Carol was wide awake, despite having spent a fitful night in an unfamiliar bed that was nothing like home, and she arrived with her escort at the bunker ten minutes early. She held her breath as she approached the Suit and slowly ascended the ramp, until she was close enough to touch it with her fingertips. The joints of metal and the soft gleam of color were familiar, yet entirely new. She had spent two years lovingly caring for something that she was only now beginning to understand, and it was more beautiful than she had imagined.
“Carol!” the captain barked, and she whipped around, clumsily saluting. “Get down here!”
“Yes sir!” She tried to run, but her feet got out from under her as she went down the ramp, and ended in a heap at the bottom. Lambert rolled his eyes, then strode over to hold out his hand to her.
“Up! We have work to do!”
It was incongruous, but Carol grabbed hold of him to pull herself up to her feet anyway. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small radio, which he clipped onto her collar then fed the wire up to her ear, his hands surprisingly deft and gentle.
“You’re in the goddamn military, and you couldn’t be bothered to pull your hair back,” he muttered. “Where’s your mascara and lipstick? Didn’t you want to look purdy?”
The rudeness of his speech made her blush, and she had to force the reply, “Sorry, sir. No one told me the dress code, sir.”
“You could go naked for all I care.” Lambert stepped back and folded his hands behind his back. “Now get your butt in the Suit, pronto!”
“Yes sir!” Carol practically scrambled up the ramp to jump in the Suit, carefully situating herself before pushing the button to close it, pressing herself back into the leather at the memory of what the door had done to the master sergeant’s hand.
“Carol, do you read me?” the captain called.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, already growing a little tired of the repetition, but she didn’t know how else to answer him. She wasn’t personable enough to try anything clever, and having only ever observed protocol as an outsider, she wasn’t familiar enough with ranks to know what was expected of her. In fact, she wasn’t even sure how she was supposed to fit in.
The Suit lit up, followed by the computer voice, “User detected: welcome back, Commander.” Carol closed her eyes and held her breath in anticipation of being squeezed.
“Interesting…” Lambert’s muttered. “See what else you can find.”
Carol waited until after the release, and butterflies filled her stomach as she took in deep breaths of the circulated air, marveling at the pureness the internal filters provided. She wanted to run and jump, and perhaps even try her hand at flying, but she could see Lambert waiting expectantly through the visor.
“Access system data,” she said, and a list popped up in front of her eyes. “Uh… let’s see… select product information?”
Captain Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked over at Holmes, who dutifully stood at ease with a poorly concealed smile on his face. She realized that the radio was transmitting everything she said for everyone around to hear, and she hated the invasion of her privacy. “What do you see?” Lambert asked.
“There are model and serial numbers; would you like me to read them out loud so you can record them?”
Carol glanced out and saw that Lambert’s little notepad was in his hand again. As she read the numbers off, she wondered what other sorts of things he wrote down, and if his personal thoughts made it onto paper as well. She also wondered if Lambert ever had personal thoughts, or if the military was all he lived for. When she finished, she added, “There’s also an OS listed, called Auriga.”
“Good work, commander.” He was definitely mocking her. “Now search for some sort of log.”
“Um… access user history,” Carol said, and the overlay changed. The listed information was surprisingly brief. “It says, 435-4-23 user created; 438-2-17 launch; 466-10-3 access help system; 466-10-4 access system records.” She repeated all of the information again, to make sure that Lambert had been able to write it accurately, then asked, “What does that mean?”
“That’s not your job to think about.” Lambert pocketed his notepad. “Outside, commander. Let’s try some laps in the Suit.”
Finally, the moment Carol had been waiting for: moving. Without thinking, she willed the Suit to take a step forward, then let out a shriek at the sound of metal crunching, and backed up to discover that the ramp was badly misshapen. Holmes was no longer pretending not to laugh.
“GODDAMMIT CAROL!” Lambert was really shouting now. “WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!” He continued ranting, “You are in a formidable piece of equipment, so do not destroy the base through stupidity and incompetence. DO YOU UNDERSTAND!”
“Yes sir!” Carol had tears in her eyes, and wished that she could initiate the help system again so that it could take away the pain of humiliation, but she didn’t want the captain to overhear.
“Now, without damaging anything else, go through those doors.”
Both Lambert and Holmes followed her in a four-wheeler from a safe distance, which stung even more than the yelling had. Even if she had completely forgotten about the ramp for a moment, she was mindful enough that she wouldn’t hurt anyone, and was more aware of the Suit’s size and position than she was of her own body. The sun was in the middle of rising when they exited the bunker, and the view through the visor was more spectacular than anything Carol had ever seen before.
“Captain…” she hesitated. “Do we know what the visor is made of?”
“No, commander, we don’t,” he answered, though he was far enough away that he needed to use the radio.
“It refracts sunlight like a prism, only not with any colors that I’ve ever seen before. It’s kind of trippy, and giving me a headache.” She kept her eyes fixed on the sunrise despite herself, just staring.
“Come down off the LSD, commander, and focus.” Lambert’s voice was amused, even if his words were not. “I want you to run down the air strip and pay attention to your top speed, but try not to kill anything in the process.”
“Yes, sir.” Carol looked down the asphalt in front of her, took a deep breath, and began to run. She didn’t feel the instant burn of muscle fatigue that she was accustomed to, and with a sense of wonder she reminded herself that she wasn’t actually running at all, but instead moving the mechanical body of the Suit; her brain couldn’t functionally tell the difference. Her heart soared as the number in the corner of the visor grew bigger and bigger, and she couldn’t help but leap with joy over how fast she was moving, the jump soaring several hundred feed before landing. Turning around, she sprinted back to where Lambert and Holmes were waiting in the four-wheeler, and was surprised to see Lambert smash his clipboard on the dashboard.
“Goddammit!” he cussed again. “Carol, you move like a fucking civilian!”
Holmes was doubled over with laughter, and she could hear his voice caught through the radio, “She runs like a girl… a giant, mechanical girl… prancing at 150 miles per hour!” He lost himself with giddiness, and Lambert kicked him in the behind.
“Compose yourself, private,” he barked. “That’s enough for today, Carol, park it inside.”
It was much easier to get inside than out, but with the ramp destroyed, Carol found herself staring down at a five-foot drop when she opened up the Suit. It was high enough that she didn’t want to jump, but she didn’t trust her climbing skills either. Lambert surprised her by coming over and holding up his arms.
“Come on, commander, we haven’t got all day,” he snapped.
Carol let herself drop, then was instantly afraid that he had used the opportunity to prank her. It was a relief when his hands closed around her torso, and he slowly lowered her until her feet touched the floor.
“Get some breakfast before you write your report, then come to my office for some schooling. We are going to beat that civilian out of you, commander,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir!” Carol saluted.