather like meditation, in a way, and Michael is determined to get whatever good she can from it. She watches Philippa’s long arms, the twitch of her muscles beneath her shirt, the confidence in the motion of her legs and the balance of her limbs.

The past four days have felt like the loveliest sort of dream. Day by day, hour by hour, Michael feels herself falling back into Philippa’s orbit, just as she had been, back on the Shenzhou. She isn’t the same, Michael knows that, and she does wonder…

Michael breathes in, breathes out, correcting the turn-out of her right foot to better reflect Philippa’s positioning. It has only been four days, she reminds herself. Perhaps Philippa simply…needs more time to get comfortable.

And that is alright.

They are back together once more. Michael is content to wait.

“I meant to tell you last night; I spoke to Commander Saru yesterday.”

Philippa breaks the companionable silence.

“Oh? And what did he have to say?” Michael asks. She brings her hands to her center to copy Philippa’s motions.

“Oh, a good many things,” Philippa sighs. “Though I owe him more apologies, I believe. I think I neglected him somewhat, during our time on the Shenzhou.”

Michael considers this for a few moments.

“Perhaps.” Her voice is even when she speaks. “He expressed as much to me, in the weeks after my…my conscription.”

“What did he tell you?”

Philippa’s voice is slightly sharper now, and Michael starts at it. She draws herself up to a standing position, and Philippa turns to face her.

“That he was envious of our closeness… In how I got to learn so much from you while he had to wait for his chance that…never came.”

Michael’s voice is even, measured, logical, all of her emotions concerning those difficult early days having been tucked away deep down, somewhere stone-walled and safe. She remains still as Philippa processes her words. Her captain’s eyes are narrow, her face stony.

She’s different now, Michael reminds herself. Harder, more remote, prone to snapping… At times, it is almost terrifyingly easy to see flashes of the emperor behind her captain’s eyes. Whatever horrors Philippa had experienced on Qo’Nos, well…

War could change anybody.

But Michael remembers the soft vulnerability in her expression that night, three days ago after the asteroid. She remembers the wetness on Philippa’s cheeks, the tightness of her grip as she held Michael close.

Her captain is still there.

“We talked in his quarters, you know,” Philippa begins almost casually. She raises an eyebrow. “I could not help but notice a very distinctive decoration he had, next to his port-side window.”

Michael slowly, slowly closes her eyes.

Fuck, of course she would notice that.

“So I will ask again, Michael.”

Philippa takes a step closer, her feet making no sound on the pad.

“What did he tell you?”

Michael shakes her head. She takes a step backwards on the mat and hates herself for such a display of cowardice.

“Nothing that wasn’t true.”

“Bullshit,” Philippa bites out, and Michael flinches. “Many untruths were said during this war, I was not so isolated that I am unaware. Many believed them… I am sure Saru was even happy to believe such things about you.”

Michael shakes her head once more, and feels Philippa in front of her, though her eyes are closed.

“I left that telescope to you, Michael.” Philippa’s voice is softer now, and Michael looks up once more, into her captain’s wonderful, familiar face. “It’s a family heirloom, and I wanted you to have it, upon my death. You, who do not have the merest trace of your own family left to you…”

In a flash, Michael remembers fire and blood, death and destruction, Doctori Alpha burned apart, crumpled to ruins in space along with all traces of her mother and father.

“Legacy is an important thing.” Philippa’s voice is even now, perhaps even sympathetic. “Why would you give up such a vital connection to the dead?”

Michael catches a glimpse of herself in the mirrors surrounding the gym mats, shrinking and ashamed and pathetic

“It was logical.”

Philippa raises one eyebrow.

“It was,” Michael insists, though she cannot look Philippa in the face, not after betraying her wishes like this, why on Earth could she not stop betraying her--

“Oh, do tell.”

Michael wonders if this is a good idea, or if sharing her Vulcan reasoning and thought processes with her thoroughly Human captain will disappoint her, as it occasionally had over their seven years on the Shenzhou.

But she did ask.

Michael stares straight ahead as she speaks.

“I was the lowest of the low on this ship, when I first arrived. No one would look at me, no one would talk to me, and there was nothing I could do about it. I saw a chance to change my circumstances, by extending an olive branch to Commander Saru, who was the third highest in rank on this ship at the time. I saw a way to ingratiate myself to the rest of the Discovery, by pacifying and pleasing him.”

Michael shakes her head, her eyes closed. Her heart cries out at the memory of Philippa’s legacy, her final words, her farewell, leaving her quarters in her crewmate’s large Kelpien hands.

“And it worked. By getting Saru on my side, the rest of Discovery fell into line.”

Saru and Tilly, that was all it took for Michael to get her foot in the door. Saru and Tilly. One of the highest-ranking people on the ship, and one of the lowest.

Her mother had always encouraged her to approach problems from both sides.

Philippa is silent for a long moment, taking this in.

“Alright. That’s your Vulcan explanation.” Philippa’s voice, when it finally comes, is slightly softer than it had been. “What’s your Human explanation?”

Of course her captain would see right through her. They had spent seven years in each others’ pockets after all. No one knew Michael better than Philippa did, it seemed, even after all this time.

Her Human explanation is far more simple at least.

“I didn’t deserve it.”

Philippa is silent for several moments after that.

“There is…so much to be argued on that point alone, but I’m tired this morning, so I’ll save it for another time.”

Philippa’s clipped voice hits Michael in the heart, and she knows that, no matter how angry Philippa might be at her, at least she gets to have that voice in her life once more.

“Those were my wishes, Michael…” Philippa continues, low and sharp. “Mine…did you and Saru have such little respect for a dead woman’s final wish?”

Michael scowls at that. She stalks to the corner of the mat and picks up her towel water bottle, and sweatshirt. Maybe it’s the pounding in her head from last night, maybe it’s the thought of Reno pouring her full shot glass onto the floor for all of her lost crewmates, maybe it’s the memories of those early days on the Discovery, when the universe had been dark and lonely, all of the light extinguished, gone forever and left for dead in the graveyard of the Binary Stars…

…but Michael has no patience for lectures or guilt trips. Not today.

“The dead have no wishes, Philippa. They are dead.”

She turns on a heel and leaves the gym.

 

**

 

Michael is still shaken from her brief spat with Philippa, three hours later after a shower, breakfast, and thirty minutes of her shift on the bridge. The science terminal chimes, breaking her out of her swirling thoughts.

Her scheduled meeting with Captain Pike is upon her at last.

As she strides to the ready room, Michael comforts herself with the thought that talking with Captain Pike will, at the very least, be far less emotionally taxing than talking with Captain Georgiou.

Or so she had thought, before the meeting began.

This may be my last entry aboard the USS Enterprise…

Spock’s voice fades as his personal log ends.

Pike is quiet for several moments. His ready room seems far more livable than Lorca’s had been, Michael notes as she waits for him to speak. Couches and chairs in a nut-brown and cream color scheme, a long conference table on the left side of the room, and warm yellow overhead lighting.

A softer ready room, for a presumably softer captain.

“Thank you for sharing this with me, Burnham,” Pike finally states. “I’ve listened to it a good many times in the past few days—“

“Then...” Michael shakes her head, distressed confusion overwhelming conversational politeness. “Why wait until now—“

“I figured you might need time,” Pike states, cutting Michael’s question off. She raises an eyebrow, and Pike continues with an amused curl of his lip. “I did get word of how you overdosed on pain meds upon realizing your former captain was alive.”

Michael stiffens, looking away from Pike. Embarrassment threatens to stain her cheeks, and she quickly tamps down on the emotion.

Pike was the captain now. Of course he would have been notified of that.

“Burnham.”

Michael looks back to him.

“A great deal happened in just one singular day. Your brother’s disappearance, your captain’s resurrection, the laws of physics suddenly becoming moot…” Pike’s voice is soft, yet firm. “You should not feel any type of shame in reacting the way you did. And there is nothing weak about needing time to process these things.”

Michael takes his words with a grain of salt. She had nearly vaporized Qo’Nos a mere two months ago, and the admiralty certainly had not granted her time to process things, to sort through her feelings, not that she would have taken it, had they done so. Besides which, her Vulcan training was meant to streamline emotional reactions, proceeding down logical pathways to a conclusion untainted by ridiculous feelings, effectively cutting processing time down to nothing.

Her controls have eroded, that much is certain.

Michael makes a mental note to allot more time to her evening meditations, and to attend one of T’Pau’s notoriously brutal meditation retreats during her next shore leave.

“Yes, sir.”

Her agreement is bland and impassive. Pike raises an eyebrow at it, but says nothing. Michael remembers that he has been her brother’s captain for many years; he is probably used to the Vulcan way of humoring Humans.

And speaking of her brother…

Michael enters several commands onto the table before them, and pulls up the drawing she had found on his tablet.

The seven red energy signals, exactly matching those that had appeared four days ago.

“Sir, my brother drew these signals two months before they appeared to us, and now he’s…God knows where.”

In the event of my death…

A spike of urgency drives Michael to continue. “Though I do appreciate you giving me and the crew time to recover from the events of four days ago, time is of the essence, Captain, surely you can understand that—“

She stops when Pike holds up a hand.

“Burnham…I know where Spock is.”

He gestures towards the right corner of the ready room, where a couch and two Eames chairs are clustered around a low coffee table. “Have a seat.”

Michael knows that tone of voice, just as well as she knows that “Have a seat” is Human code for, “What I am about to tell you will change your life.”

But she follows Pike anyway, lowering herself into one of the caramel-brown Eames chairs. Pike seats himself on the couch, pushing aside a patterned decoration as he does so.

“Your brother…is in a psychiatric facility on Starbase Five.”

The floor drops from beneath Michael’s feet.

“Since about a week after he took leave.” Pike’s voice is soft, gentle, but the words seem to be coming from very far away, somewhere on the other side of a long tunnel down which Michael seems to have fallen.

“Committed to the facility of his own request.”

No…no…

And all of a sudden, Michael is a teenager once more, hearing the subtle whisperings of her classmates on Vulcan.

He does not possess sufficient command of his emotions---Human weakness will drive him mad—he is dangerous to us, Michael, surely you can understand that--He should be committed to a psychiatric facility, at the very least—“

…Committed committed committed…

“No…” Michael whispers, shaking her head slowly.

Her worst fears are coming to pass, it seems.

“Why would you keep this from me?” Michael demands of Pike, her voice only a little bit raw.

“Well, several reasons,” Pike shoots back, his voice slightly sharper now. “Patient confidentiality, your brother’s right to privacy, not to mention the fact that you’d already had a great deal stacked on you as of four days ago.”

Michael’s lips work silently. She looks down at the coffee table with an irked shake of her head.

“Burnham…” Pike leans in towards her, his voice gentle. “He’s in a psychiatric facility. It’s not like he’s going anywhere.”

Michael sighs through her teeth. As frustrated as she might be, it’s a good point, and anger towards the wrong party will only waste time and energy.

“Why were my parents and I not informed?” Michael finally manages. “It is Starfleet protocol to reach out to the families—“

“Unless the patient doesn’t want that, and Spock said no. Emphatically.”

Michael recoils as if slapped.

She can understand, of course, why Spock would not want Sarek to know, or even Amanda, but how on Earth could her brother push her away like that?

“Why wouldn’t he tell me…?” Michael whispers. “Surely he understood that I would not judge…”

“Families can be…difficult.” Pike’s voice is soft and understanding. “My father was a science teacher, and when he wasn’t doing that, he taught comparative religion. It was a confusing household, and we didn’t agree on much.”

Michael nods slowly at that.

“I can relate,” she finally offers. “I understand the confusion, when one grows up in house with highly contrasting philosophies.”

And she certainly does, at that. It had seemed, throughout her childhood, that whenever Amanda would explain something about Humanity and emotions that made a great deal of sense, Sarek would counter her point with some type of Vulcan logic, thus undoing all of Amanda’s work.

And vice versa.

“Spock and I, we understood each other on that point, at least.” Pike smiles slightly. “We enjoyed our debates on paradoxical philosophies, whether cultural or…spiritual. Your brother had a sharp mind, Burnham.”

“Then why would he do this?” Michael whispers, blinking back the tears that threaten her eyes. Her chest feels like sharp glass fragments as she speaks. “How could he let it get this far…committing oneself to a facility, that is a last resort, Captain, and he used it as his opening move—“

“Michael.”

Pike’s voice stops Michael in her tracks. She looks at the captain once more…her brother’s captain, who had taught him so much. His blue eyes are clear and comforting, and Michael allows herself just a moment of solace in them.

“Whatever is troubling Spock…we will get to the bottom of it. I would suggest you send a message to him on Starbase 5, though it will be up to him whether or not he wants to respond…whether or not he will want to see you.”

Michael shakes her head in despair, knowing full well how that would go. By committing himself, Spock had already made his choice on whether or not to accept her help.

How on Earth could messaging him possibly change that?

“I’ve told you everything I know, now. Everything I have, concerning this situation,” Pike continues. “I hope, in turn, that you trust you can be open with me. If there is ever anything, that you feel you need to tell me…”

Michael closes her eyes--

--Gasping agony fire blood pain—

A dark figure floats before her in the Hiawatha’s wreckage, backed by red-orange light and surrounded by odd, twig-like wings. Its every movement sends out pressure ripples in the vacuum of space, lancing Michael’s body like shockwaves …

--Red—

--Red—

--Red—

 

“Sir…” Michael breathes. “On that asteroid…”

“Yes?” Pike prompts.

And maybe it’s the sheer, utter lunacy of what she saw, or the fact that she was concussed and possibly delusional when she saw it…

Michael remembers vividly what had happened the last time she had been in such a state and had nevertheless told her captain all of what she saw, all of what she knew…

She doubts that she will ever forget the consequences of that choice.

“--I…“

In a mere second, Michael seals off that part of her mind.

“I never properly thanked you…for coming back to get me.”

Michael completes her revised sentence, and even manages to inject some manner of warmth into it.

Pike smiles, revealing truly boyish dimples.

“You’re welcome.”

She won’t lose another captain.

Not again.

The overhead comm crackles.

Captain Pike, to the bridge.

Saru’s smooth voice rings out across the room.

Pike and Burnham look at each other, before rising from the low furniture. Michael casts a backwards glance at the red signals floating above the desk as she follows Pike out of the ready room. The seven signals her brother had drawn two months ago, perfectly matching the seven signals that had appeared from nowhere at all, three days previously.

And now her brother is in a psychiatric facility.

Just as his detractors on Vulcan had always wanted.

The ambient air on the bridge is filled with an invisible narcotic haze as Michael proceeds to her station. Saru is filling Pike in on the situation. Another red signal has appeared, quell surprise.

Michael wonders if Spock has seen the signal as well, alone in his ward on Starbase 5.

As Pike and Saru make plans to track the signal, Michael finds herself quietly formulating plans for the leave she will take, calculating how long it will take to get to Starbase 5, what shuttle to take, what to pack, what she will say when she gets there…

He would not be alone for long.

I’m coming, Spock. 

 

**

 

Soft red sunlight floods the dusty cobblestone streets of Old Shi’Khar. Amber shadows flicker in the alleyways between low, clay buildings, broad canvas awnings providing shade to the two children walking side by side on their way into the city.

It is illogical for you to walk to school with me every day.”

“It is highly logical,” Michael counters as she walks easily next to her brother. “You know where the Learning Center is and the fastest way there, while avoiding the other kids.”

“The other children do not shun you as they do me. Why do you not simply walk with them?”

Michael turns away from Spock as they walk down the cobblestone streets of South Shi’Kahr. She recalls the digs and jeers that the other Vulcans had pointed towards her new foster-brother as Michael had walked with them, seemingly unaware that Michael shared these very Human traits that they were so derisive of.

“I do not want to walk with them,” Michael finally answers. “Most are…” Her lips work as she summons a Vulcan answer. “…Unpleasant in their words and demeanor. Perhaps they accept me now, as an interesting anomaly, but I doubt that will be the case for long.”

Michael had learned within a single day at the Learning Center that these Shi’Kahr Vulcans are all but a different species from the Vulcans she had known on Doctari Alpha.

Rigid, logical, traditional…close-minded.

She does not have high hopes for the rest of the school year.

“You will get used to it,” Spock resolves, not looking at her as he walks. “I will be more blunt in my words. I do not want you to walk with me, nor interact with me while we are at the Learning Center. You make my life more difficult with your Human presence.”

His statement falls like a heavy blow upon Michael’s ears. She cannot help but stagger slightly as she strides next to Spock.

“But, you are…my brother…?”

The words come out as almost a question, barely expelled from Michael’s chest.

"Not by blood.”

Spock turns away from her, darting down a side alley between two brick buildings. Michael stops dead in the middle of the cobblestoned walkway, torn between running after him and running away into the depths of Shi’Kahr, missing first-period Alpha Quadrant Astronomy and perhaps second-period Logical Theory.

But it has only been one month, and brother-and-sister relationships could be strange indeed. Michael remembers bits and pieces that Amanda had told her in the last several weeks, how Spock has difficulties at school, and with other children. Michael can certainly understand why, if he insists on being so thoroughly stand-offish and rude…

But maybe she just needs to try harder.

With a steadying breath, Michael strangles her hurt feelings and runs down the alley after Spock.

But after several twists and turns between low, red-walled houses and sheds, she reaches a dead end, walled off by a shingled panel with several rubbish bins in front of it.

Spock is gone.

Chapter Text

 

Ensign Sylvia Tilly hums to herself as she examines the spore canisters during her typical Alpha shift check-up of engineering.

Each and every morning, bright and early, Tilly runs software checks on each terminal, checks the connections and hook-ups between the reaction cube and the spore inputs, and pulls every spore canister out of the pods set into the back wall of the lab to measure the radiation levels and growth percentages. She tries to whisper a few words of encouragement to the dancing spores as she does so, not that she would admit this in a review. In a soft voice, Sylvia Tilly is sure to tell the glowing mycelia how good and strong they look, and how amazing they are for being so bright and blue and beautiful.

There have been many studies that attest to the power of encouragement when it comes to growing plants, and although mushrooms certainly do not fall into that category, Tilly likes to imagine that fungi, too, appreciate the kindness.

She pulls canister 6b from the wall and spins to the terminal to plug it into the port for check-up. With eyes wide and pupils comfortably dilated from her morning espressos, Tilly dutifully logs the readouts in the database.

“Good job, 6b, nearly a two point five percent growth in just one week.” Tilly beams at the container of glowing spores. “I’ll have to put a star on your personal achievement chart. Your dad will be so proud!”

Tilly casts a happy glance over at Lieutenant Commander Stamets. He stands behind his terminal, seemingly staring at nothing. But Tilly sees the virtual reality projectors affixed to his temples, and imagines that he is lost somewhere in his private world, as he tends to be these days.

Grieving.

Tilly wilts as she turns back to the container of spores.

She misses Hugh Culber. She misses his soft voice and his kind face, his stories of medical school and serving on one of Starfleet’s notorious problem ships, and every kind of issue he had encountered while aboard.

But she knows that her pain is nothing compared to what Stamets must be going through.

Tilly sighs as she replaces canister 6b in its storage pod. Despite the terrifying intensity of the away mission three days ago, the one that lanced her roommate’s leg open and placed an impossibly massive chunk of asteroid in a gravity containment field in the shuttlebay, she has to admit that is glad that these strange signals are happening, that Captain Pike and Commander Nhan are aboard for an unspecified amount of time…that their mission is sufficiently mysterious and intriguing enough to hold Stamets’ interest and keep him from leaving Discovery for the teaching post on Vulcan.

Few people have been kind to Sylvia Tilly in her life, and she knows that this is mostly her fault. But Paul Stamets has always been kind to her, in his own sarcastic, prickly way.

And Tilly does not have enough friends to be able to withstand losing one of them.

Speaking of friends…

Tilly removes canister 6c from its storage pod and docks it in the port atop the terminal, clicking it into place with a firm twist. Her thoughts wander to Michael, who has spent the last three nights in her bed crying quietly, her eyes swollen and puffy upon her return from wherever she spends her post-dinner hours.

Well… Tilly sighs as she enters yet more data into the terminal. She knows damn well where Michael has been spending her post-dinner hours.

Captain Georgiou’s miraculous return was nothing short of…miraculous, and Tilly is always certain to give thanks to the universe before she falls asleep, for giving her good friend such a gift.

Poor Michael, who has been through so unbelievably much … prison for six months, Lorca turning out to be a Terran fugitive, Ash turning out to be a Klingon spy…

Not to mention, whatever Michael had seen aboard the ISS Charon, the emperor’s flagship back in the Terran universe.

Michael had been all but distraught after they had transported her out in conjunction with the huge wave of mycelial energy…Tilly remembers that awful scene, watching Michael on her hands and knees on the transporter pad, a guttural sob ripping from her friend’s chest before she could catch it and swallow it back. She ran to Michael and dropped to her knees beside her, she had held Michael tightly, half-expecting to be rebuffed but so very relieved when Michael only collapsed into her, shaking.

Tilly had looked to Commander Saru for help, but he only turned away, walking from the transporter room without a backwards glance.

As if he had understood something of that moment, something that had gone completely over Tilly’s head.

The memories continue to swirl as Tilly presses her fingers to the glass of the spore container upon the terminal. The mycelia glow brightly, dancing in the sealed vacuum of the canister…the miracle of creation, the key to riding the invisible veins and muscles of the universe, right here in front of her, nearly in the palm of her hands.

Tilly wonders why Michael should be the one to suffer so much during that awful war, when so little of it was her fault.

She wonders why Hugh Culber should be the one to die, when he had only ever tried to help.

Across the lab, Stamets removes his VR projectors and replaces them in his desk. He looks to be about a thousand miles away, and Tilly feels struck across the face at his display of barely-contained emotion.

So many consecutive days of this, so very many times she has seen Stamets zone out into his virtual world and return as someone else, someone that Tilly does not fully recognize…

So many days, weeks, months of living in the shadows of a galactic war, in the remnants of violence, betrayal, and death, of pasting on a smile and pressing onwards, and wondering if that was what coping was.

Tilly blurts before she can stop herself.

“So what, um…what were you watching?”

Stamets twitches. He jerks his head towards her as if startled, and Tilly winces internally at her own lack of filter. She prepares herself for a vehement “Not your business, Tilly…

…but to her immense surprise, Stamets only gives her a long, pensive look. He seems wounded behind the eyes, and Tilly wishes that he would just tell her what he might be thinking.

Perhaps she could help to cheer him up.

Still, whatever Stamets might be looking for in her, he seems to find, because in the next moment, he begins to speak.

“It’s a recording that Hugh’s family sent to me, just last night.”

Stamets seems to mull over his next words, gazing down at the VR projectors in his hands.

“He came from a pretty big family you know, not like me…four brothers, three sisters, a mother and two fathers—“

He catches Tilly’s confused look, and smiles slightly. “Oh come now, Ensign, surely you’ve heard of polyamory?”

Tilly gives a silent, awkward Oh with her mouth.

Despite appearances, she has in fact heard of polyamory.

“Anyway, they’ve been messaging a lot, after…everything. They insisted I stay with them while we were on Earth for the awards ceremony, they keep sending me all these care packages…”

Stamets opens and closes his mouth several times, searching for the words. Tilly slowly, slowly steps around her terminal, as if approaching an animal that might startle at a sudden movement.

“They took such good care of him, y’know?”

Stamets almost chokes on the sentence, but he keeps going regardless.

“They loved him so much…pictures all over their house, they saved all of his childhood drawings, report cards, baby teeth…I mean, who even saves baby teeth?”

He shakes his head, fingers toying at the VR projectors he holds. “And I look at them, look at Hugh’s brothers and sisters, and it’s like…like seeing Hugh, alive in them.” He smiles weakly. “I mean, it’s hell of course, having to look at that, but…I suppose there’s some manner of hope in it as well.”

Tilly wonders at the statement, at Stamets’ beautiful, moving statement. She wonders at the fact that he had chosen to share this with her.

She wonders whether he considers her a friend, as she does him.

But now Stamets is shaking his head, ducking away as he stands behind his terminal. “I’m sorry, Tilly, I’m just…rambling—“

“No! No no no, please don’t be sorry.” Tilly scrambles for the words, not wanting this moment of connection to end. Whatever had happened in the universe that had made her prickly boss want to share something of himself, Tilly prays for it to give her more time.

“I…Thank you, for sharing that with me. I guess it makes sense, I mean, Hugh was always so loving and generous, he just had that-- that spirit about him…it must have been really nice, being surrounded by so many people who love you.”

Tilly feels a just a tiny spike of remorse as she speaks. She wonders if whatever had been damaged inside of her brain during her childhood might not have had the chance to take root, had she grown up in a loving and caring place like Hugh Culber had.

“It made him nearly unstoppable,” Paul agrees. He comes out from behind his terminal, walking towards Tilly’s station as he toys with the projectors in hands. “You wouldn’t guess it about him, but Hugh was…brave, he was so brave, and not just in the regular way, but in the hard ways…he was emotionally brave. He wasn’t afraid of being hurt, not like that.”

Tilly nods along with Stamets’ words, which make so much sense to her as she hears them.

“He was a great man,” she offers, and misses Hugh Culber just a little more.

Stamets smiles softly at the words.

“Nah…but he was a very good man.”

Tilly nods. Paul Stamets would know, after all.

Stamets reaches Tilly’s terminal and places his hands against the edge, looking down at them quietly.

A moment passes.

“He shouldn’t have died.”

Another moment.

“You’re right.”

Tilly’s agreement is soft and true. If there were anyone aboard this ship who deserved to make it through the war, it was Hugh Culber.

She wishes to high heaven that she could do more than offer weak condolences.

But before she can so much as try, she feels a slight pop in her ear canals, the slight pressure change that accompanies a leap to warp.

Across the terminal, Stamets looks up, and his pale face creases in confusion. He and Tilly look at each other, but the sensation ends as soon as it begins.

“What was—“

Tilly’s question is cut off by the buzzing of the overhead intercom.

Bridge to Engineering, we have a new heading. Prepare the spore drive for immediate jump, stand by for further information.

Lieutenant Commander Airiam’s voice rings across the dimly lit spore lab, and Tilly practically jumps into motion at her station. She pulls up the screen at the station, and Airiam’s robotic face comes into view.

Discovery has detected another signal. We leapt to warp for a brief moment to pinpoint the location via gravitational redshift—“

“—Nice,” Tilly mutters. Michael must have thought of that one.

“The signal is approximately fifty-one thousand, four hundred and five lightyears away, in the Beta Quadrant.”

“Of course it is.”

Stamets’ voice is deadpan, but Tilly detects the slight weariness beneath.

“Commander Stamets?” Airiam questions. She can’t see him, as he stands behind the feed on the opposite side of the terminal, so Stamets takes several long steps to place himself in her field of vision.

“Send the coordinates, Commander, I’ll be ready to jump within fifteen minutes.”

“Acknowledged. Airiam out.”

The feed winks out, leaving a blank, transparent screen, and behind it, the dark and empty reaction cube.

The spore drive lies before them, its standing table empty, drive needles still, but poised for use.

“Are you, um…are you gonna be okay?”

Tilly’s voice is soft as she asks. She remembers what Paul had said about sensing Hugh in the network, as they rode the mycelial wave out of the Terran universe.

Stamets is quiet for several moments. Then he turns towards the gray metallic wall behind them, studded with the containment vessels which hold the sum total of his life’s work.

“There’s a funny thing about fungi,” he states quietly. “Mushrooms, they’re not particularly alive, nor are they dead. That’s what makes them so scientifically fascinating. They straddle the line between creation and decay…between this world and the next. The mycelial network, it’s the same way, I think. Not quite here, and not quite there…”

Stamets’ hand brushes against the wall of spore containers.

“He’s not gone, Tilly. Not entirely.”

The silence holds between them, weighted yet companionable in its own way. For once, Tilly manages to keep her mouth shut, and she pats herself on the back for her restraint.

The moment ends abruptly when her terminal dings, no doubt the signal coordinates messaged from the bridge.

Stamets starts to roll up his sleeves, revealing the plastic interfaces that Culber had designed for him to integrate with the drive.

“I can do this,” he mumbles to himself as he turns to open the message.

Tilly spins to the wall, kneeling to the floor to fetch canister 8h, which is showing the most vibrant growth of all of the spores in the lab. She pulls the container out of the wall and turns to push it into the drive chamber, where it will be energized and pumped into the reaction cube—

And stops dead in her tracks upon seeing the container’s contents.

Bright, glowing red spores.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

A pre-warp society of Humans, on a planet nearly sixty thousand lightyears from Earth.

A looped distress call from over 200 years ago, during the catastrophic World War III, somehow emanating from one of the settlements.

Discovery’s first jump since the day the war ended had unveiled far more questions than answers concerning that red signal.

Clarke’s Third Law.

Michael remembers Captain Pike’s words from their pre-mission meeting in his ready-room.

Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from the divine.

From God.

There is something vastly intriguing about such an explanation, but Michael thinks that she would much rather be acquainted with the science behind it, rather than throwing all of her faith behind an unknowable divinity.

A fresh wind blows throw the low grass as she, Pike, and Joanne Owosekun stride towards the white building in the center of the small town. Judging by the spire, it’s a church, Michael knows that much, though she had not grown up practicing any type of Human religion.

“Set phasers to stun,” Pike states, “And keep them out of sight. General Order One still applies.”

Pike presses at the door, and it opens.

There were few reasons to lock a church, to be fair.

The wood creaks beneath her feet as Michael makes her way inside the building. The air within is cold, almost damp, the only available light stemming through the stained glass windows set into the walls every six feet or so. Michael allows her hands to trace over benches made from real wood. She observes the soaring, cavernous interior, the craftsmanship of the pews, no doubt handmade, if they are truly so old as her tricorder is to be believed…

It’s an old building, one of the oldest Michael has been in that is still in use today. Remarkably well-preserved, she notes, and the smell of old wood and trodden carpets is comforting in its own way.

She aims the tricorder at the stained glass window before her. The symbol she recognizes quite well; the Magen David, the symbol of one of Earth’s most ancient religions.

“This glass is over two centuries old.” She looks around the church. “Yet they depict vastly contrasting faiths…Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Wicca, Hinduism, Shinto...” Michael trails off.

It made no sense.

No church of old Earth would have been built with glass such as this set into its walls, with depictions of seven wildly different religions, all under the roof of a singular house of worship.

That meant that at least part of these stained glass images must have been reworked, at some point after the church had gotten to this planet.

Owo’s voice. “The distress call is coming from below us…I’ll look for a basement.”

Michael walks further inside, passing the colorful windows imprinted with swirling iconography. Pike is up at the dais, leafing through a thick book of some kind.

For those who live the old way burn,” he reads. “Those who sin against us shall be cut down by our Gods. Well, that’s friendly.”

Michael has to agree with Pike’s dubious tone. She listens absently to his words as she proceeds up the church, gazing at the glowing glass panels and the vivid scenes they hold.

When those who believe in our signs come to thee, say ‘Peace be upon you.

Pike concludes his reading with a nod of understanding.

An interesting text, Michael considers. Firm and familiar, in both words and doctrine. Though the stained glass images on the wall depict many different Earth faiths, this holy book does not seem to be formed in quite the same way.

Michael looks to the stained glass of the massive window behind Pike at the alter…

And stops dead.

There, stamped indelibly into the reworked glass, is a glowing Humanoid, swirling and otherworldly, with wings of red fire stemming from its back. Human figures kneel beneath it, several of them soldiers, if their helmets and fatigues are to be believed.

Prostrate in the light of a divine being…

--The red figure walks towards her through the burning wreckage, untouched by fire nor vacuum, thin and skeletal, with creaking wings protruding from each of its sides, backlit by unbearably bright red energy—

Beneath the stained glass, Michael’s eyes widen, widen, and widen further.

“I have no idea how these people got here…”

Pike’s voice echoes in her mind, his words from their pre-mission meeting.

“…But I highly doubt it was by accident.

Somehow, inconceivably, that red being from the asteroid has been here as well.

But why?

Why…Why…Why--

“Why aren’t you in the fields?”

Michael and Pike whirl towards the doors, where a dark-skinned man stands silhouetted by the outside sunlight. His shoulders are broad, his voice mellow. He wears an oiled leather jacket, and his hands are thick and rough, indicating habitual manual labor.

“We’re…not from here.” Pike strides slowly, slowly, away from the altar, the dias, whatever the people of this church might call it. Michael puts her hands out in front of her, palms down, to indicate peace.

“My name is Christopher,” Pike continues. “This is Michael, and Joanne.”

The man looks confused, but less angry than he had before. “Is this your first time in New Eden?”

“Yes,” Pike confirms. “We come from the north.”

The man nods at that, his dark eyes now curious and appraising.

“My name is Jacob,” he finally states. “The All-Mother will want to see you.”

 

**

 

The greeting ceremony is illuminating, at least.

“We welcome our new friends from the northern territory, and pledge gratitude to our Creators for their love and deliverance to New Eden on our planet Terralysium.”

The combined voices of the entire New Eden community ring out across the dancing flames of the bonfire. Night is upon them now, and Michael feels comforted by the warmth of the fire in front of her, keeping the shadows and darkness at bay.

Amesha, the white-haired All Mother, waves a smoke-creating device where she stands behind a high table. Other citizens of New Eden stand at the far edges of the fire. Jacob and his daughter stand adjacent to the small group from the Discovery; Michael wonders if this has something to do with their role in this community, or if it is merely because Jacob was the one who discovered them.

How bizarre it is, to meet Humans this far from Earth, but at the very least, this service should be illuminating. Surely these people know something of how they got here, and what or who that red being was.

“Tonight, on the harvest moon, we remember that over 200 years ago, in 2053, the First Saved, soldiers and civilians among them, took cover in the white church from the devastation of World War III.” Amesha’s voice rings across the fire, painting a vivid picture. “Jets overhead dropped nuclear bombs. Our ancestors knew death was coming, but just before the explosions, an angel appeared to them, surrounded by pillars of fire, and delivered our church and those taking shelter in it here to Terralysium.”

Michael takes the information in with a slow nod.

An angel…

Not quite how she would have described the figure that appeared to her on the asteroid.

Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from the divine…

Pike’s words ring in her ears, and she keeps listening. Jacob stands to her left, and Rose stands next to him. Michael is reminded of her birth father somewhat, in Jacob’s smooth voice and the way he had insisted his daughter stand with the adults.

Michael’s own father had insisted the same of her.

“They awoke here and founded New Eden,” continues Amesha. “But who should they thank for this salvation? Which God? There were so many faiths among them, how would they solve such a quandary?”

Michael already knows the answer before Pike can say it.

“By combining all religions into one.”

Michael sighs inwardly. It made so little sense. Why should the First Saved instantly turn to a religious explanation for what had happened, instead of a scientific one?

A teleporting angel…

She has to know, she has to.

“Say my religion is…science,” Michael posits across the fire, with little regard to the warning look that Pike is throwing her way, or the curious look from Jacob. “Has anyone used it to find an alternate answer as to how…our… ancestors got here?”

She trips slightly on “our.” Michael does not know much about the First Saved, but she is quite certain that none of them were ancestors of hers.

Jacob speaks up. “How, without the proper technology? All we’ve got are decaying relics from the First Saved.” From his slightly bitter tone, Michael judges that this is a mystery that has irked him for a long while.

“For many years, Jacob and Rose have tried to get the church lights back on.” Amesha’s voice rings out once more. “Since the battery units died and the church went dark, pilgrimages to the shrine have dwindled.”

“There must be some rational theories,” Michael pushes, almost desperate now. “Some explanation as to how the church got here.”

Or who, or what, that red being is.

“A camera attached to one of the soldier’s helmets exists from that time,” Jacob chimes in with his smooth voice. “But it’s broken now.”

“We have no need for proof,” Amesha states, practically cutting Jacob off. “We are guided by the existence of something greater than ourselves: our faith.”

Jacob turns away at her words. Michael senses him darkening slightly. His daughter reaches out a hand to his arm while casting a curious glance towards Michael, her eyes dancing in the firelight.

Pike is negotiating the away-team’s overnight stay in the sanctuary of the church, but Michael barely listens. Instead, she finds herself wandering closer and closer to Jacob, who is whispering in a low voice to his daughter. The girl keeps throwing glances at Michael, and Michael offers her a small smile in return.

Jacob looks towards her as well, his eyes dark, his gaze watchful and appraising.

“You are...dissatisfied, by the All-Mother’s testimony,” Michael observes softly, so that no one else around the fire will hear them.

Jacob only sighs, shrugging his shoulders with an air of long-suffering weariness. “Somewhat. Her words are beautiful, and the art and music inspired by our faith is stunning and inspiring, and yet…”

He looks towards Amesha’s white-haired form, and Pike, who speaks with her in low words. Something sad swims beneath Jacob’s dark eyes.

“So much of who we are has stagnated, because the others will not tolerate inquiry of any kind towards our circumstances.” Jacob shakes his head. “They claim that old Earth was corrupt, and perhaps it was, at that time…but to ask questions, to build things, to press forward with new knowledge…”

Jacob looks to Michael, and Rose looks to her as well.

“How on Earth could such desires be wrong?”

Michael wonders at this man, this doubtful, rational man living in a community of the faithful. She wonders how he can reconcile two highly contrasting philosophies within himself.

She thinks of Sarek and Amanda, of Spock and herself, and wonders if anyone can.

“We hold an interesting faith,” Michael finally allows, as she gazes into the fire. “A combination of all Earth religions, yet from what I know of these religions, none were strictly opposed to science and investigation…not in this way.”

Jacob huffs a little.

“And what do you know of people?”

Michael raises an eyebrow at that, a silent question.

In lieu of response, Jacob only turns from the bonfire, taking several steps away from his community and towards the edges of the red, flickering light. Michael follows his intelligent gaze out into the night, into darkened fields and distant forests rendered murky by the firelight.

Darkness holds fast in the plains of New Eden. Heavy as the blackness of space, with only the fire keeping the night at bay, only the miniscule orange-red glow staving off the yawning void.

The unknown, and whatever terrors it may hold.

Michael shivers.

“People?” She finally prompts.

Jacob looks to her again. His gaze is sharper than most, and Michael wonders what conclusions he might be reaching as he sizes her up.

Her Starfleet badge burns beneath her roughspun tunic, serving as proof of her identity…proof of everything that this community considers sacrilege.

“Do you truly consider your religion to be science?”

Jacob’s question comes from out of the blue. Michael blinks as she adjusts to the query, struggling for an answer.

What had she meant by that, anyway?

“Science is a way that I interpret my world,” Michael finally decides. “That is religion, so—“

“No, no…” Jacob shakes his head, his lips twitching slightly. “I mean, that’s part of it, but not all. To me, to us, religion is…a system that you are devoted to. Whose rules and demands bring you comfort, and whose mission you agree with…”

Michael is silent and still as she absorbs the words.

“A system…an organization… that inspires you,” Jacob continues. “Whose laws you follow above all others…”

Something deep and unfathomable shifts inside Michael’s chest, somewhere well beneath her tunic, her grey shirt...and the insignia affixed above her heart.

Jacob seems to take Michael’s protracted silence as a rebuttal in itself.

“We all need something. I understand that.”

With his head, he gestures towards the bonfire, and the rest of the citizens of New Eden.

“They hold fast to what little they know. Our Red Angel, who saved us. Our traditions, our prayers and our beliefs, which give us comfort in a world that is strange and unknowable.”

Jacob pauses, looking up at the stars.

“Our faith in a power stronger and wiser than we are. Righteous above all, telling us how we should live…“

“…Protecting us from our baser instincts.”

Michael completes the statement in a whisper, her mouth moving of its own accord.

Jacob jerks to look at her, curious.

“That is a rational thing,” Michael continues quickly, shaking off her sudden trance. “The psychological urge to assign rhyme and reason to events that are difficult, or frightening.”

“Is it rational? To devote one’s life to a system like this?” Jacob queries, gesturing with an absent hand towards Amesha, towards Pike, towards the bonfire. “To continue to commit to such beliefs, even when the foundations are chipped away and proven false?”

Michael is silent at the words. She looks down towards the grass between her booted feet, and moments pass as her gaze tracks forward.

Away from the warm glow of the fire, across the grass, through the fields, and into the vast, dark unknown.

“I am fortunate,” Michael finally states, “that I would not know.”

Silence holds for several long moments. The stars twinkle in the clear sky, the community murmurs softly behind them. The night air is crisp and fresh as Michael breathes, grounding herself in the present.

At Michael’s side, Jacob considers her statement quietly. His dark eyes flicker with intelligence, with doubt…with compassion.

Finally, Jacob looks to her.

“For your sake...I hope that remains true.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“You are so gonna love this, Captain!” Tilly bounces ahead of Philippa on their way to the shuttlebay. “I mean, it’s totally amazing, this asteroid is so supremely dense it should be impossible, it even has its own gravity field…”

“Is it the asteroid itself that is dense?” Philippa responds in a slightly mischievous tone. “Or is it merely warping space-time around it, to make us believe that it is dense?”

“Ah,” Tilly spins around with a grin, waggling a finger in her direction, “The old chicken-and-the-egg conundrum, gravity versus space-time. Well, there’s really no way of knowing, until we get a sample for study.”

Philippa smiles back at Tilly as she walks. She’s missing lunch for this little side trip, but the young ensign had looked so excited, and Philippa has to admit that she herself is quite curious as well. Michael has confided in her of Sylvia Tilly’s goal to become a captain, and though she does not fit the profile, Philippa cannot help but want to help this sweet young woman get as far as she can, at the very least.

One can help others and still be a productive agent, she convinces herself. She had spent most of her second day aboard placing bugs on the bridge, in engineering, in Pike’s ready room, and other places of interest, she’s introduced herself to every member of the crew and already has tabs on which of those personnel seem in possible danger of slipping.

Philippa Georgiou is good at her job.

Which, she figures, is the reason why she can divide her focus like this and still excel.

Tilly bounces as they proceed down the corridor, still chattering away. She wants to show off to her, Philippa knows this, but is quite happy to play along. One catches more flies with honey, after all, and this asteroid might become incredibly relevant further down the line.

She feels yet another spike of remorse at what had happened between her and Michael, this morning in the gym. So difficult it was, at times, to tamp down on behaviors cultivated on the streets of Qo’Nos and hardened by the demands of war. Philippa should not have come down so hard on her friend; still, it had been somewhat upsetting, seeing her family’s prize possession in the hands of a person she had not bequeathed it to.

But there would be time later, to rectify this issue. Philippa banishes these thoughts as they reach the shuttlebay doors. Tilly is still happily chatting in front of her, and Philippa hopes that the young woman does not notice her own preoccupation.

The shuttlebay doors hiss open, revealing the massive asteroid hovering in place atop the gravity simulator device. It dwarfs the shuttlecrafts in its size, and the shadow it casts across the bay is vast indeed. Philippa gapes in spite of herself.

“Pretty awesome, huh?” Tilly smiles brightly at her side. “Stamets and I calculated the trajectory ourselves. We caught it right through the shuttlebay doors, like a golf ball in a hole.”

Philippa can practically feel Tilly’s proud grin, and her lips twitch despite her best efforts.How had this girl fought a war and still managed to be like this?

Tilly gives Philippa some background as she strides to the pop-up drawers next to the gravity containment unit.

“So the deal is, this asteroid was part of the cluster that was giving off the huge energy readings that formed one of Pike’s seven signals. We don’t know where the energy came from, since the signal dissipated almost as soon as it arrived, but there were really intense mycelial readings on this rock as well. That, plus its unlikely density, makes it a curious enough specimen for further study.”

She rummages noisily in the drawers, even as she chatters.

“Whatever gives this asteroid its mycelial presence…well, it could help us build a new, non-Human interface with the spore drive…”

Philippa’s eyes wander across the asteroid’s surface. It is surprisingly plain-looking, slate gray and pock-marked, as all asteroids are, but—

What was that?

Philippa’s eyes sharpen as she catches the merest flicker of red in one of the caverns on the asteroid’s surface. Almost like the burst of a lightning bug.

“Did you see that?” she asks sharply, while focusing on the spot where the light had been.

“See what?”

Tilly’s voice is distant and distracted. Judging from her tone, she’s at least ten feet away with her back turned, digging around in one of the metal cabinets surrounding the gravity simulator.

“…Nothing.” Philippa states slowly, and pulls her gaze away from the spot where she had seen the light flash.

How bizarre.

Tilly returns to her side, a laser core sampler in her hands and goggles on her face. She hands Philippa a pair of goggles as well, which Philippa straps down over her eyes. The core sampler looks quite like an empty canister with handles: this, plus the darkened goggles allows Philippa to catch on immediately.

“You’re going to perform surgery on this rock?”

Tilly nods quickly. “Its mycelial readings are undeniable, not to mention the possibility that it could help us in building a new interface for the spore drive…”

She trails off, mouth working quietly for a moment.

“Commander Stamets…he’s…he’s been having a lot of personal difficulties.”

Philippa nods slowly. “From the loss of his partner?”

“Yeah…” Tilly’s voice is low and sad. “He…it—it just seems like it might be too much for him, being the drive navigator, so if there’s any way we could relieve him—“

“—we should.” Philippa completes softly.

Gods, this Sylvia Tilly was such a good person. Philippa wonders what on Earth she is doing with this girl, someone as cracked and as broken as herself… she wonders if perhaps she should extract herself from the situation right now, before anyone gets hurt, or worse, corrupted

Your personal shielding is phase-locked with the gravity simulator.”

The computerized voice from the gravity simulator chimes in, and Philippa realizes that it’s far too late.

“This is safe, Ensign?”

“Yep.” Tilly confirms with a proud grin. She leans in towards Philippa almost conspiratorially. “Discovery has the new personal phase-lock systems, so I'll be able to maintain the zero-grav bubble around the sample!"

Philippa's eyebrows lift in appreciation, and no little envy.

"Of course it does."

She adds this "personal phase-lock system" to her long list of upgrades that she would have begged Fleet Command for, had she known of its existence back in her Shenzhou days. By the stars, the number of times she had had to clear her ship's entire shuttlebay to alter the gravity fields in order to safely dissect samples a mere fraction of this size had aged her far faster than battles or command ever had.

The Discovery had all of the latest toys, that was for sure. Once again, Philippa feels a stab of jealousy towards Christopher Pike and the man's ungodly luck for getting command of all of Fleet's newest, shiniest vessels.

"The shielding will protect us from any sudden gravity failures," Tilly continues as Philippa ruminates, "And the rock itself is inert. We’ll be fine.”

Her voice is confident and assured, and Philippa feels mollified. Tilly pulls her goggles down, and both turn towards the rock. Tilly lifts the laser core sampler and flicks it on.

A bright beam of pure light impacts the underside of the asteroid. It glows with hot white energy, and Philippa smells ozone as it cuts. A grating grinding sound emanates from the laser sampler, smoke rises from the rock’s surface—

A sudden red light winks once more on the asteroid’s surface, just past the slicing laser beam.

“Tilly…did you see that?” Philippa raises her voice over the whine of the laser.

“See…what?” Tilly responds through gritted teeth, and Philippa realizes that it is taking all of the young woman’s concentration to keep the beam steady. She clamps her mouth closed, and clamps down on the feeling that something is off.

Energy fluctuation detected,” chimes a voice from the hulking gravity capture device.

“Almost got it,” Tilly mutters. Sweat beads at the side of her forehead, and in the next moment, a small chunk of rock floats down the beam of the laser, right into the clear chamber of the sampler.

Sample secure.”

The laser deactivates, revealing a small gray pebble floating within the sampler.

“Phew.” Tilly sighs and shakes her head. She pulls up her goggles, panting, and Philippa does the same. Her chest unclenches, her heart giving a slightly nauseating flutter.

Philippa had not realized just how nervous she had been about the whole ordeal.

“You didn’t see anything?” she checks with Tilly once more, even while she peers into the core sampler at the floating asteroid pebble.

“Nothing but…super-bright light…” Tilly replies between exhales. Her cheeks are flushed; she must have been focusing quite hard. She lifts the sampler up to face-level, and grins at the rock floating in the containment chamber. “Why, what did you see, Captain?”

Philippa studies the small, innocent looking pebble behind the reinforced walls of the container. “It was…” she murmurs. “Like a firefly…the barest wink of red light…are you sure—“

Several things happen at once.

The pebble in the containment chamber sparks, a split second burst of red appearing somewhere on its surface.

Months, years, decades of combat experience cut down Philippa’s rational thought, her logical mind, and she leaps sideways—

And an explosion bursts through the containment field. It blows across the shuttlebay and knocks Philippa backwards. The roar of energy overwhelms her ears, blasts through her body, and she lands hard her back, her head cracking against the floor.

Pain lances up her spine. Her muscles clench, her mouth opens and closes, fighting desperately for breath that won’t come…

Alarms blare in the distance, Philippa hears them echoing from somewhere very far away…Finally, finally, her diaphragm responds, and she sucks in a heaving, thankful breath. With all of her strength, Philippa wills her arm to move, to fucking move, and with effort, she rolls herself onto her side.

She gapes at the sight in front her.

Twenty feet ahead, just below the asteroid, stands Sylvia Tilly and another figure, slim and slender, long hair in a braid, wearing medical whites.”

It’s…

It’s me, Philippa realizes, her eyes going wide. Tilly’s arms are up, the laser is cutting, Philippa’s doppelganger turns to Tilly, says something urgently…

The pebble proceeds down the laser beam, just as it had mere seconds ago, until it disappears from view, obscured by the Tilly-figure’s body---

Hot red light bursts in the place where the figures stand, obliterating them almost entirely. Philippa gasps, squeezes her eyes shut at the searing flare, but this time she manages to catch the direction in which Sylvia Tilly flies before her figure disappears into the explosion.

And in the next moment, the red light dissipates once more.

With the explosion gone, there is nothing but the empty shuttlebay, a massive floating asteroid, and a mechanical voice on repeat:

“--Energy discharge of unknown origin detected in main shuttlebay, energy discharge of unknown origin detected in main shuttlebay--

With all of the strength left to her, Philippa turns her neck, groaning at the pain that lances down her arms at the action. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Tilly’s body slumped against one of the metal pop-up drawers that surround the gravity containment field. Her eyes are closed, her pale face raw and covered in pink burns. Blood trickles from her ear.

No…no…

Philippa drags herself towards Tilly’s immobile form. Flashes of agony shoot down the nerves of her shoulders, but Philippa grits her teeth and keeps crawling across the deck.

She won’t lose a soldier, she won’t, not one as young as Tilly.

A long string of swears rip from her lips as she moves. This would have been nothing to her two years ago, this scant three meters of distance on a concussion and a spinal injury, but now, with her cobbled-together heart that won’t fucking fire

With the last of her strength, Philippa reaches a hand towards Tilly’s left foot and grabs the toe of her boot.

Computer…” she rasps. “Initiate site-to-site transport…main shuttlebay…to sickbay…

She loses consciousness as her molecules dissolve into glowing golden energy.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Michael and Pike clatter after Owosekun, down the rickety wooden stairs of the church and into the basement. This planet has no moons, the blackness is pervasive, and they take a quick look around before activating their torches.

“I isolated that distress beacon, it’s coming from somewhere down here.”

Owosekun strides into the black, tricorder extended. Michael takes a studious glance at their surroundings. An intensely small basement room with a dusty window set into the upper right wall. Workbench, shelves cluttered with tech, and old tech at that.

“Well, let’s turn it off, so that no one else disturbs this place, then we’ll beam out,” Pike states, rustling around at the tech on the shelves. “Maybe we can find that helmet cam while we’re at it.”

Michael turns to stare at Pike.

“Sir, are you seriously suggesting we leave these people here?”

“Find that beacon, please, Owo,” Pike throws over his shoulder, before turning to face Michael. “Look, Burnham, no one down here needs rescuing. Now, I don’t know why that signal appeared, but it’s clear to me that this place really is a new Eden.”

“Jacob and the others are kin to us,” Michael insists. She thinks of Jacob and his obvious need for answers, for rationality. “They’re Human beings like us, they deserve to be reintegrated into modern society.”

“By their own account, they left Earth in 2053,” Pike argues. “They did not use a starship, that makes them pre-warp, subject to General Order One.”

“But they believe Earth was destroyed, Captain,” Michael shoots back. “They believe themselves the only survivors of an extinction-level disaster—“

Such a state of existence is hell, Michael knows, having suffered through a similar event herself.

Hell, it is utter hell.

“We cannot allow them to exist in such a state,” she completes almost desperately. “The faith they cling to is a lie—“

“You can prove that?” Pike raises an eyebrow.

“What I will prove is that none of this happened because of some miracle.”

Two data points, Michael only has only two data points, herself on the asteroid four days prior, and this church on Earth two hundred years ago. Two data points is hardly enough for a hypothesis, and certainly not enough for any type of proof, but Michael will keep trying, she will keep searching, if these signals keep happening then she will have a body of data to work with, and then, perhaps, a logical conclusion will reveal itself--

“Got it!” Owosekun exclaims from behind them. “The battery’s dead, but this is strange…someone jury-rigged it to keep transmitting the distress call…”

“And you answered.”

Michael and Pike whirl around to see Jacob standing at the base of the stairs. His eyes are wide and bright as he stares at them, like he’s just seen a miracle, Michael realizes dimly.

“There were scientists among the First Saved, you know,” he continues in a rasping voice. “My ancestors…my family. For years, we tended to that beacon. No one else knew it was here and you found it, with that incredible device…”

Jacob’s face fills with joy. “And they were right, weren’t they? The Earth wasn’t destroyed, mankind evolved!”

Michael is quiet as she stares at Jacob, who is proceeding down veins of logic at a truly admirable pace. At her side, Pike attempts an explanation for the tricorder. “This…this device, it’s always been in my family, it’s for navigation—“

“Since the other day, when the red burst appeared in the sky, I knew you were coming,” Jacob continues, utterly unbothered by Pike’s grasping. “That was the light from your ship, right?”

Not quite, Michael thinks, but a fairly logical conclusion to make with the data he has.

“Your hands, your skin, unravaged by the labor we do here!" Jacob whirls to Michael. "And you, your questions at the greeting ceremony, a well-known taboo across Terralysium! But...you’re not from Terralysium, are you?”

Jacob looks like he’s seeing something wonderful, his face utterly dazzled. Michael knows she should be helping Pike with explanations, but…

But

If Jacob figures this out on his own, then perhaps we can circumvent General Order One.

Pike shakes his head slowly. “Jacob…listen to me.” He takes a step forward. “You are mistaken.”

“No,” Jacob shakes his head fervently. “No I am not. I have been waiting for this day for a long time. For our true salvation—“

“Let’s go,” Pike states with a flick of his head. Michael and Owosekun follow him past Jacob. They tramp up the old wooden staircase to leave the basement, Michael tries to think of a way she can stop this, anything at all, but before she can, Jacob is shouting—

“No wait, please, wait!”

Jacob reaches for something on the self, throws it towards them. A metallic clatter echoes beneath the stairs, Michael hears the whine of a device—

And the world goes black as an explosion blasts her body backwards.

  

* *

 

Red sunlight glows through the tree leaves in the backyard. It is hot, but not overly so, and Michael’s Vulcan tunic is made to be moisture-wicking and cooling.

Michael misses t-shirts and tank tops and shorts, but she has to admit she does like how the tunic makes her look like a monk training in martial arts, or a Jedi padawan. Michael imagines herself wielding a purple lightsaber as she whirls the wooden stick over her head. She recalls the videos she had viewed last night of Vulcan bow-staff experts, and takes the stick by the midsection, flicking the ends side to side at an imaginary enemy.

Sarek has told Michael that she is too young and too weak, as a Human child, to participate in any martial arts instruction this year. But Michael decides that she will be ready, when the time comes.

She grows bored with waving the stick around, and trots to the corner of the garden where an inflatable soccer ball lies beneath some vine clippings. Michael had enjoyed pick-up soccer back on Doctari Alpha, though she had never played on a team. She tugs the ball free with a flick of her toe, and kicks in absently in front of her as she trots towards the wall of the house.

Spock’s window is just above the stretch of wall; Michael catches a glimpse of him inside the window. He’s hunched over his desk, either drawing or working on some type of program, no doubt.

Also alone.

Michael sighs. She had had many Vulcan friends on Doctori Alpha, but this place is very different from her outpost hometown. Far and away more fundamentalist and traditional than the Vulcan children she had known on Doctori Alpha, the Shi’Kahr Vulcans at school all seem afraid of her or derisive of her; there is no in-between.

Michael looks through the window towards her cold Vulcan foster-brother. He does not like her, he never has; this will probably not go well, but it is worth a try.

She just wants someone to play with, that’s all.

“Spock!”

Spock looks up from his desk. He comes towards the window, his face growing larger as he approaches to look down at her.

Michael kicks at the ball in front of her to demonstrate the act of the game. “Want to play soccer?”

“What is the objective of soccer?” Spock queries in his childish voice. Michael only shrugs.

“To run around and have fun, get better at kicking the ball maybe. This wall could be the goal, we could bounce it off the wall at each other. Then whoever lets the ball get past them gets a point. Whoever has the lowest amount of points, wins!”

It would be considerably less exciting than Doctori Alpha pick-up games played in deliberately low-grav, where both the ball and the players would ricochet off walls and ceilings, making for a three-dimensional playing field.

But the higher gravity of Vulcan would add to the difficulty level, Michael feasons.

“That is a formless objective, Michael,” Spock lectures from his window above her. “Victory with no tangible reward, a game with no practical, real-world applications…you should not bring such illogic into our house.”

Black fury bursts behind Michael’s eyes, and her fists clench at her sides. She receives enough lectures from her teachers and other children, she does not need one from her own kid brother.

Foster-brother.

“You can just say no, Spock.”

“If I were to just say no, you would not learn anything.”

“I’ll teach you a lesson, you little creep,” Michael mutters under her breath. She has to be outwardly nice to Spock, or else her family might send her back to Child Services, but that does mean that she can do nothing at all.

Michael kicks the ball into the wall of the house, and it makes a satisfying thump where it hits the bricks and bounces off. With a twist of her shin, she catches the rebound, and kicks the ball again.

Thump!

Thump!

Thump!

The sound echoes around Amanda’s garden, the amber wood and dark brick of the house casting the light into a deeper red glow. A quick look up towards Spock’s window reveals him flinching at the sounds where he sits over his desk, even though the window has been closed and locked. His face is creased with irritation.

Good.

Michael kicks viciously at the ball, wondering why this should be her lot in life. Why Doctori Alpha had to burn, why she had to see that stupid supernova, why her parents had to hide her in that cabinet, why no one on this planet would talk to her or be kind to her or play with her…why she could not just be a normal kid, on a Human-majority world where the Vulcans were nicer…

Red beams dance across the walls of Sarek’s house as Michael plays soccer alone in the garden, glowing in the amber heat of the hot Vulcan sun. Red sand, red house, red planet, red light…

 

Red---

Red---

Red---

 

--Amidst screaming flames and groaning wreckage, the angelic figure towers over Michael, power echoing from each tremble of its twig-like wings--

 

With a heaving gasp, Michael jerks to consciousness.

Pike is on his back, groaning, but Owosekun is already up the darkened stairs and trying the door.

“It’s locked,” she calls out. “But if it’s just a cable lock, I think I can get us out.”

She clambers down the stairs and starts scanning the shelves. Michael rubs at her eyes, rising painfully to her feet, feeling strangely unencumbered. She feels at her hips for her bags—

Nothing.

“Jacob took all of our tech!”

Pike shakes his head as he pulls himself to a stand. “To prove his case to the others, no doubt.”

Michael looks up through the ceiling, at this point not entirely sure whether she is rooting for Jacob or furious with him. There’s a strange light emanating through the church’s floorboards; she wonders what might be happening on the other side of all of that wood.

“Got it!” Owosekun exclaims from beneath the cellar door. She withdraws her tool –a wire hanger—Michael notes, from the crack in the wood, and shoves the door open with a firm thud.

Pike nods briskly. “Well done, Lieutenant. Let’s go!”

 

 

Jacob’s voice is ringing through the night before they even reach the bonfire.

“—they brought tech! Scientific data collectors, communication devices, just look inside, you’ll believe!

Pike rounds the corner first.

“What ever happened to “Thou shalt not steal?”” he demands.

Michael rounds the corner second, in time to see Jacob’s dark frantic eyes, his wild gesticulations, and his daughter, Rose, who clutches one of Michael’s bags to her chest.

Oh no…not that one…

“I just wanted her to see the truth,” Jacob insists, gesturing at the All-Mother, illuminated by the still-crackling fire. Michael keeps her eyes on Rose, who has picked up the worst bag of any for a child to pick up.

“The truth is that he attacked us,” Pike bites out as he stalks towards the altar, his form flickering in the light of the fire. “He stole from us. He violated everything the faith holds dear.”

Michael follows her captain around the bonfire, still with half of her gaze Jacob’s daughter, but ready to pull out her fists, should anything go wrong.

“You give us back everything you took, and we’ll leave,” Pike completes. Michael’s eyes dart to the altar table, upon which her side-pouch with her communicator lies. If they can’t comm the Discovery, they might be stuck here for a very long time…

She won’t get to apologize to Philippa…

“Listen to me!” Jacob’s voice is desperate as he whirls towards Amesha. “They came on a starship! They can take us back home. We can return to the real Earth—“

“This is your home, Jacob,” Amesha insists softly, and Jacob’s mouth moves in a silent plea towards her. Michael’s heart goes out to the man. “You are living by the corrupt ways of the old Earth—“

Jacob whirls around. “You’re the scientist!” He fixates on Michael, who jerks her head towards him in surprise. “Tell her I’m right, please—“

Michael’s ears pick up on the whine of a phaser, somewhere behind them.

She spins around to see Rose, satchel at her feet and a live phaser in her hands.

No…

Michael recognizes that very specific sound, the one indicating set-to-kill—

Shit--

Her feet move of their own accord, Michael’s running before she can think, she grabs the phaser from Rose and curls around it, throwing her body around the energy discharge--

Her chest rips open, agony searing through her body like hot lightning, and the world goes black once more.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The away team is in danger.

The away team is in danger.

This is enough to rouse Philippa into painful consciousness. She groans softly on the bio bed, her body aching all over. Still, she can move every one of her fingers and toes, and does not feel at all headache-y, irritable or combative, meaning her spinal injuries and concussion have been treated.

There’s been a disruption of the planet’s outermost ring, ionized radioactive particles are on their way to the planet’s surface…”

Philippa’s stomach turns over as she listens to the report on sickbay’s overhead feed.

“In sixty-four minutes, the radiation will reach the upper atmosphere, causing an extinction level event--”

An extinction level event…

Michael is down there.

“--can’t signal the away-team--”

Michael is down there.

—we won’t be able to transport—

Michael is down there.

“Tilly…” Philippa whispers. “Tilly…Sylvia!”

Philippa finally manages a weak yell across sickbay at the unconscious ensign, but she remains inert in her bed, the heart monitor over her head pulsing steadily.

She is alive, at least.

Can we collect them by shuttlecraft?

Negative, Rhys--- Shuttlecraft exhaust trail through the atmosphere will trigger a runaway reaction that will hasten the radiation particles’ arrival--”

That’s Saru’s voice over the feed, he must be standing in as both captain and science officer at this point.

Philipa’s eyes flicker to the monitor over the doorway. The feed has been on repeat for nearly forty minutes.

Oh, damn it all…

Philippa rolls painfully out of bed, her bare feet impacting the ground. Her knees quickly follow, and Philippa curses aloud as her hands hit the floor. They’d left her in her uniform at the very least, though the same could not be said for Ensign Tilly. The poor girl must have been severely injured if Pollard had felt the need to disrobe her entirely.

Gods, this whole radioactive ring situation feels so unbearably familiar, it’s on the tip of Philippa’s tongue, the edge of her mind, perhaps the concussion is affecting her neural processes.

"…the clock is ticking...” Saru’s voice echoes around sickbay. “…let us get to work.

Philippa struggles into her boots, willing her brain to respond. So many years of missions and adventures, successes and failures, surely something must hiding somewhere in her consciousness…

“…shuttlecraft exhaust in the upper atmosphere…

Rising to her feet, Philippa turns to the door and walks out of sickbay, past Tilly’s unconscious form.

“…shuttlecraft…

Shuttlecraft…

And then Philippa is running, running for the turbolift, an idea now firm in her mind.

 

 

**

 

 

Philippa’s arms seem detached from her body, her heart is spasming in her chest. Sweat beads at her temples, despite how cold she feels. Her fingertips are numb.

It might have been a mistake to run.

Nevertheless, Philippa manages to lean a forearm against the door of the open turbolift, which helps to keep her upright as she staggers onto the bridge.

“Had an idea…“ Philippa attempts to project her voice, but it only comes out a weak whisper.

Saru turns to her from his place in the captain’s chair.

“Captain?” His throat pouches click sharply, and he rises to his feet in a quick motion. “Are you alright?”

Philippa opens her mouth respond, but the floor tilts before she can.

She fights with all of her might, willing her muscles to respond, her nervous system to fire, Gods, anything but to be humiliated like this on her third day on board—

But it’s no use, Philippa sways and falls sideways before she can even reach the first officer’s terminal. The only thing that stops her from hitting the deck full-force are the sudden arms that slip beneath her torso to catch her mere inches from the floor.

“Captain!”

That’s a feminine voice, Philippa recognizes, no doubt Keyla Detmer from her helm post. There’s the sound of feet running across the deck in her direction. Saru deposits her gently on the floor and tugs her towards the base of the nearby terminal so that she can prop herself against it.

Damn it all, this is becoming embarrassing.

“I’m alright.” Philippa shakes out a breath, feeling her entire body trembling. Detmer’s fingers are at her wrist, no doubt checking her pulse. “I’m alright, just…the new heart—“ She gestures vaguely at her chest. “… doesn’t take well to…intense exercise…”

“This is why you have not been cleared for away missions?”

Saru’s question is tactless in the extreme, and for the first time since getting to Discovery, Philippa catches a glimpse of the awkward science officer who had once served under her aboard the Shenzhou. She rankles at her privacy being so thoroughly breached, here in front of the entire bridge crew, and doesn’t bother to answer, opting for a redirect of the conversation.

“You know where the defibrillator is?”

What?!” Detmer sounds absolutely terrified, and Philippa can’t help her soft snort, even as she closes her eyes.

“I’m only kidding, Detmer…calm down.”

She opens her eyes.

“You know where it is though, right?”

“Under the science officer’s terminal, where it always is, Captain,” Saru promises in his smooth tone.

“Not on all ships,” Philippa murmurs, thinking of Section 31’s fleet of stealth vessels. Her hands are still shaking, her skin clammy, and there is no doubt in her mind that she is as white as a ghost, but she feels her heart beginning to settle in her chest.

“I ran here…because…I’ve done this before…” She attempts. “2240…one of Velnar’s moons, Ge…dusted to fragments by a…stray proton torpedo, in decaying orbit with the planet… collision…threatened an extinction level event…”

Saru’s eyes are wide and attentive as Philippa narrates the old story of daring maneuvers and cutting-edge science, and she feels the rest of the bridge’s focus upon her.

“We...piloted a shuttlecraft to the center of the rings…my engineer modified our tractor beam…bounced it off of the Archimedes’ tractor beam and…a few other…strategically placed shuttles…we synced the waves to amplify the signal… used the beams to…pull the fragments away…”

“…like a big net.” Saru looks stunned at the idea, and Philippa nods quickly.

“Running simulations now,” comes Rhys’ voice from tactical. “Do you remember how they modified the tractor beams?”

“Captain, I’m not sure if this ring is navigable, even by shuttlecraft.” Detmer’s voice is dubious. “How did you guys run Velnar with those older models?”

“Well, by “we” I meant me, of course.”

Philippa manages a weak chuckle from her place on the ground. Now that had been a white-knuckle flight if there ever was one.

“It won’t work.” Airiam’s voice is steady from ops. “Assuming we could run the ring, we would need six shuttlecrafts to amplify the beams to a high enough frequency to even begin to catch these fragments, and Discovery only has four.”

There’s a palpable slump on the bridge.

“Damn.” Philippa mutters, her mind already working once more, even as her heart stutters and stumbles in her chest. She breathes, squeezes her eyes shut, and attempts to settle her heartbeat to a pace more conducive to brainstorming.

Michael is down there, she’s down there, and Philippa will be damned if she loses her so soon after getting her back.

Another memory hits her, and Philippa tries again.

“What if we use something else to capture the fragments?”

“Such as?” Saru prompts.

“A bigger gravity well…” Philippa mumbles, the bridge growing hazy once more. “Bigger than the one this planet has…”

“You are positing we find… what, another planet, bigger than this one? In the next five minutes?” Saru’s mellow voice is comically disbelieving, and Philippa resists the impulse to snort.

“I’ve done this before too,” she murmurs. “2244, the Nyambi system. We don’t need a bigger gravity well, just a closer one…and we have one, right here.”

Philippa looks at her former first officer, and a weak smile plays at her lips.

“It’s four decks down in the shuttlebay.”

Silence.

“The dark matter asteroid…” Detmer breathes.

“Of course!” Saru exclaims, rising to his feet and striding to his console. “If we can get the asteroid into a favorable position, we can capture the fragments—“

“---and if we set it in motion away from the planet, its gravity will pull the fragments away as well!” Airiam completes.

“To launch the asteroid at the correct angle, I would have to perform a sustained circular drift...” Detmer is obviously thinking out loud as she returns to the helm.

Philippa grins, even though it pains her to do so. “A donut, Lieutenant.”

Detmer looks back to her, and Philippa raises a challenging eyebrow. “A donut…in a starship…”

Gods, was Philippa ever jealous right now.

“Is that possible?” Saru inquires from the captain’s chair.

“Yes!” Detmer exclaims. “Well…except no. We’d have to launch the asteroid from within the debris field, and there’s no way I could pilot us in there.”

In the next moment, she spins her seat around to look at Philippa, a clear question in her eyes.

Philippa casts an obvious glance down her body, slumped like a sack of potatoes against the first officer’s console, and hopes that answers Keyla’s question.

“But Stamets could!”

Tilly’s voice echoes from the outside corridor, and in the next moment, she runs onto the bridge, still in her medical gown.

“Ensign Tilly, you are still severely injured, what on Earth are you doing—“

“No, no no no, please, hear me out!” Tilly begs, cutting Saru off. Philippa cannot help but find the situation oddly reminiscent of another one from nearly a year and half prior. “Look, it seems like you guys got to the same plan that I did, but here’s where it gets awesome.”

Tilly grins up towards Saru’s disbelieving face. “We could jump to the center of the ring, so Detmer can spin the ship and launch the asteroid.”

Amazement trickles down Philippa’s spine as she nods slowly, slowly, at the reveal of this final piece of the puzzle. Saru’s throat pouches click as he comes to a decision.

“We have exactly two minutes, eleven seconds before the debris reaches the point of no return.”

Silence.

“Well, Airiam?!”

Saru whirls towards the spore drive lieutenant, and Airiam swivels in her chair at Ops.

“Bridge to Engineering, we have a new heading, requesting immediate response.”

The ship is in red alert, there was no way Stamets would be anywhere but Engineering, or fail to answer the comm.

A moment passes.

Another moment.

Acknowledged, Bridge, standing by to jump.”

Paul Stamets’ voice echoes over the intercom, and the bridge as a whole relaxes in relief.

Philippa smiles from her place beneath the first officers’ console. They weren’t out of the woods, not yet, but she can practically taste the victory on her tongue.

She startles at the sudden whisper of air near her left ear, and at the feel of a warm body next to her own. A quick sideways glance confirms that Sylvia Tilly has plopped herself down at Philippa’s left side. She slumps heavily against Philippa, who nearly recoils in surprise.

In the next moment, she merely shrugs and leans into Tilly’s immobile body. Not much else to be done about the situation.

Philippa closes her eyes as Stamets confirms his preparedness, as Saru commands Black Alert. Her ears go fuzzy as the ship disappears from real space for split second and reappears within the debris field.

In the next moment, her arm flashes up to grip the side of the console as Detmer spins Discovery into a tight curve. Her other arm wraps around Ensign Tilly to keep her from sliding across the floor, and Tilly grabs Philippa’s midsection in response.

This resulting centrifugal force will launch the asteroid into an extra-orbital trajectory, Philippa pictures it in her mind’s eye, the impossible asteroid flying off into space and pulling the radioactive debris along with it.

Saving the planet.

Saving the away-team.

Come on, come on, come on…

The bridge is holding its breath, even as they fight the centrifugal force threatening to bowl everyone over. Tilly’s arms are tight and firm around her, and Philippa squeezes her eyes shut and grips the ensign’s body with whatever strength she has, keeping her held firmly in place as the Discovery performs a hard spin maneuver within the radioactive debris field.

Seconds slide by, and the asteroid is away, Airiam throws up a tracking program to map its trajectory out of the system. Philippa watches it go, trailed by massive radioactive rocks. Her ears go fuzzy again as Stamets launches Discovery into another jump to escape the asteroid’s pull, and they reappear twelve hundred kilometers away, safely out of the planetary ring.

A second goes by.

Then another.

“Transport confirms: all are on board,” comes Bryce’s announcement, and Philippa relaxes where she sits beneath the console. She nearly misses the second announcement in her relief.

“The asteroid successfully diverted all debris from the planet’s atmosphere!”

Cheers and yells erupt from the bridge crew. Philippa smiles weakly at the shared elation. She has to admit, she’s missed this just a little bit, this feeling of crazy maneuvers and lateral thinking, of winning the day and celebrating with her comrades.

There’s a pressing into the left side of her torso. Philippa feels the unmistakable texture of curly hair on the skin of her neck.

“You’re a genius, Captain,” Ensign Tilly mumbles as she leans heavily into Philippa’s body. Philippa is too tired to do anything but lean her own head against Tilly’s for support. “Told you so…” Tilly continues. “We’re so smart…right?”

Philippa opens her mouth to answer, but Tilly is look off to the left, to something or someone that Philippa cannot see.

“Damn right,” Tilly nods tiredly, and reaches out her left hand in a high-five gesture.

There’s nothing but open air to meet it.

“Ensign…” Philippa murmurs. “I think perhaps we should get back to sickbay.”

“You have great ideas, Captain,” Tilly responds in a weary voice. “Hey ma’am, can you maybe help us up?”

Philippa follows the ensign’s gaze somewhere up and to their left. Though Tilly’s arm is extended, her eyes definitely tracking something…

There is no one there.

Had the asteroid explosion damaged the girl’s brain more than we thought?

“Tilly…” Philippa begins slowly, but a long shadow appears over them both, cutting Philippa off.

“Can you both make it back to sickbay?” Saru queries in his mellow tone.

Philippa considers the idea, but rejects it in a mere microsecond. Her heart is still trembling, she’s pushed herself too far to risk any further activity in the next hour at least.

A spike of frustration lances Philippa’s chest at her own helplessness. Were she not on a bridge full of young Fleet crewmembers and propped up in front of a former subordinate, there is no doubt in her mind that she would be whispering strings of profanities beneath her breath and through an infuriated mask of irritation.

How she hates being reminded of what she has lost.

At the very least, Saru seems to take her dark silence as an answer, and glosses over the moment smoothly. “Very well. Computer, initiate site-to-site transport to sickbay for Captain Philippa Georgiou and Ensign Sylvia Tilly—“

“Wait!” Tilly cries, looking towards something off to the left. “I never caught your name!”

Philippa watches with concern as the ensign reaches towards something, towards nothing, looking for all the world like she is extending her hand to a person who will help her regain her footing

But then the shimmering haze of transport wraps around them, and the bridge disappears into golden light.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“We lied.”

Michael stands in the corner of the church basement, the dusty workshop casting shadows across the floor. Her posture is tall and unafraid, though her chest still burns from the phaser discharge. At least the Discovery had managed to beam them up before the damage became irreversible.

Jacob stands at the foot of the stairs staring at her, his mouth agape.

“To protect your community from the truth,” Michael continues. “It is a part of our laws, that we may not reveal higher technology to communities that have not discovered it for ourselves.”

She closes her eyes. “But I know what it is like, to live a life of contrasting philosophies, at war with oneself constantly. I didn’t want that for you.”

Finally, Jacob strides forward, eagerness in his expression. “How did you get here? Beam of light?”

“Yes, actually.” Michael smiles in amusement. “It’s called a transporter. It converts a person or object into an energy pattern, then “beams” it to a target, where it is reconstituted into regular matter.”

Jacob gasps at that. He looks positively thrilled, and Michael cannot help but smile wider.

“Do you have a ship?" Jacob's eyes are swimming in wonder. "Do you fly amongst the stars?”

“Yes.”

“And— And Earth, what’s become of it?”

“Well…” Michael begins. “We are part of a galactic Federation now…dedicated to peace, exploration, and protecting places such as your planet.”

In the next moment, Michael remembers the war, Qo’Nos, the Shrine of Molor---

“We are not perfect, Jacob,” she clarifies quickly, walking stiffly out from her corner. “Not yet…but we strive to be the best we can be. We are…evolving.”

Jacob’s dark eyes swim at her words. He looks utterly dazzled, and Michael remembers that this man has believed for most of his life that Earth had been corrupt, smote from the galaxy for their sinful ways.

She is so very grateful that Pike gave her this chance to tell Jacob everything.

“Jacob,” Michael murmurs to get his attention once more. “We cannot intervene. Your society has to evolve in its own way.”

The weight of the words she does not say is heavy indeed.

We cannot take you with us.

At that, Jacob turns away. He ambles slowly through the workshop, running strong fingers over the shelf at his right side, tracing old tech lost to the ravages of time. The darkness of the basement shrouds him in shadow.

He seems to come to a decision. Squaring his shoulders, Jacob strides to the beacon where it lies concealed beneath some shelving.

“My entire family spent their lives hoping to get a confirmation of what we believe is true,” he states while hefting the beacon across the room. He sets it down on the workbench beneath the darkened windows. “And you gave me that answer. Something that many of them never got.”

He punches several commands into the glowing beacon. The transmitter makes several beeps before it deactivates fully, retracting into the metal body of the casing.

Jacob turns around, and his face is smooth with acceptance.

“That is enough for me.”

Michael smiles a small smile. She feels an odd kinship with this man in a way that she cannot quite explain. Both of them guided by science, both striving via logic and rationality to make sense of the universe’s unsolved mysteries...

“Thank you, Michael.” Jacob sighs. He tucks the deactivated distress beacon beneath the workbench. “Because of you, we are not lost anymore.”

What must it feel like, Michael wonders, to not be lost?

To know one’s place in the galaxy, to understand how and why things come to pass?

She envies Jacob slightly, for how easily he has come by these answers.

Jacob turns sideways, reaching up to a shelf over the workbench for a dusty object.

A helmet… Michael realizes.

“Here.” Jacob takes several steps towards her, the old helmet held almost reverently in his large hands. “This is what you wanted, wasn’t it? Knowledge of how our people got here?”

Michael raises an eyebrow. “Don’t you want such knowledge as well?”

Jacob lowers his head to look down at the dusty brown helmet, thumbs tracing the smooth surface. His eyes grow pensive as he considers his answer.

“This helmet belonged to my great great-grandmother. She was a soldier in World War III.”

Michael raises a confused eyebrow. “I thought you said your ancestors were scientists,”

“She was that as well. It is possible to be both…as I suspect you understand.”

Jacob casts a significant glance at Michael’s uniform jacket, beneath which her torso is bandaged tightly. Michael nods once in acknowledgement of the point.

Jacob continues. “Great-grandma, she told the story of what she saw, as did the other First Saved. I know it like I know the alphabet by now.” He looks down at the helmet. “I don’t need to see any type of footage. But I am sure that you do. You crave answers, like me.”

He extends the helmet in Michael’s direction. “Here. Take it, and get your answers.”

Michael stares down at the family heirloom he holds in his hands. The power-cell she had brought for trade does not seem nearly as valuable to her now, in light of this priceless gift. She reaches out with both hands to touch the helmet’s smooth metal surface.

Heirlooms…legacy…

“But…but it is your family’s possession.”

Jacob smiles. “And a valued one indeed. But my family has many possessions. You need it more than I do, Michael.”

Michael considers this for a moment. She studies the antique before her, the one that might contain the answers she seeks.

Could she, in good conscience, take such a valuable object from this man?

Michael looks at Jacob’s face, rough and lined from a lifetime of labor. There is no trace of guilt or longing in his eyes as he holds out his great-great grandmother’s helmet to her.

His family has many possessions.

His family

She rustles in her side pouch, removing the forearm-sized battery she had taken from Engineering.

“Here, in trade,” Michael offers. “A battery, with a…truly unbelievable lifespan.”

Jacob’s dark eyes widen to saucers at the sight of the battery.

Wow…” He passes Michael the helmet almost absently and takes the battery in his hands. They shake only a little bit as he traces the metal casing. “Rose will love this.”

A phantom pain lances Michael’s ribs at the memory of the young girl holding the live phaser. “How is she, by the way?”

“She’s fine,” Jacob answers with rueful shake of his head. “Shaken, of course, but I doubt that will stop her from taking this battery apart.”

He gives Michael a sudden sharp look. “How child-proof is this?”

“Extremely,” Michael assures. “I toyed with many of them as a kid, and I am no worse for wear.”

Jacob sighs in relief. “Thank heavens for that.”

Michael gazes at Jacob for several long moments, weighing her options.

This might be a chance that she won’t get again.

“Jacob…I may need more answers than the ones in this helmet-cam.”

“Of course,” he nods.

“It’s about your deity…the angel.”

 

 

Several minutes later, Jacob and Michael stand beneath the stained glass behind the dias. The church is illuminated like a star with the battery that Michael provided, and they bask together in the warm yellow light.

The figure in the stained glass hovers above them, red-winged and unknowable.

“I saw the angel as well,” Michael begins as she stares up at the glass. She feels Jacob’s astonished stare at her right side. “It appeared to me four days ago, when I was heavily injured, alone in a…collapsing spaceship.” She edits the story somewhat so that her friend will understand.

Jacob looks to her in astonishment. “Did the angel save you?”

“No…no, it didn’t.” Michael shakes her head, her voice soft and low. “It hovered above me, for approximately five seconds, and it dispersed when Captain Pike…Christopher… came to get me.”

Jacob’s eyes dart back up to the glass as he takes in Michael’s testimony.

“All I know of the Red Angel is what the First Saved told us. That it appeared to them in a warzone, and carried this church across the galaxy to this new world.” Jacob shakes his head as he gazes at the stained glass. “Great-grandmother was a scientist…I am certain that she told the truth in what she saw. But…”

Jacob shakes his head. “It is difficult to understand why the angel would appear, if you had no need of salvation.”

“I didn’t…but there were people trapped in the ship, who did.”

“Yet the angel appeared to you, and not them,” Jacob points out, and Michael nods slowly.

She remembers the crumbling asteroid, the massive energy readings coming from nowhere, the explosive instability of the rock that had nevertheless held together until she was safely off of it.

Miraculously…the asteroid had held together.

In a flash, Michael thinks of the decaying radiation particles that had nearly wiped out this planet, an event that she had had zero knowledge of until returning to Discovery.

An event that the people of Terralysium would never know about, until they developed the technology to study extra-atmospheric activity.

“Perhaps…” Michael posits in a low, stunned voice. “It saved me from…a catastrophe that I have no conception of.”

Jacob nods. “That sounds highly probable.”

He gazes up at the stained glass, at the fiery winged being that glows in the bright light of the church.

“Sometimes, Michael, I feel as if things are occurring just outside of my perception. Big, astronomical things…and I have no context by which to understand them.” He shakes his head. “But that does not mean that there is not a rational explanation.”

“Your community might disagree,” Michael points out evenly, and Jacob smiles.

“They certainly would. It’s understandable, I think, to want to assign a divine explanation to miraculous occurrences.” He casts her a sideways look. “They think that your transporter was a type of apotheosis, you know. Amesha was overjoyed at such a confirmation of her faith.”

Somehow, Jacob does not seem upset by the fact.

“As I am,” he completes with a peaceful smile. “At the confirmation of mine.”

Michael and Jacob gaze back up at the image in the stained glass, hovering over them where they stand beneath the dais.

Michael smiles slowly, slowly.

If Jacob could reconcile two contrasting philosophies like this…perhaps there was hope for her yet.

Her communicator chirps at her side, signaling impending beam-up.

“You should stand back,” she suggests to Jacob, who does so quickly. He looks thrilled beyond measure at the prospect of watching particle dissociation for a second time in one day.

“I hope we’ll meet again,” Michael murmurs. She doesn’t quite understand what prompts her to do it, but in a quick motion, Michael tucks the helmet under her left arm, and with her right hand, raises a Vulcan salute.

“I am sure we will.”

Jacob’s voice echoes through the particle dissociation. He holds up his right hand in the same manner, parting his middle and ring finger awkwardly.

In this way, Michael departs the church of New Eden.

As she exits the transporter room on the Discovery, she worries for a brief moment on the possible issues of teaching a pre-Warp society the greeting of an advanced alien species.

But in the next moment, a smile twitches at her lips.

The Vulcans would be in for one hell of a shock hundreds of years from now, at the notion of a society of barely-warp capable Humans performing their ancient greeting as if it were their own.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Leland’s holographic form flickers in the privacy of Philippa’s lieutenant quarters. Philippa finishes giving her report, and her handler is quiet for several moments as he takes it in.

“What the hell.

Leland states the words flatly, and Philippa shrugs.

“All sorts of insanity has happened to these people, they seem to take it in stride at this point. It’s very strange. That being said…” Philippa shakes her head as she paces in front of Leland. “I am not seeing any causes for concern thus far. At least half of personnel need a psych consult, to be certain, but that is hardly Section 31’s problem.”

Leland shakes his head. “Three days, Agent, and already you’ve teleported to the Beta Quadrant and discovered a super-massive asteroid filled with stranded soldiers. In only three days. Who’s to say what might happen within a month.

Philippa nods in acknowledgment of that fact.

Leland continues. “There’s been stirrings on Qo’Nos

“What a surprise,” Philippa deadpans.

“--Rumblings of a potential attempt on the Chancellor’s leadership.

“Have you dispatched any watchers?”

“Five. But we also have Lieutenant Ash Tyler to contend with.

Philippa rolls her eyes, by now quite tired of this nonsense.

“We have been through this, countless times,” she states with annoyed slowness. “For all of his good intentions, Tyler is only dragging L’Rell down. He is a male of Human appearance, and nothing good will come of his presence near the Chancellor.”

“Maybe you should tell him that.

“I would, if I were there,” Philippa bites out, and feels a flash of angry frustration at the situation. “But I am stuck on this goddamn ship on a pointless mission—“

“It isn’t pointless,” Leland cuts in. “Not yet. Those bugs that you placed…they are

Leland shifts, and Philippa knows that he is weighing how much or little to reveal to her.

“…providing leads on another case we are pursuing,” Leland finally completes. Philippa nods slowly at this.

“How can I help?”

Leland sizes her up once more. Philippa wonders they might be investigating, and how the random conversations aboard this ship are possibly contributing. She makes a mental note to infiltrate the feeds tomorrow and do some eavesdropping, perhaps with that tiny earpiece she had tucked into her duffel just in case…

“We received more evidence a few hours ago,” Leland states, apparently reaching a decision. “The analysts are still sorting through it. I’ll send you the details within a few hours.

If the information required analysts for its interpretation, that meant it was likely encrypted.

A file of some kind?

Philippa pushes the mystery to the back of her mind, her debrief not yet complete.

“As for the Qo’Nos situation…” she begins. “I have mentioned this before, but there were whispers that Chancellor L’Rell had a secret child, hidden away somewhere—“

Leland snorts at that, and Philippa cannot help her own lips from twitching slightly.

“Reads like a silly conspiracy theory, I know, but…” She shakes her head. “My sources are trustworthy, and should that child be discovered, L’Rell’s position will quickly become untenable.”

Philippa folds her arms behind her back, straightening her spine.

“My recommendation for the situation is two-fold. If the child exists, get rid of it, in whatever way must happen…and extract Tyler. The hidden support that we give the Chancellor is far better than anything that man is doing.”

Leland looks at her, both eyebrows raised.

“You’re suggesting we recruit Ash Tyler.”

“I am not suggesting. I am urging. Now that I am here,” Philippa gestures to her quarters on the Discovery, “Section 31 has a vacancy for a Qo’Nos specialist. Tyler would fill such a role quite well.”

“And if he refuses?”

“He won’t,” Philippa states, her voice hard and firm.

Leland huffs, amusement painting his scruffy face, visible even through the waviness of the holo-projection. “You sound like you know him.

“A former Starfleet officer with memories of a life on Qo’Nos, who lied and killed to keep from being discovered…”

Philippa’s mouth flattens.

“You’re damn right I know him.”

 

 

 

Barely a moment after Leland’s form finally dissipates, Philippa hears her door chime.

Is it that time already?

She sighs long and low, rubbing hands over her face and through her hair. The person standing on the other side of those doors would likely never imagine just what Philippa had been doing mere minutes ago.

Discussing possibly illegal surveillance and espionage of a Starfleet science vessel.

Advocating the separation of a child from its mother, in order to keep a nation stable.

Philippa buries her face in her hands. It had felt so easy five minutes ago, five days ago, five months ago, to plan such maneuvers, to perform such reprehensible acts, but now…

Here, on the fleet’s finest science vessel, surrounded by fine minds and good, upstanding hearts…Reno’s selflessness, Tilly’s deep, obvious admiration, Michael’s berry brown eyes so trusting, filled with such utter belief in her…

Philippa feels like nothing but scum.

Nevertheless, she squares her shoulders and turns to answer the door.

She does have a cover to maintain, after all.

Michael stands on the other side, still in uniform, but with her jacket zipped up only halfway. She looks quite the opposite of how she had looked three nights ago after her rescue from that asteroid. Her spine is straight, her dark eyes clear, her face smooth and even.

Philippa waves her in and wonders what might have happened during her brief final visit to Terralysium.

Michael sits primly in the chair by Philippa’s desk, and Philippa lowers herself onto the bed as per usual. She is in her black off-duty ensemble, naturally, but it is quite bit softer than it was four days prior; a black long-sleeve shirt and black Fleet-issue pants.

It had not taken Philippa much time to realize that wearing black leathers out and about on the Discovery would be a recipe for blowing her cover.

“Are you going to tell me why you look as if you’ve just solved an impossibly high physics equation?” Philippa finally inquires. She attempts to inject levity into her voice, but is uncertain of how successful she is.

“Maybe I did,” Michael counters with a smile.

“Ah,” Philippa nods once. “Naturally. Care to tell me the answer?”

“Which answer would you like? I came by many answers today, as well as several new questions.”

“Mm. Let me get comfortable, then.” Philippa makes a great show of shifting on her bed while not actually changing positions, and Michael smiles.

“Well,” Michael begins. “First…I should say that I’m sorry, for giving away your telescope.”

Philippa blinks. That is not quite what she expected Michael to start with.

“There was a man I met, down on Terralysium,” Michael expands. “He gave me one of his family’s artifacts from old Earth…gave it to me like it was nothing at all.”

“Oh? Should I feel threatened?”

Michael’s lips twitch. “Not at all. He gave it to me for the recording inside the broken helmet camera, of the being that transported the church to this system.”

“Ah, of course.” Philippa nods, as if that was a thing that happened regularly. “And what of that being?”

“The recording isn’t very good.” Michael shakes her head. “Guns and explosions, before a quick image of a huge …something, in the doorway of the church. Backlit by red fire…”

Michael murmurs the last words as if she’s heard them before. Her dark eyes are wide, staring straight ahead of her.

Philippa wonders what she might be seeing, but says nothing.

A day full of mysteries, indeed.

“…And this…relates to my family’s telescope, somehow?”

Michael sighs. She looks out over Philippa’s shoulder, out of the viewport towards the stars.

“I was uncertain if it was my place to take such a precious relic from the man down there, but he told me his family has plenty like it… that I needed it more than he did. Yet all I could think was that this helmet belonged to his great-great grandmother…how could he ever consider relinquishing it?”

She shakes her head, her dark eyes growing soft and pensive.

“You and I…we don’t have many remnants of our families left to us, do we?”

Philippa shakes her head slowly at that bitter truth.

Michael, for her part, only sighs softly, looking down at her hands. “My own family’s personal effects…I couldn’t keep them, either. It-- It hurt too much, after what happened…”

Philippa stares at Michael, who so rarely shares any facts or feelings concerning her birth family. Her heart goes out to her former commander even as she tucks this precious knowledge away, into some special part of her mind where it will never be forgotten.

“It broke my heart, you know,” Michael continues softly, her deep brown eyes swirling as she gazes downwards. “To give up that piece of you. The only thing I had left of you. But— It was breaking my heart to keep it, as well...”

“Hey…” Philippa’s hand moves of its own accord, reaching out into the space between them, and Michael hesitates only a moment before taking it. “You don’t have to apologize anymore, Michael. It’s alright.”

And it was alright. Michael had only done what she felt she had to, in order keep her head afloat during treacherous, terrible times.

Philippa can certainly relate.

“It’s not alright, Philippa,” Michael insists in a low, agitated voice. She withdraws her hand, and Philippa immediately misses its warmth. “I gave up something vitally important, to someone with no connections to it—“

“And I trust that it will come back to you, or me, in some way or another,” Philippa completes. She recalls the look of abject, utter shame on Saru’s face when he had seen her eyeing the telescope during their talk in his quarters, and knows with certainty that this prediction will come to pass.

“The next choice is Mr. Saru’s to make, of course, but…” Philippa offers Michael a small, comforting smile. “He has grown a great deal from the man he was on the Shenzhou. I am sure that he will do the right thing.”

Michael smiles softly at that, her small, charming Vulcan smile, and Philippa wonders at the miracle that has brought them back together. She wonders at the four strange, wonderful days she has spent aboard this ship, seeing Michael every day, helping a young ensign earn her wings, getting drunk off her ass with a half-crazed engineer, doing high caliber science and saving lives…

Four days without manipulations, threats, hacking mainframes, planting bombs, speaking Klingon, or planning assassination attempts.

Well…almost.

At that dark thought, Philippa’s mood sours somewhat.

She is still a Section 31 operative. Leland still awaits her reports. She still has blood on her hands, a truly ungodly amount of it, and the idea of staining Michael with any of her vicious acts makes Philippa recoil.

Michael seems to recognize the change that has come over her.

“What’s wrong?”

Philippa twitches, and manages to paste on a false smile.

Seems her every action aboard this ship is a lie.

“Nothing. I’m just…” Philippa searches for a truth in which to base her lie.

“I am glad…that it’s like this now.”

Yet even this partial truth is untrue as well, because Philippa knows that this mission cannot last forever. One day she will be reassigned, back to Qo’Nos in all likelihood, and she cannot tell whether she hungers for such a thing or dreads it.

She supposes she will know, when the time finally comes.

Michael smiles. “Me too.” She holds Philippa’s gaze, her dark eyes warm and happy, and somehow, Philippa feels peace fall over her once more.

“I heard you really saved our lives today,” Michael continues cheerfully. Philippa is grateful that she makes no mention of the entire incident; namely, Philippa collapsing in a cold faint in front of the entire alpha-shift bridge complement.

No doubt the embarrassing debacle is public knowledge by now, as news tends to travel quickly on a starship.

“Oh, that? That was nothing.” Philippa waves a hand dismissively, pushing these thoughts to the side. “Besides, your friend Tilly helped a great deal. She ran all the way from sickbay…burst onto the bridge in her medical gown.”

Philippa raises an amused eyebrow. “Thought I was having a flashback.”

Michael’s smile widens. “Well, it has been said that Sylvia and I have an almost uncanny likeness.”

“Yes.” Philippa deadpans with a nod. “Your mutual resemblance to Anne of Green Gables is nothing short of astounding.”

Michael finally laughs, but in the next moment she winces rather spectacularly.

“Ugh…damn it...” She wraps her arms around her bandaged chest, her face contorting in pain.

Oh hells.

Philippa jerks in place, reaching towards Michael instinctively. She’s not quite certain what to do with her hands.

“Er…sorry…"

"It’s alright,” Michael wheezes, rubbing at a point just under her left arm. “This happens…every day.” She smiles weakly, even through her obvious pain.

This is ridiculous.

Philippa lips twitch, before working themselves into a helpless smile. Her chest feels warm, strangely warm, and it doesn’t make any sense, because she already took her meds, her heart should be fine

Commander Burnham to Engineering.”

The overhead intercom crackles with what sounds like Sylvia Tilly’s youthful voice. Michael casts a confused look up at it.

“Aren’t you off-duty?” Philippa questions.

“Yeah,” Michael sighs as she rises gingerly to her feet. “But Tilly loves when she gets to use the ship-wide comm system. Once, she summoned me to our quarters so she could show me a funny holo of a Tellurian mountain cat.”

Philippa smiles. Her amusement at this very young ensign grows stronger every day.

“Well, I’m sure this equally serious in nature,” she remarks, even as her heart gives a pang at the thought of their time together being cut short. “You should proceed to Engineering at once.”

At that, Michael only raises a slow, Vulcan-like eyebrow towards Philippa, as if sizing her up.

“Have you seen the spore lab yet, Cap— Philippa?”

Philippa smirks at the near-miss, even as she understands that Michael would merely be teasing her with such use of her rank.

“Not yet…Commander.”

Michael shakes her head, even as her eyes dance with mirth. “Okay, that is not fair.”

“What, that you are not allowed to call me “Captain,” or that I have not seen the spore lab yet?”

“Yes.”

Philippa can’t help her grin. “Well…it does lay within your power to rectify one of those things, right about now.”

Michael smiles warmly, crossing her arms where she stands by Philippa’s door. “How about a trade?”

“A tour of engineering, in exchange for the privilege of calling me “Captain?””

“Everyone else gets to do it.” Michael shrugs, her eyes sparkling.

“I got tired of correcting people.”

“Must I file a complaint concerning unequal treatment?”

“No no, don’t waste your energy,” Philippa waves off the suggestion. “Pike’s terrified of me, he would never enforce any punishment.”

“Is he now?” Michael raises an eyebrow. “Hm.”

Michael’s “hm” is short and ever so slightly calculating. Philippa feels a spike of warm pride. Seems her commander is finally learning the subtle art of manipulation.

“Well,” Michael continues, dark eyes dancing. “Since it seems I can’t file an official complaint, I am pursuing the only avenue left to me, which is a civil agreement.”

The claim is stated archly, and Philippa’s lips curl into smile one more.

“Do we have an accord…Philippa?”

Michael’s full lips pop as she accentuates Philippa’s name. Philippa rises from her bed in a smooth motion, passing close to Michael as she pretends to consider the offer.

“I’ll think about it,” she finally tosses over her shoulder, and proceeds out of her quarters towards engineering.

 

 


 

 

 

“Michael! Oh my God, you are not gonna believe the day I had!”

Tilly bounces from where she stands in front of her terminal. She’s prodding at several holo-equations, but quickly closes out the program when Philippa reveals herself from behind Michael.

“Captain Georgiou!” Tilly’s face becomes as bright as a star as Philippa follows Michael down the stairs leading to the spore lab. “Did you tell Michael about our adventure in the shuttlebay yet?”

“I would never rob you of that experience, Ensign,” Philippa tosses back with a smile, and Tilly grins.

As Tilly fills Michael in on the strange explosion from the chunk of the impossible asteroid, Philippa walks slowly around the spore lab. She takes in the reaction cube, noting its crisp dimensions, as well as the Human-sized standing table inside of it. With a finger tracing absently at the glass, Philippa marvels at the singular machine that had nearly won them the war, and somehow, just today, allowed the Discovery to teleport across the universe in a mere second.

“…And according to the sensors in the shuttlebay,” Tilly continues from over Philippa’s shoulder, “The asteroid explosion left traces of tachyon particles, which would imply—“

Time travel.”

Michael and Philippa state the words at the same moment.

In a flash, Philippa recalls the strange vision she had seen, mere moments after the red explosion knocked her flat. She slowly, slowly turns to face the two scientists, and imagines her face carries some of the stunned awe that she feels.

“What is it, Captain?” Tilly asks.

“You know…” Philippa begins slowly. “I thought perhaps I was delusional from my head-injury but…” With a quick shake her head, she is within her memories of the event once more.

“Right after that asteroid fragment exploded, I looked towards where we had stood and I saw…us.”

Tilly and Michael are nodding slowly. Michael’s eyes are widening. Philippa strides towards their shared console, gesticulating with her hands as she moves.

“I saw ourselves, like we were shadows, or perhaps projections…performing the same motions that we had, capturing the core sample. I even saw myself, ask you—“ She throws a look at Tilly. “—If you had seen the red spark on the asteroid’s surface.”

“A time bubble,” Michael murmurs slowly. “As theorized by Solak and his team, of the V.E.G. A sufficient burst of tachyon energy, accompanied by a disruption of space-time, could result in a localized loop of time—“

“—so faint that it doesn’t even transport objects, or—or people,” Tilly exclaims, “Not like when Mudd had that time-watch—“

Philippa raises a curious eyebrow at that, but Tilly is continuing. “Which, I mean, would make sense, if you were seeing just those tiny little sparks, Captain—“

“Sparks?” Michael cuts in curiously.

Philippa nods quickly. “Brief, red bursts of light on the surface of the asteroid, easy to miss.” She strides forward to the terminal behind which Tilly and Michael are standing. “One of them went off inside the containment sphere—“

“And blew us the hell backwards,” Tilly adds, and Philippa throws her an amused look.

Maybe she did fit the profile of a captain.

“But if those sparks…were part of the same energy that the asteroid was giving off in waves…” Michael shakes her head. She spins to Tilly. “Do you still have the sample?”

Tilly opens her mouth and closes it several times. “I mean—not that exact sample ‘cause it exploded. We got a few other shards, but…” Tilly shakes her head, confused. “But they’re completely inert. No activity whatsoever, no sparks…nothing...”

Tilly droops where she stands. “And-- and we ejected the asteroid to save you guys…”

The young ensign looks quite crushed, and Philippa shakes her head, placing an arm on Tilly’s shoulder.

“It was the right call, and we would do it again,” she assures, and Tilly manages a smile at that.

Michael’s hands twitch and gesture as she thinks through the problem, pacing ever so slightly. “If the rest of the samples are inert, then perhaps those sparks…and the tachyons…are not a property of the asteroid, but something else entirely.”

Philippa watches as Michael’s dark eyes dart back and forth, as they tend to when her brilliant mind activates.

“But…where would the tachyons even come from…” Michael murmurs. “And the energy? And why would there be an explosion?”

“Maybe it was those sparks that you saw, Captain?” Tilly suggests.

Philippa shakes her head. “That would be the what, Ensign, but the why…”

“And the how…” Michael murmurs. Her deep brown eyes stare straight ahead, right into the face of a new mystery. “Just as many questions as answers.”

Silence holds in the lab like a crack of distant thunder.

Philippa startles when the door to Engineering hisses open, and Paul Stamets enters.

“Well, Ensign? That time already?”

He proceeds down the stairs, and Tilly shakes herself.

“Yes! Yes, it is!” She looks towards Michael and Philippa with wide, excited eyes. “Okay, so we got a little derailed, but somehow, I have even more big news right now.”

“Really?” Michael deadpans. “Fancy that.”

Philippa’s lips twitch, even as she wonders once more what might have happened on the surface of Terralysium.

Tilly spins to the studded wall behind the terminal and bends low, as if to find something. “So Michael, this morning when I was checking the spores? Before the jump?” Tilly’s voice muffles as she fumbles around the lower section of the wall. “Something very…”

“Strange,” Stamets completes, “happened. To put it mildly.” To Philippa’s surprise, his voice doesn’t hold even a hint of sarcasm.

Tilly rises to her feet, a clear containment vessel of glowing, bright red…something, in her hands.

Philippa supposes that she does not quite have the context to grasp this moment, because Michael’s jaw is dropping to the floor where she stands at Philippa’s left side, and Stamets looks like he’s been clubbed over the head.

“I know, right?” Tilly exclaims, then casts a quick look at Philippa, who imagines that she is not demonstrating the correct reaction right now. “Oh, I am so sorry, Captain, let me just—“

She hands the canister off to Michael, who still looks like she’s just seen the universe turn inside out. Tilly spins to the wall and withdraws another canister of glowing particles, blue-ish white this time.

These are mycelia,” Tilly announces, and Philippa nods. “They power the spore drive and allow us to integrate with the mycelial network—“

“They give us the ability ride the universe’s…invisible nervous system,” Stamets completes. He takes the container from Tilly, gazing into its depths with wonder in his eyes. “These little guys are my life’s work…”

Philippa stares at the dancing particles within the walls of the containment vessel. “Mycelia…so, mushrooms?”

“Yes,” Tilly and Stamets confirm at the same time.

Philippa makes a silent “Ah” with her mouth. The idea is patently ridiculous, but considering the practical demonstration she had experienced today in their fifty-one thousand, four hundred and fifty lightyear jump, she knows that it is far too late to dismiss this science, and these…mycologists.

“What happened to this one?”

Michael finally speaks. She’s still staring down at the glowing red spores she holds.

“Well that’s just it, Burnham, we have no idea.” Stamets takes the containment vessel from her. “That’s why we’re all here. We are going to test these “red spores”…by releasing them into reaction cube—“

Michael looks up sharply, and Stamets puts out a pacifying hand. “I’m not going to be inside it, don’t worry.” He shakes his head as he turns away. “I haven’t cracked yet.”

Tilly seems to flinch at his muttered words, and Philippa wonders at the reaction.

“Well,” Stamets looks up expectantly. “Let’s fire it up, shall we?”

Tilly, Stamets, and Michael all spring into action, and Philippa presses herself to the wall to keep from getting in the way. She watches closely as Michael brings up a data-gathering program, as Stamets calibrates the sensors, as Tilly thrusts the tube of red spores into some type of interfacing nozzle.

She finds herself thinking back to what had happened earlier, in the shuttlebay.

“How strong are the walls of the reaction cube?” Philippa asks, and Stamets looks up from his screen across the lab.

“About as strong as a starship’s hull, plus they’re shielded in case of internal explosions.” He offers her a small smile. “We were very concerned about sudden energy bursts, back when we first started the project.”

Philippa nods at that, feeling somewhat comforted.

“Containment vessel secure, interface is off-line,” Tilly announces.

Michael throws Philippa a look, as if anticipating her question.

“We’re not actually jumping,” she clarifies. “We’re just allowing the spores to contact open air for the first time.”

Philippa nods. She instinctively moves behind Tilly’s terminal, placing a firm barrier between herself and the reaction cube. With only a moment of hesitation, she squeezes close to Michael in order to be completely behind the metal stand. Tilly watches her do this with wide eyes, and in the next moment, she does the same on Michael’s other side.

This ensign was adorable, Philippa notes with some amusement. It was like having a shadow.

Stamets throws the group a slightly condescending look, but Philippa notes that this does not stop him from leaving his own terminal to join their cluster.

Tilly looks sideways at Michael, who nods once.

“Releasing the spores in three, two, one…”

Tilly presses a button on the console, and the group watches as the glowing red spores hiss out from the ceiling of the drive chamber…

They float through the open air of the reaction cube, otherworldly and ethereal, sparkling beneath the low blue light set into the cube’s ceiling.

Philippa sees a sudden spark of light—

“Detecting energy surge!”

Tilly’s voice is high and panicked. The reaction cube lights up like a red star---

And in the next moment, a thunderous roar echoes across the lab like the hand of God.

Philippa drops to her knees behind the terminal on instinct, dragging Michael and Tilly down with her. Red light sears at her eyes, and she throws her hands over her head, preparing for the complete collapse of the lab itself. Tilly is next to her screaming, hands over her ears, but Michael is already struggling in Philippa’s grip.

And Stamets…

Michael finally breaks her grip. She crawls out from behind the terminal stand, right into the red light.

“No!” Philippa yells after her, but the sound is lost in the deep, screaming howl tearing through the lab. She takes several crawling steps, looks around the corner of the terminal—

Stamets is directly in front of the glass, framed in hot red light. And it’s actually him, Philippa notes, not one of the strange specters that she had seen inside the shuttlebay. She squints her eyes, looking past Stamets’ form into the reaction cube.

No.

No, that’s not a trick of the light.

There’s a man, inside the cube itself, backlit by the red light. His hair is long and scrubby, his face marked by a beard, and from what little Philippa can see, he is wearing terribly worn-out Starfleet uniform, covered in what appears to be black soot.

Stamets bangs desperately on the glass of the reaction cube.

Hugh!” He screams. “Hugh!”

He whirls towards the door of the cube, but a curly-haired figure rises from the deck and tackles him.

“No!” Michael’s contralto rings out. The two forms struggle on the ground for a brief moment. “You’ll kill all of us!”

Philippa draws her eyes away from the scuffle and back towards the man inside the reaction cube. His figure is shaky, almost translucent, he looks like he might non-corporeal.

With a shaking arm, the man swipes a hand at his uniform. He brings his blackened fist up and presses it into the glass, drawing in huge, sweeping motions across the surface.

The red light intensifies, and Philippa has to look away, her eyes now in unbearable agony. She looks over at Ensign Tilly, who is curled up into a ball moaning, her hands clapped over her ears.

Shut up shut up shut up shut up,” she mumbles while rocking herself.

But before Philippa can even process that, the red light dissipates, sucking back into the reaction cube just as suddenly as it arrived.

Engineering is dark and silent once more.

Philippa slowly, slowly peers around the corner of the terminal, towards the low, blue-ish light of the spore drive.

Michael and Stamets are starting to sit up, a mere meter away from the reaction cube. Both are scrubbing at their eyes, and Philippa knows that they will all likely need some sort of treatment after exposure to that intense light. Tilly is weeping quietly behind the desk, hands still over her ears, and Philippa rubs her back sympathetically.

“It’s alright, Ensign, it’s over now, it’s over—“

“No it’s not,” Tilly mumbles through her tears. “She’s still here, she’s still here, she won’t leave…”

What?

“Oh my God…”

Michael’s whisper somehow carries across the lab, and Philippa jerks her head towards it. She rises painfully to her feet, and immediately sees what Michael is talking about.

As if on autopilot, Philippa walks slowly, slowly forward to stand next to Michael and Stamets in front of the clear glass of the spore drive.

What is left of the standing table lies in blackened, charred rubble on the floor of the drive chamber.

And written in huge, black, backwards letters, on the inside of the reaction cube…

HELP

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Tilly’s fingers tap at the surface of her desk as she sits in darkness. Her morning alarm has not even gone off yet. The room is silent, and the void of space is vast and cold outside of the window over Michael’s bed.

Matching the imagined chill of these small ensign quarters that Tilly shares with Michael Burnham.

 

 

White sickbay lights whirl around Tilly as she paces, bare feet slapping at the smooth deck. The away team is in danger, Owo is in danger, Michael is in danger! Ugh, holy frick, Tilly’s head is throbbing, her ears ringing from that explosion in the shuttlebay. That damn asteroid…it should’ve been fine, nothing should’ve happened, why the hell did Captain Georgiou have to be there when it all went wrong, of all people?

The hospital gown whips at Tilly’s knees as she moves, but the away team is in danger, as in extinction-level event danger, as Saru has said on the overhead feed, she has to focus on that, not the irritating gown—

“Can I help you with something?”

Tilly whips around at the strange, accented voice.

Somehow, a young woman is standing next to her bio-bed. Her curly black hair is pulled back into a ponytail, exposing a round, almost innocent face. The bronze paneling of her Starfleet ops uniform matches the gold-bronze tone of her skin.

Tilly wonders how she hadn’t noticed this ensign come in, or seen the girl in all of her rigorous pacing and brainstorming. How very strange.

“Yes!” Tilly shakes off the thought, and offers her confirmation in a too-chipper voice. “Yes, thank you! I’m um, I’m supposed to be on bed-rest but that’s like an affront to my very existence ‘cause the ship’s on high alert and-- and Captain Georgiou’s gone!” Tilly’s arm gestures frantically at the now empty bio-bed across sickbay. “Even though she’s pretty frickin’ injured too, I saw her chart—“

The curly haired ops ensign cocks her head, looking a strange combination of amused and knowing.

Tilly squints at the girl, trying hard to parse through what is going on through her confusion and head injury.

“You’re…you’re May, right?”

This realization comes from nowhere.

But Tilly won’t realize this until later.

 

 

From her desk chair, Sylvia Tilly scans the room, each and every corner. Her eyes rove over Michael’s bed, her organized shelves, the door, the small locker at the foot of her own bed. Heart in her throat, she picks up the small hand mirror that she has taken out of her top drawer. Slowly, slowly, she aims the reflective surface over her shoulder, peering shakily into it as she does.

Half-expecting to see someone.

Only half-relieved when she does not.

 

 

Tilly slumps onto Captain Georgiou’s shoulder as cheers and whoops ring out across the Discovery’s bridge. It’s actually really uncomfortable, the woman is obviously made from sticks and sinews, but Tilly doesn’t feel capable of lifting her throbbing head right now.

“You’re a genius, captain…” She murmurs tiredly.

A razor-sharp voice rings out somewhere above her. “We did it, Stilly!”

With some effort, Tilly manages to turn to her left, looking up into dark brown eyes, light bronze skin …damn, what was her name? That helpful ops ensign with the curly black hair, seems she followed Tilly in her run up here, how sweet of her.

“Your mind is amazing…” The girl, whoever she is, all but croons, her lips curling into a strange half-smile. “The asteroid plan worked!”

“Told you so…” Tilly tells the wobbly outline of the other ensign. She immediately regrets the display of cockiness, considering how the girl had helped her. “We’re so smart…” she quickly amends. “Right?”

She holds up her hand for a weak high-five.

The girl only stares at it.

People around her murmur, throwing chatter across the bridge, Captain Georgiou is saying something, Tilly should listen harder, she knows, but she’s so very tired…

“You have great ideas, Captain…” she mumbles, her eyes losing focus. “Hey ma’am, could you maybe help us up?”

Tilly reaches for the strange ensign’s arm—

But somehow, her fingers pass right through the young woman’s form.

 

 

 

Tilly sits in darkness, the air of her quarters still and silent. She listens with ears pricked, ready to pick up the slightest sound.

A whisper. A murmur.

Perhaps a strange, barbed-wire voice, or the glint of a Fleet uniform’s bronze paneling, lost somewhere in the depths of the dark, quiet room.

Or perhaps even right next to her, too close to be seen. At that thought, Tilly flinches, curling in on herself, half-expecting to be touched, brushed against by something invisible—

But a quick look around reveals nothing.

 

 

Tilly hits the ground hard, a guttural shriek piercing her brain like knives. Red light sears her eyes, even through eyelids squeezed shut, and the roar of the explosion is only barely louder than the voice in her ears.

“STILLY!!!!!”

Tilly opens her eyes—

And swallows a scream at the sight of a familiar, tan face only inches from her own, on the ground beneath the terminal.

“You see that?! It’s happening here, it’s here too, Stilly! LOOK AT IT! IT’S THE MONSTER, STILLY, LOOK!!!!

May’s voice reaches an unbearable pitch. Her hands whip up to Tilly’s face, as if to forcibly turn her head towards the reaction cube, towards the explosion that will surely kill all of them—

One of Tilly's arms lashes out towards May to push her off, but it passes right through the May’s screaming, incorporeal form.

Unholy terror claws its way into Tilly’s chest, from the depths of her bones all the way to the surface of her skin. The explosion, the light, the ghost, what the fuck was all this--

There’s other shouts at her back, Tilly barely hears them as she curls into a ball, hands over her ears to drown out May’s screams.

“IT’S HERE TOO, THE RED POISON! THE MONSTER! STILLY! LOOK, STILLY, LOOK—“

 

 

Tilly stares at her fingertips as they tap at her desk.

She has not slept a wink, yet her eyes are wide open, her body all but thrumming with energy where she sits at her desk at oh-six-fifteen in the morning. Michael has long since left for her workout, giving Tilly free reign to trace wide eyes over their shared space, taking in her snow-globe collection, the soft throw that an ex-boyfriend had given her, the starry viewport set into the wall over Michael’s sternly made bed, Tilly’s hanging tapestry of the Seven Wonders of Earth, Michael’s bare desk top…

She places the hand mirror back on the surface of her desk.

“Computer…” Tilly whispers into the dark. “Run life-signs check…personal quarters of Ensign Sylvia Tilly and Commander Michael Burnham.”

She knows the answer before she hears it.

Registering one life sign. Ensign Sylvia Tilly.

And yet…

Tilly knows she is not alone. First in sickbay after the asteroid had exploded, and then on the bridge when they were saving Terralysium, then last night in the spore lab, when those weird red spores had gone supernova…

She's seeing a ghost.

The ghost…the woman…had helped her, in sickbay, and on the bridge. But then, then—

Tilly shakes her head, confused.

In the spore lab, the young woman had only screamed in Tilly’s ears, a scream of unimaginable terror, and Tilly had curled up into a ball and cried in front of Captain freaking Georgiou, God, so embarrassing

“Ughhhh…” Tilly rubs at her eyes, the mystery prodding at her like an irritating thorn.

Who was this vision?

Still…somehow, Tilly has a feeling that she already knows. She knows this woman…ghost…whatever she is. Her face is unbearably familiar, as is her dark, curly ponytail and her pluckily accented voice.

“May…May…May…Computer?” Tilly tries again, in a slightly stronger voice. “Life signs?”

Only when the scan comes back negative does Tilly slowly rise to her feet. She mutters to herself as she paces behind her desk. Her limbs are all but thrumming with energy, prompting the intense need to be burned off with movement and activity.

You…you’re May, right?

Yesterday, in sickbay after the asteroid explosion, it had seemed obvious…May, in her ops uniform, was merely another crewmember that Tilly knew of, but was not close to. And May had encouraged her along to her conclusion, and Tilly had ran out of sickbay and left her behind, though she had reappeared on the bridge after they had saved the away-team on Terralysium.

Reappeared out of thin air, with a vicious, fox-like grin and dark, dancing eyes.

In retrospect, Tilly had been concussed and badly injured. Perhaps now that she is hale and whole, the connections her brain had so easily made twelve hours ago are lost forever.

“I know her…I know her. Knew her? … Ughhhhh!" Tilly rubs the heels of her hands into her eyes, pacing her shared quarters impatiently. She has a Command Training Program half-marathon to run in an hour, in which she is most certainly not going to do well, and she still hasn’t solved this god-forsaken mystery.

But maybe someone else could solve it for her.

“Computer, um…bring up Musk Junior High yearbooks signature pages, cross-reference with May…something…”

The computer whirs for a moment, before bringing up the yearbook of… –Tilly checks the book— …Class of 2247. A hologram pops up over the terminal, a young girl with light brown skin and curly hair pulled into a high ponytail.

Stilly, what the heck! You’re moving again? It’s only been six months! You’re the nicest person I’ve met at this awful school.”

Tilly is starting to feel like she recognizes that accent, that voice.

"I am going to miss our lunches. They were like little earthquakes. Bounce bounce bounce!

At that, Tilly manages to crack a smile, even through her lingering fear. She definitely remembers her now.

May, little Sylvia Tilly’s friend, one of her first friends, even.

“Please stay in touch. Love, May Ahearn. “

“Ahearn…Ahearn, yeah…yeah, I knew it!” Tilly whirls around. She could figure this out. “Computer, locate quarters for Ahearn, May.” Even as she gives the order, Tilly already knows that there is no such crewmember. But it would be beneficial to check, regardless.

Ship’s manifest has no such name.

Tilly shrugs, having expected that answer.

“Computer, search Federation database for whereabouts of “Ahearn, May,” originally from San Francisco, California, Earth.”

Working...

Tilly smiles with no little relief.

Finally, some answers.

Ahearn, May Theresa. Born April 30th, 2236. Deceased, June 9th, 2252.”

Tilly’s smile slides off of her face.

“De—deceased?” She stumbles over the word, her stomach dropping like a stone.

2252…

May had only been sixteen years old when she died.

“Comp…uh, computer…” Tilly chokes, swallowing down whatever strange emotion is manifesting. “Search Federation database for obituaries for “Ahearn, May Theresa,” between um…d—dates June 10th, and uh…July 10th…”

Working…

As the computer searches, Tilly sinks slowly, slowly, into her chair. The starlight outside of the window over Michael’s bed seems dimmer, and so very far away right now.

May had died…

Memories come back to Sylvia Tilly slowly, slowly, of being eleven years old and on the fast track towards a career in diplomacy, attending only the best of charter schools around the system while her mother had done important government work…

Eleven years old and unable to form clear sentences, unable to talk to anyone her age or older without pure, unbearable terror, wanting only to sit with her computers and build programs, and to read books about other galaxies and universes, stories of young girls who went on adventures and were brave and bold, and had friends.

And Tilly remembers May Ahearn.

May Theresa Ahearn, age 16, passed away on June 10th, 2252, after a long battle with hereditary Park-Jung leukemia…

May sitting with her every day at lunch, chattering about everything and nothing in her chipper, accented voice, never forcing Tilly to talk. May inviting Tilly over to her house to play her father’s old videogames.

Her father…her father had died when May was very young, Tilly remembers. Died of the same disease that May had died of—

She enjoyed reading, mathematics, and playing vintage videogames…

Of course she had, just as Tilly had.

She is survived by her mother and two younger brothers…

Oh stars, were they carriers of the disease as well? Tilly wants to look them up, but is terrified of what she might find.

May had a kind and understanding heart. She will be sorely missed. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Park-Jung leukemia Research Fund.

In a daze, Tilly clicks on the picture at the top of the obituary.

Bright face, curly hair, light bronze skin, plump cheeks and dark eyes…

May Ahearn. The mysterious young woman in the ops uniform.

“I…” Tilly begins, her voice trembling. “May?”

“Yes?”

Tilly freezes. She turns around slowly.

May is there, standing right behind her in her bronze-paneled Starfleet uniform. Older than the girl in the photo, but most definitely the same person.

“Y—You…” Tilly swallows. “You’re dead.”

May smiles, the expression almost innocent, if not for the predatory glint in her dark eyes. “Is that why you’re upset, Stilly?”

Tilly realizes that her eyes are filled with tears. “I…I didn’t know you died…I didn’t— Didn’t know you were sick.”

“Don’t be sad, I’m right here!” May insists, her white teeth flashing, her barbed-wire voice cheerful and upbeat where she stands in the dead space between Tilly’s desk and Michael’s. “And I have a plan for us! We are going to have fun!”

Tilly swallows hard. Her heart pounds below her breastbone.

“Too soon?” May chirps. “That’s alright. I will try again later.”

She shrugs and walks away towards the bathroom at the back of Tilly’s quarters. In a moment, May is gone completely.

Through a door that is most certainly closed.

The room spins as Tilly sits stock still in her chair. Her body feels nonexistent, like space dust held together by the barest whisper of gravity. She worries that she might be astral-projecting, but a quick look at her hands, which are gripping the sides of the chair with unholy force, negates that hypothesis.

Is she being haunted? Is this…punishment? Some type of divine retribution?

She hadn’t even known May was sick…

Tilly shakes her head, feeling like the lowest person in the galaxy. May, who had been the only one at that school who had talked to Tilly like she was a real person, May, who had thought she was someone special, someone important…

Tilly looks towards the hologram of May Ahearn, dead at only sixteen. Her hair is still curly, she smiles for the camera, but her eyes…

Leaning in, Tilly takes in the eyes on sixteen-year old May Ahearn’s face.

She knows those eyes quite well.

Loneliness.

May had been shy, Tilly remembers, but silly after Tilly had gotten to know her, and to eleven-year old Tilly, who barely had a voice at all, May seemed gregarious indeed. May had helped her so much, and Tilly had left, she had moved, she hadn’t kept in touch…

May must have been so lonely.

“Am I a bad friend?” Tilly whispers, half expecting the ghost of May Ahearn to answer…

But a quick look around reveals no one.

Tilly is uncertain whether to feel pleased or disappointed at the lack of response. She looks back towards the hologram of sixteen-year old May.

“I’m sorry I took you for granted,” she whispers. She considers reaching out a hand to the hologram, but knows full well how that would end for her.

Was she a bad friend?

Tilly gets up and starts to pace. She thinks about the people in her life, as it stands now, Stamets and Saru and Keyla and Joanne and Gen and Airiam and Michael, of course…

Stamets was the one who had pulled all of those strings to get Tilly here on the Discovery in the first place. Commander Saru had taken it upon himself to sponsor Tilly in the Command Training Program. And Michael took Tilly under her considerably badass wing, pushing her to try harder in all areas, teaching her, training her, mentoring her…

Her, Sylvia Tilly, Starfleet’s most ridiculous cadet.

She doesn’t—didn’t… think it true, but…

Tilly nods slowly to herself as she works to find some type of meaning behind this specter, some purpose for this vision.

Perhaps… Hmm. Tilly twitches as a vague possibility occurs to her. Perhaps this is some kind of signal. A sign, a vicious shake to Tilly’s shoulders, telling her to change her ways and become a better person. Just like that old Earth book, with the miserly boss and his employee and all of those spirits and the poor little crippled boy…

Perhaps this is the twenty-third century equivalent of the Ghost of Christmas Past, coming to warn Sylvia Tilly that her misdeeds will one day be her downfall.

Tilly can’t help a laugh at the thought, which echoes across her quarters, driving home how truly, utterly alone she is.

It is a crazy theory.

But it is the only workable one that Tilly has right now, in order to make sense of the nonsensical.

With a long, slow exhale, Tilly gazes at sixteen-year-old May’s holographic face pulled from her obituary, floating in the air above her desk. Tilly’s friend, that she had taken so thoroughly for granted.

How could she have done that?

Behind the hologram, Tilly catches a glimpse of the treasured photo, the one of herself and Michael smiling together, perched atop the high shelf of her desk.

…Michael, Saru, Gen, Keyla, Joann, Airiam…

A tear slides from Tilly’s eye as she thinks of her friends, the ones that are still with her, here in the world of the living.

Has Tilly been taking all of these kind people for granted as well?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The house is finally, finally quiet.

With breath held, Michael opens the door to her room.

The red walls of the hallway have darkened to burnt amber in the scant light from Michael’s flashlight. Her footfalls are quiet as she descends the stairs from her bedroom. Her school rucksack is packed, she’s filled it with food, her PADD, and the medications the doctors had provided with her release form.

Michael’s eyes still have trouble focusing. Her head throbs, and there’s a dull pain in her chest. The doctors have told her that her convalescence will take time, that she may have lingering pains and difficulties with certain tasks, she had been caught in a deadly explosion, after all…

But she can’t stay here, she can’t, she is still alive, which means the Extremists will try again, and they might target the rest of her family as well.

She will miss Amanda, that much is certain. Sarek as well, though perhaps in a different way. She will miss this red house, the smell of rain in the morning, the awnings over the cobblestone streets, even some of her classmates, the nicer ones…

But Michael knows that there are certain things that she won’t miss at all, that’s for sure, including--

“Michael?”

The voice is high-pitched and childish, coming from behind her.

Michael closes her eyes slowly, her hand still extended towards the front door. Frustration spikes in her chest.

Caught already, and she hasn’t even left the stupid house.

She turns to face her foster-brother.

“Go back to bed, Spock. It’s alright.”

Spock’s dark eyes take in her figure where he stands at the midpoint of the stairs in his pajamas. He sees the backpack, the travel cloak, and logic guides him to the obvious conclusion.

“You are…leaving?”

“Yeah. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Michael turns her back to her foster-brother, who had been cold and distant for the entire seven months she has lived with him.

“No.”

Michael stops walking. There’s a soft thudding sound behind her as Spock descends the stairs on uncoordinated, childish feet. “I…I did want it, Michael, but I don’t want you to leave anymore.”

Michael can’t help it, she lets out a frustrated sound and whirls back to him.

“Oh, now you want me to stay? Our school was bombed! People died! I’m putting everyone in danger, I have to go!”

Spock stands nearly a foot shorter than her, but he does not seem remotely cowed by Michael’s words. He strides up to her, his pudgy face set like stone.

“No, you don’t! We will protect you, Michael! They have arrested those responsible, and the Learning Center is putting in new security measures!” Spock’s voice is insistent. “This will not happen again! We will do better! I will do better!”

“Shh! Shut up!” Michael presses an urgent finger to her lips. If Spock wakes up Sarek and Amanda, the game will be up. She takes several steps towards Spock, lowering her voice.

“You…” Michael’s face twists bitterly. She is not going to be on Vulcan much longer; who cares about control? “You will do better? You are seven years old, Spock. You’re a kid, you can’t do anything—“

“You are also a kid!” Spock insists. “Yet you are going off alone, off-world—“

“There’s nothing for me here.” Michael’s lips flatten. “There never has been. Nothing but danger and death. You’ve never even wanted me here!”

Spock seems to flinch at that, but Michael continues. The words pour from her chest where they have been straining for so long, loneliness and anger finally, finally allowed voice and emotion, and it feels so good.

“You asked Amanda and Sarek to send me to another home! You ignored me, no matter how hard I tried to befriend you. You tell everyone who will listen how meaningless I am to you!”

For the first time in so many months, Michael allows herself to feel the crushing agony of such rejection, from the person she had truly thought might be her new beginning.

“You have never wanted me here,” she finishes, her whisper now at a near-yell. “Never. So why are you protesting now?”

“Because…I do want you here.”

Michael stares at him, her surprise plain.

Spock only looks down at his feet, seemingly pondering something.

“You…were hurt really badly today. They said you could have died. And I…I am confused.” He shakes his head, bangs swishing. “Emotions are so confusing. I do not fully understand why the events at the Learning Center have changed my thoughts on this matter. Yet they have!”

Spock looks up to her, determined now.

“Please don’t leave, Michael! I will be a better brother to you! I will protect you!”

Michael snorts at that, shaking her head despite the pain it causes. This is ridiculous, after seven months of loneliness, now her foster brother decides to pull himself together?

“No.” She waves her hands in front of her, as if physically nixing the whole thing. “No, no no no, this? This is dumb, this too little, too late. Way too late. Just leave me alone, you—“

Her teeth clatter shut.

She can’t say it. She’s heard enough of it from her classmates, from her teachers, from random people in the streets. Today has been terrible enough, Michael will not stoop that far.

There is a better way to keep her brother from telling on her.

“I am going to Central Station, and I am catching a shuttle to the Rishi system. You cannot stop me, it’s already done.” Michael’s voice is firm and set. Her lie is terrible, the Rishi system isn’t even real, but Spock is only seven, he won’t know. “Now, get away from me!”

Spock lunges at her, but Michael, though Human, is bigger and stronger. With little effort, she shoves his body backwards. He hits the staircase with a thump, and slumps in place, stunned by the impact.

Michael whirls away from Spock’s crumpled form and runs, runs out the door, through the gate, beneath the swirling pink trees that she had thought so beautiful when she had arrived…

Away from this place, where she will no longer be a danger to everyone around her.

Out of this Vulcan house, out of this Vulcan life, permanently and forever.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Michael checks her duffel once more.

One replicated Vulcan tunic and pants, all-terrain boots, toothbrush and toothpaste, PADD, extra socks and underwear, a warm jacket, her copy of Alice in Wonderland…

There was no telling what state Spock would be in when she arrived on Starbase 5, but reading aloud had been soothing to the both of them during childhood, when events often occurred that would overwhelm both of their abilities to process…

Michael remembers the flames and destruction at the Learning Center, the collapsed ceiling, the explosions…

With a shake of her head, she zips the duffel up and tucks it under her bed.

Her leave has been granted. After completing her shift, Michael has permission to head for Starbase 5 and see whatever there is to see. Hopefully, she will be able to assist her brother in whatever way she can.

Still, that request had gone through hours before the events of last night.

Michael stares at the duffel in front of her. Her heart is at war with itself, her logical mind split down the middle.

On one hand, her brother Spock suffering in the confines of a psychiatric ward, like all of his detractors on Vulcan had wanted.

On the other hand…Hugh Culber, and the possibility that he might, somewhere, be alive. Alive, and in dire need of rescue.

Michael remembers Hugh’s emaciated visage on the other side of the glass. A man long dead, standing inside of the reaction cube. Hugh Culber, his body cremated and ashes scattered, yet somehow with enough presence in this universe to be able to leave a solid imprint upon it, utterly negating any theories of ghosts or illusions.

One word, four letters… 

HELP

Stamets hasn’t slept, Michael knows that much. He likely hasn’t left the spore lab since the red spore explosion, running tests and searching desperately for whatever theories might prove plausible. Tilly had been up late chattering and throwing out possible ideas until Michael had finally told her that she had a half-marathon tomorrow and really ought to go to bed.

And Philippa…

Michael has no good read on what her former captain might think. She is elusive these days, unknowable at times. Nevertheless, her eyes still crinkle warmly when Michael goes to see her in the evenings, and she still tosses out jokes and banter like she was born moving her mouth.

Perhaps Philippa will have some advice as to what Michael should choose to do.

Michael sighs, rubbing a hand across her face at the conundrum. She proceeds to hers and Tilly’s bathroom to fill a flask with water in anticipation of the Command Training Program’s half marathon completion.

She and Tilly haven’t had much opportunity to run together as of late, but Michael knows that the ensign will try her best, regardless. Still, she doubts Tilly will manage to beat any of the other trainees, all of whom show far higher levels of physical aptitude.

These logical expectations are dashed, however, upon her arrival at the finish line in the aft corridor hub of Deck 4.

“The Command Training Program half-marathon has a victor!” Saru announces, looking up from his PADD. The four trainees are in various states of exhaustion, all of them sweaty and panting. “A lovely show of endurance and fortitude, Tilly!”

Michael casts her gasping roommate an astonished glance, and looks towards Saru’s PADD to check the half-marathon results.

Good God.

Michael approaches her friend, who is tripod-ing near the corridor wall, her skin pink and flushed. She seems to be mumbling to herself, which is nothing new.

“Tilly.” Tilly turns around and gratefully accepts Michael’s offered flask of water. “According to the stats, you not only won, but you beat your personal best.”

She cocks her head at Tilly, who is still panting. “Training in secret?”

“What?” Tilly seems genuinely confused, her eyes looking off in different directions. “Training? After all that’s…been happening…”

Michael raises an eyebrow. Tilly is possibly lying to her; after all, it isn’t like Michael has been supremely available recently.

“Yes!” Tilly exclaims suddenly. “Yes, yes, it’s all that training you put me through. Thank you, Michael.” She accentuates Michael’s name, which is slightly strange, but not disturbingly so. Michael knows that her friend has difficulties with volume at times.

“Well…” she gives Tilly a quick once-over. Not only had she beat her personal best, but she had beat it significantly…so significantly that such a feat would require an almost Olympic-level burst of improvement.

“…congratulations,” Michael finally decides. She offers Tilly a smile. “You’re amazing.”

She will investigate this further after her shift, and adds her roommate’s sudden, inexplicable athletic ability to her now-long list of mysteries to solve.

 

 

Michael’s shift on the bridge begins with a yellow alert.

“Undeclared craft on intercept course,” Rhys calls.

Detmer looks up from her console where she sits at the helm. “Bearing three-five-eight mark zero, closing fast.”

“Hailing on all frequencies,” Bryce announces. “They aren’t responding.”

“Tell them if they get any closer without telling us who they are, we will activate tactical systems,” Pike orders from the captain’s chair, and Bryce acknowledges with an “Aye.”

Michael pulls up her screen and looks at the combined feeds from every console, attempting to pick up something that anyone might have missed.

“Owo, scans?”

“Detecting a small ship, two life forms.” 

“Captain, they’re opening up a channel.” Bryce states. “It’s a private vessel with a diplomatic registry number, they aren’t required to tell us more than that. The captain’s asking me to beam one aboard.”

“In range for a visual now,” Owosekun announces.

“Good, on-screen.” Pike gives the order, and in the next moment, a ship appears on the viewscreen.

A highly familiar ship.

“That ship is Vulcan,” Saru exclaims.

Michael raises both eyebrows. “That ship is Sarek’s.”

What is he doing out here?

“He assembled a Federation task force to investigate the seven signals, he might have some news for us,” Michael continues, but something niggles at the back of her mind.

Why would Sarek feel the need to warp to the Discovery’s location personally, rather than merely sending them a message from wherever he was?

Pike looks over his shoulder, and from the doubt in his eyes, Michael believes that he has reached the same conclusion. In a smooth motion, Pike gets up from the captain’s chair and approaches Michael.

“Something about this doesn’t add up,” he murmurs.

“There would be no logical reason for Sarek to come here personally rather than just comm-ing us,” Michael agrees, her mind racing. “Whatever information he has must be highly critical—“

“Or highly personal,” Pike interjects, one of his eyebrows raised. Michael looks at him.

“I passed word of Spock’s connection with the signals to Command. Since the ambassador assembled a task force to investigate them, he likely knows of that connection by now…”

“…as well as the news that Spock admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital…” Michael completes in a whisper. A pang of fear grips her heart. Such information could be catastrophic, in the hands of their father. Sarek and Spock have been estranged for years, and there is no telling what Sarek might do with the knowledge that his half-Human son might be—

“Report to the transporter room, Commander,” Pike orders, interrupting Michael’s thoughts. “Welcome the Vulcan ambassador aboard.”

 

 

When Amanda Grayson steps off of the transporter pad, Michael does not know whether to be relieved or more worried. Still, Michael cannot help the slight warmth in her heart at the sight of her adoptive mother, looking soft and maternal in her traditional hooded Vulcan dress. Amanda pulls her into a hug, and whispers into her ear:

Please don’t react. Spock needs our help. I could only turn to you.

More worried, it is.

 

 

The walls of the corridors seem an endless distance away as Michael leads Amanda into the belly of the Discovery en route to the captain’s ready room.

Amanda’s voice is furtive and low as they walk. “Sarek informed me of the seven signals and of Spock’s connection to them, so I went to Starbase Five, Michael, as soon as I could—“

“And?” Michael demands, but Amanda only shakes her head, looking close to distraught.

“They wouldn’t tell me where he was!” Amanda nearly shouts the whisper. Michael tugs Amanda off into a sideway, and leans in closer to hear her. “They wouldn’t let me see him, they wouldn’t say what was wrong with him, they wouldn’t give me his personal affects—“

“You’re his next of kin,” Michael cuts in, shock cutting her to the core. “And a diplomat’s wife!”

Something dark and menacing rises up in Michael’s chest, utter, terrifying foreboding. There is some type of foul play going on here, there must be, Michael knows this like she knows her own serial number—

What are they doing to him on Starbase 5?

Her thoughts flicker to her packed duffel, a phaser powered down and hidden in a folded nightshirt, its presence masked by a large charging battery in the next pocket…

But Michael’s grand plans of storming the psychiatric unit are cut short when Amanda casts a furtive glance around, before leaning in.

“I did the only logical thing, Michael.” Her hand reaches into a pocket to withdraw a small, flat square of electronics. 

Oh no.

“I stole his medical file.”

Michael’s heart drops into her feet, even as she turns her eyes up to the heavens. She now knows why Amanda is here.

Can you please open it for me?”

 

**

 

Amanda and Captain Pike are exchanging pleasantries across Pike’s desk in his ready room, but Michael’s thoughts are a thousand miles away.

Starfleet Command knows of Spock’s admittance to the psych facility, and now Sarek knows as well. Michael closes her eyes and shakes her head. Spock will be so utterly humiliated by it all, not to mention his career could very well be ruined by all of this. Michael understands full well how that feels.

Could she violate her brother’s right to medical privacy like this? Particularly if it was so horrifically illegal?

Entering a medical facility to spirit her possibly captive brother away was one thing.

Violating his privacy in this way, and breaking multiple Starfleet and Federation laws was quite another.

Michael’s chest grows cold at the notion of prison…of being stripped of rank, forced into servitude, and thrown away to the furthest reaches of the galaxy like a piece of garbage…

Please not again.

Amanda is completing her request, and she slides the medical file across the desk towards Pike.

Tell her no, Michael pleads silently.

“Ma’am…I am flattered by yours and your son’s faith in me,” Pike finally states, gazing down at the medical file in front of him. “And it severely pains me to tell you that I can’t open this. It would be a blatant violation of a great many laws--”

“There is precedent,” Amanda insists, “In Starfleet case law, for a captain to invoke right to power of medical attorney, if reasonable proof exists that the member of his crew in question is being detained or held unethically in a place of treatment.”

Michael gives Amanda a stunned look, and Pike’s eyebrows are migrating to his hairline.

“2233, Captain Kojo Annan versus New Uppsala Memorial Hospital on Venus,” Amanda continues. “Should it go to court, you would have an ironclad defense.”

Silence.

“Did you guys really think I would show up here unprepared?” Amanda demands.

Pike finally cracks a smile, a small one.

“Well-argued, ma’am. Now I know where she gets it from.” He gestures with his head towards Michael, who cannot quite manage to smile in return.

“Sir…Amanda…” Michael begins in a halting voice. “I do want to get to the bottom of this; however, I am…deeply uncertain…that this is the manner in which to do it.” She eyes the medical file in Pike’s hand, the one that would get them all arrested, should it be discovered.

“Surely there is some other way,” she questions almost desperately. “Short of violating my brother’s privacy in such a manner, whether or not we can defend ourselves in court?”

“Michael!” Amanda sounds just short of scandalized.

“You are one of Starfleet’s most well-respected captains,” Michael continues in a quick, low voice, casting a glance towards Pike, “and you are the wife of a powerful Vulcan diplomat,” she looks at Amanda. “But less than three months ago, I was a convicted felon, sentenced to life imprisonment. Who do you think might get the blame, if we do this?”

Amanda opens her mouth, and closes it again. She looks slightly horrified now, as if this possibility had not occurred to her.

“Michael…” she murmurs, leaning in close. “Listen to me… You are a hero now, your record is expunged, there is nothing for you to fear…”

“There is everything for me to fear,” Michael shakes her head. Her hands shake, and cold terror rises in her chest. “You don’t even know…”

Qo’Nos, the Shrine of Molor, the detonator in Michael’s hands, Cornwell’s words in her ear…

…You are the only one I trust, to be capable of doing this…

Pike’s door chimes, startling all of them.

Michael and Amanda both look towards Pike, who looks an equal mixture of shaken and awkward.

“They can come back later.” He waves his hand. “This is…more important…”

He trails off as door chimes again. And again.

The chiming increases in frequency until it finally morphs into one long, drawn-out moan. The sound echoes around the silent ready room in a way that Michael thinks would have been comical, had it not been for the stakes of their discussion.

Pike’s face morphs into one of deep annoyance.

“Sit tight, ladies.”

He rises to his feet and storms towards the door, jabbing it open to reveal—

“Philippa?”

Michael utters the name almost accidentally, staring at the unexpected sight of her captain in the doorway. Philippa looks resplendent as usual, her waves of dark hair gathered into a French braid down her back, medical whites glowing upon her slender frame, but a second glance reveals hard eyes, flattened mouth.

Michael knows that look.

“Captain, this is highly out-of-line,” Pike finally manages. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He squares his shoulders in a rather obvious manner, and Michael wonders if perhaps Philippa was not joking in her claim that Pike was afraid of her.

“I apologize,” Philippa states evenly in response. “However, I do think that you will want to hear what I have to say.”

Philippa reaches into the pocket of her uniform and withdraws a small item, too far away for Michael to see.

Pike turns and steps out of doorway. His face is white as a ghost, Michael notes with some apprehension. Philippa brushes past him to approach the desk, and Michael looks up towards her as she does so.

Her captain hesitates only a moment, before placing the item on the desk so that Michael and Amanda can see it.

Michael shakes her head slowly, slowly. The world goes mute as the universe crashes down around her ears.

A Section 31 badge lies in front of her.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Leland is going to kill her.

Leland is going to kill her.

Leland is going murder her, and then dispose of the body so thoroughly and completely that no one will ever know she had been alive in the first place.

But that was alright. Far preferable than the alternative.

The chatter Philippa had been hearing from the bug under Pike’s desk had grown too heated and severe for her to stay in sickbay marking time, one micro-earbud in. Michael’s distress at being forced to break the law again, of going to prison again, all valid concerns, Philippa understands this better than anyone, just as she understands how such a fate would be inconceivable to the upstanding Christopher Pike and the wholly innocent Amanda Grayson…

She had to do something.

But this split-second decision will cost her greatly, that much is certain.

“Section 31…”

Michael’s murmur is low and shocked. She looks like she’s been hit the face with something heavy and covered in spikes, and Philippa forces down the emotion in her chest.

This is business, serious business, better to get it done quickly.

“Like I said,” she throws over Michael’s shoulder towards Pike. “I do apologize, Captain. My words to you were false. In truth, I was dispatched to this ship to keep an eye on its personnel, after the unpleasant business with Gabriel Lorca and Ash Tyler.”

Michael flinches at the name, but Philippa continues.

“I got wind of your dispute, and I thought it best if I cut in…before anyone gets hurt.”

Philippa produces a chip from her pocket, the one with all of the information that Leland had sent to her in the wee hours of last night.

“You want your lieutenant’s decrypted medical file. Well, I have it. No one need be accused or punished for illegal doings.”

She keeps her gaze studiously away from Michael as she says the words.

“Wait a minute…we were just having that conversation.” Pike strides forward, his eyes narrowing.

“You bugged my office.”

Philippa nods. 

“I bugged your office.” 

Pike only stares at her, crossing his arms slowly over his chest.

Philippa finally huffs. She kneels and reaches beneath the desk. With two twists of her fingers, the listening device is deactivated and unstuck from the wood surface. She holds it up for Pike to see.

“There, now I have unbugged your office.”

Philippa flips the listening device onto the desk pointedly, and it clatters when it hits surface. Pike looks slightly mollified by that. He approaches the desk in several long strides, and with a flick of hand, he pockets the device. Philippa decides not to say anything about the ones she had hidden beneath the Eames chair and on the leg of the drink cart.

“May we speak freely now?” She prompts, holding the file up for all to see. “Yesterday, a colleague passed along this information to me so that I might better assist them in their search for someone.”

“For Spock?” Pike asks, his voice filled with confusion. “What could Section 31 possibly want with him?”

Philippa sighs. She looks at Michael, at Amanda, at Pike, practically Spock’s entire family, and knows that what she is about to say will hit them like a blow and likely shatter what faith any of the three of them have in her.

One problem solved, another eight created.

“He is wanted for murder. He killed three of his doctors and fled Starbase 5.”

Silence echoes like distant thunder in the ready room.

“That…” Amanda begins, her voice shaking. “That cannot be true…my son is gentle, and kind… “

“I agree,” Pike murmurs, walking closer. “If this were true, why isn’t word out about his escape, so every starship could be on the hunt?”

“Details of the case have gotten complicated,” Philippa explains quickly. “Some of the files have disappeared, rest assured there are people on it.”

Her words are technically true.

“No…no, this isn’t possible.” Amanda is shaking her head quickly, distress in her voice. “Spock would never kill anybody…he got upset whenever he accidentally crushed insects in our house, he—he wouldn’t—“

“I’m afraid he has, ma’am,” Philippa states in a kinder voice. In this ready room, she can almost pretend that she is a captain again, delivering hard news to the families of her crew. “There is recorded evidence, not to mention the victims’ remains—“

“Stop.”

Michael’s mellow tone cuts Philippa off.

Michael rises slowly, slowly to her feet. Her dark eyes are set like stone, her face is hard flint, and Philippa feels cold intent coming off of her in waves.

Michael’s voice, when it comes, is as low as the tide before a tsunami.

“My brother…is a good man, who has spent most of his life overcoming accusations and prejudice. He committed himself to a psych ward, for treatment, where God only knows what they did to him—“

Michael’s body is shaking, her low voice rising. Amanda’s eyes are wide, and even Pike seems to be cowering. Philippa feels frozen in place, unable to move as those eyes hold her in a vice grip.

“And you have the goddamn nerve to come in here, with your Section 31 badge, bathed in the blood of entire nations, and tell me, that my brother is wanted for murder.”

Michael takes a step forward. Her face is a darkened mask; a hurricane rages behind her mellow voice.

“Are your snakes after him now? You gonna throw him in a cell while you pick his brain apart—“

“Burnham, that’s enough.” Pike finally cuts in, his voice hard and firm.

Michael throws Philippa one last, venomous look, before turning on a heel and leaving the ready room.

She doesn’t even ask Pike’s permission before she goes.

A long, silent moment passes. Philippa realizes she’s forgotten to breathe, and manages a shaky exhale, reaching a hand out to the desk to steady herself. Neither Pike nor Amanda inquire as to whether she is okay, which Philippa considers par for the course.

“Is…Section 31…after Lieutenant Spock?” Pike finally asks, still looking stunned.

“We are…” Philippa swallows, steadying the rasp of her voice. “Working on the case, yes. I only got word last night, I do not have many details.”

“And if Section 31 finds him…” Amanda states slowly. “What would be the logical next steps, Captain?”

Philippa shakes out a breath as she considers the question. “He would be arrested and put on trial, most likely.”

Amanda closes her eyes slowly. Pike shakes his head.

Unless you find him first…

Philippa stares at Pike, willing him to reach the conclusion without her having to say it aloud. She doesn’t think that her back-up listeners are on-line yet, in fact she doubts it very much, but she has to be smart about this, if Leland doubts her loyalty even for a moment---

“I suppose we’ll just have to find him before they do,” Pike decides, and Philippa barely manages to keep from slumping in relief. “Whatever happened, he’ll need a fair shake.”

He fixes Philippa with a hard look. “You and I are going to have a talk later, in a different location.”

Smart man.

“And in the meantime, Burnham and Ms. Grayson will research the contents of that file.” Pike gestures with his eyes towards Amanda, and Philippa slides the chip across the desk at her.

“Thank you, Captain,” Amanda mumbles, before picking up the file and getting up from her chair. Philippa imagines that this is far too much information for her to adequately process at once.

“And you too, Captain.” Amanda nods once at Pike, before walking out of the ready room doors, clearly in a daze.

Philippa turns to Pike, but has nothing prepared, nothing at all ready. She has never, ever blown cover like this, and to do it now, only five days in…

“Dismissed, Georgiou.”

Philippa schools her face into a complete blank and strides away from him. The ready room doors hiss open, and Philippa proceeds quietly across the bridge, the beeps and chatter of countless consoles and scanning systems hundreds of miles away at the moment.

She doubts she will forget the look on Michael’s face, as long as she lives.

Of course she had not expected Michael to be happy with her, but the look in her eyes, the tone of her tirade…

Oh. Of course.

It had been personal.

Philippa's stomach plummets into her feet at the realization. She nearly stumbles sideways into the first officer's console, but rights herself just in time. Black dread pools in her chest as Philippa considers just what might have happened to Michael that would cause her to hold such a vicious grudge against Section 31, and she has to acknowledge that without this information, her split second decision back in sickbay might have been a poor one.

But at the very least, Michael will not have to break the law. She will not have to risk her career in order to save her brother, she will not be sent to prison while Pike and Amanda Grayson walk free…she will not put her head a chopping block so that others might escape with their lives.

And that, Philippa hopes, will make it all worth it in the end.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Lieutenant Spock’s intellectual abilities and capacity for reason are intact. Instead, his dissociation appears acutely emotional. EQ tests and his current disaffected state suggest extreme empathy recurves.”

The video of the Fleet doctor speaks in a monotone, clinical voice. Her voice rings around the Discovery’s media lab, where every screen contains a piece of Spock’s medical file.

“Recurves,” Michael repeats where she stands in front of the feed, arms crossed. “So he was…ricocheting between a state of high emotion and a state of zero emotion.”

“How strange,” Amanda murmurs from her place at Michael’s left side. She throws a look in Michael’s direction. “I can already feel your wheels turning. Thoughts?”

“Logic dictates a few theories.”

And it is logic that Michael clings to now, cool, safe logic, to keep from coming completely undone when her brother needs her.

“Spock didn’t do it and he’s wrongfully accused. Or he did murder those doctors, in a…mentally compromised state. Or in what he thought was self-defense.”

“Or he did it because he is emotionally compromised,” Amanda completes softly.

“Extreme empathy recurves,” Michael murmurs. “But…why would that happen spontaneously, in a healthy Vulcan…”

“Vulcan-Human hybrid,” Amanda corrects. “And as far as Spock’s emotional health is concerned…” She shakes her head. “Who could really be certain? He is one of very few of his kind, Sarek and I never had any real guesses as to what milestones to expect…whether or not we should encourage the rejection of emotion, or… the embrace of it.”

Michael’s lips twitch, slightly bitter. “I know which of those options Sarek chose.”

Amanda gazes towards Michael, her eyes huge and sad.

“Sarek wanted the both of you raised in a traditional Vulcan manner. He did discourage emotional expression in the two of you, I know that…”

She smiles softly now. “But I also know that you circumvented him when necessary. I know that you encouraged Spock to treat his Human side with kindness, to understand that sometimes different approaches can be good.”

Michael only raises a skeptical eyebrow. “How could that possibly be true?”

She remembers how she strove to be the finest Vulcan student in Shi’Kahr, burying the memories of her Human family in the back of her mind, the massive lengths she went to in order to fit in…

How could she possibly have encouraged her brother to kindle his humanity?

“Oh Michael,” Amanda reaches for her hand to squeeze it. “It can be hard, to see the truth of a situation when you are standing so close to it. But from an adequate distance…”

Amanda’s blue eyes crinkle warmly. “It was very clear to me that I made a good decision. Maybe I should have told you this more often, but…you were a very good older sister.”

“Wait…” Confusion tugs Michael’s eyebrows inwards. “You…made a good decision?”

Michael shakes her head, that information not quite adding up.

“Sarek…before he left the Discovery, he told me that he adopted me so that Spock could learn empathy. A Human trait that Sarek could not teach.”

“Did he say that? Oh, Sarek…”

Amanda rubs a hand over her mouth, looking quite like she wants to laugh. “Back then, it was easier to get him to do what I wanted, if I made him think it was his idea, but I had no idea he took it that far.”

Amanda shakes her head, rolling her eyes with an air of long-suffering patience. But in the next moment, she gives a quick sigh, as if to shake off the annoyance.

“Well, Michael, allow me to tell you why I took you in.”

Amanda takes Michael’s hands in hers.

“Because I wanted a daughter, sweetheart.”

Awed wonder breaks over Michael’s consciousness like the warmest of tides. Somewhere beneath her sternum, her heart fills to the brim with tender warmth. She gazes at Amanda’s kind face, the laugh lines by her eyes, the softness of her mouth…

Her mother, who had chosen her.

Amanda smiles, and Michael imagines that some her thoughts are showing on her face. Her mother pulls her into a gentle hug, and Michael hugs her back, mouth twitching at the corners until it finally tugs itself into a small smile.

So much has happened in the past year, in the past week, so many terrible things, betrayals at seemingly every turn…but there is something so utterly comforting about being held by one’s mother. It made no logical sense…or perhaps it is the only thing in the universe that made logical sense, and all other facts were pure gibberish.

Who could say?

Michael looks up from Amanda’s shoulder—

And stops dead at the sight of the screen ahead of her.

Holographic scribblings of a red figure, glowing, winged, swirling with light…the pictures dance across the screen, a different one showing each second.

“What-- What is that?”

Amanda releases her and turns around.

“Oh…” She murmurs. “Your brother must have drawn those while he was in treatment. I thought he’d left it behind, but it’s back.”

“What is?”

“The Red Angel.”

A clap of thunder echoes in Michael’s ears.

“It first appeared to him the night you ran away from home…” Amanda continues. “After the Vulcan extremists bombed the Learning Center and nearly killed you.” She takes a step forward to stand at Michael’s left shoulder, leaning into her slightly. “I don’t blame you, for wanting to escape from Vulcan to Earth.”

Michael shakes her head at the memory of that terrifying night, jostling herself out of her stunned stupor.

“I didn’t even make it past the outskirts of the city,” she remembers. For all of her intelligence in school, she had still been a panicked eleven-year-old child, and children are not particularly known for their cleverness under pressure. “I still don’t know how Sarek found me.”

“He didn’t. That was Spock.”

Michael turns to throw an astonished stare at Amanda.

“H—how? I deliberately misled him…”

“Oh, we know,” Amanda smiles. “Isn’t the Rishi system from Star Wars?”

“The Rishi Maze, yes...” Michael corrects absently, her gaze wandering to the red figure on the screen, wings protruding from its back. It floats in the center of the screens, mysterious and unknowable from each angle presented.

Front. Side. Back. Side. Bright, glowing red, utterly otherworldly.

“But…how could Spock have possibly have known the truth?”

Amanda shakes her head, her eyes following Michael’s to take in the Red Angel.

“I wish I knew. That night…we were about to alert High Command to begin a search effort, and Spock walked into the room, still in his pajamas. He said that the Red Angel had visited him and told him where you were. That’s where Sarek looked, and there you were.”

Amanda shrugs, looking just as bewildered as Michael feels.

“We always figured he’d used logic to pinpoint where you were. He might have known what time you left, how fast you were walking, what direction you were going in, but Spock never wavered. He said that the Red Angel was real.”

“He…” Michael swallows. “He never told me…”

“Because you were his big sister, Michael,” Amanda explains gently. “He didn’t want you to think any less of him, for having nightmares and illogical visions.”

“I—“

I wouldn’t have, Michael wants to say, but doesn’t bother. Spock had always tried to act tough and mature around her, so she can understand why he would want to keep what he likely considered silly weaknesses such as these to himself.

“I’ve seen this angel too,” Michael murmurs instead. “It appeared to me, on our mission to the first signal.”

Amanda turns to look at her, eyes wide. “Were you the only one?"

“Yes,” Michael confirms, still staring at the flickering red images her brother had drawn. “I wrote it off as a trick of the mind. And…” Michael squints, considering this new information, the fact that this being had appeared to her brother as well. “You know, I didn’t get the sense that it was nefarious.”

In the next moment, she scoffs, shaking her head dismissively. “I can’t believe I’m talking like this. I’m not even sure it was real—“

“It has to be,” Amanda insists. “You and Spock, you are cut from the same cloth. You doubt anything that cannot be proven, you write off all types of…whimsy, of flights of fancy, as illogical, and incorrect. If both of you have seen this being…”

Amanda trails off.

“It has to be real, Michael. I don’t know why, or how, but…” Amanda looks back at the screen, at the strange red figure. “If Spock is related to these signals, and to the Red Angel…”

“The angel has something to do with the signals,” Michael murmurs. “It does. I know. It was present at both places that the signals appeared, though not at both times…”

Times…

Something stirs in the back of Michael’s brain, something big, something astronomical…

But it slips away the second she tries to catch it, like water through clenched fingers.

“No…” Amanda shakes her head, interrupting Michael’s thoughts. “I mean yes, but I was going to say…you are related to Spock, Michael. That means that you are connected to the Angel as well.”

Michael considers her words. The media room is as quiet as the void while her brother’s medical history flickers across every available screen.

“That’s multiple degrees of separation.” She finally shakes her head. “Too many, to make that a conclusion worth pursuing.”

“Do you honestly believe that, sweetheart?” Amanda asks gently. “Or is that something you’re telling yourself, so that you don’t have become a variable in this equation?”

Michael sighs, her head growing quite heavy all of a sudden.

“Logic can solve all types of problems, Michael.” She feels the warmth of Amanda Grayson at her side once more. “But do not forget that it can create problems as well.”

This is all too much. Section 31, the Red Angel, Spock wanted for murder, Culber’s mysterious resurrection… Michael wants to collapse against a console, she wants to fall asleep for three days, she wants to go to Philippa’s quarters and talk to her about every single thing she and Amanda have touched on, and then some more things beyond that…

But this thought is crushing as well, and Michael swallows harshly, heavily to push it back.

Amanda gazes at her, face soft and understanding. She takes a step in and takes Michael’s forearms in a gentle grip.

“Michael,” Amanda murmurs. “Your reaction, when Captain Georgiou revealed that she was part of Section 31…”

Michael stiffens, but Amanda only holds her gently. “Now I don’t know much about Section 31, only that it’s covert ops, spying…”

Michael shakes her head in distress. Amanda continues quickly.

“Is there something I’m not aware of?”

--Qo’Nos, the hydro-bomb, the detonator, Michael standing alone at the Shrine of Molor, her heart filled with despair, the chosen hand of a monstrous plan--

“They…” Michael swallows. “They are…reprehensible. Responsible for so much more, than… anyone could imagine…”

Amanda takes this in with intelligent blue eyes.

“You know something, don’t you?” Her voice is soft, yet shrewd. “Something…incredibly classified…”

“Mother, please.”

Michael cannot, cannot reveal such secrets under pain of life imprisonment, a fate almost worse than death.

“I’m sorry sweetheart, I am sorry. I won’t push.” Amanda’s hands slide down Michael’s shoulders, her arms, and finally grasp both of her hands.

“I remember yours and Captain Georgiou’s relationship from your Shenzhou days. The two of you were thick as thieves, she was your…well, either your closest friend or your hero, depending on your mood.

Michael nods slowly. She had not been very good at subtlety of emotions, back then. If Amanda had guessed the true scope of Michael’s feelings for her captain, well…that was to be expected, in all honesty.

“And after she died,” Amanda continues softly. “It was like all of the light had gone out of your life. And now she’s back…”

Michael knows that tone of voice. Amanda is prompting her. Michael takes a moment to gather her thoughts, her emotions, to produce something coherent out of them.

“I…” Michael finally murmurs. “I don’t know what to do. She is so different now, after all that must have happened to her, and yet…I see who she was. Who she still is, really. But now, this…”

She gestures with an arm, referring to the devastating reveal in Pike’s ready room, and takes several agitated steps away from Amanda. The weight of such knowledge is heavy indeed; Michael slumps under the pain of it, rubbing weary hands across her face.

Amanda, for her part, seems to think on this for several moments.

“Remember when you and Spock found that abandoned sehlat, when you were running around the old hovels in the Southeast district?”

Michael nods slowly, looking up from her hands.

“It was such an ordeal.” Amanda shakes her head with a small smile. “Spock left food out for it every night for a week, and you read all the books you could find on sehlats and feral animals. But the moment you reached out to pet it, to show it affection and care…it attacked you both and ran off.”

Michael remembers that night. Spock had cried for about twenty seconds before pulling himself together admirably, and Michael had cleaned their bleeding scratches as best she could before they had presented themselves to their parents.

“Be careful, sweetheart, be so, so careful,” Amanda pleads, her blue eyes trembling with emotion. “Wounded creatures, they tend to lash out, and they hurt without meaning to…I want happiness for the two of you, of course I do, but understand, Michael…you are my priority. Do not get yourself hurt, trying to save a creature that does not want to be saved.”

Michael’s heart splinters at Amanda’s words, another set of cracks to add to her collection.

Amanda steps in close once more, pulling Michael into a hug. In spite of her inner turmoil, in spite of her ribcage filling with ashes, Michael relaxes into her mother’s embrace, fortifying herself in Amanda’s warmth, her love. For a brief moment, Michael feels like child again, with no knowledge of the pain that accompanies a loved one’s hands around your throat, or their allegiance to an evil sect…

Michael thinks she must know heartbreak like she knows the layout of her own home by now.

“Take care of yourself, Michael. I know how you enjoy taking on the world’s problems, but…promise me that you will care for yourself.”

“Mother—“

Promise.” Amanda’s voice is sharper now, urgent.

Michael slumps into the embrace, at this point too wrung out to protest further. She allows twin tears to drip onto Amanda’s shoulder, before strangling the reaction at its source.

“I promise.”

“Good,” Amanda whispers. “Good.”

Michael sees her safely to the transporter room, and watches her form dissipate into golden energy. Her heart feels like it’s been dropped down a mining shaft, her mind a veritable solar storm of thoughts. It occurs to her, briefly, that she might not be an optimal state for a heavy conversation with her former captain. Nevertheless, Michael manages to leave the transporter room and move in a slow stagger, towards Deck 4.

Towards Philippa’s quarters.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Philippa is sitting on her bed, still in her medical whites. She doubts that sickbay will miss her today, and doubts further that it will matter, in the end. Pike cannot kick her off of the ship even if he wants to, and really, what was a few hours in sickbay, in light of all that is happening?

She knows what is coming. She feels it like the impending doom of a great battle, like the doom that she should have seen coming, should have anticipated, back at the Binary Stars…

Philippa rubs at the starburst scar beneath her jacket and undershirt. A permanent reminder of just where lapses in judgment will get you, of the necessity of vigilance, of mistrust, of meeting violence at its source and stifling it completely before it has a chance to live—

The door chimes.

And chimes again.

The chimes continue, growing further together in frequency until they make one long, ringing sound that echoes through her quarters. Philippa mentally tips her hat to the woman on the other side of the doors, even as she gets up to open them.

She has prepared nothing at all for this confrontation.

It is unclear whether this is because she feels confident in her words, in her arguments, or because she trusts her own ability to improvise.

The door hisses open, revealing Michael standing on the other side. Her face is haggard, her eyes raw; it looks like she’s been to the opposite side of the universe and back in the mere hour since they separated, and Philippa wonders what on Earth was in that medical file. 

“News of your brother?”

Michael fixes her with a hard look. “Why, so you can send it back to your spy network?”

“I am concerned, Michael, genuinely—“

“I don’t know what about you could possibly be genuine.”

Michael takes several steps around Philippa into her quarters, but does not sit down in the chair by the desk. Not this time.

“Why, Philippa?” She asks, her dark eyes swimming with pain. “Why are you working with them?”

Philippa considers the long, painful answer to that question. An answer that would not help her even remotely, and would likely only get her into deeper trouble.

“It’s where I belong now, Michael—“

“No.” Michael shakes her head firmly, “No, no you do not, how could you even say that?”

How could I—“ A spike of angry frustration hits Philippa between the shoulder blades. “How could I not? After all that has happened, all that I have had to do, Michael, you have no idea—“

“Then tell me!” Michael demands, her arms waving behind her. “Tell me what you had to do! I-- I come to your quarters every night, and we talk about everything under the stars but the year and half that you experienced during the war. You do not get to throw that in my face like it is my fault. Talk to me, Philippa!”

Philippa opens her mouth to shout back, then closes it in the next moment.

She can’t.

She can’t, she can’t, she can’t.

At this, Michael only works her mouth, her hands falling to her hips. Her full lips twitch, proving a rather fetching tell of her rage.

“Section 31…” she breathes in a low voice. “Is nothing but a snake pit of those who are too bloodthirsty and prejudiced to serve aboard a Starfleet ship—“

“—quite the declaration, my dear,” Philippa interrupts in a biting tone. “Do you have any evidence to uphold this, or do you just enjoy making sweeping claims of your own moral high ground—“

“I know more about Section 31 than you could possibly imagine—“

“Then you know that we do the dirty work that Starfleet does not want to touch, in order for the Federation to continue its peaceful existence—“

Michael actually laughs at that. She laughs, the sound echoing off of the walls of these small lieutenant quarters. There is audible pain beneath the sound, and enough bitterness to poison pure sugar.

You…” Michael shakes her head, chuckles still erupting from her chest. “You…you think that you do the universe’s dirty work? You—“

She snorts, putting a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. It is slightly terrifying, and Philippa wonders if her former commander is cracking.

“You have no idea, do you?” Michael asks, black mirth dancing in her eyes. “Have you done any real research into your own organization? Do you have any idea what they do, what they have done?”

“No, I entered on blind faith and the hope that, wherever they sent me, I would get to have fun and make friends!” Philippa’s voice is sarcastic in the extreme. She takes a step closer to her former commander. “I know damn well what I have gotten into, Michael. Do not presume to think I am so unbearably innocent, so naïve after what I have been through.”

“I’m not—“

“Save it!” Philippa snaps almost without meaning to, and Michael’s mouth snaps shut. “You have the audacity to judge me, Michael Burnham, after all that you have done? Attacking your own captain, attempting to destroy a vessel that showed no aggression whatsoever—“

“A move that has cost me greatly, in dividends that I will be paying the rest of my life.” Michael’s voice is low and intense. She takes a step closer to Philippa. “You are attempting to distract me, to turn this discussion back at me, as you have done every time—“

“And there is damn good reason for that!” Philippa exclaims. “How can I make you understand? I am not the captain you knew!”

Michael falls silent at Philippa’s shout.

“What I have seen…what I have done…” Philippa feels herself shaking, her heart pounding rapidly beneath her breastbone. “The blood on my hands…some things are irreversible, some acts can never be blacked out…Section 31 is the last place left for the broken shards of a tool like me—“

“You’re wrong.” Michael shakes her head vigorously. “Have you not experienced the same four days that I did? Because I saw you, Philippa, I saw you helping Ensign Tilly, I saw you on the floor over there with Reno, laughing, I know you saved our lives on Terralysium, you’re in sickbay every day, helping people…”

“It’s an act,” Philippa whispers, though she does not know how truthful her words are. “It’s a thing called “keeping cover,” I would not expect you to understand—“

She is cut off when Michael steps fully and thoroughly into her personal space. The warmth of her body is so terribly close, and it takes everything Philippa has to stand her ground.

“What I have been forced to do…in the name of keeping cover…”

Michael’s voice is low again, with all of the power of a thunderstorm behind it. Something dark and terrible flickers behind her eyes.

Philippa knows that look.

“Whatever you have done, cannot possibly be worse, Philippa. I understand,” Michael insists, her voice raw and deep with pain. “I swear that I do!”

Philippa shakes her head, and keeps shaking it.

“You could not possibly.”

“Try me.” Michael challenges. She squares her chest, raising her chin high, daring Philippa to make her move, to show her hand.

Philippa gathers every scrap of her strength to look into Michael’s eyes… Her dark, wonderful eyes that have been to hell and back while telling the devil himself to screw off…

Michael, who found the way to peace against all odds, who redeemed herself with her choices, who corrected the mistakes of an entire nation, in spite of all that she suffered…

She puts Philippa to complete, utter shame.

“I—I can’t…

And Philippa folds. She gathers up every scrap of her emotions, the ones swirling in a tight ball beneath her stomach, and hides them away, each and every scrap of pain and agony.

Michael seems to feel Philippa slipping away from her, for she begins to scramble now, the words leaving her lips desperately.

“Philippa, you have a place here on the Discovery, as a medic, as a healer, how can you not see that? You don’t have to serve with them, you don’t—“

But Philippa is cold and remote once more, a glowing, unknowable moon high in orbit above a planet that will never reach her.

“You do not know me anymore, Michael. You only see what you want to see…please leave. Please.”

Philippa imagines that she can see the very moment that Michael’s heart crumples, when the light dims in her dark eyes.

Michael goes silently, exiting Philippa’s quarters without so much a glance. Philippa watches the doors hiss shut once more, and collapses into her bed. She imagines the brightest light on this ship proceeding down the corridor, farther and farther from her quarters until she is gone from sight, forever.

It  was for the best.

It occurs to her that perhaps she had prepared nothing for this confrontation, not because she was confident of her victory, but because in truth, she had wanted to lose.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Tilly is beginning to wonder if putting her mouth over the business end of a phaser might be preferable to suffering through even one more minute of today.

The marathon had been manageable. Her morning spore lab checks had been…acceptable.

But the ensuing seven hours of her shift had quickly devolved into interminable hell.

She is not crazy, Tilly manages to remind herself as she strides out of engineering and down the corridor towards the lift. She passes Lieutenant Adrees, Nurse Ohanesian, Ensigns Jones and Orubi as she goes, and barely hears their polite acknowledgments.

Not crazy, not insane...not crazy.

A feminine, barbed wire voice grates just behind her back, making an utter mockery of her self-diagnosis.

Nevertheless, five laps of the ship, a quick re-do of the entirety of her academy exams (she aced every one of them) and a brief, thorough recitation of every one of her birthdays had told Sylvia Tilly that no, she was not crazy, not clinically.

She was not spouting conspiracy theories, or wearing foil on her head, or convinced that some type of shadow-y government sect had infiltrated the Discovery and was spying on all of them.

No, she just had a ghost—a memory, or whatever the hell May Ahearn was. Short, with dark curly hair and a truly memorable accent, inexplicably clothed in a Starfleet ops uniform…

May was like a parasite, Tilly thought. A particularly annoying one.

Her grief and self-hatred from earlier that morning is practically gone now, after seven irritating hours of May chattering away in her ear.

Tilly wonders if this is what she herself is like to other people.

I hope the hell not.

“Are we going to see the captain now?”

May’s barbed wire voice is insistent in Tilly’s ear as she strides down the corridor.

After seven hours of protracted silence, Tilly’s resolve finally bends.

Why,” she mumbles out of the corner of her mouth in a low, irritated voice. “Would you possibly want to see the captain?”

May does a comical double take as she walks next to Tilly, as if surprised at the notion of Tilly answering her. She seems to recover quickly enough.

“Because!” She insists. “He is evil! He flies around in this weird ship, cuts my home to threads!”

“You’re crazy,” Tilly grates, shaking her head as if May is merely an irksome fly. “You are nuts, and this is notreal!“ Her hand flashes out, dispersing May’s incorporeal form. 

“I am not crazy!”

…Crazy…Crazy…Crazy…

May’s disembodied voice echoes around the empty corridor, ghosting around the piping and exposed Jeffries Tube curves crossing the ceiling. Tilly’s head tilts, her eyes darting around the cavernous empty space of the ship’s Deck Five hallway. She attempts to follow the sound, her gaze chasing the whispers as they ricochet through the recycled air.

“I have a plan!”

Tilly blinks, and May is in front her once more.

“I need you, Stilly! I chose you!”

Tilly takes a single, pissed-off step towards May Ahearn, the unbearably annoying ghost.

“Chose me…”

Oh fuck, is she shaking?

Yeah, she’s definitely shaking.

For what?!” Tilly all but shouts. In the next moment, she snaps her jaw shut and whirls back to stride down the corridor.

“She’s not real,” Tilly whispers to herself as she walks.She’s not real, she’s not real, people are gonna think you’re crazy, Sylvia, calm down—“

“Tilly!”

“Nope.”

“Tilly!”

“Mm-mm.”

“We are wasting time,” May insists as Tilly strides down Deck 4. “I have told you I am helping you—“

“You are not helping me,” Tilly snaps out of the corner of her mouth.

“I am!” May insists, her curly ponytail bouncing. “Did you see how fast you were earlier! That’s me, Stilly, I am a helper—“

“What you are, is a massive pain in my— Good afternoon, Commander!”

Tilly chirps the greeting and draws herself into a lightning-quick salute at Commander Nhan, who strides past her. Nhan offers her a quick nod and a smile as she walks down the corridor, her long hair bouncing behind her.

Tilly whirls on May the second Nhan is out of sight. “See, that is not helping me, you’re making me look like a nut-job in front of these very important people, like last night—“

“You are not a…nut…job.” May fumbles at the words. “Your mind is amazing, that is why I chose you, Stilly.”

Tilly only sticks her lower lip out in what she knows is a childish display of stubbornness. She whirls back around, striding towards the turbolift with intent.

Shadow Exercises for the command trainees will start in five minutes, and Tilly will be damned if she is late, even if she is seeing visions of a dead girl from her past.

“And last night was not my fault! Last night was scary!” May insists as Tilly presses the button with intent. “Those red things, they are like big nightmares!”

Tilly stops dead at that. She turns to stare at May as the turbolift doors open.

“Wait…red things?”

“Yes!” May insists. “They have lived alongside us since the beginning, but they became bad when your captain started flying his ship through my home! They are unstoppable, like us but not!”

“Wait, they? Us?”

Tilly enters the turbolift and presses the button for the bridge, even as she stares at May next to her.

“What--…what are you talking about? What do you know about the red spores?”

“They are not a ‘spores’!” May insists as the turbolift whirs around them. “They are bad.

“Ughhhh!” Tilly throws her hands up in pure frustration, taking a step towards May. “So what are they then?”

God, Tilly just wants to throttle this girl sometimes, how difficult could it possibly be to be clear and concise?

“They are bad, Stilly, that is why I must find the captain!”

“Which. One?” Tilly’s voice sounds unbearably shrill in the confined space of the turbolift. “Cause we’ve got quite a few of those these days! Three, in fact! Which one do you want, May?”

And shit, she’s losing control now, but it’s far too much to pull back.

“Do want the uh, the-- the silver haired fox, or the dark-haired vixen, or the—the, the beige…toothpick?!” Tilly’s hands cut sharply in front of her as she lashes out at the ghost. “Which! Captain! May?”

May opens her mouth, but before she can say anything, the lift opens onto the bridge of the USS Discovery.

“Ah, Ensign Tilly!” Commander Saru turns from where he stands beside the captain’s chair and greets her with his mellow voice. “Do step forth, join your crewmates.”

Tilly’s jaw snaps shut. She swallows, nodding quickly, as if she had not been yelling into empty air mere seconds before. Though her throat might as well be closing up, Tilly trots out of the turbolift to join Ensign Mendoza and Ensign De Luca, who stand at attention between the ops and helm consoles.

She pleads with the cosmic forces of the universe that May Ahearn, her ghost, will take the hint and shut the hell up, just for the next few hours.

 

“Greetings, everyone,” Saru continues in his mellow voice, addressing the three ensigns and various lieutenants standing respectfully by their consoles. “And welcome to Shadow Exercises. As Starfleet's future chiefs and captains, this is your opportunity to build rapport with a senior officer, and see firsthand what their duties entail.” 

May is silent at Tilly’s left side. 

“So let us begin,” Saru completes. He gestures across the bridge towards the various officers at their consoles, and Tilly swallows down her fear before proceeding towards the captain’s chair. 

“Look sharp, people!” Captain Pike calls across the bridge in jest from where he stands behind the captain’s chair. “This is our future competition!” 

“Is that your captain?!” 

May’s barbed wire voice echoes in Tilly’s ear, ringing across the bridge as if on a loudspeaker. Pike raises an eyebrow, and Tilly draws herself upright before him. 

“Uh…Ensign Sylvia Tilly, sir!” Tilly chirps, hoping she sounds natural. “Fully present and focused on this very important exercise, for which I am all ears, Captain!” 

Tilly refuses to pull her eyes away from Pike’s face, even though May is crowding her right shoulder. 

Pike, for his part, smiles wryly, the expression shaving ten years off of his appearance.  

“Your dedication is noted, Ensign. So, what should we do?” He leans against the captain’s chair, the very embodiment of ease. “How ‘bout we marry some folks, even if they’re not that into each other, hm?” 

Tilly manages a warbling laugh, torn between terror and genuine amusement. “Very good, sir,” she supplies easily, unclenching just a little bit.  

The scary thing about this is, Tilly likes Captain Pike, strange circumstances behind his presence or not. She likes their new captain, and all she really wants is to make a good impression on him during these Shadow Exercises. Having Pike in her corner would certainly help her in her desire for advancement, and Sylvia Tilly is fully aware that, as Starfleet’s most ridiculous ensign, she would need as many people in her corner as she could get. 

Lieutenant Rhys approaches the captain’s chair, stylus in hand. 

“Captain, I just need your authorization on this…” 

“I don’t understand,” comes May’s accented voice in Tilly’s ear. “That was funny. The captain of this ship is not funny, he is terrifying!” 

Tilly refuses to look, well aware of everyone around them on this very full and bustling starship bridge. Instead, she mumbles out of the side of her mouth, “You may be thinking of an old captain, Captain Lorca.” 

The mumble sounds ridiculous, practically incoherent, but May can’t be more than a foot away from her. 

“Is he shorter?” May insists, heedless of her own volume. “And blonder? And much, much whiter? Because that’s who I’m looking for!” 

The final two words crackle in Tilly’s ears, and she nearly misses Captain Pike’s statement in the ringing. 

“Ready if you are.” Pike raises an expectant eyebrow. 

“He’s not the man I need to talk to!” May exclaims, taking step in front of Tilly to block Pike from view. She’s clearly becoming distressed, her dark eyes flashing, her gestures becoming sharper. 

“Hop in the chair, Ensign.” 

“Y-yes, Sir!” Tilly sidesteps May, trying with all of her might to ignore what she knows to be an apparition, albeit an angry one. 

“Let’s run a systems test—“ 

“Where is the other captain?” May demands, whirling on Tilly. 

“A uh, systems test, right.” Tilly repeats, the words ringing in her brain. 

Other captain, other captain…  

“…uh, where?” Tilly queries. 

Pike’s brow furrows where he stands. He raises a confused eyebrow. “In…the chair, Ensign?”

He gestures expectantly towards the captain’s chair. 

“Oh! Uh, right, of course, yes,” Tilly babbles, feeling quite ridiculous. She trots forward and steps onto the dias, sitting quickly in the chair. 

The captain’s chair. 

Tilly struggles not to shake, tries not to spontaneously combust as she studies the armrest controls. By all accounts, this should be a momentous occasion for her. Her, Sylvia Tilly, sitting in the captain’s chair, about to perform captain’s duties for the first time…not that it’s her first time in the chair, of course, there was the time in the Terran universe when she’d been forced to play-act as Captain Killy, but this is different, this is…well, this is all of her dreams and ambitions coming true, finally--  

“Acknowledged,” Tilly chokes, feeling like a raw, overstimulated nerve. “Um, run checklist protocol, step one—“ 

“Tilly, this is not right!” May Ahearn appears to Tilly’s left once more. Her barbed wire voice is about twenty decibels too loud for her body, and Tilly flinches. “My plan is falling apart! Where is the captain, Tilly?!” 

Tilly finally snaps, whirling towards May.  

“Calm. Down,” she hisses, her anxiety turning to rage in a split second. 

“Ensign, I’m hearing considerably fewer syllables out of you than normal.” Pike chimes in from Tilly’s right, his voice sounding a mixture of amused and irritated. “I know the chair can be intimidating, but are you okay?” 

Tilly wonders if this is what it is like to have an angel and a devil on each shoulder. 

“No!” May exclaims angrily, taking several steps across the bridge to block Pike from Tilly’s sight. “No, we are not okay! I want the captain!” She sounds quite like a child having a temper tantrum. “I want the captain—“ 

“This is the captain!” Tilly snaps, gesturing at Pike. 

“Ensign, what is going on?” 

That’s Pike’s voice, Tilly realizes.  

She blinks and May is gone, leaving only Captain Pike’s bewildered stare, and behind him, Lieutenants Bryce and Airiam, both looking at her with wide eyes. 

“Tilly, answer Captain Pike,” Commander Saru orders from somewhere behind her, sounding downright testy. 

The entire bridge is silent now, Tilly realizes. Silent, and staring at her in the captain’s chair.  

Fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck-- 

With a steadying swallow, Tilly looks down at the armrest and attempts to gather herself-- 

She looks up, and May is back. 

Something inside Tilly breaks. 

“Tilly, I—“ 

“No!” Tilly snarls, whirling at the apparition. “No, I’m not listening to you anymore! You tricked me, and you lied to me!” 

“I didn’t lie!” May insists, her voice high and angry. She points behind her, towards Pike. “He’s lying, he is an imposter—“ 

“SHUT UP!” Tilly screams--  

Ensign Sylvia Tilly!” 

Saru’s exclamation is loud and disturbed enough to make Tilly flinch.

When her eyes reopen, May is gone. 

Instead, Tilly finds that her gaze is pointed right at Captain Pike. The captain’s face is white, his blue eyes wide and shocked, and in the next moment, Tilly realizes what the entire bridge surely saw. 

“No! No, I didn’t—uh…”  

Tilly unfolds herself from the captain’s chair, still babbling.  

“I didn’t mean…she drove me to it!”  

But May is gone, so gone in fact that Tilly has to wonder if she was ever even there in the first place.  “Oh God, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Her hands come up to her forehead, her fingers wanting to pull at her hair, though Tilly stops them just in time.

“I’m not—I’m not—“ 

Not crazy…not crazy…  

The words only die in her throat.  

Detmer is staring. Owosekun looks concerned. Rhys is looking between Pike and Saru, and Tilly can feel the embarrassment emanating from him. 

No…no no no no…  

The enormity of Tilly's actions begin to crash down upon her. 

She yelled at a captain.  

She yelled at a captain, and not just any captain, but at Captain Pike, the pride of Starfleet and the Federation proper, and in front of a bridge full of his subordinates, her superiors

“I…” 

In the blink of an eye, Tilly sees her bright future crumbling to ruin around her. She sees herself demoted, booted from Starfleet, diagnosed with insanity and committed to a psychiatric unit forever, her dreams plucked from her hands and extinguished entirely. 

“I…”  

There was only one way out of this, one way to avoid being reprimanded, demoted, committed.  

“I quit.” 

The words leave Tilly’s chest, and her heart breaks with them. 

On silent feet, Tilly walks to the turbolift, the stares of the entire bridge complement burning hot at her back. She ignores May Ahearn’s sympathetic gaze at her right shoulder as the doors hiss shut, blocking the bridge from view. 

Tilly’s face, like her dreams, crumple the second the doors are closed. 

Her goals, ambitions, her future, out of view, out of sight, out of reach, permanently and forever.

Chapter Text

 

 

Michael Burnham has not felt this destroyed since their brief visit to the Terran Empire.

Her heart feels like it’s been stepped on. She does not know where to go from here.

Philippa is so close, a mere deck above her, but she might as well be a thousand lightyears away. That awful distance in her voice, her warm, familiar face shutting down like a deactivating terminal…

Michael’s tears drip onto her pillow, soaking the right side of her face as she curls tightly upon herself. It hurt so much, so unbearably much…she thinks of Ash, of Voq, his cruel words and his hands squeezing the life from her…

How could it be happening again?

Michael remembers Philippa holding her in her arms that first night she came aboard, the wonderful fantasy that Michael had lived on and dreamed about for months and months after that horrible day at the Binary Stars, somehow coming to pass, here in reality…

It’s a thing called “keeping cover…

All an act…

Had Philippa been right?

Did Michael even know her anymore?

Michael catches a low sob in the fabric of the pillow. Crying feels good at times, and Michael hopes that this will exorcise the emotions that she does not have the strength to meditate away, the pain that she cannot coax into submission.

Perhaps the real problem is that Michael wants to know Philippa, whoever she may be now.

She wants to know her so badly.

She wants to be the person that Philippa Georgiou shares her secrets with, she wants to be trusted with Philippa’s past, she wants to take all of the sharp, painful edges that her captain hides away, and run gentle hands over them until they do not pain her any longer.

Despite the clear and obvious danger, Michael would still walk through fire for Philippa, she would still risk heartbreak and agony if it meant getting to be in Philippa’s presence, in her life…she would throw all of herself away if that was what it took to bring Philippa back…

Michael wipes the tears from her cheeks. She was a fool, a goddamn fool. Amanda had warned her, and Michael had gone and done it anyway. She had approached a wounded creature, and the creature had lashed out and ran. She was a xenoanthropologist, for stars’ sake, what on Earth had she expected?

Stupid, reckless, emotional idiot…

When would she ever learn?

The doors to her quarters hiss open, and Michael quickly rubs her face with a sleeve before sitting up.

Sylvia Tilly walks through the door, her face an interesting combination of embarrassment and pure terror.

“Michael?”

“What’s wrong?” Michael manages, her inner turmoil shunting away at the very idea of her young roommate becoming aware of it.

“Have you been crying?” Tilly asks, sounding completely shocked.

Michael’s voice barely trembles. “…I asked first.”

Tilly slowly sinks into the chair placed by the doors. She’s still staring at Michael, as if she had never seen her before.

“What…what happened?” Tilly asks, her blue eyes wide and swimming.

She is so terribly young, her cheeks still plump, her smiles still quick and unburdened. The last thing Michael wants is to force her friend to become more like her, filled with pain and baggage…

She closes her mouth, looks away, and begins the process of compartmentalizing, tucking her emotions away--

But Tilly leans forward, her face becoming determined.

“Look, I—I know that I’m like, the youngest person on this ship or whatever, and that I come off as scattered and silly, but like…I went through the same shit that you did, Michael…well, maybe not the exact same shit, but I was here, on this ship, with Ripper and the Terran Empire and Qo’Nos, and—and Ash…and you know what, I never asked if you were alright, during those things…”

Tilly’s eyes slide sideways as she speaks, like she’s looking at someone else for a brief second.

“I never…never really followed up with you, or checked in with you, and maybe it’s because you’re a little intimidating, or you seem to have everything together at all times, but like…I’m starting to think that maybe that was a mistake. I don’t think I’ve been the friend you needed.”

Tilly swallows. Her eyes dart from a place just to Michael’s left and back.

“You’ve been so nice to me, training me and helping me, just-- Me,” Tilly gestures at herself, “Like, who does that? And I haven’t…reciprocated, I feel like—“

“Tilly.” Michael cuts her off. “Sylvia.”

Tilly looks towards her now, still looking quite distressed.

“You have been more than enough of a friend, I promise.” Michael’s voice is soft and low. She wonders what might be going on with her ensign roommate, where all of this might be coming from.

“You showed me kindness before anyone did, back in the beginning, when I first arrived,” Michael continues, “And not because it would be favorable for you to do so…but because you are a good person, Tilly.”

Tilly nods shakily at that. She sniffles, rubbing at her nose with a sleeve. Michael takes her in, with her intense red hair and chubby cheeks, so young to be serving on a starship like this…but every word of what Michael had said to her had been true.

Michael wonders if her ensign roommate is mature or aware enough to help her with this problem, or if she herself even feels comfortable unbending in this way…it is so deeply personal, after all.

But Amanda’s words ring in Michael’s ear…

Promise me, that you will care for yourself…

She blinks, takes a deep breath, and decides to take a chance.

“I…had an argument, with Captain Georgiou,” Michael finds herself saying. “She is…not who I thought she was…”

To her intense shame, tears well in Michael’s eyes once more, triggered by merely saying the words out loud. Tilly gets up from the chair and plops herself down on the bed, throwing an arm around Michael’s shoulders. Michael slumps into her, the tears tracking down her cheeks. It isn’t the comfort she truly wants, the person she truly wants…but it is good, nonetheless.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I know how much you cared about her.”

“I still do,” Michael whispers, raw agony seeping into her voice. “But with what I know now…I don’t know if I should. But I don’t know how to stop…”

Tilly is quiet for several moments.

“This sounds kind of like…what happened with Ash—“

“It’s not,” Michael interrupts. “Ash was a victim of circumstance, he never asked for any of what happened to him, but Captain Georgiou—“

She is a willing participant.

Michael swallows harshly. The last thing she wants is to drag her friend into a situation like this…like the situation on Qo’Nos, three months prior. Michael had only very narrowly kept her out of that, and she won’t sully Sylvia Tilly’s innocence with this type of knowledge.

Philippa Georgiou was her roommate’s hero, and it should remain that way.

Tilly remains silent, until it becomes clear that Michael will not complete her thought.

“I think…well… Honestly, I think it’s pretty shitty that this keeps happening to you.”

Michael blinks.

A strange sound bubbles up in her chest, straying too close to the vicinity of a sob to be any type of laugh.

“But, um…” Tilly continues, tightening her grip around Michael’s shoulders. “Y’know, it’s pretty miraculous that Captain Georgiou is even alive.” Her voice becomes a forced kind of chipper. “Back from the dead, and all that! It’s just that, um…maybe…”

Tilly hesitates. Her head rustles as she turns slightly, and Michael follows her gaze to the middle of room, between their beds.

There is no doubt in her mind that Tilly’s eyes are tracking something, but there is nothing in their quarters for them to follow.

“Maybe…” Tilly continues, her voice going weak. “…expecting her to come back just the way she was…as the person she was…”

Her warbling voice staggers and trails off.

The moment stands silent now; dark and heavy, ominous, like an abandoned world-ship floating soundlessly through the void of deep space.

“Was I being naïve?”

Michael whispers the question as she gazes in the same direction that Tilly seems to be. She knows the answer before the thought leaves her lips.

“I…” A bitter chuckle leaves Michael’s chest. “I didn’t ask any questions. How she survived, what she did, for a year and a half on Qo’Nos… What she…she must have—“

The words die in Michael’s throat, viciously strangled before they could gain any type of traction in her brain.

Qo’Nos, Qo’Nos, Qo’Nos

The hell-planet that had taken Ash, that had taken Philippa, that had almost, almost taken Michael, and with her, Starfleet, the Federation, and the pillars on which their entire civilization had been built.

Michael gazes down at her fingers, which, many months earlier, in a dark time and a far darker place, had once held all of the destructive power that had smote Sodom and Gomorrah from the face of planet Earth.

--Shadows dart across the cold stone walls, they whisper in Michael’s ear as she stands alone over the Shrine of Molor…

The well upon which she will end the war and bring peace to the galaxy.

The Klingon home-world will be destroyed in fire and flame, with Michael dealing the final blow to this warlike race, to billions and billions of sentient lives—

“Michael?”

Michael twitches almost violently. “Hm?”

Tilly’s face is out of her line of sight, but Michael imagines the look of concern she must be wearing.

“Nothing!” Michael swallows. “It’s nothing. I mean…”

Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.

Focus.

“Ph—“ Michael staggers on the name. “She…she didn’t tell me she survived. For a year and half. She didn’t tell anyone. If not for--"

--her reassignment, courtesy of Section 31--

Michael clamps her mouth shut before the bitter truth can escape. She shakes her head jerkily, swallowing down that horrible notion.

“Would she have let me live out the rest of my life, without knowing?”

Michael's voice drops to an agonized whisper, the words rub her raw.

How could Philippa ever consider doing such a thing to her? Did she have no knowledge of the purgatory that in which Michael had dwelt for months, the agony that Michael would have carried with her, for all of her days? Losing Philippa had been like losing half of her heart. Being complicit in her death, well…

That had been like losing the other half.

Hadn't she given even half of a damn?

Hot tears bubble up in Michael’s eyes once more. Tilly’s arm grips her tighter, and Michael is torn between embarrassment and gratitude at the action.

At all of this, really.

“I don’t know, Michael…” Tilly finally speaks up, her voice thready. “I…you’re right. She shouldn’t have. It…it really doesn’t make sense.”

Michael shakes her head, barely hearing Tilly’s words. She dislodges a few more lingering tears.

Both are quiet for several long moments.

Tilly turns her head, a weak smile crossing her lips.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me everything, y’know.”

Michael blinks in surprise.

“I get that you’re like, all circumspect and Vulcan-y, all of that,” Tilly continues with a slight laugh. “But I mean…I’m around if you want to tell me just a little bit more, at any point, ever. It-- it just feels like…maybe I don’t have the whole story here. As usual.”

Tilly rushes the bit at the end, and Michael snorts wetly.

Neither do I, she tries to respond, but the words catch in her throat.

Michael is quite uncertain as to whether she even wants the whole story.

“But anyway…” Tilly’s voice gets just a bit stronger. “I just don’t want you to feel like you’re totally alone, even if you can’t say all of it. Like…yeah, okay, Captain Georgiou is really great and inspiring and a total badass and all, but if whatever she did, makes you feel like this…”

Tilly trails off.

“Maybe you need some time to process? Like, some time…apart.”

The suggestion comes out tentatively. Michael considers rejecting it out of hand, but stops herself as realization strikes.

She hasn’t actually stopped to process it.

Any of it.

She hadn’t given any real thought to the situation, because…well, she hadn’t wanted to.

So caught up in the euphoria of having her beloved captain back at her side, Michael had not once stopped to consider the implications of Philippa’s survival. The physics and the mechanics behind her resurrection, the motivations behind her reappearance…the logic underlying every aspect of what Michael had all too happy to write off as a minor miracle.

All of it, Michael had been content to ignore…

Until now.

Michael wonders if this is what it feels like to come down off of a chemically induced high, if this bleak despair and emptiness is how addicts feel when they finally crash back down to Earth.

She supposes that one cannot live in a fantasy forever. This reckoning has been a long time coming.

My own fault, Michael acknowledges wearily. No one else’s.

Just mine.

“…Yeah.”

The word grates from Michael’s chest as she forces it into being. She halfway expects the room to come crashing down around her as it does so, but nothing happens.

In fact…

The tight knot in her chest seems to be loosening, just a little bit.

“I think you’re right, Sylvia,” Michael continues, stronger now. “That…might be a good idea.”

The pain and heartbreak seems to ease with every passing second that Michael gives thought to her roommate’s advice. Somehow, the agony between her shoulder blades seems to be lessening with each weary agreement.

A bizarre medicine, but not an unwelcome one.

“It is?” Tilly asks. She sounds surprised. “You think so?”

“Yes.” A laugh bubbles up in Michael’s chest, taking her by surprise. She takes a sniffling breath, and the hurt dissipates even more. “You’re right about something. Have a little confidence. Captains need to be certain of their judgment.”

“I mean, yeah! Yeah, of course they do, but…but—“

Tilly’s voice breaks. Her shoulders start shaking. Michael pulls herself up, alarmed.

“Hey! Hey hey hey, it’s okay, I wasn’t being serious—“

“I know!” Tilly exclaims, her hands waving in front of her. “I know, and I love you for that! Oh God it’s not you, I promise…”

Tilly’s voice is warbling, slightly hysterical. Her tear-filled eyes dart around the room once more.

“It’s—it’s not anyone, but I don’t know what it is…maybe it’s something, I don’t know—I, I don’t—“

Tilly cuts herself off, her teeth clattering shut audibly.

Michael stares at her for a long beat of silence.

Finally:

“Tell me what’s happening with you, Sylvia.”

Tilly flinches, collapsing inwards ever so slightly. Michael lowers her head to look at her roommate’s face.

“What is going on? You’ve been jumpy, withdrawn…you ran that half-marathon like you’d been training since childhood, and we both know that’s not true…”

Tilly chokes out a laugh, even as her eyes fill with tears.

“This isn’t about me,” she manages, her voice shaking. “It’s about you—“

“It can be both,” Michael counters. “You’ve helped me, let me return the favor.”

Come on…distract me, Tilly.

Give me a problem I can solve.

“I— “

Tilly hesitates just a brief moment, before it all leaves her in a rush.

“Michael, I think I might be losing it, I really do. After the asteroid exploded in the shuttlebay, I started to see a…ghost.”

She flinches again, her eyes closing.

Michael wonders if she is also hearing a ghost.

“She’s a girl I knew when I was a teenager. Her name is May, but she’s dead now. And the May I knew was meek, kinda goofy when you got to know her…but this one…”

Tilly’s eyes slide sideways towards something that Michael cannot see. “She’s, um…insistent. She’s grooming me for something, I think.”

“For what?” Michael finds herself asking. The thought of not believing her ensign friend does not even cross her mind. Tilly is an emotional person, but she is never, ever hysterical, not like this.

“I don’t know!” Tilly flinches again, shying away towards the left, further into Michael’s bed. “She—she won’t stop yelling, she says she has some sort of plan, she wants to see the captain, but she doesn’t mean Pike—“

Tilly shakes her head, tears dripping down her cheeks. “She’s wearing me down. I’ve been avoiding sickbay, but at this point, I don’t know what to do. I’m desperate! And after today, I’m never gonna make captain—“

Tilly groans, whirling towards her right, towards the middle of their quarters, where there is nothing at all.

“Yeah, ‘cause I’m crying, you stupid—“ Tilly cuts herself off. Michael stares at her.

“She doesn’t know what tears are…”

Once more, Tilly’s eyes are tracking something, which from the looks of it, seems to be moving further into their quarters. Michael follows her eyes until they reach their shared bathroom.

“She…she’s gone now. She said she’s gonna think of a new plan…” Tilly looks faintly nauseated at the idea.

Michael stays still for several long moments. She thinks of the available data…her roommate running a half-marathon like it was nothing at all, seeing the ghost of girl she once knew, a ghost that had appeared after the impossible asteroid exploded randomly, spontaneously…

…Spontaneously…

“Just because we have no context to understand something…” Michael murmurs. “Does not mean…that there is not a rational explanation...”

Sylvia Tilly might be an expert on the vast spectrum of Human emotion and its associated blind spots, but Michael Burnham is a being of logic and reason.

This is her area of expertise.

This is a problem she can solve.

She considers the data set, running through possible conclusions given the parameters implied by the available facts. In the next moment, a logical probability appears, not quite clear enough to be called a hypothesis, but it does intimate a subsequent course of action, which will either eliminate or confirm what Michael currently suspects, and this will add to their pool of available information.

Context.

“You said that May didn’t know what crying was. How is that possible?” Michael shakes her head. “Show me a teenage girl who’s never cried…you can’t.”

She manages a smile, which cracks at the dried tear-tracks on her cheeks.

“I know, I’m a xenoanthropologist.”

Michael allows her voice to become comically raw, and they both laugh a little at it, like Michael hadn’t been crying on Tilly’s shoulder a mere minute before.

“If May were merely a projection of your subconscious, she would know what tears are…because you know what tears are.” A bit of reach, considering Michael has little experience with hallucinations, but no matter. “And the asteroid…the red sparks that were dancing on its surface, but only reacted when they came close to you…”

Michael leans forward, her eyes widening as she follows logic to the ensuing realization.

“I held a piece in my hand and nothing happened. The dark matter, dark energy, whatever that red was…it seems to react in proximity to just one thing…”

Tilly’s eyes light up as she follows Michael’s train of thought to its logical conclusion.

“Spores…” she murmurs.

“You don’t need sickbay,” Michael reassures her, and hopes to the heavens that she’s right about this. “You need Stamets.”

 

 

**

 

 

“Just as I suspected,” Stamets announces as he whirs the scanner over Tilly’s chest. “You are hosting a eukaryotic organism.”

“A fungus?” Tilly sounds equal parts scared and fascinated.

“Obviously multi-cellular, since it has…opinions.”

Tilly flinches where she lies on the hastily assembled bio-bed in front of the reaction cube. “She um…she really doesn’t like being called a “fungus.””

“Strange, considering that is what she is, just as we are mammals,” Michael murmurs. She looks off in the direction her terrified roommate is staring, wondering what Tilly might be seeing.

“Anyone who works around the spore drive is inoculated, how did she contract it?” Commander Saru queries in his mellow tone where he stands at Tilly’s other side.

“It’s possible that the spore developed a resistance, like bacteria,” Stamets muses as he wheels a portable CAT scanner into position. “Or it’s a different spore altogether than the ones we harvest here.”

Saru takes this in with interest. “When Discovery escaped the Terran universe, their spores rained down on Engineering. If one of them attached itself to you—“ 

“Great!” Tilly chokes, her hands flopping beside her. “I have a Terran spore in my brain—“

“In your cardiovascular and respiratory system, actually,” Stamets corrects as he gazes at the CAT display screen over Tilly’s head. “And considering that all spores are originally from the mycelial network, which lies between all universes…she isn’t Terran.”

“Oh thank God.” Tilly’s exclamation manages to be both dry and hysterical at the same time.

Stamets ignores her in favor of toggling with the controls of the scanner. Michael leans in to look at the image on the screen above Tilly’s head.

“Wow…” she murmurs in spite of herself.

Stamets smiles softly beside her as he too, takes in the CAT scan. “Hey, May.”

The image itself is a delight, a veritable rainbow of structures and complex micro-scaffolds built upon Sylvia Tilly’s existing organ systems. Michael is no doctor, but even she can see how certain structures would increase blood flow and heart function, and how others might speed the efficiency of gas exchange in the semi-permeable capillaries of the lungs.

What a fascinating creature this spore is turning out to be.

“There’s our hitchhiker,” Stamets concludes. “A multi-dimension, fungal parasite.”

Tilly flinches. “She’s—she’s saying she’s not a parasite… Ughhhh—“ Her eyes screw shut, and Michael’s heart goes out to her friend. “Why does she look like someone I knew when I was a teenager?”

“Brain manipulation, perhaps?” Michael posits, and Tilly flinches again. “Why, what does she say?”

“She—ah, she says,” Tilly is wincing rather admirably. “—That… that she recognized May’s face—“

Michael raises an eyebrow at that, but Tilly continues. “ She says I’m her only chance--”

Tilly loses the battle with her hands, which finally rise to cover her ears. “How do we get rid of her?”

Stamets is off in a corner next to the reaction cube, fumbling with several large instruments. “We,” he announces as he rises to his feet, “Use the attraction between the mycelial asteroid and the fungal spores to suck her right out of you.”

He strides forth with what appears to be a transparent laser scalpel tool in his hands, complete with a clear containment unit. No doubt the scalpel function has been repurposed by the engineering mycologists for uses such as these, but Michael’s eyes widen nevertheless.

“This…may hurt a little.”

And in the next moment, Stamets levels the device at Tilly’s chest and activates it.

Michael jumps as a strange vortex blasts between the metal extractor and Tilly’s chest. Power hums in the disturbed air between the two, and reality turns wavy, reducing Tilly’s features to a vague blur.

Tilly’s spine bends double as she moans in utter agony, audible even over the metallic howl issuing from Stamets’ device. Her high voice echoes and repeats, no doubt to the soundwave distortions produced by the machine. Michael’s mind goes on high alert, her muscles clenching in anticipation of disaster.

To her astonishment and disgust, a strange grey matter starts to appear directly between the extractor and Tilly’s chest. Lumpy, speckled, clearly alive in some way…Michael reaches for her phaser without thinking, and Saru does the same beside her.

Finally, the extractor clicks, apparently satisfied. Stamets whirls sideways to throw the gray matter as far from Tilly as he can, and Tilly slumps on the bio-bed, clearly unconscious. Michael casts her a single, worried glance, but whips her phaser towards the now-floating gray blob.

She can worry for her friend later.

“Security breach by unknown alien species in Engineering!” She thumbs her phaser to a higher setting.

“Initiate quarantine protocol Alpha-Omega!” Saru orders. A circular shielding bubble appears over the lumpy grey blob, which squeals and bounces against the surfaces as it attempts to escape. It hangs over the spore lab like the strangest sort of decoration, and Michael studies it with all of her scientific prowess.

“That is the most interesting-looking fungus I have ever seen.” Stamets’ voice is fascinated as he walks slowly, slowly towards the mid-air circular shielding.

Michael and Saru lower their phasers. Michael admits that she has to agree with her mycologist friend; the once-tiny spore has somehow grown into a gelatinous blob, a sentient one, if Tilly’s hallucinations are to be believed.

Tilly…

Michael whirls back towards her friend, who is unconscious, but alive, Michael notes from the scanners. She places a hand on Tilly’s shoulder as she studies the screen above her head. Her vitals are normal; she will no doubt be alright.

“It is lucky we were able to extract that fungus at all,” Saru states from over Michael’s shoulder. “After it bonded itself to Tilly’s system like that.”

“Especially if it had been doing so for months,” Michael murmurs, shaking her head. “She could have died…”

She nearly jumps at the feeling of Saru’s hand on her shoulder.

“But she didn’t, Michael,” he offers gently, and Michael closes her eyes and nods.

She didn’t.

“And now, we can study this being,” Saru continues, “And with any luck, return it to its home without a fight.”

Michael gazes up at the gray blob that floats over Engineering, and her hand brushes over the phaser strapped to her thigh.

Some part of her very much doubts that it will be so easy.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Philippa’s console beeps, rousing her from her light slumber. She pulls herself into a seated position, rubbing the sleep and the crust of old tears from her eyes, and gets up to answer it.

Leland’s code blinks up towards her. Philippa drops to the floor, reaching beneath her bunk for her bundle of black leathers.

Twenty seconds, and she is presentable once more, cloaked in the uniform of Section 31. In a long, full breath, Philippa armors herself in the darkness of her actions, in the full heft of her sins.

It is who she is now.

Her handler’s hologram springs up from the floor, arms crossed over his chest. His stubbled face does not look happy, but then again, that is nothing new.

“You blew cover, Agent.

“To a mere two personnel and one civilian; I would hardly call that catastrophic.”

“You gave up valuable intel—“

“Which they would have discovered anyway,” Philippa dismisses. “Pike would have told them to break into that file, if it meant saving his beloved lieutenant.”

“They now know that you are watching them, Georgiou, are you not familiar with basic Academy Quantum Theory?” Leland’s smooth tone barely contains his anger. “The very act of observation affects the results; all of your data will be tainted now, we cannot trust the intel you gather—“

“Oh Leland, you can be so dramatic at times,” Philippa chuckles. “Like we don’t walk around in black clothing, like half of our personnel don’t wear our badges openly—“

“Which they do, so that the half that do not can slip under the radar,” Leland cuts in. “You know that damn well, Agent. This is an inadmissible error.

“Error? Please.” Philippa rolls her eyes. “So Christopher Pike knows that I am Section 31. What’s he going to do?”

Leland remains silent.

“What?” Philippa asks lightly, expectantly. “He cannot remove me from his ship. I am in sickbay, nowhere near the bridge, so he will not have to look at me and be reminded. He is aware of the bugs, but I have back-ups in place.”

Philippa shakes her head. “This changes nothing, Leland. Nothing at all.”

“And Michael Burnham?” Leland’s voice is cold.

“What about her?”

She knows who you are.”

Leland’s dark, venomous eyes pin Philippa in place, weighted with burden of terrible knowledge.

“Does she know everything?”

Philippa scoffs. She nearly utters a vehement denial, but pauses before she does.

Any information that Leland has is information that he will use.

“What’s it to you?” She finally asks.

Leland folds his arms over his chest. “We are pursuing a wanted murderer, who is also Burnham’s brother. If she becomes unwilling to openly share what strides she makes in the case, because she no longer trusts her surroundings…”

He trails off.

“That is on you, Agent.”

The holographic Leland narrows his eyes.

“I can’t help but consider the idea that this was all an act of self-sabotage.”

Philippa raises an eyebrow at that, but says nothing.

“Blowing cover so spectacularly, in the middle of an assignment that you don’t want be on…giving up valuable intel for zero reward, in a location where you know we are listening…”

Leland trails off once more.

Philippa almost cannot believe her luck, that Leland would assume that she had done what she did as an act of selfishness, rather than the exact opposite.

“I applaud you for going to such lengths, Agent,” Leland continues. “Before today, I would have told you that such actions are pointless and stupid; however, circumstances have changed.”

Leland seems to lean in, slightly.

“There was an attempt made on Chancellor L’Rell’s leadership, just this morning.”

Philippa’s eyes widen, and Leland continues. “You were right about the child. It was hidden away for months, but Lord Sha of House Kol found it and abducted it. He tried to force L’Rell to abdicate. Luckily, our team was in place and intervened in time.”

Philippa takes all of that in, both what happened and what will happen, and tries to make sense of how this will change the power dynamic of Section 31, so she will not be caught unaware.

“We have the child,” Leland continues, “As well as Ash Tyler. L’Rell made her choice; she will fake both of their deaths and use them to consolidate her power.”

Philippa nods in approval. She does not know the Klingon chancellor personally, but from everything she has heard, she knows that the woman is shrewd and politically savvy. This will be a good move for her.

Leland gestures towards her with his chin. “I have a task for you.”

Philippa knows what is coming, and she rolls her eyes in a dramatic show of weariness.

“Why do you always make me do these things?”

“Because you’re good at it. No one ever says no to “Captain Georgiou” now, do they?”

Leland smirks, and Philippa glowers.

She was not “Captain Georgiou.” Not anymore.

“I’ll put him on. Be aware, his…son…is with him now.”

Leland leaves the feed, and Philippa closes her eyes. She takes a steadying breath, recalling all she knows of Ash Tyler…once Voq, son of None, tortured, brainwashed, brutally reconfigured as a Human to serve as a sleeper agent aboard the USS Discovery, and now…

Ash Tyler. Not quite Human, not quite Klingon. L’Rell’s torchbearer, and part of the fight for lasting peace.

This was going to be interesting.

In the next moment, a tall man enters the holo-feed. His skin is the color of sand, his beard long and dark, hair pulled into a short ponytail. He holds a small bundle in his arms.

“Ash Tyler,” Philippa states warmly. “I am pleased to finally put a face to the name.”

“Captain Georgiou,” Tyler replies. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Oh? Good things?”

“Entirely.” Tyler smiles. “I am happy to see that you’re alive.”

“I am quite happy to be alive,” Philippa states, only lying a little. “And who is this?”

She gestures with her chin at the bundle in Tyler’s arms.

Tyler’s face flickers. He takes a sharp, unsteady breath.

“L’Rell’s son… My—my son.”

He bends slightly, and Philippa rises onto her toes to peer into the bundle. A small Klingon baby lies swaddled in the dark brown blankets, fast asleep, with no knowledge of what nearly happened to him.

His skin is pure white.

“Ah,” Philippa finally remarks. “You have the same dorsal ridges.”

Tyler stares at her for a moment, before a smile tugs across his face. He huffs out a short laugh, and from the awkward sound of it, Philippa is willing to bet that is the first time he has found anything funny in months.

She knows the feeling.

“I saw what you did for us…” Tyler manages. “The false bodies you provided for L’Rell. Synthesized down to the neural mapping, the genetic codes. This isn’t everyday Federation espionage.”

Tyler was Head of Security aboard this ship for several months, of course he would catch that.

“What kind of organization could pull that off?”

Philippa is quite certain Tyler already knows the answer; nevertheless, she produces her black and silver badge from her pocket.

“This kind.”

“Section 31…” Tyler stares at the badge in her hands. “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen a black badge before.”

Philippa hears a beeping sound from Tyler’s end, as well as muffled voices. Tyler looks over his shoulder, says a few words, then turns back.

“We’re in orbit over Boreth,” he tells Philippa. “I’m going to leave him with the monks, it’s the safest place he could be.”

The Monastery of Boreth. Philippa knows of this place, where the most devout followers of Kahless conduct their worship and study the ancient texts of the Klingon prophet.

“You really want him to become a monk?” She finds herself asking, her head cocked in confusion.

“It’s what L’Rell wants.”

“And what do you want?”

Tyler gazes down at the baby in his arms. The child looks even smaller when compared to the relative height of Ash Tyler, but the tenderness on the man’s face is undeniable. Tenderness towards a child he had not asked for, nor been involved in procreating.

Lieutenant Ash Tyler was a good man. A good man, with a shit hand dealt to him.

Philippa feels confidence in her objective.

“I want to know where I belong,” Tyler finally murmurs. “And who belongs to me…and to whom I belong.”

He stares down at the face of this baby… Not his son in the truest sense, Philippa understands, but a being who bears an indelible connection to him, all the same.

“He will never struggle on that point,” Tyler continues. “The monks will raise him in their ways, they will care for him and show him equal treatment, despite how he is different. And that is no small thing.”

“Yet you will never see him again.” Philippa’s voice is soft. She marvels at this man’s choice, at L’Rell’s choice. “Nor will his mother.”

“He’ll never know me,” Tyler agrees. “Nor L’Rell. But he’ll be safe.”

His tall, holographic form turns around, handing the child off to someone out of the feed.

“It’s almost time,” Tyler states. His voice is steady, though his eyes are positively swirling. Philippa wonders what this move might be costing him, and how.

Tyler looks Philippa up and down, his face going thoughtful.

“Captain…can I ask why you’ve joined Section 31? Surely it was within your rights to retire to Earth, to leave it all behind… Why do this?”

Gods, he was really going to make this easy for her.

“We are none of us set in stone,” Philippa begins. “People are changeable…and the ways that I was changed on Qo’Nos, during the war…”

She looks up at Lieutenant Ash Tyler, at Voq…at whoever this man might be now.

“That path is closed to me, permanently. But that does not mean that there are not still ways for me to make good.”

Philippa looks down at the black badge in her hands, rubbing a thumb over it.

The only place left for the broken shards of a tool like me…

“We do not have much in the way of a reputation,” Philippa continues. “But we make use of our pasts…the things that make us unsuited for Fleet life; in Section 31, these are our strengths. It’s a place where we can belong…where we can contribute, in what ways we can.”

She looks up at Tyler once more, and switches to a lighter tone.

“I do hope you will consider sticking around, Tyler. Command believes that misfits like us have merit, so…we keep busy.”

Tyler’s lips twitch. “I’m surprised you call yourself a misfit, Captain.”

Philippa cracks a smile. “Always have been, despite what posthumous praises of me you might have read. It’s amazing, really, the things people will say about you once you are gone.”

Tyler shakes his head, a smile tugging across his lips.

“She sure was right about you,” he murmurs. Philippa opens her mouth to ask for clarification, but before she can, Tyler casts a look over his shoulder.

“I have to go,” he states, and Philippa knows that the time is upon him, finally. Tyler squares his shoulders, clearly steeling himself for the next several minutes. “But I’ll consider your offer. Thank you, Captain.”

Agent,” Philippa corrects. “And good luck to you, Ash. Qapla’,” she barks, and Tyler raises an appreciative eyebrow before ending the feed.

Philippa sighs long and low, sagging where she stands, utterly exhausted by what her life seems to have become. She drops onto her bed, casting a weary glance towards the stars outside of her window.

It is barely even shift-change, and it feels like eight days have passed.

Such is the burden of nation-building.

Philippa takes her black badge out of her pocket once more, rolling it over and over in her fingertips. With a long sigh, she turns around to look out of the window, out into the blackness of space, speckled with the brilliant pinpricks of distant stars and planets.

She considers Lieutenant Ash Tyler, at the choice available to him now, and what he will decide to do. She considers what she has done in the service of Section 31, what she has done in the service of the Federation.

What had happened on Qo’Nos…what had almost happened on Qo’Nos…

The black badge turns over in her hands, its tiny inset controls easily detectable to the sensitive pads of her fingertips.

Philippa’s left hand brushes absently across the silver badge over her heart, allotted to her for her position in sickbay. She thinks of this ship, and all of the people she has met, all of the people who look at her with stars in their eyes, with admiration in their faces, who greet her with smiles, who try so hard to be good, and kind, and decent…

These people who make her feel lower than dirt for mere espionage, when just last week, Philippa had tugged the threads into place that had resulted in a Klingon dignitary’s mysterious death, and drank tea and put her feet up while the man was no doubt being dismembered.

Michael’s betrayed face, the fury in the set of her shoulders, the heartbreak in her soft brown eyes at Philippa’s true allegiance…

She does not even know the half of it.

Resolve hardens around Philippa's heart.

And she never will.

Philippa grips the black badge in a vice. She presses the tiny comm switch on its surface, in a specific, unique pattern known only to her handler.

Then she stretches out in her bunk, pushing the badge deep into her pocket once more.

And waits.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Michael’s chest rises and falls as she gazes listlessly towards the wall of her bedroom. Her head aches too much to roll over and look out the window; something about the searing red light of the twin Vulcan suns aggravates this post-attack pain.

“Migraines,” Amanda had told her with no little sympathy, rubbing Michael’s back as she knelt in front of the toilet, head throbbing, stomach roiling.

The doctors had told her upon her release from the hospital that these headaches will dissipate with the passage of time.

Clearly not enough time has passed.

Another tear rolls down Michael’s face as she shakes beneath the light top-sheet of her bed. It had been another terrible day in a string of quite terrible days. The detectives investigating the Learning Center bombing had dropped the case, citing unsubstantial evidence.

Or at least, that was what Amanda had told her.

But Michael knows better. Sarek and Amanda’s earlier shouting match in their bedroom continues to ring in her ears. Michael had listened at the door, with Spock at her side, whispering to her the parts that she had been unable to hear with her Human auditory processes.

--“clearly paid them off”—

--“Political favors”—

--“House Barik is legendary for their bigotry”—

--“you are being irrational, wife”—

--“horrific, blatant corruption”—

And Amanda’s final, echoing shout:

What are you going to do about this, Sarek?!

Michael closes her eyes. Another several tears shake loose.

The memory of Shi’Kahr’s most notorious Vulcan supremacists striding placidly from police headquarters will likely never leave her. Lord Navok’s cold eyes, T’Nal’s frosty expression, her utter disdain and self-righteous pride mirrored in the expression of her grown son, Talnik, as they boarded their speeder and left the premises without so much as a police escort.

She remembers the sight of Amanda Grayson later that night; standing hunched over the kitchen sink in the dark, far after everyone else had gone to bed.

Somehow, Amanda’s violent, shaking sobs had frightened Michael far more than anything else that day had.

Michael’s eyes squeeze tightly shut, and she curls up into a ball in her bed.

“Mommy…Daddy…” she whispers. In the darkness behind her eyelids, Michael imagines her mother wrapping her up tightly and taking her away from this awful place, somewhere where she and Daddy are alive and together. They survived the Doctori Alpha massacre, they’ve been laying low, waiting for a safe time to come and get their baby, and that time is now, they heard about the bombing and they’ve finally come to rescue her, to bring her home with them, somewhere safe and happy—

Michael barely registers the click of her doorknob turning, her door opening and shutting. For a single, ludicrous moment, Michael wonders if her fantasies have somehow come to life.

But this mad hope is quickly dispelled. Spock’s footsteps are easily discernable in their lightness.

“Michael.” His voice is almost comically hushed, barely above a whisper. Perhaps Amanda told him about the migraines. “We have brought you a present. You do not have to get up, I will bring it to you.”

There is a soft rustle as Spock deposits something onto her bed.

“Mother says that you do not have to come down to dinner, but she does want you to eat something. She will come up and visit you soon, if you would like.”

The door clicks open and shut again, and Spock’s footsteps retreat down the hall. Michael sighs, relieved that her foster brother had decided to not be overbearing today.

Spock has been strangely nice to her after her second near-death experience in the woods of Shi’Kahr’s Forge, the night she had run away. Looking back on it, Michael feels quite stupid for choosing to go through the forest, notorious for its beasts and dangerous wildlife. She is grateful that Sarek had found her before that terrifying giant scorpion could snatch her up, although she has no real idea how he did so.

Actually, her entire foster family has been incredibly compassionate to her in the wake of that horrible night, even though Michael had assumed that she would be grounded until the end of time. Sarek makes time each day to meditate with her, which is helping somewhat with the night terrors. Amanda is homeschooling her for the time being, until the Learning Center is rebuilt and Michael feels well enough to go back to school. And Spock has taken to sleeping in her room, in a tiny sleeping bag next to her bed. He chatters on about everything and nothing as Michael lies in her bed gazing at the stars, whether she deigns to respond or not.

It is extremely irritating.

Michael would never admit aloud that is easier to fall asleep with the knowledge that someone else is in the room with her.

Michael’s mattress flexes and unflexes as she lies listless beneath the sheets. The top sheet rustles, the sounds and movements growing closer to her head. Michael stiffens at the disturbances, and goes entirely rigid at the sensation of a warm, heavy something crawling atop her exposed side and staying there.

The moments turn to a full minute, long enough for Michael to recognize the strange sensation vibrating from the deadweight draped across her upper arm.

Purring.

Michael pokes her head out from the blanket. The movement disrupts whatever has taken up residence on her left side, and it gives an indignant yowl as it rolls onto the bed.

Michael finds herself staring into the large amber eyes of a very strange-looking cat.

She looks at the cat. The cat looks at her.

Mrowwww.”

Michael jumps. The cat emits a sound that is far too deep and booming in its intensity to be a normal Earth cat. Not to mention the darker brown patterns on its tan fur, its massive ears, and its massive form in general. It is nearly the size of an Earth terrier.

Some sort of native Vulcan animal, perhaps?

Michael stares at it for several long moments. The cat stares back at her, before lowering its head to lick primly at one of its paws.

“Okay…”

It seems Spock has given her a panther. An in-character move for her foster brother, who is close friends with a giant sehlat that comes and goes as it pleases.

Michael scoots an inch closer to the cat, which looks up sharply, before returning to its task. Michael scoots again. And again. And again, until she is close enough to curl ever so gently around the animal’s furry body.

Mrowwww.”

Michael winces at the deep, grating meow. The sound hurts her head, but the soothing frequency of the cat’s vibrating body helps, just a little.

The cat’s cold nose prods curiously at Michael’s chin, her cheek, her jawline. Apparently reaching a decision, it presses its large, furry head beneath Michael’s face, rubbing firmly. Michael’s lips crack painfully as she smiles. She realizes that she has not made this particular expression in quite a long time.

“Are you a boy cat, or a girl cat?”

The cat does not answer. The purring continues.

Later on, Amanda will confide in her that this strain of wild Northern Sand Cat has been vigorously bred, traits selected and behaviors trained for across thousands of generations to create a breed that is protective, affectionate, and most importantly, domesticated.

Much later on, Michael’s xenoanthropology curriculum will make her aware of just how tightly controlled the distribution of these animals is, and how ludicrously difficult they are to obtain for an ordinary household.

But for now, Michael’s eyes flutter shut as she cuddles the soft animal in her bed. The pain in her head is dissipating, finally, and sleep comes to her at last.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

The staff meeting concerning the new information regarding the Red Angel is less than productive.

The images that Spock had drawn in his psych ward are all but seared into Michael’s mind, she sees its red visage in her troubled attempts to sleep, and just over her shoulder as she goes about her day. Yet somehow, all of Discovery’s combined powers of deduction have yielded no results as to what the being might be.

No indications as to the Angel’s possible species, nor its intent, nor its identity.

Aside from Saru’s anomalous bad cold, Michael would have quickly folded the memory of the meeting away to make room for other things.

Despite his illness, Saru casts her worried looks through the entirety of the briefing, which Michael does not miss, even in her compromised state. And in truth, his concern is justified. She has not been sleeping well since Philippa’s bombshell three days prior. Her thoughts are black, stormy and preoccupied, and she cannot stop herself from zoning out at times. Her chest is hollow, her heart reduced to splinters at the very notion of her former captain’s allegiance to this blood-soaked sect, of Philippa’s deception, after all that Michael has shared with her, after how thoroughly Michael had trusted her.

Michael has not felt herself slipping like this in a long time, not since the ordeal with Ash, and even then, she had been apart from him for the majority of the time until Voq’s removal by L’Rell.

She and Philippa share a ship. There is no avoiding her former captain, although Michael is certainly trying her best. No more sharing workouts or meals, no more going to Philippa’s quarters after their shifts to just talk, yet Michael still has to see Philippa in the mess hall, hear her lilting voice in the corridors, though the easy smiles and eye contact are no more.

The very sound of Philippa’s voice makes Michael’s hands shake. The merest sight of her dark hair and slender frame make Michael’s heart beat out of her chest, and not in the good way, like it used to.

Once more, Philippa Georgiou is a ghost to her.

It is the only way that Michael can remain functional.

And speaking of ghosts…

“In addition to the mystery of the Red Angel, there is also the strange occurrence of three days ago.”

Michael taps her PADD, entering several commands. She flicks the image onto the screen above the conference table. Everyone seated at the table seems to straighten, though there is no doubt in Michael’s mind that they have all seen it before.

The captured image of the burned spore drive, the destroyed standing table, and the backwards message written in an unknown black substance, on the inside of the reaction cube.

HELP

Commander Nhan takes a step closer to the table, squinting her large, Barzan eyes at the image.

“This message was written by…Doctor Hugh Culber, I am told? Who died…”

“Four months ago, yes.” Michael confirms. “During our first observation run of the red spores that Ensign Tilly found, a…” Michael’s lips work as she struggles for an appropriate term. “Specter, of Doctor Culber appeared in the reaction cube. The specter wrote this message before the explosion dissipated and he disappeared.”

“Go back to the ‘red spores.’” Linus waves a reptilian finger in the air. “Do we have any notion of what they are, or where they came from?”

“No.” Michael shakes her head. “They appeared in one of the containment cubes spontaneously, the same morning we jumped to Terralysium.”

With a few more flicks of her fingers, Michael brings up the observation feed Tilly had taken of the canister of red spores, plugged into the adaptor on the main terminal in the spore lab.

The red spores glow just as warmly as the normal white-blue mycelia that Stamets grows in the lab. They swirl within the container like captured stardust, red and bright.

“Wow…” Nhan murmurs, her head tilting. Michael wonders if she has seen any anomalies such as these on the Enterprise, but remembers that Nhan is security, not science. Still, considering the scientific nature of most of the threats they encounter here in Starfleet, Michael wonders if the two should even be considered separate branches of Fleet.

She takes a breath, before summarizing what they know.

“Their appearance within the containment canister triggered no alerts of any kind. This implies that, while within mycelial link-up stasis, these red spores are identical in every measurable way to the p. stellaviatori grown by Commander Stamets. However, upon removal from the vacuum field, these spores became…explosive, somehow.”

Michael flicks back to the image of the reaction cube, post-red spore detonation. The marred transparasteel walls of the drive, the blackened floor, and the burnt rubble of the standing table that supports Commander Stamets during jump sequences.

“We don’t know what could have triggered this explosion, or what the red spores might have reacted to. However, NMR spectroscopy data revealed the presence of tachyon radiation in the wake of the explosion, as well as traces of mycelial residue.”

The entire table looks stunned at that revelation.

“Tachyons…” Saru murmurs. “Similar to the explosion of the dark matter asteroid in the shuttle bay.”

Michael’s brain activates almost sluggishly, picking through the available data, scant though it may be. Was it all connected?

Was any of it connected?

Saru blinks at the viewscreen image. “And what of the…black substance used to write the letters? Has it been studied?”

“It dissipated within ten minutes of the occurrence,” Michael clarifies. “Even the sample that Ensign Tilly managed to take vanished inside its collection tube.”

“How odd…”

Saru continues to gaze at the image, but says nothing further.

Silence hangs over the conference table for a moment.

“I may not be the most qualified to speak on this topic,” Commander Nhan begins tentatively. “But it seems to me a very…strange coincidence, that the red spores appeared almost at the same time as this Red Angel.”

Heads around the conference table all bob in agreement; Nhan had merely stated aloud what everyone had been thinking, Michael herself included.

“The color certainly would imply a connection,” the commander adds almost awkwardly.

Michael gives her a kind smile.

“For the two to be unrelated does seem to me a bit of a stretch,” she acknowledges. “Still, we have so little data on either one of these anomalies. To study them as if they are one and the same could yield just as much confusion as it could answers.”

Nhan nods once at this, and the occupants of conference table shift as they ponder.

“Then we treat them as separate mysteries until proven otherwise,” Linus finally announces in his deep, booming tone. “Let the mycologists investigate the red spores. Have any more appeared in the containment canisters?”

“Yes, two more of the canisters have been corrupted,” Michael confirms. “Ensign Tilly and Commander Stamets are designing a few tests that might give us more information as to what they are and what they do.”

“Very well. And the Red Angel…” Linus cocks his head, his throat emitting several reptilian clicks as he does so. “By all indications, it appears to be one of a kind. Not a species…”

“Vaguely humanoid,” Michael adds, remembering the dark blur hovering within the scalding light back in the Hiawatha’s wreckage.

“Connected to the seven signals,” Owesekun completes.

The seven signals…

The Red Angel…

--times—

Michael twitches. Vague premonition prickles at the corner of her mind. She leaps for it, attempts to pin it down—

…but it slips from her weary grasp, alluding her once more.

Clearly, Philippa’s bombshell is affecting her logical processes. Michael wonders if deeper meditation might be the answer, or if she just needs a chemical sleep aid from sickbay, or perhaps a sufficiently pounding workout. Stars, how she wishes Spock were here, or at least within comm-ing distance, discussing science and strange anomalies with him had always settled her mind in a most soothing way--

“Commander?”

Michael jerks at Saru’s expectant voice. Her eyes rove from her direct superior down the table, where everyone is staring at her with varying levels of confusion and concern.

This is clearly not Saru’s first try in getting her attention.

“I-- I apologize.” Michael straightens in her chair, forcing herself to focus. “What were you saying, Saru?”

“Merely…that your brother is the only one to have seen this being, aside from yourself—“

“And all of the people in that church on Terralysium two hundred years ago,” Detmer adds.

Michael gives her surprised look. She had nearly forgotten about the church in New Eden. So has the rest of the table, if their creased brows and confused expressions are anything to go on.

Saru nods jerkily. “Yes, well…that is certainly an…outlier in the angel’s known appearances…”

Silence holds for a long moment.

“What could be driving this being?” Nhan finally murmurs. “Is all of this some type of design, or is it just…random?”

Michael’s logical mind revolts at that possibility. If this mysterious being’s course is random and not logical, nor within some type of conceivable pattern, then…

Then how on Earth would they be able to figure out who or what it might be?

How would she find her brother?

How would she help him?

The moment is cut short by a low cough from Saru. The entire table seems to jerk out of its near-captivated stupor, exchanging self-conscious smiles.

Michael finds herself grateful for the intervention.

She turns her focus to the Kelpien first officer, who is sprinkling salt into his tea. He looks truly pathetic, and Michael’s heart goes out to him.

“Saru…could you shed some light?” Michael gestures with concern towards his mug.

“My apologies,” Saru sniffles, hunching over his tea. “I woke up this morning fighting an acute rhinovirus.”

“So, you have cold.” Owosekun’s voice is only mildly entertained.

“I had a cold last week, which sucked.” Linus’ deep voice echoes over the table, and Michael offers him a querying look, echoed by Rhys and Detmer.

“Sorry,” Linus amends, his double-lidded reptilian eyes blinking once. “Six nasal canals?”

Michael’s lips manage to twitch. The entire room seems to be attempting to defuse this hefty meeting with levity.

Whistling in the dark, as Humans would say.

“Happens to the best of us, Linus,” Saru sighs. His words are cut off by the hiss of the ready room door. Captain Pike strides in looking serious in the extreme, a PADD tucked beneath his arm.

“Everyone to your stations.”

His brusqueness serves to dispel the air of cosmic mystery that had held court for much of the discussion. An abrupt end to the staff meeting, Michael has to admit, but not an unwelcome one.

The officers seated at the conference room table all rise to their feet while Pike continues. “Detmer, set a course for one oh eight, mark four, maximum warp.”

Detmer nods as she leaves the ready room, Owosekun and Rhys on her heels. Pike shoots Saru an appraising look.

“Saru, you look like hell. Go get some rest, you’ve been burning the candle at both ends lately.”

Michael raises an eyebrow at that, but Saru only mumbles, “As you wish, Sir,” before staggering to his feet and following Nhan and Linus out of the ready room.

“Burnham. A word?”

Pike sounds preoccupied. Michael follows him to his desk as the doors finally hiss shut.

Looking pensive in the extreme, Pike extends the data screen in Michael’s direction.

“I had a very interesting chat this morning, with Captain Georgiou.”

Michael’s heart stutters at the mere mention of her name, but Pike continues.

“As you know, Section 31 is closely monitoring your brother’s case. Apparently they came by some new information on Starbase Five.”

Pike prods the screen, which lights up to show a charted course of a ship of some kind. Michael’s eyes take in the dotted yellow line, bouncing from star to star in an utterly random trajectory across the galaxy.

“Starbase Five,” she breathes, noting the ship’s start point.

“The warp signature of the shuttle Spock stole,” Pike confirms. “Georgiou passed it along to me. I’ve put us on an intercept course, we should reach his position within a few hours hours.”

Michael’s mouth opens and closes as she works through that significant chunk of new information.

“Why would she do that?” Michael finally bites out, suspicions lighting up her brain like a flare. “Why would Section 31 just…give this intel to us?”

Pike gives her a look that is half-puzzled, half-admonishing.

“Burnham, whether we like it or not, Section 31 is a part of Starfleet, and they are working to find your brother, same as we are.”

“But not to the same end,” Michael denies. “You have said it yourself, Captain, this case does not add up—“

“Which is why we need to use every avenue of information at our disposal,” Pike completes in an even voice. “I know you don’t like Section 31, but they have ways of getting information that we do not, and despite Georgiou’s allegiance, you have to admit, she has done nothing but help us.”

Silence.

Michael takes in the yellow dotted line on the screen. The course is random, utterly and entirely, so very unlike her logical brother.

Was it his disturbed mental state prompting this odd, aimless course?

Or was it…something else entirely…

“Has she?” Michael finally murmurs.

Pike raises an eyebrow, prompting Michael to continue.

“Captain, how can we be certain that this information is true? If Section 31 discovered it, why are they not following Spock’s shuttle themselves? Why leave that to us?”

Pike remains silent as he considers the question.

“I don’t know, Burnham. I genuinely don’t.” He shakes his head. “There is a great deal about this entire affair that does not make sense.”

Michael sighs, closing her eyes in utter weariness. There is so goddamn much that doesn’t make sense. Spock’s disappearance, Philippa’s reappearance, Section 31, the Red Angel…and the strange red spores.

Big, astronomical things…” Jacob whispers in her ear.

Slowly, slowly, Michael ambles around the desk to the window it, her eyes unblinking as she gazes into the flickering blue light of warp. Pike takes up a silent position next her, crossing his arms over his chest.

“There is a rational explanation,” Michael finally states. “For all of this. Every bit of it. There has to be. We are merely lacking information… context.”

Pike nods slowly. “Right now, the only one who might be able to give us more answers is your brother.” Michael flinches, but Pike continues. “Spock saw the Angel before we did, and he saw the signals before anyone. If context is what we’re looking for, that’s where we’ll find it.”

“And yet…” Michael blinks, and blinks again. “You know, it’s strange, Captain. Spock killed innocent three people, according to Section 31. He disappeared from Starbase Five, on this completely random, illogical course...” With a jerk of her chin, Michael gestures towards the data screen on the desk. “…According to Section 31.”

Michael turns back to look Pike in the eye.

“Convenient, isn’t it?”

Pike cocks his head, his eyes narrowing. “You think we’re being distracted? Led away from something?”

“I don’t know,” Michael whispers. “Section 31 is a part of Starfleet, as you said…what reason could they possibly have to do this to us?”

Context…context…context…

“This may sound naïve of me, but…we could ask.” Pike shrugs. “We do have a Section 31 agent aboard our ship.”

But even that made no goddamn sense.

“Why is she here?” Michael grates the words. “Why would they put her here, if not to spy on our investigation?”

“The reason she gave was logical.”

“The reason she gave could be a complete lie,” Michael bites out.

“I know Georgiou from the academy.” Pike’s voice is firm. “She’s always been a bit of a wild card, but she is honorable. She does what’s right.”

“Captain, I know Georgiou from seven years of serving with her…”

Michael takes a shaky breath, eyes closing in distress.

“And I barely recognize who she is now.”

As she has done countless times over the past several days, Michael closes her eyes and pictures of her former captain. She imagines Philippa Georgiou as she is now, as what she has become. Her dark braid and closed-off face, her cold eyes, her pale complexion made even paler by the wholesome medical whites she is now obligated to wear. Working sickbay quietly and unobtrusively, even as she watches them all with calculating eyes.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Pike, for his part, merely mulls over her words in silence. Michael understands that there is nothing at all for him to say to this, nothing he could say, considering all that he had missed during his five-year mission.

What on Earth had happened to Philippa during the course of the war? What had driven her down this path? Once, Michael had trusted her former captain with her life, with her heart, with her complete and utter devotion.

And now, she cannot even trust Philippa with this meager amount of information.

What has happened to us?

“The way I see it,” Pike finally states, “We have two options. Either we use this information Georgiou gave us and follow it to wherever it might lead. Or we don’t use it, and have nothing at all to go on.”

Michael weighs the pros and cons in her mind, using her now-sluggish logical processes to pick through multiple paths, multiple possibilities.

“Is bad intel better than no intel?”

“Depends on what you mean by “bad intel.”” Pike shrugs. “Even a red herring eliminates a possibility. If this does turn out to be a wild goose chase, well…at least we’ll know where not to look.”

Pause.

“And we’ll know how far we can trust the information our friend in sickbay gives us.”

With a weary sigh, Michael nods. Pike does have a good point, and Michael has to admit, she is desperate to do something.

“Burnham…” Pike’s voice is hesitant. He turns to her, his blue eyes swimming in concern. “Can I ask why you seem to have such a grudge against Section 31?”

If she were less exhausted and emotionally pummeled, perhaps Michael might find it in her to be more circumspect.

But Philippa has betrayed her trust, her brother has disappeared, the mycelial network might be decaying, and a brutal, bloody galactic war has just ended, with Michael Burnham at the epicenter of it, whether she wanted to be or not.

She is so tired of carrying so goddamn much, alone.

“They are…war criminals...”

Michael whispers the words out into the impossibly blue light of warp. She looks down at her trembling hands and imagines the impossibly small device they had once held, and the small, singular switch…and the smaller, singular motion that would have wiped out an entire civilization.

The Shrine of Molor, the hydrobomb detonator in Michael’s hands, Admiral Cornwell’s whispered directives…

And the shadowy third source from which they came.

Pike’s strong hand grips her shoulder, and Michael realizes that she is shaking.

“Easy, Burnham…”

Michael suddenly remembers that fateful moment on the Shenzhou, in Captain Georgiou’s ready room, when Philippa had said the exact same words to her but used her first name…

Because they had been friends.

Back before everything had gone to complete and utter hell.

“Commander,” Pike begins, his brows creased in worry. “I really think you should consider—“

But before Pike can continue, the ship gives an almighty shudder, its infrastructure groaning under the strain. Michael barely maintains her balance as the deck bucks beneath her, and Pike grabs the window frame to keep from being thrown off his feet.

They look at each other, before whirling around and striding from the ready room onto the bridge.

“Detmer, status!” Pike barks across the bridge as Michael activates her station.

“Something has grabbed us out of warp, Sir! Speed dropping to sub-light!” The back of Detmer’s head shakes, even as her hands fly desperately across her console. “Helm going unresponsive!”

“Shields up, red alert!”

Pike gives the order, and the blaring klaxons and swirling red lights of Starfleet’s highest security protocol come online. Michael flinches away from the red, dropping her gaze to her terminal screen.

“Owosekun, are we talking tractor beam?”

“More powerful than that, sir!” The ops officer’s smooth accent rounds the answer. “I’m unable to raise shields.

“Preliminary analysis indicates a multiphasic stasis field!” Michael shakes her head as she gives her report, projecting her voice over the blaring alert. “It’s disrupting our shield harmonics!”

Michael’s hands fly across the science console to confirm as the red alert siren howls across the bridge. Her Vulcan controls rise up to suppress her instinctive emotions, fear and trepidation. It shouldn’t be possible, there is no known tech in the universe that can emit stasis fields on a multiphasic level.

“We’re at full-stop, Captain!” Detmer calls. “Whatever has us, we’re locked into place!”

“Like a damn fly in a web,” Pike murmurs as he strides towards Detmer’s station.

Michael’s fingers toggle at her datascreen until she finds what she is looking for. With a whip of her hand, the terrifying image is plastered across the bridge’s viewscreen.

“And there…is the spider.”

The bridge falls silent as awe and horror take them all.

A massive, writhing sphere looms over the Discovery. Its dimensions are barely detectable to the eye, so huge it is, taking up the entire viewscreen in its enormity. Hot orange light floods the bridge, emanating from rips and chasms in the sphere’s shifting surface. The dizzying amount of energy the object is emitting is enough to make the deck shudder. A low rumble emanates through the ship itself, vibrating through Michael’s very bones.

The giant, glowing sphere has them locked in place. Even without scans, it clearly possesses more than enough power to destroy the Discovery, and possibly the entire system.

A fly in a web…a fish in a net.

They’re trapped.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“C’monnnn.”

“No.”

“It could be fun.”

“How?”

“It’s a mushroom lab!”

“It’s not that interesting.”

“Look, I just think you might feel a bit better if you get out of your own head for a bit.”

“I feel fine.”

“You’ve been depressed and monosyllabic for two days.”

“But I feel fine.”

Philippa’s tone is bathed in irritation. Gods, why this woman would not simply go away and leave her in peace like the others had—

Com-man-der,” she adds, pointedly breaking up her single syllables with a three-syllable noun.

Reno only nods placidly at this.

“Mm-hm, sure.” She pokes at the remainder of her chips with an absent finger, the sounds of the mess hall muffled in the background. “You know, you’re lucky I’m mentally and emotionally shell-shocked from ten months on that asteroid, or I might have run off with my tail tucked like everyone else.”

From the commander’s detached tone, she might be making a comment on the power couplings linking Jeffries Tube Eight-Six to the ensign living quarters on Deck Five.

“Seriously.” Reno leans in, and her expression becomes tinged with concern. “Seems like just yesterday we were singing space shanties on the floor of your quarters, and now you’re just…frozen over completely. What the hell happened?”

At that, Philippa finally looks up from her barely-touched curry and rice. With all of the might of her focused rage, she strikes Jett Reno with a glare cold enough to render Vulcan a glacier, icy enough to freeze a yellow star, and so unbearably murderous that it had prompted three Section 31 probationary officers to quit on the spot.

Reno looks back blandly. She takes another bite of her sandwich.

“Alright, so it’s private. You could just say that, instead of trying to murder me with your eyes and your…” She waves a vague hand in Philippa’s direction. “…cheekbones.”

Philippa blinks. She looks back into her curry.

Damn, that usually worked.

“You know I am here, if you want to talk about…whatever it is.” Reno focuses on stirring her pile of potato chips while she says the words; nevertheless, her tone is sincere. “Don’t know how much help I’ll be though. Like I said,” She shrugs. “Shell-shocked. But hey, I bet nothing you say could freak me out.”

Philippa takes in these purposefully light words, and tries not to reveal how deeply they trouble her. She does appreciate Jett Reno’s commitment to levity; nevertheless, her heart squeezes painfully inside her chest.

Talking would only be more of the same, the same being her own utter, desperate foolishness.

Because it had been foolish, to let her guard down like she had. To let herself feel such things for Michael, and in a lesser way, for Tilly and Reno and Saru and the others. To feel was to invite this type of pain in. Philippa had understood this back on Qo’Nos, back in Section 31, but apparently being on this ship has made her soft once more.

The funny thing was, she had truly thought that she was being circumspect and strong, her emotions hidden safely behind a thick wall and buried deep with the rest of her ripped up heart. But Michael Burnham had slipped right through the entirety of Philippa’s fortifications, subtle as a whisper and silent as the void, in the perfect position to destroy her should she feel so inclined.

And she had.

Michael hates who Philippa has become. She is disgusted, repulsed, as Philippa had known she would be, yet was somehow caught unaware when it finally happened. Michael hates her.

And she…she barely knows the half of it.

“Just leave it, Reno,” Philippa finally whispers. 

Reno, for her part, only gazes at Philippa, her expression inscrutable.

In the next moment, she reaches out with a fork to snag the edge of Philippa’s full bowl of curry, tugging it towards herself across the table.

“If you say so.” Reno sounds almost compassionate. “But let the record show that I tried.”

Philippa raises a cautioning hand just as Reno takes a bite of the curry. She lowers the hand back to her side.

“Maybe we could finish that bottle of whiskey tonight, would that cheer you up?”

“I really shouldn’t drink,” Philippa denies in a low voice. “Not with my heart condition.”

“Didn’t stop you five nights ago,” Reno counters. She smacks her mouth a few times, before throwing a betrayed look at the bowl of curry in front of her.

“Also, you might have warned me that you put lighter fluid and Risan ghost peppers in this.”

Reno grimaces, her lips twisting comically as she recoils. Somehow, Philippa feels the corners of her mouth twitch at her friend’s dilemma.

“Jesus, woman, what kind of sabotage is that? Drinking is dangerous for you, but you willingly ingest this bowl of gamma radiation?”

“Here.” Philippa slides her glass of water across the table. She does her best not to chuckle at the strange faces Reno is pulling. “Calm down.”

“Is this glass laced with cyanide?”

“Do you smell almonds?”

“I can’t smell anything, my nasal cavity’s covered in third degree burns.”

“Oh, stop whining, it wasn’t that bad.”

Reno polishes off the glass of water in an uninterrupted five seconds. She comes up for air with a gasp, her eyes watering, her face flushed.

“Hope to God there was cyanide in that.”

“Well, you are out of luck.”

“Okay. Alright.” Reno shakes her head, as if shaking off the heat of the curry. “You owe me, just for that attempted poisoning.”

“If I had wanted to poison you, you would be dead already,” Philippa counters, reluctantly warming to the banter.

“Awesome. I’ll keep that in mind if I ever need a quick way out. Now come on.” Reno’s voice becomes insistent. “I still haven’t seen the spore lab. I bet it’s weird.”

At the mention of the spore lab, Philippa retreats once more.

“No.”

Reno prods at Philippa’s shin with a foot under the table. “It’ll be fun. You’ve got another, what, half an hour of lunch break? Let’s go visit the kid, she likes you, y’know.”

“Mm.”

She shouldn’t.

“And Commander Uptight, heard he’s good for a laugh.”

Philippa can’t help a surprised snort of amusement at that. Reno seems to take it as an encouraging sign. She rises from the table, sweeping an inviting arm towards the mess hall doors.

With only a moment of hesitation, Philippa gets up and follows her.

 

 

**

 

 

The red alert siren starts to blare as they stride through Deck Eight en route to the spore lab.

“The hell?” Reno stops dead in the corridor junction where Corridors One, Four, Eight, and Twelve intersect. Philippa stops with her, immediately stiffening into a ready stance at the screaming siren and the flashing lights.

In the next moment, Reno’s comm buzzes, and she answers it with a flourish.

“Uh huh. Uh huh. Oh wow…”

Philippa steps away from her to read the datascreen inlaid in the corner of the corridor junction, briefing herself on the situation as Reno talks to whoever may be on the other side of the call.

“Yeah, I’m on Eight. Critical propulsion systems? In the…spore lab?” Reno sounds dubious. “Yeah, I can do that. I’m at the hub now, actually, I’ll just grab some tools and be on my way.”

After more back and forth, Reno finally snaps her comm shut.

“Welp, looks like we have a mission.”

Philippa steps back. “I need to get back to sickbay—“

With a piercing screech, the inset corridor lights above their heads overload and burst, spraying Reno and Philippa with hot glass. Philippa throws an arm up over head and grabs Reno with the other, pulling her to the side of the corridor.

“Like I said!” Reno shouts. She struggles out of Philippa’s grip to drop to the panel under the data screen, pulling it out of the wall. Philippa stands behind her, shielding Reno with her body from whatever explosions and shrapnel might come as the engineer pulls the toolbox out of the storage cupboard.

As soon as the panel is closed, Philippa pulls Reno roughly to her feet. With a sideways flick of her head, Reno shouts, “Spore lab’s twenty yards aft, let’s go!

What?

Philippa and Reno blink at each other in shock.

In the middle of this exploding corridor, shards of plexi-glass and transparent steel flying everywhere, Jett Reno had somehow managed to speak absolute garbage Terenganu Malay, sounding for all the world like a northern farmer from the wild Malaysian forests.

And Philippa has no earthly idea what language had just sprung from her lips.

Both snap out of it in the next moment, and Philippa grabs Reno’s forearm to tug her down the now-emergency lit corridor. They finally make the entrance to the spore lab, and Reno strides through the doorway like nothing at all had happened.

Commander Paul Stamets and Ensign Sylvia Tilly are in front of the reaction cube, jerked from whatever conversation they’d been having. Both scientist gaze up at their procession with confusion.

Reno hums a tune as she descends the stairs, Philippa in tow. Without missing a beat, she proceeds directly to the terminal to the right of the stairs, enters a few lines of code, and hits enter.

“The universal translator for this section is no más,” Reno declares as she locks the terminal once more. She tosses a placid look in Philippa’s direction. “Apparently the bridge is all garbled, too. Giant space inferno lobbed a virus at us, it’s interfering with communications. That was pretty weird, wasn’t it?”

“Entirely.” Philippa shakes her head at those bizarre several seconds. In the next moment she manages to recover. “For a non-native speaker, you garbled Malay like you were born to it.”

“Aw, thanks,” Reno offers. She rounds the terminal to the main power diverter set into the rear wall of the lab. “Your Soyousan isn’t bad, either.”

“You speak Soyousan?”

“My—wife—“ Reno grunts a little as she finagles the small, glowing antimatter cell from its nest of wires in the wall cavity “Taught me bits and pieces. Too many clicks and— trills for me to—get it totally down.”

Philippa can’t help but raise an eyebrow. Of course, she had learned that Reno was married during their evening of drinking on the floor of her quarters, but her attempts at gaining further information had not yielded results. She had not even known that Reno’s union was to a non-Human.

An interesting fact to keep in one’s back pocket.

“Soyousan, hm?” Philippa begins casually. “From the homeworld, or—“

“Excuse me, can I help you?”

Stamets’ perturbed voice cuts in. He offers Philippa a cursory nod before looking back at Reno, who is elbow-deep in the guts of the lab’s main electrical link-ups.

“Uh,” Reno drawls. “Unless you can reroute the plasma regulator to silo off the relay junction, then…no.”

Tilly finally chimes in from her console, albeit nervously. “You’re, um…”

“Jett Reno, from the Hiawatha. Chief Engineer sent me to firewall off the critical propulsion systems. Didn’t realize a greenhouse could be critical, or propulsive, but hey.” Reno shrugs. “What do I know? I’m a gear-head, not a farmer.”

She looks around the lab.

“So where do you guys keep the mushrooms?”

Philippa presses her lips flat to keep from chuckling. Tilly, as well, looks down towards her console, mouth twitching.

“A farmer?” Stamets bristles. “Oh please, let us know what you think, because…we care.”

His sarcasm is palpable. Were this her own ship and her own crew, perhaps Philippa might consider intervening. As it is, she merely sidesteps Stamets as he lays into Reno.

She can take care of herself.

Philippa’s feet take her to the reaction cube, now occupied by Sylvia Tilly’s curious ride-along. The entirety of the ship knows about the incident at this point; still, Philippa has steered clear of the spore lab since the day of the Reveal.

The mysterious, inter-dimensional fungus is pooled on the floor of the spore drive. Its body is a sickly grayish color, and it seems to ooze and pulsate in place.

“Pretty weird, huh.”

On Philippa’s left, Tilly’s voice is quiet and surprisingly not-shrill.

“Yeah,” Philippa offers. There isn’t much else to put forth on the matter. She waits for Tilly to fill the silence with chatter.

The seconds pass.

Reno and Stamets’ bickering echoes behind them.

…antimatter and dilithium might be old-school, but they don’t let you down—“

“…how many planets were ruined because of dilithium mining?...”

Despite the ridiculousness of the conversation behind them, tension prickles at Philippa’s spine as she stands next to Tilly. Ensign Sylvia Tilly, the Discovery’s chattiest personnel member, who is remarkably, inconceivably mute right now.

Then again…

Michael has no doubt told her ensign roommate most of what had happened. Why on Earth would Sylvia Tilly have anything to say to her, after how Michael must be hurting?

The seconds pass heavily, crawling by like chilled molasses. Philippa feels the bizarre urge to fidget, which she suppresses.

Tilly, however, seems to have no such compunction. She sways slightly where she stands her fingers working nervously in front of her, Philippa sees them twitching out of the corner of her eye.

Stars and Gods, how she misses being a captain sometimes. Uninvolved in ridiculous dramas, above all of this mortal silliness and all of the pain, hurt, and sheer awkwardness associated with it.

Somehow, she had forgotten just how difficult working the lower decks could be.

“Um…hey!” Tilly finally blurts, cutting through the thick atmosphere with all the finesse of a flying brick. “Captain, you…you know what’s going on out there, right? With the space sphere, and—and the ship’s systems getting fried and all.”

Philippa nods once, incredibly grateful for the interruption.

“Do you think…maybe May had anything to do with the sphere?”

An interesting hypothetical. Philippa considers it for a moment, but only a moment.

“I don’t see how, Ensign. They don’t seem to have much in common.”

Tilly wilts at Philippa’s side. Philippa recalls that the strange, fairly repulsive being trapped inside the spore drive had been living inside Tilly’s body for months, and had spent the last several days all but torturing her.

Of course she would be looking for any possible leads on what it could be.

“But,” Philippa offers, and Tilly perks up. “We don’t know much about the sphere yet. Or about that,” she offers, gesturing into the drive with her chin.

Tilly’s strained look recedes somewhat.

…I’m uninsultable, Doc. Especially by a guy who thinks he can power a ship on the mushrooms I pick off my pizza....

Reno’s unbothered drawl rings from somewhere behind Philippa and Tilly. Philippa cannot help a slight smile.

“I don’t think she’s thinking big enough.”

“Oh, it’s not quite a question of scale, more of…dimension.” Tilly offers almost absently, still staring at the blob behind the glass. “It’s lateral thinking, y’know? Less about the physical form of a fungus, more about its ecological niche. What role it occupies in nature.”

Philippa turns towards Tilly slightly as she speaks.

“Fungi are a vital component of any ecosystem. They recycle old, dead matter and release it back into the environment, but in usable forms. So it’s not really that our mycelia are mushrooms in the way we think about them, it’s that they fill the role of a fungus, just in a more macrocosmic environment.”

“…it was only a couple centuries ago that Earth nearly choked to death on pollution…yesterday’s solar panels are today’s fungi…”

“Y’know, Stamets has all these theories about the mycelial network and what role it plays in the universe’s astrophysical ecosystem…how it could be turning matter over to energy and vice versa, in processes we can’t even begin to conceptualize. And—and it’s crazy, we still don’t know anything about dark matter or dark energy or what in the heck they are or how they came to be, but they take up a vast amount of space in the universe and exert significant gravitational effects, we just can’t detect them… Stamets thinks that the mycelial network must be involved somehow…“

Tilly trails off.

Philippa blinks at the staggering amount of coherent information she has finally been given on this senseless excuse for a science vessel.

Inside the spore drive, the grayish blob twitches, croaking slightly. It manages to startle both Philippa and Tilly out of their brief reverie.

“And…and that’s the other thing.”

Tilly continues in a softer voice, watching the blob.

“This creature, May, it’s from the mycelial plane. And it’s obviously sentient, since y’know…it played me like a fiddle or whatever, but just imagine what it might know. All of the questions we’ve been asking since—since practically the dawn of time, ones even the Vulcan Science Academy can’t answer…”

Tilly’s hands wring in front of her, frustrated.

“If only we could talk to it,” Philippa offers, completing Tilly’s thought.

“If we could just understand why it’s here,” Tilly agrees with no little urgency. She shakes her head at the incomprehensible fungal blob, barely able to maintain its form in this universe. “I mean, it’s unprecedented, so much of all of this is…unprecedented, and then there’s those weird red spores…”

Tilly gestures over her shoulder, towards the back wall of the lab, studded with spore canisters, two of which glow an eerie, otherworldly red.

Silence hangs for a long moment.

Tilly breaks the quiet with a low whisper.

“What if it’s all connected somehow?”

“…You’re wasting my time, buddy. I gotta section off this lab or else the Chief’s gonna be on my ass about it, and the ship’s kind of exploding out there—“

Tilly shakes out an exhale. “I’m sorry, Captain, I’m just totally ranting at you—“

“No, don’t be.” Philippa shakes her head, still reeling. “This the most substantial explanation I have been given for all of this.”

“Well come on,” Tilly laughs, “Surely Michael must have—“

Tilly’s teeth clatter shut.

Any ambient warmth of the previous conversation immediately vanishes.

Philippa looks at Tilly, who is now studiously avoiding her gaze. And in truth, Philippa, too, is lost for words.

A moment passes.

“She’s a xenoanthropologist,” Philippa finally manages. “Not a theoretical engineer.”

Her mouth closes upon the words that are crowding her throat.

And that’s not exactly what we spent our time talking about.

This shouldn’t be so awkward.

Why is this so awkward?

Philippa remembers better days. Once, she could cut through awkwardness with a cleverly raised eyebrow, bring a conversation back from the dead in the blink of an eye, mediate peace between two nations with centuries of bloody conflict between them, so how in the star-raising hells is this particular situation taking her down like this?

“So out-of-practice,” she mutters aloud.

“Huh?” Tilly asks.

Philippa opens her mouth to explain, but before she can so much as make a sound, the lab’s warning klaxon blares.

The overhead lights flash red, bathing the spore lab in sickly amber light.

Tilly leaps where she stands, and Philippa whirls into a ready stance. Her ears ring at the scream of the alarms. Reno looks up from her work at the terminal, Stamets as well. As they do so, a low thrumming sound vibrates through the lab, shaking the very floor they stand on.

“The virus must be spreading!” Reno shouts. Her fingers fly across the keyboard, Philippa catches a flash of hot white light in the corner of her eye—

Get down!

Philippa’s firm tackle takes Tilly to the floor. From the reciprocal thump across the room, Philippa assumes that Stamets has done the same to Reno, but her thoughts are scrambled by the literal bolt of lightning that crackles from the hub of the spore drive, flaring across the lab like the hand of God.

The energy is so intense that Philippa has to cover her eyes. She hears screeching metal and the groans of the Discovery’s super-structure struggling to compensate for the surge. The recognizable ting-ting of sparks hitting the deck echoes in her ear as the electrical bursts strikes gears and motors. Acrid ozone pricks at the back of her throat, sticking in her nostrils.

And in the next second, the light dissipates.

The spore lab is dark and silent once more.

Philippa staggers to her feet, and Tilly does the same next to her. The overhead lights flicker weakly, adding an eerie, vaguely threatening air to the lab.

Reno is already at the computer terminal, which is sputtering after the almighty power surge.

“What the hell happened?” Philippa demands.

“The sphere virus must’ve overloaded the power from the central reactor.”

Reno sizes up the situation quickly and calmly, though the display is clearly malfunctioning. The screen stutters and shakes, disproportionately bright in the now-murky spore lab.

“And there’ll be more where that came from. We’ve got a hundred giga-electron volts surging through the local relays.” Reno spins a hand towards the ceiling as she walks out from behind the terminal. “Computer’s isolated the compartment to contain the damage.”

Philippa, Stamets, and Tilly look up the stairs, towards the door to the corridor, which, sure enough, has sealed itself shut. A quick glance behind Philippa and to the right confirms that the auxiliary door is sealed as well.

They’re trapped.

Stamets begins hesitantly, “We…still have our life-support, right?”

“Yeah, but—“

“It could kill us,” Philippa completes, her heart growing cold. “Safeties are off because of the surge, if we are hit by another electrical wave, our oxygen will ignite—“

“Cook us like French fries,” Reno completes. “No automatic shutdowns.”

A beat of palpable fear hangs in the murky lab.

The room seems suddenly claustrophobic, the ceiling absurdly low, the walls unbearably close. Philippa imagines that they are stuck in the dark belly of some great beast, cavernous and inescapable, soon to be digested by forces entirely outside of their control.

“We—we could divert the power to act as a lightning arrestor?”

Ensign Tilly stumbles through the sentence, her hands twitching in front of her. Reno and Stamets nod slowly at the idea, and Philippa takes comfort in their acceptance of the idea. She takes a quick breath, thanking her lucky stars that she is trapped in this combustion oven with two brilliant scientists and one crazed engineer.

“We could use the door…as a ground,” Reno thinks out loud, pacing the deck slowly. She points up the metal staircase to the sealed bulkhead door of the spore lab. “The bulkheads are basically spring loaded, no real electrical input. That’ll dissipate the surge through the frame of the ship....”

Philippa nods along at the idea. She recalls a similar situation on the Archimedes nearly twenty years ago, involving an ion storm, a precariously shielded shuttlebay, several repurposed fire hoses, and copious amounts of flame-retardant foam.

“Still, the real question is,” Philippa continues along this train of thought. “How would we conduct the surge from there,” she gestures to the transparent steel walls of the spore drive, the main energy hub of the lab, “ To there?” Her gaze moves five meters across the slate gray deck and three meters up, following the rickety metal staircase to the sealed bulkhead door.

Unlike a shuttlebay, this science lab has no fire hoses, nor any real moving metal parts, nor enough insulating materials to protect their fleshy, water-filled bodies from one hundred giga-electron volts.

“A gas could!”

Stamets cuts in, raising a quick hand to interject. Reno and Philippa turn to look at him.

“I mean, once it ionizes,” he quickly elaborates. He gestures towards the back wall, dotted with spore canisters. “I infuse the spores with an argon-xenon mixture, to slow decay. We could link up the canisters to contain the gas…our version of a lightning rod.”

Reno is nodding slowly at Philippa’s side, the side of her mouth quirking upwards. “That’s actually not a stupid idea.”

With that, Tilly all but springs into action. She proceeds around the terminal towards the spore canisters, and Philippa follows her, ready to help wherever she might be needed.

“It’s…my version of the house dressing,” Stamets offers somewhere behind them, “only it saves your life.”

Philippa cringes as she starts pulling canisters out of the wall, and imagines Reno is doing the same. She gives Stamets partial credit for trying, but Gods, that was awful.

Still, she puts her head down and goes right to work alongside Tilly, evacuating spores and pulling canisters. Reno has gone straight for her toolbox, and Stamets is opening a panel in the wall, behind which is no doubt a gas storage unit.

The clock is ticking, and every moment is precious.

 

 


 

 

“Gas her up!” Reno shouts.

A low hiss emanates across the cold metal deck, across which snakes a long, segmented tube. Empty spore canisters dot the length of the tube, and between each canister is a length of clear, one-meter plastic hosing that Philippa had managed to rustle up from the supply closet in the far corner of the compartment. The back wall of the spore lab, once studded with spore canisters, is now empty, save for two slots which glow red, canisters still in place.

Unusable, Stamets had explained.

Explosive and deadly, Tilly had elaborated.

Reno had said nothing, entirely focused on the task at hand as she welded the flexible tubing to the docking ports of each spore canister with a hand-sized welding torch.

“Gas transference at one-hundred percent!” Stamets announces, darting behind the terminal near the canister wall to check readouts.

Philippa is on hands-and-knees, checking the integrity of the link-ups with a well-aimed tricorder. As she begins check number eight, the tubing begins to glow a warm blue beneath Philippa’s hand. She shakes her head, horror rising in her chest.

No…it’s too soon…

“The surge is coming,” she announces, staggering to her feet to back away from the now-hot-white tubing. “But we’re a meter and a half short!”

The critical meter and a half meant that their makeshift lightning rod would not reach the bulkhead door. The oncoming surge would sear through the deck itself and electrocute their fleshy bodies to absolute cinders. Not to mention, it would also ignite the compressed oxygen of the sealed spore lab and turn the room into a cavern-sized bomb, resulting in an explosion powerful enough to possibly destroy the Discovery.

Reno’s head whips up from where she crouches at the terminal canister of their makeshift lightning rod. Her eyes meet Philippa’s, and somehow, there’s no trace of panic in them.

“Phil, there’s a crawl-space underneath the back-up terminal, check there for me, will you?”

Philippa is already darting across the deck, as fast as she can with her poor cardiac function. She reaches the rear-most terminal, all but forgotten in the murky far corner of the spore lab. There’s no telling what Reno might be thinking, but Philippa is a spy, not an engineer, and more importantly, she’s a captain, and she knows when to off-load command of a task to those best suited to meet its demands—

“You’re gonna do that manually?”

Tilly’s voice carries across the lab, sounding alarmed.

“Yeah, ‘cause obviously you’re not.”

Reno responds in her perfectly deadpan snark. There’s the metallic clatter of boots on the rickety ladder, and Philippa whirls around in time to see the back of Reno’s wiry body at the top of the stairs, holding the business end of the glowing canister tube like it’s a phaser cannon, too short by a scant meter and a half to reach the door—

At least, not without assistance.

Philippa’s jaw clenches where she stands at the far corner of the spore lab.

The furthest possible point from the compartment’s bulkhead door.

She’d been had.

Son of a—“

The glass walls of the spore drive flare, its interior lighting up like a star—

Hot lightning bursts from the terminus of the tubing.

Reno’s body illuminates, cast in the unbearable white light of a one-hundred giga-electron volt surge of electricity. With a thunderous screech, the lightning hits the thick metal surface of the door, an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object—

The resulting pressure wave takes the lab in its entirety, a supernova condensed into a meter-and-a-half circumference.

Philippa loses consciousness before her body hits the deck.

 

 

**

 

 

“…captain…”

--ptain Georgiou…

Captain!...

Philippa’s eyes flutter open. She registers the fact that her body is being shaken by a pair of hands on her shoulders, and that there is an absurdly hard surface beneath her.

She blinks at the sight of a concerned, pale face with short blond hair, hovering somewhere above her.

“Captain, are you okay?”

“Mmm?” She manages, her body not quite responding at the moment. “Mm…fine…”

Her left hand comes up weakly, twitching and trembling, and she shoves Paul Stamets jostling arms away. Her body feels like a hot livewire, not quite under her control. Gritting her chattering teeth, Philippa forces herself to sit up, noting the flickering overhead lights of the spore lab struggling to ignite, as well as the deep whir of the back-up systems coming online.

“Did it…work?”

“Uh…yeah, yeah I think so.”

Stamets nods his confirmation somewhat weakly. His blue eyes are wide; he looks comically shell-shocked. Nevertheless, he helps Philippa to her feet, and the room spins nauseatingly as she manages to stand. She catches sight of the bulkhead door at the top of the metal stairs, and remembers--

“Where’s Reno?”

They both look to the base of the stairwell, where Ensign Tilly is crouched over a collapsed body in a Fleet uniform. The ensign’s curly red hair has taken on a truly impressive mushroom shape, no doubt a result of the electricity, and she jostles at the still form with urgent hands. “Reno! Reno?”

Philippa staggers across the floor, aided in her journey by Commander Stamets.

“Reno, I swear to God—“

She drops to her knees by her friend’s body, laying a firm hand on her shoulder. If her twitching is any indicator, the engineer seems to be coming around.

“Reno, are you alright?” Tilly stumbles through the sentence, sounding frazzling beyond words, matching the current state of her hair.

“Had the…strangest dream…”

With a grimace, Jett Reno screws her eyes even more tightly shut.

“Was…playing the drums for Prince…there were doves and a…parade…”

Unable to stop herself, Philippa presses her knuckles into Reno’s sternum, hard. Reno’s body spasms, her eyes flying open.

“Aghh!” She all but chokes, shoving Philippa’s arm away. “What the—“

“You are an idiot. A goddamn idiot.”

Philippa wants to slap Reno awake, but settles for gripping the front of her uniform tightly with one fist. Were she stronger, she would be yanking the engineer to a seated position.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“I’m okay.”

"Oh, are you? Don't get used to it!"

"Calm down--"

“You don’t fire one hundred giga-eV’s at a metal bulkhead, point blank! What in the hell did they teach you on the Hiawatha?”

Reno looks askance at Philippa.

“Well…not that. That was an original.”

Philippa levels a furious glare at her. Reno merely shrugs as she struggles to a seated position. She looks as infuriatingly placid as she had a mere hour ago in the mess hall, eating her chips and ignoring Philippa’s acerbic comments.

Was it only an hour ago?

“Hey, look at that.” Reno flicks her chin up the stairs towards the now-blackened bulkhead door. “It worked.”

Stamets exhales his disbelief next to Philippa, but Tilly only does a double-take as she catches something over her shoulder.

“Uh, guys?”

Philippa follows her gaze towards the spore drive, May’s makeshift cage.

The door is wide open.

“Aw, fu—“

Reno’s voice is cut off by an otherworldly chittering sound. The noise echoes across the lab, everywhere and nowhere all at once. Animalistic. Threatening.

Stamets and Philippa haul Reno to her feet, and Philippa whirls into a defensive stance.

“Everyone, back-to-back!”

The group does as they are told, forming a makeshift phalanx in the middle of the spore lab. Philippa’s eyes dart into corners and crevices as the clacking and screeching grows louder. They’re being hunted.

No, that isn’t quite right.

They’re being stalked.

“Stamets, is there a weapons compartment?”

“We, uh—“

Agh!

Tilly yelps, leaping into the air and away from their small unit. Philippa whirls towards her, only to automatically, instinctively flinch away.

Latched onto Ensign Tilly’s right arm is a grotesque, grayish blob. It pulsates angrily as Tilly does her best to shake it off, waving her arm frantically through the air. Her efforts are fruitless; the fungus merely pulsates harder as it engulfs the circumference of Tilly’s forearm, chittering and screeching.

“She—she won’t let go! She won’t let go!”

Philippa can only shake her head at Tilly’s flailing, taking a half of a split second to adjust to this new threat.

A mysterious, dangerous multi-dimensional fungal parasite, now loose in the spore lab and bound to Ensign Tilly once more. The compartment is sealed off from the rest of the Discovery. No escape, no weapons, no way to comm for help.

Philippa and Reno’s eyes meet, and Philippa imagines that they are thinking much the same thing.

Out of the ion storm, into the vortex.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The overhead lights flicker on and off as Michael types frantically at the computer mainframe. The central hub of Deck Five is the centermost point of the Discovery, the safest place from any and all extra-vehicular threats that the universe could throw at them; thus, it is the logical place for the ship’s computer mainframe to be situated.

Various personnel hustle across the hub’s intersection into adjacent corridors. The chatter of dozens of Fleet characters is loud and demanding in Michael’s ears, reports and orders and statuses called out over the bustle of heavy, running footsteps.

The urgency in the air is palpable.

The giant, fiery space inferno is certainly worth the extra hustle. Five hundred sixty-five kilometers in diameter, six point three nine times ten to the twentieth power, the sphere is the size of a large moon, melding organic and non-living matter somewhere within its flaming maw. Not to mention, initial scans showed the writhing monolith to be at least one hundred thousand years old.

Ancient, on a Humanoid scale.

Starfleet has never encountered anything like it. If the ship were not currently under attack by this virus, Michael would be salivating at the chance to take an away mission to the sphere’s surface in a bid for further information.

By the stars, the things that sphere could tell them…

As it is, she focuses on the task at hand, repairing the universal translator, the first casualty of the sphere’s mysterious virus. The computer mainframe hums beneath her hands, and the core-direct power link-up glows a warm blue where it has been pulled from the overhead fuse box. The top-left corner of the screen shows the entirety of the ship’s systems separated neatly into hexagonal bubbles. All are green except for the one marked “Comms.”

That one is marked with a sickly red.

Sectioning off the UT from the ship’s digital network. Almost there, Saru.

Michael makes the verbal notation for Commander Saru’s benefit. He is on hands-and-knees below the terminal, building a program that will allow the UT to shake off the mysterious virus that the massive, writhing space sphere has thrown at them.

Acknowledged, Burnham. Do not forget the…imbedded Gates firewall…

Rolling her eyes, Michael bites down on the impulse to say something to the tune of “Yes Commander, and don’t forget to straighten your legs when you stand up.

Saru had come a long way from their antagonistic beginnings, but by the stars, he could still be so incredibly condescending.

Nevertheless, as he coughs painfully beneath her, guilt stabs Michael in the chest for dragging Saru from his quarters. She needs him to translate the spasming UT in order to restore some semblance of order to the ship, but the man can barely stand up, and Michael is certain she strained something in her back from dragging his limp body down from the bridge.

Nearly there…

That’s Saru’s painful tone, rasping out syllables in a language Michael somehow understands, but has no hope of identifying. She leans back and over the pull-out keyboard to check on her sick Kelpien crewmate.

Saru’s head is dotted with beads of cold sweat, and he seems even more pale than usual. His body shakes slightly, either with cold or with pain, Michael does not know.

Running simulation of…reinitialization sequence.

Saru peers up at Michael, his blue eyes squinting. He reads the question in her face with no words necessary.

Ramikar Tellish, Burnham.

One of the three main Tellarite dialects. Michael nods in acknowledgement.

The PADD in Saru’s hands is connected via Ethernet cable to the computer mainframe. It emits several beeps, and the loading bar on the display turns a soothing green.

Success,” Saru sniffles.

The UT is isolated.” With several flicks of her fingers, Michael retreats from the depths of the code meant to control the warp core electrical relays. “Let’s run it.

Saru tugs one of the glass relay chips from the base of the fuse box, unplugging it from the PADD. He passes it to Michael, who inserts it into the interface. The mainframe screen flashes, the tiny numbers, letters, and symbols of the newly prepared code running up the display like water in a riverbed.

It is—in large part—an insertion sequence…” Saru mumbles as they watch. “It will—change the format of the UT coding in a—critical place. Like…

Like swapping a base pair in a DNA sequence, changing a protein’s tertiary structure,” Michael posits, and Saru nods. “The virus will be unable to anchor itself to the new code. Brilliant.

She is trying harder with Saru these days. Has been since she first came aboard the Discovery, really. Her assertion to Philippa had not been an exaggeration; mollifying Saru was a bid to ingratiate herself with the rest of the ship’s crew. Still, doing so had proven surprisingly fruitful from a strictly interpersonal standpoint. Commander Saru could be stuck-up and irritating, and stars knew he was incredibly fussy, but in her attempts to make amends for past unfairness, Michael has found him to be a deeply thoughtful man, as well as loyal and perceptive.

She has no regrets in their burying the hatchet.

Still, she knows that there are certain insults and affronts from the past that she will never be able to forget.

In quieter moments, it is easy enough for Michael to bring forth memory of those dark, early days aboard the Discovery, when backs were turned to her and the stars were cold outside of her window, and Michael’s thoughts were fuzzy with grief and she could not manage to feel anything, other than bleak despair and emptiness.

Funnily enough, Saru’s barbs and cruel words had not truly landed until months after Michael’s onboarding, after Michael’s numbness had given way like a breaking fever and she began to experience normal Human emotions once more.

I intend to do a better job protecting my captain than you did protecting yours—

—Dangerous—Horrific threat—Proven predator—

—Exactly the kind of behavior that killed Captain Georgiou!—

Unimportant.

Unimportant. Insignificant. Old wounds, past hurts, silly aches and pains entirely irrelevant to the present relationship Michael is attempting to build.

Reinitializing…

Saru staggers up to his feet. Together, he and Michael lean over the terminal, watching the mainframe screen as it reboots. The bustle of crewmembers fades into the background as the display loads.

Finally, the homescreen pops up once more, showing the hexagonal system bubbles.

Every single one is green, including comms.

Michael smiles triumphantly. Next to her, Saru nods in satisfaction. With a quick sidestep, Michael presses the “speak” key of the vox recorder inset within the corridor wall.

“Burnham to bridge. The universal translator is back up and running ship-wide, on all …systems…”

Her voice trails off as Commander Saru slowly, slowly sinks to the ground next to the pull-out terminal. He folds to his knees, coughing painfully as he does so. Michael has never seen him in such a state, not once in nearly eight years.

“Saru!”

Michael drops to a crouch beside him. She grasps his right arm, keeping his shaking body upright via sheer strength.

“What is going on? This is not just a cold!”

Saru shakes his head weakly. He looks up to her, and his blue eyes are wide and filled with fear, as well as unflinching certainty.

“No…it is not.”

But before Michael can so much as ask for clarification, Saru’s threat ganglia flare, prompting a pained groan—

And in the next moment, the ship bucks beneath them.

Michael is thrown off her feet as the deck recoils. Klaxons blare, the overhead lighting fails in a cascade of hot orange sparks, and an ops engineer on the other side of the hub is thrown from his access ladder, landing in a heap on the ground.

A quick glance at the mainframe display from Michael’s crumpled position on the deck shows at least five hexagonal system bubbles now in red. Even while she watches, several more make the split-second transition, resulting in an angry readout filled with far more red than green.

“Multiple system failure,” Michael mutters. She rises to her feet to the inset comm once more.

“Bridge, what happened? Did the sphere fire on us?”

Negative,” comes Owosekun’s accented voice. “EPS conduits are overloading. Systems are going haywire. The virus is spreading!

“What is happening to the ship?” Saru gasps from his place on the deck. He looks to be struggling to stand up. “We…we have to get back to the bridge—“

“No, no no no.” Michael drops back to him, pressing his shoulders back towards the floor. “Right now, we need to get you to sickbay.”

“There’s no time—“

“It’s down the corridor, Saru!”

Michael thanks the ship’s designers, engineers, and architects for placing sickbay, as well as the computer mainframe, in the most protected area of the ship. She hauls Saru to his feet, laying an arm across her shoulders.

Somehow, despite the high stakes of the situation, Michael’s heart still gives a nervous pang as she staggers down Corridor Four, Saru in tow.

Philippa is working sickbay.

Avoiding the woman will no longer be possible.

 

 

**

 

 

“Traige plasma burns on Level One! Non-critical to Sickbay Two!”

“Doctor!”

Michael calls for Tracy Pollard’s attention, all but dragging Saru’s barely-cooperating body through the doorway. White-uniformed personnel swarm around sickbay, the room filled to bursting with the casualties of the space sphere’s unconventional attacks.

Pollard gestures to an unoccupied bio-bed. “Bring him here!”

Saru pants as Michael gently lowers him onto the blue cushioned surface. Scanner in hand, Pollard is calm and focused as she takes Saru’s vitals and various accessory readings.

Michael takes the opportunity to subtly scan sickbay, unable to shake the crawling feeling in her spine, nor her fluttering heartbeat.

“Elevated heart-rate, spiking adrenal levels, increased neural activity.” Pollard’s voice shakes Michael out of her distraction. “The pain would render the average humanoid unconscious.”

Emphasis is placed on the last word, as if Pollard cannot quite comprehend just how Saru is still upright. In the next moment, Saru’s threat ganglia flare, prompting another pained groan from her Kelpien crewmate. Michael jumps at their sudden appearance.

“What do we do about those?”

Pollard sounds apprehensive, but Saru waves her off.

“Nothing! Nothing…it is an effect of my condition.”

The Kelpien man flinches, blinking painfully as he does so. Pollard picks up on this and reaches for his face, scanning one of his large blue eyes as she directs his gaze towards her.

“Ocular discomfort?”

“No…” Saru sniffles. “Kelpiens can—see far deeper into the light spectrum than Humans. I am seeing flashes of—ultraviolet light, invisible to you but quite the opposite to me…”

“Are these symptoms common among Kelpiens—“

“Ghh, this is pointless!”

Saru’s vehement exclamation tugs Michael out of her perusal of the sickbay staff.

“And the ship is being further immobilized as we waste time!” Saru continues in an impassioned tone. “There is no reason to believe the sphere is benevolent—“

The rant is cut off when Saru flinches once more, his large hands coming up to press into his face. Michael seizes the opportunity.

“Saru. Doctor Pollard is trying to help you.”

Michael’s mellow voice is calm, but an undercurrent of steel runs beneath it. It is the tone that comforts frightened ensigns, cajoles nervous civilians, and subtly coerces those who are being ornery into following Michael’s orders.

The “command tone,” as it were.

Michael raises an admonishing eyebrow. Saru’s eyes drop to his hands.

“Yes.”

He provides the answer helplessly, in response to Pollard’s earlier question.

“It is unique to my people…and it is terminal.”

The noises of sickbay go mute.

Michael exchanges a shocked glance with Doctor Pollard, whose dark eyes are wide at the revelation.

“Are—“ Michael stumbles. “Are you certain?”

“I have never been more certain of anything in my life." Saru’s tone is even, and accepting. His hands come up to press at his flared ganglia, a lame attempt to tame the strange, writhing tendrils into submission. With a shake of his head, he gives the attempt up for naught. “When I awoke in discomfort this morning, I hoped it was just a passing cold. But now…I have to face the truth. I do not understand why, but—I am beginning to think that the sphere’s—affectations on the local environment are—triggering a Kelpien biological process known as…vahar’ai.”

Michael wraps her lips around the word, mouthing the foreign syllables silently. She thinks of their collapsing ship, its systems crumbling in the iron grip of this vast, mysterious sphere…and her very ill crewmate, who is crumbling as well.

Saru continues. “Vahar’ai…is the event that signals when—Kelpiens are ready to be culled for slaughter—by the Ba’ul…the predator species on my homeworld, Kaminar.”

“But there are no Ba’ul here…”

Pollard puts forth the interjection hesitantly. Her face is uncomprehending, an unusual sight for the Discovery’s seen-it-all CMO.

“It does not matter,” Saru mumbles. His hands come up to his flared threat ganglia once more. “Kelpien ganglia only inflame in this manner as we near our end. There is…nothing to be done. I am—a slave to my biology.”

Michael’s hackles raise at her crewmate’s classic Kelpien fatalism. These attitudes of his were far more common back on the Shenzhou, when every situation and crisis would invariably result in some manner of the idea of “we let it run its course,” or “it is nature’s way.

It has been so many months since Saru’s outlook of benign resignation had reared its ugly head. Somehow Michael had forgotten just how infuriating it was.

“We are not going to let you die.”

Michael’s voice is hard as flint. Saru stares at her with no little surprise.

“There has to be something that we can do!”

Michael throws a significant look to Pollard, who gives several quick nods, her gaze dropping back to her scanner, her fingertips darting across the screen. Michael thinks of humanoid metabolism, of second-messengers and kinase cascades and brain chemistry and—

“There is not.” Saru shakes his head in denial. “Kelpiens undergoing vahar’ai either die in the culling, or…are driven to madness by the effects of the condition. Either way…”

He blinks in Michael’s direction, a little sadly.

“Death is inevitable.”

Michael opens her mouth, uncertain of what words she could possibly to say that would solve this state of affairs—

“Thirty-eight year old male, open laceration to the abdomen, LOR dropping!”

Both she and Tracy Pollard jump at the announcement, shouted across sickbay from the threshold. Michael turns to see two ops officers carrying a limp crewman between them, his head lolling on his shoulders. The stomach of his uniform is covered in blood, bubbling up from a long scratch from ribcage to navel.

“Burnham, glove up!” Pollard barks, putting down her scanner. “Saru, sit tight. This isn’t over.”

Michael nods briskly, darting to the supply cabinet near the doorway. Her thoughts are a veritable inferno as she digs in the drawer marked “Human”.

Vahar’ai…terminal…inevitable

She slams the drawer closed a little harder than she should.

How in the stars could Saru keep the possibility of sudden, irreversible death a secret? The man had known of this condition, this terminal, incurable condition, for damn near two decades, with much of that time spent in Starfleet, the home of the most cutting edge technology and discoveries in the galaxy! All of this time, they could have been working on a cure, a vaccine, a preventative vitamin, something.

The gloves snap onto Michael’s wrists. Her jaw is clenched with rage. Twenty years they had had to prevent this, if Saru could have only been bothered to speak up, to make the situation known—to fight.

Michael cannot even look at the Kelpien man as she stomps across across sickbay to help Pollard.

“We need gauze and towels, stat! Fenri, half a mil of TXA! Burnham, pressure. Where the hell is Georgiou?”

It is a struggle not to look up at the mention of her name, but Michael manages, devoting all of her focus towards applying direct pressure on Crewman N’Kalvarin’s bleeding laceration.

Then again, judging by Pollard’s expression when Michael finally does look up, it is likely that non-reaction may have been the more conspicuous choice.

“Doctor—“

“Nope. Not talking about it.” Pollard shakes her head. A medical ensign offers a syringe, which she quickly accepts. “Get a central line in place.”

She throws the order in the ensign’s direction. They nod quickly, reptilian eyes fluttering as they bustle off to collect the materials. Michael catches a glimpse of Saru on the other side of sickbay. He looks to be in terrible pain.

Her comrade. And as of fairly recently, her friend.

She begins brainstorming almost without conscious thought.

“If Saru thinks that somehow the sphere activated the vahar’ai, then maybe escaping its grip would stop what’s happening to him.”

“Logical,” Pollard confirms. In the next moment, her gaze moves over Michael’s shoulder. “Nope, sickbay two!” She waves an arm at a limping science officer, and the woman does an immediate about-face.

“The real issue is getting free of this—“ Pollard grits her teeth, pressing hard on the towels. “Sphere at all, before it destroys us. Jung, I need a cauterizer!”

“If it wanted to destroy us, why the slow attack?”

Michael shakes her head at the illogic of it all. Launching a virus that took out the universal translator but left critical functions unscathed, taking out systems one-by-one when it could easily reach out with its superior mass and strength and destroy them in an instant…

“…It’s inefficient, right? It must need something!”

“It’s taking what it needs,” Pollard denies. She reaches over her shoulder, and a cauterizer appears in her hand. “Without the computer, primary systems begin to fail, including the—warp core.” Her tool dips into the unconscious man’s abdominal cavity, and the scent of charred flesh hits Michael’s nostrils as the doctor burns closed the severed arteries and veins. “You heard the captain, EPS grid’s unstable, cutting off whole sections. Engineering’s down— Life support’s down to sixty percent, but who’s counting?”

The eye-roll is apparent in Pollard’s voice, though she does not look up from her work.

“Watch your hands.”

Michael does, busying herself with clearing saturated gauze pads out of Pollard’s workspace.

“It is not logical for a virus to kill its host.” Michael’s voice is smooth, flat with certainty.

“I’m flattered, Burnham, but you’re attaching a medical diagnosis to an unknown entity.”

“A medical metaphor,” Michael counters, and Pollard raises a disbelieving eyebrow.

“One which may have some substance!”

Pollard and Michael startle at Saru’s mellow voice, calling from across the room.

Of course, Michael had known about Kelpien auditory capabilities, but this fact had fallen to the wayside in light of the general turmoil around them.

“Like our…reprogramming of the UT, borrowing from—molecular biology. If we can—analyze the virus, perhaps we can—develop some kind of—digital antibody—“

“A computer antibody to fight a computer virus,” Michael completes. Her eyes are wide as she processes the idea, somewhat radical but not outside the realm of possibility. “That could give us enough control to break the ship free!”

“In theory, but—it will be a slow process, like—army ants eating a water buffalo.”

“It’ll buy us time at least, and we could use some of that.” Michael withdraws her hands from the supine crewman’s abdominal cavity. “Are you alright here, Doctor?”

Pollard huffs. “’Course not, but this is basic triage. Your mission is Priority One. Go, Burnham.”

Michael steps back from the bio-bed and strips off her gloves. “Saru, I’m heading to the digital media lab.”

“I’ll come with you—“

“No! No I can handle this.” Three long strides take Michael to Saru’s bedside, where is struggling to stand up. “There is no reason to risk your health further!”

She presses down on her crewmate’s shoulders a little more firmly than necessary. Saru’s large Kelpien hands come up to Michael’s wrists, but he does not attempt to throw her off. Somehow, the gentleness in his grip gives Michael pause. She looks at Saru, raising a questioning eyebrow.

Saru’s face is covered in beads of cold sweat, pain clear in his every micro-expression. Yet somehow, his eyes are filled with understanding, and deep, infinite compassion.

Michael’s heart gives a pang within her chest.

“I know that I am dying, Michael. In light of this fact—there is no further risk to my health.”

Saru’s glazed eyes blink once. He squares his shoulders beneath Michael’s hands.

“I am coming with you.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Michael Burnham’s life has been marked by loss.

The violent deaths of her parents at the age of ten. Her classmates, several friends, dead in the bombing of Shi’Kahr’s Learning Center. Multiple friends and colleagues, victims of their dazzling, dangerous life exploring the cosmos. And of course, her captain…

Her friend.

The ensuing war, and all of the many losses that Michael had borne with it. Sudden, jagged supernovas of pain and devastation punctuating Michael’s entire existence, loved ones winking out quickly, violently, suddenly, and without any sort of warning. It is at the point where Michael figures she ought to expect it, to be inured to it in some way.

And yet…

Michael is slowly realizing, as she writes line after line of code assisted by the Discovery’s capable auto-correctors, that what is happening now is something that she has never before experienced. Somehow, somehow, Michael realizes, here in this screen-filled media room, that all of the losses she has ever borne have been abrupt ones. Stars winking out without notice, violent terror attacks, accidents on away missions, Klingons and their wicked instruments of death…

Her experience with loss has always, always been acute.

Acute death was injury, lightning swift, hot red-white, agonizing. A massive explosion, a sudden attack, a shuttle crash, a blade through the chest.

But chronic death, it seems to Michael, is illness. Slow, creeping, grotesque. A silent shadow, a hungry void, churning like the maw of the moon-sized inferno right outside the ship’s hull…patient above all else, for what rush was there?

Vahar’ai was inescapable.

Michael wonders, as she alters her portion of the digital antibody, at how differently she would have experienced her parents’ passing had they succumbed slowly, to some inescapable illness such as vahar’ai. If she had been given months warning, instead of mere seconds…would she have been more prepared when the moment finally came?

Would Mom have used the time given to her to tell Michael about what would happen to her body once she turned thirteen? Would Daddy have taken her to his frontier homeworld, like he had promised her for years? Would Michael’s parents have used the dwindling days left to them to draft a will? To give Michael their final wishes and blessings, as they had not had time to do before the massacre? Would Mom and Daddy have spent their last hours in this universe holding her close? Whispering hopes for their only daughter, dreams for her future, advice for when they were gone, some last words of love for their baby?

All of that she could have had, instead of Dad’s hasty instructions to put her PADD down and set the table for dinner, and Mom’s terrified “I love you, baby girl,” as she bundled Michael into the cabinet beneath the sink.

Still, Michael has to wonder if maybe losing her family quickly had been better, for the idea of watching her parents suffer in the throes of what her crewmate is enduring seems to her unbearably cruel.

In the past hour, Saru’s keystrokes per minute have decreased by nearly fifteen percent. His breathing is growing louder, more labored. Michael remembers each minute what Doctor Pollard had said about the pain level. She wonders if it is possible for such a pain to grow even worse, or if Saru’s physical decline is due to other factors.

She wonders if this is better or worse than the sudden, yet violent deaths of everyone else she has ever lost.

And, like Saru’s vahar’ai, Michael finds that her grief, as well, has snuck up on her. With every passing minute the anguish has grown. And every passing minute, with breath counts, with images of serenity in her mind’s eye, with techniques borrowed from the ancient practice of tok’mar, Michael beats it back. She clings to logic now, as she has done in all times of strain. Clear, impersonal logic. Her ship needs her, her crew needs her; becoming emotional over what is objectively a side-issue will only detract from her ability to deal with the problem at hand.

“The antibodies are slowing the virus’s progression. Life support at forty-seven percent.”

Michael’s voice is impassive as she announces the readout from the media lab’s main terminal.

Deep breaths.

Cool head.

Still heart.

Michael’s efforts are as stalwart and as measured as any Vulcan, yet somehow, her results have always varied.

“You are…wondering why I kept this from you.”

Saru’s rasping voice comes from over her shoulder and above.

Finally.

Michael closes her eyes, slowly turning to face him. The painful past pulses deep in her chest, but it is the painful present that she must focus on.

“I know things have not always been…cordial…between us. But I thought we had made progress.” She lifts her head, manages to look her colleague, her friend, in the eyes. “You didn’t have to bear this alone, Saru.”

Saru, for his part, only clicks low in his throat. A pained swallow follows the clicking sound; Michael winces at it.

With a quick breath, Saru stumbles from his wall-mounted readout to stand beside her. “How…do I explain to the woman—who has fought over and over—for the right to take her next breath—that I come from a race that submits?”

Michael’s lips part slightly, stunned at Saru’s admission.

In the next moment, she feels a trickle of shame for her earlier thoughts, back in sickbay. Of course, she could not presume understand what it was like living under the yoke of an ever-present predator species, ready to face inevitable death from the moment one woke up, every morning of every day, for one’s entire life.

How such an upbringing must have shaped Saru’s character, indeed, every aspect of his being. For all that the Kelpien man claims to be a slave to his biology, surely it had to be nurture, as well as nature, that made him the man he is now, just as surely as Michael spends each morning performing Suus Mahna, each evening meditating, and every minute in between seeking out the logic behind her own emotions.

“There will not be judgment between us, Saru. No longer.”

Michael says the words, and they are as binding as any promise she has ever made.

“You are…kind…to say such a thing.” Saru blinks his large blue eyes, and Michael imagines a type of mourning in them. “After how I…treated you…”

“I gave as good as I got. More, even.”

Michael diffuses the statement automatically. She remembers their acerbic days aboard the Shenzhou, when their animosity was at an all-time high. Saru had had every right to detest her back in those days.

“Well…” Saru blinks. He seems somewhat surprised. “Yes. I suppose there is…that…”

His mouth opens and shuts, and his gaze drops to somewhere at Michael’s left shoulder. Michael wonders what he might be attempting to say.

But Saru only huffs, sniffling slightly.

“Hiding…truly is a part of my nature…” he murmurs, shaking his head almost ruefully.

“What—“

“Ninety-seven languages I have learned…” Saru muses, now staring down at the surface of Michael’s terminal. “Yet I have never shared my own…fearful of revealing my own…alien-ness.”

Michael nods at that, understanding quite well. She had refused to speak in her early months at the Learning Center after the other children had laughed, albeit innocently, at the Standard English she had attempted with them. Only after she had gained proficiency in Shi’Kahr Vulcan had her lips parted once more.

“May I ask a favor of you?” Saru continues, hesitating on the question.

“Of course,” Michael assures, reaching for his forearm to offer comfort.

“I have kept detailed personal logs since joining Starfleet. I would ask that you—officially catalogue them, so that—when General Order One no longer applies to the Kelpiens—they will know—a journey like mine is possible.”

Michael blinks, feeling the sting of tears prick at her eyes.

“It would be my privilege.”

Of course, the need to be remembered is all but universal across sentient species. Still, Michael imagines Saru’s desire to be more fervent than most, having left his people behind so long ago. Michael can certainly empathize. She, too, had been cut off from all she had known at a young age, and had been forced to adapt to circumstances far outside of anything she could have expected.

What she would have given, back then, for the merest trace of the people that she had left behind.

The community that had been taken from her.

“Did you record your life before Starfleet?” Michael finds herself asking. She wonders how Saru might feel about his early life on Kaminar, his home, his species, people, and how he can keep such memories alive when none are present to carry the torch with him.

“In many ways,” Saru begins. “My life began when I was granted refugee status by the Federation. While being processed at—Starbase Seven, I saw…for the first time, life-forms from across the universe…some with less than I had, yet—with a dream of…something better…

“I understand…” Michael states softly. She recalls her brief stay at Child Services on Starbase Twenty-Two all those many years ago, the bustle of dozens of species, the chatter of hundreds of languages, the aroma of thousands of foreign aromas. Grief had clawed at her chest every moment of every day, a pain she would never truly surmount, but Michael has never, ever looked back on that experience of such a vast nexus of people with anything but wonder.

Wonder at where those hundreds of species were going, what they were doing, what they might have in common, what might separate them, and of course…

Wonder at what her father, the xenoanthropologist, might have had to say on the matter.

Saru holds her gaze, and Michael sees these thoughts reflected in his eyes.

Michael wonders if they might have been friends, had they been on Starbase Seven or Starbase Twenty-Two together, back in those days.

Saru shudders, continuing in a rasp. “There was only one painful caveat to…my starting a new life…”

“You could never return home.”

Saru’s head jerks to the side to stare at Michael, who had finished his thought almost without meaning to.

Michael merely offers him a compassionate nod. Her mind is still moored to the past, to the fateful day that had split her life into two parts, and the strange liminal space that Starbase Twenty-Two had occupied in the weeks in between…the closing of one door, and the opening of another.

The tragic past, set in stone, and the future, hers to be written.

“It’s so very lonely,” Michael finally murmurs. “Starting your new life with…nothing of your past…no one, from your past…”

Saru is staring at Michael. He looks stunned at her words.

“You long for community…” Michael continues, the words coming from somewhere deep and fathomless within her. “You see it everywhere, and yet…you have no one…with whom to make your own…”

The Earth-Human bloc of Doctari Alpha, the Tau Cetian neighborhood on Starbase Twenty-Two, the Southern Islander sector of Shi’Kahr…

“We were immigrants,” Saru puts forth, into the heavy silence of the media room. “Refugees, fleeing violence, yet—with nothing of our past, to hold on to. No one…to hold on to…”

“How did you bear it?”

The words burst from Michael’s chest before she can stop them. She looks up at Saru, at his bright blue Kelpien eyes, his pale skin, his domed head…the only Kelpien to make it out.

She realizes that she has never needed an answer so fervently as she does now.

“How do you carry that life inside of you?” Michael continues, her voice raw. “How can you…have all of those memories of an entire world, and—have no one, who understands?”

Saru is staring at her once more. Michael wonders what he must be seeing, what emotions her words are stirring within him.

“With exceptional pain,” Saru finally answers, and Michael flinches at the answer.

“But…” Saru continues. “I believe that you are wrong about…the last part. It is alright. I was…wrong, as well.”

Saru shakes his head, twitching slightly at the pain such an action must be causing.

“I am—such a fool. Eighteen years spent in the stars, bearing—so much pain, and loss and…hope, all at once. So certain that I was—the only creature in the universe carrying such experience.”

He looks down at her.

“I was wrong, Michael.”

A beat of silence hangs.

Realization bursts in Michael’s chest, the feeling warm and ocean-smooth against her sternum.

Saru smiles down at her. Not with his mouth, Kelpiens are incapable of such movement, but with his eyes. “We have wasted so much time, haven’t we?”

Michael chokes out a laugh, even as the tears finally overflow from her eyes.

“How are we just now getting to this?”

She shakes her head as she wipes her cheeks with a sleeve. More tears bubble up, and she sniffles in a lame attempt to push them back.

“Why’d we hate each other so much, when we could’ve had something good, like this?”

“Perhaps—we did not have…sufficient understanding of…ourselves.” Saru offers. He hunches slightly, wincing as he does so. “It is…common…to detest that which…we do not understand.”

Michael blinks.

She thinks of jagged teeth, ridged foreheads, black badges, caves, darkness, gold chestplates, a vicious killer wearing the face of a loved one…

Of their own accord, Michael’s forearms come up to rest on the surface of the terminal. The weight of a veritable lifetime of pain and fear descends between her shoulders, and she slumps at it, leaning heavily over the metal surface. She shakes out a long breath, attempting to re-center her mind, to steel her heart for what is to come.

Saru’s large hand comes to rest on her back.

But in the next moment, he shudders. A pained groan rips from his chest, and he curls in on himself. Michael jolts from her repose, reaching to steady him.

“More flashes of—ultraviolet light.” Saru screws his eyes tightly shut. “They are growing in—intensity…”

“Is that normal for va’harai?” Michael demands, cold fear gnawing at her chest.

“I do not know,” Saru mumbles. “There is…no one I can ask…”

“Here, let me get you something from sickbay—“

“No!” Saru denies immediately, grabbing at Michael’s forearm before she can turn on a heel to leave the media room. “You are needed on the bridge. You must return—as soon as possible. I can continue the work here.”

Michael shakes her head; Saru picks up on her vehemence, and his grip softens.

“My condition is unalterable. The Discovery’s is not.”

Saru holds her gaze for a long moment. Some of the desperation he must be feeling becomes evident in his eyes.

“We must help them first, Michael.”

 

 

 

**

 

 

In hers and Saru’s absence, the Discovery’s bridge has descended into controlled chaos. Announcements and alerts of all kinds fly back and forth across the ten-meter space, and red lights flash at the edges of the wall, indicating red alert and multi-system failure. The harshness tugs at the edge of Michael’s vision, drawing a dull ache from her temples. Nevertheless, Michael flattens her lips against the pain. She focuses on her readouts, her holographic screens, the sensation of the cool metal terminal beneath her fingertips and the deck beneath her feet.

Unless Pollard and her team can produce a miracle in these already-demanding circumstances, Saru’s condition is presently unalterable. There is nothing she can do, right now at this moment, but help free the Discovery from the sphere’s iron grip.

“Spock’s shuttle is still at maximum warp, Captain! If we remain here, we are going to lose him!”

Owosekun’s accented tones ring across the bridge as Michael scans her readouts. Her face jerks up at the mention of her brother’s name.

“Reallocate power from the transporters to long-range sensors,” Pike barks. “I don’t want to lose contact with his shuttle.”

Michael shakes her head, even as Owosekun restates Michael’s thoughts aloud.

“Even with sensors at max, we won’t be able to track him for much longer."

“Contact engineering, see if they can reroute impulse power to the deflectors. If we can raise shields, we may be able to interrup the stasis field just enough to break free.”

Michael shakes her head once more at Pike’s suggestion, quite unable to comprehend that the bridge had somehow not already tried something so very simple. She glances towards Saru’s console, imagining the long-suffering look they would have exchanged under ordinary circumstances.

But Saru is still in the media lab, and Commander Airiam has taken his post in his absence.

Pike strides to Airiam’s console as he finishes his suggestion.

“If we do that, could we jump away?”

“Negative, sir.” Airiam’s synthetic voice is impassive. “We don’t have the power to create the necessary hull cavitation.”

“Comms are still down in Engineering, Sir!” Bryce provides from his post at the comms console.

“Security programs are also malfunctioning!” Commander Nhan’s voice issues from the internal tactical systems hub. “They’re locking off parts of the ship.”

“How are doing, Commander?”

Pike strides to Michael, whose gaze darts down to her left-most readout, a feed directly from the digital media lab.

“The digital antibodies are doing their job, but progress is sluggish.” Michael shakes her head somewhat wearily.

The captain leans in, his voice lowering. “I’m running out of options here. If we lose Spock, we lose any chance of protecting him.”

“I understand,” Michael states shortly, her mind running through possibly work-arounds. Once more, she feels quite touched at Captain Pike’s single-minded devotion to her prickly brother. Still, she cannot help but wonder how he can possibly focus on such a distant goal when Saru is dying and the ship is collapsing around them.

Perhaps such long-ranged focus was possible when one was a captain, with underlings and various personnel to handle the minutia of ship-wide disasters such as this.

“Commander?”

Pike’s voice jostles Michael from her thoughts. With a firm shake of her head, Michael banishes her unhelpful speculations.

This was not the time to crumble. Not yet.

“Permission to go to engineering.”

Michael says the words before her brain can catch up, and she wonders what her logical mind has come up with while her illogical mind had been running rampant.

“We can’t talk to them here, but maybe I can help them get power to shields,” she finds herself elaborating.

Pike, for his part, nods once at this.

“Permission granted.”

Michael all but sighs in relief.

With a wave of her hand, she powers down her console as she turns to leave. The howl of another alert blares somewhere behind her and to her right as she trots the turbolift. The ship shakes, no doubt compensating for yet another onslaught from the mysterious space inferno.

The Discovery is under brutal attack, that much is certain, but try as Michael might to focus on the greater problem, the bigger picture, the many, all she can really think is…

If they break free of the sphere, perhaps it will cure Saru.

And if they break free soon, then perhaps, perhaps…they will finally catch up to her brother.

She is not being much of a Vulcan right now, Michael knows. Sarek would admonish her for such emotional motivations; hell, even Spock would likely raise an eyebrow at such Human behavior. Still…

Michael resolves that if it is her Human heart that is providing her with ideas that could work, if it is her emotions that are making her fingers dart faster across the turbolift controls, …if this single-minded, illogical drive to save the few will help her to save the many…

Then it would be worth it, in the end.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“It’s just for now, Ensign. Only until we find a way to remove it.”

Paul Stamets’ voice is soothing as he comforts Ensign Tilly. The young woman is shaking where she stands in the hot white light of the the reaction cube. The lumpy gray blob pulsates threateningly around her right forearm.

Quarantine, for all of their safeties.

All theories, postulates, and wild ideas on how to remove the fungal parasite attached to her right arm have come up with nothing. At least, nothing that might work under current circumstances. Cut off from the rest of the Discovery, power coming and going, life support failing…

They certainly do not have much to work with.

Philippa shakes her head behind the terminal next to the sealed auxiliary access door. Her tactical background is not of much use in this situation, nor is her nursing curriculum providing much assistance. On the other side of the staircase, Jett Reno is digging around in her toolbox and muttering to herself, and Paul Stamets has planted himself next to the reaction cube, comforting Tilly with soft words. The room still reeks of ozone from the surge, the screens and consoles giving off static in massive waves. Philippa’s fingers twitch as she searches for ways to make contact with the rest of the ship with her failing console. Her heart trembles nauseatingly in her chest; if not for the fact that there is almost certainly pacemaker installed somewhere inside the organ, Philippa doubts she would even be upright at the moment.

The screens flicker uselessly in front of her face. Her hands shake on the keyboard.

Her knowledge, her experience, her body, all failing her.

Why was she even here?

The question that has plagued her since her bitter fight with Michael, since her onboarding to the Discovery, since waking up in agony in that too-large hospital bed in the murky room on Qo’Nos…

Why am I here?

Why is she part of this ridiculous situation, EPS overloading and electricity surging, when her heart could be a mere doorknob-shock away from shutting down permanently? Why is she in this spore lab when she has no real knowledge of high-level science or engineering after the past year of nothing but spying, plotting, and killing?

And just why, why in the seven hells is Philippa here, on this ship, with these good people, when she no longer has any business being in Starfleet?

Her hands shake on the keyboard, useless. Useless, pathetic, decrepit; and with this comes familiar, helpless fury.

Somewhere off to the right, Reno shuffles as she picks up her toolbox. She strides in Philippa’s direction, skirting the metal staircase, and her footfalls sound uneven on the durasteel deck. Philippa keeps her gaze forward.

“Y’know, I could just cut it off.” Jett Reno’s voice is loud in Philippa’s right ear. “She wouldn’t even lose a freckle.”

“No, bad idea!” Stamets chimes in from his place in front of the spore drive. “If it’s a symbiote, removing it could kill her!”

“Damn. I’m pretty good with a plasma knife, too.” Reno tosses the tool back into the toolbox, and it audibly sparks as it collides with the other metal items. “Jeez, this static is insane. You ever seen anything like this?”

Philippa remains silent.

“Captain?”

Nothing.

“Phil—“

“Don’t.”

“Look, I’m sorry.”

“Save it—“

“I had to. You know that I did.”

You have been taking a rather spectacular amount of liberties lately—“

“What, concern is a liberty now?”

“I am not an invalid, Commander—“

“Oh, can it!”

Reno practically snaps the words.

Philippa’s jaw clatters shut. She stares at Reno, a mixture of furious and shocked.

“You think I don’t know what your issues are?” Reno gestures with her chin at Philippa’s zipped white uniform jacket, beneath which lies a barely functioning heart. She gives Paul Stamets a cursory glance, and takes a step in, lowering her voice so that only Philippa can hear.

“You know, I kept a guy with zero heart-function alive for ten months, patched his goddamn heart with a hydrazine pump submerged in an evacuated fuel canister filled with saline. And every time we’d get hit with an ion storm, I’d have to take the machine off-line and put him in the airlock, cool his body to negative eighteen degrees Celsius to preserve brain function ‘cause the one time I didn’t, the electrical bursts shorted out the pump and he was dead for four minutes.”

The words ring in the air between them.

“You’re telling me you would’ve survived that surge if you’d been standing anywhere but the rubber-lined friction carpet all of these Crossfield-class lab terminals come equipped with?”

Jett Reno’s face is harder than usual as she ends her rant. For the first time since they met nearly two weeks ago, she looks to be something other than unbothered.

Philippa can only stare at her. The words ring in her ears, bits and pieces of the ten-month long backstory that Reno has all but refused to share with anyone.

After a long, silent moment, Reno turns away, rooting around in the toolbox once more.

Philippa closes her eyes, her mouth working. Her attempt to tamp down on her pride is difficult; she is significantly out of practice. Still…she is not so far gone that she has forgotten when and how to give thanks where thanks is due.

“I—I appreciate it, Reno.”

Philippa finally manages to grate out the words. She feels quite like an angry child cajoled by a parental figure to apologize. To say that she is not still pissed as hell about the situation would be a lie; still, she is finding that Reno’s irritated explanation is cutting through some of the anger she had (perhaps unfairly) directed towards the engineer.

“Thank you for doing that.”

Reno continues her rooting in the toolbox.

Philippa rolls her eyes with a huff. “Really? What else do you want me to say?”

Nothing.

“Hey!”

Reno doesn’t even twitch. A sudden thought occurs to Philippa, and she reaches towards the side of Reno’s face, snapping her fingers next to her left ear. Reno gives no sign of noticing.

Philippa grasps the engineer’s shoulder, and Reno jumps at the touch.

“Your eardrums are ruptured.”

“Nah, just the one.” Reno shakes her head to the side, as if attempting to clear her ear of water. “Feels kinda weird.”

“Are you dizzy?”

“Well yeah, I did get struck by lightning.”

“You have to get that checked out.”

“Mm-hm.”

“I’m serious!”

“Would you say you’re concerned?”

Philippa shoots her an irritated look. Reno raises her hands innocently.

“It just feels like you’re taking a lot of liberties right now—

“Go to hell.”

“Already been, they kicked me back.”

“Can hardly blame them—“

“Guys!”

Stamets’ voice cuts right through the lab.

Philippa and Reno turn to him, jolted from their brief reverie.

“How are we coming on ideas?” Stamets prods somewhat sarcastically.

Philippa and Reno look at each other, and back at him.

“Could ask you the same question,” Reno drawls.

Stamets steps forward, anger lining his expression, but a high-pitched voice cuts in before.

“Please don’t fight.”

The group turns towards the young woman inside the spore cube.

Sylvia Tilly looks exhausted beyond belief where she stands illuminated in the white light of the spore drive. Her right arm is wrapped in the gray fungal parasite; it pulsates ominously beneath the harsh lighting.

“I know you’re all stressed ‘cause of what’s happening… An’ 'cause you had to put me in quarantine.” Tilly shrugs a little, jostling the ugly gray blob wrapped around her arm. “Or us, I guess.”

Stamets’ face collapses as he listens to Tilly’s quavering voice. Reno slowly unstiffens where she stands at Philippa’s right side. Philippa, too, finds herself relenting. Her earlier frustration and hostility drains from her body, replaced by something a little too close to shame.

A Starfleet ensign, fresh from her promotion and wrapped in a potentially malignant fungal parasite, jolting a roomful of commanders and captains from their petty, unproductive bickering…

They should all feel ashamed.

“I feel a little weird…” Tilly mumbles. She leans heavily against the glass walls of the drive chamber. “I mean…I should be terrified, but I’m not. Not anymore…”

Philippa squares her shoulder, pretending she is still a captain. She rounds the terminal, crossing the brief stretch of deck to the reaction cube.

“Tilly…stay with us.” Tilly’s gaze slides towards Philippa, her eyes trusting beyond belief. “We are going to figure this out. You're going to be alright.”

“I know, Captain. I know you will.”

Tilly sighs the words. There is no hint of doubt in her high voice. Philippa wonders how she can be so trusting, how the ensign can have such utter faith in her after all that has happened…

Then again…Michael most likely did not tell her the entire truth.

Once again, Philippa marvels at how a woman raised in a culture based upon stark, often brutal honesty can navigate such secrets. How carefully Michael is able to straddle the murky lines between privacy, secrecy, and straight-up deceit, how she can perfectly understand just how much or how little to say so as to not technically lie, but to keep incriminating truths hidden.

Section 31 has several Vulcans in its ranks. Philippa is beginning to understand why.

Tilly twitches slightly in the confines of the drive, but doesn’t look up.

“Ensign?”

No response.

Philippa narrows her eyes. “Ensign…can you tell us about what just happened? How did you end up in there?”

“Um…”

Tilly mumbles once more, her eyes glassy. Stamets gives Philippa a querying look.

“Testing level of responsiveness?”

“Obviously. Look at her.” Philippa gestures with her chin at Ensign Tilly, who looks to be falling asleep on her feet. “Fungi secrete chemicals, right?”

“What, you think she’s being dosed?”

Stamets looks somewhat sickened at the possibility.

“Don’t worry…” Tilly pipes up once more, almost sleepily. “May means me no harm.”

“Can you see her, Ensign?”

Philippa goes into high alert. Her voice is sharp, but Tilly doesn’t seem to notice.

“Y’know, May was…scary, and clingy, and she never shut up, but…” Tilly shakes her head as she continues. Her eyes are glassy. “She never hurt me. She said—said she…had a plan for me.”

With a long exhale, the ensign slumps against the glass of the reaction cube.

“She said the pale captain, blonder…” Tilly mumbles. “With the…bad ship…”

“Ensign?” Philippa says the word loudly, and Tilly’s head finally jerks up, looking at her. “Did you ever think that perhaps May was…manipulating you?”

The tactician and war-time spy in Philippa cannot nix the possibility. It is what she would do, what she has done in order to stay alive and stay ahead in a hostile alien culture. She has no hopes whatsoever that the creature that has bound itself to Ensign Sylvia Tilly is benign in any way.

“That’s what she said you were doing,” comes Tilly’s warbling response. “She said you were…poisoning me, against her.”

“Okay, if that thing wasn’t freaking me out, she sure is.”

Reno calls out from her place at the right-most terminal. She’s facing the auxiliary door next to the reaction cube, cocking her head in an odd way; no doubt favoring her good ear. Despite the awkward stance, Philippa has a good view of Jett Reno’s expression.

If she didn’t know better, she would say that the engineer looks downright spooked.

“Well, we’ll know why in a second.”

Stamets’ high baritone echoes behind Philippa, she looks over her shoulder to see the mycologist heading back towards the spore cube, tricorder held aloft in his hand. He waves it over Tilly’s slumped form, raising an eyebrow at the readings.

“Huh. The fungus is secreting a psilocybin hallucinogen to influence her emotions.”

“So you’re saying she’s on a bad trip?” Reno sounds dubious.

“Or a good one,” Stamets offered. “It might be trying to calm her down, so she won’t be scared.”

“Or so she won’t fight back,” Philippa denies grimly. Her scientist mind is rusty, but her tactical brain is quite sharp. A fungal entity that had grown itself inside of this young woman, psychologically tortured her, fought free of captivity to reattach itself to her…

“I think it wants you, Ensign, specifically.” Philippa finds herself saying.

“She did say I was her only chance.” Tilly mumbles. “But…what could she want…from me, of all people?”

Philippa considers the question. She takes in Ensign Sylvia Tilly, Starfleet’s youngest and chattiest command hopeful, and has to admit herself stumped.

Lost in thought, she meanders back behind the right-most terminal, tucked between the access doorway and the metal staircase.

“What the hell do you think that means?” Reno murmurs to her once she rounds the console.

“I’m not sure,” Philippa replies in an equally low voice. “What does Tilly have that none of the rest of us do?”

“Some kind of skill, or…knowledge?” Reno tries, but Philippa shakes her head.

“Can’t be. She’s a child, the youngest on the ship.” Philippa takes in the fungus on Tilly’s arm, pumping her full of hallucinogens and trapping her in the spore drive. “It went after her because she is the most vulnerable of all of us, nothing more.”

“You think it’s just straight-up predation?”

“I am at a loss to imagine what else it could be.”

“Then why the slow attack?”

Philippa looks at Reno in surprise.

“Why take the time to grow inside her, to project itself into her mind?” Reno’s voice is urgent as she sizes up the girl and the fungus quarantined inside the reaction cube. “Why bother with all of that if it’s just gonna eat her?”

“Could be how it hunts.”

Reno shakes her head. “Seems like a lot of extra work to me. How would a fungus hunt, anyway?”

Stamets gives her an irritated look from his place at Tilly’s side. Reno rolls her eyes at it, and continues in a quieter voice.

“She said May wanted to see the captain, the pale one, blonder.”

“Was she going after him, then?”

Reno only twitches slightly at that. She sighs long and low, closing her eyes and rubbing her hands over them. “Look, here’s an engineering proverb for you. If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

With a long sigh, Reno lowers her hands once more.

“And if your only tool is a phaser…everything looks like a hostile.”

Philippa takes this in silently.

“You’re thinking like a tactical officer, Captain. And I’m just a gearhead, and they’re farmers…” She gestures to Tilly and Stamets, who glares at Reno once more. “And we have is this…unknown mushroom entity. It’s probably sentient, but we don’t know what it is or what it wants, or how it works, or…how to figure any of those things out.”

Reno and Philippa are silent for a long moment, staring at the gray blob pulsating around Tilly’s forearm.

Reno speaks first. “What do you think Burnham would do?”

Philippa stiffens.

Reno looks to her, noting the reaction. “Something up with that?”

“Leave it, Reno.”

“Look, did something happen or what?”

“I said leave it.”

Reno opens her mouth to respond, but the sound of urgent, running footsteps in the adjacent lab space startles them both—

And in the next moment, Michael Burnham herself skids to a hard stop outside of the auxiliary access door. Shoulders heaving, sweat glistening on her forehead, distress in her eyes, she clearly ran here. Even in the murky cast of the emergency back-up lighting, Michael’s berry brown eyes are glowing, her full lips painted a dark shade, her complexion bright and youthful.

She looks nothing short of heaven-sent.

Wonderful warmth bursts over Philippa’s head, running down her spine and flooding her extremities. 

Michael, for her part, gives Philippa a quick, bewildered once-over. This is understandable; Philippa, in her wholesome medical whites, has no utter business being sequestered in the spore lab with the trio of engineers.

But then Michael’s curious expression slams closed, guarded once more, and Philippa’s heart crumples in her chest.

“Speak of the devil.”

Reno’s drawl nearly makes Philippa leap out of her skin, returning her to the present moment once more.

Michael presses her face to the transparent surface of the door, taking in Tilly inside the reaction cube, fungal parasite attached to forearm.

“What happened?”

“The doors won’t open!” Stamets exclaims, striding forward a few steps. “And that—thing reattached itself to Tilly!” He gestures towards Tilly’s arm, around which the inter-dimensional fungus is pulsating.

“Michael…” Tilly slurs inside the reaction cube. Michael shakes her head at the sight, horror rising in her expression.

Philippa takes an unwitting step towards her at the sight, wanting to soothe away the distress. Indeed, a strange surge of intent seems to be rising in her chest. She wants to fix all of this. She wants to come up with a daring plan, a clever maneuver, some bold, ingenious way to save Ensign Sylvia Tilly if such a thing would please Michael, if it would insulate her from yet more pain and suffering…

And certainly if it would balance the scales, which have sunk so very low in the wake of the past several days. Of the past year, really.

“Can you cut it off?” Michael demands.

“Nah—“ Reno begins.

“It’s demonstrated symbiotic tendencies in the past,” Stamets finishes for her. “If we cut it off, there’s a chance it’ll kill her.”

“I—“ Michael closes her eyes and shakes her head, her full lips pursing as she centers herself. “I came to see if we could find a way to boost power to shields—“

“No,” Stamets denies. “With the systems fluctuating, this section is partitioned off, we can’t get to the warp core!”

“Michael…” Ensign Tilly mumbles the word once more, louder this time. “I feel really tired…”

Michael’s dark eyes widen as she takes this in. “What’s happening to her?”

“That blob is sending her in and out of consciousness!” Stamets exclaims.

“Why is doing that to her?”

“It’s not like we can ask it,” Reno deadpans over Philippa’s shoulder.

Silence.

Michael and Stamets exchange a startled look.

Stamets speaks first. “Actually…maybe we can!”

He strides towards an access panel set into the side of the reaction cube, pulling out a strangely-shaped mass of intricate, woven wiring. The entire structure glows a warm blue, insinuating its mycelial nature.

With some difficulty, Philippa manages to pull her gaze from Michael to take in the device.

“This is a harmonic interface!” Stamets explains quickly. “It links my neural activity to the mycelial network. If we modify it, we could conceivably link May to Tilly’s central nervous system…get her to talk using Tilly’s voice!”

“Wait— Wait, what did you say?”

Michael’s mellow voice sounds stunned; stupefied, even. Philippa is struck mute by the openness in her former commander’s face, her dark, swirling eyes.

She knows that expression all too well.

“We’re gonna talk to it!” Stamets’ voice is just a hair short of excited. “We need it to tell us what it wants!”

On the other side of the sealed door, Michael looks like she’s been clubbed.

“…So do we!” she finally exclaims. Her eyes peel away from Stamets, wide and darting as thoughts cascade through her brilliant mind. She’s had an epiphany, Philippa knows, she has seen many such epiphanies over their seven years together.

Her former commander’s expression, open and vulnerable, excited and exhilarated all at once…

Philippa feels gut-punched. She wonders if she might be visibly swaying.

“The sphere!” Michael continues. She has the same dazzled expression that she wears while watching a star’s birth, or a species’ first, stumbling excursion into space. “The virus…the ultraviolet light pulses! It’s been trying to tell us something, but we haven’t been listening!”

“Well damn, woman, go!”

Jett Reno’s deadpan drawl issues from over Philippa’s shoulder, startling her out of her daze. At that, Michael nods once, firmly. Her feet twist on the deck, about to carry her away, no doubt up to the bridge where she can put her plan into the motion and save them all…

Yet just before she turns away, Michael’s gaze flicks to Philippa once more. Only for a moment, but time stops its ceaseless forward motion as their eyes meet.

Philippa thinks that if it were possible for a Human to be caught in a tractor beam, or tugged past the event horizon of a black hole, surely it would feel like this.

Falling, falling with terminal velocity, yet…rising at the same time.

And then Philippa’s heart is in her throat, adrenaline pounding through her veins, the urgency unbearable. She wants to reach out to Michael, she wants desperately wants to reach for her hand, to pull her close and tell her how very sorry she is, so very sorry for her allegiance, for all that she has done in the past year, for hurting Michael so terribly much and sullying all that they have worked towards…she wants to drop to her knees and beg forgiveness, she wants to jettison her black badge into the nearest sun and burn Section 31 to the ground if that’s what it would take to remove the pain from Michael’s beautiful, berry-brown eyes…

If that’s what it would take to have Michael at her side once more.

Philippa’s hand reaches forward despite herself, reaching out to her—

But between them, a twenty centimeter-thick layer of decompression-proof transparasteel stands, immobile and insurmountable.

That, and a veritable lifetime of experience, of time and space, death and war, of age...Michael’s eyes go shuttered.

She turns away, tearing her gaze from Philippa—

And she runs. Through the adjacent lab, out of the bulkhead door, towards the turbolift, where she will no doubt carry her epiphany up to the bridge and put a plan into action that will save them all.

Michael Burnham’s brilliant mind, her clear-eyed courage, and her unfathomably good heart. The pride of Starfleet, the hero who ended the Klingon War in the face of all odds, the woman who led the Federation out of darkness…the shame Philippa feels is like a knife to the chest.

She shouldn't be here.

She shouldn't be here.

Her heart in ashes, Philippa squares her shoulders and turns away from the auxiliary access door.

Back towards the spore lab and the problem at hand.

Stamets is already at the far corner of the lab, making metallic rumbling noises as he digs around in one of the storage closets. The harmonic interface lies on the terminal in front of the studded spore canister wall, already hooked up to the monitor. Tilly is still in her psilocybin-induced stupor, swaying slightly in the spore drive.

And Reno…

Reno is staring at Philippa with wide, stunned eyes, like she’s just found the overloaded circuit in the EPS conduit relay, the one that is keeping the starship from taking flight.

Philippa does not even have the strength to glare at her.

“Oh, what?” she snaps, though she cannot manage to inject any real hardness into her voice.

Jett Reno, to her credit and to Philippa’s intense irritation, gives no indication of being intimidated. Indeed, she looks downright sympathetic.

“Nothing, Captain.”

Reno tugs her gaze away, hands fluttering absently over the tools in front of her, mouth working. She seems to be thinking very quickly about something.

In the next moment, she looks up from her tools and back towards Philippa. Her expression is neutral, as always, but the compassion in her eyes is breathtaking.

“I’m sorry, Phil. Really, I am.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Saru!”

Michael’s feet barely touch the deck as she flies into the media room. Saru looks up from the tabletop terminal, and the sight of his ravaged visage hits Michael like a punch to the sternum.

“Michael...are you alright?”

With a jolt, Michael realizes that the aforementioned punch to the sternum has all but blasted a hole in the barrier, behind which she had cordoned off the emotions from her trip to the spore lab. The triple gut-punch of seeing Tilly in quarantine, the mycelial creature entrapping her once more, and Philippa…Philippa, and whatever had been lurking behind her dark eyes and carefully blank features.

Michael’s expression might as well be wearing her, for all the control she presently has over it.

“Trouble in engineering,” she manages, just barely. “Don’t worry about it.” If only that were an option for her.

Michael rushes forth to grab Saru’s large Kelpien hand across the data table, a necessary reminder that he is still here. 

“Are you alright?”

“No.” 

Michael knows he is being honest on this point. 

“But I am...functional.” Saru looks Michael up and down. “You are out of breath.”

Michael quickly remembers just why that is. 

“Saru, could the sphere be trying to talk to us?” She leans forward, positing the idea urgently. “Using the virus as a way to make first contact?”

Silence.

“Yes…” Saru’s large eyes dart as he digests the idea. “Yes... yes of course, I’ve been so blind.

He stumbles away from the table. Gait unsteady, he ambles towards the viewport set into the back wall, which displays the giant, fiery space sphere in all of its glory. Michael proceeds carefully behind him, ready to catch her friend should his legs finally give out.

“The ultraviolet wavelengths I have been seeing...They are... repeating , like...like letters would, in a sentence!” 

“Saru!” Michael rushes forth to attempt to halt his progress, concerned at his labored breathing and glassy eyes. She grips him firmly by the forearms. “Saru, stop it--”

“No-”

“Stop, you’re hurting yourself!”

Saru shrugs off her concern, though he does not quite manage to free himself from her grip.

A worrying sign.

“No, no-” He cuts off, coughing harshly, painfully. Michael resists the urge to flinch at the sound.

She had been gone less than half an hour, and already Saru’s condition has deteriorated alarmingly.

“You…” He swallows. “I had said that...I once considered myself the only soul in the galaxy with experience, such as mine. Unique, and alone. And I was wrong...”

Saru manages the words through labored panting. Michael’s eyes widen in bewilderment as she gives him a quick once over. 

“And...I am still...wrong.”

“Wait, what are you

Vahar’ai, Burnham.” Saru raises his gaze to look her in the eye. His expression is urgent. “My death process. Perhaps...it is not truly unique to my species, as I thought!” Saru’s eyes are wide and darting as he proceeds down this path of logical deduction, with Michael tumbling in his wake. “The ultraviolet light, the massive energy release… It cannot be a coincidence that—I started feeling sick, just before the sphere engaged us!”

Cold realization washes over Michael.

Saru continues quickly. “I know what the sphere is trying to say! It is what I have been trying to say

“What—”

“Not first contact. Last contact.”

Saru’s large Kelpien eyes are still with certainty as he holds Michael’s gaze.

“I think it came to us to die.”

 

 

**

 

 

The ambient lighting of the corridor flickers as crashes and shouts echo through the halls of the ship. Michael sets a quick pace for them both, even with a good portion of Saru’s weight pressing into her back.

The bridge is not far, but every second counts, and time is against them if what Saru believes is true.

Michael grits her teeth as the round a sharp corner. “What did you mean?”

“What?”

Saru gasps from above Michael, his arm slung across her shoulder once more. 

“You said—” The deck rocks beneath their feet, slamming Michael and Saru into the wall of the corridor. The backup lighting flickers ominously. An explosion echoes somewhere in the bowels of the ship.

Michael pries Saru off of the wall. “Back in the lab, you said...you have been trying to say something.” She hoists him back across her shoulders, biting out the words as she does so. “What was it?”

“I—well…”

Saru breaks off into yet more coughing, which seems somewhat convenient to Michael. She stops for a moment at the point where the corridor turns a hard left, allowing her friend to lean heavily into the wall to get his breath back.

“Saru?” 

“You are correct. It is...something of utmost importance…” The Kelpien man mumbles. “Yet perhaps this is not a good time—”

“The ship is approaching collapse, Saru! How could this possibly be a bad time?”

Saru merely looks down at her. He shows no response to her impassioned statement. Indeed, from the set of his gaze and clarity of his blue eyes, Michael has the distinct impression that his thoughts are far away indeed.

Michael wonders what might be on her Kelpien crewmate’s mind...just what might be causing him such trepidation to simply say aloud.

“Have you ever been...so consumed with shame, that it is paralyzing?”

Saru finally speaks, and Michael stares at him. She wonders if perhaps vahar’ai is affecting his grasp on reality.

“Saru, what--”

“You know that I—I think you a capable officer.” He lowers his gaze. “A stellar officer, in fact.”

Michael shakes her head. 

“Saru… You’re scaring me...”

“And a good friend as well,” Saru mumbles, his eyes roving across the deck, the corridor, everywhere except for her. “I should have said that first. You are a good friend...curious of my past, tolerant of my—eccentricities. Even back on the Shenzhou , you...never targeted my... alienness , as others did—”

“I would never —” Michael grips his forearms where he leans against the bulkhead, shaking her head with no little confusion. “I would never punch low like that, Saru, where is all this coming from—”

“We’re running out of time,” he whispers, seemingly without hearing her. He shakes his head, stumbling away the bulkhead, away from Michael. He tugs himself along the wall of the corridor, in the vague direction of the bridge. “Out of time...why, why am I so afraid?”

“Saru, easy, easy.” Michael darts next him, wrapping an arm around his waist to steady his trembling body. “Hey, I’ve got you, I’ve got you…”

Saru slumps heavily into Michael, and some of his earlier agitation seems to leave his body. Michael takes solace in the weight of Saru’s long, thin form, warm and alive and next to her. 

But in the next moment, Saru twitches. His head jerks, throat pouches clicking sharply.

“The sphere…” he mumbles. “Something is happening.”

Michael feels a sudden thrumming beneath her feet. 

The telltale vibration of Discovery’ s weapons powering up.

 

 

**

 

 

...Reading an energy buildup from inside the sphere!…”

“... managed to raise shields, but we’re still being held by the stasis field…”

“... no identifiable weapons, but its internal temperature is twenty thousand degrees Kelvin, rising fast…”

The voices of the bridge crew echo down the corridor. Michael takes the distance at as near to a run as she can manage with Saru’s body weight across her shoulders.

Pike’s authoritative voice issues forth as they finally round the corner to Discovery ’s bridge. “Divert all non-essential power to weapons. Lock onto that thing’s radial axis and prepare to fire photon torpedoes on my order!”

“Aye, sir!” Lieutenant Rhys responds quickly from the tactical console, his fingers flying across the screen. “Arming torpedoes—”

“Hold your fire!” 

Saru barely manages to project his voice. Perhaps struck by a sudden surge of adrenaline, he breaks from Michael’s grip to stumble across the bridge towards the captain’s chair.

“I do not believe that the sphere means us any harm!” 

Pike turns from where he stands between the helm and ops consoles. “All evidence to the contrary,” he denies sharply. “That thing’s about to destroy us!”

Michael takes in the huge, burning sphere projected on the bridge’s floor to ceiling viewscreen. Its surface writhes like a ball of desert snakes, hot red flames issuing from every rip and opening.

If hell had an exterior, it would surely look like this.

“It’s not destroying us, Captain!” Michael’s words run counter to the evidence of her eyes and her readouts, but she believes them nonetheless. “It’s trying to send us a message!”

“We received its message, now I’m about to send our reply!”

“Captain!” Saru interjects urgently. “What if vahar’ai, my death process, was triggered because the sphere is also dying?”

Silence across the bridge.

Lieutenant Detmer’s blue eyes are wide. She casts a stunned glance towards Michael, who merely gives her a sad nod.

“You want to run that by me again?” Pike finally asks. They have his attention, Michael knows. His tone has changed from harsh and resolute to something far more inquisitive.

“We Kelpiens have a...defining characteristic, hardwired into our biology. Empathy. As prey species, we are able to pick up on...shifts in our environment, so subtle that...even scanners can miss them.” 

Saru takes several shuffling steps forward, towards the viewscreen and the writhing space inferno.

“I can feel the sphere reaching out...it is trying to share something before it expires!”

Pike still looks skeptical. Michael cuts in. 

“Sir, I trust Saru’s feelings implicitly.” As a Vulcan foundling raised to reject emotion in favor of logic, Michael is fully aware of the credence her backing will give to Saru’s claim. “That sphere didn’t come to attack us!” she insists.

Saru cuts back in, breathless. “Captain, I believe I have discerned its means of communication.” 

“Detmer, status on Spock’s shuttle?” Pike demands, casting a quick look over his shoulder..

“Exits our sensor range in six minutes. Once we lose his warp signature, we won’t be able to reacquire it.”

Michael feels cold apprehension at this.

“Set an intercept course. I want us hauling ass the second we break free.” Pike takes several long strides towards Saru. “Keep talking and make it fast.”

“What if the sphere was not attacking our universal translator, but...attempting to teach us its language because...it wants to be remembered?” Saru trails off weakly, coughing. Michael picks up the slack.

“It wants to preserve its history using the Discovery ! But it can’t, unless we power down and let it in!”

Pike points sharply at the sphere. “That thing snatched us out of warp and nearly gutted the ship. What if we lower shields and that’s exactly what it needs to end us?”

Saru raises a finger to interject. Pike and Michael watch quietly as he shuffles to his console, leaning heavily onto the surface for support.

“Computer...adjust viewscreen display to ultraviolet.”

The computer complies, and the floor-to-ceiling screen displaying the writhing sphere flickers out. The bridge collectively leans forward, taking in the new image, the shifting patterns and waves darting across the screen. Veins of purples and golds, shimmering and repeating.

“That is the light pattern I have been seeing everywhere, repeating again and again, generated by the sphere’s virus!” Saru’s voice is strong with certainty. “Computer, run the light pattern through the universal translator!”

At his command, the viewscreen changes once more. Glyphs and symbols dance across the screen, too miniscule to be understood and too blurry to read. Michael knows this particular readout, as does every personnel member who received basic training in UT programming.

The translator’s processors are overloading.

It is accepting the data, but lacks the memory to fully translate it.

Saru speaks once more, his tone impassioned. “Captain, I believe we are looking at a multitude of languages so advanced, and knowledge so vast that it simply...overloaded our system.”

“This sphere is one hundred thousand years old,” Michael puts forth, allowing Saru’s passion to fuel her own. “Just imagine what it’s seen, what it knows.

And in this one moment, Michael is not the victim of Philippa’s betrayal, nor is she the sister of a man wanted for murder. She is not the instigator of a galactic war, nor the murderer of a beloved captain. For this one, glorious moment, Michael Burnham is once again a science officer of Starfleet, making groundbreaking discoveries and first contacts that will deepen their knowledge of the universe.

“Captain, this falls under the Discovery’ s original mission statement as a science vessel.” Michael’s tone is iron. She feels like the woman she once was. “We lower our shields.” Michael fortifies the words with steel, command tone ringing through her voice like a pressure wave. “We divert all power to comms. We let the sphere speak to us...we hear what it is trying to say, before time runs out!”

Detmer is nodding slowly at her console, as is Rhys behind his readouts. Michael can feel the resolve of the crew shifting towards her, and it is a heady feeling indeed.

“The sphere’s internal temperature is approaching ten-to-the-sixth power and rising!” Owosekun announces from ops.

“Our weapons will just disintegrate in that heat!” Rhys puts forth.

“Solar temperatures,” Michael interjects. “A sign of core collapse.”

An hour ago she would have chalked this up to an act of aggression, but now she knows better. 

“It isn’t threatening us. It’s decaying.

Like a raging fever in a dying Humanoid, or a heart beating itself to death in the throes of compensatory shock, the sphere’s sudden burst of heat is not a sign of strength, but of weakness. Of death.

“Captain, if we are correct, once the transmission is complete, the sphere can die knowing that it will live on after it is gone!” Saru’s voice is filled with passion once more, and understandably so. This was a deeply personal matter to him at this point.

Owosekun’s console beeps.  “Spock’s shuttle is almost out of sensor range, Sir!” 

“Prepare to lower shields.”

Pike’s soft announcement jolts Michael from her thoughts. She exhales with no little relief, though does not stop her from hearing Pike’s soft orders to Lieutenant Detmer at the helm.

“If this goes south, overload the warp core and eject it at the sphere on my command. Even at half the distance, the blast will decimate it. When it lets go, we divert all power to shields and try to ride the shock wave to a safe distance.” He looks back towards Saru and Michael. “Commanders, take your stations. I’ll follow your lead.”

Michael rounds her terminal, steeling herself for what is to come. The risk they are taking is undeniable, and it is a high risk indeed.

But what great discoveries were ever made by playing it safe?

Michael turns to Saru, giving him a single, solitary nod.

Do it.

“Lieutenant Bryce, all channels open. Owosekun, divert all computing power to communications.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Across the bridge, screens and displays go dark. Consoles stop their vibrating, terminals stop their humming, and the ambient illumination of the wall and floor lighting dims to nothing as the computer siphons off every scrap of available power to communications. The ship itself goes silent in anticipation for what is to come.

Shrouded in darkness, the bridge waits for Saru’s next command.

“Lieutenant Detmer...lower shields.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Alright. Power...up!”

Commander Stamets turns the dial all the way. The harmonic interface glows a hot white, and it hums softly where it lies plugged into the power linkup on the outside of the spore drive. Ensign Tilly slumps heavily against the transparent glass, her plump face illuminated by the white light of the device.

Jett Reno and Philippa watch with no little trepidation from behind the terminal.

“...May?”

Stamets queries softly.

The ensign shakes her head. “Still me.”

Philippa curses softly, imagining her disappointment is reflected by Reno on her right side.

“Signal must be piss poor.” Reno eyes the harmonic interface on the outside of the drive. “Makes sense. Don’t you have to plugged into that thing to make it work?”

Stamets makes a face of slight disgust. “Well, if you put it crudely, yes.”

He rolls up his sleeves to reveal two white, plastic...somethings, implanted into his forearms. Philippa’s eyebrows meet in the middle as she stares at them.

“When I pilot our jumps, the harmonic interface connects to my neurons via these adaptors.”

“The interface can get to your neurons through your arms?” Reno deadpans.

“I also have a microscopic cortical implant,” Stamets shoots back, irritated. He taps his temple lightly. “It amplifies my brain waves while I’m in the spore drive, just enough so they can interact with the adaptors.” He gestures to his forearms.

Philippa straightens at Stamets’ words.

“That’s it, then.”

Stamets looks at her. In the next moment, his eyes go wide.

“Wait. No— No, you’re saying…”

“Cortical implant.” Philippa rounds the terminal to stand next to the harmonic interface. “If we cannot amplify the signal from the harmonic interface, then what’s left?”

“We amplify the signal from Tilly,” Reno completes, sounding stunned.

“You— You’re talking about trepanation?” Stamets stumbles on the word.

“Not ideal, but yes.” Philippa confirms. 

The mycologist looks at them both like they’ve lost their minds.

“Drilling a hole in her skull? What, with all of the high-tech medical equipment we have?!” Paul Stamets’ voice is filled with biting sarcasm, his face a very obvious display of “ Hell no. ” 

Philippa strides up to him, drawing herself to her full height to look Stamets in the eye. “We are trapped inside this lab, and Ensign Tilly’s level of response is dropping rapidly. If we do not act now, she could very well become comatose. What might the fungus do then?”

She allows the question to hang in the air. Stamets casts a nervous glance towards Tilly’s right arm, around which the fungal blob is wrapped. In the past twenty minutes it has expanded from her elbow to her shoulder.

Time is not on their side.

“But—” Stamets tries weakly, but Philippa cuts him off.

“Between the three of us, we have an engineer, a life scientist, and a paramedic. A managable team for a quick bioengineering project.” With a firm step forward, she raises her chin to deliver the clincher.  “Do you have a better plan, Mr. Stamets?”

Silence.

“I think she’s right.”

Both Philippa and Stamets startle, turning to the ensign on the inside of the cube.

Ensign Tilly looks exhausted. Her pupils are huge, a worrying sign considering the brightness of the spore cube. Once again, concern and dismay strike Philippa between the shoulder blades.

“And I think you know that,” Tilly continues, directing her quavering voice towards Paul Stamets.

With a low sigh, Stamets takes a step towards Sylvia Tilly inside the cube. His face softens as he takes her in. Philippa reminds herself that the two served in the war together, working in close conditions under a great deal of stress. Of course they must be close. 

Finally, Stamets squares his shoulders, coming to a decision.

“Alright. Alright.”

Philippa is already moving. She heads towards Reno’s terminal, across which tools and tech are scattered. 

“This was all I could find laying around.” Reno gestures to the box of tools and the smattering of devices across the terminal. Philippa takes it in with no little dismay.

“Do you at least have a laser scalpel?” She asks Stamets.

“No.” He shakes his head. “No, we have to do this old-school.”

Philippa closes her eyes slowly, slowly. 

God dammit.

No wonder he’d protested so much.

“Then we need to sterilize that drill bit.” Philippa gestures with her chin at the cordless drill in Reno’s hand. “I’ll do that. Could you get a cortical implant ready?”

“Sure. Should I build an artificial kidney while I’m at it?”

“I can get you the schematics of the one I have,” Stamets cuts in, already typing away at the second terminal. “And I still have the prototype, it’s around here somewhere.”

“Aw. Was really looking forward to a challenge.”

Philippa rolls her eyes. “Is living the plot of a medical holo-drama not sufficient for you?” 

She takes the drill from Reno, rounding the terminal to the first aid kit. She’ll need to sharpen the drill-bit, and they’ll need tape to hold the ensign’s head still for the procedure, as well as something on which to affix her. A bench perhaps, or a long table, as Philippa doubts that there is a bed in this science lab. The fungal psilocybin will have to double as an anesthetic, as they do not have anything stronger than single-dose NSAIDs on hand. 

Philippa lists these necessities in her mind as she rips into the first aid kit, Reno murmuring softly under her breath somewhere behind her. Stamets is digging in one of the corners, hopefully making himself useful.

An engineer, a life scientist, and a one-time paramedic. 

Not the best of odds , Philippa has to note. 

But certainly not the worst .




**



A scant fifteen minutes later, Philippa considers them as ready as they’ll ever be.

In the center of the lab, Ensign Tilly stands affixed via wrist restraints to a standing table, a replacement for the one that got blown up in the red spore explosion, Stamets explained as he wheeled it out from a closet. The ensign’s head is bound to the table with a one-centimeter wide length of duct tape, to prevent her from flinching during the operation.

On her right arm, the fungal blob continues to pulsate. 

Behind the rightmost terminal, Jett Reno puts the last touches on their hastily-assembled cortical node project. With a micro-torch, she welds a tiny air compressor to the thin length of piping that will serve as the injector, and the white light of the torch casts shadows across her face as she works.

At Tilly’s right side, boosted on an upturned metal crate, Philippa carefully marks the ensign’s right temple with a small ‘X’, just a hair below the line of duct tape. It would be a tragedy to drill at the wrong spot and have to start again.

“Well I’ll be.” Stamets’ voice carries from Reno’s terminal. “A modified cortical amplifier.”

Philippa looks on as he picks up the piece of tech, about the size of her pinky fingernail and attached to one end of the silver injector tube. He turns around to face Philippa and Tilly.

It’s time.

A quick sideways glance at Ensign Tilly reveals to Philippa that she is trembling, shaking violently in her restraints. Her eyes are filled with a sheen of tears, and Philippa can practically feel how stiffly she is holding herself.

The girl is terrified.

But beyond that, if she continues to tremble, Philippa will not be able to keep the drill-bit steady for the incision. And this could have dire consequences for Sylvia Tilly’s continued brain function.

Stamets meets her gaze, a question in her eyes. Philippa shakes her head.

They can’t operate like this.

With a long sigh, Stamets looks down at the deck. His brow is furrowed, perhaps he is working through their options. 

After several moments of silence, Philippa opens her mouth, but before she can utter a word, Stamets looks back up and walks forward once more. He takes several steps until he stands less than a foot from Tilly. 

His eyes are soft, his face even softer.

“Hey, kiddo…” The man begins in a gentle voice, as if speaking to a child. “What’s your favorite song?”

“Wh-What?” Tilly’s voice is unsteady.

“Your favorite song?” Stamets prompts once more. His face is calm, smooth, his voice kind. He sounds quite different than the unfriendly, sarcastic scientist who greeted Philippa and Reno upon their arrival in the spore lab. 

“Sing it for me.”

Stamets prods with infinite gentleness, close enough to Tilly’s boosted form to touch her. The expression on Tilly’s face is collapsing, her fear trickling away as she considers the proposal.

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles… ” 

Tilly’s voice quivers as she sings a slow melody. She sounds neither trained nor polished, but the notes are on-key and earnest. 

“... I’m feeling very still... ” Stamets joins her in a surprisingly capable tenor.

Philippa looks on, surprised and more than a little impressed. This is a smart idea on Stamets’ part; singing will force the ensign to breathe, and keeping her voice steady will reduce her trembling. It makes a great deal of logical sense, and yet…

And I think my spaceship knows which way to go…

The way their voices intermingle to carry the descending melody, Stamets the steady guide and Tilly doing her best to match his notes, makes Philippa feel very warm in her chest. She reminds herself to keep a steady grip on the drill as the earnest duet wraps around her. 

Philippa presses her left hand to Tilly’s head, bracing for what she is about to do.

Tilly's voice trails off, and Stamets picks up the slack. He looks to be smiling ever so slightly as he sings the words.“ Tell my wife I love her very much…

The ensign is no longer trembling. Philippa raises the drill.

She knows …” Tilly completes in a thready warble. Her body stiffens in anticipation.

Philippa holds the drill-bit to the X and activates it.

She pushes hard.

Tilly’s cries ring across the spore lab. 

Philippa flattens her lips into a tight line as she drills through skin and bone. The drill breaks through the skull, and Philippa withdraws quickly. 

Tilly’s chest rises and falls in huge motions. Her breathing is gasping and labored; she may be hyperventilating. In a smooth motion, Stamets passes Philippa the silver injection tube. Philippa raises it to the incision site and presses the business end inside. The tube hisses as the compressed air drives the cortical node through the hole in Sylvia Tilly’s skull and into her brain.

Her work done, Philippa steps down from the upturned crate. She retreats to Reno’s terminal, and Reno pats her shoulder as Philippa takes up a position next to her. 

Philippa barely feels it.

She puts down the injector and the bloody gauze, doing her best to put them out of her mind. Lips pressed firmly shut, she grits her teeth and clenches her jaw, trying hard to keep from shaking. Even as she does this, Philippa is well aware of how ridiculous she is being.

After nine gruesome months on Qo’Nos, she really should not be so nauseated by this whole ordeal. 

After all, it was only brain surgery.

Heart in her throat, Philippa watches Tilly as she shifts on the platform. Her body twitches, adjusting to whatever the implant is doing to her brain. The seconds crawl by. Upon the standing table, Ensign Sylvia Tilly’s expression slowly, slowly morphs into something decidedly...different.

“May?”

Stamets queries softly, hesitantly.

With a strange laziness, Tilly’s gaze slides over to meet his. 

“You wanted to talk to me? Here I am.”

Philippa’s spine stiffens at the tone, the accent, the barbed-wire voice leaving Tilly’s mouth. The predatory look on her face seems unnatural in the extreme on the young woman’s plump, open features. Earlier distress forgotten, Philippa snatches up the hand-sized welding torch from the pile of tools and strides out from behind the console.

“Who are you?” Stamets begins.

“And what do you want from us?” Philippa demands, her voice hard flint.

Tilly’s gray-blue eyes sidle over to Philippa. There is no hint of recognition in them.

Only calculation.

“I am of a species called Jah Sepp, ” Tilly – no, May — finally begins. The ice in her voice is unmistakable, as is the vague threat. 

Philippa has to note that she seems remarkably relaxed for someone who is all but imprisoned in a universe that is not her own, inside a person that is not herself.

She grips her hand-welder more tightly.

“We lived peacefully until an alien intruder began to appear at random intervals,” May continues. “It has damaged our ecosystem, irreparably.”

“So…” Stamets shakes his head, trying to catch up. “You came for help to rid your species of a destructive alien presence?”

May snarls. “ You are the destructive alien presence!”

Her voice rings across the spore lab.

“You and your— Your weird ship! You burst into our home, polluted us, contaminated us! My world is dying because of what you have done!”

The restraints around May’s wrist creak threateningly as she struggles atop the standing table. Her fury is evident in her voice and in her eyes, but for the first time in this very strange encounter, Philippa detects a note of fear as well.

“The…the jumps?” Stamets looks from the reaction cube and back to May. He looks slightly nauseous. “ Discovery ’s jumps?” 

Wearing Ensign Tilly’s face, the creature seems to have pushed back the brief burst of emotion, returning to its previous state of unbothered, slightly arrogant threat.

“I broke through the barrier between our realms at great risk—“

“Risk? You infected my friend!”

“Why?” Philippa cuts Stamets off, hit by a sudden thought. “Why infect another being? Can you not maintain a form here?”

May’s gaze flashes to her. Once more, the creature’s veneer of ease and arrogance falters, just for a moment.

“I needed a disguise,” May covers smoothly. “A person he might listen to.” With her chin, she points at Stamets. “May Ahearn was familiar to me, and to her. A person Tilly knew and would be sympathetic to, if given the chance.”

“What do you mean familiar ?”

Reno chimes in from behind them, her voice dubious in the extreme.

“I have seen her,” May states simply. 

Philippa exchanges a glance with Stamets, who looks as bewildered as she feels.

“...You’ve seen her?”

Stamets prods nervously.

May does not answer. Her features fall once more into vague, arrogant indifference.

Reveling in our ignorance , Philippa hypothesizes with a flare of frustration. There is far too much about this situation that they do not understand, not to mention the fungus’ general lack of concern is making her nervous.

“And once Tilly trusted May, I planned to have her deliver my message to you,” May continues.

This is the message?” Philippa clarifies, thumbing the activation on her welder. “To cease-and-desist?”

“We will,” Stamets cuts in front of her. “I knew better. I know better.”

Philippa resists the urge to simply stand in front of Stamets and prevent him from saying anything else. As it is, she merely side-eyes the man, noting the sweat beading at his temples, the way his fingers work nervously at his side.

Stamets seems to be aware, at least on some level, that this is not a discussion.

It is a hostage negotiation.

“All we ask, is that you let Tilly go!” Stamets continues, desperation cracking his voice.

“I can’t.” May’s voice is threatening once more. “I have other plans for her.”

Other plans?

With an echoing crack , May’s arms snap the wrist restraints at their axis. Her neck spasms sideways, ripping the duct tape like tissue paper, her left arm coming up towards the cortical implant—

Philippa steps forward with her welding torch. With little fanfare, she burns a hot line across May’s gray, bulging form on Tilly’s right arm.

A hideous screech grates across the lab, and the fungal blob on Tilly’s wrist writhes and expands upwards. It bubbles angrily up and over Tilly’s arm, her shoulder, her neck, seemingly unbothered by the heat of Philippa’s welding torch.

“Shit!” Reno curses from behind Philippa. “I’m getting more firepower!” Her feet echo on the deck.

“Deactivating the implant!” Stamets shouts at the cranial node interface.

Philippa remains silent, her lips a firm line as she scores cut after cut across the chittering creature.

“Help! Help! ” Tilly’s screams are cut off as the gray fungus engulfs her face, her other arm. Gaining speed, the mass bubbles down Tilly’s torso, her waist, engulfing her legs, turning the ensign into one large, writhing gray blob. 

Philippa gives up on her slicing. Instead, she holds the flame fast to a singular section of the angry gray being, turning the area yellow, then red, and then somehow, a hot, glowing blue.

Philippa stares at the color in bewilderment.

And in the next moment, the standing table groans. With a sickening snap, the joints affixing it to the stand break, and the now-nearly escape pod size-blob falls backwards, hitting the deck with a strangely organic thump.

“The torch isn’t enough!” Philippa shouts over her shoulder. “Reno, what do you have?”

“Plasma spanner!” Reno yells from the storage closet behind the stairs. “Getting it warmed up!”

Stamets’ voice is muffled in one of the lab’s far corners. “I’m grabbing some anti-fungals!” 

“Are you serious?!”

“Well, the torch didn’t work, did it?!”

Philippa tunes out Stamets’ and Reno’s bickering to watch the gelatinous gray mass on the floor. Horror and fascination fill her chest as the surface of the blob, of the strange Jah Sepp parasite, hardens before her eyes, turning from a gooey texture to firm, supple leather. 

No sooner has the surface of the blob solidified than thin, writhing tendrils begin to creep out of it. Wood-like in their appearance, the dark brown tendrils hiss and shriek as they crawl across the couch-sized cocoon. They appear to be knitting themselves together in some type of pattern, and the now-quite solid blob chitters and hums as they do so.

The thing looks like a moist, moss-covered mound of soil and tree roots, if that mound of soil and tree roots were breathing heavily after having eaten a large meal.

Cautiously, Philippa waves a hand over the brown, tendril-coated surface of the cocoon. She feels the warmth of it from nearly an arm-span away. 

“Any minute now, Commanders!” 

Philippa barks her urgency across the lab. Building this monolith in less than two minutes breaks every law of entropy known to Humanoids, therefore the energy required must have been immense. The idea that at this moment, May could very likely be digesting Tilly, if not killing her straight-up via heat transfer, makes Philippa more than a little bit nauseous—

“I got it!” 

Reno shouts, hauling a phaser cannon-sized metal spanner across the deck. Cables and wires trail from the spanner’s core to the antimatter cell in the rear wall panel, making Reno’s gait awkward and stumbling.

“It was on the charging stand, surge— melted the circuits, had to make a work-around!” 

Reno grates the words through gritted teeth as she finally reaches Philippa’s side. Philippa reaches for the spanner, intending to take half of its crushingly heavy weight.

“Should still work,” Reno completes as she adjusts her grip. She pulls a screwdriver from her pocket and puts it between her teeth. “Gimme that.”

Philippa follows Reno’s chin gesture and hands over the welding torch. She watches as Reno puts down the torch, spits out the screwdriver, and uses the flat head to pry open the drive chamber. With no hesitation, Reno rips out the safety trip and tosses it behind her.

Philippa’s jaw drops. “Are you going to blow it up?!”

“I’m gonna spark it!” Reno’s voice is irritated. “Circuitry’s fried, it’s not like I have an on-switch! Watch your hands!” In a smooth motion, Reno picks up the welding torch, presses it into the drive chamber, and activates it. 

The spanner recoils, bucking as the concentrated flame scalpel issues out with a long, booming fwoosh. The fire is hot against Philippa’s skin, licking at the surface of the cocoon hungrily.

“Now let’s—just—“ In a quick motion, Reno pulls back the hand-welder and whips the cover of the drive chamber back on.

Philippa toggles with the flame control, to no avail. She remembers the fried circuitry. 

“You need to get a hold of the power input!” She shouts. “The anti-matter cell—“

“I know!” Reno yells over the roar of the flame. “You got this?”

It’s less of a question, more of a statement. In the next second, the engineer is up and darting back to the main power diverter, into which the spanner is plugged. 

Philippa drops to a knee, transferring the weight of the drill to her thigh. The blue-orange flame rages across the surface of the cocoon, but its efforts are moot. In this uncontrolled state, the spanner is a glorified flamethrower, the plasma fire not concentrated enough to cut or slice anything. 

“Heads up!”

Reno’s voice fires across the lab, and in the next moment, the machine bucks in Philippa’s hands. The large, diffuse ball of fire tightens from the business end of the spanner, forming a thin, hot-white blade of pure plasma energy. Philippa’s mouth flattens, and she begins to cut.

At the first slice of the spanner, the cocoon screeches in agony, its strange, organic wailing louder than the roar of the spanner. But somehow, the hole Philippa slices closes almost as she passes the hot blade across the leathery surface.

Somehow, this organic entity is repairing itself, shaking off the effects of nearly twenty-thousand degree plasma.

“Try these!”

Stamets’ voice is close to her ear, but Philippa barely hears it over the spanner’s racket. A pale hand appears in her murky, hot-white vision, affixing a palm-sized metal disk to the fungal cocoon’s surface. Philippa feels the texture of the fungus surface change beneath her knife. She drags the blade across the cocoon, left to right. 

Its leathery skin crumbles beneath the blade, and the cut in its surface remains.

“It’s—it’s working!” Philippa grates out.

Stamets gestures with a finger. “Let’s move that way!”

Still on one knee, Philippa scoots right, cutting through the cocoon’s outer layer with the spanner knife. Stamets inches along in her wake, placing his anti-fungal disks on the pulsating surface about a forearm-span apart from each other.

Half a meter…

One meter…

One-and-a-half meters…

To Philippa’s intense relief, a pale hand bursts from the rip in the cocoon’s side, followed by a navy blue-clad arm. The hand waves and thrashes desperately, clawing for purchase on the floor.

“Tilly!”

Stamets hurriedly presses the last anti-fungal disk into the cocoon’s surface. He grabs Tilly’s arm, and with more strength than Philippa would have thought him capable of, hauls the whimpering ensign out of the sticky, wet insides of the cocoon. The fungus’ innards emit a repugnant squelching sound as Tilly slides from its depths, pawing her way out in utter desperation. A foul smell issues from the rip in the cocoon, and Philippa recoils at it. 

She shuts down the spanner, and the lab goes quiet, save for Tilly’s terrified sobbing.

“It’s okay, you’re okay...breathe…” Stamets gently pulls Tilly to her feet. He wraps her soaked body in a tight embrace and Tilly shakes in his arms, hyperventilating. “Breathe…I’ve got you…I’ve got you.”

The spanner clatters to the deck as Philippa stumbles to her feet, her every muscle gone limp, heart spasming painfully. At the rear wall of the lab, Jett Reno pulls her hands away from the antimatter cell inside of the inset compartment. The engineer slumps as she does so, blowing out a long exhale as she pats the complex bundle of wires and cordage.

The relief in the air is akin to a muscle relaxant.

Ensign Tilly is alive and safe.

“That thing’s gonna be a bitch to remove.”

Reno’s calm drawl issues from Philippa’s left. Side by side, they gaze down at the dark brown fungal cocoon, still huge and, if its miraculous regrowth is any indicator, still alive.

This isn’t over yet.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Darkness holds on the bridge of the USS Discovery. 

The crew is silent. Terminals are still, their screens blank and powered down. The only source of illumination is the fiery space inferno before them, clutched in the inky blackness of space like a sparkling pearl inside a midnight oyster.

Michael holds fast at her post, hands steady over her terminal, shoulders squared, feet forward. Holding...watching...waiting for vindication, or for instant and intractable death.

A beat passes.

...

And the terminal screen sputters, roaring to life beneath Michael’s hands.

“Transmission is downloading!” 

Michael stumbles on the words; her screen flashing words and numbers faster than her eyes can process. All across the bridge, displays and computers have gone live in blazing glory. The universal translator is eating up the sphere’s information hungrily, ravenously, breaking it down and remaking it at near-light speed. 

“All library computers are working at twenty percent above maximum. Whatever the sphere is saying…” Michael shakes her head, unable to comprehend. “We’re getting all of it.”

At the forefront consoles, Detmer and Owosekun exchange stupefied glances, and Rhys’ jaw is hanging low where he sits at Tactical. A sideways glance towards Saru reveals wide blue eyes and an expression that is cleaved open.

Wonder , like Michael has never seen before.

On the forward viewscreen, the sphere’s fiery color falls from hot orange to a dark, sickly red.

“How long until it blows?” Pike demands.

“Seconds!” Owosekun ejects. “Power and energy levels are off the charts.”

“Detmer, can you put enough distance between us in time?”

“Negative, sir! We’re still being locked by the stasis field!”

Michael’s screen flashes green, a confirmation.

“Transmission complete!”

“Detmer, eject the warp core!”

“Computer controls not responding, sir!” Detmer’s terrified response sweeps across the bridge; eyes are widening, shoulders are stiffening, hands are clenching hard around controls and terminal corners. 

Destruction is coming for all of them, and it’s coming in hot.

“Detonation confirmed!” Michael chokes. 

“Hard astern, full impulse now!”

Pike barks the order, but is overpowered by the rippling pressure wave that rolls through the viewscreen, across the deck, through the bodies of each and every crew member--

And the sphere explodes.

Its exterior surges outwards, ripped to shreds by flames and plasma screaming forth from the depths. There is no sound in space, but the ship’s sensors provide an adequate approximation, producing a deafening roar that tears across the bridge. Blazing orange light screams forth, consuming the bridge in its entirety--

And then it’s over.

Michael unfolds herself from her defensive posture, drawing herself back up to full height. Across the bridge, the crew is doing the same. Bewildered looks and confused eyebrows seem to be the common factor on the faces of all present.

Upon the viewscreen, bright purples and vibrant oranges dance across the blackness of space. Colors curl around each other, swooping over and under the ripped remains of sphere matter, which glow amid the smoky lights like burnished silver. 

A newly born nebula. 

“It is so beautiful, the light is like...music...”

Saru sighs from behind his console. His blue eyes swim with joy.

“Yes, it is,” Pike breathes from the captain’s chair. He looks moved almost beyond words. “Though I’m at a loss as to how we’re alive to see it.”

Michael casts a glance at her readouts, the data concerning the sphere’s condition in the moments before it exploded.

Her breath leaves her lungs.

“The sphere’s stasis field reversed polarity a nanosecond before detonation...and pushed us clear.” Tears prick at Michael’s eyes as she works through the revelation. “It’s final act was to save us...so that we could tell its story.”

Grief and respect tear at Michael’s chest equally. They would never have the chance to speak back to the sphere, to know its thoughts, its intentions, whether it was alone in the black for those one-hundred thousand years, or if it had any kind of connection with any beings, ever. The xenoanthropologist in Michael cries out at the loss.

But the nebula before them is warm and vast, swirling with matter and energy within the endless void of space. It holds within its depths the embers of life, kindling that will one day ignite a new sun.

Life on the heels of death. Birth on the heels of tragedy.

The overhead speakers activate with crackling feedback. “ Stamets to Burnham. We’ve got Tilly. She’s okay. ” 

Michael releases a breath at Paul Stamets’ even voice. The scene she had burst in on in the spore lab replays in her brain with vibrant clarity, the fungus clamped around Tilly’s arm hungrily--

But Tilly was alright. She was alright.

And so was the Discovery.

However…

At the first officer’s console, Saru coughs painfully. His pale Kelpien skin is nearly white now, and his eyes have turned from blue to a sickly pale green. Back hunched, he staggers out from behind his terminal, heading toward Michael at the science station. 

Robotically, Michael shuts down her station. She crosses the two meters of deck-space behind the captain’s chair, moving towards the first officer’s console, toward her friend.

Saru all but collapses into her, wheezing slightly. 

“Now...it is my turn.”

Michael nods slowly. Her own eyes prickle with tears as she tugs Saru’s arm across her shoulders.

“Take me to my quarters, please,” he husks, his voice barely above a whisper.

All around them, crewmen are standing up at their stations. Owosekun unfolds herself from the helm. Rhys’ gaze is steady as he rises to his full height behind ops. Lieutenant Bryce looks solemn indeed at comms, Linus’ huge, double-lidded eyes blink slowly, and Airiam’s head cocks in a mechanical fashion as she stands behind the spore hub console. At the helm, Keyla Detmer’s blue eyes are filled with tears.

Spines straight, gazes steady, the bridge crew salutes Commander Saru in the way of Starfleet.

Moving as one, Michael and Saru limp for the turbolift.




**

 

 

“I left Kaminar with a handful of seeds…”

Saru's voice is a weak rasp as he leans against the risen back support of his bed. Absently, he plucks a bright red flower from one of the vines growing up the bedside. His gaze roves across his green-covered room, blanketed with leaves and vines. Over their many years in space, the seeds have thrived, blooming in full, stunning intensity in their new home in space.

Saru does not seem to see this. His eyes are dull as they traverse the quarters, making no connection with their surroundings whatsoever. Eventually, his gaze returns to the flower in his hand, and he prods it gently with a finger.

“Is that from your homeworld?” Michael manages to press out, gesturing at the flower.

“It is the...blossom that marks the passing of seasons on Kaminar.”

Michael nods at this. This plant is no doubt how Saru keeps track of the equivalent years that pass on his home planet. 

She would do the same with Vulcan perennials, but she has never been much of a gardener.

“Somewhere along the way, I...lost who I was,” Saru murmurs, not looking away from the red flower. “So focused on...being the best Kelpien in Starfleet.

The soft mockery is obvious in his inflection. Michael’s heart gives a pang at it.

“Defined by my...rank, and my uniform until...that is all I became.”

Michael shakes her head at this, hard and firm.

“No. No, Saru, you could never… ” She steps forward and perches on the side of his bed, leaning forward with urgency. “You were ambitious, yes. And of course you grew, you evolved...but that does not mean that you stopped being you.

Even as she speaks, Michael has to wonder where the words are coming from, issuing from her chest as if they’d been there always.

“Just look at what you’ve achieved . You found yourself among the stars. Your bravery, your strength...” 

Emotion bubbles up from Michael’s stomach as she speaks. These soothing words, their healing balm to all of the fears facing a person caught between two worlds, all of this feels so familiar, so very familiar, she just can’t quite-- 

“You have saved so many lives...including mine.”

Oh. Of course.

She had said something similar to Spock around six years prior, after her younger brother had been ejected from their house yet again. 

Sarek’s sharp words echoing behind her, Michael had chased Spock down, running until the lights of the sprawling house had dimmed to pinpricks and disappeared into the darkness. Beneath the midnight-black, star spangled skies above the shifting Vulcan desert, Michael had aussaged her beloved younger brother’s fears that he was insufficient, that all he had done at Starfleet Academy had changed him fundamentally, that he was a bad Vulcan, a poor son, a failure , and she had said all of those things to him because—

Because ...

Because it had been what she wished someone had said to her.

“Bravery…” Saru  puts forth the word in a slightly mocking tone. “What courage can I possibly boast? I have manipulated...diminished others to feel powerful...such a coward I am—”

“Stop!”

Michael barks the words, and Saru falls silent.

“Why do you keep saying these things?!” Michael’s chest rips apart as she speaks. “ Why, Saru? What could you have possibly done that causes you such shame?”

Saru opens his mouth, but recoils in the next moment, flinching hard. He coughs painfully, sliding a bit lower on the bed.

Michael’s eyes fill with tears, terrified of what she is watching. 

“Okay easy, easy…” She grabs both of Saru’s hands in her own, as if that will somehow prevent the inevitable. 

“No…” Saru whispers, his eyes spinning wildly. “No-- I need...more time, only a little... please…

“Shhh…shhh...” Michael comforts. “I’m here...I’m here…”

“I know...I know you are. Michael...”

Saru rasps her name weakly. She looks up in time to see the Kelpien man take a deep, steadying breath. Laid upon the bed, he squares his body slightly, drawing himself up as if preparing for some difficult, daunting task.

Michael wonders what it is that could be so shameful, so significant, so suffocating that Saru is staving off his own death process just to exorcise it.

Finally, finally, Saru speaks.

“I am...so sorry .”

Michael shakes her head, twin tears escaping her eyes. 

“No--No, no it isn’t your fault—”

“Not…this…” Saru breathes, his eyes blue and heavy. His jaw works several times, perhaps summoning the energy to speak.

“I am sorry for…never writing to you, while you were in prison.”

Michael’s lips part in utter shock.

“For saying such terrible things to you, when you first came aboard…” Saru continues in a whisper. “I am so ashamed… My behavior was…unfit of a Starfleet officer…of—of anyone…”

Michael sways on the spot. Her heart staggers, her ears ring, and somewhere inside of her, a deep, bone pain that she had grown so accustomed to repressing, to ignoring, to living alongside, splinters and dissipates into nothingness. 

The soft, stellar warmth it leaves in its wake is like pure sunlight. Tears bubble in Michael’s eyes, threatening to spill over and stain her cheeks at how wonderful it feels. 

Forgiveness … And not even remotely in the way she had imagined it.

From her very childhood, Vulcan and onwards, Michael had only ever hoped for absolution from others. It had never occurred to her that she might be in a position to give it.

Saru watches her with a sad blink of his eyes. “I have wanted to apologize for...so long, but...my shame…I could never begin to find the words—“

“Shhh…” Michael shakes her head once more, finally dislodging the tears as she does so. “Stop…stop, it’s alright. You don’t have to apologize to me, not while you are—“

Michael clamps down on the words, her lips trembling, but Saru only smiles a little sadly. He grips her hand tighter.

Dying, ” he offers, no hint of bitterness. “That is…precisely why I must. Michael…” 

Saru’s eyes travel over Michael’s shoulder. Michael follows his gaze to Philippa’s telescope, its gray body battered and rusted, though it stands ready to sight the stars.

“I want you to have that. Not…as my will, nor dying wish… But, because…it is…rightfully yours.”

Michael shakes her head again. Her tears are uncontrollable now. Her friend is dying, her brother is gone, and Philippa… Philippa …  

She cannot do this—

“I am sorry…about Captain Georgiou.” Saru clicks slightly, deep in his throat. “Whatever happened…between you…I hope…that you can reconcile. You love her...”

It is the first time her feelings for her captain have ever been verbalized, the first time they have ever made contact with the open air… Michael pauses, expecting to feel some kind of emotional response to Saru’s statement, defense or denial, or even violation.

But nothing of the sort happens.

After so long, it seems her love for Philippa is a part of her at this point. A universal constant, a scientific law, neither shameful nor weak, not even good or bad.

It just…is.

Saru smiles softly, more with his eyes than with his lips. He is Kelpien, after all. 

“She is alive…a miracle, Michael.” Michael’s lips shake as she smiles back. “I hope…that whatever happened between you…will not supplant…your bond. 

Saru gazes into Michael’s eyes. His large Kelpien eyes are clear, and quite beautiful, Michael notes.

“And I am sorry, that…I will not be here…to help you…”

A soft sob rips from Michael’s chest. She tucks her head forward, resting her forehead on Saru’s collarbone. She wants to scream, to beg him not to leave her, like she had twenty years ago over the bodies of her parents, like she had at the graves of her friends, T’Kor and Vipu, after the attack on the Learning Center, like she had on the transporter pads of the Shenzhou when she had returned and Philippa had not…

Saru’s arm comes to wrap around her.

“It is time, Michael…I am…so sorry to ask this of you.”

Michael looks up towards his face.

“In my first drawer…there is a Kelpien knife…a keepsake, that I use to prune my flowers…”

She knows where he is going with this, and shakes her head firmly.

“No…no, please…

“If you do not…I will be driven mad, and die in…abject agony.” Saru’s voice takes on a note of terror, for the first time this day. “It must be done… On Kaminar…it was an honor…a testament to…a powerful bond, between two people.”

Saru’s throat pouches click. “I can think of no one else I would trust…no one else, to see me to the end of my life.”

Michael sways slightly at that. 

“A quick slice, to sever my ganglia…” Saru continues. “I will feel no pain… It will be…a mercy.”

Michael’s lips tremble, but she leaves Saru’s embrace to approach his dresser. Mechanically, she withdraws the bone-knife from the chest of drawers.

“That knife…it was my younger sister’s...” Saru murmurs from his place upon his bed. He gazes at the blade in Michael’s hands. “Siranna…”

His expression grows mournful. “I left her…without so much as a goodbye.” 

Saru shakes his head. He reaches out a weak hand and traces over the knife in Michael’s hands. 

“I have tried to live an upstanding life…compassion, courage… love …pillars of Starfleet. Yet, somehow…through my actions… I feel I have betrayed both of my sisters…”

Michael whimpers at that, closing her eyes once more. How much it meant, to be called sister by someone whom she respected a great deal. 

Indeed, Michael she feels closer to Saru right now than she has felt to anyone in a very long time. Did the man not realize that with his heartfelt, true apology to her, he may has well have bound her to him for good? Does Saru have any idea the connection that he has forged with kindness, the unshakeable bond that they now have?

Why did he wait so long to say this to her?

“No...” she whispers, taking Saru’s hand in hers once more. “You could never…” She swallows, schooling her thoughts. 

“Families…” She manages. “We…we hurt each other. No one is ever unscathed. But…we care about each other, deeply. Regardless. And we try, always, to be better.”

And Spock’s voice comes to her once more.

Please don’t leave, Michael! We will do better! I will do better!

Michael manages a weak snort. “Brothers…they can be the worst.” 

Saru’s Kelpien lips turn upwards slightly at that. Michael squeezes his hand. “But that’s just part of the deal, isn’t it? Having a family…”

“You must take the bad with the good,” Saru completes in a whisper. “As with…every type of…bond.” 

Michael nods slowly at this assertion, one that Saru seems to have only just reached himself if the dim surprise on his face is any indicator.

You are…a good sister, Michael. To me…and to him. You will find him. I know you will. And…”

Saru hesitates. “You will find her, as well. I am sure of it.”

Michael huffs softly at that, but does not argue.

Saru reaches for her hand, loosely holding the bone-knife. He pulls it up, so weakly, to his ganglia.

“It will be alright, Michael…” Saru whispers. 

Michael steadies her grip on the knife, preparing herself mentally, emotionally, physically. She reaches for her controls, for logic , but knows even as she does that there is no use. Her controls are cinders after her fight with Philippa, they are dust, completely and entirely; she never did learn how to adequately compartmentalize concerning her loved ones. 

Her greatest weakness in logic, as Sarek told her quite often.

Michael catches her sob before it hits her throat, and her face twists into a grimace as she tries, in vain, to contain the agony. Her knife hand drops to her side.

“Is it truly inevitable?”

Saru gazes up to her, mournfully. 

“I am sorry, that you must be the one to do this…How many... that you have already lost…”

Michael sniffles, because it was true. Her life and all of its difficulties, all of those taken from her, her love always, always coming back to cause pain. The universe beating her raw and bloody, again and again and again. One would think that she would no longer ache and weep at such losses.

But perhaps she is not so good a Vulcan as she had pretended to be for so long.

“…This will be a mercy, to me.” Saru whispers. “The greatest…you could give me. Michael… please …”

Michael swallows harshly. In a final, last ditch-effort, she reaches, not for her logic training, but for her xenoanthropology curriculum, particularly the concept of cultural relativism; the idea that what might be sinful in one culture is customary in another. What might be considered awful and twisted on Vulcan and on Earth is, on Kaminar…a tradition. A fact of life.

An honor.

Michael gazes at Saru, her treasured friend, one of the very, very few still with her after her seven years aboard the Shenzhou . She takes in his pale, smooth face, the patterns crawling across his skin, his deep blue eyes and firm mouth…and Michael imagines, for a moment, that she is Kelpien as well. She pictures the ceremony for vahar’ai , with drums and fires and bowing, and imagines her hands, now large and pale, gripping the hilt of the bone-knife.

She is participating in this vital tradition to honor her bond with a friend, a brother.

To see Saru out of this life and into the next…

It is an honor.

And for just a moment, Michael’s howling grief is overpowered by fierce pride and firm, unshakeable respect. 

Riding the wave of focused intent, Michael lifts her chin, takes a breath of resolve, and in a smooth motion, she brings the knife to Saru’s flared ganglia, baring the blade beneath the nesting point in her friend’s skull—

But before she can so much as cut, the gnarled ganglia withers, turning grey and lifeless right before Michael’s eyes.

And in the next moment it turns to dust, disintegrating to nothing before it hits Saru’s bare shoulder.

The knife is mounted upon nothing but air.

“Wh—What…” Michael shakes her head, quite unable to process.

Saru shifts slightly. “Michael…what’s wrong, what…” His fingers come up to trace at his now-empty ganglia cavity.

“I—“ Michael imagines her eyes are all but bulging out of her skull. “I…I barely touched it. Saru?”

“I don’t understand…” Saru is feeling at both sides of his head now, his blue eyes wide and confused. “I—I should be…”

Michael shakes her head again, her mouth working even as the shock dissipates to utter joy. A smile breaks across her face like the strike of a lightning bolt. Her heart unclenches in her chest, and the rush of endorphins is akin to a clinical high.

Saru looks overjoyed as well, though baffled as well. He slowly, slowly sits up on the bed, still prodding at the sides of his head.

“There is…there is no more pain… What--- What ?”

Michael only laughs at Saru’s bewildered tone, and her cheeks are hot as tears spill down them. 

Saru is alive.

Saru is alive.

She reaches for her friend and pulls him in tightly. After a long moment of palpable confusion from her friend, Saru hugs her back, wrapping powerful arms around Michael’s back.

Michael breathes, sighs, sniffles into Saru’s chest. The agony and strain of the past several minutes trickle from her body, leaving nothing but peace, and a great deal of exhaustion. 

Michael knows that she lacks context. There is, no doubt, a rational, scientific explanation for Saru surviving his vahar’ai. But until they study it and detangle this mystery, Michael is content and happy to consider this occurrence as nothing less than a blessing, nothing short of a miracle. 

The universe has finally sated itself upon her grief, and for the first time in an entire lifetime it pulled its punch, diverting this one, singular blow, this once and only time.

Saru is safe. Tilly is safe.

Somehow, somehow , in spite of all that has happened, Michael did not lose any loved ones today.

Not today.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Philippa watches with wary eyes as Reno and Stamets make adjustments and calculations at the main terminal for the spore drive. Tilly stands several feet behind her, trembling slightly, still wet and sticky from the fungal cocoon’s secretions. She is subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) putting Philippa between herself and the massive, pulsing fungal cocoon on the floor.

Philippa doesn’t blame her. 

“We need to close the door to the network, forever.”

Stamets’ voice is firm, and Reno seems to be in agreement from her slight nod.

“Just making final calculations…”

“How will you do this?” Philippa cannot help but ask. “Is it really so simple as closing a door?”

“Nah,” Reno denies as her fingers fly across the terminal. “It’s more like… destroying a door and then triggering a landslide on top of it.”

Philippa’s eyes widen at Reno’s casual delivery. The part of her that is a Section 31 agent and a crucial component of the covert war effort against the Klingons screams in protest.

“Wait, wait .“ 

She takes several quick strides towards the scientists behind the console. Both Reno and Stamets look at her, bewildered.

“This tech, the spore drive,” Philippa gestures towards the spore drive with sharp hands. “It was critical to Federation security during the Klingon War. We all would have perished without it! We cannot just destroy it like this!”

Stamets’ mouth opens and closes like a fish, but Reno puts a calm hand in front of him to cut it off.

“Look Phil, I get what you’re saying, I really do. But this tech , is also destroying the uh…” She gives Stamets’ chest a light tap. “What do you call it? Mycelial network?”

Stamets throws her an irritated look, coupled with a sharp nod to confirm.

“Yeah.” Reno shakes her head, and manages to look almost serious. “And if I’m understanding things right, that’s an entire universe. The Jah Sepp, plus whatever else might live there. Could be quite a lot, considering the damn near infinite diversity in our own universe.”

“Uh…guys?” Tilly’s voice quavers from the corner of the spore lab. “Did—did you see that?”

Philippa, Stamets, and Reno all turn to her. Philippa sweeps her gaze across the reaction cube, the pulsating fungal cocoon, and Tilly’s cowering form.

Nothing.

“Nothin’ there, Ensign.” Reno drawls. “Anyway, infinite diversity…infinite combinations…maybe even more…infinite-er, over there…”

With an unusually loose voice, Reno trails off, her eyes slipping from Philippa towards the cocoon.

“…Reno?” Philippa ducks her head to try to meet her friend’s gaze. Suspicion prickles at the back of her neck.

“Seriously!” Tilly exclaims. “Something’s not right!”

Philippa whirls towards Tilly, but Stamets is already holding out his hands as if to calm her down.

“Easy, Ensign, you’re still coming off your hallucinogen. It’s natural to be a bit paranoid in your condition.” 

Stamets’ elongates the syllables in a truly strange way, and he seems to be swaying slightly.

“No, no I swear , it’s May, I-- I saw her!” 

Tilly’s head whips between Stamets and the fungal cocoon, and in that moment, a familiar, acrid taste hits the back of Philippa’s throat.

Oh, fuck.

Philippa takes several quick steps away from Stamets to take up a protective stance in front of Tilly.

“It’s psilocybin!” With an extended arm, Philippa backs herself and Tilly away from the cocoon slowly, slowly, until they hit the wall of the lab just next to the access stairway.

“Wh—We’re being dosed?” Tilly’s voice trembles; she sounds terrified.

“No, just them.” Philippa gestures with her chin at Stamets and Reno, who are prodding at each other’s faces with wide eyes. “Seems May isn’t done with you yet, Ensign.”

As if hearing her words, the cocoon begins to shake in its spot on the floor. Philippa can almost see the blue psilocybin spores rising from its surface, a veritable storm cloud of swirling hallucinogens.

“It’s…” Tilly stumbles, no doubt seeing the same from over Philippa’s shoulder. “I— I think it’s going after you too, Captain.”

“Most likely.”

“How are you not—“

“Had a lot of exposure on Qo’Nos,” Philippa bites out. “The Klingons use it to—” With a quick swallow, Philippa throws a sleeve over her nose and mouth. “…speed their minds, slow down time…reach solutions…more quickly.”

“I…I can hear May’s voice—she’s…she’s saying something…” Tilly gasps. “Captain, you really need to get out of here—“

Before either of them can react, the fungal cocoon lashes out with one of its brown filaments. It wraps around Philippa’s ankle and yanks her to the floor, hard. Tilly’s panicked shout is cut off by another tendril, which whips over Philippa’s crumpled form to wrap around the ensign’s torso. Tilly screams as she flies over Philippa. She catches a foot on her body and hits the deck hard.

Philippa manages to grab one of Tilly’s boots as the tendril pulls Tilly in, towards its pulsating form.

“No, nononono,” Tilly whimpers. Her nails scratch pointlessly at the durasteel deck plates as she slides towards the cocoon, her free leg flailing in her struggle. 

With a brutal flex of her quads and her abs, Philippa manages to push herself forward, up Tilly’s body to grab the brown filament wrapped around her torso. Her left hand reaches for the knife in her boot, the only place on her medical whites that she’d been able to conceal a decent weapon. With a sharp cry, Philippa slashes at the filament.

The cocoon emits a razor-like screech, nearly metallic in its timbre. Philippa slashes again and again, making more headway each time. 

“You—won’t—take—her—“

Philippa grunts with each stab of the knife, her ears ring with the cocoon’s buzzing shrieks. One final, powerful slice, and she severs the filament completely. With a yelp, Tilly rolls onto all fours and crawls backwards, away from her attacker.

Philippa staggers to her knees. Her eyes widen as the cocoon splits off more tendrils, well over a dozen. They whip through the air towards her, screaming and howling their intent. Philippa raises her knife, knowing damn well she’s done for—

Yah !”

Philippa starts as Commander Jett Reno bursts from the side of the main terminal to plunge a hot laser spanner into the cocoon’s gnarled surface. The cocoon shrinks sideways as the spanner makes devastating contact with its side. Its outstretched tendrils whip and slash across the air, in obvious agony. 

Reno scores hot orange lines across the cocoon’s surface, striking again and again. Her movements are uncoordinated, no doubt she is still fighting the psychedelic, but the hot end of the spanner does its job, burning into the cocoon’s side and sending acrid smoke into the air.

“You guys—should run!” Reno grates above the cocoon’s shrieking and the spanner’s whirring. “Think I’m just—pissing it off—“

A tendril lashes out across the floor, whipping powerfully at Reno’s ankles and sweeping her off her feet. She goes down with a yelp, and the spanner clatters to the ground.

“Tilly!” 

Stamets shouts the word. Philippa whips her head towards the ensign, who is scooting backwards, away from the cocoon and towards the glass of the reaction cube. 

In the next moment, Philippa understands why.

The side of the cocoon nearest to Tilly is glowing , pale blue like the healthy mycelia in their canisters. The deck vibrates, and Philippa’s teeth clatter from the sheer power coming off of the gnarled surface. The air is hot now, growing hotter by the second, an obvious indicator of energy transfer.

The cocoon is powering up.

Philippa begins to crawl towards Tilly, driven by some premonition, some instinct of what it might want.

--I chose Tilly—

--I’m not done with her yet—

A phaser bolt strikes the surface of the cocoon, hot red and set to kill. And another, and another, Philippa casts a wide-eyed look over her shoulder to see Paul Stamets, his mouth set in a firm line as he takes shot after shot, steadying his shaking aim on the terminal’s flat surface.

About damn time.

Philippa crawls faster now, emboldened by the phaser blasts. Still, grateful as she is to Stamets, his intervention is clearly not working. The cocoon continues to shake, the glowing rip in its side growing wider and wider, brighter and brighter, even as the cocoon itself begins to extend in Tilly’s direction—

With a muffled thump, Ensign Tilly hits the glass wall of the spore drive in her backwards retreat. A dead end. Her eyes are wide with terror, her legs kick uselessly as the sidewall of the cocoon creeps towards her. The blue glow from its surface intensifies, turning Tilly’s pale skin luminescent, her irises a bright cyan. 

Seconds pass. Philippa creeps closer to Tilly, to the expanding cocoon and the strange blue light. She lifts her knife in reverse grip, clenching it hard in full knowledge that it will do no good against the massive fungal creature. 

Yet in some ways, this thought is freeing.

Tilly’s terrified face become slack and still, blue light from the cocoon glowing bright. Her pupils are gone, her eyes are phosphorescent, perhaps reflecting the light of the cocoon…

Perhaps emitting it. 

Silent now, Tilly stares into the vibrant blue of the cocoon, her expression calm and almost curious, irises glowing. She leans forward, forward, forward, her hand outstretched—

Philippa launches from her position, shoving Tilly sideways just as the cocoon reaches out from the rip in its side, this time with blue, glowing filaments. Before Philippa can so much as turn, the fibers are around her waist, her chest, her neck. 

They tug once, hard.

Philippa imagines that she hears a familiar, razor-blade voice in her ears, screeching in utter, bitter fury, before the world she knows vanishes in a flash of hot blue light.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“First Officer’s Log. Stardate 453.13.”  

 

 

“Words define who we are.”

“Move! Make way!”

“Officer…”

Michael’s lungs tear themselves to shreds, the corridor reduced to a mere blur in her periphery--

“Orphan...”

The spore lab doors are open, Michael bursts through them and takes the metal staircase in two steps--

“Widower…”

Upon the floor of the dark, murky spoor lab, a strange, brown mass hums and chitters. Approximately the size of a small sofa, the strange cocoon-looking object is obviously organic.

Obviously alive.

“Traitor...”

Paul Stamets waves a tricorder over the cocoon, though his air of non-urgency demonstrates that this is not the first time he has attempted this. Sylvia Tilly sits propped against the spore drive door, looking to be barely conscious and in terrible pain. The right side of her face is blotched purple. Behind the terminal, Reno holds a nonfunctional laser spanner in a limp arm, its business end propped on the deck.

There is no one else in the room.

No one, besides the pulsating monstrocity on the floor.

“Murderer…”

Michael had been too late, yet again.

From that moment and onward, time passes in a hazy, indistinct blur.

Reno and Stamets engage in a two-minute long shouting match that culminates in both rushing forth to secure instruments, tools, consoles, anything that might assist in their new mission. Engineers appear from the woodwork, bustling around the spore lab to poke and prod at the blob. Voices natter across the lab, scanners beep and hum, footsteps echo across the deck.

Tilly is evacuated to sickbay, semi-conscious and in obvious agony.

Michael stands watch over the cocoon until Reno claps her on the shoulder and sends her back to her quarters.

“Friend.”

In theory.

The ship had jumped to warp immediately so as not to lose Spock’s shuttle, and warp trails spin and dance along the window panels of the outermost port corridor of Deck 3. On occasion, Michael turns her face towards the soft blue light. She imagines subtle whispers from an inconceivable dimension, soft words in her ear and their echoes upon her skin.

Beta shift slides slowly into gamma, denoted by the subtle color change of the corridor’s ambient lights.

“Words define who we are.”

Michael takes in the viewing benches set into the walls, seeing before her all of the wonderful hours she and Captain Georgiou had spent sequestered on one bench or another, watching the cosmos and talking about everything and nothing, and all in between.

“But there is no word for the unique agony of uncertainty.”

Crewmembers not-so-subtly watch her as Michael returns to her quarters. Though she knows their gazes are filled with sympathy, Michael cannot help but be reminded of her early days on board, back when she was the hated mutineer and hundreds of unfriendly eyes followed her every move.

She takes as many side-corridors as she can. This adds torturous minutes to her journey across the Discovery, yet there is no other way. At the moment, though it shames her to admit it, Michael does not have the strength for interaction, to perform her duties as second officer, to offer comfort and strength to her crew.

Not now.

“I do not know her fate…

Nor that of my brother…”

Finally, finally, the doors of her quarters hiss open. Michael crosses the threshold--

And Keyla Detmer stands up from her place on Tilly’s bed. 

Next to her, Joanne Owosekun rises to her feet as well. 

Behind Tilly’s desk, Airiam stands at attention, wearing the knitted pink cap that she dons when she wants to appear soft and approachable.

And seated in the lounge chair at the foot of the bed, bizarrely, is Tracy Pollard.

“Tilly’s still in sickbay,” Detmer explains in a hushed voice. “But we thought…”

She trails off, swallowing almost painfully.

In the next moment, she all but rushes Michael, pulling her into a tight embrace.

Michael is torn between bearing it with a straight face and shoving her off, but then Joanne joins in. The oils of her hair meet Michael’s nostrils, and the scent of her perfume and her skin cream sends a wave of something through Michael’s chest. 

Michael’s arms come up robotically, no longer with the intent to shove them off; diplomatic niceties must be observed, after all.

Then there’s warm pressure at her back; the shape and pressure feel like the no-nonsense CMO. Nestled amongst many arms and cocooned by the warmth of several chests, Michael wonders absently if Tilly had sent Tracy Pollard from sickbay. 

But then again, it is nearing the end of gamma shift. Doctor Pollard must have been off-duty for hours.

An entire day has slipped by.

Philippa’s last day in this universe.

And then Airiam, with her cybernetic enhancements, wraps all of them in her arms, and there’s no escaping.

It is not that Michael’s walls finally collapse.

It is that they were never really there to begin with.

...

 

Stamets seems to believe that she survived. Reno is equally adamant. I want to believe that this is possible. But in the absence of evidence, the only logical position is doubt.”

“And in the absence of faith, only duty remains.”

 

 




 

 

 

The next day, the Discovery captures an empty shuttle.

In retrospect, Michael is uncertain as to why she expected it to be anything otherwise.

Together, she and Captain Pike search the shuttle. They turn over its logs, rifle through cabinets, pull up the carpeting, slice open the seats, making as thorough a search as they can manage. Outside of the ship, members of the security team check the craft’s hull for any type of irregularity. Scorch marks. Strange particulates. A drop of paint out of place.

Anything.

Finally, Nhan calls the search off.

Pike wears an expression of frustration, an unusual look for him, but he strides from the shuttle at the behest of his Chief of Security. Michael follows in his wake.

After three hours of rest, a meager fraction of those hours being sleep, her thoughts are somewhat foggy when not being commanded by her brain to focus; thus it takes her a moment to process the announcement on the overhead speakers.

“Captain Pike to the ready-room. Urgent hail, code 613 dash 812.”

The numbers jolt Michael out of her thoughts.

She remembers those first three digits from four months ago, right before the Discovery jumped to Qo’Nos to enact the plan to end the war.

613.

The code had preceded a purposefully garbled intelligence transmission detailing the layout of the Qo’Nos cave system and the handful of tunnels proceeding directly into the planet’s core. A pit opens in her stomach. She knows what this hail must be about.

Pike clearly understands the look on Michael's face. 

“Burnham, you’re with me.”




**



A hologram is waiting for them in Pike’s ready room. The translucent man’s expression is vaguely friendly, but his crossed arms and slightly hunched stance lead Michael to believe that this message will be anything but.

“Christopher!”

“Leland?” Pike’s voice is surprised, but not very. Nevertheless, a slight smile seems to threaten his lips.

The hologram gives Michael a quick, unreadable glance, but soon returns his gaze to Pike. “Is that gray hair I see?”

“Well, it’s one of the benefits of having actual hair,” Pike replies easily, a slight smile on his face. “Last I heard, you were on a convoy ship headed to the frontier.”

Michael keeps her face neutral, but cannot help but rock on her heels. A one hundred thousand-year-old life form dead, Spock’s shuttle lost, Philippa gone, and Pike is bantering with an old academy friend.

What a god damn waste of time.

“Well, I managed to break free.” Leland’s answer is easy and relaxed. “Switched to intelligence. Now I’m heading up Section 31.”

Michael’s heels stop rocking.

“Well…” Pike’s voice bears the tinges of a great deal of past history. “You were always more comfortable in the gray areas, my friend.”

The room goes flat in Michael’s vision, its edges disappearing into blackness. She thinks her shock might even be visible in her expression, from the strange glances the hologram keeps giving her.

Section 31…Section 31…

The sect that had given over the intelligence on how to decimate Qo’Nos.

These are the people that put Michael at the Shrine of Molor with a bomb in her hands.

And this is the man in charge of it all.

With all of her Vulcan restraint, Michael beats back her weariness, crushing it beneath the weight of cold, hard logic. Invigorated, she takes in the figure behind the desk, vague and wavy from the static of the holo-emitters.

Leland.

Vaguely middle-aged, clad in dark black. His head is completely shaved, forming an interesting contrast with his stubbled face. This, plus the general haze of the hologram, gives this Leland a subtly reptilian appearance. He wears no badge.

“So…” Pike ambles up to the desk, leaning his arms across one of the chairs. “I presume this isn’t a social call.” He jerks his chin towards Leland’s holographic form. “What is this about?”

Michael knows what it is about, what it must be about.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, one of my agents was aboard your ship for some time.”

“Was?”

Michael’s interjection is sharp. Alarm bells ring in her mind.

There is no possible way for Leland to know what happened. No transmissions have left the ship since they broke free of the sphere.

Leland’s gaze slides to her, clearly weighing how much or how little to reveal.

Finally, he relents.

“Thirteen hours ago, her tracker went off-line.” Leland’s form shifts. He reaches somewhere out of the feed, then puts his hand forward. 

Michael eyes the black badge sitting in his palm. 

“I’ll spare you the scientific lecture and merely state that they are designed to be...incapable...of doing that.”

Leland pockets the badge, his point made.

Deep, dark apprehension coils in Michael’s belly. It had been on her when she—? Disgust boils in her gut. Michael swallows hard.

Had she ever taken it off?

“Agent Georgiou is one of our most valuable assets. Section 31 has a vested interest in determining her fate.”

The words strike Michael like knife-blades, plunging deep into her heart. Still, her upbringing was as stringent and focused as that of any Vulcan; her face remains still.

“As does the Discovery,” Pike confirms. He leans forward, his tone almost too casual. “You know, I’d suggest we perhaps work together on this new goal of ours, but playing well with others, well...that’s never been quite your style.”

Pike’s face is mild, but his eyes are hard and suspicious. 

Finally.

“Placing an operative on this ship, without informing its captain?” Pike prods. “And Captain Georgiou, of all people? What in the hell are you playing at, Leland?”

Leland only scowls. Strangely enough, his eyes flicker, once again, to Michael. Only for a moment, but she catches it nonetheless.

“Well, orders are orders.” 

Leland’s voice is cold as ice, but Michael is well-experienced with restraint. Like a native speaker of the same half-tongue, she hears like a distant howl the abject, screaming rage cloaked in an iron fist behind Leland’s voice. Even Pike looks taken aback at the sudden shift.

“…Best to put the past behind us.” The hologram continues in a far more normal tone. “Focus on the now, Chris. I am willing to capitulate on this matter. Are you denying help from an old friend?” 

“Well, considering that your last help yielded us an empty shuttle…” 

Michael interjects, her voice cold and hard. She takes a step forward, her expression firm. At the desk, Captain Pike’s face is equally hard. He seems to have lost just a hair of his earlier earnestness.

The empty shuttle must have affected him more than Michael had realized.

Leland’s eyes shift between them. “I regret that our intel did not yield results. Your brother is more slippery than we knew.”

Michael works her lips, wondering if she ought to be offended or proud.

“That does not change the fact that at the moment, we are on the same side.”

“At the moment…” Michael shakes her head, disgust weighting her every syllable.

Agent Leland’s speech is that of a politician, his every word carefully chosen. He is not technically lying, but Michael understands the nature of half-truths, of lies by omission, of falsehoods cloaked in deceptive wordplay.

She remembers Qo’Nos. She remembers the Shrine of Molor.

Indeed, part of her has never left.

And this man, this Leland had had a hand in placing her there.

Leland, for his part, remains silent. His eyes unreadable as he takes her in.

“I’ll keep a line open,” Leland finally states. “If my people come up with any theories as to what could have happened, you’ll be the first to know.”

The words jolt Michael out of her reverie. Dumbfounded, she stares at the head of Section 31, who is inexplicably offering an olive branch after she and Pike had presented a united front of near-open hostility.

What in the hell is going on?

Pike seems to be just as bewildered by this, but he manages to nod somewhat diplomatically.

The hologram winks out.

But before Michael can even digest the fact that she now knows who the head of Section 31 is, that she knows his identity, that she spoke to the man directly, the overhead speaker crackles to life.

Commander Burnham to Engineering.

It’s Paul Stamets’ voice, and he sounds worked up in the extreme.

 

 

 

**

 

 

Only logic can root us in the present.

Michael repeats Sarek’s mantra in her mind as she rounds the corner to Engineering. For all of her foster father’s many flaws and shortcomings, this particular piece of advice had always held true. She had shared this nugget of wisdom with her peers aboard the Shenzhou several times over the years. Most had humored her. Some had listened thoughtfully. But it was Lieutenant Troy Januzzi who had come up with what Michael considered to be an appropriate Human form of the litany.

Don’t lose your shit.

This could be nothing. It could be a red herring, a dead end, a half-baked plan that will end in failure.

Don’t lose your shit.

To get her hopes up now would only shatter her heart once more, should it all be for naught. And Michael is uncertain of how much more damage her heart can take.

Don’t lose your shit.

Philippa is gone. There is nothing at all to suggest otherwise.

Don’t—

A half-hysterical laugh threatens Michael’s lips as she considers what her captain might have thought, had she known that her end would come at the hands of a massive, gelatinous fungus aboard her own ship.

Don’t—

The door to the spore lab hisses open. Michael anchors herself to the sound, giving her illogical brain a good sharp kick for good measure.

“News, Commander?”

She calls down the stairs towards Paul Stamets, who is darting around the pulsating fungus like a man possessed. He strides towards the stairs with purpose, sleeves rolled up and jacket half-zipped.

“The universe never lets anything go to waste!”

Michael raises an eyebrow as she reaches the bottom of the metal stairs.

“Or so said Le Vasoiyer,” Stamets amends quickly. His eyes are darting, Michael knows his thought process is moving far too quickly for coherence.

“The Law of Conservation of Mass…” she agrees slowly.

“In chemical reactions, mass is never created, nor destroyed!” Stamets gestures with an arm as he emphasizes his words.

“Einstein might have said otherwise,” Michael contradicts absently, eyeing the fungal cocoon on the deck. She feels Stamets roll his eyes as he passes behind her.

“Spoken like a Vulcan-educated quantum physicist.” The mycologist’s tone is slightly irritated. “Semantics, Burnham. Under ordinary circumstances and assuming no random acts of God, matter is never created nor destroyed, it only changes form. Come look!”

Michael complies, turning towards the terminal next to the spore drive. A scan of the cocoon glows upon the holo-screen, flickering through infrared, visible, and ultraviolet. Michael takes in the readouts on the left of the display.

“Over the past thirteen hours…” she states slowly, her eyes gritty. “There’s been…no change in the cocoon’s mass…nor its energy output.”

“Right!” Stamets exclaims. “If it had truly eaten Captain Georgiou, there would be evidence of digestion, of—of metabolism, and there isn’t! This cocoon has been inert since the incident!”

“Maybe it was instantaneous…” Michael cannot hope now, not until every possible contradiction has been disproven.

“No, see, I’ve scanned the fungus for evidence of Human organic matter!” Stamets utters the denial like a man possessed. “Human-specific proteins, lipids, cells…”

He goes silent, raising his eyebrows expectantly.

“…Nothing?” Michael forces the word out, unsure whether to be irritated at Stamets or not.

“Not a thing!”

“So…” Michael closes her eyes, shakes her head, tries to figure out what this means. “So you’re saying the cocoon didn’t—” She chokes for a moment. “Didn’t digest her. Then what—”

“Before it took Captain Georgiou, the cocoon was…” Stamets hesitates. “Powering up, for lack of a better term.”

Michael raises a weary eyebrow, but Stamets continues.

“It emitted enough heat to raise the ambient temperature of the lab by thirteen degrees Celsius within thirty seconds.” He waves a hand and brings up the temperature readout of the spore lab. Michael’s eyes widen at the massive spike towards the right of the line graph.

“To heat a room of this size in such little time—”

“Would require…giga-Joules of energy input,” Michael completes, shock overcoming exhaustion for an instant.

“And there’s this!”

With a whip, of his hand, Stamets brings up a still image of the laboratory feed. The angle is from a high corner of the room; nevertheless, the blue glow from the strange brown mass on the floor is visible, and bright indeed.

“Prior to the incident, the cocoon emitted a hot blue glow, almost identical to the kind of glow from the mycelia I grow in this lab.”

Michael stares at the image. “So…it used mycelial energy, the same way we do when we jump.” Her eyes widen as the conclusion strikes her in full force.

“You think May transported Captain Georgiou?”

“Yes!” Stamets’ voice is triumphant. “And not just anywhere! I think she took the captain into the network!”

“Why…” Michael is lost again. “Why—would you…?”

“Something May said when she was in Tilly’s body!” Stamets explains rapidly. “She said she had other plans for her.”

“She meant to get Tilly instead of Georgiou…” Michael’s eyes dart as she thinks through the information. “But why would she want Tilly?”

“I don’t know.”

And in the next moment, Stamets’ manic energy seems to deflate. “But she failed at getting Tilly. She took the wrong person.”

Fear swims in his eyes.

“What might she do to a person she has no use for?” Michael whispers.

She and Stamets are quiet for a long moment.

“We need to get her out.” Stamets’ voice cuts through the silence. “ASAP.” The mycologist whirls back to the terminal.

“But how?” Michael demands, her voice a little raw as she follows him. “How do we do that?”

“I can use my cortical implant and the navigation computer. If I’m right, this fungus is like a transporter pad, which means—”

“There’s an identical one somewhere in the mycelial network,” Michael completes, heart pounding. “But…the network is an entire universe, it’s massive…”

Stamets nods briskly. “Yes, but we have its counterpart right here. If they truly are connected, then with the right inputs into the computer, and the right…” He spins a vague hand near his temple. “…state of mind, I can get a lock on its location. If we find it, we find Captain Georgiou.”

Michael shakes her head, jerkily. Her mouth opens and closes. She searches for more denials, more contradictions, more whispers from the devil’s advocate, telling her to not delude herself with flights of fancy and silly wishes from her pathetic Human heart. To hope now would be to have her hopes dashed to pieces an hour from now, a day from now, a week from now.

To hope now would be to lose Philippa again.

“Burnham…” Stamets steps around the terminal, approaching her slowly. There’s concern in his expression, and no little kindness. “She’s alive. I know it.”

Michael gasps at the words. She wants so badly to believe him, wants so badly to believe herself.

And Commander Stamets does look certain. But aside from the manic energy in his general demeanor, Michael notices the stubble on his chin, the dark circles beneath his eyes. This physical evidence, the sheer breadth of data collected…

The man must have worked for thirteen hours straight, since the moment the cocoon had taken Philippa.

“Why…” Michael shakes her head, stumbling on the words. “Why are you so invested in this?”

If it was Ensign Tilly, Michael would understand. Tilly was Paul Stamets’ protegee, his good friend. But why on Earth would the prickly mycologist care so much about Captain Georgiou?

“You have a chance to get back someone who you lost. A chance I would kill for.”

Stamets’ voice is steady and even. Michael stares at him in surprise. Compassion bubbles up in her chest, and her heart gives a pang as she remembers Doctor Hugh Culber.

Paul Stamets shakes his head a little sadly.  

“There’s nothing like that left for me. No possible way to get Hugh back.”

But in a flash, the memory of that fateful night in the spore lab strikes Michael between the eyes.

The man in the reaction cube, writing in long, swooping letters as screaming red fire burned around him—

“But…Paul, that explosion, the writing—”

Don’t.”

Stamets' demeanor flips in half a second, voice unyielding and eyes hard as cold flint.

Michael stares at him in utter bewilderment.

With a helpless shake of his head, Stamets looks away. He hunches slightly, working on his next words with what appears to be great difficulty. “I…I can’t hope for that.”

The sentence is staggered, forced out with what sounds like all of Paul Stamets’ strength.

“I can’t—” Stamets swallows. “I can’t take it. But I can hope for you. And for her.”

A hot, stinging feeling wells up in Michael’s chest. In spite of her weariness, she understands what Stamets is trying to say.

In lieu of words, Michael reaches out and places a gentle hand on Stamets’ shoulder. A band-aid to an arterial bleed, she knows this, but the value of such small, kind gestures is far from irrelevant. Fortunately, Stamets seems understands her response, and his body relaxes slightly under Michael’s touch.

His voice, when it comes, is filled with resolve once more.

“We’ve got to try, Burnham.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

—DARK—

—DAMP—

—PRESSURE—

 No air, no air, noair noair noair—

Suffocating, she’s suffocating, a morsel held fast in an esophagus, a vacuum, the lung-sucking void of spaceDigested, squeezed, crushed and on fire—

She’s going to die

A hand clamps hard on her shoulder. Massive sideways torque rips her bodily to one side and something tears, something soft and alive—

Philippa tumbles through the membrane onto solid surface, and her straining mouth sucks in air.

She gasps, heaves, mouth gaping like a fish as she slakes her starving lungs. Her shoulders heave, her chest aches with desperation, and her brain, as it oxygenates, begins to function once more. Various sensations become apparent.

The ground beneath her hands and knees, soft. There is light, muted but present. She is soaking wet, with something that is not-water.

And somewhere in front of her, someone is screeching in fury.

“…dammit all, son of a fucking bitch!

Philippa gapes and heaves, but the world is beginning to fall into order. She’s alive.

Despite her best efforts to the contrary, she’s alive.

The unpleasant realization sets in like ice down her spine. She’d thrown herself in front of a universe-ending beam of otherworldly energy to save an innocent ensign, she’d done her very best, she’d gone out like a damn hero—

And she had lived in spite of it.

“One chance, I had one chance, and I get this!? This— this useless, pathetic, half-dead Human!!!”

Eyes towards the mossy, strangely speckled ground, Philippa pants, shoulders hunched. She spits some foul-tasting cocoon excretion between her hands, and gives a short, bitter laugh.

She hadn’t died on T’Kuvma’s flagship. She hadn’t died in that murky Qo’Nos hospital. And somehow, somehow, she hadn’t died in the maw of that mycelial cocoon.

What in the hell would it take?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

May’s voice goes from furious to remorseful.

“I will think of something else, I learned a lot…we may get another chance! And we have this!”

Footsteps thump on the soft ground towards her, Philippa waits—

And leaps from her crouch, lunging with all of her might.

May screams as they both fall to the ground. Snarling, Philippa bares her fingernails and claws at May’s face, her eyes. She has nothing left to lose, nothing at all, this damn creature took the last thing she had left—

But in the next moment, May disappears, and Philippa finds herself clawing nothing but the strange moss.

Then a rictus of agony bursts in her hands, her neck, her face, and Philippa screams. Fighting desperately, scratching at her skin as if to tear it off, a quick glance at her hands shows that they are glowing with something pinpoint green, like the floating white spores in the canisters back in the spore lab--

“We will hurt you again if you hurt us!”

May’s voice echoes from everywhere around her, as if she is circling. Philippa fights her way to her feet, the agony in her skin already fading. She spins on the spot to find her attacker—

And slows to a near-halt when her search reveals the terrain on which she stands.

The murkiness of the air, the muted, tinted light, the soft glowing colors and shapes…What she had dimly assumed to be some type of cavern is anything but.

Philippa stands in the middle of a vast plain. It stretches far to every horizon like an ocean, glowing greens and purples and blues. Warm red patches dot the terrain here and there, splashed across the purple-greens and the blue-turquoises of the earth and the flora.

Her gaze follows the end of solid ground upwards, towards a sky that is shimmering like gemstones. There is no sun, no stars, but light flickers across the endless ceiling like an aurora through tree leaves. Like being submerged beneath Langkawi’s warm seas at twilight; looking up toward the ocean’s surface.

And on the ground, Philippa manages to note the presence of grasses, trees, corals, all a mixture of bizarre colors and shapes. Some emit a soft glow, others pulsate with light, and some do nothing at all but whisper softly in the strange half-breeze that blows at Philippa’s feet. Shadowy figures appear and disappear within the fruited terrain, so far and so incorporeal as to seem insignificant.

Anger drains from Philippa's body with each spin on her axis, each catch of her eyes upon something new and vibrant. All around her, from end to ceaseless end of whatever this rolling expanse might be, thrums with life.

Life. 

And like nothing she has ever seen before, on any planet she has ever visited.

“Do you understand now?”

May’s voice is hot in her ear. Philippa whips around, the heel of her hand bared like a knife—

And hits nothing but empty air, displacing a few floating green specks of light.

“Why do you keep doing that?”

“What are you?” Philippa grates, stumbling backwards several steps.

“We are Jah Sepp.”

The air ripples about ten feet from Philippa, in the center of some of the floating specks, and May is in front of her once more.

“This is our home. And you—” May’s face contorts. “You are killing it!”

Philippa braces herself, prepared for another attack.

“So hard I worked! So hard! Do you know how hard it is to cross into another dimension? To bring the scaffold and build a way back?!”

May’s arm whips to the left, and Philippa follows her gesture towards the fungal cocoon, now a ways behind them.

“I had one chance! One chance!” May’s shout slices the air like a blade. “And now we are stuck with you, and you are useless!!”

The words echo across the strange world, whipping through the swaying grasses and many-colored fronds that whisper upon what passes for ground.

“Passing judgment a bit quickly, are we?”

Philippa says the words almost without meaning to, and wonders where they came from. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s in another universe, the mycelial universe if she were to hazard a guess. Maybe it’s the fact that she cheated death once more. Or maybe..

Maybe it’s the sight of May, the real May, the May Ahearn that Ensign Tilly saw back on the Discovery

She looks like a cadet on her first field mission.

Bronze skin, thick black hair pulled into a bun, all chubby-cheeks and wide-eyed innocence. Her uniform looks like a costume, as uniforms tend to on fresh ensigns. She’s not grown into it yet. Logically, Philippa knows that May is some kind of spore, but right now, her Human form looks distressed to the point of tears.

“Stilly was the one we needed!” May shouts. “A scientist, an engineer who studied our world and did not—did not slice it to ribbons and pollute it for her own ends! There were only two of them, and I needed her!

“More than two…” Philippa holds up her hands, takes in the situation with a cool head. “There were more than two, I daresay.”

Indeed, she feels like she’s plunged body-first into a planet of liquid methane, so icy cold that her brain has been reset. This version of May is so very different from the one they had talked to back in the spore lab via cortical node. That May was cool and boastful, slick and dangerous, not yet to the climax of her plan, but this one…

Philippa cocks her head at the being in front of her.

This one has failed, and knows it.

Only in the wake of abysmal, devastating, world-ending failure could an opponent like Philippa no longer seem a threat.

“So what did you want?” Philippa tosses the question easily. “What did you want from her?”

“We wanted help! Because our efforts have not worked!”

“Help? For what?”

May’s eyes grow huge and sad. Her fury drains away like wind through a door. She gestures behind Philippa.

“For that.”

Philippa turns around.

She gazes across the vast, multi-colored plain once more, and this time, her eyes take in the horizon with a little more discernment.

The red patches that cover the ground here and there, mottling the soft, cool tones of the mycelial land. They are glowing, yes, but not in the muted, natural, bio-luminescent way of the leaves beneath Philippa’s feet and the gnarled blue coral a meter aft. No, the red patches glow in the way that super-hot metal glows orange when a reactor is overheating. Sickly red, oozing across the earth, eating away at the land like radiation eats away at a body. Bits of hot, red glow-worms rise from the blighted patches like embers, whirling up into the sky. Philippa follows their path and notes the barely visible reddish tint to the mottled gemstone heavens.

Red, like the strange, glowing canister in the spore lab.

Her eyes track the red across the sky, down towards a section of the horizon towards which she has not yet looked.

Oh.

No. No, that was certainly not a sunset.

Far off in the distance, the size of her thumbnail, a bright red glow cleaves the healthy blue-green-purple expanse. The glow bears a distinct threat of violence, of death, like screams and flaming torches on a dark horizon. Vast, looming red, far enough to seem miniscule, but Philippa is not fooled.

Her eyes and her intuition tell her that if either she or May were standing beneath that far-off hungry maw, it would be akin to standing before a supernova.

And Philippa knows with utter certainty that that distant red void that mars the muted sky-colors is growing.

Consuming.

There is no doubt about it. The red spores are here as well.

Philippa’s gaze returns to the alien terrain. She notes the closest patch of red to where she and May currently stand, and begins to walk towards it.

“What—what are you doing?” May’s voice stumbles. “Don’t! Don’t, they hurt!”

Philippa keeps walking.

“They kill if you touch them!”

Undaunted, Philippa plunges her hand into the angry red blight, oozing with what, in her universe, had looked like spores—

May screeches—

Philippa pulls her hand out.

Red, glowing, covered in the dusky haze, but utterly unharmed.

“Interesting.” Philippa notes. Almost in jest, she reaches the red-glowing hand out towards May, whose form disappears and reappears five meters away in the next moment.

“How are you doing that?” May demands, fear at war with amazement. “How do they not hurt you?”

“Who could say…” Philippa murmurs, her mind turning at the new information.

As a tactical advantage, this will make her unbeatable.

Philippa has half a mind to leap headlong into the blight, to cover herself head-to-toe in the red spores and force May and her people to return her to the normal universe, to her universe—

But the rest of Philippa’s strategist brain catches up with her, whispering in her ear and reminding her not to pull her phaser just yet, reminding her to be clever, to be strategic.

Why does she even want to go back to the Discovery? For God’s sake, the whole Godsdamned point of throwing herself in front of the cocoon was—

The red spores glow warmly upon Philippa’s hand. Warmth that she can only imagine, as she feels absolutely nothing at their presence, not here in this mycelial universe.

The mycelial universe…

Has any Human ever stood here? Philippa takes a step left on the soft, glowing moss. And a step right. It is like standing in the center of coral reef, murky and swirling with life and with color.

It is…the most beauty that Philippa has experienced in—

In—

Nearly as long as she can manage to recall.

Her half-dead heart gives a sorrowful quiver in her chest.

“Tell me why I should help you.”

May looks stunned at the question.

Philippa looks down at her red-spore covered hand as she asks, in order to avoid looking at the alien before her. The words are awkward in her mouth, as is the intent behind them, awkward and rusty from comical lack of use.

It’s the long game. Philippa says the words in her mind as she forces her mouth to move. A tactic, a trick, a way to gain information while remaining unharmed.

All of this is true, and yet…

Philippa cannot help but wonder if she would feel so strange and so awkward about the offer if she truly meant none of it. What had happened to her certainty?

Just what in the ever-loving, star-raising hells had happened to her aboard the USS Discovery?

“Tell me…what I can do to help you.”

No, this is wrong. This is all wrong. Philippa feels none of her iron-intent that she’d worn like iron during the past year in Section 31. Her skin feels inside out, her spine shaking from the strangeness of it all. The part of her that survived nine months on Qo’Nos is screaming beneath her conscience. She’s offering help to an unknown, dangerous creature who hurt her, who hurt others, who could easily do so again if provoked—

And Philippa freezes on the spot at the familiar words that ring behind her ears.

Words that she had heard a lifetime ago, spoken in the soothing contralto of a woman far wiser and far better than herself.

We see something we don’t understand, and immediately cast judgement? The mycelial creature in the form of a frightened young woman blinks fearfully where she stands, several meters away from Philippa.

Maybe it’s lost…

Afraid to show us its true self…

And for all of how strange and wrong this all feels to her, with the whisper of those words along her conscience, Philippa knows that this has to be the correct choice. Because this?

This is what Michael Burnham would do.

The words feel unnatural, clunky in her mouth, but she says them all the same. “How could Tilly have helped you? How could I?”

She looks up, towards May.

“What are these red spores? What are they doing to your world? And how do we stop them?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

After the frenzied thirteen hours of research to determine where Captain Georgiou had gone, making the plan to get her back takes an almost hilariously miniscule amount of time.

A jump, Stamets explains to a dubious Captain Pike and the rest of the Discovery’s alpha-shift bridge crew, With no final destination. Wedging the Discovery between this universe and the mycelial plane.

Pike has every right to be nervous. Slotting the Discovery half-into, half-out-of the mycelial network will cause an insane amount of competing forces upon the ship’s superstructure, which, given enough time, will rip the vessel apart. Not to mention the mycelial spores themselves, which digest normal matter as a biological imperative. There is no telling which of the two agents of destruction will annihilate the Discovery first. Stamets’ calculations give them approximately an hour before they must retreat or risk catastrophic damage to the ship and its crew.

Stamets’ warning repeats in Michael’s brain as she puts together her tactical kit.

Anybody who touches the barrier between universes will find themselves twisted around their axes!

The nauseating corpses aboard the USS Glenn flicker behind her eyelids when she blinks. Michael fervently hopes that the crew will follow this simple order.

Kit on, she takes the corridor at a brisk pace, ducking and darting around crewmembers flooding the corridors, all heading in the opposite direction, toward the “safe” part of the ship.

“Michael!”

Commander Saru’s mellow voice cuts through the hub-hub. Michael turns around to see the Kelpien man picking his way through the crowd, careful not to overly jostle anyone.

“Take this.” He presses a simple communicator into her hand.

“I appreciate it, Saru, but I already have one—”

“I modified this one, to enable us to contact you when you are in the network.”

Michael raises two impressed eyebrows. To modify an ordinary piece of communication tech to transmit messages between two universes was no little feat.

Indeed, Saru looks as weary as Stamets.  Michael wonders how long he has been working on this particular project. Had he and Stamets been coordinating their efforts?

Saru wraps her hand in his own. In the rushing tide of officers, the two friends are a stronghold of calm stillness.

“I know it is a foolish request to make of you, Burnham, but…please be careful.”

Michael smiles a little sardonically. “I am always careful, Saru. You know that.”

“Yes, the necessary counterpoint to my brash, impulsive nature.”

The gentle retort tugs another smile from Michael, this one genuine. She squeezes her friend’s hand, watching as Saru’s other hand comes up to the base of his skull. Tracing the nesting points, now empty with the completion of his vahar’ai.

Both Michael and Saru grow sober at the reminder that Saru no longer has the ability to sense the coming of death.

 

 

**

 

 

The jump proceeds as planned. The USS Discovery carves into the space between spaces, propping the slice in reality open with tritanium and hardened transparisteel.

Hand in hand, Michael Burnham and Paul Stamets step from the reaction cube and into another universe.

On silent, feet, they pick their way through corridors of the Discovery. Dim, murky, with a notable violet tone; Michael wonders if the way light polarizes in the mycelial realm is different from that of their own. Wall-set screens and data-feeds are hazy with static and digital snow; perhaps due to the shock of the jump, or perhaps due to some aspect of this strange new universe.

Her phaser is up and ready, as is Stamets’ by her side. But the corridors remain silent and still. The life-sign check Michael calls returns negative.

There is…nothing here.

“Should we…step outside?”

Stamets offers the suggestion in a cautious tone, but an undercurrent of something lurks in his expression, behind his eyes and beneath his voice.

Was that…

Excitement?

And upon opening the Corridor Five port-bow airlock, Michael understands in an instant.

Outside of the hatch, as far as any eye can see, stretches a world so alive and so colorful that Michael’s eyes sting just by looking. Next to her, Paul Stamets mouth is gaping like a fish, his eyes wide as saucers.

Dazzling colors roll across the terrain. Trees and mosses pulsate with internal phosphorescence. The sky above is scattered with twinkling gemstones, glowing softly with muted ambience.

Michael’s tentative first step onto the mossy surface sends shining purple dust notes into the air. A second step does the same. Scattering the sparkling dust, Michael runs her hand over a long, phosphorescent leaf, and it contracts in response, kaleidoscoping through colors until it goes dark.

A breath of air in this mycelial realm is somehow just as sustaining as a breath of air on a terrestrial planet. Michael’s scientific brain dimly wonders how this could possibly be?

Are they even breathing at all?

Each step away from the Discovery brings with it new sensations, new revelations. Another glowing species of fern. More rippling lichen, patterning the ground like a patchwork quilt. Bright green embers floating in the air, dancing across the currents. Michael brushes against a shoot of glowing blue coral, and it whispers against her torso as it whips back into position. As it does so, glowing blue embers shake loose and are carried away, somewhere off into the leafy expanse.

Michael feels quite like Alice, taking her first steps into wonderland after falling down a long, deep well.

“It’s like…walking through a coral reef.” Stamets tries at Michael’s side, his tone scientific. His tricorder is up and actively recording. “If the reef were in some type of—liminal space between universes. A dimension inconceivable to sentient minds until, oh, about four hours ago.”

“You’ve literally navigated us through it.”

“Yes, but…” Stamets brushes his hand against a tall tuft of bright purple grass. “I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the place. Looked at it, in so many words.”

Even as he speaks, Michael catches a smile crawling across Stamets’ face. The mycologist’s head is darting every which way, uncertain of what to take in first. The phosphorescent moss on the ground. The kaleidoscope skies. The shimmering foliage, bright with internal luminescence. The Discovery is far behind them now, nearly forgotten in their wonder at the mycelial realm.

Hushed whispers brush across the plants, as if there were another presence somewhere unseen or perhaps very far away, but speaking nonetheless. Michael closes her eyes and attempts to listen harder.

It could not simply be wind…

Could it?

“Do you hear that?”

Michael tosses the words at Stamets, though she knows what he will say.

“What, the— the rustling?” Face slightly amused, Stamets spins a finger at their surroundings. “It’s just the leaves, or…whatever they might be, moving against each other.”

“Yes, but—” Michael closes her eyes, frustrated. “Do you feel any wind, Stamets?”

Stamets opens his mouth, condescending look on his face—

And closes it with approximately the same speed.

Within the phosphorescent grove, Paul Stamets spins around once, twice. Confusion cleaves his face.

“Then…then why are the—leaves, the fronds…” He trails off.

In silence, Stamets and Michael watch the glowing blue shoots of what appears to be a bush, wave and ripple ever so slightly, as if caught in a mild breeze. The whispering around them is clearly audible.

There is no perceptible breeze, nor gust, nor perturbation in the air surrounding their bodies.

“It must be some other force.” Michael states the words as evenly as she can. “This is another dimension, which we are not a part of. There must some type of…other influence, exerting itself on the local occupants of this realm.”

Stamets looks to her and back to the terrain, the shrubs and glowing corals.

“I…suppose that makes sense. The mycelial universe…” He shakes his head, clearly lost in thought. “It’s…the space between all universes, every single one of them. It’s unprecedented, literally inconceivable. Another universe, an external space, different by necessity than the rest.”

Stamets eyes the warm violet shrubs at his feet. They shake ever so slightly, moved by an invisible force.

“Do universal laws apply in…other universes?”

Looking away from the whispering foliage, Michael and Stamets lock eyes. Michael imagines her face is filled with trepidation. Thus, it is difficult for her to understand how Stamets can look so thrilled.

“Amazing! This is just—just, unbelievably unprecedented!”

Grinning crookedly, Paul Stamets paces around the clearing, as he tends to when excited.

“This place is— Well, it’s the end result of all of my research, the goal of this entire field!” He whirls back around to Michael, blue eyes dancing. “Was—was this how you felt when you saw that massive space sphere?”

A reluctant smile breaks on Michael’s lips.

“Nowhere close, Commander.”

“The holy grail of astromycology,” Stamets continues, breathless. He brushes a reverent hand across a glowing blue fern. “Years, I dreamed of just—gaining proof that this realm existed and not only is it here, we’re standing in it!”

Watching Stamets’ happiness, Michael has to smile a little. So used to the mycologist’s grumpy demeanor and sarcasm, more so since the loss of his partner, the sight of Paul Stamets overjoyed at anything at all is truly a privilege to witness.

“Y’know, this is what I held on to, during the war.”

With a wave of his arm, Stamets gestures to the kaleidoscope sky, the glowing undergrowth, the rippling rainbow plants.

“This is why I could keep going, all those days when—when all we did was fight Klingons and get verbally abused by Lorca. This.” Stamets sweeps his hand out, across the mycelial world. Michael strides to Stamets’ side, and together they look out across the expanse.

Dancing with vibrant color, lush with life on a scale only possible in the densest of rainforests. The land is a veritable kaleidoscope, glowing softly in every color on the visible spectrum, and no doubt many more that the Human eye cannot detect. The sky ripples overhead, or what passes for “sky,” anyway. Spangled with soft colors, purple, deep blue, radiant green, the glow is like the aurora borealis of Earth, if such a magnetic phenomenon were to consume the entirety of the heavens.

Truly, it has been a very long time since Michael has had the privilege to look on something so beautiful.

She wishes—

Her eyes prickle at the thought, and Michael forces herself to blink.

She wishes Philippa were here.

And Michael startles upon seeing the shimmering in Paul Stamets’ eyes.

His pale face is aglow in the strange light of this other world, as laid open as the hot core of neutron star. He looks moved beyond belief. Michael has never seen such an expression on her irritable colleague’s face. She wonders if she ought to look away, as if witnessing something deeply private.

“Y’know, there’s a line in an old song that—that Hugh and I used to listen to.” Stamets manages, still looking out across the expanse. “We’d…we’d sing it together sometimes.”

Michael raises a curious eyebrow. She did not know Stamets could sing.

The opposite of war, isn’t peace. It’s creation.

Michael blinks a handful of times. She mulls the verse over in her mind.

“But…” she tries. “But…the antonym of war, it literally is ‘peace,’ according the Standard Dictionary, the thesaurus, any accredited linguist—”

“Burnham— Burnham,” Stamets soothes, arms outstretched. “You’re thinking like a Vulcan. That’s far too literal. Let’s try something else.”

He gives her an expectant look.

“Try thinking about feelings.”

Michael stares at Commander Paul Stamets, where they stand in the middle of this glowing, spangled fungal forest in a parallel universe.

Stamets seems to realize what he has just said to her.

“This is a very strange day.”

“And how,” Michael agrees dryly.

“Just try it, Burnham.” Stamets looks far from insulted. “It’s a song, it isn’t meant to be literal.”

Michael looks away from him, mouthing the words.

The opposite of war isn’t peace…

It’s creation.

“I don’t understand.”

Her brain has never been trained to work in this way. Michael follows the path of logic, where a cause has an effect, where a question has an answer, where hypothesis has a confirmation or a repudiation.

There is no logic in this statement, this, this…song lyric.

“You don’t have to understand to find it beautiful.”

“I would find it far more beautiful if I did understand.”

“Well don’t you remember how it felt?” Stamets prods at her side. “Back when we were crunching numbers, researching possibilities? You, Tilly, and I, in the lab like we were scientists, explorers, and not soldiers?” He looks earnestly towards Michael. “Remember  building something that could be used to explore the universe? Did it feel like we were waging war?”

Michael casts her mind back to those early days, when her mind was thick with fog, when grief and pain held her to her bed every morning, making rising for the coming day a Herculean task. When each passing hour brought more news of death, of destruction, when sharp teeth and domed heads haunted her dreams—

“The lab, Burnham.” Stamets voice grounds her. “Remember us getting the spore drive on-line?”

She remembers…

Michael blinks.

She remembers…making her first xenoanthropological study after six long months. A detailed report on the mycelial tardigrade that destroyed the Glenn.

The wild tardigrade, huge and lumbering and deadly, how it touched its probosci to Michael’s face with infinite gentleness after experiencing its first hint of kindness aboard the USS Discovery.  Ripper, frolicking in the warm glow of the mycelial spores in Stamets’ greenhouse.

Hours, days spent in the spore lab with Tilly and Stamets, hacking out the programs that would allow the Discovery to ride the invisible veins and muscles of the universe, writing the code that would breathe life into the hardware, building and creating as the screams from the bloody war that Michael had started went mercifully silent in her brain…

Here in the present, Paul Stamets lingers at her side, expectantly.

“The opposite war…isn’t peace,” Michael mumbles, trying a little harder. She rubs at the heaviness beneath her eyes. “It’s…creation?”

“There you go…” Stamets encourages.

The connection dances just out of her reach, the reconciliation just a hair’s breadth away. Michael resists the urge to scowl. Maddening, truly it is maddening just how much she feels she must be missing; just how much context she is lacking in order to put together the scant handful of clues before her.

“It’s a beautiful verse, if irrelevant to our current circumstances.”

Michael humors Stamets in a deadpan tone. She senses his pleased expression.

“Not to mention cryptic,” she adds pointedly, raising her eyebrow. “And far too esoteric in its structure.

“But that’s part of the wonder of it, Burnham. That it’s a bit of a mystery.” The mycologist sounds quite unlike himself. His eyes still shimmer, but he looks…at peace. “Hugh told me that once,” Stamets elaborates. “I remember finding it deeply irritating.”

Michael opens her mouth to respond, but a flash of movement over Stamets’ right shoulder catches her gaze. Michael’s gaze whips to it in a half-second.

“Look!”

Stamets whirls around. Far off, obscured by fronds of thick, glowing fauna, a dark figure moves through the undergrowth.

Heart in her throat, Michael’s phaser leaps into her hand. At her side, Stamets raises his own. As one, they move forward, footfalls soft and muffled in the thick moss. Like a whorl of wind across the red sands of Vulcan, Michael flows, quick as a snake and equally silent.

The figure grows closer. Still blocked by undergrowth and made indistinct by this realm’s general murk, it is difficult to make out any individual features.

The figure takes several steps. Raises and lowers an arm.

Michael’s feet break into a run. Stamets quickens his own pace.

The figure is five meters away.

Four—

Three—

Michael bursts out of the undergrowth, Stamets flanking her. The figure whips around, slipping on the slick moss— She drops to the ground with a yelp of fear. Her long hair whips around her face as she scrabbles backwards.

Her long, blond hair.

Michael nearly drops her phaser.

The figure, the woman, stops struggling in favor of looking plaintively at Michael and Stamets. Shaking like a leaf, her eyes are wild with fear, bulging. She holds her hands toward her pursuers in supplication.

“It’s alright,” Michael attempts to soothe, too surprised to do anything else. “It’s alright, it’s okay…hey.”

She slowly lowers her phaser. Stamets does the same at her side. Another second is long enough for the situation to make even less sense than it had previously.

The woman looks to be in her thirties, with pale skin and long, limpid hair. She wears a dress of some kind of rough fabric. Michael has never seen anything like it, unless one were to count the approximations in a handful of old-Earth historical holos.

“Who…are you?”

The words feel ridiculous, like asking the name of an unknown life-form on a never-before-charted planet.

The trembling woman on the ground opens her mouth—

And speaks in an utterly foreign tongue, jabbering a handful of unintelligible syllables. She looks between Michael and Stamets, her expression a little desperate. Begging them to understand her.

“Okay, um…” Michael pulls out her tricorder, activates the Universal Translator program. “Let’s try this.”

“—the hell are you, how can you be here? Something very bad is happening, I tell you this. You should not be here, this is very wrong—”

Through the whispering trees, the murky light takes on a slightly different tone, as if a sun were passing directly overhead. And, like an apparition, the blond woman on the ground before them becomes translucent.

In the next moment, she disappears.

Michael and Stamets stare at the patch of empty ground where she had been just a second ago.

Stamets thrusts a foot forward, kicking lamely into the open air. He impacts nothing, ruling out the possibility of invisibility. Michael waves her tricorder over the empty ground, but all scans come back normal, nothing on the infrared detection system.

By all observational accounts, there had been a strange woman on the ground in front of them, and she had disappeared into thin air.

“Some kind of transporter?” Michael attempts.

“Or maybe it was in our heads, like May was with Tilly.”

“But look at the plants.” Michael gestures toward the bent blades of grass and crushed moss, tamped down by the woman’s backpedaling. “Whatever that was had a real physical form.”

“What language was she speaking?”

Michael looks down at the UT.

“Um…” She shakes her head, bewildered by the readout. “According to the translator, she was speaking Polish. A language local to Earth, but—the UT places the cadence and pronunciations as being…”

“…What?” Stamets prods.

“Stardate…negative 102.2754...”

At her side, Stamets looks like he’s been clubbed.

“That’s…the fourteenth century.”

“Ancient,” Michael agrees in a low voice.

In silence, she and Stamets stare at the empty patch of glowing grass. All around them, trees and plants whisper in hushed tones as they blow in an imperceptible breeze. The phosphorescent blue coral next to Michael shudders, and a handful of glowing green dots shake upwards from the glowing blue tubules.

Yet another ghost. Yet another mystery. Michael is certain there is an explanation, as there is  to every question in the universe. But to find such an answer so soon, while lacking so many clues and bereft of so much necessary context, would be quite like reaching the Theory of Special Relativity with a terro-centric model of the universe. Michael feels like an ant wrestling with the notion of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, like a child attempting to understand Warp Core Theory before gaining functional knowledge of dividing fractions.

With such little data…it is pointless to try.

“None of this is getting us closer to finding Captain Georgiou.” Michael puts forth the statement for lack of anything else.

“We’ll table it for now, I…suppose,” Stamets responds absently, still studying the empty patch of grass where the woman had been only moments ago.

Together, they turn from the crushed grass in the glade, out toward the glowing mycelial forest. An entire universe stretches out before them, endless in all directions. Infinitely beautiful…

Infinitely huge.

“Paul…” Michael closes her eyes. “We could search this place forever, and not have a hope of finding her. It’s an entire universe, she could be anywhere.”

“She could be…but why would she be?”

Michael raises an eyebrow, and Stamets elaborates.

“I mean, it’s been less than twenty-four hours since the cocoon took her. Assuming no acts of God, nor technologically assisted travel…how far could she be?”

Michael mulls over the question. She considers the average mileage a moderately athletic Human could hope to achieve in a day of walking with necessary breaks, but stops as she realizes the obvious answer.

“Not far enough to miss the Discovery’s grand entrance.”

Stamets nods briskly. “This entire universe might have felt that entrance.”

“We should go back to the ship—”

“Let her come to us.”

“But if she’s—”

Michael cuts off her question.

If she’s trapped, immobilized, injured…

Stamets gives her a sympathetic glance.

“That won’t make us any more fortunate in our search.”

Michael flinches, and Stamets puts a kind hand on her arm.

“Burnham…she’s Captain Georgiou. She survived the Binary Stars and nine months on Qo’Nos.”

Stamets raises his eyebrows, implication clear.

Give her a little credit.

Michael sighs, and follows the mycologist as he starts walking. She berates herself for her foolishness. The entire venture out of the ship had been comically illogical, she knows this now. Though impartial due to lack of any kind of relationship to Captain Georgiou, Commander Stamets is a pre-eminent astromycologist who had been given the chance to see the sum total of his life’s work with his own eyes. His motives for leaving the Discovery had been deeply personal. And Michael, well…

All Michael had wanted from the moment she stepped from the reaction cube into the mycelial network was to save her captain. To boldly go forth into this strange new universe, search it unto its ends, find Philippa, and bring her back.

To save her, after failing her so completely aboard T’Kuvma’s flagship.

Stupid, pathetic fool.

She had allowed her emotions to supercede her logic, yet again.

A veritable lifetime learning to be impartial, to let go of irrationality, and still Philippa Georgiou manages to defeat each and every logical control and waypoint Michael had placed so firmly in her mind.

Long ago, it had been a thrilling experience; that slight loss of control, that subtle element of chaos in Michael Burnham’s rigidly structured psyche.

Now, Michael only finds herself exhausted.

Still…

Michael side-eyes Commander Stamets, still wide-eyed and staring enraptured at every frond, every scrap of moss, every glowing particle in the air. Kaleidoscope skies swirl overhead, and the glowing colors of one million new life forms glimmer upon the ground.

If Michael’s bereaved colleague could find some manner of peace by seeing this new universe, well…perhaps this little misadventure was not all for naught.

Silently, phaser out, Michael and Stamets set a course back to the Discovery.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“What is your species, the Jah Sepp?”

“What do you mean? We are Jah Sepp!”

“But…” Philippa rolls her eyes as she trots at May’s side. “Are you a fungus? Are you this,” She gestures at May’s Human form, “Right now? Or are you a spore?”

“I am both,” May states shortly. “I have spent many months in your universe, inhabiting space the way your species does. I am trying to go back to my true form, but…”

May comes to a halt next to a glowing purple shrub. Winking violet lights reflect across the dark skin of her face as she gazes down at her chest, her hands, her Starfleet issue boots.

“It is difficult. Maybe some part of me got used to living like you.”

“But…what are you made of?” Philippa questions. “You are a solid form, I felt it. How is that possible?”

“I am…” May struggles. She looks a little unsure now, casting a glance down her uniform-clad body, her boots, her exposed hands. “An— Almagam, of solid matter from your universe that came through the transporter with you, and some of our matter over here. I am…”

May squints, searching for the correct term.

“…A golem.”

Philippa blinks at that.

Golem. A creature of ancient Jewish mythology, created of mud and clay, brought to life by ancient rabbis to protect the Jewish people.

Philippa has to admit that for May Ahearn, it made sense.

“How do you know that word?” She queries.

“May told it to me.”

“What do you mean? The real May is dead.”

“Exactly.”

“What?”

May looks around pointedly. From the expression in her face, Philippa has a feeling that she is meant to be seeing something.

Disappointment crawls across May’s face upon noting Philippa’s blank look.

“Unbelievable,” May scoffs, turning on a heel.

Philippa strides after her, confused and a little frustrated. She ducks under a branch of phosphorescent purple tubules, hops over a flowering plant that pulses with soft green light.

“Don’t you want me to understand? Help me to help you!”

“There is no time, it isn’t important!”

Philippa wants to shout What? What isn’t important?, but has a feeling that to do so would not get her any closer to an answer.

May’s urgent footsteps are leading them towards a barren expanse in the flora. Another angry red blight, this one nearly ten meters across diameter. The blight glows like a hot shard of metal, like a coal in a fire. Thin, red lines issue from the edges, slicing through healthy ground like veins full of poison.

Side by side, May and Philippa regard the burning slice in the terrain.

“This started happening a short while ago.” May’s barbed wire voice is clipped as she begins to walk around the edge of the blight. “It has always been here with us, but not in this form.”

“This form?”

“The color, the texture! The poison it is now! It has always been here, but not like this!”

Philippa prods the blight with a foot. Once again, nothing happens. At Philippa’s side, May’s expression turns stunned, like a tactician who has just received valuable intel.

“What?” Philippa’s voice is suspicious.

May shakes her head. “I am wondering something now.” She eyes Philippa’s spore-dusted boot, calculation in her eyes.

Finally: “There is a monster here, a creature who appeared a short while ago.”

“Oh?”

Philippa is uncertain whether to sigh or roll her eyes. This just keeps on getting better.

“We were going to break it down, as we do all matter that comes here. But it buried itself in red poison and escaped us.”

Philippa looks to May, then down at her red, glowing boot.

In a flash, she remembers the strategy she had come up with in the half a second after touching the red spores, the plan to bend the Jah Sepp to her will.

She wonders at the possibility that another sentient from her universe had found their way to this realm.

“Do you know where this monster is?”

May shakes her head.

“It destroyed a great many of us in the beginning, but we do not see it much anymore. We think perhaps it is growing weaker with time.”

Philippa adds “find the monster” to her to-do list.

“And it came…after these red patches started appearing?”

“Yes. The red came first. This should be our priority.” May waves her hand towards the oozing red blight before them. “If we can get rid of this poison, then the monster will no longer be dangerous.”

“Alright.”

Philippa agrees with no little reluctance. Hunting monsters is a task far more appropriate to her present skillset and relevant experience than solving what appears to be a universe-wide environmental crisis, but she will yield to her host’s wishes.

For now.

May’s eyes unfocus as she thinks.

“It all started maybe nine months ago, in your calendar. Yes,” she nods, satisfied. “Nine months. Your weird ship burst into our world and out again, it ripped something deep, like, like—”

May cuts off. Her hands wring at her sides.

“Your tongue has no words for it. Gah, this form is so limited!”

Philippa jumps slightly at May’s frustrated outburst.

“Your people are like…like—” She kicks hard at one of the glowing trees next to her. “Like this tree! You can see this much—” Her thumb and forefinger extend, two centimeters apart. “Blind to fundamental forces—” May huffs out a frustrated laugh. “You cannot even see the beings surrounding us now! I am telling you, but you have no way to perceive, you cannot ever understand—”

“Then try harder, perhaps,” Philippa finally snaps in an irritated tone. She casts another glance around the glowing mycelial forest behind them, looking for the ‘beings’ May had spoken of.

Nothing.

May takes several strides forward, several strides back. Her eyes dart, and the glowing green spores next to her face twitch along the air currents.

Philippa supposes that they are communicating in some way.

“Here.” May comes up to her side. “Your universe, it is this.”

Her foot stomps at the ground, at a rare patch of uncovered, unglowing, unremarkable dirt.

“Ours, this world…it is this.” May’s hand waves at the air around them, the sky above them. “It is like…we can look at your place, we can see you, but you cannot see us. You cannot see this, this place, because you cannot look up. Physically.”

She bends her neck pointedly, craning her head to look upwards at the kaleidoscope sky.

“Your bodies do not do it. They never will.

“You’re saying…” Philippa shakes her head, trying as hard as she can. “Your species, the Jah Sepp. You have another sense of some kind. My species, we have five, you are saying you have more?”

May makes a frustrated noise.

“Ghhh!”

Not quite, Philippa assumes with no little frustration. This is not a diplomat’s job, not a tactician’s job, not a murderer’s job, she should not be here, this should be left to the scientists trained to think in such lateral ways.

“You people’s brains are so limited!”

Green pricks of light shake agitatedly next to May’s face as she shouts.

“You evolved in your universe, the flat place! You see only the dimensions you need to see, but we…”

May gestures again.

Philippa realizes that the air surrounding them is now filled with little green spores.

We evolved here. This space. We are…somewhere that touches all of the places. We can perceive them, not with eyes like yours—”

May gestures at her own face, towards the dark brown eyes of the form she currently holds.

“…but we perceive them.”

Philippa nods slowly.

She may not ever understand, not truly, but she is wasting time by trying to.

“And like this, we saw the interloper. He ripped through our world, and when he did this he ripped through the foundation, all of it. You cannot feel it, but we can.”

May shakes her head, her hands twitching at her side.

“Like if…if your ship were hit by one of those fire things you throw at each other, and the shockwave went through all of the floors, and through the hull, through everything that holds the—the—”

“…Ship?”

“Yes!” May exclaims with a slice of her finger. “Everything that holds the ship together. Yes, if there were such a thing that could happen. If every step you took, you felt the damage, you felt your ship coming apart beneath your feet, under your…”

Raising her arms to eye level, May studies her fingers.

“…Hands.”

She looks up to Philippa once more.

“It is damaged. To us. Unstable. We feel it in every moment, but you…surely you can see it.”

May looks up to the sparkling sky, and Philippa follows her gaze. Together, they chase the soft, bloody streak across the sky to the flaming glow on the distant horizon.

A seeping wound across an entire universe.

Philippa takes a step forward, testing the ground beneath her.

“Cracks in the foundation,” she mutters. “The structure is unsafe.”

“Yes,” May insists. “But not only this place. The entire structure.”

May’s voice cracks on the final word. Philippa looks up, into eyes that are welling with tears.

Pure terror is written on the mycelial spore’s face.

“All of it.”

May’s voice echoes with doom.

“All of it…” Philippa breathes. “All universes. All of reality, itself.”

Gods and galaxies above, this should be anyone but her right now.

Despite this unpleasant truth, Philippa’s brain whirs to life, the part that is well-versed in dealing with imminent threats to life and civilization; which is to say, all of it.

“If we stop our jumps—” Philippa tries, but May cuts her off.

“It’s too late. It is happening as we speak, the cracking, the breaking. A…a positive feedback loop, yes?”

Philippa nods quickly.

“It is happening faster and faster, with every moment.”

“What can we do?”

“I don’t know!” May screeches. “I don’t know! Gah!”

She clutches her face, ripping at the roots of her hair.

“I meant to take Stilly! Stilly would know, she is a brilliant scientist! But you?” May thrusts a furious finger into Philippa’s face. “You are useless! A pointless, useless waste of resources, I was stupid to even try—”

The ground beneath their feet bucks, throwing May and Philippa off their feet.

A pressure wave rips across the flora, flattening the trees and coral, cracking in Philippa’s eardrums.

A metallic SCREECH shreds the air itself—

And there, upon the horizon, across the many kilometers that Philippa and May walked together, the USS Discovery slides like a lumbering asteroid through the fabric of reality itself.

Bisected longways, half of the saucer section and the left nacelle cleave the sky above the glowing plain. Creaks and groans boom across the plain as the ship crashes downwards, and a shudder ripples across the terrain as it comes to rest upon the ground. Visible through a disturbing slice across the air is the other half of the Discovery, wobbling indistinctly as if submerged in water. Darkness and stars paint the background, indicating that the ship, in its own universe, is in outer space.

Philippa smiles tightly.

“And that’s my ride.”

 

**

 

“Wait. Wait! Captain, wait!”

“I’m not a captain!”

“That’s what Stilly called you!”

“Ensign Tilly was wrong!”

Philippa is taking tight strides towards the distant ship, half crash-landed in the mycelial realm. Of course, she would be far faster were she not currently in the possession of half of a functioning heart. This whole trek is taking an inconveniently long amount of time.

Particularly with a shrill spore in a Starfleet ensign’s body, trotting at her side and yelling in her ear.

And what on Earth was that green glow on the Discovery’s hull?

Jah Sepp, no doubt.

Were they…?

“Are they…digesting my ship?”

“Of course they are! Disgusting food though it is.” May scoffs at her side. “You have not fulfilled your end of our deal!”

“I am useless, remember?” Philippa’s voice bathed in sarcasm. “Useless to you. What good could I possibly be?”

A few barbed words from a fungal spore dealing with her world’s imminent destruction should not be affecting her in this way, Philippa knows this.

But she also knows that she has been through absolute, utter hell in the past however-long-it-has-been since that space sphere snagged the Discovery out of warp. Trapped in a science lab, electrocuted, forced to jury-rig a brain surgery, eaten by a gelatinous blob, transported against her will to another universe, and now verbally abused by some alien fungus in the form of a child?

Gods above, there was only so much a captain-turned-agent-turned-fake-nurse could reasonably be expected to take.

“But—But what about the end of all worlds? Captain!”

Philippa snarls a few words at May in Malay, a colorful mixture of eff off and go to hell.

“Well, that’s a bit much, I think—

Whatever May had been trying to say is cut off as Philippa marches right through a patch of red blight. Indeed, the mycelial world disappears for a long, endless moment, replaced by hot, searing red—

Like walking through the pits of hell.

Philippa bursts out of the other side of the blight, where May is standing, arms across her chest. Dusting red spores off of her white medical uniform, Philippa gets a mild, internal kick at the sight of May taking several panicked steps back.

“You promised to help!”

“No I didn’t.”

May opens her mouth and closes it again, realizing Philippa is right.

“You…you said you would! Captains are meant to be honorable, to keep their word!”

A bitter laugh rips out of Philippa’s chest.

“Learned that from Ensign Tilly, did we? Gods, you really should have thought harder before infecting a child!”

Philippa shouts the words in May’s face, before turning and making for the Discovery once more.

“Please.”

May’s voice is pitiful now.

Pale, pathetic, swimming with panic.

“Please help us, there is no one else!”

Don’t look.

Philippa’s strides slow.

Don’t look.

Philippa eyes the Discovery, the Level One port-bow airlock a mere fifty meters ahead.

“Please…Philippa!”

Son of a—

She turns around.

May is standing, brown eyes huge and sad. But in her wake…

Philippa’s eyes grow wide.

Behind May Ahearn floats a veritable nation of green, floating spores. Their combined mass blocks the light given off by the phosphorescent bushes and shrubs; indeed, the greenish glowing dust is blocking out the murky sky itself.

May’s people.

All of them, perhaps.

This many Jah Sepp could digest Philippa in a split second, they could attack at any moment, but they aren’t because—

Because…

Because they need her.

They really do need her.

Philippa looks skyward slowly, slowly. She takes a long, deep, aggrieved breath. Furious at her own foolishness, how Gods-damned soft she’s become, she glares at May’s ridiculous, pudgy ensign form.

Mind made up, Philippa starts striding towards May.

“I am going into that ship, and you are coming with me. Then I will hand you off to the scientists and geniuses, of which there are many, and they will help you fix your universe. Then, we will leave this place, and you had better not hitch a ride this time!”

Reaching the ensign, Philippa jabs a forceful finger into May’s chest, ending her tirade.

Far from looking upset, a relieved smile breaks across May’s face.

“Okay! Okay, deal!”

Philippa turns back around, heading for the airlock. She berates herself silently as she walks. This had better work, the Discovery had better make some kind of workable plan—

Silly, foolish woman— She is only postponing her fate. Not only that, but she is offloading the outcome of this situation onto the intelligence and the capability of others, which feels like a coward’s move at best.

An idiot’s gambit at worst.

“Do you think Stilly is here?” May sounds vaguely hopeful.

“You had better hope she is not.”

“What? Why?”

May’s voice sounds over Philippa’s shoulder as she seals the airlock behind them.

“Because—” Philippa grates, talking out-loud to keep herself from dwelling on her ridiculous decision. “If Ensign Tilly has been assigned to an away team, then Chris Pike has—lost his mind—” A sharp turn of the inner hatch seal locks it. The room hisses as the mycelial air is pumped out, the Discovery’s air pumped in. “And I will be forced to assume command, which will mean that I will be in charge of—” The glowing bar above the inner hatch blinks green three times, and Philippa strides towards it. “Coordinating a response to your plea for help.”

With a brisk gesture, she throws the latch, and the door hisses open. Philippa turns to May, just over her right shoulder, and offers her a feral smile.

“And neither of us wants that.”

With a flip of her braid, she leaves May behind her and stalks into Corridor One, the highest level of the Discovery.

“I should have taken Tilly!”

May calls behind Philippa, though she no longer sounds angry.

“She was much nicer than you.”

“You should have,” Philippa agrees. “Computer, report life signs!”

Silence.

“Maybe they all died trying to save you,” May suggests cheerfully.

“That only kills us both, you realize?”

May’s barbed wire grin fades.

Philippa rolls her eyes. What an odd couple they make, a battered old Starfleet captain turned cutthroat spy, and an alien spore piloting the form of a young woman with a voice like a razor blade. She turns the corner—

And May gives a terrified shout at her side.

Tracked on the floor of the corridor, smearing the left-side wall, is hot, angry red.

The red spores are here, staining the deck of the ship with their blight. Silently, they whisper across the metal deck-plates, floating upwards until they hit the ceiling. Barely visible in the glowing red stain are…are

Prints, Philippa notes. Footprints.

“The monster!”

May tugs at Philippa’s arm, panicked.

“It must be the monster! It is here!”

“Hey, hey!

Philippa grabs May by the forearms and gives her a firm shake.

“Pull yourself together!”

She looks to the hot red trail and back to May.

“Why would it follow us here?”

“It always does!” May wails. “It pursues your weird ship every time you come here!”

“And you did not mention this because—?”

“Because I was scared and angry with you!”

Philippa snarls. She shoves May away from her, furious with this ensign—

—Not an ensign, a spore—

Stars above, none of this frustration was constructive.

“We need to get to weapons.”

The ship gives an almighty shudder, and Philippa reflexively grabs at one of the wall-holds on the corridor. Installed in case of sudden gravity failure, these holds have proven quite useful for a great many other purposes as well.

Such as holding up former Starfleet captains as the deck shakes and groans beneath their feet.

“What the hell is that?”

“We’ve started breaking down the hull.”

“Well, why don’t you stop breaking down the hull?” Philippa snaps, irritated.

“Why don’t you stop—I don’t know, salivating when you smell a good food? It’s reflexive, it’s what we do!”

Rolling her eyes, Philippa sidesteps the red staining the corridor, hugging the right wall as she moves towards the Jeffries Tube access port at the corridor hub. Section Fourteen is weapons, and the quickest way is down. Despite the circumstances, Philippa feels a surge of confidence for this first time in this weird, awful day.

Finally, finally…

A monster she can fight.

Philippa ignores May’s tirade, fully fixated on this new threat. She drops to her knees in front of the small metal doorway, throwing the hatch to expose the narrow portal into the Discovery’s skeletal system. Mouth in a flat line, Philippa crawls at a quick clip, dodging various struts and girders until she reaches the vertical hub, where an obviously never-before-used access ladder gleams in the low light.

Philippa rolls her eyes at this ridiculously new, embarrassingly pristine ship, and the lack of imagination of Fleet’s incoming personnel.

What kind of officer never uses Jeffries Tubes to get around?

She places hands on the polished metal of the ladder, booted feet on its smooth sides…

And drops like a stone, into the depths of the ship.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The floor-lights flicker weakly where Michael sits crouched against the wall of the corridor, conserving her strength. Throughout the hallway, the ambient glow is electric violet, the color sourceless, yet present regardless. Every display readout is shaky, fizzling with static. The electrical lines are going haywire, the computers dodging their programming.

The Discovery is behaving like a compass at magnetic north. Michael’s hypothesis is that somehow, the universal laws and energetic constants upon which the ship’s systems are built do not hold true here in the mycelial universe.

Across the corridor, Stamets is struggling with the handheld comm, the only piece of tech that functions in this realm. From his jerky, frustrated movements, Michael thinks that even this assertion could be false as well.

“This is insane,” Stamets mutters. “Structural differences in the mycelial universe down to the quantum level.”

“If the quantum realm itself is different, then…” Michael shakes her head wearily. “Then perhaps even the four fundamental forces have no bearing here.”

“Which is doing a real number on…” Stamets waves his hand sardonically at the fritzing screens. “…Just about everything. But hey, who needs data and astrometrics? Particularly in a universe never before seen or experienced by sentient life as we know it.” His tone is tight, belying the strain beneath it. “It’s completely unimportant.”

Here there be dragons,” Michael murmurs.

The vastness of an entire universe, as large and multitudinous as the one she left behind…unexplored, uncharted, unknown.

Were that this were a mere scientific mission and not a high stakes rescue.

“I’ve got a life-sign!”

Michael jerks from her reverie.

Across the corridor, Commander Stamets’ blue eyes are wide as he looks at the communicator.

“Where?” Michael snaps to attention, rising to her feet in half a moment.

“It’s moving fast—too fast…”

Stamets’ eyes blur as he follows the flashing display. Michael grabs the communicator from him to better observe the flickering figures. The staggering familiarity of these particular readouts hits her in the chest.

Classic.

Michael does not know whether to laugh, cry, or merely roll her eyes.

“The Jeffries Tubes.”

She has not seen these particular readouts on a ship-wide life sign scan in years, but she would recognize them even in her old age.

“She’s using the ladder as a pole.”

Stamets raises his eyebrows. “How old-fashioned.” He stands, clapping Michael on the shoulder. “Well, she seems to be in fine shape if she’s resorting to moves out of an old-school captain’s handbook.”

“They’ve never been a resort to her.” Michael shakes her head. “Wait, it’s…they’ve stopped.”

“Where?” Stamets demands.

Michael raises an eyebrow at the display.

“Section Fourteen, weapons storage.”

“What?” Stamets shakes his head. “Why would she be arming herself?”

Unbidden, Michael’s hand drops to the phaser strapped to her leg.

 

 

**

 

The journey to Section Fourteen does not take long.

As a science vessel, the Discovery’s labs are considered the ship’s lifeblood, with Engineering its beating heart. All corridors lead to Engineering, as many of Michael’s colleague’s like to say. Though not quite accurate, the Human witticism does make some degree of sense, as does its logical rebuttal.

All corridors lead away from Engineering.

There had been a reason that she and Stamets had chosen to lay in wait there, of all places. Tactically, it was a sound place from which they would be able to access any point on the ship without the use of turbo-lifts.

An important requirement, as none of the turbo-lifts seem to function in the mycelial universe.

The corridor is dim and dark. The odd polarization of light in this strange universe casts the walls and ceilings into violet shadow. Even the powerful torches affixed to the shoulder-pads of Michael’s tactical vest are made dim by the heavy murk. Whispers echo through the corridor, similar to the ones Michael had heard outside of the ship. Shaking her head to clear them, Michael hoists her phaser, quadruple-checking to see that it is set to ‘stun.’

She recalls the last time she held a live phaser to an enemy with the notion of saving her captain.

She doubts that there is another singular moment in galactic history with such permanent and lasting ramifications.

Another check to the power setting, a brush of her thumb over the dial inset into the barrel, just above the trigger.

Still on ‘stun.’

Good.

The distant whispers grow louder. Michael blinks, trying to scatter the floaters from her eyes. Stars, she is tired. Next to her, Stamets stumbles a little. Michael remembers that he worked for thirteen hours straight to get them here.

She knows, logically, that even at her worst, she still functions at a far higher level than the majority of the rest of the crew, and Paul Stamets is the greatest scientific mind in the universe concerning the mycelial realm.

Still…

The two of them are dead on their feet, metaphorically (and perhaps physically) speaking.

The more time they spend here, the more likely either one of them are to make a mistake.

Michael twitches, hearing a distinct voice out of the whispers ahead.

“…for God’s sake, get behind me…

The cadence and accent of that voice jolts Michael out of her weariness.

Stunned and hopeful, she slaps the metal body of her phaser against the wall plating, producing a metallic bang that echoes down the corridor, through the body of the ship.

 Silence.

Who’s there?

There’s no mistaking that voice. Michael and Stamets exchange elated glances.

“Philippa?!”

Michael calls out the name and takes the corridor at a brisk trot. She rounds the corner to Section Fourteen—

To see Philippa Georgiou standing in a braced position, a Type-Three Phaser Rifle armed and hot. Her stance is professional, belying her decades of tactical experience; the ambient purple light illuminates her medical whites to a soft, electric glow.

She looks both radiantly angelic and consummately pragmatic.

“Michael?” Philippa breathes the word like she can’t quite believe it either. The rifle trembles slightly in her arms.

Behind Philippa stands a plump young woman in a Starfleet uniform, with brown skin and curly hair, Michael notes this dimly before her gaze returns to her captain.

Philippa, who is alive.

And Michael wants it to be true, she wants so badly to succumb, but—but—

“What if it’s another trick?” She whispers to Stamets, even while taking another helpless step closer.

At her side, Stamets’ gaze does not waver from Philippa’s slender form.

“If it were a trick…she’s not who I would be seeing.”

With that, Michael surges forward. She sidesteps Philippa’s Type Three phaser rifle and wraps Philippa in her arms. For a long moment, Philippa remains stiff and on-guard, before relaxing into Michael’s embrace. Her left arm comes up to grip Michael tightly, holding her close. She does not drop the rifle.

Was this the time or place?

Perhaps not. But such times and such places are so rarely afforded to Fleet officers such as themselves.

And so, for a long, wonderful moment, they stand bound.

You came for me…”

Philippa’s whisper is dumbfounded.

Always,” Michael whispers back to her. Her chest is hot, cracking open; if she were any more relieved, the undiluted emotion might just drop her to the deck. She pulls away just a little, to look Philippa in the face,.

“Though I would greatly appreciate it if you would stop doing this.”

Michael tries for a dry delivery, but her voice is too raw to quite pull it off.

Philippa huffs a little, the sound sending a plume of warmth through Michael’s heart. Philippa’s beautiful face is wide open and vulnerable, stunned and stupefied; a rare expression for her professional, immaculate former captain.

Michael’s heart flip-flops in her chest. Her body is warm all over, from the tips of her hair to the ends of her fingernails. She wants very much to press their faces together, to tell Philippa just how much she means to her, to tell her just how terrified she was, to tell her she can’t just leave Michael like that, not again…

But a soft fidgeting noise tugs Michael’s attention away.

Both she and Philippa look towards the mysterious young woman in the Starfleet ops uniform.

Philippa shakes herself a little. “Michael…Commander Stamets…this is—”

“May…” Stamets blurts. “May Ahearn.”

He looks from May to Philippa, and back to May.

“So, uh…what’s going on?”

“There have been some new developments,” Philippa states quickly. “She needs our help.” With a slight roll of her eyes, Philippa amends, “Your help.”

The deck gives another massive heave beneath them; throughout the corridor rings the sound of metal-upon-metal, a low screech that shakes in Michael’s bones.

“We have less than twenty-five minutes before the ship is destroyed, we need to go now!”

“No!” May protests, her voice accented and razor-sharp. “No, you need to help us, you said they would help us!” She whirls on Philippa, angered and accusatory.

“And they will,” Philippa assures her, though her tone is no less acerbic.

And in less than a minute, Philippa fills her and Stamets in on her mycelial exploits, the red blight across the land, and the inclement destruction of reality itself.

“…The—the red spores?” Stamets stammers at the end of it. He looks to have been hit by a starship, mid-warp. “Our jumps? We did that?”

“You did that,” May confirms.

“But—I don’t understand.” Michael’s mind churns. “You said they’ve been here since the beginning, and now they’re…transformed?”

“No, they are corrupted!”

“From what?”

“What do you mean from what?

“What were they before?” Michael demands. This is important, it is critical context

But to that, May does not seem to have an answer. She opens and closes her mouth, unable to respond.

“How can you not know?” Michael demands.

“Well—well how can you explain color to a blind person?” May shoots back. “Or—or taste, to a computer program?”

Michael takes a step in. “You try!”

But before May can do so, a long wail echoes down the corridor.

The sound ricochets off the walls, reverberating in Michael’s ears. Pained, terrified, organic, not the metallic groaning of Discovery’s protesting struts and girders.

The noise sounds like a dying animal of some kind.

“The monster!” May screeches. She grabs at Philippa’s arm, trying to pull the rifle up into position, and Philippa shoves her off. “That’s the noise it makes! It’s the monster!”

“The monster?” Stamets questions.

“Oh, did I not mention the monster?” Philippa’s voice is droll to the point of irritated. “How silly of me.”

By the stars, how Michael missed her. She reflects on this even as she pulls her phaser into position.

“Behind me.”

She intends the order for Stamets and May, knowing that Philippa would certainly not fall in. Nor does she, taking up a position at Michael’s right, her rifle raised and hot.

Red, Michael notes the setting of the dial from the corner of her eye.

Set to kill.

The wailing echoes around the hallways of the ship, neither growing nor shrinking in intensity; the source could be right next to them or a kilometer away. Michael wonders vaguely if the nature of sound in this universe might be different as well.

Here there be dragons…

She takes comfort in the presence of her captain at her side. Just like old times, those golden years on the Shenzhou when Captain Georgiou’s presence meant safety, meant success, meant that nothing bad could possibly happen—

—Until it had—

Dark apprehension squirms its way between Michael’s shoulder blades, wriggling uncomfortably in her stomach. The nauseating feeling only grows as they round the corner—

Michael whips her phaser towards the quivering being curled into the corner of the corridor hub. It glows a hot red, looking for all the world like a bizarre, mycelial alien. At her side, Philippa’s phaser gives the characteristic metallic screel of a power-up, but before either of their fingers can so much as twitch on the trigger, the creature looks up—

“Hugh?”

Stamets all but chokes the word from behind Michael.

Astonishment claps Michael between the ears, roaring in the background. For all intent and appearances, it is Hugh Culber, crouched pathetically on the deck before them.

Doctor Hugh Culber.

The man’s face is covered with a thick beard, his once-neatly styled hair is long and dreaded, and his teeth seem to be blackened as he flinches away, pressing further into the bulkhead.

His body glows with hot red dust, as if he’d somehow rolled in it.

“That’s the monster!”

May’s barbed wire voice is a high screech, echoing around the murky corridor.

“Doctor Culber?” Michael breathes. Her phaser lowers ever so slightly. At her side, Philippa’s aim remains steady.

“I though he died,” Philippa mutters, her gaze not leaving the pathetic scrap of a being before them.

“That night in the spore lab…” Stamets’ voice is thready. “I thought I’d imagined it—”

The mycologist sounds like he might be swaying where he stands, but Michael dares not turn away from the specter before her.

“Get away…” The huddled man on the ground mumbles. He appears as though he is trying not to look at them. “No—No more…”

The spore drive explosion—

The man in the reaction cube—

The blond-haired woman—

“Is this a trick?” Stamets sounds like he’s talking from somewhere far away from himself. “Are you…creating this from my memories?”

“It is real!” May exclaims. She pushes her way behind Michael and Philippa. “He is real! Look! See?”

She is clearly talking to Philippa, gesturing at the quivering man on the floor with an arm.

“Now kill it! Kill it!”

“Stand down.”

Michael lowers her phaser as she gives the order. She outranks Philippa now, though she has no real idea if Section 31 operates within Starfleet command structure.

“Kill it! Kill it!” May screeches, jostling Philippa’s arm urgently. Michael does not hesitate in grabbing the fungus’ arm and tearing her off, all but throwing her against the opposite wall.

For star’s sake, one does not jostle a woman holding a phaser set to kill unless one has a death wish.

“You said you would! We had a deal!”

The man crumbled on the floor seems to see the discord as an opening, and all but scrambles away from them. He lopes painfully down the adjacent corridor, leaving a glowing trail of dusky red spores on the deck behind him.

“Hugh!”

Stamets pushes between them to give chase.

“Hugh, wait!”

The commander’s voice grows small and distant as he disappears around the curve of the ship.

“You let it go!” May screeches where she stands pressed against the wall, keeping herself far away from the red dust. “What is the matter with you?”

Philippa straightens from her ready stance, lowering the phaser to her side and deactivating it.

“The monster was not part of our deal.”

“But it is killing us!”

“No!” Michael denies vehemently. “In our universe, Culber was a doctor, a healer, one of the best. He would never hurt another living being—”

“Are you blind?” May demands. “He covered himself in that poison, as you did!” She levels her accusatory tone towards Philippa.

“You digest all matter!” Philippa snaps back, acerbic to the point of mocking. “It’s reflexive, it is what you do! Obviously, the man was protecting himself!”

Grateful for the united front that Philippa is providing, the argument is interrupted by the chirping of Michael’s communicator.

Burnham, can you hear me?

That’s Saru’s voice, tinny and strained from the truly vast distance between them.

“Yes, Commander Saru.”

I hate to rush you, but the mycelia have penetrated seventy-eight percent of the hull and we’ve lost all response from the port nacelle engine—”

The engine submerged within the mycelial universe, Michael remembers, and her heart grows cold at the very notion. By her quick calculations, power from only one singular nacelle combined with the strain of fighting the opposing, annihilating forces of two universes would cut their survival time down by—

By—

“We still have ten minutes and eight seconds—”

Michael’s protest is cut off by the sounds of distant crashing and shouts, audible through the tenuous comm connection. The Discovery shakes slightly beneath Michael’s feet, groaning painfully. Michael reaches out without thinking, and Philippa is there to steady her.

“There’s been a complication!” Michael barks over the tumult. “Something resembling Doctor Culber is here!”

And Stamets is chasing him down, she finishes silently in her head.

Not that she could blame him, for all that she perpetually lost control of her senses whenever Philippa’s life was on the line.

Doctor Culber?” That’s Pike’s dubious tone.

“Before you came aboard, he was—”

I know who he was, I need you to make it make sense.

“I’m not sure if I can! Commander Stamets is—”

Another crash over the comm, this one far louder. Accompanying the crash is a truly massive surge in digital static, and Michael flinches away from the comm. The Discovery bucks beneath her feet once more. Michael and Philippa exchange wide-eyed glances as they listen to the feed. May attempts to come closer, but Philippa waves her off impatiently.

Red alert Detmer, here! — transferring helm control— Rhys – Grab him! — Field’s too close— Captain, there’s— look! – Look! – What is— the hell— What is that?!”

“Commander Saru?” Michael demands, calling over the shaking and groaning of the ship. Philippa crowds at her side, her sharp eyes darting. “Captain Pike?”

And just as quickly as it started, the shaking stops.

The corridor goes still, the digital interference lessens, and the words on the comm are clearly audible once more.

—That you, Leland?

— you an assist with our tractor beam—"

“Saru, what is going on?” Michael demands, Philippa crowding at her side.

It appears that—Section 31 stealth ship—been trailing us.

Michael locks stunned eyes with Philippa. Her stomach plummets into free-fall.

They’re holding us in— tractor beam to buy you time!

An exhale bursts from Michael’s chest. Section 31 or not, suspicious or not, she has to see this as a welcome announcement. With the appearance of Hugh Culber, his ghost or his echo or whatever it might be, they need these precious minutes now more than ever, a few extra moments could mean the difference between success or failure—

But Michael looks towards Philippa, and sees no reciprocal sign of relief or elation from her former captain upon the miraculous appearance of her former comrades.

Indeed, the blood seems to be draining from Philippa’s face.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The corridor is spinning.

The walls are rotating, on both their vertical and horizontal axes. His feet are leaving the floor. Stamets has to admit that this is likely not good.

Scientifically, it is entirely within the realm of possibility in this strange new universe for an ordinary Human male to achieve unassisted flight. There are laws that they do not know, physical constants of which they might be unaware— Stamets flinches away from the hot violet light, like a floodlight roving over the port windows of Deck Six…

Has he already been here?

No, no, Stamets notes the red patch ahead of him, the glowing dust on the deck, unblemished by his Starfleet issue boots. He’d started marking this trail several bulkheads back, too worried that he would get turned around, that the trail would cross itself, that the corridors themselves would wind together into a maze, rent and twisted around their axes by whatever physics bind this mycelial universe together.

His boots leave tracks in the red patch. Stamets manages to note this as he stumbles through it.

That means his feet must be on the ground.

Still, something is definitely wrong with his chest. Something is oozing, something feels hollow. Stamets has to wonder if this is what it is to be hit by lightning.

It can’t be him…

The thought tugs at the back of his conscious mind, brushing across his brain almost aimlessly. Then again, most of his thoughts are doing the same. Paul thinks he might be floating, dreaming, sleepwalking…

He turns the corner, and realizes that he is at the entrance of his quarters.

Their quarters.

Their old quarters, that is.  Paul moved to an adjacent room when the Discovery had launched two months prior on its new mission. No longer able to bear the ghosts, the memories.

Nevertheless, the door hisses open at his call.

Almost instinctively, Paul flinches away from the red glow bathing the room. Despite this, he is able to catch the quick movement, the rapid scurry of a figure taking cover behind the low retaining wall next to the empty double bed.

There’s a whimper from that corner of the room.

The sound stabs Paul like a dagger to the heart. He takes a step closer, meaning to collect its source in his arms, to protect him, to heal all of his hurts as he once had—

“Don’t—don’t come any closer!”

It’s Hugh’s voice.

That’s Hugh’s voice.

And suddenly, Paul Stamets’ shock-induced stupor dissipates like smoke in a vacuum.

“I’m here, Hugh.”

He has no worldly notion, nor hypothesis, nor rational theory as to how his voice could possibly be so steady.

“I’m here…we’re here to help you.”

“You’re not real!”

Hugh’s ghost argues this from behind the low barrier. Stamets shakes his head, almost happy that the man is denying, pushing him away in this manner. This whole undertaking reminds him, bizarrely, of the sirens from ancient Greek legend, their calls luring sailors from their ships and compelling them to their deaths in the endless ocean. If this ghost had nefarious intent, like one of the legendary sirens…well, surely it would be trying to appeal to him? To pull him in by tempting him with sweet words and promises, rather than running from him and attempting to drive him off?

Stamets has to smile, only a little.

“I am real… Hugh… Hugh, please, I…”

He shakes his head. One step forth, placing a booted foot on the deck silently so as not to be heard by the wraith behind the retaining wall.

The strange Polish woman had disappeared, with no warning and without a trace.

How much time did Stamets have left with Hugh?

“R—Remember when I was lost, you found me?” Stamets tries, almost desperately. “Do you remember? I was flying the ship out of the Terran universe, the network was split open but I’d never...I couldn’t—”

The strands were bifurcating too fast, he couldn’t pick a thread to follow, there were no waypoints, no stars to sail by, not in the miniscule, infinite space between all universes…

But below the hot bursts of color and sensation whipping past him at the speed of light, soft notes of Casselian opera had brushed across Stamets’ ears. He picked up on his favorite scent, the warm, Earthy scent of his partner. And Hugh was, Hugh was… dead , Stamets had known that logically, but encased within the spore drive, between this universe and the next, Hugh was…

Hugh was…

At the edge of his vision, somewhere at the periphery. Lurking somewhere just behind Stamets and perhaps a little to the left. Just over there…just out of sight.

“And I knew where to go…” Stamets completes. “You found me, Hugh, you found me in so many places.”

Dancing red spores float up from behind the low barrier. They brush the ceiling and ricochet away, dancing in the pull of an undetectable breeze.

There is no noise from whatever lingers there. Stamets continues. 

If he doesn’t have much time left with this ghost, at least he knows how he wants to spend it.

“You took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when we were on leave. It was our third date. And—and you were walking so fast —”

Stamets recalls this memory as he recalls his favorite family vacations, his breakthroughs in research, his finest discoveries. That day, overcast but warm. They’d come straight from brunch at Paul’s favorite diner, both giddy with excitement, fumbling with their belongings and tripping over their feet as they walked. Paul had felt himself falling then…had felt himself falling for months prior, really, they’d known each other as friends before deciding to try for a relationship, but that day was when it all seemed to fall into place, that was the day when he knew

“You were so excited to show me the de Koonings…all of them in one room…”

That soft-spoken man, Hugh Culber…his passion, not only for medicine but for art and culture, Hugh had known so damn much about everything, had interests in seemingly every field and topic under the stars, but in a way that showed love and care, not pretention or superiority. And for Paul Stamets, who had taken on biology as his one true calling at the age of twelve, at the sacrifice of every other discipline and at the exclusion of all else, Hugh had seemed effervescent…radiant.

“I had to run to keep up. A—And I really wasn’t good at that yet.” He manages to laugh a little. Paul had never been the funny one, but Hugh had always humored him. “And as you walked, you…held out your hand behind you. You never looked back, because you knew that I would grab it. And I did.”

Paul closes his eyes. He breathes, his mind goes still, his heart soars, and for one short, glorious moment, that feeling is with him once more.

The feeling of falling, of leaping, with no fear of hitting the ground.

“And I knew…everything about you, in that moment.”

How many more moments did Stamets have?

Just give me one moment. Just a second more.

“I’m here now.” Stamets addresses the low barrier above which the glowing spores float. He takes another step. “And here’s my hand.”

He reaches out, no fear of falling—

And then Hugh is leaping for him, grabbing his hand, pulling past him to fall into Paul’s arms, sobbing. Paul grips his partner’s body, once so firm and so solid, now Paul can feel Hugh’s spine, his ribcage beneath the filthy uniform.

Paul Stamets’ feet finally hit solid ground.

He clings to Hugh like the universe will take him away once more, like the man will dissolve into another ghost, another specter, and disappear into thin air.

“I—I thought…” Hugh babbles. “Thought I was losing my mind—”

“I know—I know , me too.”

And Paul still isn’t certain that he didn’t. Lose his mind, that is. He remembers only bits and flashes of the preceding five months, vague memories here and there. The Discovery, Earth, the Discovery again. He’d wasted away, he remembers that, his strength vanishing with his appetite and his will to move.

But here in this alternate universe filled with fungal sentients and strange ghosts…

Paul Stamets feels like he could slay the devil himself.

“I’ve got you…it’s alright…”

Hugh’s beard is scraggly, an utterly unfamiliar sensation on Paul’s neck. Beneath Paul’s right hand, Hugh’s hair is long and dreaded in a way that his immaculately coifed partner would never have tolerated back in their universe. Paul thinks he could learn to love it, if it stayed this way. He buries his nose in the thick, soft matts, breathing hungrily in Hugh’s scent.

A little different, a little off, much like the way that light polarizes in this universe, like the way that soundwaves here have no source, nor recognition of distance…but Stamets can detect the unmistakable smell of his partner beneath the strange and unrecognizable.

So many agonizing months…how had he survived?

“How—what’s going on?” Hugh manages to mumble. “Paul…”

“Shh…a lot’s happened—”

“How am I here…I—I’m not supposed to be…The creatures here, they hunt me, and I can’t—can’t move on like the others. I’ve tried, I’ve tried so hard —”

Hugh’s voice breaks and he dissolves into tears once more. Paul holds him tight, holds him close. He squeezes his eyes shut and the universe, this one and all others, fall silent.

Banished to the farthest reaches of reality.

Reality…

A new, vast universe of possibility swirls around Stamets now. The mycelial realm is different from everything he’d once known, all physical laws and constants are moot to the point of nonexistant. He feels like he might be standing in the middle of a massive wind tunnel, the air around him swirling with dust, with scraps of ideas, colored bits of probability, fragments of notions too ridiculous, too fantastical, too crazy to ever exist in actual reality.

“You...you can’t move on…” Stamets feels himself stumbling. The heft of a realization, massive and impossible, lurks at the edge of his thoughts, at the corner of his vision. Something astronomical, far too large to quantify or even see properly from this incredibly limited vantage point. “You can’t...move on. How long have you been here, Hugh?”

“I don’t know…” Hugh stammers, his soft voice terrified. “I don’t know... Months , at least, maybe longer. It’s been so awful, Paul, all this time alone …”

Stamets pulls a sobbing Hugh in once more. Yet, even as he cradles his partner to his chest, his eyes are wide at the implication.

Months …Months...

Can’t move on...

A vague notion of an idea of a plan steals into Stamets’ consciousness on furtive, silent feet. 

“We have time,” He whispers.

“What?” Hugh queries, so beautiful, so soft-spoken.

“We have time, ” Stamets insists . Hugh is staring at him uncomprehendingly, as he did so very often during their life together.  “Come with me. We made a place where it’s safe to cross back into our universe.”

Only inches away, Hugh blinks his beautiful brown eyes. Those eyes that captured Paul like a magnet all those years ago, those eyes he would follow to hell and back…there’s a deep, abiding sadness within them.

“Paul…I—I don’t know…”

“No, no it’s okay! Burnham is here, with me! In here!” Paul gestures excitedly, frantically, around them, to indicate the universe into which they have crossed. “We got the Discovery here, we’re already on a rescue mission! And--and we did it, we pulled that off, so why not this?!” As Stamets speaks, his vague notion of an idea of a plan grows in form and in substance until Stamets is certain, so certain that it will work. “And out there, the entire Discovery is waiting for us! We can do this, Hugh. I promise, we’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

Hugh blinks. There’s sadness in his eyes, so very much sadness. Stamets swears that he will spend the rest of his life taking that sadness away, replacing it piece by piece with warmth and joy and happiness.

Every moment I am given…every day, from here on out…

The rest of his life, committed to such a goal…he can think of no task more worthy. 

Hugh closes his eyes, and drops his forehead to rest against Paul’s. Together, they breathe, quiet and still in this strange, harsh, wonderful new world.

“Okay…” Hugh finally mumbles. “Okay, I’ll come with you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It should not have been possible.

If Philippa had been feeling slightly less kind, slightly more practical, she would have barged into that room herself and yanked Commander Paul Stamets out by his ear for bungling this mission so thoroughly, for wasting time on an apparition, a ghost, an echo…whatever that thing had been.

And yet…

A simple hand on Philippa’s forearm was all it had taken.

Michael Burnham’s brown skin upon Philippa’s medical whites, enough to prevent her from storming the room, phaser blazing. Michael Burnham’s brown eyes, her gaze deep and certain, enough to keep Philippa at her side, still and quiet, weapon powered down.

And so Philippa had waited, silently strategizing options for their escape.

Now, as Paul Stamets stumbles forth from the empty quarters with what looks like a Klingon war prisoner slung across his back, Philippa has to wonder, once more, where on in the galaxies Michael had garnered all of this newfound wisdom. Her Vulcan-raised protégé of three years ago would not have hesitated to break up Stamets’ illogical reunion with a mycelial ghost, if such a reunion had so thoroughly endangered the lives of the crew and the success of the mission.

With some discomfort, Philippa has to acknowledge that perhaps, three years ago, she would have been the one gamble the fate of an entire starship on Paul Stamets’ love for his partner.

Yet another reminder of how far she has fallen.

“Doctor Culber.” Michael breathes the word with wonder in her voice. And in truth, Philippa find herself in awe as well.

The bedraggled man laying across Stamets’ back looks like he has been through hell and back the long way. His hair and beard are scraggly, his Starfleet uniform is torn to shreds, and he is covered head-to-toe with glowing red soot. Yet despite Hugh Culber’s degenerate appearance, Philippa cannot help the pang of relief that floods her body.

A loved one recovered from the clutches of a parallel universe, saved from certain death and reunited with friends and family…

At least this rescue mission would prove a success in one way.

With a sound of disgust, May takes quick several steps to put Philippa between herself and Hugh Culber’s glowing red form. She grips the back of Philippa’s uniform like a child.

“Ugh, he is repulsive!”

Philippa launches an elbow into May’s soft midsection.

“Ow! Hey!” May shoves her. “Didn’t you say you would help us? What will you do now?”

Philippa opens her mouth, but is interrupted by a long shudder that rolls through the deck, shaking the windows and making Philippa’s hair stand on end.

“We won’t be able to help you if we’re dead,” Michael retorts matter-of-factly. “We have to get to the spore drive, now!”

Needing no further coaxing, Stamets takes the corridor at a quick stagger, a semi-conscious Hugh Culber slung across his back.

“Wait! No!” May shouts after them, but Michael steps in front of her, cutting her off.

“Tell us, May. How is this possible?”

Michael’s voice is low and powerful as she turns sideways to follow in Stamets’ wake. She is clearly trying to distract the volatile fungus, and Philippa falls into line as back-up.

It helps that Michael must be distracted too. This will be hard enough without her knowing what is going to happen.

“It isn’t!” May insists. “It is not possible! This is useless, it is a waste of—!"

Philippa nearly hits May as the mycelial creature stops dead in the middle of the hallway.

“May?!” Michael whirls around. Bewildered, she gives the spore a searching look. Several meters ahead, Stamets reluctantly stops and turns.

Philippa can see that May’s eyes have lost focus. In place of a dark iris, there is a spark of glowing green.

In the next moment, the green sputters out, and May blinks at them.

“What the hell was that?” Philippa demands.

“Talking with the others,” May states shortly.

Philippa wants to shake her. “What—”

We are not like you hard-skull people!” May raps the side of her head for emphasis. “We are one mind! One conscious, and we remember everything that has ever happened in all of time! And this has happened before. That.” She points at Hugh Culber’s slumped body across Stamets’ shoulders. “It has happened before.”

The ship shakes once more.

“Let’s walk and talk!”

Michael falls into a quick stride once more, and Philippa flanks her on the right.

“Explain. How is this possible?”

“I don’t know how it happens, only that it has.

“He died in a universe that wasn’t his.”

Stamets’ voice is set and even. He sounds entirely certain.

“A universe that wasn’t his?” Philippa shakes her head. Nothing in this ridiculous day has made sense, but this may have just a set a new record. “What are you talking about?”

“Just that!” Stamets insists. Philippa recognizes that clipped shortness, the pointed way that Stamets doesn’t quite look at her.

This is within the realm of deeply classified information.

Their odd procession rounds the corner, and Stamets continues. “It’s the only inconsistency I can think of, the only possible variable in circumstance.”

“But why would that affect anything?” Michael queries.

“I’m not saying I understand it! I don’t! I—I have…nothing to back this up, but it’s the only thing that makes sense! May?”

“What?” May’s barbed wire voice is irritated.

“You said this has happened before? When?”

“I don’t know, a long time ago, probably.”

“To whom?” Michael continues.

“To beings like you, beings of mass!”

“How many times?” Philippa asks.

“Three.”

The procession screeches to a halt in the middle of the corridor.

Moments crawl past, and May begins to fidget at the stunned stares aimed in her direction. “What?!”

“Three times.” Michael finally manage. “Three times, that’s what—they told you? Your people?”

Clearly confused, May nods, her eyes darting between the three officers.

“Three times, a real person has found themselves here.” Stamets’ voice is low and stunned. “Three times, since the beginning of time. Billions of years…eons…"

“…Three beings.” Philippa finishes. The deck shudders again. Philippa rolls her eyes and starts walking once more, irritated at all of these stunning discoveries wreaking havoc on their forward progress. “But how is that even possible? To cross universes…”

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio,” Michael murmurs at her side.

“It’s ‘Philippa,’ actually.” Philippa snarks back instinctively, and Michael’s lips twitch at the old joke between them.

“Well, I mean—after all of this, do we even know what’s possible? What’s precedented?” Stamets seems to shrug, even as he hefts Hugh. “Who’s—who’s to say lightning couldn’t have struck the right place at the right time at the right frequency…twice…”

“It is possible to win the same lottery multiple times,” Michael continues, her mellow voice low and succinct. “Possible to thread the Alapalani Belt with no guidance system. Infinitesimally likely, of course, but possible.”

Philippa has to admit that this conversation is getting away from her, out of the realm of tactics and science and into the domain of faith and fortune. Nevertheless, she allows herself to feel a warm glow in her chest at her former commander, so who has come so far into her own that she is practically glowing.

Discussing such high-level occurrences with a colleague who is nearly her equal, rescuing former crewmates from the clutches of an alternate universe, tearing apart reality itself to find Philippa, to save her …

Unable to stop herself, Philippa stumbles slightly from her path and into Michael’s side. It is the disorienting light of this mycelial realm making her dizzy, the exhaustion of this entire ordeal; she does not truly care how Michael will rationalize the move.

Indeed, Michael only tucks her elbow into her arm, as Philippa hoped she would.

Philippa will miss this warmth. She will miss the light of Michael’s eyes, her radiant energy and the glow that holds about her when she is truly passionate about something.

The spore lab is upon them. Culber and Stamets take the steep metal staircase at a terrifying speed; Michael’s hand leaps to her mouth as she watches them nearly tumble onto the deck. Philippa barely notices, so distracted by the bizarre display before her.

There is something wrong with the air the middle of the spore lab. It looks like—like a translucent veil. Like a vertical sheet of water, rippling and undulating as it cleaves the room in half. On one side, the mycelial realm. On the other…normal space.

The Discovery. Pike and Keyla and Saru…

Philippa hopes they will not be too terribly sad.

“Here’s the way out!” Stamets strides into the reaction cube, explaining to Hugh as he goes. “This is our airlock between normal space and the network.” With a smile, he steps through the shimmering air and reverts to a vague, watery outline.

Back in ordinary space, the normal universe, once more.

In the next moment, Stamets steps through the barrier and back into the mycelial realm.

“See? Totally safe.”

“What?!” May demands from behind them, and all four officers whirl around. “You are all just going to leave? But what about the end of all worlds!?”

In the doorway of the lab, May contorts her face, clearly making a great deal of effort. She disappears from the top of the stairs and reappears in her Human form next to the spore drive.

“I told you we need help! You said you would help us! This is your problem too!”

“It is, and we will help,” Michael insists in a low, determined voice, but May shakes her head, her face creasing with panic.

“No! No! You will leave, and then what?!”

May’s eyes begin to glow green once more. Beneath Philippa’s feet, the deck begins to vibrate. Not shake, not buck, but vibrate at a miniscule, terrifyingly fast frequency. It feels like—like

Like the motion of a trillion tiny ants, swarming just beneath the surface upon which they stand.

“You have no tools, no ways to study, nothing at all! No way to get back here without killing us and destroying reality!” May’s eyes glow even hotter, the vibrating intensifying. The spore is calling her people, summoning back-up, and Philippa can see what is about to happen like it was written. “You cannot talk to us! And so you will forget us, you will leave and then we will all perish—!”

Philippa cuts her off with a firm hand to May’s upper arm.

“I’m staying.”

The room goes silent.

The vibrating stops.

“Wh—what?” Michael sounds like she’s been punched. She stumbles over her words, her brown eyes wide and pooling. “No…no, you can’t do that…”

“I have to.”

“Philippa…”

Michael’s voice is thready. She looks as if she’s been cold-cocked by a Klingon fist, and Philippa hates herself a little more for it.  

“No, please, we’ll find another way!"

Behind Michael, Stamets’ blue eyes are wide. And behind him, inside the spore drive, Hugh Culber’s scrubby face is inscrutable.

“There is no other way.”

“Philippa—”

“I have to do this—”

“No, you don’t! We can help them regardless, no one has to stay—”

“Do you really think they will be swayed by an empty promise?” Philippa gestures with her chin at May Ahearn. “I taught you better than that. Someone has to stay behind, or we all die.”

“Guys?”

The voice is soft and masculine, and utterly unfamiliar to Philippa. She and Michael turn to Hugh Culber inside the reaction cube. His arm is extended across the watery barrier between worlds. His forearm touches the shimmering edge of reality, inserted through the rippling film up to the elbow.

There is nothing on the other side. No hand…no wrist…

No body.

Culber pulls his arm out from the shimmering rip in reality, and his hand and fingers reappear once more.

Philippa’s stomach plummets into her feet. Ice crackles over what is left of her heart, filling her chest with glass.

In all of her ruminations, all of her scenarios and careful calculations, she had never, not once considered this eventuality.

“Wh—What?” Stamets stammers. He grips Culber’s arm in his hands, clearly intending on leading his partner through the portal. The moment he breaches the barrier, Culber’s arm disappears in Stamets’ grips. The commander nearly trips trying to overcompensate for the sudden vanishing of his partner’s body.

Stamets tries again. Once more, Hugh Culber’s corporeal form vanishes into thin air the moment it crosses the barrier.

Of course…Philippa realizes dimly.

The man had died. He has no corporeal form.

Agitated, Stamets all but leaps back through the gateway. “Why isn’t it working? Why can’t he go through?!”

“Paul…” Culber’s voice is soft, and so very sad.

“No—No! Come on, we’ll try again.” Eyes wide and desperate, Stamets takes Culber’s arm once more, trying to tug him forth.

“I can’t go with you. Paul…” Hugh Culber’s hair is matted, his beard desperately tangled, his uniform is covered in glowing red patches…he looks monstrous in every sense of the word, but compassion rings from his voice, not to mention utter certainty. “I can’t.”

The look on Paul Stamets’ face…the soul-destroying visage of a man given a glimpse of salvation, only to have it snatched away once more. Philippa wants to look away. She cannot bear such an expression, even on a near stranger.

“I died, Paul,” Culber insists softly. “I died, and that’s it. I have to move on.”

“His energy came from your world.” May chimes forth next to Philippa. “But his body…everything that he is now, came from here.”

“So what?! You brought her here!” Stamets gestures wildly at Philippa. “Use the cocoon! Send him back through!”

“With what?!” May shouts. “Our matter is not your matter! It will not transport, and even if it did—I—I have no—no—” May struggles, Philippa recognizes a language barrier of truly biblical proportions. “No instructions, no guide to build him! I could get it catastrophically wrong, and then what?”

“Paul.” Culber interrupts once more, his soft voice silencing the room. Hot green light prickles at the edges of Culber’s hair, at the skin of his hands. “The Jah Sepp can reclaim my matter.”

Stamets looks to be in physical pain.

“What are you doing?”

“You have to let me go.”

Culber’s gaze is soft, and there is no hint of fear. Indeed…he looks relieved.

Philippa shakes her head slowly, slowly, stunned to silence watching Hugh and Paul gaze into each other’s eyes, preparing to say their final goodbyes.

This is not how it was supposed to go. They were supposed to succeed at something. For God’s sake, they were supposed to gain one boon, to come back with one person, to satisfy one equation, even if it meant leaving the other forever unsolved—

Culber’s skin is glowing green as the Jah Sepp do their work to reclaim his body. Paul Stamets will return to their universe, alone and heartbroken. Philippa is consigned to remain here in the network, working towards a problem with no solution, and Michael…

Philippa cannot even look at Michael right now.

The goddamn Idiot’s Gambit…and she lost.

The deck gives a massive shudder beneath them, nearly knocking Philippa off her feet. The Discovery groans, the awful sound booming across the lab and making Philippa’s teeth rattle.

At her side, Michael’s comm crackles.

Burnham, we are out of time!

“Understood!” Michael barks back into the comm. She gives Stamets a desperate look. “It’s now or never! Paul—”

“No…” Paul whispers. He grips Culber’s forearms as the man slowly disintegrates in front of him. “Please, just another moment…”

Michael shakes her head. Her eyes are swimming, her mouth is opening but no sound is coming out. She casts a desperate look at Philippa, clearly asking for backup. Backup that Philippa is no fit state to give because she is staring, stupefied to creation, at the device on Michael’s chest.

The comm

A communication device that can transmit across universes.

The room is shaking, the deck is rumbling, the universes are collapsing inwards, crashing toward them like the ancient seas. They will all die within a minute, within moments, taking the crew and the ship with them if they do not act—

And the solution falls into Philippa’s mind like a sunburst.

Her spine straightens in a half second. She strides towards May Ahearn, backed by all the confidence of a captain.

“Do you know what a treaty is?”

She demands this of May Ahearn, but in a voice loud enough for all to hear.

“Y—yes, I saw in Stilly’s mind,” May stumbles, but Philippa continues quickly.

“An agreement between two warring parties to achieve a mutually beneficial end. You have something we want, and we have something that you want. So here is what we will do. You?”

She thrusts a finger in May’s chest.

“You will keep him alive.” She gestures at Hugh Culber’s emaciated form. “You will find a way to send him back through the cocoon to our universe. And in exchange, we—” Philippa gestures at herself, Michael, Stamets inside the spore cube. “We will fix your dying universe.”

May blinks, and blinks once more. “But—but—”

The fungus shakes her head, bewildered, and Philippa understands. How could a member of a collectivist species with innate telepathy and linkage to all of her species could possibly conceptualize a treaty like this?

“Okay—" May finally manages. “But—but how can we know you are keeping your part of the deal? And—and how will you know that we are—”

“That.”

Philippa points to Michael, her chest, the comm unit that somehow sends a signal that pierces the fabric between universes.

That device, we will leave with Doctor Culber. We can communicate with you through it, and he to us.” Philippa’s confidence is building as she speaks, and she gesticulates sharply for emphasis. “We cannot approach an issue like this from one side. So we will work together, your universe and ours. And we will solve both of these problems, together.”

Diplomacy…Philippa’s old specialty, but she has not forgotten everything yet.

“Doctor Culber.” Philippa strides to the emaciated man within the cube. Her heart pangs in her chest for what she must ask of this tortured man, but there is no other way to achieve an end that will satisfy all parties.

In the corner of Philippa’s eye, Paul Stamets watches her.

All parties.

“This is what I must ask of you. You are going to be the bridge between us. Between the Jah Sepp and Starfleet. This crisis concerns every one of us. It is well within your right to move on after what you have suffered, but I must ask you to remain here, until we have exhausted all possibilities. Can you do that?”

She feels like she is asking a dying man to lift a mountain. Nevertheless, it is what must be done.

Still inscrutable, Hugh Culber looks over Philippa’s shoulder, no doubt taking in his former lover. His gaze returns to Philippa, and she imagines that she sees strength in his eyes.

In lieu of verbal response, Culber merely nods his acquiescence. Immediately after doing this, the green sparks that dot his skin and his clothing disperse like lightning bugs, leaving Culber gaunt and disheveled, but unhurt.

Stamets rushes forward and kisses him. Passionate and true, regardless of the circumstances.

“We’ll come back for you. We’ll find a way, I promise we will.”

“I love you, Paul.” Culber’s voice sounds a little stronger after Stamets’ passionate declaration. “But don’t make promises. I don’t want you to feel bad if—”

“No, hey, it’s going to work. It will work!”

The ship shakes once more. Second pass, but the shaking only grows stronger. A low, distant rumble echoes from somewhere deep within the ship, making Philippa’s teeth clatter and her hair stand on end.

“We have to go, now!” Michael shouts. She slips around May, around Philippa, to press the comm into Culber’s hand. In the next moment, she rushes the doctor out of the spore drive. “You’ve got to get out of here. Both of you!”

She aims her last comment at May Ahearn, who has been strangely quiet. Philippa darts out of the spore drive to her.

The final piece of the puzzle. The last signature on the peace treaty.

“I need an answer, May. Now!”

May remains quiet for a long, weighted moment, her eyes glowing green. She is talking with her people, and Philippa wonders, desperately, just what these inscrutable alien fungi might be thinking, how on Earth they might be conceptualizing this entire, unprecedented scenario.

The ship shudders and quakes. The air itself cracks and splinters, atoms themselves ripping apart, strong nuclear forces defeated by the rending of reality itself. Philippa’s hair stands on end, her eardrums pop, her very bones vibrate as two universes shred themselves to pieces in the effort of remaining bound like this—

But finally, finally May’s eyes return to their normal brown. Her face twists into a grimace, and she casts a disgusted glare at Hugh Culber.

“We really have to work with him?”

Philippa blinks.

Somehow, the corner of her mouth twitches into a reluctant smile.

“He will be far nicer than me.”

A moment passes.

And May’s face softens. “Fix our universe, Captain. We will find a way to return him to you.”

There are no documents for this agreement, nothing legal and nothing written or recorded. It feels so very strange and wrong to leave such a crucial covenant so open-ended. Everything in Philippa’s diplomat brain cries out in protest. Thus, she extends her hand, intending on the most ancient of seals.

She is somewhat surprised when May meets her halfway with an extended pinkie.

“What—”

“We are agreeing, right?” May sounds puzzled. “This is what I saw in Tilly’s head. This is how your people make promises, yes?”

“Oh, for God’s sake—”

Philippa is not doing this, she is not gambling the fate of reality itself on the binding strength of a pinky promise. Quickly, she grabs May’s hand and unfolds it into the proper position. She grips it firmly, shakes it once, and resolves to have a firm talk with Ensign Tilly about proper Captain-like conduct at some point down the line.

The ship bucks, throwing Philippa off of her feet and sending her careening towards the murky, watery barrier in the middle of the spore lab. The shaking is unbearable, the air itself filled with electricity, ready to burst open at any moment.

“Philippa!”

Michael’s shout echoes across the lab. In the next second, dark hands snatch Philippa by her upper arms, arresting her tumble. Her boots miss the barrier by a critical half-centimeter, and then her body is being dragged across the floor. Philippa fights her way to her feet to throw herself into the reaction cube alongside Michael. Stamets releases Culber from what looks like a desperate embrace. The doctor steps out of the drive, comm unit in hand.

“I’ll call you!”

Stamets shouts the promise from inside the drive, and Doctor Culber’s face finally breaks into a small smile. He still looks shell-shocked, tortured, and in great need of a bath and a warm meal, but Philippa imagines that there is a vague purpose in his gaze now.

Air screaming, deck heaving, Michael pulls her through the strange, watery barrier. Philippa feels the shatterpoint of reality tugging at her skin like the coldest, vastest of oceans; nevertheless, she manages to gain one final glimpse of May Ahearn through the barrier, bronze skin and chubby cheeks, before the spore’s golem form vanishes.

All around her, the USS Discovery howls, shrieks, and spins on its axis as it ejects itself from the mycelial realm—

And then Philippa falls backwards into a pile of officers on the floor of the reaction cube.

 

Not even a moment passes before the door of the drive bursts open. Shouts and questions of a dozen voices fill Philippa's ears, hot white lights burn her eyes, and multiple hands crawl across her body, checking her over and attempting to haul her to her feet.

Back in her universe, once more.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Michael is trying not to be overbearing, Philippa can tell.

She averts her gaze every time Philippa makes a show of looking in her direction. She gives Philippa privacy while Pollard checks her over for lingering pains or illnesses of the mycelial persuasion.But she walks close to Philippa when they are finally released from sickbay, their shoulders nearly touching. They walk the corridor in silence, taking the long way to Philippa’s quarters.

Philippa feels Michael’s need for comfort like a fusion reactor’s ambient warmth.

Or, she acknowledges resignedly, perhaps it is her own need she is feeling, misattributing her own petty Human desires after suppressing such weaknesses for so long.

But by the Gods, how she longs to just be weak, to succumb, for one singular moment.

To take Michael’s arm in hers, like they are strolling a garden path on a courtship walk.

To take Michael’s body in her arms and hold her, breathing in her wonderful scent and drowning in the warm comfort of her body.

To take Michael back to her room and remain there forever, forgetting everything else in the universe, every dark thing beyond the Discovery and every misdeed that lurks in the shadowy corners of her ripped-up heart…

Philippa all but jumps in surprise when the doors to her quarters reveal themselves in front of her.

“Will you be okay?” Michael asks. “Can—should I come in with you for awhile?”

Her berry-brown eyes are pooling with hope, so soft and so vulnerable.

Gods, why did she have to make this so damned difficult?

“I’m tired.”

Philippa manages the words robotically. She feels like someone else is piloting her body while she watches from somewhere far away.

“I—I just—"

Michael blinks soft eyes at her.

And the autopilot fails spectacularly.

“Okay…” Michael whispers. “Okay.”

Her arms twitch at her sides, her fingers work. She leans forward on the balls of her feet, open yearning written on the soft planes of her beautiful face, and it’s clear to anyone with eyes what she wants.

It breaks Philippa’s heart to be the one to deny it to her, and further stomps on the pieces in that she must deny it to herself as well.

To succumb to such a desperate urge…

In light of what she must do, that would be nothing but cruel to the both of them.

“I…um,” Michael tries. The shards of pain in her voice are all the more heartbreaking for the strength Michael is clearly trying to put forth. “I’ll see you in the morning?”

At that, Philippa nearly breaks.

Smile.

Smile, you gods-damned fool.

The expression that finally crosses Philippa’s face is more of a desperate grimace than anything else. Her nod of confirmation is weak and jerky.

Michael turns away, shuffling down the corridor into the darkness she finally turns the corner. Back stiff, shoulders hunched, head down.

Philippa feels lower than dirt, lower than blackened scum scraped of the sole of a boot that walked the filthy surface of Qo’Nos in the depth of the war and crushed innocents beneath its leathered exterior.

And with that thought, Philippa retreats into her quarters, locking the door behind her. She tucks the fragments of her heart away, burying them somewhere deep and fathomless.

The lights remain off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The relative dimness of the Section 31 vessel’s bridge serves well to conceal Christopher Pike’s glower. As the heat of the particle dissociation wears off, he has enough time to scan the area, noting the two steep metal staircases leading up to a circular second level. The lower level on which Pike stands contains multiple consoles and stations; no doubt this is where the critical helm officers work.

Intelligence vessels.

The split floor-plan design had been met with raised eyebrows by those more used to traditional ops. However, for personnel accustomed to working in the shadows, never engaging in true combat and spending the majority of operational hours crunching data and running tactical assessments, the rigidly delineated structure of the split floor-plan had been met with acclaim.

At the sound of footsteps over his shoulder, Pike turns around.

Leland prowls onto the lower deck through a barely visible doorway. Pike takes a good look at his old friend, now unobscured by holo-emitter.

The years have been hard on him, that is certain. During their time at Starfleet, Leland had been handsome in a rugged way, broad-shouldered and powerful. He is still broad, but his face is lined with wear, creased and folded in the way that brutally lived experience tends to inflict. His gaze is dark, his eyes cold.

Leland had always had the look of a man who calculates every move in advance.

“Old friends who don’t shake hands?”

A gruff, feminine voice issues from the upper deck. Leland and Pike turn from their mutual appraisal to see—

“Admiral Cornwell.” Pike doesn’t bother to keep the surprise from his voice at the sight of the woman’s slim form and glowing uniform. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Indeed.”

How very strange. It is no secret that Admiral Katrina Cornwell is Fleet Command at this point, all but propping Starfleet up with her two hands after the loss of most of leadership during the sacking of Starbase One.

So what in the hell is she doing lightyears away from Earth aboard a Section 31 stealth vessel?

Admiral Cornwell rounds the railing and starts descending the steep metal stairs.

“Starfleet has new and critical information about the seven signals.”

Pike’s brain goes on high-alert. He feels Leland shift next to him in a way that most certainly echoes the sentiment.

Was this why they were being followed?

“The first one that appeared led the Discovery to an interstellar asteroid. But by the time you arrived, the signal was gone. We detailed a research vessel to scan for subspace readings, and the findings were…unexpected.”

Pike is uncertain of how he could possibly expect anything at all at this point, after all that has happened.

“The signal appeared to have left behind a trail of tachyon radiation.”

Silence holds as Pike and Leland take this in. Of course, Captain Pike is aware of his scientists’ findings concerning the asteroid fragment in the shuttle bay, however brief they were.

But Leland is not.

“Tachyons…” Leland states slowly. “A quantum field like that could imply…”

The implication looms large. Impossibility hangs above all of them like fate.

“…Time travel.”

Pike can hear the gears turning in Leland’s head. The man whom he had roomed with at the academy, who tutored him in astrophysics, who debated politics with him late into the night, who would use anything and anyone as a means to an end—

“Or it could be the by-product of cloaking devices or transporters,” Pike denies easily, forcing himself to not think of the explosion in the shuttlebay or the massive energy discharge.

“You’re both right.”

Cornwell cuts through what would have been a heated discussion.

“Or maybe you’re both wrong,” she continues dispassionately. “Either way, the only one with any sort of connection to these signals is Lieutenant Spock, who’s still a fugitive.”

Were it not for Pike’s longstanding familiarity with the man next to him, facial expressions and subtleties well-known after years of late-night poker and blackjack, Go and sabacc, he would have missed it.

As it is, he manages to catch the ever-so-subtle twitch of Leland’s eyes at the mention of Lieutenant Spock.

“I need both of you to find him, and I need you to help each other.”

Is she joking?

Pike manages to not roll his eyes. Leland shifts slightly next to him. Dubiousness issues off of his typically-unreadable exterior in waves.

“Come on, fellas.” Cornwell’s maddeningly professional exterior breaks just a hair as she rolls her eyes. “Cut the manlier-than-thou bullshit.”

She turns around, ascending the steep metal staircase. A dismissal has not been issued, thus Leland moves to follow her, Pike in his wake. Once they reach the second level of the bridge, the circular catwalk framed by viewports and windows, Cornwell speaks up once more.

“Leland. You camouflaged yourself from a Starfleet captain, your friend, in the middle of a rescue mission.”

“Admiral, our camouflage is a standard of practice—”

“Which was unnecessary and actively harmful during this particular event!” Cornwell snaps. “I know that Admiral P’tar has been requiring you to hide yourselves, to keep to the shadows, even at massive cost to others.”

“She is Vulcan—”

“And her logic is steered by bigotry.”

Leland breaks Cornwell’s icy gaze. Despite being so slippery and so calculating, the man seems to have no good response to this. Cornwell gives him a cold once-over as he looks away from her piercing blue eyes.

Pike senses that whatever has just transpired is very much between Section 31 and Fleet Command. Old grudges and politics, battles fought on a stage that is many orders of magnitude out of his scope.

“And Captain Pike.” Cornwell turns to him, and the steel in her voice is audible. “Section 31 may not be the shining beacon of righteous conduct that you want it to be, but they are a critical intelligence division, and we have more pressing priorities than debating Article Fourteen of Starfleet’s charter.”

The emotion does not show in his expression, but Pike is abashed nonetheless.

That would have been the exact starting point of his next argument.

“Nation-building is never pretty. That is the unappetizing truth, and you know it.” Cornwell holds his gaze, her crystal eyes all but burning with the weight of wartime leadership, of terrible choices, of suffering and of death.

“We are all on the same team.”

Captain Christopher Pike has seen a great deal as one of Starfleet’s most talented captains. His record is undeniable, his reputation for excellence well-deserved after many years in command. But at this moment, he somehow feels very young and very small in relation to Admiral Katrina Cornwell’s lived-and-suffered experience.

A veteran of the bloody galactic war, Starfleet leadership’s sole surviving member, someone who had spent nearly two years locked in battle with a bloodthirsty race determined to end civilization itself…

Admiral Katrina Cornwell must see them both as petty, squabbling children.

Leland, to Pike’s consternation, beats him to the punch.

“We go back a long way, Chris. But my job requires me to walk a line, and I crossed that with you today. I apologize.”

Pike turns to him. To his credit, Leland seems to be trying hard, at least. There’s no hint of guile in the man’s expression, which is strange in and of itself.

“Accepted,” Pike answers evenly. He reminds himself that Leland could be telling the truth on this matter, while concealing a thousand other pertinent facts and damning information as he does so. “I’ll try to remember that my path is sometimes clearer than yours.”

Leland looks like he wants to laugh, or roll his eyes.

“Well now…that’s the understatement of the millennium.”

Pike opens his mouth to reply, but Cornwell cuts him off.

“Now, tell me what you know about the shuttle.”

Her demand is directed at Leland.

“As we suspected, the shuttle was a dead-end. Mr. Spock knows how to cover his trail.”

“As you suspected?” Pike raises an incredulous eyebrow at the man.

His crew had pushed themselves to the breaking point trying to catch the damn ship, and somehow it was an obvious decoy?

Leland looks irritatingly smug.

“Section 31 has its advantages, knowledgeable personnel among them.” He throws a significant look towards Cornwell. “Takes a Vulcan to catch a Vulcan.”

Cornwell’s face is like stone at the strange comment. Pike’s eyes dart between them; even as he does, a though occurs to him.

“Burnham might know more about where he’d be than she realizes. I’ll talk to her.”

“And I’ll rendezvous with Admiral P’tar’s people and see if they’ll have any fresh analyses, particularly in light of this new input they’re about to receive.”

P’tar…A Vulcan admiral, Pike knows. And the way Leland had phrased ‘analyses’ and ‘input…’

Spock used to talk like that.

A team of…Vulcans?

Pike had to admit that for Section 31, the notion made a great deal of sense. Yet, even as he thinks this, a pang of apprehension strikes him in the chest. Despite Cornwell’s determination to see Leland and him working together, Captain Pike has a strange feeling that he is missing critical information concerning Section 31.

The intel concerning Spock’s shuttle trajectory, the shuttle that Section 31 had suspected to be a red herring from the start…

Pike had gotten that intel from Captain Georgiou.

A Section 31 agent.

Pike’s blood runs cold, even as Cornwell and Leland toss around a handful of meaningless logistics.

Something else is at play here. A larger force, a greater power, a dealer with a stacked deck and invisible hands. This is a game that Pike has unwittingly been pulled into, and has likely been playing for some time with no knowledge of the rules or the boundaries.

Has he already lost?

Would he even know?

Apparently finished, Cornwell dismisses them both. Leland slinks away, sullen and mistrustful once more, and Cornwell turns to gaze out of the viewing window at the bow of the bridge.

The woman is vast ocean of experience, Christopher Pike understands. Wise and weathered by the war, Katrina Cornwell is no doubt well aware of how to watch for knives at her back and trapdoors beneath her feet.

Nevertheless, it has only been a short time since all of this had begun. She couldn’t possibly have all of the answers.

And the admiral certainly needed to know just who it was that she had all but demanded Pike play ball with.

After a long, silent moment, Cornwell turns to him. She raises a brow, a silent question.

“A word, please?”

Pike states the request softly, casting a meaningful glance towards the adjacent doorway. Cornwell takes the hint.

Once they are a good five meters from the corridor entrance into which Leland had disappeared, Pike begins.

“Now I know you want Leland and I to mend bridges, but there’s information I’m not sure you are aware of. Leland has placed a Section 31 operative aboard my ship, without my authorization and possibly without Command’s knowledge---“

Pike trails off as Cornwell begins to chuckle; however, there is little real joy in the sound.

“No, no Captain.”

Cornwell shakes her head. There’s a not-quite-bitter smile on her face.

I placed that Section 31 operative aboard your ship.”

Pike is stunned silent for a long moment.

“You…you did?” Pike manages. “For what possible reason, Admiral—“

“Chris.”

The use of his given name presses Pike into silence. Cornwell-- no, Pike thinks, Katrina— turns towards him, and Pike is struck fully by the heaviness of her face, the deep, dark sadness in her eyes.

He knows, as most do, that Cornwell is one of very, very few of Starfleet’s leadership to survive the war. But now, for the first time, he can see something of the toll it has taken on her.

He wonders if anyone else has seen it.

“Kat.”

Pike murmurs her name back to her in response, and sees her wilt ever so slightly, her staunchly professional mask rendered translucent. “Why?”

They look out towards the stars as Cornwell formulates her response.

“The war ravaged more than systems and starbases, Chris.”

Cornwell’s scruffy tone is heavy. She seems to be somewhere else as she speaks.

“What I had to do, what Philippa had to do…what we very nearly did…”

She closes her eyes.

“It changed her, the time she spent on Qo’Nos. This war…it destroyed the person she was, the person we knew—“

Pike shakes his head aggressively. “No, not Georgiou, she would not have submitted—“

“You weren’t here, Chris!”

Cornwell snaps the words, and Pike takes a step backwards.

“You and all the others,” Cornwell begins in a low, threatening tone. “Believing what you read in your reports, what you see in your news feeds, what silly Academy gossip got around. Georgiou isn’t some type of mythical hero, she’s a flesh and blood person—“

Cornwell’s teeth snap shut to cut herself off.

“You didn’t see what she became…the steps she took on Qo’Nos that just barely kept us afloat, the things that she did, that I…” Cornwell shakes out a breath. “…that I gave her leave to do.”

She crosses her arms over her chest. Pike takes a step back in, to better hear her next words.

“I took a gamble. I had to, I had to do something. Benching her would have done nothing but piss her off, and bathing her in blood in Section 31…I couldn’t see that helping, either.”

“So…” Pike shakes his head, trying to make sense of this. “So her whole assignment on Discovery is, what…rehabilitation?”

“Yes.”

Pike spends several moments mulling this over. It made sense, he had to admit. Leland had seemed just as pissed off about Georgiou’s presence aboard the Discovery as Pike was, which would have been strange, had it been Leland’s plan in the first place.

And it certainly explained why the admiral had seen fit to be here in person, rather than in holo-form via tight-beam across a Fleet channel smothered with encryptions.

“She’s doing well, I think,” Pike finally states. Cornwell looks to him again, this time with a spark of hope in her crystal blue eyes. “She’s won over just about everyone she’s talked to, and it’s only been a week…”

He trails off once more as Cornwell shakes her head, her eyes growing listless once more.

“That’s just a thing she does Chris, could mean nothing at all.”

In the next moment, she cocks her head curiously.

“How is her relationship with Michael Burnham?”

“It’s, um…” Pike’s brow furrows. “It seems to be fine, I don’t really know.”

A thought occurs to him, and he throws a shrewd look towards Cornwell.

“Why are you asking me, and not Georgiou herself?”

Cornwell’s blue eyes grow distant and shuttered.

“She’s not very happy with me right now, as is her right.”

Pike nods slowly. There is more to that statement, he can sense, though as to how much more, well…

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Cornwell looks back out towards the stars. She seems to be considering his offer carefully, and Pike watches her out of the corner of his eye. God knows he was not around to fight the war, but perhaps he could help pick up a few of the pieces, if allowed.

It was no less than his duty as a Starfleet officer.

But in the end, Cornwell shakes her head.

“I can’t burn any more bridges, Chris.”

“Kat…”

Cornwell turns her head to look up at him, and Pike wishes to high heaven that he could have been here when it all happened, if only to help ease the ache in those bright blue eyes.

“So many of our Academy generation died in the war, so much of leadership is gone, there are so few of us left…Whatever it is you did, what ties us together is so much stronger…I won’t abandon you.”

Cornwell digests this for several moments.

But whatever vulnerability she had displayed quickly dissipates, and her walls go up once more.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Pike watches her go and wonders, not for the first time, just what the hell he had missed while he was gone.

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

From the adjacent corridor of the bridge, Leland watches the admiral’s shuttle depart with a scowl on his face.

No captain enjoys playing host during an unplanned and abrupt visit by the brass, and he is certainly no exception, particularly considering the various gray areas involving potential sapient rights violations occurring aboard this ship at the moment.

Nevertheless, as Cornwell’s shuttle jumps to warp, he cannot help but feel a surge of something resembling triumph.

So distracted by her driving need to mediate, to mollify, to meddle, the admiral had failed to notice what had been happening right under her nose.

Leland turns from the window and leaves the bridge, heading towards the conference room.

It really should not be cause for any major alarm. After all, he is only performing to the best of his abilities as the head of Section 31, and efficient allocation of personnel is a critical aspect of the job. Honestly, the entire matter had been a waste of resources for everyone involved.

He is doing nothing but fixing a mistake.

The conference room doors hiss open.

Agent Georgiou rises from her seat at the front of the table.

A soft smirk spreads across Leland’s face. Truly, he enjoys when subtle machinations such as these pay off, especially in full view of the higher-ups.

“Ready to get to work?”

Georgiou’s face is as hard as ever, her eyes revealing nothing. She gives Leland a sharp nod.

The conference room door hisses closed behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philippa doesn’t show up to their morning gym session.

Normally this would not be cause for concern, after all it is a starship, the number of places where the woman could be is limited by square meter and by the number of rooms to which her rank would grant her access. But after their adventure in the mycelial plane, Michael is on high alert, jumpy and agitated. She lost Philippa once before and then again just days ago, her nerves are frayed to the point of snapping—

She’s not in the gym.

She’s not in her quarters.

She’s not in sickbay.

Asking various, random members of the crew she sees in the corridors is turning up nothing at all. It’s like Philippa hadn’t even gotten out of bed this morning, which cannot true because Michael checked, the bed was empty—

Michael stops dead in the middle of the hallway.

The bed was empty. Crisply made.

Desktop bare.

The door unlocked.

Unlocked

Michael had written it off as a mistake Philippa had made upon leaving her quarters for the day, but why would a thirty-year Fleet veteran leave her door unlocked by mistake?

The thought strikes Michael as a white-hot knife between the ribs.

--Standard protocol for rooms aboard Starfleet vessels to remain unlocked if they are registered in the ship’s log as being unoccupied by either crew, equipment, or purpose

The Section 31 stealth ship—!

No…no…

And Michael’s footsteps quicken until she’s running, running through the belly of the ship until she makes it to a hub with a screen—

A quick log-on into her account equipped with all of the privileges associated with being second officer, including crew personnel files—

And then Michael is falling, floating, drifting in the void of space, dematerializing in the cruel vice of particle dissociation and reappearing on a transporter pad fifty kilometers away, empty-handed and alone.

Philippa’s personnel file flashes before her eyes.

Status: Reassigned

The ambient noise of the ship goes mute.

...

...

Reassigned…

Reassigned…

Reassigned…

She hadn’t said anything.

But maybe she hadn’t known. It has only been seven hours since they left the mycelial network. Maybe the reassignment had been sudden, abrupt—

But there was last night.

Her bizarre behavior shortly after being discharged from sickbay, her distance, her evasion…

She had known.

Of course she had known.

She had known, and she hadn’t said anything.

She hadn’t even said goodbye.

In a daze, or perhaps with an utter lack of an idea of anything else to do, Michael’s feet carry her numbly, robotically, down the corridor and into the mess hall.

Crewmembers pass back and forth in front of her carrying trays and cups. Voices carry across the room, the chatter of a dozen different conversations fill Michael’s ears. All voices familiar, all faces known.

The mess hall is an adequate location to experience emotional free-fall. Private enough for Michael to sit by herself. Public enough to force her to remain upright and composed.

Eyes down, barely seeing, Michael strides numbly to the replicators on the back wall.

“Uh—Tea…” She stumbles on the command. “Um…herbal. Chamomile.”

A terrible choice, but she doesn’t even want tea, she doesn’t want any of this, she doesn’t want to be here or anywhere at all, but Michael picks up the full glass of replicated tea anyway, turns away from the replicator—

And stops dead.

There, at one of the far corner tables, sits a man. He towers far above the majority of the mess hall’s occupants. His skin is the color of sand, he sports a thick black beard, and his hair is tied back into a short ponytail.

A black badge shines from the dark leather upon his chest.

The glass slides from Michael’s hands. It shatters upon the deck with a piercing crash. The sound cuts through the chatter of the mess hall, and the dozens of conversations go silent.

Ash Tyler looks up from his meal, towards the direction of the noise.

Michael turns around and leaves the mess hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It feels much like old times , Ensign Sylvia Tilly thinks. Herself, sequestered in the spore laboratory, blowing things up in the name of science. Calibrating and recalibrating instruments, writing computer programs for experiments and painstakingly documenting the results. Unfortunately, there is no real way to predict how this novel subject matter will behave under replicated conditions via computer projections or simulations, meaning that typically, Tilly runs the tests manually.

Hot or cold, oxygen or nitrogen or plasma atmosphere, one atmosphere of pressure or eight hundred, the red spores react in exactly the same way as they had that first night, each time without fail.

Explosively.

And with waves upon waves of tachyon radiation.

Since the Discovery jumped to warp to meet the latest red signal flare, the laboratory has remained empty. The journey is projected at thirteen days, and the lack of urgency in lives of the crew is...different. Commander Stamets stays busy on the comm with his partner, deep in research on ways to restore him to this universe. Michael, Michael …she is elusive these days, and silent when she appears. There are dark circles beneath her eyes, pain writ in their depths. It is like her early days on the Discovery, back during the war.

Which, unfortunately, makes her nearly unreachable.

Thirteen days. Tilly thinks she might lose her mind.

Oddly enough, Commander Jett Reno begins to drop by the lab. For the most part, she remains quiet as she watches the red spores roar inside of the drive chamber. Occasionally she plunges a micro-torch or a bare hand into the wires and componentry, and the tests would then proceed with fractionally higher efficiency.

Tilly latches onto the company like a docking clamp to a shuttle. Chatter bursts out of her about everything and nothing as she sits on the floor, PADD in hand, watching the same results spill across the screen.

“…and we ended up in the middle of Antarctica with a crate of contraband Andorian peaches and two mares in heat, and that’s why I try not to eat Risan food anymore. It just brings back too many memories of falling from speeders and Cuban cigars.”

Tilly trails off. She casts a look at Reno, who is sprawled in a chair, her hands plucking absently inside the cylindrical body of an EPS filter replacement conduit.

“So uh…” Tilly casts around for conversation topics. “Is um—is ‘Jett’ like a—a…nickname, or…?”

Reno looks placidly in her direction. “It’s short for ‘Jettison.’”

In this way, the hours give way to days, which trickle by like slurry. If the Discovery is to crack the mystery of these strange particles that spell doom for the universe, then Tilly cannot not afford to take a break. She drains spore canister after spore canister, releasing the hot red contents into the test chamber time and time again, a new variable plucked with each test. And, like clockwork, the canisters refill with the hot red particles, and the results of the tests remain stubbornly identical.

After the three hundred and forty-second such result, Tilly flings her PADD across the room.

“Son of a bitch!”

The swear echoes across the empty lab. Inert, and ineffective. Tilly buries her face in her hands. Once again, she is reminded that science is a cold mistress who does not yield her secrets readily, or easily.

At Tilly’s side, Commander Reno looks blankly at the readouts. She scrolls through all of the previous tests, her face as inscrutable as usual.

“This is a waste of time, Ensign,” she finally states. Tilly resists the powerful urge to slap her. “Clearly, nothing we’re submitting these things to has any kind of effect. I say we stop now and devote ourselves to more useful pursuits.”

Tilly wants to slam her fists on the terminal. Only the merest shred of professionalism prevents her from doing so. But then again, she remembers, she has already thrown her PADD across the lab.

The metallic ‘BANG’ of fists on metal echoes around the room.

 Reno is muttering something in a clicking tongue. Tilly looks at her, irritated.

“What’s all that?”

“My wife used to work with the VSA. Vulcan Science Academy,” Reno adds in elaboration. “She’d say that the biggest answers tended to be so simple, they’d be overlooked for years. Which checks out. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, cosmic microwave background, synthetic queso…all obvious.”

“Is your wife Vulcan?”

“Souyusan,” Reno denies. “Total Vulcanophile, though. So our red spores react explosively in all conditions and release waves of…time, basically. No matter the temperature, pressure, atmosphere—”

“Well, technically not all conditions,” Tilly corrects stubbornly, wanting nothing more than to be ornery at this point. She jabs a pointed arm at the wall of spore canisters, half of which are glowing red. “As you can see, they seem to do just fine in a vacuum. Nothing to react with, I guess…”

Nothing to react with

“Oh my God.”

Tilly runs across the lab, diving for her PADD once more.




*


 

Kaleidoscope skies swirl high above the whispering plains. Green speckles swirl here and there. The ground is leafy and lush with glowing vegetation. Hot violets, vibrant cyans and turquoises…the mycelial realm dances with life.

Save for the sickly red-orange blights upon the ground.

…and I’ve tried my best to isolate the strains, but even if I did, there’s no guarantee that it would work .”

Hugh Culber half-listens to the comm on the ground next to his ear. He lays on his back, looking up at the aurora of colored skies. He knows that they only have time to speak in this way because, in the normal universe, the Discovery is at maximum warp. Another red signal, another chase…Culber would likely care more if he were there, and not here.

“Paul…” He proceeds in a voice as gentle as he can manage. “I know you’re working hard. And I’m sure you’ll get to a breakthrough at some point. It’s just—I don’t think that we stand much of a chance at this without…” He trails off.

Without better science. Without better technology. Without better fundamental knowledge. This was a breakthrough that was certainly possible, but it was years, decades , away from their current limitations.

We can do this !” Stamets insists. “ We just need to figure out how to build you a new form, and— and —”

“How to get me across the border between our two universes?” Culber suggests almost sardonically. “Impermeable to all matter and energy? Never mind the fact that we don’t even know the scientific properties of a consciousness?”

May did it with Captain Georgiou !”

“That was different,” Culber objects. “And she’s said many times that the fungal transporter was an insane risk that probably shouldn’t have worked.”

The comm is quiet for a long moment.

The Jah Sepp. Built an interdimensional portal. Out of mushrooms. Why are you so certain I can’t pull something out of my ass ?”

Culber laughs in surprise. His brilliant partner, as tenacious as ever.

It would not be such a terrible fate, to live out the rest of his life here. The glowing plains are endless and beautiful, as Culber discovered in his explorations of this realm. The Jah Sepp, once devoted to hunting him, now use their metabolisms of reclamation to reconstruct his mycelial form whenever it breaks down. Even May Ahearn, his reluctant steward, has proven to be better company than first contact had implied.

Now, if he could just figure out why the strange ghosts appear and disappear with such frequency.

Culber relays as much to Paul, speaking softly over the comm unit.

Is there any species more highly represented than another? ” Stamets asks. His voice grows vague and distracted. Culber can tell that his partner isn’t particularly interested in this topic, esoteric and irrelevant to getting him back.

“Seems to be about equal, but I’ve seen sentient species that I never could have imagined. Beings that I don’t think the Federation has documented, or…even seen before.”

Do the Jah Sepp have…any idea what it is ?”

At that, Culber turns his head to the side. He watches the little green specks float across the air currents. Beyond them, the waving, glowing foliage, the dim ambient light. Like a coral reef, or a phosphorescent jungle at midnight.

“It feels like they know more than they’re telling me,” Culber states eventually. “Or…more than they even can tell me. They aren’t beings like us. They aren’t matter, they don’t really take up space. They’re more like a…” He struggles for a moment, looking up at the endless kaleidoscope sky. “Vast intelligence… One conscious, whose synapses just happen to be scattered around, separate from each other. Uncontained by—by a membrane, a hard skull, anything that we would consider a body.”

“What about May?”

Culber mulls over the question.

“Y’know,” He begins slowly. “There’ve been a lot of medical studies performed on sentients raised by biological species that are not their own. The results indicate that in these subjects, their mannerisms down to their brainwaves resemble their adopted species, rather than their biological one. To the point where, going off of brain scans alone, they were indistinguishable.”

“… okay?

Culber had to smile at his genius partner’s selective intransigence.

“May’s been in a corporeal form for a good while now. She was frustrated at her inability to change back at first, but these days I see her walking around, touching things, exploring...” He trails off once more.

At what point did someone become a Human being?

Was it when they were born into a Human body, from a Human parent? Or was it when they learned from other Humans, to behave as a Human did?

While in her golem form, May Ahearn the Jah Sepp could interact with the world. She could speak and run and have her own thoughts, entirely separate from the vast consciousness of the Jah Sepp people. All of this raises the question…

“Is May teaching herself to be a person?”

The question hangs quietly in both universes. Culber muses as he watches the sky. He imagines that his partner, too, is silent in front of his own comm, in his own universe. It is unlikely that they will ever be so fortunate as to see each other once more, to hold each other once more, but at this moment, he feels as close to Paul Stamets as he ever has.

He blinks, and May Ahearn’s chubby ensign form is in front of him.

“I have been thinking,” May states quietly. “About your questions. I thought they were stupid and irrelevant, like if you asked why there is grass, or trees.” She looks down at her hands, flexing them and unflexing them. “I do not understand. But I am also not you.”

She looks up, and makes eye contact with Culber.

“Maybe there are some things you should know.”

 

 

*




Otherworldly warp light flickers in front of Michael’s weary eyes. Blue and swirling, it dances across her dark face, her weary complexion, her Fleet-issue sweatpants and jacket. It is farpast 0200 hours, well into gamma shift. She shouldn’t be here, but sleep does nothing for her, when it does the due diligence of showing up at all.

Spock gone, Philippa gone…but why? Why ? For what possible reason could this all be happening? Seven blazing signals, hotter than even a red giant, burning so brightly but so briefly, a scientific impossibility. It shouldn’t be possible…so why was it happening? And why was it happening to her brother?

How could he be so ravaged by these signals, by the strange being that appeared alongside them, that he committed himself to a psychiatric facility? And why, why was Starfleet’s black ops division so intensely devoted to hunting him down?

-- He killed three people

There were extenuating circumstances. There had to be. After all, hadn’t Michael killed that Klingon sentry in the vacuum of space, inciting a war? She hadn’t meant to, but she had. And no one…no one had protected her then someone had to protect Spock

Michael rubs at her eyes. Grinds the heel of her palms firmly into them. She checks the chrono at the end of the corridor. It is now 0115. Has time gone backwards? No. No, of course not. A day has passed. A day spent in meditation, deep research and analysis on the new information that Pike has secured.

The identity of the person spearheading the search for Michael’s brother.

Admiral P’tar… P’tar …the name echoes in Michael’s consciousness like a half-forgotten dream. She has heard that name before, she knows that she has, but when? Why?

Perhaps if she were truly a Vulcan, she might have a chance of dredging up the connection. She might have half a chance at banishing her frail Human emotions and making sense of this esoteric puzzle. Perhaps her psyche would be more resilient, and she would not fall so thoroughly apart after something so stupid and irrelevant as Philippa’s abrupt departure, at the reappearance of her former—

“Michael?”

The voice makes Michael flinch. It is only sheer exhaustion that keeps her from snapping into a protective stance. With a steadying breath, she tugs her gaze from the glowing blue warp light and looks up. Up into the dark face of Lieutenant Ash Tyler.

The long beard gives him a rugged appearance, and the long hair pulled into a top knot adds a touch of style. Tall, well-built, clad in full black, he looks every bit the body-guard of the Klingon High Chancellor, every bit the black ops agent of Starfleet intelligence.

By all the stars, the man had no right to look so good.

He carries a thermos in his hands, offering it in Michael’s direction. It stings, all the memories of tea taken during the in-between moments, off shift at non-mealtimes when the mess hall was nearly empty. Talking of lakes and deserts, boats and sand skiffs, very different childhoods and equally impactful experiences in Starfleet…

But Michael is tired, and the notion of being comforted at this difficult time is a tempting one. She accepts the tea and holds its warmth against her chest.

Ash has finally caught her attention after a week of trying, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do now that he has it. His mouth opens and closes a few times before he apparently makes a decision.

“It’s good to see you. Truly. I, uh…” He huffs, breaking his gaze. “I guess I don’t know why I thought you might be glad to see me.”

Michael immediately feels guilty over how her avoidance must have affected him.

“I—" She swallows. She does not want to be dishonest in her response. “It’s been a very hard couple of weeks. So much has been happening.”

A quick glance towards Ash’s chest, his black badge.

“So many secrets…” Michael finishes lowly. She looks up towards Ash, her tired face hardening just a little.

“It’s…” Ash swallows. “A long story. Most of it is—”

“Classified. Yeah.”

Michael is starting to deeply hate this word.

“I…I’ve apologized, for what I did. What Voq did. And it’s just…”

Ash shakes his head, frustration becoming clear.

“You seemed to have forgiven me, when we were on Qo’Nos. You said that— that you saw me, and when we said goodbye—”

“Stop.”

The word rips from Michael’s chest. Her heart is cracking at the memory of Ash’s warmth, his scent, the safety he projected that she had allowed herself to feel, just one last time, after all was said and done.

“I am sorry, for avoiding you. For avoiding this.” She waves a hand at herself, Ash, the air between them. “It was…immature of me, and I’m sorry. But my reason for doing so is not about what happened then. This is about now, Ash. What you’ve chosen. Not Voq.”

Michael’s lips twist into a vicious grimace. A shaking finger comes up to point at the black badge on Ash’s chest.

“You were there, on Qo’Nos when it all happened.” Michael’s voice drops to an anguished, furious whisper. “Surely you remember what they did—"

But of course he does not, he cannot, because Michael had been alone. Alone at the Shrine of Molor with a bomb in her hands, her heart filled with ashes, empty and ravaged and damned to eternity…

“They—” Ash speaks, and Michael jolts. “Section 31, they gave us the tactical assessment for that plan, but who ordered it carried out?”

“Stop,” Michael whispers. She takes a quick step back.

“Michael—”

“Don’t touch me, Ash!”

Michael’s voice grates out of her, and Ash withdraws his hand as if burned. He takes a moment, mouth working, clearly trying for what to say.

“Look, Michael…” Slowly, he holds his hands up in a show of peace, of surrender. “There’s nowhere else for me to go. I can never return to Starfleet, I can’t go back to Qo’Nos, but…I still want to help. And this?”

He jabs at his badge.

“Section 31 isn’t what you think it is. It’s a place where I can do that. I think…everyone in it thinks of it as a place where they make sense. Where they can be of service, not in spite of their past, but because of it.”

Michael twitches at that, as if bitten by an irksome fly.

“This path…” Ash gestures around them, at the pristine ship, the corridor, the Fleet-issue dimensions. “This is closed to me, permanently. But that does not mean that there are not still ways for me to make good.”

“Is that what he told you?” Michael asks, her voice frosty.

Ash looks at her in confusion.

“I’ve met your boss. Leland . If that is even his real name.” Disgust weights Michael’s every word. “Is that the recruitment spiel he spun for you?”

Ash Tyler looks ill at the words.

“Your agency is chasing my brother. They’ll lock him away if they find him. A Vulcan-Human hybrid?” A half-hysterical laugh bubbles up in her chest, but she forces it down. “You know what they do to people like him.”

Ash looks a little sick, towering above Michael in this half-lit corridor.

“Did he mention that, when he conscripted you?”

Michael swears that the man has grown four shades paler.

“You—” Ash closes his eyes, clearly trying to force down his agitation. “You’re wrong about all that. We may operate differently, but we are still Starfleet. We will not hurt Spock, Michael, that isn’t what Section 31 is!

Michael’s lips work, her jaw clenching. In her ears, at the edges of her vision, fury rises burning hot. With shaking hands, she untwists the thermos cap, promptly realizes she doesn’t want tea, still , and replaces the cap firmly.

No amount of soothing liquid would extinguish this rage.

“Section 31…” Michael’s voice is deep, and terrible. “Decided that a whole planet…an entire civilization…deserved to be sacrificed. Billions of people, burned to ashes and smote from the galaxy.”

Ash Tyler is standing on the backs of his heels. Though he is a foot taller and has at least twenty kilograms on her, he looks upon Michael with great fear in his face.

“And you wanna who they decided was gonna deliver that final blow?”

The implication echoes like distant thunder in the silent, still corridor.

Michael leans in a little closer.

“Well…it’s classified .”

She presses the thermos back into his chest and stalks off.

 

 

*

 




“We all come from somewhere.”

Saru’s mellow voice winds over soft green grass, under fragrant red flowers and through gnarled root systems.

“We carry that place with us wherever we go. That never leaves our hearts.”

Planted on Saru’s favorite moss-covered chair, legs tucked into her chest, Michael feels like might be at the edge of a meadow, or perhaps inside of a downed starship, grounded for decades and reclaimed by nature. Soft red fredalia blossoms whisper across the lichen-covered deck, and vines crawl up the legs of Saru’s desk. Outside of the holo-deck, this is the most exotic location aboard the starship Discovery .

“But none of us can predict where our voyage will lead.”

At the window, Saru’s large hand comes up to trace his now-empty threat ganglia nests. His hand shakes slightly.

Michael’s heart goes out to him. She rises from her chair to be at his side. Together, they look out into the strange light of warp.

After two weeks at maximum warp, she is quite ready to see the blackness of realspace again. There is no doubt in Michael’s mind that the red signal will have long since disappeared once they arrive. But she is certain that, just as in the previous two signal bursts, there will be some type of reckoning at the planet over which the signal burst to life.

At this thought, she looks up at Saru.

“Are you ready for this?”

Saru looks pensive indeed, in his distinctly Kelpien way.

“If you were to have asked me that three weeks ago, I suspect my answer would have been different,” he finally allows.

Michael looks back towards the window, nodding slowly as she digests the response.

“Do you truly feel as if you were a different person three weeks ago?”

Saru huffs slightly. “There are times when I feel entirely the same, and still other times when I feel as if I have been reborn. And there are times when I think…perhaps it is the rest of reality that has changed. A parallel universe that I have, somehow, crossed into.”

Michael studies her reflection in the viewport. A weary woman looks back at her, with hollowed cheeks and dark circles beneath her eyes.

“I often wonder the same thing.”

The two friends are silent for a long moment. The shroud of the black Terran empire takes them both, and it is cold and vast indeed.

“What is a Kelpien without fear?” Saru finally queries.

Michael turns the riddle over in her exhausted mind.

“What is a Vulcan without logic?” She finally offers back.

What were they, without their defining traits? Who would Michael be, without… without….

Michael grasps at who she is, who she must be now, at this point in her life. After Doctari Alpha, after Vulcan, after the Shenzhou, after the Binary Stars, after the Terran Empire, after Qo’Nos—

Qo-Nos

“I am…losing the very thing that defines me.” Saru breaks the silence with his mellow voice. “I am stumbling in the dark.”

“Lost,” Michael murmurs, thinking back to Jacob and his doubt. Herself, and her questions.

So very many questions.

“Perhaps this signal will finally bring us closer to some answers,” Michael offers. She looks up at Saru and offers him a small smile, attempting levity. “Won’t it be nice, getting to see your home again?”

Saru’s large blue eyes dart away from her.

“Yes…” He finally decides. “It will, indeed. Though I must say I am feeling some manner of trepidation over the circumstances.”

Michael nods, understanding.

“I am…not sure who I am now, precisely,” Saru continues. “It may be that there is some old, forgotten lore on Kaminar that might tell me the nature of my vahar’ai . Or perhaps…” His throat pouches click. Michael’s face creases in concern. “Perhaps it is something that our predators do not want us to know.”

“The Ba’ul?” Michael clarifies. Saru nods, looking pained.

“If this transformation is singular, then…then I truly am an alien, to both my people and to the rest of the galaxy. But…if it is possible for all Kelpiens, then—”

Saru’s blue eyes are wide and wondering, bewildered as he stares into the abyss of space.

“We have no reason to live under such a yoke.”

The overhead speaker in Saru’s quarters chirps an alert, and both Michael and Saru straighten at it.

Twenty minutes until they drop out of warp over the M-class planet of Kaminar.



 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

In Captain Pike’s ready room, Michael stands next to Saru on one side of the holographic table. Pike stands on the opposite side, and between them floats a rendering of the Red Angel. The ready room window glows a hot, churning violet, the otherworldly light of warp washing across the room.

All of this would be normal and ordinary, if not for the conspicuous fourth member of this meeting.

“It is Section 31’s position that if the entity we’re calling the Red Angel is, in fact, generating these signals, then it is also capable of time incursions, and should be considered dangerous.”

Lieutenant Ash Tyler finishes his summation. Michael is grateful that Commander Saru has taken up a position between herself and Tyler. Not that Tyler would attack her here, or anywhere; Michael knows full well that is not who he is. Nevertheless, the memory of his hands around her throat has been burned indelibly into her psyche. The anxiety is hard to surmount.

“So far, these signals have led Discovery on two rescue missions,” Pike denies.

“Or two catastrophic events. Does the Angel merely show up at these crisis points, or is it creating them? We have to consider both options.”

“So let’s consider.” Pike’s voice carries a subtle note of irritation. “The Red Angel appeared on Earth and transported people to Terralysium only moments before they would have died in a nuclear blast.”

Michael speaks up, her gaze focused on the holographic being. “It also guided Spock to rescue me when I was a child on Vulcan.”

“I’ve seen the drawings from Lieutenant Spock’s time in the psychiatric unit.” Tyler shakes his head. “Look, can either of you say for sure this thing didn’t cause his mental breakdown?”

Something cold crawls down Michael’s spine. She had not wanted to consider this, of course, but the possibility is real.

“Spock made no mention of the Red Angel when he asked for leave from the Enterprise,” Pike denies.

“But by your own words, he did not make mention of anything else,” Michael counters mildly. “Agent Tyler is correct, Captain. With so few data points, it is impossible to draw conclusions based on its nature and motivations.”

Michael gazes wearily at the holographic figure before them, illuminated by hot red light. 

“We need more information.”

“What we need is Spock,” Pike states.

“Captain Leland has devoted significant Section 31 resources towards finding him,” Tyler answers. “But we’re coming up empty-handed.”

Pike throws Tyler a dark look. “And when you do find him…what exactly is the plan from there?”

Michael and Saru both turn to Tyler, curious as to what his answer will be.

Tyler looks somewhat confused at the glares cast his way.

“We will question him, of course. Detain him only as much as is needed, given his condition. He killed three people with his bare hands, or have you forgotten that?”

“And will you grace the Discovery with notice of any kind, if or when Spock does fall into your hands?”

Tyler looks from Pike, to Michael and Saru, and back. He looks slightly confused at the tempered hostility emanating from all parties.

“That call will not be mine to make, Captain. Still, I don’t see what would lay in favor for Section 31, in keeping you in the dark on Lieutenant Spock’s whereabouts.”

Privately, Michael does not either.

But Pike seems unconvinced.

Tyler finally looks towards Michael, who keeps her gaze even and empty. “As his sister, can you think of any place he might have gone? Some place we have not thought to look?”

Being a Vulcan foundling, the notion of Michael’s family drama laid out on the level of interplanetary organizations feels intensely strange, not to mention deeply uncomfortable. Privacy versus transparency is a difficult tightrope to walk, yet walk it Michael must.

“When we were children,” Michael begins. “Spock had a habit of disappearing. Our father would attempt to use logic to find him, but always came up empty. It became clear to me, and to our mother, that Spock was using his logic against him in order to hide away. He would choose places that made no logical sense whatsoever, and in this he would defeat our father and those who might search for him.”

As an adult, Michael realized that the stand-off between father and son was not one of merely getting Spock to show up for dinner, but rather a deep-seated battle between Vulcan logic and Human brazenness. It was Spock’s way of expressing his Human half, which on the planet of Vulcan had nowhere else to be known.

Here in the present, Michael looks towards Agent Ash Tyler in his black-ops uniform and dark badge.

“You will not find him, Lieutenant. It is pointless to try, even with every Vulcan you have at your disposal.”

Pike speaks up. “Mr. Tyler, you are dismissed.”

Tyler looks from Michael to Pike. It appears as though he wants to say more, but decides to acquiesce. With a clipped nod, he strides from the ready room.

Ash Tyler’s absence from the room makes Michael feel ten times lighter, and she notes this feeling for its oddness. The motions of the Human heart were strange, indeed.

Standing tall above the console, Saru’s throat pouches click.

“You both seem dubious of Section 31’s intentions,” he offers.

Pike crosses his arms, looking down at the holo-table. “After a face-to-face visit with their leadership, I must say I am…” He hesitates. “Uncertain…as to their endgame for Spock. Not to mention that bizarre little sleight-of-hand concerning their agents.”

He nods towards the door, through which Ash Tyler has just left. Michael wonders at Pike’s subtle, yet unmistakable animosity towards Tyler. She and Saru share a glance, and both turn a querying eye towards Pike.

Pike seems to realize he is being asked a silent question, and waves it away. He turns back towards Michael.

“We’re about five minutes from Kaminar. Mr. Saru, why don’t you walk me through your planet’s cultural situation?”

Michael resists the urge to exhale her relief, even as Saru draws himself up to his full height. He punches several keys on the terminals in order to pull up a three-dimensional rendering of the planet Kaminar and its moons.

“Kaminar is populated by two sentient species,” Saru begins. “My people, the Kelpiens…and the Ba’ul.”

“The Ba’ul are your predators, correct?” Pike asks.

Saru nods jerkily. His hand comes up to his empty threat-ganglia nests, no doubt a residual instinct, and Michael takes over the story for him.

“As far as we know, the Ba’ul achieved warp capability twenty years ago. The USS Archimedes made first contact with them after receiving a transmission from Kaminar. But once communication was established, the Ba’ul High Council proved hostile.”

Pike looks puzzled. “So why did the Ba’ul send a transmission in the first place?”

“They did not,” Saru denies. “That transmission came from me.”

He straightens a little, and Michael looks at him with unbidden pride. Saru’s story of subterfuge and escape had always impressed her, even during their acrimonious Shenzhou days.

“I co-opted the Ba’ul’s technology in order to send a message, with the hope that someone, somewhere, would receive it.”

All but glowing, Saru looks over at Michael.

“And that someone was Captain Georgiou,” he completes.

Michael’s chest tightens. It is like Ash Tyler has just walked back into the room.

“She was a Lieutenant then, serving on the USS Archimedes ,” Saru continues. “She piloted a shuttlecraft planet-side and I left in the dark of night, in complete secret. Were it not for her, I would have been unable to flee Kaminar or be granted asylum.” He lowers his gaze. “And I promised to never return. This was the price of knowledge.”

Pike studies Saru. “And now, of the billions of planets in our galaxy, this signal just happens to show up above your home world?” His brow furrows. “What are the odds?”

“It certainly can’t be random,” Michael murmurs.

Discovery has taken a vested interest in the Red Angel. Could it be that it’s returning the favor?”

“That seems a leap,” Michael denies. “Saru, are there angels of any sort in Kelpien culture?”

“Kelpiens,” Saru begins, “Believe only in the Great Balance, which, if upset, would devastate the fragile ecosystem of our planet. And we are taught that the Ba’ul are the keepers of this balance.”

Pike cocks his head. “Do the Kelpiens worship the Ba’ul?”

Saru bristles.

“It is their superior technology of which Kelpiens live in awe, that allows the Ba’ul mastery over my people! They hide behind it. No Kelpien has even seen a Ba’ul in living memory.”

“So we shouldn’t expect a warm welcome,” Pike concludes.

“The Ba’ul are, by nature, isolationist,” Michael answers. “And they’re committed to preserving the status quo on Kaminar.”

Michael’s response is lifted almost verbatim from one of the reports she had read on the first contact made almost twenty years prior. That particular report had been written in the proud, if somewhat volatile, hand of Lieutenant Philippa Georgiou of the USS Archimedes .

“They must have seen the signal too,” Pike states. “Maybe they wouldn’t mind an offer to share information.”

Michael exchanges a worried glance with Saru.

“Depending on how they are approached…” she begins.

To this, Pike’s lips turn up, his cheeks dimpling. “We can knock on the front door, see if they answer.”

Saru’s throat pouches click in offense.

“And then what, Captain? We ask nicely?”

“Well, as unexpected guests, it never hurts to be polite.”



*



The light of warp disappears from the bridge’s viewscreen as Michael, Pike, and Saru enter. On the forward screen, a blue-green planet floats in the void of space like a gemstone, silver clouds swirling across its surface.

An M-class planet, clearly teaming with life.

Lieutenant Owosekun is exchanging words with ops on Deck Eight, Michael notes, and Detmer is slowly rotating the saucer into her favored orientation, as Fleet pilots tend to when dropping from warp. At the spore drive officer console, Ensign Tilly is deep in audio conversation with Commander Airiam. Michael reasons that the cyborg commander remains sequestered in the media lab, crunching the massive amounts of data captured from the space sphere.

At the security terminal, Lieutenant Ash Tyler looks up from his work. He meets Michael’s eye, and casts his head down once more.

Pike takes position in the captain’s chair, and Michael and Saru move to flank him at their respective terminals. Michael activates her science console, well aware of Tyler’s presence at her back.

“There is no presence of a signal here, sir!” Owosekun announces.

“What else is new?” Pike’s tone is sardonic. “Mr. Bryce, hail the Ba’ul on all channels. Commander Burnham, run planetary and full-spectrum scans on anything resembling our elusive angel.”

“The Ba’ul are not responding, sir!” Bryce calls from comms.

“That’s not…entirely true, Captain.”

From the operations console, Lieutenant Owosekun’s voice is filled with trepidation. She spins her chair to face the captain.

“They’re scanning our weapons systems. Just our weapons systems.”

“Maybe the Ba’ul just haven’t learned the importance of a good first impression.” Pike turns to Michael. “Burnham?”

“I see no indication that the Red Angel was here,” Michael denies, assessing the readouts. “Or any immediate danger to the planet.”

“Then why are we here?” Pike queries. He looks around the silent bridge. “Anybody?”

“You’re assuming the signals only appear for a reason?” Tyler cuts in from the security terminal.

Irritation is evident in Pike’s tone. “Yes, Mr. Tyler, that is exactly what I’m assuming.”

He turns back to the viewscreen. “Why won’t the Ba’ul respond?”

“It is because, as I have said, they are oppressors!” The perturbed voice rings across the bridge, silencing all conversation. “Interested, not in cooperating with external forces such as ourselves, but in maintaining the status quo upon their home world!”

Michael jerks around to look at Commander Saru at the first officer’s station. The Kelpien man looks agitated indeed. In fact, Michael would say that he looks downright upset.

“And even if the Ba’ul had answered our hails, why would you trust those who have enslaved my people for centuries with fear and lies?”

Behind her station, Michael mulls over the ethical question.

For decades, the Ba’ul have been logged in Starfleet records as the predator species of the Kelpiens. The natural balance of their relationship as the two sentient species on the planet of Kaminar.

But

Michael shakes her head, black anxiety smothering her logical thought processes.

Could Saru have a point?

Could there possibly be more to the situation?

“Your insights are invaluable, Mr. Saru.” Pike counters in what Michael recognizes to be his ‘negotiation’ voice. “But the signal appeared here. And maybe the Red Angel, too. If you have any idea how I could make inquiries on that without getting the Ba’ul involved—”

“There is a Kelpien priest in every village,” Saru insists. He strides out from behind his terminal. “Priests not only serve as intermediaries between us and the Ba’ul, but they also connect all of our extended communities together. So, if the Red Angel appeared on Kaminar, then a priest might be able to tell us about it!”

“Would that not be a violation of General Order One?” Pike queries. He turns to Michael at the science terminal, the logical third-party intermediary.

At the difficult question, Michael sighs. “Though the Kelpiens are not warp-capable, they’ve seen warp-capable technology through the Ba’ul, and they know about space flight…”

Not a tenable situation, in Michael’s opinion, nor one that made any particular sense. Were she less exhausted, she might have a greater chance of working through it on the spot. But as it is…

“First contact with the Kelpiens by Starfleet is a judgment call,” she continues to Pike. “But our mission to investigate these signals would seem to require it.”

In the captain’s chair, Pike thinks on this for a long moment. Michael resists the impulse to rub at her eyes. She wonders why she feels such an urgent sense of wrong-doing in this scenario.

“We can stretch General Order One,” Pike finally decides. “But let’s try not to break it. Burnham, as a xenoanthropologist, I think you’re uniquely qualified to talk to a village priest.”

Michael cannot help but raise an eyebrow at that. Behind Pike, Saru’s throat pouches click in offense.

“Sir, surely I am the logical choice for this mission, given our parameters.” He waves an arm over his tall, thin, thoroughly Kelpien form. “If not breaking General Order One is our primary goal, then why not send me?”

“As much as I hate to say it, Mr. Saru, you are by far the most complicated choice.”

Saru cocks his head. “What do you mean by that, Captain?”

“In the past week at warp, you have, on multiple occasions, expressed a great deal of animosity towards the Ba’ul. Now, whether or not this animosity is founded, we cannot afford to incite a planetary war.”

Michael is astonished to see Saru rise to his full height, confrontational in a way that he never was on the Shenzhou .

“Do you doubt my ability to carry out the mission?”

“Of course not,” Pike soothes. At the helm, Detmer’s implant is rising precipitously. She exchanges a nervous look with Owosekun. “But at present, we lack a full understanding of the biological and behavioral changes you’re undergoing.”

“I assure you, Captain, I am still very much myself!” Saru insists, stalking closer to Pike. Bryce shifts nervously at his console. Something black and horrible is squirming in Michael’s chest, dredging up long-buried memories of a crowded bridge, a difference in opinion, a short, intense argument—

“I can only imagine the pressure you might feel to share with your people the truth about vahar’ai ,” Pike begins.

“Pressure, Captain?” Saru cuts in. “The Ba’ul have spent generations murdering my people instead of allowing them to evolve as I have! How many thousands, millions, are dead for their treachery and cowardice?”

The bridge crew is silent as the words ring in the open space.

“But you are right, of course Captain. Let us not start a war.”

Saru folds his hands in front of him, the very image of a submissive first officer, and retreats to his terminal. At the captain’s chair, Pike is clearly fishing for a response.

Michael struggles through her black waves of terror. She straightens her spine, takes a deep breath, and strides forth to Pike’s chair.

“Captain,” she begins in a low voice. “Kelpiens have no knowledge of Starfleet or any other inhabited worlds. Even though General Order One allows contact, my arrival could come as a complete shock to them.”

Saru was right, she thinks, but speaking this would not aid her in this diplomatic effort.

“Commander Saru would be invaluable to have at my side,” she completes, and Pike considers the words. Michael throws a reproachful look at Saru as he does, but there is no trace of remorse on the Kelpien man’s face.

“All right,” he relents. “But I’ll remind you both that we are here to gather information about the Red Angel and the signals, not start a war between the Ba’ul and the Kelpiens.”

He looks towards Saru at the first officer’s terminal. Michael is aware that every crew member currently on the bridge is following their captain’s gaze.

“Mr. Saru?”

Saru looks like he would like to protest. Michael raises an admonishing eyebrow at her friend, all but pleading for him to stand down.

This is neither the time nor the place; Michael knows this from hard-earned experience.

At Michael’s expression, Saru appears to change his answer on the spot. “My duty is, first and foremost, to Discovery ’s mission, Sir.”

Pike nods. “I never doubt that.” At the captain’s even response, some of the tension on the bridge drains. “Start in your own village, maybe they’ll be happy to see you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Kaminar is beautiful.

Temperate and warm, the forest into which Michael and Saru have beamed is bursting with leafy trees and blossoming plants. Birds chirp in the branches, high and hidden. Various plump insects buzz through the turf at Michael’s feet, no doubt the pollinators of this vast network of life. Orange sunlight peers furtively through the leaves of the trees.

Michael breathes the fresh, planetary air, and the fog precipitated by the massive stress of the past month dissipates, just a little bit. The buzzing in her chest cools, and the thick knot that has caged her thoughts unravels and falls aside.

At Michael’s side, Saru seems to be in much the same state. Slowly, he turns on the spot, his blue eyes wide as he takes in his surroundings.

“Is it as you remember?”

Michael’s voice is hushed, as if trying to sustain the peace of this forest glade.

“It both is, and…isn’t.” Saru’s hands come up to his empty ganglia nests. A developing nervous habit, Michael can tell. “I am elated to see my home, and yet…the tint of fear that was a part of my life, of all of our lives…is no longer with me. And I cannot tell if this is for the better.”

Michael tries to imagine how she might feel had she been barred from Vulcan for eighteen years, only to return to the planet as something different.

“Do you feel…like an alien?” She queries gently, placing a tender hand on Saru’s forearm.

Saru huffs softly. “In the absence of others of my species, it is hard to say.” Jerkily, he looks towards Michael. “I suppose we should make our way to the village.”

Michael trots after Saru, his long strides making quick work of the terrain. He seems to know precisely where he is going, though there is no path. When Michael inquires about this, Saru jerks his head towards their right.

“You are unable to detect it, but there is a sea approximately three hundred yards that way. I can sense the humidity here.” He gestures towards one of the pits denting his pale, hairless face. “My village is just off of its shore.”

“Would it be easier to walk along the beach?” Michael sidesteps a large bramble, scrambling over a large, exposed system of roots.

“It would be,” Saru confirms. “However, assuming all is the same as it was eighteen years ago, it is likely that we would be seen in our approach.”

“Do we not want that?”

“By the Kelpiens, yes. But the Ba’ul have erected structures through which they watch us.” Saru’s brisk gate slows, and he takes a sharp right turn. Michael follows him to an odd stretch of vines that cascade from above like a long, wide curtain. Carefully, Saru draws the vines aside, and Michael peers through.

Off in the distance, the ocean is visible. And on the red-sand beach far to the left of her vision lay several boats, piles of nets, long spears, logs, and…

And—

“What…what is that?”

An obelisk presses forth from the red clay of the beach towards the sky. The metallic structure is about four meters high, with glowing red lines that dart across its surface, clearly carrying some type of power. The pylon is so out of place with its primitive, pastoral surroundings that Michael feels deeply unsettled.

“That, Michael is the Watchful Eye.”

Michael narrows her eyes as she observes the structure.

“The Ba’ul put that there?”

Saru shakes his head darkly. “To most of my people, that structure is the Ba’ul. It is the only aspect of them that the Kelpiens have seen in living memory. It is how they watch us, and…cull us.”

Michael stares at the structure. She tries to follow the logical implications presented by this data.

“There must be many of these.”

“One in every village,” Saru confirms.

Michael’s heart grows cold at the implication.

“So the Ba’ul know the location of…every village on the planet?”

Even on Vulcan, there were fringe communities, scrapers and nomads, people who lived off the grid. For an entire planet of beings to be regulated and watched on this scale…

“And when a community grows full?” Michael’s thoughts speed across her mind. “What happens when a new community must be founded? Do the Ba’ul send a new pylon?”

Saru only looks askance at her. “Our populations are controlled with extreme prejudice. We are culled at random, but in reliable numbers. It is part of the Great Balance.”

Michael only stares at him, her face a mixture of expectant and disturbed.

“No new community has been formed in…” Saru shakes his head. “I am uncertain as to how long.”

Michael’s ears ring.

So the Ba’ul had taken to space, they had expanded across the system in their starships and reproduced with wild abandon…and they kept their Kelpien co-species contained on the home world, in numbers too meager to form the critical mass needed for evolution or progress.

Something is very wrong here.

“We should continue.”

Saru’s voice breaks Michael from her thoughts. The vine curtain falls back across the view of the beach, breaking Michael’s line of sight with the obelisk.

Wait—

Michael blinks. She rubs her eyes.

Was that a burst of red light she saw, through the thick veil of vines?

Had the obelisk just…pulsed?

“Saru? Did you see that?”

Saru looks over his shoulder, already walking.

“See what?”

Michael looks to the curtain of vines and back to her friend.

“Nothing…” She shakes her head firmly, jolting herself out what must be her weary imaginings. “Nothing.”

She trots to Saru’s side, and they continue walking. Michael’s footfalls are clumsier than they should be. She has not been sleeping well, and anxiety has been gnawing on her during her waking hours. Each step sounds loud to her well-trained hearing.

But Saru does not seem bothered by this, so taken he is by the Kaminar flora and fauna.

“It’s strange…” Michael begins. “If I didn’t know that the Ba’ul were culling your people, I would think this place a paradise.” She presses aside a long sheath of red flowers as she walks.

“It is true that we do not know poverty or hunger,” Saru allows. “The only real violence we know is that of the Culling, which I believe that Kelpiens have been… misled, to view as a mercy by the Ba’ul. And it is our priests who sustain that belief.”

“Didn’t you say your father was a priest?”

“Yes,” Saru responds. “He was a collaborator, albeit an unwitting one. Enforcing the grip that the Ba’ul have on my people…”

Saru trails off as the forest opens up into a small clearing.

Nondescript, barren, perhaps five meters in diameter…an ordinary hollow in a dense forest, yet Saru’s eyes are wide as he takes it in.

“This is where the shuttlecraft landed.”

His voice is soft. Reverent.

“That night...eighteen years ago now.”

That night…

Michael tilts her head, observing the ordinary clearing. Ordinary trodden plants, roots, and dirt, surrounded by ordinary trees. She pictures a starry night, a dark planet, an old, tiny shuttle, trees whipping forcefully in the expelled air from the exhaust systems…

A young Philippa Georgiou, sneaking a very young Saru off of his homeworld.

Her absence looms large between them now, a gaping, empty void. As they proceed around the outside edge of the hollow, Michael thinks of Lieutenant Georgiou in her battered old shuttle-craft, somehow slipping past the Ba’ul blockade to land in this lush forest and take Saru away. Saving a life, defying the status quo, bound by the same rules and laws but with a mere fraction of the technology…

Michael has so many questions for her.

Questions that she may never get to ask.

Minutes pass in the undergrowth, and Saru begins to slow down. His hands brush over thin brown trees, gnarled vines, carved wooden posts, twists of rope hanging down from high branches…obvious products of sentient construction. Michael notices that the ground beneath her feet has slowly, slowly turned from plants to dirt. Saru halts, and Michael passes around her crewmate to stand next to him.

Together, they gaze into a village that is one with nature. 

The buildings are low, round structures made of clay, the same red shade as the beach. Vines and flowers crawl up their sides, and most have trees protruding off of their tops. Despite the clear intent of the inhabitants to make as small a footprint as possible, Michael’s xenoanthropologist gaze spots the trappings of society, including wooden fences, gardens, laid dirt paths, and even a bucket lying on its side.

Saru’s blue eyes are wide as he gazes hungrily at the place where he was born. It certainly seems like a paradise, Michael has to admit. Still…In light of all other damning evidence, was it likely that this harmony with nature was merely spiritual aesthetic for the Kelpiens? Or was it an evolved methodology of camouflaging themselves from their predators?

Michael thinks of the veritable greenhouse Saru lives in on the Discovery , and the one he had lived in on the Shenzhou. She feels a little sick.

“It’s awfully empty,” Michael finally murmurs.

Saru seems to jerk from his reverie. “Yes. It is nearly nightfall, and the day’s work is done. Kelpiens rarely venture out at night.”

He proceeds into the clearing, carefully skirting the edges of the buildings as he goes. Michael, considering his words, follows him.

“For eighteen years, I dreamed of returning to my village…” Saru muses as they go. “It has not changed at all.”

Michael thinks of Shi’Kahr, and how different the city is every time she returns to visit.

For Saru to say such a thing about his village does not indicate a thriving society on Kaminar.

“But I see it…quite differently now,” he continues. They are following a path of red blossoms. Michael recognizes them quickly.

“These are the fredalia blooms, like the ones in your quarters.”

“Yes,” Saru concedes. “They have a connection with priesthood and the spiritual realm, similar to that of, say, the red rose of Earth and its connection with love.”

The blooms grow denser as Michael and Saru walk. They are following a path away from the village proper, into the forest once more. They round a large tree, and Michael instantly spots a figure in white.

A Kelpien.

Their back is turned to Michael and Saru, and they hold a basket filled with blooms on the crook of one arm. Michael’s eyes widen at the notion of another Kelpien, another Saru. She takes out her tricorder as Saru steps forth, into the clearing of red fredalia flowers. He opens his mouth and speaks the Kelpien tongue, for the first time since Michael has known him.

“Can the priest spare a moment?”

“Of course.”

The priest turns around and lowers their hood. Upon seeing Saru, the basket falls from their arm.

Saru stiffens. He all but tears off his hood. “Siranna?”

The priest sways where she stands. “It can’t be…”

“Siranna! It’s me!” Saru stumbles forward. The priest, as well, takes several steps in his direction. She looks as if she has been struck by lightning.

“Saru…Brother!”

She reaches out, and Saru embraces her. They touch their faces together, rubbing scent glands in what Michael knows to be the Kelpien equivalent of a hug.

Something hot bursts in her chest as she watches the display.

Eighteen years

Eighteen years that Saru has been separated from his sister. The pain of each one of those years is evident as he embraces her.

“You’re alive!” Siranna’s voice is feminine; Michael wonders if this is the translation matrix’s effect or if Kelpiens display the same gender markers as so many other humanoids. “But…how? We thought you were dead!” She runs shaking hands across Saru’s shoulders as if verifying that he is truly here. “We thought you taken by the Watchful Eye for questions you should not have asked!”

She has Saru’s eyes, Michael notes. They blink, bright blue and filled with wonder.

“Oh, where have you been all this time?”

“Siranna…” Saru enfolds his sister’s hand. “Eighteen years ago, I believed I could find a future in the stars. And…I did!”

He looks back to Michael at the edge of the clearing. Michael slowly walks forth, not wanting to frighten Siranna with her strangeness. Siranna gasps; Michael wonders if the Kelpien woman finds her odd, or horrifying.

“I was welcomed by an interstellar service called Starfleet,” Saru babbles. “Committed to peace and exploration of our galaxy. An organization far more powerful than the Ba’ul! And I found…a new life.”

He places a hand on Michael’s shoulder to indicate to his sister that she is safe. Siranna casts a shocked look from him to Michael, and back.

Michael knows that Saru must look brave indeed, to touch an alien in this way.

“What…are you?” Siranna finally asks Michael.

“My species is called Human. We are from a planet called Earth. And my name is Michael. I work on the same starship as your brother.”

Michael offers Siranna her hand. Siranna takes it and turns it over in her palms, studying it closely. Her hands are large and smooth, quite like Saru’s. Indeed, the two Kelpiens look intensely similar; Michael wonders if this is because they are siblings or because the phenotypical diversity of Kelpiens as a species is small.

“How is it we can understand each other?” Siranna asks.

Michael holds up her translator. “This device,” she indicates. “It is able to translate over a thousand languages.”

Siranna’s eyes widen further. “You mean to say there are a thousand different life forms out there?”

“Oh, not just a thousand,” Saru assures. “Hundreds of thousands!”

At that, Siranna looks away from them both to gaze up at the darkening sky.

“So different,” she murmurs. “And yet…” Siranna looks to Saru. “The galaxy?” Saru nods. “ Space travel ?” Siranna’s voice is comically disbelieving, but Saru nods again, emphatically.

Siranna looks away, blinking several times. She is reevaluating the universe and her place in it, Michael knows, and she is curious to see what the Kelpien woman will conclude.

“Well…” Siranna finally speaks. “Do Humans from Earth drink tea?”

A smile breaks across Michael’s face.







The little hut beneath the tree roots is warm and welcoming. Evening has fallen, and the only light in the hut comes from tallow candles and bowls of what seem to be some type of oil. The air is moist and smells of flowers. Tools and nets hang from the brown walls, and there are several small window-holes close to the rounded ceiling of the room.

Michael has been welcomed into the homes of countless alien leaders, she has imbibed many traditional beverages and spoken hundreds of tongues via the speakers of a universal translation matrix; yet somehow, the experience never grows old. She accepts the proffered bauble of hot tea with a nod of thanks, and sips it curiously.

It is salty, as expected, but a wonderfully floral flavor lurks beneath.

The taste of Kaminar, Michael thinks. She closes her eyes to savor it.

“I have missed the fredalia tea of home,” Saru sighs over his clay bauble. The orange lamplights dance off of his pale face. “All of my tries, and they never came close to this.”

“I am starting to believe location to be a critical ingredient,” Michael offers. And this was true. Despite Michael’s careful attempts and alchemies, Vulcan brews seemed to only taste as they ought to when drunk upon the red sands of their home world.  

“I think that you must be right.” Saru looks over to Siranna, currently settling onto her chair with her own bauble. “Thank you very much for this.”

“We were blessed with a bountiful harvest this season,” Siranna demures modestly.

Saru laughs a little. “You sound like Father.” He lowers his bauble to his thighs. “Where is Father?”

The warm orange light dims a little.

“Father…” Siranna begins. “Reached his vahar’ai and joined the Great Balance, not long after you…” She shakes on the word. “ Left us .”

At the sudden shift in mood, Michael places her tea bauble on the ground. Siranna turns to Saru, her face now a twist of pain.

“How could you? Without the merest indication of where you had gone?”

“Siranna—” The shame in Saru’s voice casts a spear into Michael’s heart. “I thought— it would be safer for you to believe I was dead.”

“Why?” Siranna insists. “Safer from whom?”

“From the Ba’ul, of course!”

Siranna looks irate. “What on the great seas do you take me for, Brother? I would live every day of my life with that danger if it meant knowing you lived on, somewhere! Anywhere!”

She slams her tea bauble to the ground, making Michael jump.

“How could you keep this from us! You fly in a starship, you can go anywhere, do anything, you have technology we could never imagine! You are smart, Saru! The smartest person in the village, by far! You could have contacted us, somehow, someway!”

Shame is crawling across Saru’s face as he shrinks from his sister’s assault.

“Did it not occur to you to send word?” Siranna exclaims. “To perhaps even visit? Come to us, in a secret ship like the one that took you away? You, with your organization more powerful than the Ba’ul —”

“Of course it did!” Saru finally shouts, silencing Siranna. “I thought about doing so every day, every hour. You cannot imagine how deeply I missed you, Siranna…”

His voice breaks on his sister’s name.

Siranna’s anger seems to abate at the sight of her brother’s pain. She scoots her chair in closer to him. “Then what on the name of the stars prevented you?”

“My…rescuers,” Saru murmurs. “They are called Starfleet, the enforcers and protectors of the United Federation of Planets. This Federation has…strict rules on situations such as these. When we contact societies far less advanced than our own, we are bound by our laws to leave them in piece. To make no further contact.” He looks up into Siranna’s wide-eyed face, her shaking head. “Were I to return…you would ask where I had gone. How I had come back. And then…Kelpien society would be forever disturbed by such knowledge.”

Siranna rocks back on her heels, her blue eyes wide. Silence hangs heavy for several moments as she digests this information.

“The Federation…your rescuers…” The muted rage in Siranna’s feminine voice strikes Michael through the chest. “They took you from us. From Kaminar. They bound you by their laws, they—they chained you to their ways. Your so-called rescuers! Well, what of our ways, Brother?”

In a smooth motion, Siranna rises from the floor.

“Have you truly been so brainwashed? Father taught you this, as he taught our entire community! We do not turn back our people, not when the Watchful Eye may take us at any moment!” Enraged, Siranna casts a fiery figure in the low orange lamp light of her hut. “Every day is sacred! Every moment is sacred! We live our lives in fear, but for the bonds of our community and our families—”

“… we rise to meet each day anew .” Saru finishes the litany in time with his sister.

Siranna breathes hard as she faces her brother. “Only in vahar’ai do we sever our bonds with our community. And you had not yet faced vahar’ai when you left.”

Saru looks as if he’s been slapped, but Siranna continues.

“If—if this Starfleet , cares so very much about the ways of less advanced societies, then why did they not heed our laws, when they were on our planet? This is the foundation of who we are, Saru!”

Siranna’s words possess kernels of truth, and they ring with intense power.

On the floor of the hut, Michael wonders what fate it was that, of the two siblings, Saru had been the one to escape this planet.

“Your abductors are wrong! Can you not see that? They stole you away in the night, like you were prey, and kept you like you were their prisoner—”

“Enough!” 

Saru’s voice rings in the hut. He is on his feet now, taller than his sister. The siblings stare each other down. “I left Kaminar…because I wanted to leave.” Saru states the words with intense calm, though pain swims beneath his tone. “ I wanted this. There was never anything here for me, Siranna. You know this.”

I am here, Saru.”

Siranna’s voice swims with heartbreak.

“Father was here. Your village is here. I know how dissatisfied you were. Of course I do. We grew up together, Brother. I know that you were never made for this life.” She reaches to Saru’s face. “And yet…it seems you had in you enough courage to break the will of the Great Balance. To escape, as none of us ever have. You defied our customs.”

For the first time in this intense encounter, Siranna looks down at Michael.

“Yet, you bow so completely to theirs.”

Dark silence holds in the hut.

Siranna twitches suddenly. Her threat ganglia crawl forth from both sides of her neck.

Then, the ground begins to shake. The tools on the walls rattle. Through the high window holes, a hot white light begins to glow.

Michael shoots to her feet. “What is happening?”

“The Ba’ul!” Siranna exclaims. She rushes to the window holes, securing a screen over each of them in turn. “They must have observed your return.”

Sick dread claws at Michael’s stomach. Saru is helping his sister to secure the house, placing clay-works upon the ground where they will be safe and lashing the tools to the wall.

“Once again, you disturb the Great Balance and put our village in danger!” With a furious tug, Siranna closes the last window. “You must leave now! We won’t be safe with you here!”

Michael meets Saru’s eyes and knows they are thinking the same thing.

Safety was no guarantee, even with them gone.

“Siranna…” Saru tries, even as a deep bellow rises from somewhere in the black forest. “This may be the last time we ever see each other.”

Siranna’s face twists in anger.

“Do not speak to me with such fatalism, Brother. You possess the tools to defy your fate a hundred times over. Don’t you dare act as if you are powerless!”

The distant roar grows louder.

“Saru!”

Michael is halfway out of the door as she shouts. Out in the open air, hot white lights dance in the night sky. A deep siren shrieks high in the black, and the trees heave in the unnatural squall.

Inside the house, Siranna’s face shuts down, stalwart and unyielding.

“Return to the stars, Saru. There is no place for you here.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The bridge is in a state of controlled chaos when Michael and Saru step out of the turbo-lift. Bryce’s hands are flashing across the comms console, and alerts of all kinds are pouring in from various decks and departments.

“Whatever you did, the Ba’ul are hailing us now!” In the captain’s chair, Pike sounds far less than pleased. “I’m going to guess it’s not to invite us to a welcome party.”

Over the whirring of the sensors and whines of the proximity scanners, Bryce calls, “Communication channel established. It’s…audio only.”

Michael exchanges a bewildered glance with Saru as they step to their stations.

“Mr. Saru, I think it would be best if you stayed out of this conversation,” Pike barks. He straightens in his chair, readying for the transmission. At the first officer’s terminal, Saru straightens as well.

This would be the first time in living memory that a Kelpien has witnessed any trace of their predator species in real-time. A shiver runs through Michael at the thought.

“This is Captain Christopher Pike of the USS Discovery —”

YOU SWORE TO NEVER RETURN!

The saw-blade words reverberate off of the bridge’s metallic walls, booming deep and terrible. Overhead, the lights flash alarmingly before sputtering out. The bridge is plunged into blackness, leaving the red emergency floor as the only source of illumination.

Michael takes in the dark bridge, the eerie red light…and the voice of Saru’s predators.

“You’re going to have to clarify…”

Pike’s eyes dart warily around the room. He looks deeply unsettled by the sudden power failure on the bridge.

STARFLEET PROMISED THAT IT WOULD NOT MEDDLE IN THE INTERNAL AFFAIRS OF OUR PLANET .

Michael flinches. The voice in which the Ba’ul speak must be a synthesizer of some kind, for there is no way, no possible, logical reason for nature to grant a species the voice of a dying eldritch horror, or the reanimated corpse of a fallen God.

STARFLEET…PROMISED US

Starfleet promised

The deck under Michael’s feet lurches, because—

Because

Because Starfleet had promised the Ba’ul.

Not the Kelpiens.

But the Kelpiens — Michael rubs at her eyes, trying for logic— The Kelpiens were sentient as well .

Had they not had the right to determine their galactic fate?

Pike blazes onwards, talking loudly to match the power of the Ba’ul’s combined voice. “We’re investigating the signal that appeared over your planet, which I’m sure you noticed. These signals are typically followed by the arrival of an entity we call the Red Angel…”

General Order One , Michael thinks at her station. Leaving less advanced species alone so that their growth might proceed untouched—

“…The Red Angel may pose a threat to Kaminar’s Great Balance…”

Behind his terminal, Saru is shaking his head, closing his eyes at his captain’s words. Michael sees his disgust, his despair.

His own captain, co-opting Saru’s beliefs incorrectly to negotiate with his predators… His oppressors ?

The Kelpiens and the Ba’ul, two sentient species living together on one planet…Two sentient species, but only one had taken to the stars—

“Our mutual interest lies in keeping the peace,” Pike continues, “Which we all—”

NO ONE IS SAFER THAN UNDER THE WATCHFUL EYE .”

The Watchful Eye, the Ba’ul, the predators, the warp-capable species who had closed off the system two decades ago—

YOU HAVE BROKEN YOUR PROMISE. RETURN THE KELPIEN TO US, AND WE WILL ALLOW YOU TO LEAVE UNHARMED .”

“I am not yours to be returned!”

Saru’s shout echoes across the red-toned bridge, dispelling the distorted voice of the Ba’ul.

“Mr. Saru—” Pike shouts a warning.

THE KELPIEN SPEAKS …” The voice of the Ba’ul sounds intrigued.

“I am Saru! The first from Kaminar, Kelpien or Ba’ul, to join Starfleet, and I know the truth about vahar’ai!

THE GREAT BALANCE IS THE ONLY TRUTH, AND IT MUST NOT BE DISTURBED . YOU WERE NOT MEANT TO RETURN...

Michael works through the data, sifting as fast as ever she can under the stressful circumstances.

What did Starfleet promise, why did Starfleet promise—

“Your lies no longer work on me!” Saru shouts over the whine of the sensors, the groan of the EPS grid struggling to bring power back to the bridge. “I survived my vahar’ai , and I know it means not death, but evolution! An evolution you murder my people to suppress!”

“Commander!” Pike shouts.

Rules, laws, punishments—

YOU THINK YOU KNOW EVERYTHING, KELPIEN…YOU DO NOT EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!

“Captain, I detect ten Ba’ul sentry ships on intercept course!” Detmer calls from the helm. On the viewscreen, ten distinct silver dots appear out of the inky blackness of space, coming in hot.

Michael’s gaze whips down to her terminal, and she scans her readouts as fast as she can.

“Shields up, red alert!” Pike commands. “Show me what we’re dealing with!”

Through the viewscreen, a massive, diamond-shaped vessel grows larger and larger as it approaches at speed. The ship is dark grey, tall and slender like the fin of a shark. As the ship fills the viewscreen, two, three, six, seven more vessels appear from behind it, hidden in their approach.

“The Ba’ul ships are powering up their weapons!” Michael calls.

“Warm up the phasers!”

“Aye Captain!” Rhys confirms.

Pike turns towards the viewscreen, his face a mask of resolve. “Whoever is listening to my voice, I advise that you consider your next move very carefully.”

The Ba’ul ships slot themselves into formation around the Discovery. Though each ship is many thousands of kilometers away in the vacuum of space, their organization is such that the Discovery is encased in a near-perfect sphere of physical containment.

GIVE US THE KELPIEN .”

Pike’s voice is as hard as cold flint. “Commander Saru is a political asylum seeker and a Starfleet officer, protected by the Federation!”

Protected…

Saru was protected, but his people weren’t—

YOU WOULD RISK THE LIVES OF YOUR OWN PEOPLE FOR ONE KELPIEN .”

“This Kelpien is our people. And to defend him, I will do whatever I deem necessary.”

The captain’s response is Starfleet, through and through.

So why does Michael feel like she is being rubbed inside-out?

AS WILL WE .”

Tense silence holds on the dark red bridge.

Three seconds...five seconds...eight seconds...

Michael’s screen flashes an alert. She recognizes one of the leftover background scans activated upon the Discovery ’s initial arrival to Kaminar.

Her heart spasms at the reading.

“The Ba’ul are activating the pylon in Commander Saru’s village!”

YOU HAVE INTERFERED IN THE AFFAIRS OF THIS VILLAGE. IF YOU DO NOT RETURN THE KELPIEN, THERE WILL BE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS .

“The pylons are weaponized!” Saru exclaims. “They mean to destroy my village! We have to—”

Pike whirls on Saru, his voice incensed.

“Mr. Saru! You will remove yourself from the bridge!”

Saru stares at Pike. His stare is reflected by the entire bridge crew complement, Michael herself included. Not one of them has seen Pike angry like this before, perhaps no one thought it possible.

“But—” Saru tries. “Captain—”

“That’s an order!”

Helplessly, Saru looks to Michael at the science station.

Or at least, Michael feels his pleading gaze upon her. But her eyes are frozen forward while she herself is two years and thousands of light-years away.

Georgiou’s cold eyes, her furious face, her phaser held aloft—

—“How dare you challenge me!—”

Hot white light burns through the Shenzhou ’s paneled viewport, bringing Human faces into scalding relief. The bridge crew’s eyes are on her, shocked and pitying, horrified and embarrassed--

The Discovery ’s automated voice calls out the situation, but Michael barely hears it.

“You are relieved of duty!”

Pike’s words split the room into pieces. Michael struggles to hold on, gripping her terminal with all of her might.

Powerful hands pull Michael’s feet from the floor, her arms are bound behind her and she is dragged all but bodily into the turbo-lift—

“Sir—" Saru tries once more.

“Get out!” Pike denies flatly. Behind him, Detmer and Owosekun are wide-eyed, completely turned around in their chairs.

—“Security, remand her to the brig”—

Alerts blare, the red backlights prickle at Michael’s vision, pressing painfully at her temples. Michael thinks she might be shaking.

Is Saru looking at her right now? Is everyone looking at her?

No, that would be foolish, illogical

And at the thought of logic, Michael thinks of Sarek’s voice, of Spock’s voice, of lessons and training and exercises and breathing—

She looks down at her glowing console screen. The screen itself is painful to her eyes, but framing both sides of the terminal in a brutal grip are her hands, her dark brown fingers.

Inhale.

Michael grips the terminal edges with crushing force.

Exhale.

The terminal is real, steel and silicon and plexiglass. Michael holds it fast like an anchor.

Inhale.

There is hard metal under Michael’s hands, hard metal beneath her feet. Present and real, solid and certain.

Exhale.

It is not enough to return her to equanimity, but there is no time during a ship-wide red alert. Michael looks up, her panic and humiliation suppressed behind a black firewall of forced serenity, in time to see the turbolift door hiss shut.

Saru is gone.

“Rhys, I want a threat assessment on those Ba’ul warships, stat!” Pike barks from the center of the bridge. “Mr. Bryce, start piecing through whatever the hell that vocoder was, try to find the voice beneath it. Burnham, see if you can find anything we may have missed in those old reports, something that might give us a way to negotiate!”

Michael’s eyes jerk to her screen, to the terrifying readouts from the scans still sweeping the planet.

“Sir, the energy readings from that pylon are in the vicinity of one point six terajoules and rising. The explosion could wipe out everything in a seven-kilometer radius!”

“I am aware of the threat to the village, Burnham, but I’m trying to avoid a war here!”

why?

The thought whispers through Michael’s brain on furtive, silent feet, and she analyzes it from a distance.

Why…

Why were they trying so hard to avoid conflict with a nation that kept the equivalent of a nuclear bomb hidden in the villages of its less-advanced neighbors?

Stop it

Why were they avoiding altercation with a race that killed members of another race, to prevent them from evolving into something more formidable?

You have orders

The rules were in place for a reason. To protect them from their baser instincts, to keep the Federation on the path of righteousness, Michael had broken them and learned the consequences first-hand—

Rules, laws, punishments…

Starfleet does not fire first—

—Let’s try not to start a war here

They are not here to start a war. They are here to keep the peace, to maintain order.

There is a nuclear bomb set to go off in Saru’s village, where his sister lives.

Michael tears to the captain’s chair. The proximity sensors are howling, the bridge is still dark, alerts of all kinds are flowing in from every deck, but if she can just make Pike understand—

“Sir, I have strong reason to believe that there are sentient rights violations occurring on Kaminar.”

Pike barely looks at her, so focused is he on the readouts on the viewscreen.

“That’s a compelling theory, Burnham, but I have bigger problems at the moment; namely, keeping the peace between the Ba’ul and Starfleet.”

“And the Kelpiens?” Michael demands. Pike jerks to look at her, finally.

“Sir, as a xenoanthropologist, I can state with confidence that the Ba’ul’s hold over Kelpien society is far more rigid and absolute than what a mere predator-prey relationship would imply!”

“I’ve read the reports, Burnham!” Pike denies over the wail of red alert. “Saru’s report from twenty years ago, all of the interviews he went through, and there is nothing that implies foul play!”

“Saru had just left his planet after a lifetime of teachings and brain-washings! How could he possibly know what the Ba’ul were doing to the Kelpiens without any kind of context?”

“Commander Saru’s basic, fundamental biology has changed overnight!” Pike’s voice is unyielding. “He is a different man than he was just weeks ago. He is acting with more boldness and aggression than most Fleet officers, Kelpien or not.”

“The Ba’ul ships are powering up some kind of energy-based weapons!” Rhys calls. “Analyzing them now!”

“Just because he is different now, does not mean he is wrong about this.”

Pike looks like he is ready to tear his own hair out.

“So what would you have me do, Commander?”

Michael’s response is ready.

“Act in the defense of the Kelpiens, who have done no wrong towards the Ba’ul. Send a message to the priest Siranna, who has already seen Human faces, and tell her to evacuate her village. Comm Fleet command for back-up, if necessary!”

Alerts are flashing on the viewscreen. Calls from the bridge to lower decks and back ring in Michael’s ears.

“Make it clear to the Ba’ul that we are Starfleet , sir,” Michael insists. “And we do not stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered!”

“Burnham…” Pike is shaking his head.  “I can’t upend twenty years of diplomatic relations based on one singular visit to one singular village by two officers, one of whom is a member of that village—”

“You just said yourself, the Kelpien is our people !” Michael almost cannot believe what she is hearing. “He is a product of Kaminar, but he is Starfleet as well! And he has insight into the situation on his planet that none of us have!”

“Would any members of his own species agree with him? Did any Kelpiens you met down there indicate that the Ba’ul were oppressing them?”

“We only met one—”

“Which is insufficient—”

“Well how could we have met any others with the constraints placed upon us by General Order One?!”

Despite the din and turmoil of red alert, the space between Michael and Pike is as quiet as the void.

“What are you saying, Burnham?”

“I…”

Realization breaks over Michael’s consciousness like sunrise upon a black dawn.

Starfleet law favors the Ba’ul.

And the next thought:

Who else did Starfleet law favor?

Into the tense shatterpoint, Pike finally speaks.

“Commander, I have great respect for you as an officer. You’re one of the best that Starfleet has ever produced, but you’ve got quite a history of bucking the rules and undermining leadership in times of great pressure. Allow me to remind you that despite your education and experience, you are not infallible. And you are an officer on my ship, serving under me.” Pike stands less than a foot from her, Michael realizes. His voice is low and even, but firm to the point of cold. “Now, I do not want to go into a potential battle bereft of my first officer and my second officer, but I will do as I must to maintain order on this bridge. Are we clear?”

Stunned silence rings in Michael’s ears for a long moment.

“Sir?” Owosekun calls, making both Michael and Pike jump. “Systems are showing an unauthorized transporter pad power-up!”

The captain locks eyes with Michael, their argument forgotten in a split-second.

They both know exactly what is happening.




*





Michael’s legs pump as she rounds the corner to the transporter room, phaser drawn.

“Saru!”

Saru whirls around, clearly surprised by her appearance. Michael raises her weapon.

“I know what you’re doing; please , do not make me use this.”

She manages to keep her grip steady, even as she remembers that fateful day a year and a half ago, when her captain had held a phaser towards her after Michael had gone against her orders.

“You are in the throes of a fundamental biological change,” Michael insists, the words and justifications issuing from her mouth robotically. “You’re not thinking clearly!”

--Not thinking clearly—still injured—stand down, Commander Burnham—

Michael had been so close, so close, and she had lost everything

“I have never felt more clarity than in this moment!” Saru argues, his mellow voice agitated and urgent. “If I stay, they will kill my sister, my entire village, my planet, Michael! What good will my rank be to me then, if I must let my people burn in order to keep it?”

Michael opens her mouth, and closes it again.

“I know that you understand,” Saru insists, desperate now. “Two years ago, you stood alone—“

“That was different,” Michael grates, her hands clutching the phaser pointed at Saru’s chest. “I was wrong—“

“Then I am right?” Saru demands. Michael shakes her head, batting off Saru’s words; she has lost a debate that had not even begun, she gave away the argument before it had started, stars, she must really be losing it--

“I have to try, Michael,” Saru insists, desperate now. “I have to, and if I fail, then at least my conscience will be clean.”

“You will be stripped of rank,” Michael exclaims. “Removed from the Discovery—“

I don’t care !”

Saru’s shout echoes between them in the empty transporter room.

Something in Michael’s chest, some pillar, or pylon, or fundamental support structure, cracks and wavers at her crewmate’s declaration. Fifteen years in Starfleet, and Saru is happy to throw it all away, to protect his loved ones. Somehow, somehow , Michael’s Kelpien friend is putting love above duty, lives above rules…and he is doing it easily, without so much as a waver.

Michael’s arms tremble.

And in the next moment, her mind is made up.

Her phaser powers down, stashed beneath her grey Kelpien cloak. She is disobeying orders, undermining her captain, ignoring a treaty struck during first contact, and throwing kindling on the flames of a possible interspecies war, among who knows what else. But Michael knows one thing with certainty, only one, out of the entirety of her cascading mess of anxiety and turmoil…

Which is that she would not be able to live with herself, were she to do any less.

She strides onto the transporter to stand next to Saru, who looks equal parts shocked and dazzled at Michael’s actions.

“You can’t face an entire armada of Ba’ul alone.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text



Something rock hard presses against Michael’s hip, her shoulder, her cheek.

She exhales painfully, her ribcage crackling. Several long moments crawl by before she can open her eyes, while she attempts to overcome unpleasant disorientation that stems from waking up in a new environment. Her logical processes reassert themselves, and Michael observes her surroundings clinically.

The floor is smooth black metal. There are black walls, circular, no , dodecahedral, indicating that she is in an artificially-constructed space of some kind. The ambient light stems from inset panels within the walls and ceiling. Bright enough to function, but too dim to be incredibly helpful.

Shakily, Michael sits up. Her left hand falls upon something warm and soft; she jerks her head sideways to verify the white robes of a Kelpien priest.

Saru’s sister, Siranna, lies unconscious in a heap next to Michael.

“Shit , ” Michael curses under her breath. They had given themselves up, hadn’t they? Why would the Ba’ul still capture Saru’s sister?

“Siranna?” Michael crawls painfully to the Kelpien woman’s shoulder, shaking her. Siranna seems to be waking up, slowly, just as Michael had. Her blue eyes meet Michael’s, and she looks fearful indeed.

“What—what is happening?”

“We’ve been taken by the Ba’ul, but I don’t know where.”

Siranna sits up, her head spinning in every direction as she attempts to make sense of her surroundings.

“The—the Watchful Eye? But…” She exhales, her eyes wide. “But it is not yet my time. Michael?”

She looks over Michael’s shoulder, and her eyes grow even wider.

“Saru!”

Michael whirls on the spot.

Behind her, suspended from the metal wall is Commander Saru. He is bound by his wrists, ankles, and neck via peculiar metallic restraints.

“Saru?” Michael clambers to her feet. Her movements feel jerky, her muscles uncoordinated. No doubt she had been subjected to some type of electrical pulse during the time between their arrival planet-side and subsequent abduction by the Ba’ul.

She staggers to her crewmate’s side and places hands on the restraints. “Saru, what happened?”

He shakes his head, his blue eyes faded and weary. “After the Ba’ul took us, we lost consciousness, and I woke up bound like this. Every— nghgh! ” A shudder runs through Saru’s long Kelpien body, and the audible snap indicates the electro-shock nature of the pulse. “— Every—minute —or so, the wall delivers a shock. It is…” Saru trembles. “Disorienting, to say the least.”

“Well…” Michael exhales, casting her eyes around the cold metal room. “At least this is where we’d meant to end up. In a manner of speaking.” She reaches to center her thoughts and cool her emotions to frigidity, but in truth, this step is unnecessary. 

She has been calm, collected, and rational since the moment she woke up on the floor of this alien stronghold, trapped and likely outnumbered by hostiles.

Strange, Michael thinks distantly, how she could be so centered and efficient under circumstances of intense danger, but not within the physical safety of her own starship.

A hand beneath her Kelpien robe indicates her phaser is still on her person, powered down. She keeps her right hand on the trigger as she prowls around the edges of the metal room. At standing level, Michael registers something she had not noticed before; namely, a round, raised pool in the middle of the dodecahedral room.

There is liquid inside, far too black and opaque to be water.

Michael’s tricorder is still in her pocket; the Ba’ul had not thought to remove it. Perhaps they did not know what it was. She pulls it out now and scans the dark pool in the center of the room.

“It’s a nutrient bath.” Michael murmurs. Siranna, pressed against the wall next to her brother, looks amazed. “And it’s deep, too. Vast. Less of a pool, more of an…opening, perhaps. And there are…” At the new readings, Michael darts on silent feet back around the room, planting herself firmly in front of Saru and his sister. “So many life signs.”

The pool begins to bubble.

Michael powers up her phaser, but the whine of the weapon’s activation is drowned out by the hissing and snarling of the black water in front of her. Something, something is crawling forth from those depths, Michael can see it in the opaque sludge.

“Michael! Do not antagonize it!” Saru shouts above the howling liquid. “It is me they want! If you hide yourself, you may be able to better assist!”

“And how exactly will I do that?” Michael glares pointedly around the large, empty chamber. As she does this, she notes, for the first time, a singular archway parting the metal walls. Though it appears open and unblocked, Michael’s swift kick into the open arch is deflected immediately.

A force field.

“Get behind me!”

Siranna’s feminine voice slices over the unnatural squall emanating from the pool. Correctly reading Michael’s face, she adds, “They only know Kelpiens, not Hu— Hum —Your people! Maybe it won’t see you!”

The idea is as good as any. Michael drops to her knees and slides behind Siranna, who presses her backwards into the wall. She keeps her phaser at the ready, cocked next to Siranna’s right hip. Siranna is trembling like a leaf as she obscures Michael’s body with her own.

It occurs to Michael that the unevolved Kelpien woman is demonstrating courage far beyond what her fear responses should indicate.

The mass in the center of the black pool grows taller and taller. Metallic screeching fills the room and Michael’s teeth clatter, her bones vibrating at the din. Dark liquid sluices around the rising form of a grotesque, misshapen something

Two long, black arms detach themselves from the figure. Long, waving tendrils cascade down from what appears to be a head. But aside from this, black liquid swirls and cascades across the strange horror, obscuring it from clear view.

Metallic whirring emanates from the open doorway. The forcefield flares and spits, and three flying drones whir into the room. Siranna cries out; one of the drones flies in close, a sharp, spinning instrument protruding from its carapace. Michael shoots it down in an instant. The other follows quickly, but the third proves crafty, dodging her phaser bolts as it careens around the room.

A sharp bolt bursts from the drone’s center. It strikes Siranna, and the woman screams as the energy blast forces her spine rigid.

“Siranna!”

Saru’s shout is enraged. Michael holds the Kelpien woman tight into her chest, barely managing to look up at Saru—

And sees twin flesh spurs emerging, protruding , from his empty ganglia nests. The masses appear to be firm, like cartilage or bone, covered in pale skin. They twist to align themselves next to Saru’s face. From the front of each hardened ridge, a line of—of—

Were those… spikes ?

Before Michael can even blink, long, needle-like barbs shoot from each side of Saru’s face. They strike the sentry drone, a handful piercing its metal shell. The robot crashes into the floor and breaks into pieces.

Silence.

“What…” Michael swallows. She stares jerkily up at Saru on the wall. “ What— ?”

She trails off, for Saru looks just as shocked as she feels.

THE FIRST KELPIEN TO PASS ITS VAHAR’AI IN TWO THOUSAND YEARS, AND YOUR PRIMAL, FERAL RESPONSES ARE THE SAME AS CENTURIES AGO .”

The horrific voice booms around the metal room, emanating from the sickening black form in the pool. Michael jolts, and Siranna presses against her in an effort to cower away.

Centuries ago

YOUR KIND CAN NEVER GOVERN ITSELF. THE FEDERATION HAS NO IDEA WHAT THEY WELCOMED INTO THEIR RANKS .

“You are wrong!” Saru shouts from above Michael. “The Federation gave me the chance stolen by the Ba’ul!”

YOUR SPECIES DOES NOT DESERVE A SECOND CHANCE !

A second chance ?

Michael whips down the threads of logic. The implications of the statement, the Ba’ul’s earlier threats on the bridge, Saru’s physiological change, the entire cultural premise of planet Kaminar—

STARFLEET...BETRAYED THEIR WORD. YOU WERE NEVER SUPPOSED TO RETURN!

Behind Siranna, Michael pulls her tricorder and begins whispering into it, talking fast. Saru looks down to her. Ever the quick study, he continues to goad the horrific form in the pool.

“You kept this from us! For—for two thousand years? Two thousand years of brainwashing—!”

THE GREAT BALANCE IS THE ONLY WAY TO ENSURE THAT YOU DO NOT DESTROY EVERYTHING IN YOUR PATH .

“The Great Balance is a lie!” Saru shouts. “You created it to defend yourself from us, while you—you expanded throughout the stars and kept us chained to our—our huts, our gardens—”

WE WILL NEVER ALLOW THE PAST TO BE REPEATED. NO THREAT TO THE GREAT BALANCE WILL GO UNANSWERED .

“You cannot maintain this farce you call peace! Kelpiens are more than our instincts!”

YOU ARE THE ONLY TWO KELPIENS TO KNOW THE TRUTH. YOU WILL UNDERGO ANALYSIS AND BE NEUTRALIZED .

Whirring sounds issue once more from the hallway. Siranna recoils at the noise, and Michael drops the tricorder and readies her phaser.

THE TRUTH WILL BE CONTAINED !

Drones buzz into the room. Five, ten, possibly more, Michael pushes Siranna to the ground and fires into their depths, again and again and again. An energy beam strikes her exposed side, and she screams as hot agony surges through her limbs.

A howl echoes from above her. Saru groans, heaves, and with a mighty surge of effort, he snaps the restraints from the wall. Now free, he stomps heavily into the drone swarm, snatching them from the air and ripping them forcefully apart.

On the ground, Michael braces her shaking phaser arm on the metal floor and fires as best she can manage with electricity shooting through her limbs. Together, she and Saru rip through the remaining sentry drones until the last one falls to the floor in pieces.

Silence holds in the metal room. The pool is still and empty once more; the Ba’ul, or whatever that thing had been, must have retreated to safety during the melee.

Discovery ,” Michael finally pants. “Did you get all of that?”

Copied loud and clear ,” comes the tinny voice from the tricorder. Saru kneels before Michael and tugs his trembling sister into his arms.

“So it was your surviving vahar’ai that made you a threat.”

At Michael’s words, Siranna gapes at her brother.

“It is true? You…survived your vahar’ai?”

The Kelpien woman looks dazzled at the notion.

“Yes,” Saru confirms, and Siranna gasps. “I am what we used to become, the form we were once able to take.”

Siranna looks to be going through a small epiphany where she sits propped up by her brother. Michael keeps half of her gaze on the doorway, ready for more sentry drones, even as she listens.

“The Great Balance…” Siranna chokes on the words. “Our sacrifice to the Watchful Eye…it was all a--a lie —forced upon us by the Ba’ul…” Horror looks to be splitting the priest wide open, it is all Michael can do to continue to witness it. “That—that stole our mother and father from us... And generations of Kelpiens as well!”

“…And it must end.”

Saru finishes his sister’s thoughts firmly. He locks eyes with Michael, who raises the tricorder to her face.

“Burnham to Discovery …Commander Saru and his sister are with me. We are locked within a Ba’ul structure of some kind. There are no indicators of our position, but I would posit that we are underground or underwater.”

We’ll work on triangulating your position .” Pike’s voice issues over the tricorder.

“Sir,” Michael begins. “We have obtained incontrovertible proof that the Ba’ul are oppressing and murdering their co-species.”

We’ll work on freeing you three first, then cross the next bridge when we come to it.

“If you send out a message to Starfleet now, there may be time to muster a response!”

The Discovery would need back-up to take on the warp-capable Ba’ul, Michael was sure of it, but the nearest Federation outpost was within three lightyears of Kaminar, ships could jump to warp and be here within the hour—

Burnham, this is a situation two thousand years in the making, we need to tread carefully and summoning the cavalry isn’t quite a light-handed touch !”

Michael opens her mouth…

And closes it again.

The tricorder slides from her grip, clattering onto the metal floor. Logical rebuttals are loud in her brain, from the pertinent fact that the Ba’ul had nearly leveled a village of innocents to the fact that she and Saru had obtained a confession, loud and clear, from one of their representatives, owning up to two thousand years of oppression...

But of course, Captain Pike knew all of it already.

“You…” Siranna begins unsteadily. “You’re not going to—to help us?”

Michael and Saru look at her.

Siranna, the brave Kelpien priest who had lived her entire life under the thumb of a violent oppressor. Whose people would never know advancement, evolution, the galaxy, space travel, freedom

Because that was how things were. The status quo .

Something dark and toxic crawls through Michael’s chest. The very same choking anxiety that had all but consumed her back on the bridge of the Discovery , in the brig of the Shenzhou , as a child on Vulcan watching her murderers walk free… The regulations, laws, orders, rules, rules that had forced her into victimhood and martyrdom, that had cast her out, destroyed her life so many times. Rules, laws, punishments…

But who bore the brunt of the blows, and who took shelter beneath the executioner’s arm?

“We have the power to rewrite our fate one hundred times over…” Michael murmurs.

Her spine straightens.

“Enough of this. We’ll figure something out!”

Saru nods emphatically. He rises to his feet and begins to prowl the room. “I’m going to find us a way out of here!”

“We’re going to find a way to help you,” Michael assures a wide-eyed Siranna. “We’ll figure something out, without back-up or—”

She swallows the rest of her bitter statement.

“That—creature,” Siranna begins. “He said that our kind can never govern ourselves, but how can that be true? Saru serves on a ship amongst so many others, no doubt weaker than him.”

According to bio-cultural data collected by the Sphere, two thousand years ago, there was some type of war on Kaminar .” Tilly’s voice issues from the tricorder on the ground. “ Both species were decimated, but it looks like the Ba’ul rallied and—and wiped out the evolved members of the Kelpien race !”

“So they’re afraid,” Michael murmurs. “And their fear turned to violence and hatred.”

“And they have spent two thousand years immersed in such twisted thinking!” Saru exclaims.

“But you are not a threat,” Siranna tells him plaintively. She casts her gaze down to the tricorder, and addresses the Discovery itself. “We are not a threat. And we do not want another war! We merely want to live our lives in fullness…as who we are, without fear or violence.”

Siranna shakes her head, clearly thinking hard.

“If we could just show the Ba’ul that we can live in peace, even after we have passed our vahar’ai …that we are not the dangerous creatures that they think we are, then there could be harmony between our two nations!”

“That is true.” Saru nods quickly. “But how will we undo thousands of years of conditioning as such? And how can we convince our people that their beliefs—their entire reality, is a lie?”

Michael shakes her head. “It will take time, so much time…”

“But if we had adequate strength on our side…” Siranna trails off. 

Slowly, she rises to her knees and takes Saru’s arms in hers, supplicating herself before her brother. 

Starfleet …” Siranna insists. “An organization more powerful than the Ba’ul. If you could stay the Ba’ul’s hand just long enough for—for enough Kelpiens to undergo vahar’ai and live…then we have a chance at convincing the rest!”  

“For that to happen…” Saru shakes his head. “It could be years, decades…”

He looks over Siranna’s shoulder at Michael and knows they are both thinking the same thing.

Starfleet would not consent to such a lengthy operation on such legally questionable grounds, especially after the war with the Klingons had so thoroughly decimated their resources.

Michael ?” That’s Tilly’s warbling voice from the tricorder. “ Everybody? I have an idea, but you may not like it .”

“Well, that’s been a recurring pattern of today,” Michael lobs back. “Let’s hear it.”

What if we just—end the Great Balance completely ?”

Silence.

Saru is staring at the tricorder. Michael, too, is somewhat gobsmacked.

No. No! No no no, I don’t mean like, killing everybody! God! What in the— ” There’s some muffled shuffling over the comm. “ No, no I meant like, what if we figure out how to trigger vahar’ai in more Kelpiens immediately, like how the sphere did for you, Commander ?”

“But how?” Pike queries over the comm.

The answer looms in Michael’s brain, vast and dark. She doesn’t want to say it, but it seems she is left with no choice.

“The sphere.”

The words issue from her mouth robotically.

“We isolate the active frequencies in the sphere’s transmission, the same phenomenon that brought on Saru’s vahar’ai and…”

Michael shakes her head, unwilling to go on.

Broadcast it across the planet !” Tilly completes. “ That’s brilliant !”

Then all Kelpiens will evolve .” Pike nods. “ Needing no further outside intervention. Excellent work, Commander .”

On the metal floor of this murky Ba’ul chamber, Siranna looks utterly horrified at the idea. Saru, as well, looks like he has been hit in the chest by something heavy.

His words from their morning tea whisper in Michael’s ear.

What is a Kelpien without fear ?

He and Michael lock eyes.

“Is there anything else we can do?” Michael tries. “Any other ideas?”

Over the comm, there is only silence. Saru’s blue eyes are darting, and Michael too, is drawing blanks.

We’ll take it .” Pike states evenly, clearly willing to move on. “ But how can we broadcast the transmission to all Kelpiens at once ?”

Saru ruminates quietly at the piles of downed sentry drones.

“I am familiar with the Ba’ul’s communication technology...” He begins slowly. “With what I have on hand, I believe can construct a transmitter. It will be small and weak, but enough send a signal through whichever pylons are nearest to…” He looks around, shrugging. “Wherever we are. And they will propagate the signal to the rest of pylons.” He gives an emphatic nod. “Globally.”

“Send the sound file to my tricorder,” Michael commands. “We can make this happen.”

The Ba’ul will pick up on the broadcast if you use their tech !” Bryce warns over the tricorder.

Michael’s mouth flattens. “Then we’d better hope it works fast.”








One hour later, the carapaces of the sentry drones lay in pieces. Bits of the walls have been torn out, their wire routings and internal junctions exposed. There is a meter-wide hole in the floor, inside of which is a ransacked audio-relay hub.

And on Saru’s lap is a working transceiver.

“If I do this…” He murmurs to his sister. “All Kelpiens, including you, will begin vahar’ai. And we will not be able to go back.”

Siranna’s blue eyes swim. 

“I remember—” She swallows. “Father, in the throes of the madness. He was in agony. Promise me, Saru, please …” Her gaze is terrified. “Promise me that there is something for us on the other side.”

In this moment, Siranna is no longer the powerful Kelpien priest, but a younger sister seeking protection from her older brother. Michael looks at her and sees her own little brother… Spock

Her eyes sting. She looks away.

“This will be a new beginning for everyone,” Saru assures. “And I will be here, Siranna. The entire time.”

Siranna looks down at the transceiver. She takes a breath, and nods.

“Then do it.”

 

 








Across the vast planet of Kaminar, a spectral, grotesque melody reverberates across the forests and oceans. Small at first, it builds to an eventual cacophony. In each village, Kelpiens drop to the ground, into the sea, from trees and stoops, from chairs and small wooden canoes. Screams of agony echo through the trees, howls ricochet across the lakes and back. A piercing, species-wide wail of terror and pain.

And across the vast planet of Kaminar, the sentry obelisks whir to life.

In each village, on every continent, in every hemisphere, the gray monoliths glow hotter and hotter. Bright light seethes from their very depths like molten lava. The pillars burn like tiny suns, illuminating the forests and lakes in hot orange light.

Like a forest fire, or the end of days.

Inside the Ba’ul stronghold, Siranna is screaming in her brother’s arms. 

The floor begins to shake, the walls groan, and the echoing beyond the small metal chamber is deep and vast indeed. Michael registers a pressure change in her ears, the new weight in her knees and feet, and concludes that the structure is rising .

At the far end of the chamber, the light changes. What Michael had assumed to be walls are actually windows, huge windows that make up the entire side of the chamber. They had only appeared to be dark metal because—

Because--

Water pours down the smooth window surfaces. Michael hears it splash into yet more water, far below them.

Their prison had been hidden beneath one of the seas.

And now it is not.

Michael casts a panicked glance at Saru, who looks just as disoriented as she is. In his lap, Siranna has gone quiet. She squirms, tugging her inert threat ganglia from their nests, but Michael barely registers this as her tricorder chirps insistently, urgently. Michael flips it open.

“— ptain Pike to Burnham, Pike to Burnham, you are being held captive inside a Ba’ul stronghold, which is activating the energy weapons contained within the pylons !”

Sure enough, there is a sickly orange glow on the distant shoreline. Far above her, through the paneled windows, Michael sees hot orange lines connecting the stronghold to the far-away obelisks.

If the Ba’ul are using waves of pure energy to propagate the explosion, then scientifically, the only way for them to do so would be to—

Michael’s fingers flash across the tricorder’s controls. Mouth flat, she scans the floor upon which she stands, into the depths of the structure.

The energy readings are nearly beyond the instrument’s computing capabilities.

“They are using this stronghold as the trigger.”

Michael speaks into the tricorder to her comrades on the bridge.

“We are at the epicenter of the blast.”

Over the comm, she hears the bridge fall into frantic activity.

Rhys, target photon torpedoes at that structure!”

“Power will not be sufficient to break through the defense shielding!”

“Well, start firing now!”

We’ll need everything we’ve got to even have a chance at those shields--

I’ve got a lock, prepared to deliver maximum payload--”

“Concentrate your fire at the pylons.”

The bridge falls silent at Michael’s command.

“Save some of the villages. Protect the planet. Ensure that the Kelpien race will not be wiped from the universe.”

Within the Ba’ul stronghold, Michael stands tall, gazing at the distant shoreline. Saru comes up to stand next to her, Siranna wobbling uncertainly beneath one of his arms. Michael registers the distant chatter from the bridge, protests and plans, ideas lobbed back and forth, but none of it will be any good. It is all empty bargaining, frantic supplications towards a universe that cares naught for its inhabitants.

Logically, scientifically, there is no chance of escape from this stronghold.

No way to beam out, no way to destroy the meter-thick transparent steel windows, no way to hack into the alien computer within the next fifteen seconds.

There is no way out of this locked room.

The explosion will take them all.

Michael takes Saru’s hand in hers. With his opposite arm, Saru holds Siranna close.

An acceptable way to die , Michael resolves. Here in her Starfleet blues, fighting for the freedom of an oppressed people, in an epic blast that will be quick, and absolute.

And painless.

Michael closes her eyes. She thinks of her brother, and hopes that he will be alright, wherever he is. She thinks of Philippa, and her chest twinges painfully.

If only they had— if only she had—

And then the air outside of the window…flickers.

Michael blinks.

Outside of the transparent steel of the Ba’ul stronghold, the clear air over the ocean is… it is shaking , quivering. Like a mirage across the hot Vulcan sands, the fabric of reality trembles like visible soundwaves, like—

Like

Michael’s arm comes up robotically, her tricorder scanning forward—

And in the next second, a red explosion tears across the sea.

Red light so hot, so intense it penetrates the transparent steel as if it were not there at all. Michael slams her eyes shut, claps her opposite hand over them, but the flare burns through her eyelids and her palms. She turns her back to the light, curling up on herself, struggling to escape this agony—

Siranna is shouting something to Saru, who shouts back, Michael cannot hear them over the roar of the explosion, the all-consuming brightness of the red light which has decimated every one of her senses, the spike lancing her skull as her eyes overload with red, red, RED

Then, in the span of a mere moment, the light disappears.

The raging heat across Michael’s back dissipates. The sun behind her eyelids extinguishes.

Michael looks up, and sees nothing.

“S—Saru?”

She reaches out. Saru’s hands take her arms and pull her, gently, to standing. Michael blinks, casts her gaze around, and still sees nothing.

“I—I can’t see. That light—it blinded me.” She presses close to Saru’s warm body, instinctively searching for protection. “How are we still alive?”

“Michael…” Above her, Saru’s voice is shocked, stupefied, reverent. “I—I saw into that flare, just before it overwhelmed me.”

“What was it? What happened?!”

“The Red Angel.”

A bolt of thunder claps in Michael’s chest.

“It was…a dark figure— It…hovered, inside of the red light, with—”

“— Big skeletal wings !”

Michael says the words at the same time as Saru does, for there could be no other description of this creature.

Saru is all but panting with the revelation. Michael, as well, is stunned.

“The Red Angel,” Saru whispers. “The Red Angel saved Kaminar.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Michael chimes the door to Saru’s quarters well after her shift has ended. She’s still in the comfortable white shirt and gray pants from her Kaminar outfit; it is technically within the limits of Fleet dress code, but even if it were not, Michael reasons that no one would deny her this right, after the day they’ve had.

The door hisses open, and Michael plods wearily into the jungle-like room. Saru looks up from his desk, where he is no doubt finishing paperwork on the day’s events on Kaminar.

“Ah, Michael. I was hoping you would come.”

Michael nods quietly at this, and lays herself in the seat opposite of Saru. She is tired, so very tired, and it takes her a moment to speak up.

“I wanted to check on you. It’s not every day the basic instincts and life philosophy of one’s entire species gets replaced with something else.”

Saru nods at that, his throat pouches clicking.

“That is kind of you.” His hands come up to the empty skin folds, where his threat ganglia had once nested. “I am…as well as can be expected, I suppose.”

Michael raises an eyebrow at that, but her expression remains soft.

Saru, for his part, puts down his stylus as he thinks.

“After everything that has happened today, I…have been considering a great many things. Things that I have never stopped to think about before.”

He gets up slowly, slowly, and Michael watches her friend’s blue Kelpien eyes soften beneath some sort of pain.

“Why was it that Starfleet granted me refugee status…asylum, safe from the clutches of the Ba’ul, but never thought to investigate the situation further?”

“Did you request that they do so?” Michael queries, and Saru shakes his head.

“I was too…” He gives a self-conscious huff. “Too frightened, Michael. I was concerned that if I were to disrupt the balance on my planet, I would attract the Ba’ul’s retribution, both towards myself and my family. However, I was honest in my written report, and in my application for citizenship. Captain Georgiou read both of them before I submitted them to committee.”

He walks towards the window, and Michael follows in his wake, rising wearily from the chair.

“You remember our time on the Shenzhou . We were dispatched to investigate lesser mysteries, situations of far lower concern than my own.” Saru shakes his head. “A prey species, escaping his biological destiny via technology stolen and co-opted from his natural predators… Logically, no one from Starfleet should have answered my call at all…but after she did…”

“…Surely the situation would have become suggestive, at the very least, once you were there to explain it.”

Michael murmurs the words, taking her place at Saru’s side. Her logical mind whirs to life as she considers Saru’s circumstances of eighteen years ago.

“Yet,” Saru murmurs. “No investigations were made. None of any kind…which seems strange, considering it was Captain Georgiou.”

He looks towards Michael.

“So much of that day no longer adds up, Michael, not after the knowledge and experience from today’s events.”

Saru and Michael are silent for a moment as they consider those events, and their implications.

“The Archimedes …” Saru begins slowly, “Was the ship that made first contact with the Ba’ul. And the only reason this happened…was because I sent out a transmission…which somehow the Ba’ul did not detect, though I did not have the knowledge to scramble it in any way—“

“But how is that possible?” Michael questions. “It was their tech. Unless…”

“…They did detect it,” Saru finishes her sentence. “They must have! But then…why not merely take me in the Culling, to prevent my escape?”

“Because…” Michael’s eyes widen as she proceeds to the logical conclusion. “Because that would have been suspicious.”

She turns to Saru, astonishment striking her face open. “A sentient being who sent out an intergalactic plea for help, killed in a ritual culling shortly after? There would have been inquiries, Starfleet would have investigated—“

“So the Ba’ul had to change their strategy.” Saru completes, his mellow voice sounded utterly stunned.

Both Michael and Saru mull silently over the logical trajectory of their shared puzzle, standing before the pitch-black void of space. Michael allows the situation to unfold in her mind, great and terrible, vast and miniscule; the destiny of an entire planet hinging on the fate of a single Kelpien upstart.

This is not Michael’s area of expertise; not politics, not diplomacy, certainly not shadowy, interplanetary political maneuvers…But now that she thinks about it…She does know someone who specializes in these particular fields.

Michael knows that someone quite well.

“Captain Georgiou…would not have had any type of cloaking device,” Michael states slowly. “Not on those old shuttles. How could she possibly have gotten past the Ba’ul sentry ships?”

She and Saru exchange a long, weighted look. The answer hangs between them, dark and ominous in the extreme.

“Before her resurrection, I would not have entertained such thoughts,” Saru murmurs. “But I believe there to be no other possibility—“

“She cut a deal with them.”

Michael’s voice is low and stunned. “She and the Ba’ul. Your life, in exchange for—“

“Lack of interference,” Saru completes, sounding shaken to the core. “Lack of investigation, into my circumstances.”

His throat pouches click, the sound piercing the weighted air like a shockwave.

“I was…prohibited from returning, all but given a gag order… and I assumed it was because of General Order One, but perhaps…it was actually —“

“—so that you would never be able to return to Kaminar and start an uprising.”

The conclusion is knocking Michael flat where she stands in front of Saru’s window. She would not, could not , have made such conjectures months ago, before the Shrine of Molor, before Philippa and Section 31, before secrets and politics had become an inextricable part of Michael’s life, but now…

Saru’s distress is palpable in the shift of his stance. “But… how could she have—“

“It could not have been only her decision. Not a lowly Lieutenant, aboard one of Starfleet’s oldest scrap-heaps.” Michael’s mouth twists, her voice all but shaking. “This goes far higher than we can possibly know.” 

Saru, for his part, stares down at his hands.

“I find it so difficult to understand, Michael. Our mission, as is stated in regulations, is to maintain the ways of life of alien species.” Saru shakes his head. “Yet the Kelpien way of life was sacrificed, to avoid external conflict with the Ba’ul… To maintain order.”

Silence holds between them, as Saru and Michael consider the situation.

“You’re right,” Michael finally murmurs. “So much of what happened today…was not what should have happened…”

“If the Red Angel had not showed up when it had…the Kelpiens would have been wiped off the face of Kaminar. And… I wonder if the Ba’ul would have faced any recrimination from the Federation—“

“Or if it would have been allowed to happen, as they were considered to be your predators. The natural order.”

Michael’s voice is low and angered. Silence holds as they consider this possibility.

Somehow, Saru’s blue eyes become thoughtful once more.

“You know, Michael…we are so mistrustful of Section 31, but I am starting to wonder if, perhaps, they are not so different from Starfleet.”

He continues quickly at Michael’s incredulous look.

“What I mean is that—well, it was Starfleet’s decision, every aspect of what happened on Kaminar, and what will happen henceforth.”

“Not Section 31…” Michael murmurs.

“I wonder if there is any real difference in alignment between the two?” Saru muses. “Perhaps it is merely easier, to think of Starfleet as good and upstanding, when there is an organizational offshoot notorious for covert ops, spying, and various…morally questionable… pursuits.”

Michael considers this with ice in her chest.

“There is no reason for Section 31 to wear black clothing or have black badges, yet they do.” Saru turns to her, raising a figurative Kelpien eyebrow.  “Makes our blues look rather bright, in comparison.”

Michael swallows. Saru’s conjecture is knocking her flat where she stands, and she wonders if she is ready for her entire world to invert in this way, after everything that has been happening.

Qo’Nos, the monstrous plan, Admiral Cornwell’s whispered orders

“Starfleet…ordered me to do—what I almost did…”

Saru reaches out a strong hand to Michael’s shoulder, and Michael realizes that she has been swaying where she stands.

“At the urging of Section 31,” Saru offers gently, but Michael’s head only twitches at that. She reaches up to grip Saru’s hand tightly, her eyes squeezing shut.

“You are tired, Michael. We do not have to continue—“

“But we should—“

“You do not have to,” Saru insists. “There is enough on your plate as it is. These thoughts will keep. Michael…”

Saru hesitates, his throat pouches clicking once more.

“I am…concerned for your welfare.”

Michael raises a disbelieving eyebrow at her crewmate.

“Today, your decision-making seemed unusually emotionally driven.” Michael opens her mouth to defend herself, but Saru cuts her off. “Your pain at Captain Georgiou’s reassignment, the situation with your brother…my own near-death experience, mere weeks ago…”

Saru gazes down at her. Compassion swims in his expression, and Michael is ashamed to feel the prick of tears behind her eyes.

“I am worried that you are taking too much upon yourself, my friend.”

Michael stares at him for a long moment.

She snorts, surprising both of them. The snort escalates to empty laughter, bursting from Michael’s chest with no control, and Michael stumbles away from Saru to collapse back in the chair by his desk. She buries her face in her hands as she shakes, uncertain as to where the laughter is coming from, but quite unable to suppress it.

“Your current response is certainly not contradicting my thoughts!”

Michael resists the powerful urge to laugh harder at Saru’s perturbed exclamation.

“Are we— Are we friends, Saru?” Michael finally manages through her merriment, derailing the conversation entirely. Her lips continue to twitch while she wipes at her eyes.

Saru’s throat pouches click in surprise.

“I…believe we are, yes,” he answers suspiciously.

“Alright…” Michael nods, sniffling slightly as she pulls herself together. “Alright, it’s just—“ She snorts again, covering the sound with her hand. She wonders if perhaps she really is losing it. “You know, that’s the first time you have ever inquired after my welfare…and all of this , is not even remotely the worst thing that has happened to me, in the time we’ve known each other.”

Saru’s throat pouches click, his head cocking where he stands backlit by the stars. He walks towards Michael slowly, bending himself down to be at her level where she sits in the chair.

“You are right. And that was poor of me. Despicable, even.”

Saru shakes his head. “But that does not negate the fact that you have been…burning the candle at both ends, as Pike would say.”

Michael gives a watery chuckle at that, her humor genuine this time.

“You are a very newly reinstated Commander, with your criminal charges dropped, after well over a year of carrying the burden of a galactic war on your shoulders,” Saru continues. “I am the only Kelpien in Starfleet. I understand full well how it feels to want to prove that you are worthy, when at times, you may feel as if you should not be there at.”

“You learned ninety Federation languages,” Michael manages shakily, knowing the story quite well at this point.

“A ludicrous number, we can both agree.”

Michael snorts, wiping her eyes with a sleeve.

“My point is, I placed a truly inordinate amount of responsibility on myself, rarely to my benefit and often to my detriment. You must take better care of yourself.”

Saru’s face softens. He reaches a hand out to Michael, who takes it in her own.

“You are important, Michael,” Saru insists.

Twin tears escape from Michael’s closed eyes at the words.

 She thinks of everything that has happened. The war, Qo’Nos, Ash…and now her brother, her baby brother, and Philippa, both lost to the stars, possibly forever. And no amount of hard work has yielded results in getting either one of them back.

Nothing… nothing she has tried, has worked.

“I…” Michael swallows. “I think…maybe I should go home for awhile.”

She says the words, and almost immediately, something tight and agonizing uncoils inside of her chest. Michael’s shoulders drop, and she exhales for what feels like the first time in an eternity.

Saru smiles softly, his Kelpien lips having finally learned the expression after years of serving with a Human crew.

“I think that would be a good idea.”



* *



Michael expects Pike to put up more of a fight than he does. She stands in his ready room early the next morning, arms folded behind her back, eyes heavy, though she did try to sleep last night, she really did.

“I need permission to go to Vulcan, sir. I haven’t spoken to my mother and father in quite some time.”

“Didn’t your mother come aboard at some point in the last two weeks?”

“She did; however, I have not seen my father since your own onboarding.”

Pike’s mouth curls up at the corners. If Michael were not so tired, perhaps she would be more annoyed at such a reaction.

“Sarek’s on the Federation task force, if he had any information, we would know by now.”

“Perhaps my reasons for taking leave are not related to the seven signals, or to Spock.”

Michael’s voice is frosty as she says the words. She hates unbending in front of figures of authority.

Pike, for his part, seems to consider this for several moments.

“I have told you this before, Burnham,” he finally states, “but needing time to process difficult situations is no weakness. In fact, I would consider it a sign of strength, to know when to rest and gather oneself, even when it seems others are screaming their needs in your ear.”

“Even when you are a captain?” Michael takes a step forward, curiosity overwhelming professionalism. “Sir…how can you reconcile needing to take time for yourself, against a crew who needs and depends on you? Against a position whose very job description is selflessness?”

Pike nods slowly, slowly as he processes the words. He takes a look down at his desk while he mulls over the question.

“Y’know, I wish your brother had asked me that,” he finally murmurs. “Would have saved us a lot of heartache concerning his well-being.”

Michael opens her mouth, but Pike continues. “My advice, Burnham? Fortify yourself as best you can, before you get to a position like this.”

Pike rounds his desk to stand before her. “Gain experience, gain wisdom in all situations, gain mental and emotional strength, before you must serve in a position where your needs are secondary.”

He raises an eyebrow.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how hard you work in situations that are highly personal to you, specifically. It is admirable; however, if I may be blunt…Burnham, you are not a captain yet. You do not have to perform at levels that would make even the most seasoned of Starfleet brass blanch. Take this time that you have and build yourself up with it, so that when you do reach captaincy you will be well-prepared, and have the strength and resiliency to weather any storm.”

Michael is still for a long, silent moment as she takes in Pike’s words. Compassionate, kind, understanding...almost too understanding. She wonders if this is the source of his lack of ire towards hers and Saru’s actions at Kaminar. 

Does he pity them both?

Nevertheless, the advice is sound and logical. Michael reasons that Pike would know, being the poster-child of Starfleet captaincy. 

Would that such emotional resolution could be so easy for her.

“Your leave request is granted, Burnham. Now head on to Vulcan, and give your mother my regards.”

Michael cannot help but raise an eyebrow.

“Not Sarek?”

Pike smiles, his cheeks dimpling as he does so. “I’ve given my regards to many Vulcans over the years; each and every one of them has responded along the lines of, “What logic lies in wasting precious time regurgitating meaningless Human platitudes?”

And Michael would protest, if not for the fact that she had repeated nearly those same words eight years ago, during her early days aboard the Shenzhou .

Instead, she nods silently.

“Thank you, sir.”

Michael leaves the ready room, her eyes still weary, but her mind mercifully calm. In a life filled to the brim with paradoxical philosophies and unsolvable mysteries, at least she had managed to glean something of an answer to just one of the universe’s most persistent existential questions.

Perhaps there is hope for the others as well.



*



In the far corner of the ready room, hidden on the back left leg of the Eames chair, an electronic device saves the sound file of the conversation to a log of similar files. It readies itself for scheduled transmission in one hour, eight minutes, forty-eight seconds, when it will piggyback off of the routine update between the Discovery and Starfleet command, bounce the files off the servers at Fleet Headquarters, and ricochet the information back into space.

To its intended destination.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Days aboard the Section 31 stealth vessel pass quickly.

This, Philippa knows, is in great part due to her efforts to stay busy. This same technique had helped a great deal in the aftermath of her escape from the hospital on Qo’Nos. She keeps her mind off of her inner turmoil by familiarizing herself with the rest of the crew and focusing with laser-point sharpness on her duties.

It is not like a Starfleet vessel, that much is certain. The crew socializes in the mess hall and plays Kadis Kot together on occasion. But the comradery and sense of belonging is missing.

Philippa decides that she doesn’t miss that particular aspect of the Discovery . The sterile, detached nature of Section 31 is much simpler and neater. A far more efficient way of running an organization.

And so, like the rest of the agents aboard the vessel, Philippa works. Hour after hour, day after day. She digests reports, updates herself on the Qo’Nos situation, and reads briefing upon briefing concerning the search for Lieutenant Spock. This manhunt has escalated in the past several weeks, all but requiring that Philippa remain aboard Leland’s vessel in order to offset this siphoning of Section 31 personnel.

The situation makes very little sense to Philippa. There is no conceivable reason for Section 31 to be so committed to this hunt for a singular Starfleet lieutenant, even if he did kill three medical officers, and even if he does likely know more about the strange seven energy signals than anyone else in existence.

Philippa thinks through the absurdity of the search in her scant off-moments. She asks around, and most other agents are willing to tell her what they know. She is Captain Georgiou, after all. After many days of such thought, she decides that one of two possibilities must be true.

Either there is more to the seven signals than Section 31 is allowing anyone to guess…

Or there is more to Lieutenant Spock’s triple-murder that Section 31 is refusing to reveal.

Both possibilities strike Philippa cold.

Ordinarily, she would not care a whit about any of this. The situation is far out of her purview, after all. She is a Klingon specialist and a tactical officer of the highest degree. Galactic games of hide-and-seek are beneath her, or at least they should be. The notion that Lieutenant Spock is Commander Michael Burnham’s brother is—

Irrelevant, Philippa tells herself. Irrelevant, insignificant, with absolutely no bearing on why she has stayed up the past five nights trying to parse through this strange puzzle.

Why was Section 31 taking such an incredible interest in Spock?

Why was Philippa fed information on Spock’s shuttle trajectory, information which she now knows to have been entirely false?

And why, why was Philippa pulled from her assignment on the Discovery , given the circumstances?

Captain Leland is elusive these days, though the tactical vessel is not large. The man has fingers in likely every corner of galactic politics. Of course he is busy. Philippa briefly considers the possibility that Leland is avoiding her. But this is absurd. What on Earth would be gained by Leland avoiding his best agent?

Unless…

The possibility is too compelling to ignore. Day after day, Philippa broods on the matter. It swells like a specter in the back of her mind until it occupies her every waking thought. She keeps her head down, biding her time until the stealth vessel makes an abrupt change in course one day. The typically well-oiled crew are ever so slightly disorganized as they attempt to reacclimate to the new direction. Within this distraction, Philippa senses her opportunity.

“Leland!”

She calls out across the upper level of the bridge after his briefing meeting with the admirals. He gives her his usual dark look, then gestures for her to come forth.

Philippa nods at the now-empty space before him.

“How are the admirals taking it?”

“With great impatience.” Leland’s gruff face glowers more than usual. 

Philippa’s gaze slides between Leland to the holo-emitters and back. She steps in, lowering her voice.

“Does this fanfare not strike you as unusual?”

“Maybe it did at first,” Leland admits lowly. “But at this point? If one singular science officer can evade an entire intelligence agency, then something’s incredibly wrong.”

“Which the admirals somehow knew about, going in?”

“They may have, for all I know.” Leland shrugs, irritated. “Believe it or not, Georgiou, even I am not privy to every whim and notion of the Fleet overlords. Now, did you need something?”

“Actually, I meant to tell you I am somewhat insulted.” Leland raises an eyebrow at that. “Not even a formal debrief?” Philippa continues archly. “For your best agent? I’m hurt, Leland, truly.”

“I have your daily reports, and the one you submitted upon your return. Do you have anything else to say, Agent?”

“Oh, I have a great many things to say, Captain .”

Philippa looks out over the lower level of the bridge, through which agents are proceeding like ants through a hill. She allows a small half-smile to twitch at her lip, the side that Leland can presently see.

“Ash Tyler?” Philippa begins, raising an eyebrow high. “Really?”

“He already knows their personnel—“

“—Who think that he murdered one of their own.”

“They don’t think that,” Leland rolls his eyes. “They all know the truth, not to mention how happy they are to believe the best in people.”

He smirks, and Philippa offers her own in return.

Starfleet,” they toast at the same time.

“Still…” Philippa shakes her head, “I hope no one spreads the news to Qo’Nos; they might be very unhappy at a political development like that.”

Leland throws her a piercing look. “Is that some kind of threat?”

“Paranoid, are we?” Philippa rolls her eyes. “It’s an observation , Leland. Why would I want to destabilize a government I spent months building? I am merely pointing out a fact we should be wary of.”

“Tyler’s a big boy, he can negotiate that situation on his own,” Leland denies with a shrug. “The child is safe, and more importantly, we know where it is.”

“All in a day’s work,” Philippa completes.

Enough foreplay. It was time to gather some information.

“I cannot believe you actually managed to pull me from the Discovery ,” she begins, her voice purposefully light. “How on Earth did you get that through?”

Leland smirks. “Went under a few heads, what the admirals don’t know won’t hurt them.”

“Even after all of my excellent work?” Philippa asks innocently.

“Your work can easily be replicated by others.”

“Mmm, sure,” Philippa shrugs. “Still…it’s interesting that you capitulated so easily on my request, when none got through previously.”

“What are you talking about now?”

“Exactly what you think.”

Leland’s professional mask slips over so slightly.

“I pulled you because you activated your transponder, and because I need you on Qo’Nos!”

“And Tyler is unsuitable because…?”

“He was the Chancellor’s torchbearer, he is too recognizable—“

“Yet he speaks the language far better than I, and we have ways to cloak our true forms,” Philippa counters mildly.

Leland is silent for a moment.

“Quit pussyfooting around. Just say what you want to say, Agent.”

Philippa brings a hand up to the guardrail they both lean against. She traces absent patterns into the metal almost airily, smirking at her next words.

“I think…your motivations were personal. You need me around to ensure I will keep my mouth shut. To prevent Michael Burnham from finding out the truth.” Mirth twitches at Philippa’s lips. “Because you are responsible for what happened to Burnham’s parents.”

Leland surges forward, his eyes furious.

Starfleet …is responsible…for what happened on Doctari Alpha…”

“Please,” Philippa scoffs. “You performed the threat analysis, you provided the recommendation…”

They gave the order—“

“And you followed it.”

Philippa’s voice is flat. She isn’t joking around, not anymore, and neither is Leland from the set of his face, the flint in his expression.

The two agents stare at each other, cold fury crackling between them.

Leland narrows his eyes as he stares at Philippa, sizing her up.

“Why would I give a damn what Michael Burnham thinks of me?” Leland finally states. “I’ve never met the woman in my life.”

Philippa stays silent at that. It was a good point.

Good as hell, actually.

Why did she even bring up this topic?

The catwalk is beginning to tilt beneath her feet; Philippa forces her expression to remain ironclad. “If her trust in us is broken,” she begins. “There goes any chance of her sharing what she may find out of Spock’s whereabouts." 

The rebuttal is weak, it is weak and Philippa knows it, but she powered full-force into this tête-à-tête and has to remain upright--

“And did you ever consider, Captain, that may have been the very reason for your extraction?”

At the pronouncement, Philippa can only look askance at her handler. Tucking his arms behind his back, Leland leans in.

“Blowing cover in less than a week? Sharing Section 31’s intel so easily, so readily?” Leland shrugs, a little too nonchalant. “That’s disturbingly close to going rogue, Agent. One might be compelled to wonder what else you might have revealed, had you remained on board.” 

Something cold sinks into the pit of Philippa’s stomach. 

Beside her, Leland’s voice drops, his dark eyes glint sharply with secret knowledge. “And I can’t begin to imagine what your former commander might do, were she to come upon the truth of your actions.”

Black dread oozes through Philippa’s chest cavity like a poison. Nevertheless, she remains well aware of the danger in showing her hand, and manages to twitch her face into something resembling a glare.

“Is that some kind of a threat?”

Leland blinks. He looks around, pointedly, at the dimly-lit Section 31 covert ops vessel on which they both reside.

“Yes.”

Philippa huffs, rolling her eyes. At least they are back on familiar territory.

She cannot, cannot display how thoroughly Leland’s strike had hit home.

“Now, believe it or not, Georgiou, I’m a little busy at the moment.” The words leave Leland’s mouth like shards of sharp glass. “Shall we consider this debrief adjourned, or do you have more dramatic truths to unveil?”

“Hm, don’t dismiss me too soon. I’ve not even told you about Captain Pike’s imaginary girlfriend.” 

“As delighted as I would be to hear about it, I have a call in ten.”

Philippa raises an eyebrow. “Ten minutes?”

“Seconds.”

He could be lying, of course. In fact, Philippa has found it more expedient to assume that Leland is, at all times, uttering falsehoods and untruths.

He could be lying.

And not just about the upcoming call.

“Dismissed. Agent .”

Philippa keeps her back straight, her chin high, her face blank. She turns on a heel and makes an elegant retreat. Only after her handler, her captain, the duplicitous head of Starfleet’s notorious black ops division, is well behind her, does she allow her steely expression to waver and collapse.

How on Earth had she managed to botch that confrontation so thoroughly?







Leland narrows his eyes as he watches Agent Georgiou leave. He gazes at the empty doorway for several long moments, lost in thought. The gears in his head churn, powered by judgment and experience gleaned from years of pulling strings and manipulating people, of climbing the ranks and watching for knives at his back.

Finally, he activates his comm-badge.

“Control, switch the duty assignments of Agent Philippa Georgiou and Agent Mark West, down in Engineering. I don’t want Georgiou on the bridge for the next forty-eight hours.”

Something had happened to his agent during her time on the Discovery. Leland does not know exactly what, but what he does know, is that he wants Georgiou nowhere near Burnham when Section 31 finally apprehends her and her brother.

And they will.

Soon.

“Dropping out of warp now, sir!”

Agent Yip announces the development from the ops console on the lower level. The ship jerks as it returns to normal space, and Leland gazes at the massive red planet hanging in the blackness of space before them, its surface whirling with clouds and sandstorms.

Vulcan.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Dirt and raindrops swirl around the engines of Michael’s shuttle as she touches down on the landing pad near Sarek’s house. Michael cracks her neck, stretching muscles stiff from the long journey. She had spent most of the flight to Vulcan curled up in the co-pilot seat as the autopilot handled the navigation. Face slack, eyes staring, Michael had thought of nothing but of Philippa and of Spock, and where in the universe they might be at this moment.

Now, just as then, she recalls Jacob’s words to her as they had stood together beneath the glass imagery of the Red Angel in New Eden’s church.

Sometimes I feel as if things are happening just beyond my perception. Big, astronomical things …”

Michael sighs as she deactivates the shuttle and rises stiffly from the pilot’s chair. She is missing context, likely a great deal of it. She only has tiny fragments, small clues of a mystery that is far larger than she can possibly understand.

But at this point, Michael does not know what else to do, in order to find the answers that will put her struggle in perspective.

Michael tugs at her blue Vulcan tunic to ensure it is still presentable. In a quick motion, she throws her duffel over shoulder and strides down the gangplank onto terra firma.

Home has not changed much.

She takes in the view as she trudges towards the back doors of the house. The large windows and soaring architecture of Sarek’s ancestral house are as welcoming as the stars and distant planets had once been. Its smooth lines and dark red wood match the surrounding desert sand and rock, as if the structure had sprung from the ground spontaneously. The air is thick with rain, not so unusual on Vulcan as many are led to believe, and Michael savors the humidity, the fresh scent of water in the wind.

A form moves behind the ground-floor windows, and the door opens to reveal Amanda Grayson, draped in a simple Vulcan wrap-dress.

“Michael!” Amanda smiles, her warm face opening with joy. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Michael allows herself to be hugged, and closes her eyes wearily as she rests her head on her mother’s shoulder.

“I am so glad you’re here,” Amanda whispers. Michael detects a strange undercurrent to her voice, and pulls back to look her in the face once more.

Warm and comforting…but some type of worry flickers through her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Michael asks, an eyebrow raised. Amanda only laughs softly, but it is false laughter, Michael has spent enough time with Humans to know that.

“Nothing,” Amanda denies. Michael only cocks her head, and Amanda sighs.  “Nothing that won’t keep for the night, at least. Come on, you look exhausted. You need to rest.”

Michael follows her inside, already eager at the prospect of rest.



Sarek is in a far corner of the house, deep in a state of meditation. Michael folds herself onto the ground in front of him and gazes at the smooth visage of her father, unbothered by her presence.

“He’s been like that for hours…” Amanda’s soft voice issues from somewhere over Michael’s shoulder. “He’s been performing Tok’mar every day for weeks, nearly from the moment he found out your brother disappeared.”

Tok’mar …” Michael murmurs. “I’ve never seen it practiced.”

“Ancient Vulcans believed it could bring lost souls home.” The soft warmth of a Human body is at Michael’s back; Amanda Grayson’s hand drops to her shoulder.

Michael sighs as she regards her father. She considers the power of Vulcan mind techniques, capable of crossing distances so vast a warp drive could not hope to traverse such lengths; even the barrier between life and death itself.

She considers the small piece of Sarek’s katra that she has inside of her, folded away somewhere deep within her subconscious…

Tok’mar had brought home the wrong lost soul, that much was certain.

Still, Michael wonders if, now that she is here, whatever interference Sarek might be experiencing with the technique might dissipate.

“We should give him a little more time,” Michael finds herself stating. “ Tok’mar is known for its power, not its precision.”

Michael looks over her shoulder towards Amanda, who is showing signs of deeper comprehension in her eyes, as well as something quite a bit more apprehensive.

Michael raises an eyebrow, but Amanda shakes her head.

“Tomorrow,” she whispers. “Tonight is about you. Why don’t you head upstairs and freshen up? Dinner will be ready when you are.”

Michael cannot argue with such a logical suggestion.



Many hours later, she is curled up tightly in her bed in her childhood room. Her belly is full and sated with her favorite Vulcan foods, and the soothing scents of home wrap around her like the warmest of blankets. Athena sleeps soundly at the foot of the bed, her crackly purr vibrating through Michael’s legs. Head on the pillow, Michael takes in the view from her window, opening onto the vast Vulcan desert and the starlit night sky. A breeze blows in through the screen, bringing the smell of fresh rain and wet earth.

Michael feels calmer than she has in weeks, safer than she has in months.

Coming home was a good idea.

Her eyes drift shut ever so slowly, and Michael cannot help but send out a brief prayer to the universe that Philippa might get to experience such peace one day, whether or not Michael is the one to bring it to her.

You silly fool

Michael shakes her head at her own illogic, even as sleep washes over her.

She dreams of warm rain and strong arms holding her tightly, and wakes up both soothed and devastated.



*

 

Michael confronts Amanda after breakfast.

“Mother.”

Amanda’s hands stop their motions. She turns off the sink slowly, her motions apprehensive. The red morning sunlight glows through the windows at her back; Michael wishes absently that she had been given more time to enjoy it, but her brother’s predicament is more important right now.

“You have been cagey and on edge since I got here yesterday. That, combined with the fact that Sarek’s Tok’mar is failing…for weeks…”

Michael raises an eyebrow, pinning Amanda where she stands in front of the sink with the dishes in her hands.

“You know something that we do not,” Michael posits, her voice low so as not to attract the attention of her father, wherever in the house he might be. “I am rested and well-fed, you do not have to worry about my well-being anymore—“

Amanda huffs out a laugh at that, though even her laughter sounds distracted and preoccupied.

“I always have to worry about my children’s well-being—“

“I am fine,” Michael insists, though she no longer knows how true this is. “Spock, on the other hand…”

Amanda flinches at the name. Michael takes a step closer, logical reasoning drawing her to the conclusion.

“You know where he is.”

The hot Vulcan sun pierces the window behind Amanda, setting the grainy wood of the walls and floor a smooth, glowing amber. Michael is reminded of the stained glass windows of the church of New Eden, bright with sunlight, their pictures brought to life in the soft haze.

Amanda looks quite like a stained glass painting with her hooded Vulcan dress and sad eyes, backlit by the red Vulcan sunshine.

“Why are you afraid of me knowing?” Michael’s voice is soft and sympathetic. This cannot be easy for Amanda, who has always tried her best to protect both of them.

Amanda shakes her head, her eyes closing.

“You…are required by Starfleet law to turn in wanted fugitives, and Spock killed three people…”

“Allegedly—“

“Those are the charges,” Amanda insists. She steps in close to Michael. “Legally, you have to bring him in or you could be charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive. After your court martial and sentencing…what you said to Pike and me, on the Discovery …”

Amanda cuts herself off, her eyes terrified.

“I am worried that you had a point, Michael. If you are tried for helping Spock, the punishment…may not fit the crime—“

“Mother.” Michael murmurs, cutting Amanda off. “Let’s think about this logically. Captain Pike does not want Spock turned over to command. I know this…but I can argue ignorance of such a fact, as needed.”

Amanda nods slowly.

“I can bring Spock to the Discovery, as is required of me legally. And Captain Pike will protect him with all of the pull he has with Fleet Command. And he has a good amount of it. It will be out of my hands, at that point.”

“Can you know that, Michael?” Amanda whispers. “Like you said…if it is between you and Pike, who do you think will get the blame, if you do this?”

“Captain Pike will not throw me to the wolves, I know this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Mother …”

Michael reaches out for Amanda, who takes her wrists in her pale hands. Michael grips her forearms gently. Amanda’s face is as white as a ghost; her fingers are trembling.

“A close friend of mine recently put his career on the line, breaking multiple regulations to save his sister. He got away with such actions…no doubt because they were successful,” Michael acknowledges with a slight roll of her eyes, “But he had no hesitations going in, and no regrets coming out. And he was up against an entire species , with powerful technology and thousands of years of suppression on their side. He went up against them, and he won, Mother. If he can do that…for his sister…”

Amanda huffs at that, her eyes wide and brimming with emotion.

“My task is easy, compared to his,” Michael finishes. “Get to Spock, get him aboard my shuttle, take him to the Discovery . Once I do that, my career and freedom are no longer on the line…nor is my brother’s life. Please .”

The air between them is thick and charged. What they are doing is technically illegal, Michael realizes, and she wonders how in the hell her life has come to this. Politics and law, not her strongest of suits, but she finds that she is becoming better at them, in recent days.

Finally, finally, Amanda nods, and it is all Michael can do to not sag in relief.

 



The towering red cliffs at the northern limits of Shi’Kahr dwarf Amanda’s speeder as she maneuvers through them. The closest thing to mountains on this side of Vulcan, the famous Red Crypts are where the most powerful and telepathically gifted among the Vulcan populace come to meditate, quiet their minds, and eventually, be put to rest once their lives reach their end.

It is a restricted area, but Michael should have known that Amanda Grayson, wife of Ambassador Sarek, would have ways of jumping such hurdles if proven necessary.

Amanda stops in front of an opening into the rock, guarded by carved statues of Vulcan monks. There are stairs leading up into it; Michael wonders who might have been here before, and why.

The caverns are cool and moist; water drips from red stalactites and forms clear pools in the cave floor. The interior is lit by holes carved into the ceiling, as well as gad-ha'gel candles, meant to imitate daylight and sunshine. Michael follows in Amanda’s wake down a passageway, her footsteps unnaturally loud in the silent rock, though she takes great pains to step quietly.

As they proceed deeper into the cavern, a soft humming noise grows audible to Michael’s ears; she wonders if it is the whisper of an underground river, or wind blowing through some unknown part of the cave system. She follows Amanda as the path narrows and widens and narrows again, the doorway to the desert now thoroughly behind them.

The path opens up into a grotto, approximately the size of the Discovery ’s bridge. The soft hum echoing through the cavern gains coherency as Michael steps into the room; Michael realizes that is neither wind nor water, but a voice; deep and masculine, and familiar.

Heart in her throat, she steps around Amanda Grayson to view the red grotto in its entirety.

And there he is, cross-legged in the cool depths of the cavern, propped up in front of stalagmite, eyes closed and mouth moving rapidly.

“Spock.”

Michael’s voice is soft, shaky.

“How long has he been here?”

“Four days,” Amanda answers, her voice trembling. “He will barely eat, and I don’t think he’s slept…”

“Has he seen any doctors?”

Amanda looks at her, terrified, before shaking her head. “He…did not react well to my presence, Michael. I am afraid of what might happen, if I were to bring a stranger to him.”

A pang of fear lances Michael’s chest. She leaves Amanda’s side and approaches her brother with slow, careful steps.

He looks awful.

Spock’s hair is long and shaggy, his cheeks and chin obscured by a dark beard, which Michael could never have imagined on her brother in a thousand years. He seems to have lost weight, and from what Michael can detect of his face below the unkempt brown beard, his cheeks have grown hollow.

“Spock,” she calls again, louder this time as she reaches her brother’s seated form.

Spock twitches at her voice. He mumbles softly to himself, his fingers clenching and un-clenching where his hands lay in his lap. Michael watches them move, opening and closing rapidly. She picks up on the pattern of threes, the same pattern he had used as a child when walking up stairs or down cobblestone streets.

Back then, it had been a method of calming, of focusing, and Michael wonders if the same might be true today.

“—formal logic utilizes plausible reasoning and inductive methods organized into subsystems—“

Spock’s mumbles grow more distinct as Michael comes closer. She recognizes the words; one of the first recitations taught to fourth year Learning Center students, a foundation upon which all subsequent theorem is built.

The most important of these systems is classical logic .” Michael and Spock state the phrase at the same time. Spock twitches, and his eyes blink open for a split second.

There is a flash of bright red behind them, so quick that Michael wonders if she might have imagined it.

“Spock…” Michael lowers herself into a cross-legged position in front of him. “…You can hear me. Can you tell me what is happening?”

Spock continues to mutter the recitation, his fingers flexing and unflexing. He groans suddenly, his eyes opening once more to reveal red, bright, glowing red.

“I’ve never seen him do this before!” Amanda’s voice is equal parts stunned and terrified. “Michael?”

“Spock, listen to me.” Michael projects her voice so as to be heard over her brother’s muttering, as his eyes glow a bright, unbearable red. “You’re alright…you are alright. You are on Vulcan, deep in the Red Crypts outside of Shi’Kahr. You’re safe.”

In a flash of something, either inspiration or emotion, Michael reaches out and grabs Spock’s hands.

Spock immediately stops his muttering, the sound ending like a cut transmission.

“You understand?” Michael whispers, hope rising in her chest. “You’re safe here…whatever is happening, we will figure it out together. Together . We’re unstoppable…remember that?”

 

"They cannot catch us if we work together,” Spock insists as Michael gives him a leg up over the wall. He clambers onto her shoulders, and Michael pushes up with her legs so he can reach the top. “You are fast and strong, and I know the neighborhood well!”

Michael grunts as she pushes hard with her arms, one of Spock’s feet in each hand. He grabs the top of the wall just barely, and pulls himself on top of it. Her brother is small for his age, by both Vulcan and Human standards, which is the only reason Michael can do this at all.

The shrieks and yells of the other children are getting closer, Michael twitches her head at them.

“Quick, hang yourself on your stomach, like I showed you.”

Spock gets himself in position as Michael takes several steps backwards. She takes a deep breath, before sprinting at the wall, her hands forming into sharp knife-edges. She launches towards the towering barrier and planting her foot hard into the brick. With a firm push, the inward pressure onto the sole of her foot is converted into upward motion. Her arms swing upwards to increase her momentum, they can’t reach the top, she isn’t tall enough yet—

But Spock’s extended arms shorten the distance by a crucial half-meter.

Michael’s hands clamp down around Spock’s wrists as he rests his stomach on the top of the wall, his upper body on Michael’s side, his legs on the other side. His face contorts with the effort of holding her aloft, and Michael kicks her feet into the wall, creating necessary friction to push upwards, even as she pulls up with her biceps.

Quick as a snake, she releases one of her brother’s wrists to lunge for the lip of the wall. With a swing of her leg and a brutal flex of her arms and shoulders, Michael heaves herself onto the ledge formed by the top of the barrier.

She gasps with the effort of it, even while smiling proudly. Spock is breathing hard as well where he sits perched a meter to the left.

“See? I told you it would work,” Michael pants.

“It was not your plan that I was uncertain of, but my own strength.” Spock’s high-pitched voice is even, but he sounds pleased beneath the logical tone.

“You are stronger than you think, I keep telling you this.”

“No,” Spock denies. “My strength is a fixed quantity, but our strength when we are together…somehow appears seems to be greater, than what simple addition would imply.”

“We are unstoppable,” Michael grins.

“That is an exaggeration—“

“Yeah,” Michael agrees, and Spock’s childish face creases in confusion.

The rumbling sound of their pursuers echoes from somewhere around the corner, closer now. Spock and Michael look at each other, before standing up and trotting carefully down the high ledge of the wall that curves around the apartments it protects.

They’ve escaped their chasers for today.

 

“We are unstoppable,” Michael insists, recalling years and years of similar memories, times of teamwork and cooperation, and equal amounts of arguments and anger, particularly during both of their difficult adolescences. Still, through it all lay the common foundation, the unshakeable knowledge that Spock had her back, and vice versa.

Spock trembles, and Michael grips his hands tighter. She has only rarely done this; they are not tactile siblings, and Spock is wary of physical contact due to his touch-triggered telepathy, but Michael thinks that perhaps these psychic abilities might act in her favor now.

“I am here…Mother is here…Spock. Please come back to us.”

Spock’s eyes are wide, but the glowing red that had consumed his pupils and irises in their entirety is flickering now… though whether it is dissipating or merely retreating, Michael is not sure.

Talking to him seems to help, as well as the physical contact between them. Michael wonders if some type of emotional appeal will get through to him, as basic logical grounding techniques have failed.

Her brother, her baby brother, who has been on the run for weeks and is in the throes of some unstoppable mind illness… He must be lonely, he must be scared

Michael lowers her voice to a whisper so that Amanda will not hear her words.

“Spock, listen to me, okay? You are the only brother I have. I had a mother and a father before I came to Vulcan—Amanda and Sarek, they are my parents, yet existed in the shadows of my own…” Michael sighs. “There was a gap, not a big one, but a separation that I could not surmount…but you?”

Michael squeezes at Spock’s hands, and slowly, carefully, moves her fingers in her brother’s pattern. Thumb, index finger, middle finger—ring finger, pinky, pinky once more—ring finger, middle finger, index finger—and so on, in movement of threes and sets of five. Soothing and mathematical, her brother’s anchor in those days, and apparently now as well.

“You were entirely new,” Michael whispers. “I had parents before, but I never had a brother. You were the only thing that the universe granted me, after taking everything I had.”

Amanda and Sarek… their home, the Learning Center, Shi’Kahr, all of it had only brought Michael up to an equivalence point, bringing her out of the negatives and back up to zero, but Spock?

Spock had been a gift. For years after the Doctori Alpha massacre, after the Learning Center bombing, he had been the only thing for which Michael had been thankful; the only presence in her life, living or otherwise, that did not remind her of her dead parents, her destroyed home, everything she had once loved but had lost forever, due to her own selfish curiosity.

“You were a new beginning, Spock. You were the only thing that I could love without pain…”

Tears prick at Michael’s eyes as she whispers the words to her brother. He must be so scared, so lonely wherever his katra may be, though his body is here in front of her.

“Please come back…whatever is happening to you, we can figure it out on the Discovery . Captain Pike is there, he believes in you…the signals that you were seeing, we are chasing them, Spock. Whatever connection there is, we will find it. Come with me…and we will keep you safe.”

Spock’s head twitches at Michael’s words. He blinks, and blinks again, and this time there is no red in his eyes.

“Michael…” he murmurs, his voice deep and even.

Michael exhales a smile, her shoulders dropping in utter relief. “Yes,” she gasps. “Yes, I’m here, Spock.”

Spock stares at her, intelligence behind his eyes.

“I am…” He swallows, and looks down at their clasped hands. In the next moment, he pulls away from her as if burned. “I am dangerous, Michael…I cannot control what is inside me—“

“I am not afraid of you,” Michael denies in a firm voice. “And for a man who cannot control himself, what do you call the past four days, the past weeks, months, even?”

“Agonizing,” Spock whispers. “My strength is running out…I fled Starbase Five—“

He cuts himself off, his eyes widening and widening as he recalls whatever might have happened.

“The doctors…” He whispers. “They said they were there to treat me… But they did not… They bound me to a table… they questioned me… performed terrible procedures on me…”

Michael shakes her head, horrified.

“They were Vulcan,” Spock mutters. Michael raises a bewildered eyebrow. “One of them…I saw her face, her eyes…I recognized her.”

“Who was she?”

“T’Nal, of House Barik.”

Michael knows that name; it is carved indelibly onto her conscious.

“She was arrested, after the attack on the Learning Center…” Michael’s voice is a terrified whisper. “But released, due to lack of evidence.”

“The evidence is clear at this point,” Spock’s voice hardens. “She is a logic extremist, and she was involved in your attack. Unable to get to you aboard the Discovery, she instead came for me, when I submitted myself to the facility. I placed myself in a position of vulnerability… I all but locked myself up, I put my safety in the hands of utter strangers…I…I should not have done something so foolish .”

Spock’s eyes are wide as he works through the facts.

“They saw the opportunity, and they seized it.”

He looks down at his hands.

“But… I do not remember what happened. I remember…I ran to the shuttlebay…stowed away, aboard a transport—I…” Spock hesitates. “What happened to my doctors, Michael?”

Michael’s heart breaks at the nervous undertone in Spock’s voice, at the fear in his eyes.

“They…they are dead, Spock.”

Spock flinches. He scoots away from Michael, shaking. It is an unusually outward display of emotion from her brother. Michael wonders if whatever sickness might be inside of him is eroding his controls.

“I…I do not remember killing them, but…” He whispers. “I saw T’Nal, and I remembered her…she is responsible for your attack, Michael, and she walked free. I saw her eyes, and remembered your terror… for just a mere moment, I wanted her punished—“

“Spock.” Michael interjects, her voice slow and firm. “This was not your fault. You are sick …you are seeing events that have not happened, you are losing chunks of time…extreme empathy recurves—“

“I feel it inside me,” Spock mutters quickly. “I feel a katra that is not my own…my entire life, I have felt it, and I assumed it was merely a side effect of my dual nature, Human and Vulcan, but now…”

Michael’s eyes widen at her brother’s testimony, her lips parting at this new information.

“It has been here since I was a child,” Spock whispers, his hands shaking. “But only in the past three months, has it grown beyond my ability to control.”

The red in Spock’s eyes…the seven signals…the Red Angel…

Big, astronomical things …” Jacob whispers in her ear.

“… What I will prove …”

“… Is that —"

“—None of this happened by accident,” Michael murmurs, her voice echoing around the red stone grotto. Spock raises an eyebrow at her words.

“Context,” Michael insists. “Just because we do not have the context to understand something, does not mean that there is not a rational explanation.”

She pushes herself closer to Spock, her path finally clear, for once in this horrible, stressful time.

“You have to come with me. We can work together, you, me, and the Discovery, to figure this out.”

Spock shakes his head. “I am a danger to others, Michael. Do you not understand? I cannot control these outbursts, they come without warning and I lose myself in them. I killed three people, full-blooded Vulcans, though I was unarmed and strapped down. I am…inconceivably dangerous.”

Empathy recurves…states of high emotion and zero emotion…

“I must stay here,” Spock insists. “The Red Crypts cloak my psychic presence, and all parties who are searching believe that I am in a shuttle at the far end of the universe. And here, I am alone. I will not hurt anyone in these rages.”

“But—“ Michael shakes her head, dismayed. “Don’t you want to know what is causing them?”

“I do. But given the choice between knowledge and the safety of innocents around me, I know which one I would choose.”

Michael rolls her eyes impatiently. “Spock, have you even hurt anyone, besides those doctors who were hurting you?”

Spock opens his mouth, and closes it once more, but Michael is not done, her logic guiding her towards a winning path in this debate.

“Furthermore, has anything that you have tried to do to fight this illness actually worked?”

Spock stares at her, and Michael continues.

“You checked yourself into a psych ward…you traversed the galaxy, I presume, in secret…you came here to hide, to try to exorcise it… has any of it worked , Spock?”

Silence.

“There is substantial evidence to support the fact that you cannot do this alone,” Michael insists. “Let us help you.”

Spock takes this in for several long, heavy moments.

“That is…an interesting sentence, coming from you,” he finally states.

Michael is silent at that.

“Our entire lives, whenever difficult times have befallen you, you have done nothing but push others away.” Spock raises an eyebrow. “Always. There is not a single time I can remember when you did not—“

And you came for me anyway!

Michael’s shout rings in the space between them, echoing in the depths of the red caverns.

Spock takes her in with wide eyes. Michael takes a breath before continuing.

“You slept at the foot of my bed, after the attack on the Learning Center! You walked me to school every day, even when I told you not to! I pushed you away with everything I had; yet you refused to leave. And I…”

Michael exhales long and slow. Wonder breaks upon her like the swell of an ocean wave, bathing her in soft, inconceivable revelation.

“…I am grateful for it.”

Spock looks stunned where he sits, as stunned as any Vulcan could possibly be.

Michael leans forward, new resolve in her voice.

“I flew halfway across the galaxy searching for you, and now that I have found you, I will not let you go so easily. I will not let you stay in the Red Crypt and fall into insanity. And you will,” she cuts off her brother’s denial. “This has only gotten worse, as you have said. I am offering you another way. Why won’t you take it?”

Spock remains silent. He stares down at his hands for several long moments.

“Your argument is based in emotion, not logic,” he finally murmurs; an observation, not a defense.

Michael laughs softly at her brother’s petulant response. “Then go ahead and find the flaws in it,” she challenges. “Pick it apart; destroy it with your counterarguments.”

A moment passes.

Michael can feel Spock considering her proposal, turning over her arguments in his fine, logical mind.

“This is…the most clarity I have felt in weeks…” Spock murmurs, contemplation in his low tone. “And…it seems to have coincided with your arrival…”

Michael’s eyes drift slowly, slowly towards the roof of the cavern at the words.

Spock never did know how to lose a debate with grace.

Her brother can explain his folding with logic if it makes him feel better; Michael knows that she has won the argument regardless. And she is absolutely certain of one thing.

“You need to come with me, Spock. Please.”

Spock looks at Michael for a long moment. His beard is unkempt, his Vulcan haircut long and shaggy, and dark circles mar the skin beneath his eyes…

Let us help you…

Finally, Spock closes his eyes and nods, and it is all Michael can do to not collapse in relief.





**




Vulcan Airspace Control clears their shuttle for warp almost the instant Michael inputs the request, and she thanks the stars that bureaucracy is on their side, for once. As they exit Vulcan’s rough, storm-filled atmosphere, Michael casts a glance towards the rear of the shuttle, where Spock sits still and silent in meditation.

Sneaking him out of the Red Crypts and off of Vulcan had been far easier that expected. Spock had been silent the entire time, his fingers working at his sides in their soothing, anchoring pattern, shoulders hunched, eyes wide and staring at nothing. No doubt he had expected a strange bout of the red sickness to fall over him; indeed, he still seems wary and jumpy, even ensconced in meditation in the rear of the shuttle.

Strangely enough, Michael wonders if her brother’s observation back in the crypt might hold some manner of truth.

“The most clarity I have felt in weeks…seems to have coincided with your arrival…”

It was…an assumption not entirely without merit.

But they can figure out the strange conundrum of Michael’s brother once they are safely aboard the Discovery .

Michael sighs long and low from the pilot’s seat. Truly, she had not expected the universe to grant her such a boon, particularly after she had come to Vulcan merely for rest and recuperation. For Spock to have been there , of all places…

To call such an occurrence “luck” would be illogical. But perhaps there was a certain rationality towards returning to a place of familiarity, of family, when in a state of extreme distress.

Michael smiles to herself as she punches in the Discovery ’s coordinates and readies the shuttle for the jump to warp. Seems she and her brother still think alike, even after all these years.

The engines whir beneath her feet as the shuttle preps for warp.

Michael switches to Shi’Kahr Vulcan as she opens a channel to Vulcan Airspace Control.

Burnham S’chn T’gai to Airspace Control, prepared to engage .”

Control to Burnham, you—you are— you —“

The transmission crackles with static and cuts out. Michael’s brow furrows. She toggles with the controls, attempting different channels with little success. All are filled with static.

Airspace Control, are you there? ” She tries.

Nothing.

Michael brings the subspace scanner online, casting its net wide for incoming ships. Without the voice of Airspace Control in her ear, she would have to time her jump manually; certainly not impossible, but slightly irritating, given the notorious precision and efficiency of Vulcan Airspace monitors.

But before Michael can so much as input the codes, the shuttle gives a massive jolt.

Without warning, the proximity alert system begins to scream. Michael’s eyes dart immediately to the proximity scanner in front of the co-pilot seat. Out of habit, she gives the readings out loud.

“Picking up a nearby vessel, twenty eight point four degrees off the starboard bow, thirty kilometers out. They’ve locked us in a tractor beam! Spock?”

Spock is already at Michael’s shoulder, bringing up the copilot’s readout as he buckles himself in.

“Visual detection systems are picking up no such vessel with two hundred kilometers of the aforementioned location—“ He shakes his head. “Yet that is the source of the tractor beam, there must be something there!”

“It’s… “ Michael’s stomach plummets into free-fall as cold realization washes over her. “It’s cloaked .”

The controls go dead in her hand, jumping and twitching as the tractor beam pulls their shuttle towards empty space. As they approach the deadzone in the subspace scans, the background stars and black void seems to flicker, as if no longer quite lining up with their starry backdrop. Michael has seen that pattern of visual aberration only once before, in the recordings taken by the bridge sensors after hers and Stamets’ brief foray into the mycelial network.

“Michael. What is that?”

Spock’s voice is even, though the slight apprehension in his tone is unmistakable.

Michael stares at the flickering expanse of space before them, the size of mid-size starship. She shakes her head in pure, petrified dismay.

“Section 31. They’ve found us.”



Chapter Text

 

 

The corridors of the Section 31 ship gleam like mirrors, shiny to the point of painful. Screens stud the wall every three meters or so, their visual quality so high that it is like looking into a window. The hum of the ship itself is inaudible, meaning that its systems are efficient enough to be completely silent. Michael ogles at the blatant technological wizardry at work here in Starfleet’s black-ops division.

No wonder she and Spock had been found.

Eyeing the phasers clutched by the black-clad officers flanking them, Michael wonders if they ever had any chance at all. As they march through the corridor, she feels the heat at her back from the charged weapons of their escorts. They are set to kill.

Why would they be set to kill?

Spock twitches at her side. He flinches, groans, squeezing his eyes shut. Michael sees the tell-tale red glow just before Spock’s hands flash up to cover them. He veers off-course a little, dangerously close to the wall.

“Hey…” Michael wraps a quick arm around her brother, partially to steer him, partially to offer physical comfort. “It’s alright, hey —” She shakes him a litte. “Stay with me, okay?”

“Keep it moving,” A masculine voice behind them grunts. There’s the metallic whine of a phaser powering up; Michael knows it is just for show, but she grips Spock tighter reflexively.

They proceed through a bulkhead doorway, and the corridor widens into a long room. Michael scans their new surroundings with sharp eyes, noting every curve and corner, anything that could help or harm them.

The ground level contains consoles and terminals spaced every two meters or so. Steep metal staircases, almost ladders really, lead to an upper catwalk level that proceeds around the entire room. On the ground-level, black-clad agents are peeling themselves off of the walls, rising from their stations, silent and languid, clutching phasers.

And in the middle of it all stands Captain Leland.

Michael thinks that the hologram in Pike’s ready room had not done him justice. The head of Section 31 has a form that is almost bear-like, dense and looming, but what puts Michael off the most is the expression on his dark, stubbled face. It is the blank, smooth face of a man who is in complete control of the situation.

A man who holds all of the cards.

“Thank you for your escort.” Leland nods to the officers flanking Michael and Spock. “You are dismissed.”

Michael schools her expression as the unnatural heat at her back dissipates. At her side, Spock slowly, slowly straightens. Michael hears him take a long breath, and when he opens his eyes, they are dark and clear.

“Lieutenant Spock.” Leland cross his arms over his chest. “We’ve spent a very long time searching for you.”

“I see.” Spock answers. “May I ask why?”

“I suppose that’s a legally wise move.” Despite the circumstances, Leland's tone is entirely conversational, and this disturbs Michael more than anything. “You are wanted for the murders of three doctors on Starbase Five.”

Spock nods placidly at this.

“Killed them with your bare hands, in cold blood,” Leland continues. “The crime scene photos were…incredibly gruesome, I must say.”

“There has been a mistake,” Michael insists flatly. “Something else is going on here. My brother is not dangerous, he is not a murderer, he’s sick . There’s something possessing him—"

“There have been many conjectures made concerning the dangers of Vulcan-Human interbreeding, I am well aware. For a hybrid to be driven mad in the turmoil between emotion and serenity is no great surprise.”

Familiar black rage coils in Michael’s chest at the remark “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Captain,” she bites out.

“Oh I can assure you, I do.” Leland’s voice is calm indeed, though a dozen phasers are currently pointed around him at Michael and Spock. “You see, this is not the first time this has happened.”

At the ominous pronouncement, Michael casts a sideways look to Spock, who looks back at her with equal disquiet.

“Look, I understand you didn’t ask for any of this.” Leland speaks directly to Spock now. If Michael is not mistaken, that might even be compassion in his eyes. “None of this was fair to you. From the very beginning, it wasn’t fair to you. But three innocent people were slaughtered, and three families have been ripped apart. It wasn’t fair to them, either. And now, we have you.” Leland’s eyes dart to Michael. “Aiding and abetting, Burnham. That is very much a crime, despite your familial connection to the accused.”

“What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’” Michael challenges.

“Oh, Lieutenant Spock has very much been proven guilty. Security footage, plus the bodies of the deceased. In light of these circumstances, as well as the unmistakable danger Spock poses to both others and himself, the admiralty has made the decision to waive Section 147.64, Sub-clause 8.”

Panic bursts in Michael’s chest.

“This was not a crime committed towards Fleet officers and we are no longer at war, Captain Leland, my brother has the right to be tried by a court of law! Not a military tribunal!”

“Military tribunal is the most efficient way towards justice,” Leland denies. “Particular concerning heinous crimes such as these.”

“I am telling you, there are other forces at work here!”

These logical appeals and rational arguments made towards their captors are having no effect, Michael can see this plainly.

But was it possible that they could reach some kind of agreement?

“Tell your agents to stand down, Captain,” Michael tries, her voice gentle but firm. “Let us return to our ship and leave this place, and we swear …we will turn over every bit of information we know concerning the Red Angel, and my brother’s connection to it.”

Leland merely nods slightly, as if considering her words.

“That’s a clever deal to make Burnham, I applaud you for it. But you see, that information is already ours.” He nods to his right at a tall, black-clad man with pale skin. The man twists something on his wrist, and pulls up a holo-image of some kind of minimalist medical head-wear. There are wires snaking from the helmet’s sides, and needles embedded in its interior.

“This is Section 31. We have access to technology that exists only in the realms of science fiction. And this device? Will pull whatever information we need from either one of your minds.”

Michael stares numbly at the hologram of the device. Next to her, Spock tenses ever so slightly.

“Could be a bluff,” she murmurs to him, pressing a hand to his forearm.

“Want to risk it?” Leland challenges. “Don’t worry. Neither of you will be subjected to the memory extractor…provided you both cooperate.” He gives Spock a long look, then roves his gaze over to Michael. “It’s a good couple of days to Starbase Fourteen. You’ll have plenty of time to tell us everything.”

“It’s three hours to Starbase Fourteen!” Michael bites out.

“Is it?” Leland queries, unconcerned. “Hm. Well, we’ve been having some issues with the warp core lately. Might take us a little longer to get there. Don’t worry, you’ll be well taken care of.”

Leland jerks his head towards the agents at his side. Two of them step forth towards Michael and Spock, phasers held high, slow in their movements as they watch for sudden motions.

This feels familiar ,” Spock offers in Vulcan.

Surrounded by thugs in an enclosed space? ” Michael clarifies. Her feet slide into a ready stance.

“These thugs are some of Starfleet’s finest,” Leland corrects. Michael and Spock both look at him, surprised. “Selective Universal Translator,” he explains, spinning a finger around to indicate the entirety of the room. “Built into the EPS grid. It’s a new technology, don’t fret too much. But I wouldn’t try any Vulcan planning.”

An idea bursts in Michael’s brain. A ridiculous, foolish, silly idea…Michael’s lips twitch in spite of her best efforts. Nudging Spock to get his attention, she opens her mouth—

And out pours a stream of utterly unintelligible syllables.

Michael is gratified to hear Spock respond in kind, his deep voice a garble of strange words and sounds. Captain Leland looks caught off-guard for the first time in this terrible encounter. The agents on either side of him fidget nervously.

“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm,” Michael nods. She continues to spit out twisted syllables, barely remembering this tongue in which she and her brother were once fluent. Spock cuts her off, gesturing with his chin towards the agents at either side of them. He brings up a logical point, and Michael murmurs her assent.

“Stop,” Leland tries. “Stop that! Enough! Stop , dammit!” The agents approaching Michael and Spock pause in their approach, looking slightly over their shoulders to see if Leland is referring to them—

And Michael and Spock dive forward. They take both agents by the waist and use their momentum to plow bodily through the circle of other agents, breaking through the barrier. Phaser blasts ring across the lower level of the bridge, singing the metal flooring and ricocheting off of consoles.

“Get them!” Leland shouts from somewhere in the mess. “Fire at will!”

Michael wraps her thighs around the torso of the man she has just tackled, binding his neck and squeezing his arm in the fulcrum of her opposite elbow until he releases his grip on his phaser. She points it at him and does a double-take at the setting.

“They’re kill shots, Spock!” She shouts above the phaser blasts, throwing her body behind one of the consoles.

“Obviously!”

The lights change from white to red, and the familiar blare of the Fleet red alert siren screams across the split-level bridge.

Michael adjusts her phaser in a half-second and takes stun-shot after stun-shot at the black-clad forms she can see. The air is smoky from the deadly phaser bolts ricocheting in the enclosed space, making this task difficult. A hot blast glances across her shoulder, barely missing her face, and she yelps as she drops behind the console.

Something heavy and screaming flies over her, landing in a thudding heap a meter away. Michael fires a hot blue bolt into the crumpled agent with barely a glance, and in the next moment, Spock is sliding to her side.

“Off-hand, this is not the most favorable fight in which we have been involved.”

He peers over the console, and follows his initial look with several targeted shots. Michael braces herself against his back, firing haphazardly into the smoky air behind them.

“But it’s far from the least!” She shouts back over the din. Through the smoke, she sees the hot red glow of a phaser targeting them, and shoves both herself and Spock to the deck. A hot red blast strikes the console, and another, and another. Michael and Spock grab each other and dive across the floor, just before the terminal bursts into flames.

Michael rolls to her stomach and squeezes off a shot, stunning the agent who’d come so very close to killing them both.

“Aren’t you glad I taught you Pig Latin?”

“Extremely!” Spock fires a burst of stun-bolts into the smoke, covering himself as he scrambles to his knees. Michael uses the cover fire as a shield, and fires into an electrical hub covered by a panel on the floor. In the resulting explosion, she vaults another console and throws herself behind an upright terminal screen. Somewhere in the din, she hears Captain Leland shouting into what is no doubt a comm unit.

All combat-ready personnel report to the bridge! Code Alpha-Twelve, I repeat, Alpha Twelve! Deadly force is authorized!

Spock slides in next to her, several black burn marks scuffing his jacket.

“We need to get to the shuttlebay before they seal it off!”

In the next moment, a black-clad agent leaps over the console, thudding into the space between them. Michael is a moment too slow to dodge the phaser-whip to her head. She hits the ground hard, and hears Spock grunt above her. A meaty thwack strikes the air, and another, and another. She looks up blearily to see the agent cry out, his arm twisting well out of its socket. Michael lashes out a firm kick to the side of his knee, and the joint emits a piercing crack as it dislocates. The man falls, and Spock uses his momentum to throw him bodily over his shoulder, flinging him several meters away. Michael completes the take-down by firing a stun bolt to his chest.

“Are you alright?” Spock calls.

“I’m fine!” Michael rolls her eyes, noting that only the left eye capitulates with the motion. “Cover me, I’m gonna take the stairs!”

The high ground would be a favorable area to secure under the circumstances. Even as Michael thinks this, a door hisses open on the far end of the lower level. Michael hears the sound of boots thundering in the distance.

“We’ve got to hurry!”

Spock responds by bracing his arms on the console’s edge and spraying hot blue energy bolts into the smoke. Michael darts to the steep metal staircase and powers up it, thighs burning, using her arms to pull herself two steps at a time. She throws herself onto the upper catwalk and rolls to the opposite wall. A spray of red bolts slices the air where she had just been, dissipating harmlessly against the ceiling.

The doorway to the upper level hisses open. Michael fires into its depths before she even sees into it. Shot after shot, she creeps forward in a low crouch, pressed into the wall of the high catwalk. Shouts and screams echo in the distant hallway, and the sounds of bodies hitting the floor reach Michael’s ears.

Michael shakes her head. For all of their tactical prowess, Section 31 really was not prepared for a breach such as this.

Below her, phaser fire continues to blaze. Red phaser bolts strike the metal walls and ceiling, erupting in hailstorms of sparks. Michael moves a little faster, flinching at each phaser blast. She watches for the blue flashes, a sign that her brother is still up and fighting.

From her position on the high ground, Michael takes aim and fires at several black clad officers on the lower level. The thud of stunned bodies on the deck reaches her ears, and the phaser bolts that have been tracking upwards at her finally, finally cease. Michael sprints across the final stretch of the catwalk, making it to the doorway—

A black-clad figure slips around the corner at the same time, weapon held high in a skilled stance. Michael’s arms snap up, finger pressing down on the trigger of her phaser, and only by the barest margins does she stop herself upon realizing—

Philippa Georgiou stands before her.

They have each other at phaser-point.

...





 

...

All combat-ready personnel report to the bridge! Code Alpha-Twelve, I repeat, Alpha Twelve! Deadly force is authorized!

The voice booms through the small metal crawlspace. Philippa jolts from the glowing plasma relay between her hands. She’s halfway inside the Jeffries Tube interface in Lab Three, flat on her back as the EPS grid hums above her face. The blare of red alert is muffled, but the swirling red lights are quite visible where she lays in darkness.

“… Code Alpha-Twelve—All combat-ready personnel to the bridge!

Philippa shoves the relay back into its shell and snaps the plexiglass covering in place. Wriggling from the grid’s aperture, she rolls to her feet and trots out of the dimly-lit media room. The cabinet set into the murky corridor hub springs opens at her command, and she snatches a phaser from its depths.

Alpha-Twelve is Section 31 code, ‘Alpha’ indicating an attack from the inside of the ship and ‘Twelve’ indicating number of hostiles, the last digit being the indicator, the first mere white noise.

Lips flat, Philippa steps into the turbolift, charging her phaser to kill. She has no clue as to how hostiles could have boarded this ship to attack it from the inside, nor how a mere two attackers could merit such lethal retaliation. But Leland’s order implies that they must be dangerous to the extreme, armed to the teeth and with a well-thought out plan.

Whether or not Philippa can be classified as ‘combat-ready’ in her condition is debatable. But she longs for a fight, has longed for one for weeks, months, even, and will take what she can get.

The doors hiss open, and screeching phaser blasts immediately lance Philippa’s ears. Shouts and screams echo down the shadowy corridor. She casts a wary glance out of the lift; ten meters down, a phalanx of black-clad agents is entering the bridge’s upper level, phasers raised and hot. With that, Philippa slips out.

The corridor wall is hard and cold against her back. The darkness of the hallway shrouds her black-clad form, phaser humming in her hands, sleek and deadly. Old habits never die, particularly ones cultivated in battle. On silent feet, Philippa readies herself for combat. Her thoughts harden with intent and her muscles coil in readiness.

She’ll be strategic, but she’ll go down fighting.

Reaching the doorway, Philippa presses herself just next to its edge. Shouts and blasts ring in Philippa’s ears, acrid ozone stings at her nostrils, and hot red flashes sear the edge of her vision. But beneath all of this, she hears quiet footsteps on the upper catwalk. 

Someone’s coming for the exit.

Philippa takes a steadying breath.

And whips her body around the corner. Her phaser snaps up, her finger on the trigger, prepared to fire—

And the floor disappears beneath her feet.

Michael is in front of her.

Despite time and space, despite Philippa’s massive, relentless efforts to the contrary, Michael Burnham has somehow managed to appear within the darkness of this Section 31 stealth vessel. She is she's here, she is right here , her phaser up and pointed at Philippa’s chest, and just the sight of her face makes Philippa feel like she’s standing in sunlight.

...Code Alpha-Twelve—armed hostiles—wanted fugitives—deadly force is authorized!...

Leland’s orders ring in her ears, over and over.

Philippa’s arms tremble.

And her tensed muscles release. She drops the business end of her phaser towards the deck, safely away from the woman before her.

Michael’s brown eyes are wide, phaser still up. Her mouth opens, drawing breath to speak—

And her figure erupts in a fiery blaze of hot red light.

Michael’s spine snaps ramrod-rigid, her body backlit by an explosion of red energy. In the next second it dissipates, and Michael drops bonelessly to the deck. Her head cracks on the metal surface, and her phaser clatters out of her limp hand.

Every ounce of breath Philippa has leaves her body. She imagines her soul departing with it.

Michael just took a kill shot to the back.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Philippa’s ears are ringing.

The edges of her vision are blurry.

Phaser blasts and shouts of agents on the bridge seem to be coming from somewhere inconceivably far away. They echo down a long chasm, unintelligible and barely audible.

Like a puppet with its strings cut, Philippa drops to the deck, her knees hitting full force, the rest of her body only barely remaining upright. Philippa’s arms are stiff, almost robotic, as they reach out towards Michael’s limp form.

Michael’s body is splayed awkwardly in the doorway, her soft blue Vulcan tunic nearly matching the blue lights at floor level. She has an open cut near her hairline, no doubt from catching a fist from one of Philippa’s fellow agents.

Her berry brown eyes are wide open; glazed over and staring at nothing.

Philippa feels like she’s been clubbed, her heart ripped out and replaced with cold metal; nevertheless, she manages to grip the fabric of Michael’s tunic, at her shoulder and hip, and roll her bodily onto her stomach. An angry black burn has wormed a smoking hole through the back of Michael’s tunic, over her shoulder blade, directly above her heart. The wound flashes with intermittent red pulses; phaser particulates from a beam set to kill.

Philippa’s hand crawls to Michael’s neck, but she already knows what she will find.

She waits a moment, then another, but nothing.

No carotid pulse.

From the center of the bridge, an agonized, masculine howl tears forth, and Philippa is jerked from her daze to see Michael’s brother, Lieutenant Spock of the USS Enterprise, scream as if he is being physically ripped in half…

And in the next moment, hot red light bursts from his eyes.

Agent Tabor levels his phaser at him, but Spock grabs it faster than Philippa’s eye can track, tears it from his hand, and throws it hard enough to break through the transparasteel paneling of the wall. He ducks under Agent Reznekov’s flying haymaker and levels a truly devastating punch into the man’s kidney. Reznekov goes down like a sack of potatoes, hitting the deck hard. Spock continues, his eyes glowing, his movements too quick to track as he goes on the offensive, slamming agents to the floor and throwing them bodily across the room.

Philippa wonders, distantly, if perhaps she ought to be afraid…

But her gaze meanders back towards Michael, cradled gently in Philippa’s arms. Her still eyes that once held starlight, her limp form that once bounced with vitality, her warm body now cooling on the floor of this god-awful Section 31 ops ship…

There’s a strange moaning sound ringing in her ears, deep and awful, and Philippa fights to stay upright in the room that is spinning around her, clinging to Michael’s body as if it will somehow anchor her in place. People are yelling in the distance, there’s crashing and banging down on the lower level of the bridge, but the strangled