Chapter Six

Phlox

The single most difficult task a physician must perform is the completion of a death certificate.

I had settled down for a rather intimate moment with my wife, Feezal, when the captain informed me of the accident on the Enterprise. Given the emergency situation, I was teleported aboard while the captain and the remainder of the senior staff on the planet's surface followed in the shuttlepod. I detested having to use the transporter, but it couldn't be helped.

When I arrived, I found sickbay in a state of chaos. Crewman Rostov was in the imagining chamber. My medical assistants were attempting to make sense of the readouts. I ordered them out of the way and began my own assessment of the situation.

Rostov appeared to be comatose, just as I had been advised by Captain Archer. I was astonished by the scans. One would expect to see suppressed neural activity in his condition. Instead, the neural synapses were firing at an astounding rate. In particular, the amygdalae within his medial temporal lobes were accelerated at an alarming level. If he were awake, his emotional responsiveness would be out of control.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise he was inexplicably in a coma.

Since Rostov and Summerfield had been the only two present in the shuttlebay when the incident had occurred, we had no real facts to substantiate what had happened. To ensure no other members of the crew fell to such a fate, the captain ordered the alien craft be quarantined. Lieutenant Reed supported this decision, while Commander Tucker heatedly argued against it. His rationalization was they could not investigate unless they had full access.

The scientist in me agreed with Commander Tucker. He and Commander T'Pol needed all information possible to determine with any certainty what had occurred. However, considering the fact I was now performing an autopsy on a young man in the prime of his life, I was also inclined to support Captain Archer's edict.

It was decided the incident should not entirely end my visit with family. I completed a thorough examination of Crewman Rostov and determined there was little to be done but monitor his condition and wait. Counselor Agroterra was capable of serving as acting physician, and would notify me in the event of any change in his condition.

As to the autopsy on Crewman Summerfield… The counselor had not done the procedure since medical school, and she felt inadequate to the task. Besides, I had known the crewman. He had been with us since Enterprise launched four years ago; he'd survived our mission in the Expanse.

I needed to do the autopsy myself. He deserved as much from me.

Part way into my investigation, I became lost in the familiar routine of scrutinizing every component of the body. The cardio-pulmonary system. Digestive system. Cellular composition. The skeletal and muscular systems. The nervous systems.

Aha. As in the case of Rostov, it was in the neural pathways of Crewman Summerfield I found the sole anomaly. When I discovered the discrepancy, I took a step back and re-examined the results three more times before I was convinced of what I was seeing. I blinked, removed my gloves, and stepped over to the comm unit on a nearby wall.

"Doctor Phlox to Counselor Agroterra."

Her voice floated through the channel a moment later. "Go ahead, Doctor."

"Could you please come to sickbay for a moment? I would like you to take a look at something."

"Of course." There was a note of surprise in her tone. "I'll be right down."

Moments later, she appeared in the doorway. "What can I do for you?"

"I would like you to review these scans I took during Crewman Summerfield's autopsy." I handed her a PADD. "I generally don't question my own assessment, but in this case… Let's just say I would like your feedback."

Her brow furrowed as she scanned the PADD. I knew the instant she had reached my findings in the nervous system because her eyes widened. "This can't be right."

"I ran the scans three times."

"His neural pathways were completely fried." Her fingertips flew over the screen as she attempted to make sense of what she was reading. "It's as if—"

"Something generated a chemical reaction so intense it overloaded the neural synapses. Yes, I know." I circled behind her and studied the still form of Crewman Summerfield. "Counselor, I consider myself an experienced and open-minded man of science and medicine. But I have never seen anything quite like this in my entire career. I was wondering…have you?"

She shook her head. "I haven't, no." Her gaze, too, shifted to Summerfiled as she absently tapped the PADD against her palm. "We have to tell the captain."

"Obviously," I replied, grim. "And recommend we get rid of that alien craft."


Trip

The whole situation had shaken me more than I'd care to admit. Rostov was on my crew, and a damned good engineer. He didn't deserve to be lying in sickbay. If it had happened only an hour earlier, it would have been me instead. And it should have been. I'd known we were close to breaking the hatch open and had tried to convince Malcolm to stay on and continue, but he argued it could still be hours. After a while, I got tired of fighting with him and agreed to turn the process over to Summerfield and Rostov.

And now one was dead. The other? Not even Phlox could tell us what was going to happen.

When the doc requested a senior staff meeting, heasked it be held in sickbay. The very thought turned my stomach. I hadn't been back in that room since Elizabeth died, and the only way I'd go there was unconscious. When I expressed my displeasure to the captain, he asked Phlox to move the meeting to the conference room instead. The doc was reluctant, but he agreed.

This time I made sure to sit next to Malcolm. I spun my chair around backwards and straddled it, resting my arms over the back. The tension in the room was so thick you could have cut it. At the head of the table, Phlox, Callie, and the captain were gathered in a small group, talking so low I couldn't make out what they were saying. Judging from their sour expressions, it wasn't good.

The captain turned towards the rest of us and took a deep breath. "Phlox has had a chance to complete an—" His voice caught. He took the death of anyone under his command personally, and this had to be weighing on him. "An autopsy on Crewman Summerfield. His findings… Well, I'll let Phlox go over it."

The doc stepped forward, his hands folded in front of him. Behind him, Callie switched on a display and a scan appeared on the screen. "My initial examination of Crewman Summerfield was unremarkable. Most of his internal organs and systems showed no signs of trauma or damage." He paused and glanced at the screen. "That is, until I reached his neurological system. To be frank, I was so startled by what I found in his neural pathways, I consulted with the counselor for a second opinion."

I exchanged a glance with Malcolm, my own tension reflected in his eyes. Phlox never asked for second opinions. "What did you find, Doc?" I ventured.

"To put it simply, Commander, it was as if every neural pathway in the Crewman's grey matter had been fused."

I raised both brows almost to my hairline. "Fused?"

"The best comparison I can give you, Trip, is it looked like a conduit that someone had pumped too much plasma through," Callie interjected. She clicked a button on the display, and it flashed to another picture. "It literally looks as if every pathway in his brain was fried."

I let out a long slow breath and grabbed the table to steady myself. My crewmates had similar shell-shocked expressions on their faces as we glanced at one another.

"What about Rostov?" I managed to ask.

"Crewman Rostov's neural pathways are showing an extreme amount of activity—an astounding amount for a man in his condition—but none of the damage Crewman Summerfield had," Phlox replied.

The captain closed his eyes. "T'Pol, do we have internal sensor data that can give us a clue of what happened?"

Across the table, T'Pol picked up a PADD. "It appears once the alien craft we brought on board several days ago was opened, a phenomenon occurred that left the crewmen in their present conditions."

I shot her a dark look. Present conditions: comatose and dead. Why can't you just say it?

She ignored me. "I do not yet have sufficient data to determine what transpired. I will require more time."

The captain nodded. "I want you to be as thorough as possible, T'Pol. Trip, help her increase power to the internal sensors if need be. Whatever it takes."

"Cap'n, with all due respect, I could get this done a lot faster if you'd just let me get my hands on that craft." I lifted my eyes to his. "We can play around with the sensors all day, but sometimes you've gotta go the extra mile."

"Absolutely not, Trip." He shook his head. "I won't have you putting your safety at risk until we know what we're dealing with."

"So it's okay for crewmen to put their lives on the line, but not senior officers." I was standing by now, hands planted on the tabletop. Anger heated my cheeks, and my heart pounded in my head. "It should have been Malcolm and me in there, not Rostov and Summerfield."

"Trip—" Malcolm tried to interject, but I cut him off.

"No, we should have been," I spat. "We were the senior officers. It should have been us." A stab of guilt sliced through me when I caught the look on his face. I knew he felt guilty, too. Summerfield had been on his crew. But dammit, I couldn't seem to stop myself.

"Trip." Callie decided to get involved then. She caught my eye, and satisfied she had my attention, she continued. "No one blames you for what happened."

The flush in my cheeks deepened, and the blood pounding in my ears became nearly deafening. "I never said anyone did." The words came out of my mouth in almost a hiss.

Callie lifted a brow in surprise. "Obviously you were thinking it."

"Don't be puttin' words in my mouth, Counselor." I leaned closer. "You have no idea what's goin' on in my head."

"No, I don't." She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. "Tucker, everyone else on this ship might tiptoe around you and walk on eggshells, but I sure as hell will not. You need to take a step back, calm down, and listen to your captain." Her own cheeks were flushed, eyes flashing. "He's doing his job and trying to make sure you don't end up occupying the bed next to Crewman Rostov."

I was aware the others were shifting uncomfortably and looking everywhere but at Callie and me. I was past the point of caring.

"Of course you'd defend him," I shot back. "You never—"

"That's enough!" The captain shouted, slamming his hands down on the table to get our attention. "Both of you!"

I jumped, snapping my eyes to his. Over the years, I'd heard the captain give several dressings-down. In fact, I had been the on the receiving end of more than a few, but I'd never heard him use quite that tone of voice. I glanced at Callie, who'd dropped her gaze. I exhaled sharply with exasperation, glowering at the captain unapologetically.

"The shuttlebay will remain sealed until further notice." The captain gave the order in a low voice that demanded obedience. "Malcolm, I don't care if Admiral Gardner himself strolls onto this ship, no one touches that craft. Is that understood, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, Sir," Malcolm murmured.

"Trip," the captain continued, pinning a glare on me. "Work with T'Pol on gathering sensor data. When we have a better understanding of what's going on, then I'll decide where we go next."

"Fine." I snapped to attention. "If I'm dismissed, then I'll go down to Engineering and work on increasin' the damn sensor input."

He seemed to debate on saying something else, but finally sighed. "Dismissed."

Without another word, I stalked out of the room.


Jon

Hours later, the confrontation with Trip still hung heavy on my mind. After the staff meeting, I sequestered myself in my ready room. No one bothered me, and I suspect there was a silent understanding I was to be interrupted in an emergency situation.

I was worried, upset, and disheartened by the argument in the conference room. My concern for Trip was growing, and I felt helpless on how to deal with it. Callie continued to assure me if I gave him time, he'd come around. But how much time was enough? The longer I gave him, the more he seemed to deteriorate. The situation with Rostov and Summerfield hadn't helped.

I sighed, leaning back in my desk chair. More than anything, I missed my best friend. I would love to drag him in for a beer and a water polo match, but every time I'd tried to just talk to him I'd gotten the cold shoulder. He was retreating deeper into himself, and I had no idea how to pull him out.

The door chime rang, and I glanced at the chronometer on my desk. It was late, and I supposed I had kept the crew at bay long enough. I couldn't wallow in self-pity and worry forever. "Come in."

To my surprise, it was Callie who stepped through the door, two mugs in her hands. "Hey," she greeted me. "I wanted to let you know Phlox has returned to the planet. He said he'll check in tomorrow."

I dropped my feet from my desktop and sat up in my chair. "You could have paged me to tell me that. What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same question." She sat on the edge of my desk and handed me a mug. "Even the captain needs sleep sometimes."

I glanced briefly into the mug and smiled, touched that Callie remembered I took my coffee with cream. "I had a lot on my mind." I took a sip of the rich liquid.

"I know." Concern and sympathy shone in her eyes. "You're worried about Trip."

"Callie, I've never seen him like this." I took another deep drink and set the mug aside. "He's shutting everyone out no matter how hard we try to reach out to him."

"I've never seen this side of him, either," she admitted. "I keep thinking time and space will heal all wounds, but instead he seems to be getting worse."

I fell silent, picking my mug back up and staring into it. "Do you think I should relieve him of duty until he pulls himself together?"

She sighed and gazed at the ceiling. "I don't even know, Jon. I wish I had a magical answer that would solve everything, but I don't."

"Have you been down to see him since this afternoon?"

Callie shook her head. "I will tomorrow, and I'll apologize for poking the bear." Her dark eyes rolled in response to my pointed look. "Look, I was not brought on board this ship for the sole purpose of babysitting Trip Tucker. The last time I checked, he's a grown man and can—for the most part—take care of himself. There are other members of this crew I'm responsible for."

"Such as?" I asked, my tone sardonic.

"Such as the captain." She drained her mug and set it on the edge of the desk. "How are you doing?"

I averted my eyes, suddenly taken with Denobula in the viewport. "I'm okay."

"No you're not." A soft sigh escaped her lips. "You're thinking about the letter you have to write to a family back on Earth. You're worried about Rostov, and you're terrified you've lost your best friend. Jonathan, you're not okay."

My eyes snapped back to her. It was rare for Callie to call me that, an act that in our history together she had reserved for more tender moments. I swallowed hard and leaned forward, resting my elbows on my thighs. "Trip thinks this is his fault, but it's not. This is my fault." I closed my eyes and sighed. "I should have listened to Malcolm."

"You had no idea this would happen," she argued quietly. "You did what you thought was best."

"And a young man paid the price for my decision with his life. Another might still."

Her hand hesitated and flexed before she reached up and touched my cheek. "As I said to Trip earlier, no one blames you."

I bit my lower lip. "I blame myself."

Indecision and conflict rolled off of her as she studied me, but finally she moved her hand to my shoulder. "You need to get some rest." A faint smile tugged at her lips. "Go to your quarters, curl up with your dog, and sleep."

My hand covered hers. "What if it's not the dog I want?"

Callie pulled her hand back and turned away. "Jon…" She trailed off, gathering her thoughts. "I'm not going to jump into bed with you because either one of us is needy or because it's convenient. We both deserve better than that."

Though her tone was gentle, the comment struck me hard. "Now wait a minute—"

She held up a hand. "I can't, Jon." Her eyes pleaded with me. "You broke my heart once. I can't go through that again."

I was stunned. For a long time, I stared at her as her words sunk in. I narrowed my eyes. "Hold on." It was more of a command than a request. "You said you were okay with it when we ended things."

Callie hopped down from the desk and strode over to the portal, peering out into space. "I said I understood. I never said I was okay with it." She rested her head against the window. "Did you know when you first got this assignment five years ago I made the suggestion that deep-space vessels needed a ship's counselor?"

I paused. "No," I replied, the implication tightening my throat.

Pushing away from the bulkhead, she turned to me with a tight smile. "I did. It took a while, but Starfleet finally listened." She went to the door, hesitating with her hand over the release. "I never said I wanted to be the center of your world. I always knew I never would be. I just wanted to be part of it."

I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. "Callie—"

"Get some sleep, Jonathan," she said, refusing to turn around. "I'll see you in the morning."