Looking around the breakfast table that morning, Jedrick Radomi silently gave thanks for his family. His wife Celestine at the far end of the table was talking with their youngest, twelve-year-old Himani, about the upcoming school concert. Fourteen-year-old Kiri was discussing with his twin sister Kana the merits of two popular wrestlers competing in the upcoming territorial games. Their eldest son, Satya, was absorbed in the sports page of the newspaper. At eighteen, Satya was starting to resemble Jedrick more and more, but the thing for which Jedrick felt the most thankfulness was that all four, without exception, had taken after their mother’s side of the family by manifesting plant sympathies.
“JR,” Celestine said, “shouldn’t you be leaving now?”
Jedrick shook off his ruminations. “You’re right, love, as usual. Kerrie will be here any moment.” He left his dishes next to the sink and hurried to grab his jacket from the entryway closet. He kissed his wife and ducked out into the chilly morning sun.
“Morning, Kerrie.” Some of Jedrick’s contemplative mood must have carried over from breakfast, because for an instant he recalled Kerrie as he remembered him from their training days, when they were both barely more than boys. Kerrie had one of the weaker sympathies, passive-principle water, and had signed on as Jedrick’s valet so as to avoid being relegated to duty in the food service corps. Diligent and observant, Kerrie had followed him all through training, med school, and every subsequent field mission. Now, some twenty years later, he served as Jedrick’s personal assistant, keeping track of everything from meetings to case notes.
“Today’s your turn as day shift manager,” Kerrie said.
“Right, I swapped with Dewi,” Jedrick replied. “For the twins’ sports day. I remember. Well, that should give me time to get through the rest of my mail and case notes.”
“We can but hope,” was Kerrie’s comment.
There was a fresh pile of mail on the desk in Jedrick’s office. It was more Kerrie’s office in actuality, since Jedrick spent most of his hospital time out on the trauma floor. Kerrie merely let him sit at the desk when he was in the office, like now, when he received the report from the night shift supervisor. But both of them knew it was really Kerrie’s desk.
After the shift change formalities were accomplished, Jedrick glanced over the new mail. A red packet caught his attention, as it was designed to do. He pulled the packet from under a few medical journals. “That’s rare.”
Kerrie agreed. “Referrals from South? I should say so. I can’t remember the last time you got one.”
“They hate to admit when they can’t handle a thing themselves,” Jedrick said. He opened the packet to draw out a case file. There was no explanatory cover letter. After his first cursory scan of the diagnostic summary, he said, “This must be a mistake. I bet it’s for Rudy.” Dr. Rui-De Radosa was his counterpart in trauma counseling, and the similarity of their last names and job titles often confounded staff from other territories. Nonetheless, Jedrick kept reading. According to the standard referral form, it was a trauma case, but the patient appeared, physically at least, to have come through unscathed. Jedrick whistled over the diagram of muscle striping. “Check this, Kerrie. South Territory had a lucky escape.”
Reading over Jedrick’s shoulder, the assistant said, “What kind of body temp did that to him?”
“Sixteen hundred, seventy one,” Jedrick read aloud from the documentation.
“Military. And there’s a note: that’s the last reading from their equipment before it all melted.”
“Was this from the new depletion bunker Father Locke is developing?”
“So it seems. This kid… he’s only Satya’s age, would you believe? Looks like he was a student with Father Locke for some months. We don’t need to wonder anymore where the idea for the bunker came from,” Jedrick added with a grim chuckle. “How did he come through with his brains intact; that’s my question. And what was he doing in Current-town with such a monstrous thermal energy sympathy? It’s the last place he should be. He should have stayed in Northwest, where it’s cold.” By this time, Jedrick was into the next section of the document, the patient’s service record. “He’s just in the first year of his obligatory service. Looks almost like he was training for disposal at first. Maybe that’s why he was in Current-town.”
“He has the firepower for it,” Kerrie said. “I’ll contact Dr. Radosa about the referral and let him know it was misdirected.”
“No, wait.” Jedrick stared at a handwritten note at the bottom of the last page of the referral. “This is from Nara.”
“Dr. Zuma is in Current-town now? That’s a drastic change.”
“That’s what I thought at first,” Jedrick admitted, “but it sounds like she has a personal connection to this case. He’s susceptible to human-based sympathies… he associates her too much with the soldier who saved his life… wait…” His thumbed through the packet to a summary page on the other person involved. He thought he had misread it at first, but after rereading it and even having Kerrie read it, he had to accept that it did actually say, Total Depletion of Sympathy – Full Recovery Expected in the diagnosis section. “How is that possible?” Jedrick asked several stunned moments later.
“I’ll put a call through to the attending physician on record,” Kerrie said.
“Later. This soldier, she survived those temps and total depletion. What kind of monstrous sympathy must she have?” Jedrick went back to the referral form. “Find out for me what unit this kid was assigned to. I want to see him.”
Kerrie left on this errand. While he waited, Jedrick went through the rest of the case file. The hospitalization records for the patient were astonishingly brief. He had been discharged to relatives only two days after the incident. The assessment from the local trauma counselor diagnosed acute stress reaction, no surprise there, and cautioned that the patient showed a general lack of awareness towards his own emotions. “And that makes him an average adolescent male,” Jedrick said to himself. “Guilt toward his savior, her family, his own family… nothing strange there. He does seem on the sensitive side, though. Moratorium? We’ll see. As if I know anything about counseling.” He went to the bookshelf to pull down the psychology dictionary he used when he had to discuss a case with Rudy. He looked up the word moratorium and then replaced the heavy volume before returning to his reading.
The counselor’s assessment was followed by a letter from the patient’s father, who turned out to be Archet Tate, the bigshot pharmaceutical man from the capital. Jedrick read the brief letter with close attention. It served as a supplement of sorts to the counselor assessment, describing the patient’s personal history and personality. It also included two details that caught Jedrick’s eye: the patient’s mother had died unexpectedly some eleven years back, and the patient had been the first one to discover her body. “Must ask Rudy about that,” Jedrick murmured. “What does that do to a child?”
The last document should have been the first: a letter of explanation from Nara. It read, in her matter-of-fact way, I realized after compiling this packet that you will probably find it strange to be referred a patient in need of counseling rather than surgery. My original note was written in haste, but I reconsidered and saw the need for more explanation. I first met Rusza Tate after Father Locke asked me to counsel another of his students, Sanna Taivas. She is one of the few survivors from the Sky-wind village incident. She and Rusza became friends after a fashion, and I became acquainted with him through her. He is, for the most part, a friendly young man, easily distracted by the opposite sex but for the most part well-meaning and somewhat immature. I attribute the latter to a protective upbringing and inconsistent discipline from a doting father after the death of the mother.
I have left him with just a verbal recommendation to meet with you, because of my sympathy, but I strongly recommend that you seek him out. In requesting this assignment to Beeches, he used phrasing that alarmed Mother Locke— terms like ‘disappear’ and ‘sick of myself’. I am at a disadvantage in being mostly active-principle, so I can’t perceive as much of his emotional state as I would like. But Jim Walpole here has concurred that Rusza is in a depressed state, which is entirely uncharacteristic, I might add. It would be better if someone there was aware of his condition and circumstances. You seem to me the most suitable for that role. You aren’t a counselor, but you can understand what he has been through and what he is going through better than most. If you have any questions for me, you can contact me at the Current-town primary hospital until the end of this month, at which time I plan to return to my office in Leeward. Sincerely, Nara Zuma.
Jedrick leaned back and gazed at this letter for some time. When Kerrie returned, Jedrick was glad for the distraction. “Who has him?”
“No one knows,” his assistant answered. “He should have arrived on yesterday’s bus, but the trainee management office has no record that he ever checked in with them. We sent a call to the central office at the capital, in case his itinerary changed, but they say they sent out one Rusza Tate on time, three days ago.”
“That’s worrisome,” Jedrick said. Words like disappear and suicide started dragging at his thoughts. “Let’s find out what happened. Get the name of the driver who would have dropped him off at the base. Let’s hear what he has to say.”
It took another ninety minutes for Kerrie to track down this information and return to report, “The driver says he did drop off a young man matching that description yesterday.”
Jedrick suffered a moment’s dread before Kerrie added, “He also remembers the young man asking him the way to the enlistment office. I stopped there, and they say a Rusza Tate enlisted immediately upon arrival and was routed accordingly.”
“Bureaucracy,” sighed Jedrick. “You’d think they had the sense to send an update to the other people when they upgraded him from trainee to recruit, but no. So what company is he with?”
“Company 210,” Kerrie said.
Jedrick returned his old friend’s expression of disbelief. “At his strength? Assigned to a second company?”
“I thought so too, but the clerk showed me his file. Tate insisted on 210.”
“There was a notation on the file, just two words: problem children. In quotation marks.”
“I need to meet this kid.” But Jedrick had to wait until the afternoon shift manager took over from him before he was free to pursue his curiosity. He knew how the system worked. New recruits were all trained together for the first two weeks before being distributed to their companies. Jedrick walked to the training center. He also knew better than to try finding the right group of recruits without asking directions. The training center at Beeches was practically a small city in its own right, covering several acres. He removed his jacket and went straight to the information center at the main entrance. “I need to locate a recruit.”
The clerk looked first at the doctor’s insignia on Jedrick’s collar and then at the old scars of muscle striping visible on his forearms. “Yes, sir. Name of recruit?”
“Rusza Tate.” For good measure, Jedrick spelled it out for him.
“Yes, sir. Hangar Nine, group B.”
It was a long walk to Hangar Nine. Hangars One through Three were dedicated to the training of the elite companies, those with the designation numbers starting with a zero. Hangars Four through Seven were for support companies, those with designation numbers starting with a one. Eight through Ten were relegated to what were known as second companies, the scrubs, responsible for cleanup and administrative busywork. Company 210 was one of these second companies. Jedrick reached Hangar Nine after a twenty minute walk.
He was attached as trauma doctor to Company 038, so he was accustomed to the high-tech training facilities of Hangar Three. He felt a twinge of repulsion at the shoddy, bare-bones gymnasium that was Hangar Nine.
A group of forty young men were being put through basic physical training in the hangar. One of the drill sergeants recognized Jedrick and left the group to meet him. “Dr. Radomi,” he said. “What brings you out this way?”
“Referral,” he answered. “Can you point out Rusza Tate for me?”
“Him? I knew he wouldn’t stay with us,” said the sergeant. “He sticks out. Red hair, second row.”
“I’m not taking him away,” Jedrick said absentmindedly. “Boy, is he skinny! He outgrew his body weight long ago.”
“But the foundations are there,” the sergeant said. “He’s bound to be a soldier, once he puts on some weight. He isn’t raw, either. Somebody already did some training on him. Good form, some muscle development. I bet he gets poached before the year is much older. You want me to pull him out for you, Doctor?”
“No, don’t interrupt training. Just send him to my office when he’s done.” Jedrick strolled back to the combat hospital, unfazed by the bite of the winter air.
When he arrived, he found that Kerrie had cleared up all his mail. Jedrick had only to sign a few forms, read six case summaries and make his own notes on them, and answer four invitations. That left two journal articles, written by his subordinates, for him to read.
“Don’t forget the commendations,” Kerrie said.
“I won’t forget. They did good work on those articles. One of those boys will have my job soon.” Jedrick made a couple notes for reference, in preparation for writing the letters of commendation.
A few minutes later, Kerrie came back to say, “Tate is here.”
“Send him in.” Jedrick’s first impression of the young man who entered his office was that of a serious, determined youth. He watched Tate extend a hand.
“Rusza Tate, sir. You sent for me?”
“I did. Jedrick Radomi, but everyone calls me JR. Have a seat, Tate.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said as he took his place across the desk from Jedrick. “Have I missed an appointment? Dr. Zuma recommended you to me, but I assumed it was just a suggestion that could wait a few days.”
“No appointment,” Jedrick replied, “but it’s better not to put off processing incidents like the one you went through. Now, I’ll tell you up front that this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m usually called on to deal with the physical side of trauma. You can probably tell why Dr. Zuma referred you to me anyway.” He held up his hands to show the striping scars on his forearms.
“What I want to ask you first is, why did you decide to disappear?” Jedrick listened for a while as the boy said essentially nothing while talking a great deal. If he hadn’t been through a similar experience, he might not have caught on to what was wrong with the boy. After letting the boy talk until he had run down, Jedrick said, “Next question: what’s the most important thing you think I should know about you?”
“That I’m an idiot, sir.”
Unfazed, Jedrick asked, “In what way?”
“Everything I could’ve done wrong, I did wrong,” the boy declared flatly. “I got so many warnings about what could happen if I wasn’t careful, and I was never careful. Sanna even warned me, and she knew, but I didn’t even listen to her.”
“Sanna,” Jedrick repeated. “That’s the northern girl who helped you. You’re close?”
The boy reddened. “Not really, but…”
“Then, what’s the most important thing I should know about her?”
“That she’s amazing,” was Tate’s heavy-hearted reply. He started at once to tell a story of a girl who had suffered from her sympathy being too strong almost all her life, who had lost nearly everything to the Decay when her home town was destroyed. “She’s strong,” Tate said, “and she’s smart. I took her for being years older than me, but she’s months younger instead. She’s kind, way too kind. She shouldn’t have put herself at risk for me, but she did.”
Without thought, Jedrick asked, “How long have you been in love with her?”
“I’m not,” the boy insisted, turning even redder. “Why does everybody try to make it into something like that? She was my hero before; now she’s ten times that. She saved my life. Besides, I was practically engaged to a girl in Sawtooth Ridge, and anyway, Sanna probably has an understanding with this one guy already.”
“Practically engaged?” Jedrick was interested to find that Tate had comparatively little to say about his girlfriend, who turned out to be an ex-girlfriend, but then it came out: Tate had fallen for this other girl after getting close to Sanna Taivas. He had upset his friends and family, all of whom seemed to have wanted him to marry the first girl and taken a severe dislike to the second girl. Jedrick felt a pang. Again, he let Tate run out of words before he said anything. What he did say was, “I wonder if your feelings of guilt are strictly because of the incident, or if some of it has to do with wronging her earlier by rejecting her in favor of another girl.
“You tell me, sir.” Tate was suddenly sulky.
“I don’t have soul sympathy,” Jedrick retorted. “I’m not a counselor. I’m a trauma surgeon. But I’ve been where you are, more so than I guessed. I’m about to tell you something I want you to keep to yourself. Don’t spread it around to anyone.”
That brought Tate out of his sulk. “Sir?”
“Nara— Dr. Zuma to you— was my childhood friend. Childhood sweetheart, you might say. We were engaged to be married when we were both twenty. Five days before the wedding was scheduled to take place, I… I met someone else. Celestine. I fell for her hard. She came from South Territory, and she was different from any girl I’d ever met. We were married a month after we met.”
Rusza Tate gazed at him wide-eyed.
“Nara… she didn’t say a word to me. For six years, she never acknowledged I was alive. She was away for much of that time. She enlisted and went to Leeward for her medical training, and then I heard that she served as an intern with Father Locke’s adjuster. But we met again later at a staging hospital within earshot of the front lines. It was a hard time, with a lot of casualties, and I didn’t monitor my stress levels like I should have. I went into cycle, and Nara sacrificed herself to stop me. I’ve wondered since then… was she still in love with me? Was she still hurt because I abandoned her? She should have left it to others, left me to my own consequences, but she nearly died for me. I’ve never been sure why.” It was harder to say than he had anticipated.
The boy was gazing at him glassy-eyed now. Jedrick wondered where he should go from there, but then, just as the question crossed his mind, he saw the tremors start to shake Tate. Then the boy broke down and sobbed. Jedrick stood and circled around to stand behind him, resting his hands on Tate’s shoulders. Again he remembered that this boy was just Satya’s age, far from home and family, bearing a load of guilt that grown men before him had found unbearable.
His firm grip seemed only to break down the boy’s composure further. “I don’t get it,” Tate cried. “Why? Why did she go that far? Why do I keep having these… these nightmares about doing… awful things to her? I just don’t get any of it! I mean, I was so in love with Irina. I never felt that way about Sanna, not like I did about Irina. I look up to Sanna more than anybody. I respect her. So, why do I have memories if that stuff never happened? It’s almost as bad as if I had actually done it, because… because why is it in my head in the first place? I hate myself for… for just having these nightmares! And Captain Haigh punched me for hurting her, but… was it for going into cycle? Was it for… before? Is she going to marry him? And why should that matter to me? Why can’t I get her voice out of my head, the way she said his name? And why can’t I stop crying? In front of a complete stranger too?” he wailed plaintively.
Jedrick was close to tears himself by then, but the last two complaints made him chuckle. “I’ll tell you what I learned from my incident. You have a lot, and I mean a lot, to process. Thoughts, feelings, ideas, all of it, and it’s useless to try rushing your way through it or putting it off until later. You process it little by little. I’m here to listen to you, maybe help you out with some suggestions, and I know a few guys who might be helpful to you too, if you want some introductions. Sometimes, despite yourself, you’ll need to cry. It’s part of the processing. Don’t be ashamed of it. All right?”
Tate shuddered. “Yes, sir.” He scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thanks.”
“I have a son your age. I hope somebody would do the same for him, if I couldn’t be there.” Jedrick went to the corner cabinet and brought out two tiny glasses and a bottle of expensive rice wine. “This will calm you down a little,” he said as he poured for both of them. “I’ll give you another piece of advice: don’t make any drastic changes in your life, or any important decisions either, until you have time to process. Enlistment probably was one of those decisions, but we can’t do anything about that now.”
Tate accepted the glass. “No, sir, I was planning on enlisting since months ago. I just figured this was as good a time as any.”
“If you say so.” Jedrick and the young man downed their drinks. “Are you settling in all right? Need anything?”
“It’s going fine, sir. Thank you for asking.”
“Somebody raised you with fine manners,” Jedrick laughed. “Just let me know if you have any trouble. I’m attached to Company 038. You can usually find me here, at Hangar Three, or at my house. You’re welcome to look me up at any of them.” He jotted down his address and gave it to the boy.
“Thank you, sir.” Tate pocketed the address and stood. “Thanks for hearing me out.”
“It’s no trouble to me,” said Jedrick. He watched the boy leave. A few seconds later, he watched Kerrie appear in the doorway. “What do you think?”
“I was thinking,” his friend said, “do you want me to put a call through to Dr. Zuma in Current-town or do you not?”
“Oh, I do. I definitely do. I have questions.” This time, Jedrick accompanied Kerrie to the comm office and waited through the technicalities and delays. It was the last day of the month, so he half-expected to be told that Nara had already left to return to Leeward. In fact, the Current-town comms officer was away for two hours, strengthening JR’s expectation. But suddenly the screen went live again, and another southern officer was there, saying, “So sorry it took us such a long time, but we tracked her down for you.”
Kerrie said, “All yours, JR,” and left the booth to give him privacy.
“I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon, Jed,” Nara said. “I take it you got my referral.”
“Got it, and then got him.”
“You must have gone looking for him,” she said.
“It was an interesting case file,” Jedrick said.
“What did you think of him?”
“Confused, conflicted, still unstable,” Jedrick replied, “but he does have beautiful manners. Not one cuss-word out of him the whole time, and he thanked me for everything.”
“He’ll be an oddity around there, that’s for sure.
“Why did you send him to me, Nara?”
“He associates me too closely with Sanna,” she replied, “and he seemed like he might bolt if I sent him to Tommy Ditlev, my colleague, because Tommy knows both of them. Then I thought of you. You aren’t a counselor, but you have the necessary experience and maturity to get him started without threatening his fragile emotional state. It might take him some time to open up, though.”
Nara, surprised, asked him, “How did you manage that?”
It occurred to Jedrick that what he was about to say would not please her. “Sorry,” he said by way of preface, “I told him about us.” He saw a slight frown come to her face, so he hurried to add, “It opened him up immediately. He actually broke down in tears and blurted out a lot of things. That made me wonder if part of your reason for referring him to me was because of his situation with the other girl.”
He had only two or three seconds of anxious suspense before Nara reacted. “Let’s get this straight, Jed: I loved you when I was a girl. I’m not a girl anymore. I have a fine life where I am. I’m honestly glad you’re doing well with your family. If we had married, I would have never set foot outside of Beeches, never gotten licensed or had all the rich experiences I’ve had as a result. I regret nothing that got me to where I am now. Don’t think for a moment that I’ve spent all these years pining for what couldn’t be. Understand?”
Instinctively, Jedrick said, “Yes, ma’am.”
That made her laugh. “Sorry, I let my sympathy go a little there, didn’t I?” She shook her head. “You take good care of that boy. He’s a good boy at heart, if a little heedless and easily led.”
“I will, Nara. I will.” Jedrick ended the call there.