The Coward
rating: +125+x

"It's good to see you awake, Nigel."

Nigel gritted his teeth. He thought of screaming at the placid psychiatrist to his right, but he decided to just go with it. Less painful that way.

"Nigel, I know you don't want me here, but we need to know why you did this."

Nigel sat up in his infirmary bed wearing a grimace meant to look like an innocent smile. "Did what, Doctor?"

The psychiatrist sighed, removed his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt. "Nigel, they flushed the amnestic out of your system before it could take full effect. And even the memories it did erase aren't completely gone. You should know that better than anyone."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Look, Nigel, we know. We know that you gave yourself an unauthorized dose of Class A amnestics. We also know that you should be able to remember why. I can show you the blood toxin screenings, the brain scans, your responses to memetic triggers. I'm here to help you. I just want to talk."

Nigel couldn't think of any response to that which wasn't screaming. After a long pause, the doctor changed tactics.

"It's been a tough couple of months, hasn't it Nigel?" The psychiatrist didn't even bother waiting for a reply before tapping his clipboard with his pen. "Why, it says here that one of your brand new researchers succumbed to a cognitohazardous Fifthist propaganda page. It must have elicited some intense emotions."

"Succumbed to a cognitohazardous Fifthist propaganda page". Bastards make it sound so damn clinical, thought Nigel bitterly. Esperanza didn't just succumb. Put up one hell of a fight against that skip. Maybe it would have been better for her if she hadn't. Maybe then she'd only be huffing corpses and chanting nonsense instead of downing Haldol and screaming nonsense. A clear image of the eager young researcher flitting about the lab sliced its way through Nigel's awareness. He could see those big, bright brown eyes that looked…He flinched and buried his head into his pillow.

The psychiatrist continued, unfazed. "Oh, and you were right in the middle of that CI ambush. Says that one of the agents dispatched to rescue you was shot right in front of you. That must have been horrific."

I suppose 'horrific' can describe the smell of a good man's blood drenched in your clothes and hair, or the slimy texture of his grey matter on your cheek. Ben was a good man. A decisive man. Quick. I suppose he was all sorts of other things that I'll never know about.

Something about remembering Agent Nguyen's mannerisms dredged up a dark sludge within Nigel. He clenched his fists next to his head, determined to remain in control. If the psychiatrist noticed (If!, Nigel thought bitterly) he did not show it.

"I suppose this is the part where I conclude that you chose to cope with these deaths by forgetting them," said the psychiatrist in that hatefully bloodless voice. Nigel gave him a skull's grin meant as a gesture of agreement. It vanished as the psychiatrist continued. "That would be asinine, of course. A man of your genius wouldn't dose himself up the way you did to forget some passing acquaintances." The doctor continued placidly as Nigel began to sputter. "Oh, not that they didn't matter to you. But you were trying to forget something far deeper to your heart than some co-workers."

Silence descended upon the infirmary.

"Andrea has been worried about you, Nigel."

Nigel allowed the rage to contort his face for a second before forcing it into a mask of serenity. "Who?"

"I told you, we know the amnestic didn't work."

"I don't know what you mean."

"The conclusion is quite obvious. I'm hardly judging you, Nigel. Sharing a workplace with one's wife can lead to unbearable tension within a marriage. You'd clearly grown sick of her, but not sick enough to break her heart. An accidental dose of Forget-Me-Drops could be the catalyst you needed."

"It's not like that."

"Not to mention that Foundation hires seem to be getting more attractive by the year. You can hardly betray your marital vows with an intern if you don't remember making the vows in the first place."

"Shut up! Shut up! You cold bastard with your fucking clipboard, you have no idea. You have no idea at all!" Some rational slice of Nigel Segerstrom knew he had snapped, but the rest of him didn't care.

"Clearly I don't."

"Damn right you don't! You fucker, you've never loved anyone as much as I loved Andrea. You don't even know what love is, Doctor." Nigel spat out the last word with all the contempt he could muster.

"Explain it to me, Nigel. What is love?"

"You fucking want to know what love is? You know the UIU? Let's pretend we liked them. Like, we really fucking like them. So much that we threw opsec out the window and told them everything. Everything. We tell them what 447 does to dead bodies. We tell them all the nasty details of 110-Montauk. And just to top off the love-fest, we give them some goddamn Keter and tell them 'hey, we like you guys so much we're just going to give you this and hope nothing bad happens'. And of course because we're talking about the UIU, they fuck up. They don't feed it at exactly the right time, or they cross test it with the wrong skip, and the entire goddamn Foundation crumbles. And once the shell-shocked survivors rebuild, once every fuckin' skip is back in its cell, you know what we do?"

"What do we do, Nigel?"

"We find the UIU and do it all over again. That's love."

The psychiatrist pauses. "So your wife betrayed your trust, either through physical or emotional infidelity. I'm sorry to hear that, Nigel."

Nigel threw the blankets off his bed, yanked his body to a sitting position, and screamed at the doctor. "She didn't betray shit, you fucking moron! She's the only goddamn person in this goddamn world that has my back no matter what. She's…she's…"

"She's your Achilles heel," murmured the psychiatrist.

Stricken, Nigel slumped back. The psychiatrist tapped his pen. Finally, Nigel spoke up in a hoarse whisper.

"Do you realize, Doctor, that my wife works in one of the few institutions on the planet where one can die investigating a sack of potatoes?"

"I'm very aware of that."

"We have a children's cartoon that makes kids violently psychotic."

"That's true."

"Did you hear about the murderous teddy bear?"

"Which one?"

Nigel shot an inquisitive look at the psychiatrist. "What?"

"Never mind," said the doctor quickly.

Luckily, Nigel didn't press the matter further. Staring at the ceiling, he said quietly, "You'd think it's not that dangerous to be a Foundation psychiatrist, as opposed to an MTF agent or a researcher. I mean, you would. But our coworkers just don't understand that we're the first line of defense against pathological memes and cognitohazards. Bet you my life savings that no one in my med school has to worry about their wife dying or going irreversibly insane from reading some new book her boss wants her to look at."

The psychiatrist studied Nigel for a while. "I think you're ready to tell me why you did what you did, Dr. Segerstrom."

Nigel's shoulders sagged and he resigned himself to the tears leaking out of his face. "I wanted to forget my wife because I can't imagine life without her. All those deaths…I saw Andrea's face on both of their corpses."

The psychiatrist steepled his hands together. "Was it worth it, Nigel?"

"I…I don't know."

"What are you going to do now, Nigel?" asked the psychiatrist in the mirror.

Dr. Nigel Segerstrom, Foundation psychiatrist and devoted husband of Dr. Andrea Segerstrom, Foundation psychiatrist, looked blankly into the mirror to the right of his hospital bed. "I don't know," he whispered back.

"Nigel, this is Nurse Petersen. There's someone here to see you."

Nigel turned around. There was Nurse Petersen, warm and compassionate as ever, and the pale, drawn, lovely face of Andrea Segerstrom.

Nigel didn't know what to do, but he did it anyway.

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