Stamped on the outside of the manilla folder were four words (CASE FILE: Bernadette Page) and the seal of the Imperial Veterans Administration. Doctor Jemison didn’t have it open, but it had been left resting on the desk. She’d found that her patients felt reassured if they saw evidence she cared, so she had the folder out; the reassurance went away if she had to refer to the text during the appointment, so she kept it closed.
Page had been honourably discharged from active service two years previous; she’d spent one of those years on a military transport back from Mars, surrounded by those who were being recalled home, including others who’d been injured or who’d undergone psychological stresses they couldn’t withstand as well as those who’d simply reached the end of their tour. She’d only really had a year of civilian life, therefore, and three months previous she’d approached the IVA with a request for therapy.
The Grand Imperium of the Americas had learned from history, and knew that the sight of shell-shocked, traumatised veterans was a flashpoint so long as the war was still going. The fact that, alone among the colonial powers on Mars, they faced colonies fighting for independence as well as the regular conflict with the other powers was received poorly enough without seeing those who’d been broken in the nation’s service on the streets.
For Doctor Jemison, this translated into an actual budget with which to try and support her patients. She had reasonably high hopes for Captain Page. All the same, this would be their first meeting, and she knew she might have to re-evaluate once the meeting was over.
Captain Page was shown in exactly three minutes ahead of the appointment. It was important to Doctor Jemison that her patients not be faced with a military adherence to correct scheduling, but it was also vital that she be able to maintain her schedule. The result was something of an illusion administered by her reception team; precise timekeeping with blocks of just over or just under one hour.
Jemison was surprised by her own reaction to Captain Page; she was, of course, used to encountering military personnel, but at six feet and five inches tall, Captain Page was imposing even by the standards of the Imperial Army. Unlike some, she had moved as far away as she could from uniform in her civilian clothes; she wore a tasteful long skirt in orange and a sleeveless, button-up yellow vest above the waist. Her hair was worn down, and starting to grow out properly.
Her shoulder still wore the insignia of her former regiment as a tattoo, and a scar on her left arm was partially camouflaged with another tattoo, this time of a rosebush, where the scar had become the central stem leading up to the beautiful flower. This one was only partially coloured, and was presumably a work in progress.
Doctor Jemison rose to her feed and offered the Captain her hand for a shake. “Welcome, welcome,” she said. “Now then - ah - what should I call you?”
Some of the veterans she was working with insisted on their rank. Others wanted to be as far from it all as they could be. “Bernie is fine,” she said. Her eyes flicked to one side of the room, the one with the door to Jemison’s store cupboard; they’d already made a quick study of the room at least once. “Preferred, even.”
Jemison nodded. “Alright. Well, there are a few places we can sit. I think you might like that corner.” It had a chair waiting, and another nearby for Doctor Jemison to sit in with her; but its primary advantage was that it gave a clear view of both doors and couldn’t be seen from the windows. Jemison was, in effect, quietly saying: If you need to know what’s happening and not be seen to feel safe, we’ll make that happen.
Bernie looked around the room, biting her lip as she considered the indicated seat. “Yeah,” she said at last. “OK.” As she moved across to take the chair she said “So you must get people like me a lot, huh?”
“That depends what you mean,” Jemison said. “Everybody’s different, but yes, I do try to anticipate any issues where I can.” She took her own seat. “Now, I’ve read your file, but that’s all based on what other people think. Even my information on your request for therapy is ultimately what someone else wrote down of what you told them. I’m not being critical of them when I say I firmly believe you would have put the emphasis on other points in some of it. Does that seem fair?”
Bernie nodded again. “Probably.”
“So could you tell me, not what happened out there, not what you’ve been doing which has been working - we’ll probably get to at least some of that later, of course - but just what led you to call the Administration and request help?”
The other woman gave vent to a long sigh, so long that Doctor Jemison could imagine it as all of her breath spilling out of her at once before it was finished. “Yeah,” she said at last. “Okay. So… there’s a few things.” She wouldn’t make eye contact.
“I had a pretty bad time just before I was discharged. Had plenty of time to think about it on the ship back. And I felt like I’d got it more or less squared away. Got back home, spent a couple of months just getting used to everything - of course I was burning through a lot of the wages I’d banked - and found myself a job driving delivery for a warehouse company. They wanted someone they could trust to be on time, someone who wasn’t an addict, someone who’d weigh in and help carry if the gravlifts weren’t working. And honestly I felt like that was working out pretty well.”
Doctor Jemison nodded, not wanting to interrupt her.
“About… jeez, already six months ago it must be?” Bernie shook her head. “I was on the delivery route, a road I’d driven I don’t even know how many times, no problem any time, but I came up past this sporty little roadster that was just cruising, not in any hurry, and as I came level I saw the driver’s arm resting on the doorframe.”
Jemison nodded again. She was looking for what incident had kicked off a wave of trauma, and she couldn’t see anything yet that would be part of it.
Bernie swallowed. “You’re going to think this is… you’re going to think this is really stupid,” she said, and Jemison shook her head fractionally, knowing she wouldn’t. “The driver had a service tattoo of his own. A unit I’d fought with. And I thought, he’s going to see me. He’s going to know I didn’t make it, couldn’t hack it.” She paused. “Well… not really. I don’t know if I thought anything. But I felt like that, and all the time I was feeling like that my foot was on the accelerator.
“I don’t know how I didn’t crash,” she said. “I was driving a big rig faster than it’s designed to go, and it wasn’t the straightest road, and their was traffic. I’d been just… just fleeing, really… for at least five minutes, maybe ten, before I got enough of a sense I was in control again to stomp on the brakes. I ended up parked just off the road - I’d done the rig some damage, too, but thankfully my boss felt like he understood well enough - and I’d missed my turn by miles. It took a couple of hours before I stopped shaking enough to drive. And that’s stupid, right?”
“Stupid isn’t a word I like to apply to trauma,” Doctor Jemison said quietly. She knew she’d had to say it several more times before Bernie was likely to start believing it, and many more before she would actually accept it.
Bernie didn’t believe it. It wasn’t clear she’d even heard about it. “Anyway… after that it was like whatever walls I’d built weren’t there any more. Someone screwed up with the gravlifts while I was getting coffee during an unloading, and a couple of pallets fell and the noise - it didn’t even sound like gunfire, not really, but I didn’t notice the difference until I’d already reacted. I jumped and dived for the cover beside the door, I came up in a combat stance. I remember thinking, the only reason nobody’s injured is nobody came through the door while I was there, because I was so tense if anyone had come in reach I don’t think I could’ve stopped myself.
“But… well, I kind of assumed it was a one-off reaction. Or at worst it was only going to be a problem when I heard a noise like that. But… a week or two later I was in my house, and lucky for me, my house is well out of the way for most people. It’s usually pretty peaceful. I was making dinner and then I heard footsteps coming from upstairs, and you can imagine I freaked out, right?”
Doctor Jemison nodded.
“I double-checked, and there wasn’t anyone around. So already this is starting to build up on me, this is maybe four months ago, and a couple nights later I heard the footsteps again and I freaked out again. Like you would. Told a neighbour and she joked about the place being haunted, but nah.”
Jemison nodded again. “You were hearing something,” she said, “even if there wasn’t anything to be heard.”
“Yeah,” Bernie said after a pause. “Like that, I guess. Except it didn’t stay just hearing something.
“The next thing, though, I still don’t know if I imagined this or not. The footsteps in my house, I know that was in my head even if at the time I couldn’t tell. A week or so after that started happening I started to hear shooting in the woods out back of my property. I still have no idea if that was all imagination or if there are just hunters out and around where I live.
“I haven’t properly stopped reacting to it yet.” Doctor Jemison was nodding, but there wasn’t really any need now to try and prompt more from Bernie; she was talking now for the relief it brought her as much as to explain her situation to her therapist. Now she’d got started she was feeling the benefits, and that was enough to keep her going. Jemison’s presence was only incidental now. “The first time I hit the floor and it was an hour or more before I got up, even though the shooting stopped after about five or so minutes.
“I was still getting the footsteps sometimes, by the way. They never overlapped, but both kept happening. I guess if the shooting really is hunters that’s not surprising, but it’s getting to be more and more of a problem.
“Three months ago, I felt the ground move under me, just like a Marsquake.” She looked up, met Jemison’s eyes. “The ground doesn’t move the same way. Different gravity. Most Marsquakes I encountered were started by artillery. I just felt exactly like one was happening. It wasn’t, of course. Nobody else felt it, no instruments registered it.
“I called the Veterans Administration the next day, asking for help. Didn’t want to deal with that again. The good news is, so far I haven’t. The bad news is, I woke up a few nights ago and I could hear someone rattling the doorknob on my room.
“Except my old dad replaced our doorknobs with palmplates when I was a kid. There’s nothing there to rattle, but I heard it all the same.” She was looking steadily at Doctor Jemison now. “The worst of all this, Doc, is I know it’s all coming out of my head, but that doesn’t help, and I can’t predict it.”
She looked vulnerable now in a way she hadn’t when she first arrived. Doctor Jemison nodded again, taking time to finish the notes she’d been making. “You don’t need me to tell you that’s awful,” she said. “Before you started experiencing these crisis points,” she carefully did not say delusions, “were you satisfied with your life? Or was your job a frustration?”
“Doc, what’s worrying me is that my head is fucking with me.”
Jemison raised a hand in a gentle call for time to explain. “That worries me most too, Bernie. But I’m not supposed to just help with your current problem; I’m supposed to give a clean bill of mental health. And that calls for me to look at everything. You were an officer, usually that doesn’t translate into a job doing manual labour. So… is that something you wanted, or is it something you felt like you could handle?”
Bernie glowered at her for a few moments, her jaw working. Doctor Jemison thought about the fact they’d selected the place where any kind of intervention was furthest away, and wondered if she’d made a mistake. And then the other woman grunted “Fuck,” and looked away for a moment, and then laughed.
“I just want fixing, Doc,” she said. “But… well, I kinda hate that you’re right. This… what I’ve got… it’s going to keep coming back, huh?”
“Well, I hope not,” Jemison said. “Once upon a time, the odds would not have been in your favour. These days… well.”
Bernie looked back at her. “You can’t say that and give me no detail, Doc.”
“Let’s just say we have better technology. I won’t lie, what we can do with it is very much a trade off, but we can do something that means this awful feeling is unlikely to come back for you. If that’s the way you want to go.
“So my question is, when you took that job, did you just want something quiet and basic, or are you avoiding anything too responsible right now?”
Bernie’s laughter was startled and it almost sounded like a bark. “God, no,” she said. “I’ve got no interest in taking responsibility for anything beyond myself again. I know the risks would be so much lower outside the military, but I can’t do that to myself.”
Doctor Jemison sat back and nodded. “It sounds like you don’t expect that to change.”
Bernie shook her head. “It won’t, Doc. I put my whole self into being the kind of person who steps up and takes charge, and it went as wrong as it can go. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not stepping down for a while, I’m stepping away.”
Jemison made another note. “I won’t say I’m out and out surprised,” she said, “but I didn’t exactly see that coming.” She got up from her seat and walked over toward one of the art pieces that hung on her wall, a stereoscopic painting of the Earth as seen from Luna City. “If you were looking for proof that you’re not just a stereotype, Bernie, that would definitely count.”
The other woman chuckled. “Listen, Doc,” she said, “you said there’s a tradeoff I can make to be done with this.
“Level with me. Is this some experimental bullshit?”
“Not anymore,” Jemison said, and turned back to face her. She smiled. “It’s usually not particularly legal, but those diagnosed with PTSD are one of the rare exceptions.”
“You’re going to have to explain that to me, Doc,” Bernie said, “but I’m listening.”
Doctor Jemison nodded, glad that she recorded her sessions. It wasn’t often you found someone who was both willing to discard her current self but also smartly cautious enough to be keeping an eye out for traps or problems with the process. And if they weren’t worried about traps or problems with the process… well, that sounded more like someone looking for an end than someone whose agreement would constitute consent.
She made her way back to the chair and she began to talk.
Bernadette drove back out to the family home after her appointment, deep in thought, and she parked alone in the driveway, deep in thought, and walked out to the small corner of land, right on the edge of the property, where three headstones rested, still deep in thought.
Dad had had the devil’s own job forcing through his intent to bury their mom on his property, but once that had been done it meant that when Dad went too, just a couple of years later, it was fairly easy for the Page children to bury him beside her as he’d wanted.
Johnny had joined them while Bernadette was just a sergeant, and she’d been off planet at the time. By the time she heard he’d taken his place next to them; by the time she got home the flowers on his grave had properly taken hold, the edges of his plot blurred by blooming greenery.
There was a stool she’d moved out there, the last survivor, once a tree stump; something her Dad had cut and shaped and varnished when she’d just been a kid. Sometimes she sat out with them, enjoying the quiet and the absence of any feeling of criticism, and she found a peace in doing that. Or she had done, before the sudden shocks and sounds had set in.
She took her seat on the stool and leaned forward, resting elbows on thighs, her fingers awkwardly intertwined, her head bowed.
“I guess I need to talk to you all,” she said quietly. “At least tell you what I’m thinking. I know I won’t hear you but I can’t just run off after my own thing without you hearing me out first.”
She swallowed. Waited a few moments. Imagined their faces, the earnest expressions, as they listened to her. The Pages had always been good at listening to the end when someone had something to say. “So like I said last time I came out here, my time as a soldier’s done. Mostly I don’t regret it. I did some good things. There are people who would have died who’re alive thanks to me. There are people who died who would’ve been alive, but for the most part I can honestly say I believe those people were assholes, would have done bad things with the life left to them, that kind of thing.
“What I never did do was find someone I wanted to bring home with me and introduce to the place.” She exhaled slowly. “If I try going about it normally I’m not sure I will. The parts of the army I regret, they’re…” Her voice was suddenly very small and nervous. “They’re scars. I know you can’t see them right now. If you caught me another time, though, you surely would.
“It doesn’t make it easy to find someone good,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with that for a while. But, uh… it hit me while I was in therapy that it doesn’t necessarily matter too much if I find someone great. I still need them not to be scared off while I, uh. Deal. I guess that’s the way to say it.”
She sat for a while in silence, surprised by how close the tears were.
“I’ve got another way of doing it,” she told the three headstones. “Of keeping this place going, keeping our family going. It’s a bit strange, and I might still back away, but I’ve almost decided to do it.
“I just wanted you to know first.”
She sat back and listened to the wind in the leaves, and she found herself at peace.
In Doctor Jemison’s reception area, the receptionist brought out a small tray and set it on Bernadette’s lap. On it was a glass of a milky blue liquid, three glossy medical capsules, and a bowl of candy. “The Doctor will have the equipment ready shortly,” he told Bernadette. “Before I send you through, I do have to ask that you take your pills and drink this. I’m afraid it does taste pretty foul; we’ve experimented with making it a more pleasant experience, but that’s why we’ve also supplied the candy.”
Bernadette swallowed the pills absently, her mind on the point ahead where the decision she’d made would become irrevocable, and then downed the drink. He hadn’t been lying; it was absolutely vile, and she was sure the face she made would amuse anyone watching. She hadn’t planned to take any candy but it turned out it was there for good reason; she took a handful and sat chewing, and as she did, the tension in her shoulders melted away, and her closed-in posture opened up, and the taut, impersonal smile on her lips softened and became something much more real.
Seeing this, the receptionist sent a message through to Doctor Jemison to confirm that the serum was beginning to work. The response was simple: Send her through at the first giggle.
Bernadette herself, meanwhile, was enjoying the candy more than she’d thought; finishing that first get-this-taste-out-of-my-mouth handful, she found herself taking a couple more. That wasn’t something she’d usually do, she thought, but she found that it wasn’t a disturbing idea. Wasn’t she meant to be changing, after all? Or at least beginning the process?
She took a deep breath and smiled happily at the receptionist. For the first time in years, she sat in a room and didn’t feel the need to keep track of entrances, exits, and vantage points. It was as if a weight had lifted itself from her shoulders.
How long has the fear of ambush been drilled into her? She’d picked it up in basic training. Before deployment, before applying for OCS, before everything. Ten years? Eleven? When was the last time she hadn’t been ready to respond with force if surprised?
How had she only just noticed?
She shifted position, crossing and uncrossing her legs. The feel of the bare skin of her thighs stroking against one another was electric, her body sensitive in a way she’d sometimes thought she’d killed off by accident.
Was this the start of the process? Was this what the medication was for?
Bernadette giggled at how fanciful the idea was. She was smiling happily at what was now a private joke when the receptionist came over.
“Would you come with me, please, ma’am? The doctor is ready for you.”
Lost in a daze, in a world of her own, Bernadette rose and followed the receptionist into a room she’d never seen before, a small white brightly-lit place with, at the very centre on a raised platform, a white cylinder laid horizontal, large enough for her to lay down inside, a bank of controls at one side.