Well, hello there. How good to see you!
This story leans somewhat heavily on my previous holonovels, specifically An Unstable Element and Subject to the Requirements of the Service, so if you haven’t read those, I suggest you at least read An Unstable Element first. You’ll be less confused that way, I promise.
This story is the last one in the Year of Hell part of the story arc, that deals with events in 2374.
Program complete – enter when ready!
Irina Ivanova was lying on her back, staring at the wooden ceiling above her narrow bed. Even though she knew the walls were heavily insulated and the windows thick, she thought she could hear the wind whining in the snow-covered pines outside. She closed her eyes. Still, the sound of the wind didn’t soothe her like she had expected it to. Like she needed it to.
She had thought she would find peace here – and at first, she really had felt at peace. She had spent days reading and re-reading all those books she never had the time for otherwise. When the weather allowed, she had gone for long walks in the woods. In the evenings, she had sat in the rocking chair in front of the fire, doing crosswords or simply watching the dancing flames until she dozed off. She had even taken up painting again, something she hadn’t done in years. Yes, she had felt at peace – as long as it was daylight, and as long as she was keeping busy. The nights were different. At night, there was nothing to distract her, and she had found that her night-time demons whispered just as loudly in a cottage in Siberia as they had in her quarters on the T’Lau.
In her mind, the childhood summers she had spent in the countryside of the Novosibirskaya oblast had been bright and happy, and she had thought that by returning here, she would find some of that happiness again. But memory was selective, and she knew that her memory had made the Novosibirsk of her childhood into a paradise it never was. It had made her childhood into a paradise it never was.
Opening her eyes again, Irina turned her head to look at the luminescent digits of the clock on her bedside table. Half past three, she noted with a grimace. There obviously wouldn’t be any sleep this night, either. With a sigh, she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and shivered as her bare feet hit the cold wooden floor. Life on a starship had spoiled her, she thought with disgust – watered down her blood, her maternal grandmother would have said. A real Russian should think standing on an ice-cold floor was refreshing, and she certainly shouldn’t shiver and want to crawl back under the warm covers like some weak-blooded southerner! Even so, with a grimace for babushka Aleksandrova, Irina pulled on her woollen slippers before she headed to the bathroom. Cold wood was bad enough; cold tiles were more than she could take this early in the morning.
She had just finished twisting her hair, still damp from the shower, into the heavy bun that over the years had become as much a part of her appearance as her nose or her eyes, when she thought she heard a knock on the front door. Ridiculous, she told herself with an annoyed shake of the head. Only a handful of people knew approximately where she was, and none of them had any reason to visit her at four in the morning. Then she froze in mid-movement. It was somebody knocking! What in the name of…?
“Minutu, pazhalusta!” she called out. Then, just to be on the safe side: “Just a moment!”
She gave her reflection in the bathroom mirror a critical look. Pale, and with heavy dark circles under her eyes, she looked like a ghost – but then again, she hadn’t asked for visitors at four in the morning, had she? Pulling herself up, she automatically began to straighten her dark grey sweater in much the same way she used to straighten her uniform jacket, before she caught herself. She wasn’t the Captain any more, she reminded herself as she shot her haggard reflection a final, dark glare before leaving the bathroom. There were no golden pips on her collar now… and there never would be again.
Irina wasn’t sure whom she had expected to find when she opened the front door, if she had expected anyone, but it most certainly wasn’t the uniformed, shivering man standing on her porch, looking decidedly disgruntled.
For a moment, Irina just stared at her visitor in disbelief. She hadn’t seen him in six years, not since he had left the Orion to take command of the USS Callistra. He had aged, she thought; his face was lined and his once-red hair was now all grey, making him look older than his fifty-five years. Finally, she managed a gruff:
“Do you have any idea what time it is, Captain?”
“Yeah,” Richard Upton replied with slightly chattering teeth, “it’s about 2 PM. In San Francisco.” He looked a little sheepish. “I forgot about the time difference.”
“Obviously,” Irina snorted.
“You know,” Richard said, “when I heard you were in Novosibirsk, I thought you were going to be in Novosibirsk – you know, in the city? Where there’s some semblance of civilisation? But this…” He looked around with a look of pure disgust on his face. “What is this?”
Irina couldn’t help herself. “It’s called ‘woods’. It’s what you get when you put a lot of trees together.”
Her visitor glared at her. “Very funny. So, are you going to invite me in, or are you just going to wait until I freeze to death?”
That made Irina roll her eyes. “It’s not that cold, Richard.”
“Yes, it is,” Richard disagreed. “As I said: Are you going to wait until I freeze to death?”
Irina shook her head at that, but she did move aside to let her shivering visitor in. When he had been her Executive Officer on the Orion, Irina had teased Richard Upton about his poor resistance to cold more than once. Her grandmother probably would have said the Floridian’s blood was pure water.
Then she noted that her former XO was walking with a cane. She frowned. She knew he had been injured in the battle that Irina and the T’Lau had never made it to, and she assumed this was the reason he was on Earth, but she had thought he would long since be back on duty. That he didn’t seem to be worried her… but he was still in uniform and he still had his four captain’s pips on his collar, so at least the injury hadn’t bad enough to cashier him out of Starfleet. Which, of course, made his inexplicable presence even more so.
With a look on his face that was a strange mixture between wonder and disbelief, Richard wandered around the cottage, taking in the Spartan surroundings that were so unlike the technological environment of a starship.
“What is this place?”
To her credit, Irina did not say “Siberia”. “This is a cottage that used to belong to my Ivanov grandparents,” she instead told him. “When my father was still alive, my parents and I often spent the summers here.”
“Really?” Richard said with some surprise. “I would have thought-” Then his eyes fell on something in the cottage’s kitchen area that made him stop and just stare. “Is that…?” His eyes wide, he turned to look at Irina. “Is that a refrigerator?”
Irina nodded. “The lower part of it is; the upper part is a replicator. Which is what I use,” she added when Richard looked alarmed. “The stove is a real stove, but that is something I don’t use.” She smiled wryly. “I don’t want to risk burning down the house. Or the Novosibirskaya oblast, for that matter.”
Somewhat to Irina’s irritation, Richard breathed a sigh of relief. “Your grandparents’ old cottage?” he repeated. “Who owns it now?”
“Actually,” she said almost apologetically, “I do. My grandmother knew how much I liked it here,” she matter-of-factly went on while Richard stared at her as if she had just sprouted a second head, “so she left it to me when she died. She probably had an ulterior motive, though,” she wryly admitted. “She always wanted me to stay in Novosibirsk instead of continuing on to Starfleet Academy; she used to say that one scientist in the family was bad enough. My aunt Alyona was an astrophysicist,” she reminded Richard, “and my grandparents were not particularly happy about it. My grandfather believed a woman’s lot was to tend house and hearth, and nothing else.”
Richard grinned at his former CO. “He must be turning in his grave, then, Captain.”
“Maybe,” Irina said with a faint smile. Of course, the current state of affairs would only have proved to her dedushka Ivanov that he had been right all along, but she wasn’t going to tell Richard that. Instead, she looked at him. “Richard… what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be on the Callistra?”
Richard shook his head. “I managed to arrange for some extra leave, so I thought I might as well put it to good use.” He frowned at her. “The question is, what are you doing here?”
“I told you, this cottage-”
“That wasn’t what I asked,” Richard interrupted her. As her XO, he never would have dared to do anything like that, but as a fellow captain, he had no such compunctions. “I talked to T’Sera, and she said she hadn’t been able to contact you. She was worried.”
Irina looked sceptical. “T’Sera never worries, Richard,” she pointed out. “At most, she raises her eyebrows.”
“All right, so maybe I’m the one who was worried,” Richard admitted with a grimace. “But she also said that your CMO told her you haven’t been going to counselling.”
Irina snorted. “You would think that the Captain and the Chief Medical Officer of a Sovereign-class starship in wartime would have better things to do than spreading idle gossip!”
Richard gave her a sharp look; he hadn’t missed that she had said “Captain” and not “Acting Captain”. “Any particular reason you haven’t been going to counselling?”
“I don’t need it.”
Richard shook his head. “It’s required for a reason, you know.”
“That might be, but it isn’t necessary in my case. I’m resigning my commission.”
For a few seconds, Richard just stared at her in disbelief. “You’re what?” he finally managed. “How… I mean, when did you decide this?”
Crossing her arms, Irina looked away. “I made the decision was made the moment I decided to take my ship into the Eta Carinae nebula,” she said. Her voice was very quiet.
“You’re resigning your commission because you were attacked by Jem’Hadar?”
“No, I am resigning my commission because I showed a shocking lack of judgement and thereby a shocking lack of leadership. You cannot have a starship captain who can’t lead her crew.”
For a moment, Richard just looked at her. Then he sighed. “Does that refrigicator of yours make coffee? Because I don’t think my marrow has thawed yet…”
Irina smiled wryly. She knew her former XO well enough to know that he didn’t really want coffee but was looking for a way to make her sit down and talk, but nevertheless, she obliged. After all, she hadn’t had her morning cup of rooibos tea yet.
Richard looked a little disappointed when Irina took the rocking chair instead of sitting down next to him on the sofa as they settled down in front of the fire-place, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he quietly took a sip from his pitch-black coffee, and nodded in approval in response to Irina’s questioningly raised eyebrows.
“Just don’t spill anything, whatever you do,” Irina told him dryly. “It would most likely make the floor boards dissolve, and it is below zero outside.”
Taking another sip, Richard smiled, but when he lowered his cup again, his face was serious. “Ira… why are you doing this?”
“I’ve told you my reasons,” she said curtly.
He shook his head. “No, you’ve told me your excuses, that isn’t the same thing. And making excuses isn’t like you, Ira. Nor is hiding under a rock in the Siberian woods.”
“I’m not hiding.” Her voice was flat.
“Of course not. That’s why your XO hasn’t been able to contact you.” Richard frowned. “Why did you say your decision to resign was made when you entered that nebula?”
“Because we shouldn’t have been there! But I decided to go in anyway – and because of that, my people died.”
“Why?” Richard wanted to know. “Why shouldn’t you have been in that nebula?”
Irina stared at him. “My ship was almost destroyed and my crew was killed, and you’re asking why-”
“No. I’m asking you to give me a reason, just one reason why you shouldn’t have gone in, that doesn’t come from hindsight.”
For a moment, Irina just glared at him. Captain Upton was a decidedly different person than the commander who had once been her Executive Officer. Then she shrugged.
“There had been Jem’Hadar in that area before. I should have realised there still were.”
“Because of what you knew then, or because of what you know now?” He shook his head. “Hindsight. The intelligence you had said the area was clear, didn’t it?”
“Intelligence has been wrong before,” Irina snorted.
“Did you have any reason to suspect it was now? Did anybody?”
“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have been suspicious,” Irina pointed out. “A nebula like Eta Carinae is a perfect hiding-place-”
“Maybe,” Richard agreed, “but again, that’s hindsight. You know now that they were hiding there, and you know now that the intel was bad – but you didn’t then.”
“That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have-”
“Maybe not. And maybe it only means you aren’t omniscient.” Again, Richard shook his head. “Was going through that nebula the only decision you could have made? No. Was it the best one? No – in retrospect. Was it a reasonable one, given the circumstances? Yes. Maybe you’re right, maybe you should have been more suspicious when the intel said there was no Jem’Hadar activity in the area – but so should your senior officers, not to mention Starfleet Intelligence themselves. There’s plenty of blame to be passed around.”
“Maybe so,” Irina said. “But it was my responsibility.”
“Yes. But it wasn’t your fault – or at least it wasn’t only your fault. And you’re certainly not the only one who should take the blame for it.” Richard frowned. “You are an intelligent, sensible woman. Granted, you’re one of the most stubborn people I’ve ever met,” he went on, completely ignoring Irina’s raised eyebrows. “You can be abrasive, unforgiving and quite frankly, sometimes you’re a real pain in the… neck. But I’ve never known you to be unreasonable, not like this.” His frown deepened. “And that makes me wonder if there’s something more behind all this.”
“And what would that be?” Irina asked acerbically.
“You made a bad call. You made a decision that seemed like the right one, but that turned out to be a mistake. Only, Irina Alekseyevna Ivanova doesn’t make mistakes – and she doesn’t forgive them, either.” Slowly, Richard shook his head. “You are so very good at what you do, Ira, so brilliant. And you’re so used to always being in the right that you have no idea how to handle it when you turn out to be disastrously in the wrong. And by running away from everything and everybody, you hope you won’t have to deal with it.”
Irina snorted. “You’ve obviously missed your calling,” she said, her voice filled with contempt. “You should have been a counsellor and not a captain!”
“Meaning I’m right,” her XO of thirteen years calmly observed.
Irina’s only reply was a cold look. Then she got up, pausing for a second to put her mug down next to the rocking chair before she walked up to the glass doors that lead to the back porch. She could see Richard’s reflection get up to stand behind her, but she didn’t let hers meet his eyes. For a long time, she just stood there, with her fists clenched and her arms tightly crossed, watching the snow falling slowly outside the window. When she finally spoke, her voice was hardly more than a whisper.
“I’ve failed everybody, Richard. I’ve failed Starfleet, I’ve failed my crew, I’ve failed myself… and I’ve failed Yelena.” Now the reflection of her eyes met his. “She thinks I’m a monster, Richard. My own daughter thinks I’m a monster!”
Richard’s reflection frowned. “What makes you think that?”
“She told me so!” Irina spat, spinning around so vehemently that Richard took a step back. “She told me I’m an unfeeling monster who never loved anything other than my duty!”
Richard shook his head. “She’s angry-”
“Of course she is angry! She’s angry because Sellia Rosh died, and I had the gall to live!”
“No,” Richard said, “you’re the one who’s angry because you lived when Sellia died. Yelena is angry because she almost lost you and you’re expecting her to take it in her stride.”
“I’m expecting her to act like an adult,” Irina said coldly.
“But she isn’t an adult!” Richard exclaimed with exasperation. “She’s a seventeen-year-old girl who almost lost her mother, Ira! For weeks, nobody knew if you’d live or die. Do you have any idea what that was like for her, to have to go through something like that?”
Irina stared at him. Her fists were clenched into tight balls, her nostrils white with fury, but when she spoke, it was in a low, tightly controlled voice. “I know exactly what it’s like. I know better than you can ever imagine. So don’t you dare getting on your high horses and lecture me, Captain Upton. Don’t you ever dare lecture me!”
Richard grimaced; he had forgotten and he had gone too far, and he knew it. “I’m sorry,” he said, honestly contrite. “That was out of line. It’s just that I worry about her, about both of you. I love her like one of my own, you know that.” He smiled a little. “I was there when she was born, after all.”
“I remember,” Irina told him, her voice still controlled. Then she couldn’t help giving him a quick, wry smile. “How could I forget – you relieved me of duty!”
“Because it was the only way to get you to go to Sickbay!” Richard defended himself.
“I’ve told you before, I never leave-”
“-leave the Bridge in the middle of a duty shift, I know,” her former XO finished the sentence, rolling his eyes, “but don’t you think you should waive that when your water has broken?”
Irina glared at him for a second. Then she grimaced. “I didn’t think I was in that much of a hurry,” she admitted, somewhat sheepishly.
“Well, you were,” the father of three told her in a stern voice, but his tone was contradicted by his grin. “Yelena was true to form right from the start, wasn’t she? There’s never been any stopping that girl once she gets an idea in her head.” But then his grin faded, and his face grew serious. “Ira… you’re a very good captain, you know that, but right now… right now what your daughter needs is a mother.”
For a second, Irina closed her eyes in pain. “I know,” she whispered. Her voice was trembling. She tried to hold back the sobs, but she couldn’t. For this was her life’s biggest failing – and he was the only one she ever could admit it to. “I know… but I don’t know how to be one to her.” When she looked up, the look on her face was desperate. “Richard, I love her so much, but I can’t… I don’t… I can’t…”
Richard caught her as she collapsed in tears, and she gratefully leaned against his shoulder, sobbing desperately. He didn’t say anything. He just held her, and gently rocked her back and forth as her walls finally crumbled and let her cry.
Eventually, almost reluctantly, Irina pulled herself up and wiped her eyes, giving her former XO a shamefaced look. “I’m a mess, aren’t I?”
Richard knew that she wasn’t referring to blotchy cheeks or swollen eyes. “Yeah,” he said simply. The look he got in return was both annoyed and amused. “Ira, would you do me a favour? Don’t make any decisions now. Go back to San Francisco, talk to Starfleet’s counsellors, preferably without breaking anything this time – and don’t look at me like that; I told you, I talked to T’Sera. Go back, and talk to a counsellor, and if you still want to resign your commission after that… well, then I won’t try to stop you. But give yourself a chance to heal before you decide. You deserve that much.”
Irina glared at him for another moment. Then the look of wry amusement returned. “You’re absolutely infuriating when you’re being this sensible, you know that?”
“It’s an XO’s job to be infuriating,” Richard replied with a grin.
“Well, you certainly seem to have kept it up well enough,” Irina dryly observed. Then she grimaced, and nodded. “All right. I don’t do Siberian winters as well as I used to, anyway. I’ll go back for a while – but I’m not making any promises, understand?”
“And I’m not asking you to. All I ask is that you give yourself a chance.”
Closing her eyes, Irina sighed. “That might be a tall order.”
“Well, I’ve never known you to back away from a challenge.” Richard smiled. Then, as he turned his head, his eyes fell on the anachronistic clock standing on the sideboard behind them. “What’s the time difference between here and San Francisco again?”
“They’re fourteen hours behind us. Why?”
Irina couldn’t quite hear what Richard muttered, but his tone spoke volumes. “We leave at 1800 hours,” he told her, “and I have to be back by 1700 at the very latest.” He grimaced. “I’m sorry, but-”
“It’s all right,” Irina told him. She smiled wryly. “Spending a few weeks in the woods doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it’s like to command a starship, you know.”
They looked at each other. They both knew he would stay if she asked him. And he knew he would abandon everything if she wanted him to.
“Richard…” Irina hesitated for a moment. But it was just for a moment. “Please give my best to Katherine and the children.”
A quick, barely discernible look of disappointment passed over Richard’s face before he returned her smile. “Of course,” he assured her. Then he frowned. “Will you be all right?”
Irina nodded. “I will. Eventually.”
“Yelena won’t stop loving you just because you aren’t infallible, you know.”
Irina nodded again. “I know.”
“And neither will I.”
She smiled a little. “I know that, too.”
After that, there really wasn’t anything more to be said. With a quick, sightly wistful smile for his former captain, Richard collected his cane and went to the door. On the threshold, he stopped and turned around.
“Give yourself a chance to heal,” he repeated.
Irina nodded. “I will,” she promised.
Again, Richard smiled that slightly wistful smile. Then he left.
When the door had closed behind him, Irina walked over to the fireplace and collected their mugs. As she watched the replicator part of the refrigerator make the mugs dissolve into a myriad of stars, it hit her. There was something she always did when she was back on Earth that she hadn’t done even once since she got here. She suddenly realised how much she missed it – and how incomplete she was feeling without it. She hesitated for a moment; then, with swift determination she hurried around the small cottage and turned out all the lights. Then she stepped out onto the back porch.
Outside, the sky was slightly overcast, but there were rifts in the clouds where the stars peeked through. Shivering in the cold – watered-down blood, she thought with a mental snort – she tilted her head back so she could see as much of the sky as possible. Slowly, as her eyes got used to the darkness, more and more of the stars above her became visible; then she spotted the familiar bright mushroom shape that didn’t belong in any constellation, and smiled. As she watched the shape slowly making its way across the night sky, memory filled the sky with the image of a woman and a young girl, lying on their backs on a meadow as sprinkled with flowers as the sky was sprinkled with stars.
“…Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka,” the child recited, pointing, “Betelguese, Bellatrix and… and…” She stopped, frowning. “No, wait; that’s not a star, it isn’t flickering. Is it Venus, Tyotya Alya?”
“No, silly,” the woman laughed, playfully pinching the child’s nose. “That’s Spacedock.”
“Spacedock,” the seven-year-old repeated. For a moment, she looked confused, but then her face lit up.“That’s where all the starships stay when they visit Earth, right?” Her eyes bright, she turned to look at her aunt. “Have you ever been on a starship, Alya?”
“Several times,” the woman nodded, “when I was studying Mutara-class nebulae.” She smiled. “It was amazing. Space… you don’t really understand how wondrous space is until you’ve been out there, surrounded by it. Immersed in it.”
“I want to go there, too,” the child said breathlessly. “I want to go there in a starship…” She gave her aunt a brilliant smile. “I’m going to have my own starship when I grow up!” she declared. “I’m going to travel everywhere in it, and I’m going to see things nobody has ever seen before and find lots of new stars and planets and galaxies and-”
Again, the woman laughed. “I’m sure you will, Irka,” she said, affectionately ruffling the excited child’s hair. “But before you become a famous starship captain, why don’t you point out the Auriga to me, and tell me what its brightest stars are called?”
More than forty years in the future, the adult Irina closed her eyes. “Capella,” she whispered. “Menkalinan, Mahasim, Al Kab, Al Maz…” Then she broke off and opened her eyes. The realisation hit her like a slap in the face. She couldn’t stay here, not in Siberia, not in Russia, not on Earth. This wasn’t where she belonged. She belonged out there, with Capella and Bellatrix… and she belonged on her ship, with her crew. Yes, she had failed them – but not by going into the Eta Carinae nebula. She had failed them by not being there when they needed her the most, by hiding in the woods, feeling sorry for herself, instead of being the steady rock they needed and counted on her to be. Yes, she had made a mistake… but what she was doing now only compounded the error. Hiding didn’t solve anything, didn’t undo anything. And by turning away from everybody who relied on her, she was failing them worse than she ever had before.
Then she saw Yelena’s grave face before her, and her breath caught. Yelena. Her precious, precocious, brilliant daughter that she loved so much, it almost hurt… but she could never say it to her, never show it. For if she knew all Irina’s faults and weaknesses, Yelena would surely shun her mother. Weakness was something that never could be forgiven, that was something Irina had learned at an early age.
But the weakness would end here and now. She would stop hiding. She would go back to Starfleet and talk to those idiotic counsellors, and then she would go back on duty and return to her ship and to her crew. She would return to where she was meant to be.
Rubbing her arms against the cold, Irina hurried back inside the cottage. She didn’t have all that much to pack, and if she snapped to it, she could get to San Francisco before everybody at Starfleet Headquarters had left for the evening…
In the dark sky behind her, an eight-year-old girl was holding out her arms in a desperate plea to be hugged and held and told that everything was going to be all right.
“Leave me alone!” the woman standing before her snarled, violently shoving the child away. “I told you to leave me alone! I can’t have you clinging to me all the time, do you understand? Don’t you think I have enough to deal with as it is without your clinging?”
“Stop being such a child! And stop crying! Do you think crying will bring him back? Do you? Your father is dead, Irina, don’t you understand that? He won’t ever come back. He’s left us forever – and you’re making it worse with your crying!”
And as the woman stormed off, the child that had stopped being a child wrapped her arms tightly around her and locked her tears behind the highest walls she could build.
~ FINIS ~