A/N : Posting this on the same day as Chapter 31 because louiseb called me a tease!
Stephenson looked at the unconscious man in the bed. This must be the worst case of exposure he had ever seen. Beneath the angry red abrasions and one nasty bruise, the man's face was white as a sheet with an unmistakable tinge of blue. Doc Dax had explained it was due to pulmonary edema resulting in critically low blood oxygen levels. The ventilator forced rapid, shallow breaths on the patient, and each time his chest moved a papery sound came from within.
Stephenson was a tough guy, but that sound made him cringe and the frantic beeping of the heart monitor set his teeth on edge.
"How is he?"
"Still critical, Boss," said Dax. "He's a fighter, though. The men are betting he'll make it twelve to one."
"I know," Stephenson grumbled. "I'm the one. That's because I'm also the only one who has seen him since we brought him in. Looks bloody awful. Looks impossible."
"Doesn't it," said Dax, shaking his head. "So, Grale's off?" he said to steer them toward a happier topic.
"Yeah. He couldn't wait to get outta here."
"Good riddance," said Dax.
Stephenson murmured in agreement.
The alarms woke Dax from his slumber in his room adjoining Sick Bay. He rushed to the patient's side, understanding the situation in one glance. Kirk, eyes wide open, was jerking violently against the straps that held him down, but it was not with a seizure. The Captain was, despite the paralytics, very agitated, and he was, despite the sedatives, very deliberate.
Dax put his hand on the patient's shoulder.
"Captain Kirk!" he said loudly enough to make himself heard over the noise of the machines, "settle down, settle down!"
Kirk's roving eyes caught Dax, and the Doctor winced at the intensity he saw there. He calmed down only marginally – Dax guessed he needed the agitation to fight the sedatives – and opened his mouth. No sound came out, of course, because of the endotracheal tube, but Dax could read his lips:
"Your men are all fine, Captain," Dax hurried. Seeing that his patient wouldn't calm down without further information, he added: "They were rescued, all alive, all of them, but if you don't settle down you won't be and wouldn't that be a shame?"
The Captain stopped fighting against his bonds to give Dax one brief look, then his eyes closed and he sank back into the bed.
Dax and straightened, released the breath he had been holding.
What was that look? he wondered.
He began to check and rearrange tubes, reset the machines, but he couldn't get that look out of his mind. There had been relief there, but only very briefly before it was ruined with pain and distrust. Dax shook his head, his own feelings about this situation conflicted.
It was hope, yes, but… unwelcome. Feared.
Kirk repeated his question to Stephenson three days later. He was calm now and fully, if precariously conscious. Dax had removed the breathing tube and replaced it with an oxygen mask, which Kirk kept pulling off and Dax kept replacing.
"My-men," the Captain gasped in a broken voice. He swallowed painfully, fighting a cough. Coughing was an ordeal beyond measure that went on until it brought up frothy blood and brought him to the brink of unconsciousness.
"They were all fine," Stephenson answered considerately. He stood frankly staring at the man, and Dax knew it was with astonishment and not a small amount of admiration. "We found the journal on your body. It told us where to find Grale and your other man. Grale then sent the coordinates of the Audubon to Alpha Camp. They relayed it to the Federation rescue team which was planetside. It took them another thirty hours to make it through, but your crew was found just as they were sitting down to the last meal they had in stock. They were transported to the Enterprise without incident."
Kirk took a second to take this all in. If he felt or thought anything at all his pale face didn't betray it.
"Did Spock-make it?"
There was urgency there. Dax thought that Spock must mean a lot to this man.
"I'm sorry, I don't know who Spock is," said Stephenson. "Our communication with Alpha Camp is minimal. There is no way of finding out at present."
The light in Kirk's eyes had been growing more intense during the interview, and now it blazed and speared Stephenson.
"Who-are-you?" Kirk demanded with a gasp.
So it broke, all the furious emotion this man was capable of: bewilderment, anger and, above all, distrust.
What Kirk was saying was, Why should I believe you? In his eyes, no one was safe yet. He was still fighting for his men.
The Commander was prepared for it. He was no fool. He took a deep breath before answering.
"I know," he finally said. "We're not supposed to be here. But, Captain, we are, and that is all I will say on this score. And I assure you, Grale did make the call to Alpha Camp and your men were rescued. But he made that call as the sole survivor of the rescue party. Your men believe you and your Lieutenant died in a crevasse, your bodies irrecoverable. No one can know that you are here, because they can't know that we are here."
Kirk closed his eyes for a moment, Dax was unsure whether it was conceal his emotions or from exhaustion. When he half opened his eyes again they were fathomless.
"John-son?" Kirk asked quietly.
The Commander looked at Dax.
"He was close to death when we got to him," the Doctor offered. "Cerebral edema. We have him suspended in a coma but I'm afraid he is slowly failing. I assure you I am doing all I can for him."
"Not all," Kirk whispered, and slipped into unconsciousness.
"No," said Dax softly to his oblivious patient. "Only what I can do."
"What a waste," said Stephenson. He sighed, turned away and left.
Dax gently replaced the oxygen mask.