Woof! My human is busy making tea (Earl Grey, hot), so she’s asked me to help her with the introduction.
This story is set in 2374 and follows Subject to the Requirements of the Service and Never Forget, Never Forgive, so in case you haven’t read those stories, I recommend that you at least read Requirements first, to get a better grip on what’s going on here.
Like I said, this story is set in 2374, which means it takes place before the Breen attack on Earth in 2375 – hence why Starfleet Headquarters is still intact. And Eta Carinae is a real nebula. Schnauzer’s honour!
Program complete – enter when ready. Woof!
Captain Irina Ivanova was staring out of the window in the living area of her quarters. She really wanted to throw something, or hit something, or smash something, or just scream at the top of her lungs… but since any and all of it would just be proving a point, she was instead staring out of the window.
She had thought this would be a good day. She had thought she would go to Starfleet Medical and be told that she finally could return to active duty after what had felt like an endless rehabilitation period, and that she would now be on the Bridge, guiding her ship out of the solar system. But instead she was in her quarters, looking out at how McKinley Station still was clutching her ship in its claws. Still was clutching her.
The infuriatingly cheerful ring of the doorbell set her teeth on edge, but instead of grabbing a phaser and incinerating the cursed thing as her instincts told her to, she remained by the window. She knew who the visitor must be, and she knew what the person in question would want to know. And she knew what she would have to say. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she arranged her features into a neutral mask before she turned to face the door.
As soon as the door opened, Commander T’Sera entered at her usual brisk but measured pace. She looked as if she was about to start saying something, but then her eyebrows went up as she took in Irina’s attire. Irina could almost hear the logical wheels turning in her First Officer’s head. With her uniform jacket open, the Captain strictly speaking was out of uniform – but the Captain would never be out of uniform when on duty. Logically, this meant that the Captain wasn’t on duty – but judging by T’Sera’s eyebrows, that was quite illogical. Irina sighed. This would be harder than she thought.
“I have come to inquire if you would like custody of your ship returned to you, Captain.” If T’Sera had been anything other than a Vulcan, she would have sounded puzzled.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Irina shook her head. “You’ll have to look after her for me for a little while longer, T’Sera. I am not yet back on duty.”
Now T’Sera’s ever-expressive eyebrows instead made a straight line. “I do not understand. Were you not given a clean bill of health at your last physical?”
“Yes.” Irina couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. “‘Physical’ being the operative word.” T’Sera’s eyebrows sank even deeper, but she didn’t seem to reach the conclusion Irina had hoped she would come to of her own accord. And that meant her Captain – or whatever she was right now, Irina thought with disgust – would have to say it herself. “I didn’t pass the psych eval, T’Sera. I’ve been declared unfit for duty on psychological grounds.”
Now T’Sera’s eyebrows went straight up and disappeared under her black fringe. “That would seem most illogical, Captain.”
With a snort, Irina shook her head. “Not according to the five-year-old who evaluated me.”
“You were evaluated by a five-year-old?” T’Sera repeated, looking nonplussed. Irina couldn’t help smiling; despite being in Starfleet and around humans for more than thirty years, T’Sera still had a tendency to interpret things a little too literally on occasion.
“She looked about five,” Irina said patiently. “I’m sure she was older.”
“Ah. I see.” The Vulcan considered this for a moment. “Captain, I think you had better tell me exactly what happened.”
Irina really would have preferred not to, but she knew she owed T’Sera that much. She nodded towards the armchair. “Please, sit,” she said, knowing T’Sera wouldn’t do so without her Captain’s express permission. “Tea?”
If T’Sera saw through the diversion, she didn’t say so. Instead, she nodded her agreement and then waited patiently as Irina busied herself at the replicator. She also didn’t say anything about how unusually slow the Captain’s replicator seemed to be today, even though it took Irina quite some time before she finally brought two steaming cups to the coffee table, one with Vulcan mint tea, the other with African rooibos. She also didn’t prompt her Captain to say anything once Irina had sat down; she simply sipped her tea, and waited. For this, Irina was grateful – but it also made things that much harder, because she had no idea how to begin.
Had they been at a starbase, in deep space, Irina was convinced a psychiatric evaluation never would have been an issue. At a starbase, they simply would have patched her up, made sure she could still walk and talk, and then sent her back into the fray. But with the T’Lau as badly beaten up as her Captain and in need of just as extensive repairs, they had been on Earth, and Earth was filled with bureaucrats who thought they were doing their part by pushing papers and who had to demonstrate what little power they had at every turn to fan their bloated sense of self-importance. Nevertheless, Irina had tried to made them see how utterly ridiculous it would be to make her submit to a psych eval.
“You almost died, Captain,” the doctor with Starfleet Medical had explained to her after the final physical that had determined that Irina indeed was physically fit to return to active duty.
“‘Almost’ being the operative word,” Irina coolly had pointed out. “Unless we are having this conversation by ouji board?”
The doctor had ignored that. “You’ve been through a very traumatic experience,” he patiently had continued, “and something like that leaves other scars than just physical ones. And those scars often take the longest to heal.”
That had made Irina snort; psychobabble always made her hairs stand on end. “I am healed, thank you.”
The doctor had smiled. “Good; then the psych eval will just be a formality. But a mandatory one,” he had added firmly before Irina could object.
So even though she knew it would just be an utter waste of her time, Irina had been forced to see one of Starfleet Medical’s counsellors in San Francisco. That was what she had been doing this morning – and that was when everything had gone wrong.
Irina’s teeth had been set on edge right from the start. The counsellor, a lieutenant who didn’t look old enough to be out of nappies, let alone Starfleet Academy, had introduced herself as Veronica Kellan and had with a smile invited her guest – patient, evaluatee, whatever – to sit, completely oblivious to the stern frown the words brought to the captain’s face. Lieutenants did not tell captains to sit, thank you very much; it was the other way around, and any real officer would know that. Not that this little slip of a girl qualified as a real officer in Irina’s book.
Counsellor Kellan – “call me Veronica!” she had blithely suggested, still oblivious to Irina’s deepening frown – began it all by noting how exceptionally well Irina’s rehabilitation had progressed and that Irina’s physician had said that she was now physically fit to return to active duty. Then for a moment she studied the PADD she was holding, and looked up to give her patient a slightly questioning smile.
“Your physician also notes that you’ve been pushing yourself quite hard during the course of your rehabilitation,” she noted. “Too hard at times, he says.”
Irina did not smile back. “I need to know what my body is capable of.”
“Of course.” Veronica still smiled, making a note on her PADD. “But surely there must be less extreme ways of finding that out than going rock-climbing with the holodeck safeties off?”
Of course that idiot doctor had to put that in there, Irina thought with irritation. “I can’t find out where my limits are if the computer constantly is interfering,” she said.
“Yes,” Veronica agreed, “but the computer only interferes if you’re running the risk of getting injured, doesn’t it?”
Irina didn’t reply. Veronica waited for a moment, but when it was clear that her patient wasn’t going to comment, she consulted her PADD again.
“You have a daughter,” she observed, again looking up with a smile. “I see here that she’s a first-year cadet at the Academy. You must be very proud of her.”
Irina gave the counsellor a cold look. Of course she was proud of Yelena! What kind of an unfeeling monster did this girl counsellor think that Irina was?
The sudden stab of pain almost felt physical. A monster. The last time they had talked, Yelena had called her mother just that. An unfeeling monster. Unconsciously, she closed her eyes. Maybe Yelena was right, she thought. Maybe her mother really was a monster… but when she looked up, she met the counsellor’s questioning look with a firm gaze.
“I would have preferred it if my daughter had chosen a different field,” she said coolly.
“She’s studying to become an engineer, correct?”
“Yes. It’s a slow career track,” Irina felt compelled to add by way of explanation when the Veronica just kept looking at her. Again, the counsellor smiled.
“Of course,” she agreed, making another note on her PADD. Giving Irina a questioning look, she tilted her head slightly. “I’m wondering… how is she taking all this?”
“All what?” Irina asked with irritation.
“The fact that her mother almost was killed.”
It was only with effort that Irina could keep her gaze steady and fixed on Veronica. She knew that Yelena must wish that her mother really had been killed, but that certainly wasn’t any business of this little slip of a girl’s.
“Yelena has grown up in the service,” she said instead. “She is aware of the risks that goes with being a Starfleet officer.”
“She is seventeen years old,” Veronica noted. “Even if she is aware of the risks, as you say, a seventeen-year-old might not accept them or even understand them as readily as you do.” Again, she tilted her head. “Have the two of you talked about this?”
Now Irina was getting angry. “I thought you were going to evaluate whether or not I’m fit to return to active duty, not my relationship with my daughter!”
“Of course,” Veronica agreed with a smile, and made another note on her PADD. Irina was starting to feel a powerful urge to tear the cursed thing from the counsellor’s hands and stamp it to pieces. “All right, then, Captain. Why don’t you tell me about what happened in the Eta Carinae nebula?”
“I was under the impression that you would have read mine and Commander T’Sera’s reports,” Irina said flatly.
“I have, but-”
“Were they in any way unclear?”
“No.” Again, the counsellor smiled that infuriating smile. “No, they were very clear.”
“Then you know what happened.”
“Yes,” Veronica amicably agreed, “but I want to hear it in your own words.”
Irina managed to bite back a retort that if the counsellor had read the report as she claimed, she already had heard it in Irina’s own words. Instead, she coldly said:
“We were on our way to rendezvous with the Second Fleet. Inside the Eta Carinae nebula, we were attacked by Jem’Hadar fighters. We managed to destroy or cripple all of them and escape.”
Veronica nodded thoughtfully. “You lost a lot of people in the attack.”
“Yes,” Irina said flatly.
“As a matter of fact, it was the worst loss you’ve suffered so far during the war.”
“That is the nature of war, Counsellor. You lose people. There’s no escaping that.”
“I understand. But this time, you didn’t lose them in a battle you were ordered into by Starfleet Command. You were on your own, and you were most likely attacked because you were on your own.” She tilted her head again. “How do you feel about that?”
“I feel that Starfleet Intelligence should know their trade better.” Irina’s voice was flat. “We wouldn’t have been in that nebula if they had done their job properly.”
“I see.” Veronica made another note on her PADD. “Do you feel guilt?”
Irina hadn’t been prepared for that, and she wasn’t aware that she flinched. “I do not blame myself for getting bad intel,” she said firmly. This time, she came very close to tearing that idiotic PADD from Veronica’s hands as the counsellor made another note.
“When you realised the intelligence was wrong and that there were Jem’Hadar inside the nebula… why didn’t you turn back? Take another route?”
“We couldn’t turn back,” Irina said through gritted teeth. “They knocked out our warp with the first torpedo volley. And they were hiding in a dense gas cloud, so we didn’t know they were there until they were already over us.”
Veronica made another note. “But if they hadn’t disabled your warp engines, and if you could have turned back… would you have?”
This was something Irina didn’t have to think about. “No. I wouldn’t.”
Much to her amazement, the counsellor didn’t make another note. “Why?” she asked instead.
“Because then they might have gone after somebody else instead, who weren’t equipped to handle them – like an Oberth-class, or a Miranda. They wouldn’t have stood a chance against Jem’Hadar.”
“So you would have stayed and fought,” Veronica concluded. “Even though it would have meant you lost people.”
For a second, Irina closed her eyes. Would you have doomed them again, that was what the counsellor really was asking. If you had the choice, would you condemn them to death again?
“As I said. That is the nature of war.”
Now Veronica did make another note. “Some of those you lost were people who had served with you for a long time,” she noted. “Your Chief Engineer, for example, Commander…” She looked at her PADD. “Commander Sellia Rosh? She was your Chief Engineer on your old ship as well, correct? On the Auriga?”
“You’re too far north,” Irina said. “It was the Orion.”
The counsellor didn’t seem to have any idea what she was talking about. “I’m sorry – north?”
“The constellation Auriga is north of… never mind,” Irina sighed when she saw the blank look on Veronica’s face. It made her furious that this child counsellor, a Starfleet counsellor, obviously didn’t know the constellations Irina’s beloved aunt Alyona had so carefully taught her when Irina was a child, and it was only with effort that she kept her voice calm.
“Yes, Sellia Rosh served under me on the Orion. She was my Chief Engineer for twelve years.”
Which prompted another note on the hateful PADD. “The reports say that she had volunteered to stay behind and attempt to erect some force fields manually when the section she was in decompressed.”
“Yes.” There was nothing else to say.
Veronica tilted her head a little. “Did you order her to stay behind?”
“Then the reports hardly would have said she volunteered, now would they?” Irina snorted.
“Would you have ordered it?”
Irina crossed her arms. “Yes.”
“And now? When you know with absolute certainty that it would lead to her death? Even though she had served with you for twelve years – would you still order it?”
You would have ordered her to her death! Irina heard Yelena’s voice. You’re a monster! You never feel anything! The only thing you’ve ever loved is your precious duty!
“Captain? Are you all right?”
Irina wasn’t aware of how tightly she had wound her arms around her body or that she had screwed her eyes shut in pain. For a second, she felt disoriented as she looked up and met Veronica’s concerned, brown eyes. Then she checked herself and straightened in her chair.
“I thought I just said that I would have given the order,” she said firmly, and she wanted to choke the counsellor with that cursed PADD as Veronica made another note.
“Many of your crew were killed,” Veronica repeated with a thoughtful look on her face. “Several of them were people you had served with a long time. But you survived.” It was all Irina could do not to slap the counsellor as Veronica once again tilted her head in that infuriating manner. “How do you feel about that?”
“Survivor’s guilt?” Irina barked a laugh. “You’re expecting me to feel survivor’s guilt? Now, that’s original, Counsellor!”
“Are you feeling survivor’s guilt, Captain?” Veronica waited for a reply for a few moments; then she made another note on her PADD. Now Irina had had it.
“You think you know everything.” Her voice was low and hard. “You sit here in safety in your comfortable office, and you think you know what it’s like out there. But you have no idea. You have no idea what responsibility means, or what accountability means. You have no idea what it’s like to be responsible for almost nine hundred lives. You have no idea what it’s like to…” To fail them, she couldn’t bring herself to say, not to this little girl. “I would have died for them, Counsellor. I would have given my life for every single one of them. But I was denied that privilege.”
Veronica picked up her PADD. And Irina snapped.
“Make one more note on that thing and I swear I’m going to shove it down your throat!”
For a moment, the counsellor looked startled. Then she started to make another note. Within a second, Irina had leaped out of her chair, ripped the PADD from the counsellor’s hands, and crushed it under the heel of her boot.
With a shocked look on her face, Veronica stared at her patient. Then she nodded slowly. With slow, precise movements, she got to her feet and pulled her uniform jacket straight. Now every trace of the naïve little girl had gone, replaced with a consummate professional who knew exactly what kind of authority she had and who also wasn’t afraid to exercise it.
Irina’s rage had already faded, and now she was cursing herself for losing control like she had, and for saying the things she had. If Veronica Kellan was indeed a professional, there really was only one thing she could do at this point, and Irina was absolutely certain that the counsellor was going to do it.
And so she did.
“I’m sorry, Captain. At this time, I cannot declare you fit to return to active duty.”
Irina closed her eyes. She was clenching her fists so hard, she almost drew blood, but she didn’t say anything. There really wasn’t anything she could say.
“You are not mentally stable right now,” Veronica went on. “As you yourself has pointed out, there is a war going on. A captain who is being consumed by guilt and self-doubt, and who may be looking to redeem herself for living when her crew died, might introduce an unstable element to a critical situation. We cannot take that risk.” Veronica folded her arms. “I am going to recommend counselling, and another evaluation in two months’ time. You may see your ship’s counsellor if you wish, but the evaluation will be done by a counsellor from Starfleet Medical.” Then a look of sympathy flashed across her face. “I’m sorry, Captain.”
Irina grimaced. “At least one of us is behaving like a professional,” she wryly admitted. “And I’m the one who should be sorry. About… about everything.”
Again, Veronica nodded. She did not object as Irina made a token excuse and hurried out.
* * *
Somewhat shame-faced after finishing her account, Irina studied T’Sera’s impassive features for a reaction. It seemed like an eternity before the Vulcan put her cup down.
“Taking her PADD was probably not the wisest course of action.”
“Probably not,” Irina agreed. She smiled wryly. “It felt good, though. For a moment.”
Frowning slightly, T’Sera gave her Captain a thoughtful look. “By your reaction, I assume her assessment was correct.”
“About guilt?” It wasn’t really a question. And to her First Officer, Irina could say what she couldn’t to Veronica Kellan. “I failed them, T’Sera. My crew died, and I should have died with them, but instead I lived.” Irina shook her head. “What kind of Captain is that, who lives when her crew dies?!”
“One who does her duty to the living,” T’Sera said firmly. “Yes, lives were lost – but thanks to your actions many lives were saved, including mine. That is not failing, Captain.”
Irina shook her head. “It was my fault, T’Sera. You know as well as I do that we wouldn’t have been in that nebula if I hadn’t decided to take a short-cut to the rally point!”
“Yes, but the reason you decided to take that short-cut was that the intel we had indicated that the nebula was clear of Jem’Hadar activity,” T’Sera calmly pointed out. “Starfleet Intelligence-”
“Starfleet Intelligence are a bunch of paper-pushers!” Irina snorted. “They have no idea what it’s like out there. But I do – and I should have seen it. I should have seen that it was a trap. But instead, I blithely took my ship and my crew straight into the maws of Hell!”
“No,” T’Sera said firmly, and now there was an edge to her voice. “You did not – we did, we all did. Your entire senior staff, myself included, agreed with your decision to go through the Eta Carinae nebula. None of us thought the intelligence wrong. None of us even considered it.”
“But it was my responsibility, T’Sera,” Irina persisted. “It was my responsibility, and my decision, and I should have-”
“You should have read the enemy’s mind, predicted his movements, and seen something none of us saw,” T’Sera concluded.
“Yes,” Irina said stubbornly, but even she could hear how absurd it sounded.
T’Sera sighed. “Captain, I realise you may not want to hear this, but not even starship captains have divine powers.” She paused. “Unless, of course, you have been keeping secrets from me?”
In spite of herself, Irina had to smile. Her exec did her best to hide it, but during the years they had served together, Irina had come to realise that T’Sera actually had quite the sly sense of humour. She shook her head.
“Unfortunately, no. No divine powers.” She gave T’Sera a wry look. “Just don’t tell the crew.”
If she hadn’t been Vulcan, what flickered across T’Sera’s face would have been a smile. “Of course,” she said. “So… what happens now?”
“What happens now is that you’ll remain Acting Captain for another two months. After that… after that, we’ll see.” She smiled faintly. “I’d ask you to take good care of the T’Lau while I’m away, but I know you will.”
T’Sera arched an eyebrow. “Away, Captain?”
“I’ll be staying here, on Earth. I’ll probably go back to Novosibirsk. I’d just be getting in your way,” she added when T’Sera looked about to object. “And I… there are some things I need to think about, and I can’t do that here. Too many distractions.”
Frowning slightly, T’Sera gave her Captain a long, thoughtful look. “Captain… surely you are not going to resign your commission?”
Irina’s smile was sad. “That’s one of the things I need to think about.” Then she got to her feet, and T’Sera immediately did so as well.
“Do you want me to inform your daughter, Captain?” she asked.
Irina shook her head. “That won’t be necessary. She won’t be contacting me.”
That made T’Sera frown, but she didn’t comment. “I will tell the crew that you are not yet fully healed,” she said instead. “And that you will be joining us again when you are.”
“Thank you,” Irina said simply. “Dr Tobias will have to be informed about the complete situation, though.”
“Yes,” T’Sera agreed. “The CMO will have to be informed – but he will keep it to himself.”
Irina wanted to tell her that their loyalty was displaced, but she didn’t. Instead, she simply nodded.
“Take care of my ship?” She couldn’t help saying it.
“Always, Captain.” Again, a flicker of what would have been a smile passed over T’Sera’s face. “I believe the appropriate saying is, I will keep your seat warm for you.”
Acting Captain or not, T’Sera still waited for Irina’s brief nod of permission before she left to take her place on the Bridge.