by Katta

Hudson watched the monitor with great intensity, barking out commands from time to time. He was incredibly nervous and determined not to let it show. This was routine stuff, no reason to think anything would go wrong.

"Fire, Lieutenant!"

"Roger, sir."

Another speeder disappeared from the screen. Had there been a hint of tension in that serious voice? He thought so, but he couldn't be sure. Besides, what did it matter if she was tense? He was tense too, that didn't make him a mental case.

"There's a speeder at six o'clock," he said, not sure if she had noticed it or not. "Evade it, then fire."

There was no reply, and he felt his stomach tie itself into a knot. He resisted the urge to glance at the others, and repeated his command. Still no reply. If she didn't make a move soon, it would be too late.


The screen went black. "The speeder has been destroyed. Mission failed."

One of the UEO evaluators turned off the screen. "Well, that's that, I guess."

Hudson turned against the man in helpless rage: "What the hell were you thinking, letting her try again so soon! You knew she wasn't ready for it!" There was no use in playing it cool anymore. She'd be lucky if she ever got to serve again. "Now, get her the hell out of there!"

"Of course." The man remained calm as he jotted a few things down in his note book and nodded for a young ensign to get Lieutenant Lieutenant Fredricks back. His attitude made it even more infuriating. "Regardless of what you may think, we're not here to torment her."

"You could have fooled me." He turned his attention to the ensign who was leaving as they spoke. God in heaven, and he'd agreed to the thing. Trying to humour her.

"She said she was ready."

"Yeah, and her shrink said she wasn't. Now, I don't trust those people much, but I know these things take time."

"A bit too much time." That was the other evaluator, and if they both agreed, this was serious trouble.

"Cognitive therapy is a lot quicker than psychoanalysis." And a lot less creepy too, but that was a minor concern. "She's a good soldier, you can't just write her off."

"We don't plan to."

That short statement was enough for the lights to go on upstairs. He knew what they had in mind, and never mind how little he liked shrinks, because this was worse. How UEO always solved their problems; sweeping it under the carpet, letting others pay the price for their mistakes.

"You bastards." It was barely more than a breath.

"We propose an implant to block these negative emotions. If Lieutenant Fredricks agrees to it we'll book a surgery as soon as possible."

"If you as much as mention that to her I'll rip out your guts and hang you in them, is that clear?"

He didn't hear the reply, seeing the ensign return, now with his arm around Lieutenant Fredricks. She was shaking badly and didn't seem to notice their presence. Why had he ever let her go along with this? She wasn't ready, he knew she wasn't ready, anyone who cared to look at her woul've known she wasn't ready.

"Lieutenant," he said, but got no sign of recognition. "Freddy?"

Her head lift just a little, and for the merest of moment her eyes met his, before she closed them in a pain he couldn't stop. Maybe surgery would be best for her as well as for the UEO -- but he thought of having them cut into her brain, of the way people looked at chippies and spoke of them, and no thought of her well-being could stop him from cursing.


The knock on his door was so low and came at so late an hour that he first thought it was just some noise from the neighbours. It wasn't until it was repeated, still low but with a patient persistence, that he left his chair and turned on the identity camera. The small screen revealed Lieutenant Fredricks, looking a lot better than the last time he saw her. Of course, that wasn't saying a lot.

He unlocked the door and held it open so that she could step in. Neither of them said a word until she had sat down on a chair in his kitchen.

"Did they tell you want they want to do to me?" she asked, and her voice was so subdued and colourless he'd have done anything to not have to hear it.

"They did." Another silence followed, and he was the one to break it. "You don't have to do it."

"No, of course not. I can just get fired." She didn't raise her head or voice for the bitter statement.

"They'll let you back once you're well. Or they'll deal with me."

She was wringing her hands. He'd never seen anyone do that in real life, and would never have expected it from her. This was breaking her. He could see it, but he refused to believe she was broken forever.

"I can't stand feeling like this. I want to go back into the water, but I can't. You saw me. That was just a simulation, for Christ's sake, how am I ever going to..." She swallowed hard. "I know you don't like it. UEO cast-offs and all that."

Damn his big mouth. "I never meant it as any disrespect to the people it happened to."

"I know you didn't."

Maybe he was old-fashioned. He'd seen soldiers who should have gone home to mourn, sent back into the field, all chipped up and fearless -- and treated as pariah. Of course, there was no open discrimination against chippies in the subs. Everyone knew the UEO could see everything that happened to the chippies. But somehow, when it came to teamwork operations, there was always someone else who could do the job better. Socially, there was no need for pretense. Chippies rarely made friends, and he'd yet to see one dating. It wasn't that people thought every chippie was a lunatic. Of course not. There could be any number of reason a person was chipped, most of them harmless enough. But then again, you never knew.

Not that the UEO cared about any of this. Their fighters were back, the expensive education put back to use, and that was all that mattered. Callous, efficient, unacceptable. Except that behind every fearless outcast, there might have been someone like Freddy, someone who couldn't stand what he or she was feeling. Wasn't it cruelty in that case to force them through the pain?

Wasn't it cruelty to take it away, only to give them another?

"Are you sure about this? People will take on look at you and have their minds made up already."

"That's not what bothers me," she said, and then, probably more truthfully, "The most."

"What is, then?"

She finally looked up. "They're going to monitor me all the time, right? If I have a chip in my head, the UEO can see anything that happens to me. So they'll find out about Lucia."

His hands curled into fists automatically. "This isn't the twentieth century. They can't kick you out for it."

"Doesn't mean they won't want to."

That was true and something he had cursed more than once, primarily because she wouldn't. Fredricks was too patient for her own good, and Lucia... Lucia had been forced to take a lot already. Stealth water pilots weren't the best people to start families with, and the secrecy Freddy insisted upon didn't help any.

"So how does she feel about all this?"

"She says it's my choice. I don't know if she means it or she's just trying to humour me."

Hudson had a hard time thinking Lucia would ever say anything she didn't mean, but he kept his mouth shut, because in this case he honestly didn't know. Even if Lucia intended to stay, and he was sure she did, it would be tough.

"She'll want what's best for you," he said. That, at least, was true.

"Yeah." There was a sudden heat in her voice quite unlike both the disciplined soldier and the tired patient. "But that's not all she wants -- or should want. Maybe... Maybe it'll be so bad she has to leave. And if I go through with this, that won't even scare me."

She didn't have to elaborate. Fearless in battle was one thing, but there were certain things a person should be afraid of.

"It's your choice."

A wry grin came over her face. "See what I mean?"

"Well, what the hell do you want me to say?" He shouldn't raise his voice against a neurotic like this, but he couldn't help himself. All of this was terribly unfair, but he couldn't see how dragging him into it would make it any less so. "It is your choice. I'm not going to make it for you. If you're looking for someone to hold your hand when you make your decisions, lieutenant, you're in the wrong profession."

She stood up, straight-backed, chin held high, more like herself than she had been in many weeks. "Sir, I can make the jump on my own. I'm just trying to determine, now that I'm prepared to do this and get back to my job, whether I will actually have a job afterwards. You have made it clear that you do not approve of this kind of operation. Those who do approve may have issues with my personal life. So, what I want you to say, captain, is if you'll have me back on the team once I go through with this."

All his anger and frustration slowly deflated.

"Jesus Christ, Freddy," he said helplessly. "You'll always have a place on my team. You're the best pilot I ever had. Do you think I wouldn't do everything to keep you?"

"That's all I wanted to know." She started to leave, and he followed her into the hallway, where she swirled back to face him again. "I'm not a coward, sir."

"I never thought you were."

For a moment they looked at each other almost shyly, as if they hadn't served together ever since she left the academy. Then she nodded briefly and opened the door. "Captain."


The door fell shut behind her.


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