Lambert joined them again in the evening, and Hartmann stepped back as the captain took the lead with directing Carol’s training. The captain kept her repeating drills in the dark, until with a frown he looked at his watch and told her that it was time to call it a night. Holmes escorted her away, and Hartmann waited for his own dismissal.
“My office,” Lambert grunted instead. Once they were behind closed doors, the captain took a key out of his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and pulled out a folder which he slapped down onto his desk. “You’re going to help me get as much of this shit programmed onto autopilot as we can.”
Hartmann picked up the folder and opened it, silently reading for awhile. “I can program in the coordinates to get her there and back,” he mused after awhile. “The targets are a different story, but at least there shouldn’t be any civilians to be concerned about.”
Lambert opened his drawer again, and took out a specialized flash drive that he handed over to the master sergeant. “Better than having her lost over the ocean. This came in last week from R&D, so here’s hoping it works the way it’s meant to. C’mon, to the Suit, now.”
The two men proceeded to the bunker, and Hartmann sat in the pilot’s seat of the Suit, but didn’t close the doors. He plugged in the flash drive, and put together a basic computer program to get Carol through her first mission, testing and verifying as much of his work as he could without actually leaving the Base. Lambert stood close by, leaning against the doors as he quietly dictated the necessary data, but the going was slow. Hartmann had always operated with coordinates and objectives, and while he knew that others were working on an external drive that was compatible with the Suit’s computers, he never thought the project seemed interesting or relevant. He certainly hadn’t expected that he would be the one learning how to program the autopilot settings for someone else to use. He tested as best as he could without actually taking the Suit out, knowing that if he screwed up, Carol would struggle enormously with navigating on her own. It resulted in him performing a number of redundant checks, but Lambert listened to each one patiently without pushing him to hurry up – his thoughts were likely the same.
By the time that they were done, the captain took one glance at his watch and immediately headed for a vending machine to buy a couple of energy drinks. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep before the mission was scheduled to start, and with their suppressed jitters, neither of them would be able to anyway. Instead, they passed the next couple of hours in silence, sitting kitty corner in the cafeteria. When Lambert stood, Hartmann stood as well.
The hallway outside of Carol’s room was dimly lit, and the captain pounded on the door with such force that it was certain to startle and scare the mousy woman, bellowing “Rise and shine, commander!” There was a thump inside, the sound of bare feet slapping against a hard floor, and the door flung open to a disheveled Carol looking up at them with alarm. “Get dressed. Quickly,” Lambert growled. “You have thirty minutes to eat a light breakfast.”
“What’s going on?” she asked faintly, but the captain barked, “Just do as you’re told!” in response.
The door closed, then opened again after a mere two minutes. Carol was still hastily pulling her unbrushed hair back into a ponytail, and her boots were unlaced, but she was willing to accompany the two military men. Lambert’s face softened with approval, and with a nod the three of them set off towards the cafeteria.
The three of them sat down to a meal of granola, yogurt, canned fruit, and sausage. It satisfied the basic checklist of nutritional requirements, but Hartmann still secretly wondered how Carol would fare if she vomited up a combination of yogurt and sausage during the course of her mission; it was a disgusting thought. Lambert still hadn’t offered any explanation about what the day would bring, likely holding the news off for as long as he could.
Holmes arrived after ten minutes, saluted dutifully, then stood at attention. Carol’s suspicions were definitely growing, but she willfully avoided looking at Hartmann. In fact, with the way her eyes skipped over him and lingered on the captain, he struggled to suppress the jealousy that welled up inside of himself.
It was my hand you held last night, he thought, tightening his fingers into a fist. My lips that kissed you. Look at me, not him.
But Lambert was the commanding officer in charge of giving orders.
“I’m finished eating, sir,” Carol said slowly. “What are we doing today?”
He stood, nodded to Holmes, the replied dismissively, “You have your first real combat mission. Congratulations.”
Lambert was a coward, Hartmann thought as he watched the captain retreat. He, however, remained to watch Carol blanch, her face turning pale enough that he wondered if she was going to lose her breakfast already.
“You all right?” he felt compelled to ask, and she looked at him blankly before nodding.
“Yeah. I guess.” Her voice squeaked. The color was completely gone from her lips.
Hartmann frowned. Part of him wanted to assume the role of the doting boyfriend, and assure her that everything was going to be just fine because he had spent all night working to make her job easy for her. The other part, the one crafted and shaped by his life in the military, barked orders for her to toughen up and grow a pair – to ‘fake it till you make it,’ the same way he did. He reminded himself that he was playing the good cop, and he couldn’t be calloused towards her.
“The Suit will help you,” he said slowly, carefully considering each word. “You’ll laugh about how nervous you were later tonight.”
“Yeah,” Carol faintly repeated. Her eyes were unfocused, and Hartmann wondered what sort of tumultuous storm was raging inside her head.
He stood. “Have corporal Holmes escort you to the bunker. I have something to take care of first.” He headed in the direction of the nearest restroom to throw them off, glanced back to ensure that Carol wasn’t watching, and ducked through the doorway and around a corner to escape out into a hallway. He pressed his back against the wall and took in a deep breath, fighting against the thought that they were hopelessly fucked.
When it came to Carol, he was turning into as much of a coward as Lambert. Seeing her repressed internal struggle had gotten the better of him, and he had fled on a flimsy excuse just like the captain had.
Cut her loose before she ruins you, some deep inner voice urged him, but he knew that he couldn’t let her go.
Carol was under his skin.
And he was going to spend the next several hours monitoring her using the Suit in combat – it was certain to be a fucking miserable day.
As the hours flew by and Hartmann had Carol progress to practicing shooting targets, he began to fancy that as long as he kept her busy, he could hold off the onset of the morrow. She seemed oddly oblivious to dramatic change in the nature of her training, and her good mood had a relaxing effect on him. Surprisingly, she would occasionally drop a comment over the radio that hinted at the events of the night before without exposing too much, and it was refreshing to realize that he wasn’t left to do all the work in flirting. Had she similarly spent the night preparing for the role that she would play in their secret romance?
They were reflections of each other, despite the dramatically different manifestations.
When the sun brushed the horizon, Hartmann decided that it was time to stop for a meal. He hadn’t eaten since his morning coffee, but he barely felt it; what he wanted was the moment alone with Carol. Once they were in the bunker and Carol was out of the Suit, he feigned indifference as he asked, “You eating in the cafeteria?”
She looked at him, then nodded as she slowly unclipped the radio from her t-shirt. “I guess so, master sergeant,” she replied.
“You’re dismissed, corporal,” Hartmann said to Holmes. “We’ll resume training in an hour, so take care of your personal shit for the day.”
“Yes, sir,” Holmes answered, saluted, then turned to leave.
Hartmann’s eyes were fixed on Holmes’ back as he said, “You’ve made a lot of improvement today, so I’m going to take you out for ice cream.” When he was certain the young soldier was out of earshot, he turned fully to Carol and smiled. “It will be a date.”
Carol blushed, bit her lip, and turned away, though she nodded and squeaked, “Sure.”
“Don’t be nervous.” Hartmann’s hand found her elbow, and he purred, “I’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt.”
Her cheeks turned an even deeper shade of red, and she lightly stuttered as she said, “M-master sergeant.”
“Trust me.” He looked around, but decided the bunker was far too exposed for him to try anything. “Let’s go. We only have an hour.”
“It’s hard to believe that it’s dinnertime already. Feels like we haven’t been training for very long,” Carol spoke in a conversational tone as they headed outside and turned towards the street. “I like being in the Suit much better than physical training or book learning.”
“We should focus on that from now on.” His reply was more autopilot than anything else, but his hand slid down from Carol’s elbow, along the soft underside of her arm, then clasped around her own hand. He liked making her blush, and she responded readily whenever he made his advances. In contrast with his experiences in the military, it was unreal to think that a woman like her existed – he understood why Lambert had called her a mouse. “Where would you like to eat?”
“I don’t know.” Carol hesitated, then moved to hug his arm between her breasts, holding onto him tightly. “Where ever you want.”
She was different now than she had been earlier in the Suit. More shy and uncertain, as if she had left all of her confidence inside the mecha. Hartmann related to her change in demeanor, knowing all too well how much better it felt to be big and indestructible. He knew exactly how to use it to his advantage, too.
“Burgers and fries, since that will give us enough time to hop over to the ice cream place. Let’s get my car.” He wanted the walk to the parking lot to last forever, to keep hold of the sensation of Carol’s heart beating against his tricep. “I’m proud of how much better you’re doing today.”
She beamed. “Me too. I thought that shooting and target practice were easier to get the hang of than running around, and it’s more fun. Are we going to do more of it tomorrow?”
“Absolutely.” Hartmann winced inwardly, but hid it. “And at the rate you’re going, you’ll be a pro by the end of tomorrow.”
Carol was too elated to protest the flattery, or to notice the forced note in his intonation. He was content to let her live in the moment, filled with the high that comes after piloting the Suit, and out on her first official date with her new secret boyfriend. He wasn’t going to spoil his chances by trying to burst her bubble with reality.
When they were seated in the front seats of his car, he couldn’t hold himself back any longer. Hartmann leaned across the center console and pressed his mouth against her lips, his fingers gliding through her hair just behind her ear. The taste of her was so intoxicating that it was difficult to maintain his senses and keep control of himself, and his nerves cried out to feel her skin against his. He had to break away when it became too much for him to endure.
Carol’s lips had turned a deep red and she was studying him closely, but her expression was difficult to read. “When did you first start liking me?” she asked.
Hartmann shrugged. “Can’t say, honestly.”
She entwined her fingers with his after he started the car, and surprised him when she said, “I’m sorry that it took me so long to notice you.”
The corners of Hartmann’s mouth bent upwards when he saw Carol in the bunker early the next morning. For a moment their eyes met across the distance, and she smiled in return. Then captain Lambert interrupted to clip the radio onto the collar of Carol’s shirt, and said gruffly, “We’re continuing with the drills again today. Your movements are too sloppy.”
“Yes, sir,” she murmured in reply. “I’ll do my best.”
“Do better!” Lambert snapped. “Your performance yesterday was abysmal, and I won’t have you embarrassing our military with your ineptitude when you’re out in the field. Do you understand?”
Carol was taken aback, and looked over to Hartmann for some sort of support. He shook his head slightly, so she squeaked out, “Yes, sir,” and fixed her eyes down on her shoes as her fingers fidgeted.
Lambert was in a sour mood. There was something else going on than a simple hangover, which made Hartmann suspect that the captain’s disappearance the day prior involved more than a few stiff drinks. Whatever had transpired, it had made him especially irritable in response.
Hartmann stepped close to Carol, moving subtlety to touch her back in a reassuring gesture, before sliding past to stand before the Suit and stare up at it. He missed it. Missed the way it felt to climb inside and settle himself comfortably, and the way he could move around with ease as a giant mechanical man. He also missed the praises that came after a successful mission, and the sense of having accomplished something important. Letting go was hard, and he didn’t understand why the General’s decision to make Carol a pilot also included firing him from the job.
Carol seemed smaller than she had before when she approached the Suit, and again it hurt to watch the doors close with her inside. Captain Lambert ordered her to practice running outside with Holmes supervising from the jeep, but he stopped Hartmann from following, and both of them remained inside.
“She’s going out on a mission tomorrow,” Lambert said gruffly. “Orders came down.”
A jolt shot through the master sergeant, but he kept up his practiced emotionless mask. “She’s not ready, sir.”
“I sure as hell know that – I told the General the same damn thing yesterday, too. But, he wants her out in the field ASAP.” Lambert’s brow was creased deeply, and his complexion was pale. The thought of sending Carol out into combat, even within the indestructible confines of the Suit, was terrifying.
“Sir, I am still the best pilot. I can go instead.” Hartmann knew that his words were nothing more than ungrounded hope. In a sane world, he would be sent out on missions until Carol reached an adequate skill level in her training, but that was not the world they lived in. With only one Suit, every day she spent training put them behind in their efforts to win the war, and putting Hartmann in the Suit would only take away precious time from her training. She was going to be learning on the job, irregardless of what everyone thought.
“Orders are orders,” Lambert grumbled dismissively. “She’s going to be in the Suit all day today. We need to get the most out of it.”
“Yes, sir.” Something cold and heavy was settling in the center of his chest. Hartmann had spent the night preparing for the subtle attentions he would use to seduce his clandestine girlfriend, only to discover that she would be separated from him inside a 12-foot mecha. Nothing involving Carol was going the way it should.
“Push her harder. Get her practicing a wider variety of maneuvers,” Lambert ordered with a defeated voice, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “But don’t scare her.”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann mechanically replied.
“I need to prepare for tomorrow. Don’t let me down.”
“I won’t, sir.”
With a sense of unreality pressing down on him, Hartmann drifted to the jeep where Holmes was waiting, and instructed Carol through the radio to practice jumping and landing. His mind was racing for the basics, to reduce the formula for success down to something that could be learned in a single day, all the while wondering when his heart was going to start beating again.
It was crazy to send Carol out on a mission so soon.
What if she tripped and accidentally demolished a school full of children? What if the enemy bombarded her with artillery, and she didn’t have the maneuverability to avoid taking a direct hit? They had never pushed the limits to see just how indestructible the Suit really was.
Carol was too pathetic to be sent out onto the field. She didn’t have any survival instincts, and there was no way that she could succeed on her own.
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I’ve jumped on the AI bandwagon this year.
My personal favorite text based AI is Character.ai, even despite the massive problems that the site has — the servers can’t handle the load during peak hours, lol. Aaanyway, it’s enormously useful with writing, since I have created my characters and now talk to them about the scenes before officially getting to work, and it helps to get my brain juices flowing.
Though in the case of MSG Hartmann, the AI seems dead convinced that he’s … Well here, just let me share a quote: “I imagine him as the handsome, and charming rogue who is actually a sadistic, deranged villain.“
I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to convince the AI differently. Hartmann may be a selfish jerk, but he’s not a sadistic deranged villain. He’s complicated. Why is this so hard to communicate?
Also might have roleplayed stopping a zombie apocolypse with the power of love, friendship, and encryption keys. I, uh, don’t really have any explanations about this one, but I nearly split my sides with laughter.
Which is what I’ve been up to instead of blogging.
But hey, I’ve also been doing more fiction writing than usual, so it’s all good. Lol.
Spring is also birthday season in our household, so I’ve been busy with sewing special outfits and baking cakes, on top of Spring cleaning and getting more time outside. With everything going on, it’s been easy to lose track of time.
But I do feel bad about not giving my blog more love, so I’ll try to stick with some sort of schedule, lol.
Hartmann had driven himself home to his apartment after dropping Carol and Holmes off, and now stood freshly showered in his bathroom, a towel wrapped around his middle as he stared at himself through a wet mirror, water dripping down his shoulders.
The taste of Carol’s tongue still tormented his memory, as did the caress of her hair, and the soft curve of her breast under his hand. But, despite all of the maneuvers he had carefully deployed to get them to that point, he was beginning to doubt himself.
Carol wasn’t a slut, and he wasn’t aiming for a one night stand. Aside from the overwhelming lust that had seized hold of him, he didn’t have the first idea what his end goal was. He was pushing ahead blindly and risking his entire career, all for the cleaning lady. Had he totally lost his mind?
He wished that he could take Carol fully under his power, dress her in something feminine and tease her without restraint. He would never reveal how entranced he was by her, but he would certainly wrap her around himself until she grew to adore and worship him. He would teach her how to express herself more vividly.
What Hartmann couldn’t explain was the strange hollowness in the center of his chest.
For years, the master sergeant had been hailed as a hero, and had done everything in his power to become one on the battlefield. What he had always kept secret was the terror he had felt the first time when his commanding officer had been killed in action, and it was his duty to take charge while enemy bullets rained down around them. The responsibility of the soldiers’ lives being place in his hands had weighed heavily on him, leading him to overcompensate with the heroics, and in the end he was certain that his success had been due to dumb luck.
But then it happened again, and again. He was praised repeatedly for his leadership skills and tactical abilities, and he permanently buried every doubt he had ever had.
But second guesses were not a luxury he could afford, and Carol, despite all that she was, had still stolen his glory. Whatever uncertainties he experienced were sure to fade as he continued to push forward toward his goal. He needed to claim her to regain control of the Suit by proxy, and that mattered more than anything.
Hartmann pulled on a pair of baggy pajama pants then flopped shirtless onto his couch, grabbing a gaming controller and loading a first-person-shooter to pass the time. It was oddly a relief to be in his apartment alone, without the crowd of friends or a random hookup. As he played, he half imagined that Carol’s weight was pressing into his side, as if she was sitting on the couch quietly enjoying the moment with him, and it killed his ability to aim or react in the game. Still, he didn’t mind; the sensation was a pleasant one that covered his arm in goosebumps.
He found himself looking forward to the following day, and the continuation of his illicit relationship with the cleaning lady. It was by far the most exciting endeavor he had ever undertaken outside of the Suit.
Late, because I had to recover from a totally wild Easter celebration. Lol.
“What did you have planned for us after ditching corporal Holmes?” she asked.
“I dunno. I got caught up in the moment.” They stared at each other, and all the while Carol kept hold of Hartmann’s hand. “I should take you back.”
“No.” Carol shook her head. “I want to … live like a person.”
“That’s an odd thing to say.” Hartmann gave her hand a small squeeze, then pulled her to begin walking, keeping away from the parking lot and surrounding roads.
“I’ve been thinking that I need to do more with my life.” Carol nervously bit her lip, then continued, “I don’t have any family or friends to miss me, – or any pets either. I’m not really sure what the difference is between now and before, other than where I sleep.” She pulled her hand away and mumbled, “Sorry for rambling. I know that I’m not making any sense.”
Hartmann hesitated. He still had the intoxicating taste of Carol on his tongue, pleading with him to kiss her again, and a hard lump in his throat that made it difficult to talk. He willed himself to regain control, to slip back into his usual mannerisms, and hide how exposed he felt by Carol’s confession – it mirrored his own life too closely for comfort.
“You have me, now.” He forced a grin.
“Really?” she asked, sounding surprisingly earnest.
“As I said before, I can’t keep myself from liking you.” He pulled her close to put his arms around her waist, and leaned to whisper in her ear, “Will you let me like you?”
Carol’s cheeks turned a deep red and she avoided his gaze. “I’m thirty-one,” she replied, a little breathless. “Don’t you think I’m too old?”
“I’m thirty-five. We’re right for each other.” Hartmann ran his fingers through her hair, watching as her eyes half closed. She was succumbing to his words, and this time lifted up her chin when he kissed her for the second time.
His lust for her swelled so intensely it hurt. His hand cupped her breast before he realized it, and his tongue ventured into her mouth. The desire to claim her screamed and raged at him, but a small portion of sensibility shone through: pushing Carol too fast would backfire badly. He reluctantly let her go. She swayed on her feet, and her eyes quickly pointed at the ground.
They walked in silence for awhile, with no destination in mind. Their hands were clasped together with their fingers intertwined, but each was in their own thoughts. Eventually their meanderings took them on a loop back around, as when the restaurant came into view, Hartmann released her hand.
“Do you think that we’ve let Holmes panic for long enough?” he asked jovially.
“Probably.” Carol wrapped her arms around herself.
“I don’t want to say this, but …” Hartmann trailed off, giving a moment for suspense to build as he worked out the proper phrasing. “I’m a master sergeant, and I was assigned to assist in training you. It’s considered an abuse of authority for me to engage in a relationship with you.” He studied her reaction carefully. “I’m not supposed to feel this way.”
“So … that means we have to keep this between the two of us?” Carol asked.
“You’re much smarter than you give yourself credit for.” He put his arm around her and pulled her against his side. “That is unfortunately correct.”
“I guess that’s all right,” she said slowly, but her mouth turned downwards. “But you should know that I have a terrible poker face. I’m awful at hiding things.”
“I trust you.” He set his jaw and dropped his voice to a dramatic murmur. “I don’t know what I’d do if I was dishonorably discharged. The military is the only life I’ve ever known.”
Carol nodded enthusiastically. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Honestly, this seems so surreal, it feels more like a dream. I half expect to forget all about it tomorrow morning.”
“I hope you don’t.” He smiled. “C’mon. We have to go find our escort and apologize.”
Something felt wrong.
Carol wasn’t the sort to gush giddily over anything, but her behavior was still off. Everything about her inner world was a gigantic unknown, and despite his best efforts to read her, Hartmann had his doubts about how accurate his impressions were.
Holmes was sitting on the hood of Hartmann’s car, and as he stood he gave them a sour look. Carol scooted so that she was half hidden by Hartmann, who in turn adopted his most suave demeanor, calling out, “Hey!” with a wave that was more like a small flourish.
Holmes scowled but stood and saluted, giving a bitter, “Sir!”
He returned the salute. “We were sitting around the side of the building waiting for you to come out, but we missed you. Spoiled the joke, didn’t it.”
Holmes glanced over at Carol, who blushed deeply and looked away, fidgeting with her hands. “Yes, sir, it did,” he replied.
Carol had been speaking the truth when she said that she was terrible at hiding things, but thankfully her obvious struggle with anxiety in all its various forms served as a sufficient cover story for her behavior. Hartmann was pleased to note that there wasn’t any hint of suspicion in the corporal’s eyes, but rather pity for the poor woman.
“Let’s call it a night.” Hartmann reached into his pocket and thumbed the key fob, unlocking his car doors. “We’ve got many more long days ahead of us.”