XXX. Sugar Cookie

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Six Years Ago

Shyamala gritted her teeth and plunged forward into the frigid water. It was barely ten degrees above freezing.

The cold water surrounded her, sucking the heat out of her body instantly. The murky water was oppressive, and every time she had to jump into it, she had to quiet the part of herself that was terrified of drowning.

It's just water. Just like before. Just like every time.

She hated the water. She hated swimming. She hated the ocean.

Exhale. Keep your head forward. Keep your shoulders, hips and legs horizontal. Don't let your hips drop in the water.

Moving with deliberate, practiced motions, she cut through the icy water faster than most athletes could.

She had never been one to run away from her fears. She treated them the same way she treated other problems: she charged them head on and wrestled them to the ground.

She felt her form slip, and she slowed, reset, and caught her rhythm again. It only cost her seconds, maybe.

She slammed a hand down on the far side of the pond and lifted herself up out of the water. A uniformed man holding a stopwatch looked down at her deliberately, giving her a long look that put her guard up.

He slowly held the stopwatch up, and deliberately pressed the button.

"Oh, well, look'ee there. Nine minutes and one second. Looks like you meet the minimum requirement of twelve minutes today, but you didn't quite make it in the competitive time of nine minutes."

Dripping wet, she stood at attention and gazed out into the distance. In her peripheral vision, she saw an unfriendly grin spread across his face.

"'Course, Seaman Omar, I coulda guessed you'd be at the top of the class in your running times, that's no surprise, and I shouldn't be surprised either you aren't quite cutting it in the water. You people don't like swimmin', do you?"

Shyamala's face was a mask as she stared straight ahead. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand."

He snorted. "Just you wait. You'll be getting on a plane back home after tonight. Where is that, again? Where was it you're from? I mean, where you're from."

Shyamala stood stock still. "I'm from Sacramento, sir."

He laughed nastily. "Think about it, Seaman. Think about going home. Because the alternative is what comes next."

He sent her to join the others and put her uniform on. She laced up her boots quickly. All the while she kept her face still.

"My dad was a SEAL," said the seaman lacing his own boots to her left. "My brother too. I know I can do this. I just can't let them down."

He nudged her. "How about you? Who are you making proud?"

She looked at him without turning her head. "I don't have anything to prove to anyone."

He scoffed. "You're the first woman to even start BUD/S. Everything we do, we do for somebody, right?"

She stood and turned her head. "You're not going to get through this if you're doing it for somebody else."

He spluttered as she walked away from him. She had her eyes squarely on the instructor as the SEAL candidates formed up. He was smiling like he'd thought of something hilarious.

Then his face twisted and he bellowed out. "Forward march!"

The line of battered, exhausted seamen tromped forward through the sand, into the surf.

"About face!"

They all turned around snappily despite the temperature and the water rushing past their booted feet.


Shyamala reached out and locked arms with the seamen to her left and right.

"Take a seat, boys and girls."

Their arms linked, they lowered themselves into the surf.

The water instantly soaked her uniform and she was chilled to the bone again.

Shyamala clenched her fists and gritted her teeth, but she didn't frown or shout or wince. She kept her gaze on the horizon and reached for the piece of herself that refused to back down.

"You know, you all have been training so hard. I think you all deserve a little rest. LIE DOWN! Yes, backs in the water! You hear me? All the way down!"

The surf washed over Shyamala's shoulders and some got in her nose. She snorted hard and tasted salt and copper. She could feel herself shivering involuntarily and tried to resist at first until she realized that was making it worse.

It might have only been thirty minutes, but it felt like hours as the waves crashed over them again and again.

Finally, the instructor called out for them to get up.

"Oh, gosh, you made it! It's all over! You did it! You made it past the hard part, and I am just so proud of you all!"

The SEAL candidates stood in a line on the shore.

"Only thing left now is for you all to dry out. Well, you're all pretty soaked. Nothing for it but to air dry for a while, sweethearts. Ten-SHUN!"

The shivering candidates stood at attention. Their clothes were all soaked through, head to toe, through boots, socks, and underwear. The wind picked up, and the real hard part began.

Time passed. A medic walked down the line, checking core body temperatures and checking for signs of hypothermia.

"This can all end right now. We're not leaving until three of you quit. That's all you need to do, is quit. It's easy. It's all right if it's too much for you. Just quit, right now."

He walked down the line, his baleful eye looking from face to face for signs of weakness. When he saw it, he pounced.

"Looking mighty cold, there, son. It can be over right now. Just quit. Just say the word. This is it. It's all right, son. It's okay."

The young man whose father was a SEAL gazed out at the sea, trembling. Vomit clung to the front of his uniform.

The instructor's eyes drilled into his, and the young man blinked then looked the instructor in the eye before he began shaking his head quickly and mumbling, "I'm sorry, sir-- I'm... I'm... I'm..."

He stumbled out of the line.

"ALL RIGHT! We just need two more. Two more of you can make all this stop. What's it going to be? How 'bout you, Cinderella?"

He put his face inches from another young man's. This one stared straight ahead without flinching. After a full minute, the instructor nodded slowly and kept walking.

He stopped in front of Shyamala.

"And finally, Miss Special herself. You really think you're something special, little brown girl? You really think this is your place? Go. Home."

Shyamala didn't blink. She tasted blood.

For an eternity, she stood there with the cold wind cutting through her, her soaked uniform sticking to her, feeling every grain of sand that had found its way into every crevice of every piece of her clothing, and the instructor stared her down, his hot, stinking breath in her face.

Finally, he stalked away. "Who's next? Who wants to make this end?"

Over the course of an hour, another man volunteered to leave and one more was pulled out by the medic.

Just one more day, she told herself.

She told herself that every day for twenty four more weeks.

Shyamala didn't let any of the trepidation she felt show on her face as she entered the room.

She stood at attention and saluted.

"Admiral Mercury. Seaman Omar, reporting as ordered, sir."

He returned her salute then gestured for her to sit.

"Seaman Omar, tell me. What made you decide to apply for the SEALs?"

She kept her gaze and tone level.

"Sir. I applied because I believe I can do it and I believe it needs to be done. Sir."

He waved a hand. "At ease, Seaman. I'm serious. You have an undergraduate degree in mathematics. You could have gone into cryptologic or cyber warfare. Why didn't you? You have the ASVAB scores for it."

Shyamala exhaled slowly.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

He waved a hand.

"Sir, I hate the water. I hate the ocean."

He raised his eyebrows and waited for her to go on.

"I applied to the SEALs because I'm not going to let something like being afraid of the ocean, like being afraid of drowning, run my life. If I have the talent to be a SEAL, I should be a SEAL. Respectfully, sir, I think I do have that talent."

He chuckled and leaned back in his seat. "That's just the way you are, then? You're just the kind of person who gets things done regardless of your own inconvenience or discomfort."

She sat a fraction straighter and looked him in the eye. "Isn't that what it takes to be a SEAL, sir?"

He rapped on his desk. "What it takes to be a SEAL, hm. Well, I'd trust Master Chief Jones's opinion on that."

He pressed a button. "Send Master Chief Jones in."

The instructor's nasty smile was gone. He almost seemed like a different person as he strode in with a serious expression. Shyamala started to rise but Admiral Mercury beckoned her to remain seated.

"Master Chief," the admiral said, "what is your assessment of this candidate's skills?"

"Admiral Mercury, sir," the instructor said, his eyes not leaving Shyamala, "in a decade of training SEALs, I have very rarely come across a candidate so qualified. I have broken the wills of many, many men. I have failed to do so with Seaman Omar time and time again. She consistently exceeds all requirements in physical training and ranks competitively in every exercise but swimming. She is level headed in the face of racist and misogynistic abuse. She leads by example and inspires others, which makes my job harder washing out the rejects. Even so, I hope that she will turn you down, sir."

Shyamala couldn't keep the look of confusion off her face this time, and she looked back and forth between the two men. "Admiral, sir, I'm sorry, but may I ask what this is about?"

"A career choice, Seaman," the admiral said. "Frankly, I believe you will make an excellent SEAL, and if you did, you might one day make a fine officer. There's just one problem."

"Sir?" Shyamala blinked.

"I don't need fine officers someday. I need them now. I need officers with your talents and your strength of will, and I can't wait for you to turn thirty-six and maybe sign up for OCS."

Shyamala's heart beat faster, but she kept her voice calm. "Sir, I didn't apply for OCS. I didn't sign up looking for quick promotions. I'm not trying to be the first woman to be a SEAL to further my career ambitions. I just want to use my talents the best way I can."

The admiral's eyes flicked over to Jones, then back to Shyamala. "Seaman Omar, based on your record, Master Chief Jones's assessment, and this conversation, I am utterly convinced that the best use of your talents would be in a leadership capacity. Please, sleep on it. You don't have to make up your mind until tomorrow. But, if you do accept, I'll do the paperwork and we'll get you shipped off to officer school."

He stood and Shyamala quickly did the same, saluting.

He gave her a long look and returned the salute. "Think about it, Seaman. Dismissed."

She marched out of the admiral's office with her mind awhirl.

Officer school? The closest thing she'd had to leadership experience was being the treasurer for her high school student council.

She didn't want to go to officer school. She didn't want to tear herself away from the sheer achievement of completing SEAL training. She didn't want to have to learn how to navigate an entirely new set of rules and an entirely different culture. She didn't want to get involved in politics, or make hard decisions that would affect other peoples' lives.

She was certain with every fiber in her body that she would far rather finish SEAL training than take this new path.

As soon as she realized that, the decision was already made.

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