Chapter Fourteen For the last four days, survivors from the ambush at the Tong-Beak Nebula had drifted in escape pods and shuttles. One hundred fifty Federation, Klingon, and Romulan vessels had been destroyed or crippled beyond repair by enemy forces. This time, the Jem’Hadar and Breen elected not to deliberately destroy the escape pods. If they felt it was to their benefit, they would opt for leaving frightened and demoralized troops behind in escape vessels without warp capability. Survivors among the most senior officers on the late Constantinople occupied the one runabout that had survived the ship’s destruction. Two-dozen officers were crammed into the smaller vessel with only emergency field rations that still would last what was left of the crew for several weeks. The rear cabin was arranged into a temporary medical ward where Samantha Collins could tend to the comatose Admiral Jellico. Keith Ellison stepped into the compartment feeling strongly dejected. His head was drooped down and his shoulders were sagging as if he had lost all sense of purpose. His ship was gone. Half his crew was dead. His captain and mentor may as well have been on his deathbed. The crew that had survived was crammed into shuttles and escape pods. Some of them were huddled on the floor of the infirmary tending to each other’s superficial cuts and bruises while the doctor tended to the most critical patient. “What’s the prognosis?” Ellison inquired. “The same, more or less,” Collins grimly replied. “His chances of ever regaining consciousness are almost nill.” Ellison sighed in disgust and shook his head while pacing back and forth. “I don’t why we’re investing so much to keep a man who may never wake up alive,” he grunted, “when so many corpses were left behind.” “That’s for his next of kin to decide,” Collins calmly answered. Oblivious to the doctor’s response, Ellison followed up on he had just said. “Why does he get a proper burial when Jeth’ron, Herron, and so many others were left behind to rot? Because he was fleet commander? Because he had a more distinguished career? Why?! And what gives you or me the right to decide who lives and who dies?” During his diatribe, he was becoming increasingly agitated and hysterical, drawing the attention of others in the room. He quickly realized his emotional state and took in a long breath. He gradually composed himself as Collins watched quietly. “I don’t know, sir,” Collins said somberly. “I know many of us will have a lot of soul searching to do once it’s all said and done. And many more lives will be lost before the war is over. So you need to be strong for the rest of the crew.” “A crew that doesn’t have a ship anymore,” Ellison scoffed. “They will be still look to you for guidance—remind them that they still have something to fight for.” Ellison nodded in agreement. “I worry for Nave the most. She’s stayed focused through it all. She’s still just a kid for crying out loud. For her to see someone die so gruesomely… someone she cared for…” “I don’t put much stock in all the gossip that gets around a starship,” Collins replied with a sympathetic shake of her head. “I just know no amount of academic proficiency and physical training can prepare a person for such a tragedy. She’s not the only one you’ll have to look out for.” “Right,” Ellison breathed. He knew very well that a captain had to be strong for his crew. Despite Doctor Collins’ constant reminders that he was still a source of encouragement for the persons under his command, Ellison was just not sure how. At least he had a very long time to figure that out without the certainty of when or if a rescue operation would arrive. *** Truxia sat at the secondary piloting station of the runabout’s cockpit, watching as Sarah Nave piloted the vessel. They exchanged very few words during the four days since the crew was forced to abandon the Constantinople. She tried discussing Matthew Herron with the younger woman. Each time his name was mentioned, Sarah insisted she was okay, while appearing very numb at the same time. From what Truxia had observed of this girl of only twenty Earth years, she was practically best friends with Matt, maybe even something more, but neither seemed willing to make that move. “How are you holding up?” Truxia asked Sarah for what felt like the fiftieth in the last four days. “I know Matt was your friend, and perhaps you thought of him…” Nave continued to stare straight ahead, occasionally looking down at her console when a display flashed. “I don’t need anyone’s sympathy right now,” she insisted. “He was one of many officers on the Constantinople killed in the last two years. There’s no sense in thinking of him as any different from the others.” “Are you sure you’re not trying to avoid your feelings? It’s okay to grieve for him. He was an important person in your life. Mourning him doesn’t trivialize any others who…” “Really, I’m fine, Commander,” the ensign snapped while momentarily glancing at Truxia, and then looking back at her console. “I’ll have time to mourn when this is all over. Right now, I want to help to make sure those of us who are still alive stay that way.” Truxia wanted to keep pushing, but right now, this ship needed a pilot who was focused. There would come a time eventually where Sarah would let her feelings go. What concerned Truxia the most about her young friend was that Sarah had learned to desensitize herself to loss of life, all the way back to the destruction of the Odyssey during Starfleet’s first major confrontation with the Dominion. She and her mother were among the “non-essential personnel” evacuated from that ship, but others who were her teachers and mentors during her adolescence were not so lucky. She knew that deep down, Sarah mourned those deaths. ### Lisa Neeley and Loukas Pherrelius were among the dozens crammed into the escape pods. In the last day, those two were tending to one of the injured Marine soldiers: a male Tellarite. An injury that seemed superficial at the time Constantinople was being abandoned had begun to include sharp pains in Corporal N’Prek’s chest and abdomen. Aside from Neeley’s and Pherrelius’ first aid knowledge, their only help was a young human female nurse practitioner. All those three could do was lessen his pain and assure N’Prek that he had a decent chance of recovery—not that he bought anyone’s claims that he would live. “The abdominal bleeding has been reduced,” Neeley informed the patient while applying a laser device to a laceration on his stomach. “We still want to make sure to continue cauterizing the wound in your chest.” “I’m still going to die, aren’t I?” N’Prek wondered with a wry chuckle. “That’s the spirit,” Donna Chang retorted. “But as long as someone’s keeping an eye on you, you should be all right.” “Hey, aren’t doctors not supposed to make grandiose promises even if they’re performing routine surgery?” the Tellarite scoffed. “None of us here are doctors,” Pherrelius corrected with a reassuring grin, “so we’re not held to that restraint.” “And, technically,” Neeley added, “she didn’t promise that you would survive.” “So what are my chances?” N’Prek asked with a wheezing chuckle. “Let’s put it that way.” “Although I don’t possess the mathematical proficiency of a Vulcan,” Chang joked, “I’d say eighty percent.” N’Prek snickered, continuing to let humor be his best instrument of healing. So he may as well have suffered a setback when, without warning, Pherrelius, collapsed. Neeley and Chang both lunged towards him as he experienced shortness of breath as if he would choke to death any minute. They discovered the nature of his injury upon ripping open the top of his jumpsuit and undershirt. Plasma burns on his chest were now doing damage to his heart and lungs. “Why wasn’t this detected earlier?” Neeley demanded. “It wasn’t this bad earlier,” Chang explained while scanning the more visible wound with a medical tricorder and a small hand sensor trained on the man’s heart. “And you wouldn’t let me take a closer look at it,” she told Pherrelius. “You were just looking for an excuse to see me without a shirt on,” Pherrelius said with a wry grin. “Stubborn right up to the end, huh?” Neeley shot back. She was struggling to hold in her emotions, her eyes brimming with tears as he drifted in and out of consciousness. To keep herself from having a complete emotional meltdown in front of people serving under her command, she reminded herself that such foolish stubbornness seemed like a constant among the male gender, whether human, Tellarite, or any other sentient species.