Carol’s training was not progressing to captain Lambert’s satisfaction. Her opinion was that she was growing comfortable with the Suit at an impressive pace, but he constantly berated her for acting like a civilian. She didn’t understand what he was so hung up on, but it was a comfort to know that as the only person with full access to the Suit’s computer, she wasn’t going to be replaced any time soon.
Two weeks passed before the morning that Lambert pounded on Carol’s door to wake her, yelling, “Rise and shine, commander!” as he did so. Still groggy, she stumbled over to let him in. In her half-conscious state, it took her a minute to realize that he was not alone.
“Captain!” she exclaimed, now wide awake. “What is he doing here?”
Master sergeant Hartmann glared at her but remained quiet. His arm was in a cast, but she noticed that there were pink fingers poking out of the end – he had kept his hand after all. Unconsciously, she stepped closer to Lambert, hoping that he would put Hartmann in a headlock if necessary. Outside of the Suit, she felt increasingly diminutive and fragile as a human, to the point that she worried she would die if anyone so much as slapped her. It was irrational, but she was starting to feel more like herself in the Suit than in her own body.
“Calm down, Carol, he’s been neutered,” Lambert muttered. “I brought him in for consulting.”
She didn’t think she had reacted that badly, but Lambert was skilled at reading her nervous quirks, and she often suspected that he had a background in psychology.
Hartman scowled, obviously not appreciating the captain’s description of him. “The word is, you suck at piloting the Suit,” he growled, but Lambert rapped him on top of his head.
“Easy, boy. We don’t want to upset our commander before the mission even begins. She’ll be plenty upset later,” he said.
Carol wondered if Lambert had taken a class on how to insult everyone around him in one go, or if it as just a natural talent of his. At the very least, Hartmann’s expression softened somewhat.
“Get ready, Carol, and have a light breakfast. You won’t want to go in hungry, but count on barfing it all up later. You have thirty minutes, then report to Bunker One,” Lambert ordered. “C’mon MSG Hartmann, lets get to work.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Carol asked, blocking Lambert from leaving. He stared down at her amused, probably because she was a good eight inches shorter than him.
“You have your first real mission today. Congratulations.” He easily brushed her aside, leaving her to gawk after him.
Carol tried to follow the captain’s advice, but her stomach was so tied up in knots that she couldn’t even choke down water, let alone anything solid. She wasn’t ready to go out into the field, she told herself over and over. If she explained it to him politely and asked for more time, then maybe Lambert would understand and postpone the whole thing, so she could become more familiar with the Suit’s weapons system.
An epiphany struck her like lightning, and she understood why Lambert was always so angry at her. Her idea was stupid, and nothing else.
The captain already knew she wasn’t ready. He had probably already postponed the mission for as long as he could, and bringing in Hartmann was his last-ditch effort to salvage the situation. If she failed, he would suffer the consequences as her direct superior.
Carol cussed herself out as well. She deserved it for treating her training like a vacation, rather than accepting the eventuality that she would have to go into battle.
She already felt like throwing up. Thinking about the impending mission made her lightheaded, and she worked herself up into such a panic, Holmes had to help her walk in to the bunker.
Lambert took one look at her and shouted, “GODDAMMIT CAROL! You haven’t learned a single fucking thing in the last two weeks! Get in the Suit and get ahold of yourself, pronto!”
Carol had to suppress her tears, knowing full well that she was pathetic. Hartmann looked disgusted and ashamed, refusing to make eye contact with her as she passed him by. As his replacement, she was an affront to everything he had achieved during his service.
However, once she was situated inside the Suit, she began to feel better. Even if her human body was squidgy and weak, the Suit was indestructible and would keep her from harm. She just had to accept the idea that she was going to have to use the weapons system, and maybe the Suit would automatically compensate for her queasy stomach, like it had before. It was going to be no big deal, she told herself.
Lambert handed her a flash drive. “Plug that in. It contains a map to your destination,” he explained, his voice already sounding defeated.
She found the port and inserted it, then closed the doors. The Suit sprang to life, gave her the squeeze that she had come to consider as a hug hello, and she was free to move. “All right, what do I do?” she asked through the radio.
The captain nodded to Hartmann, who answered, “Say, access removable drive to pull up the map, then set it to autopilot. The Suit will fly you there.”
The master sergeant’s involvement was definitely a low point, but Carol did as he instructed. Jets roared on, and in a flash Carol was through the bunker doors and flying through the clouds. That was a high point, she decided, growing euphoric at hurtling through the sky. She was so giddy, she decided to indulge her curiosity.
“Hey, master sergeant, what happened to you?” she asked. “I thought you ran.”
“I tried,” he replied grimly, his voice tinny through the radio without the familiar deep pitch of Lambert’s. “This is the fucking military though, remember? I didn’t get very far.”
“So where have you been?” Carol was growing smug, privately laughing at Hartmann’s failure to escape. She imagined him underneath a pile of soldiers, screaming like a toddler as they took him into custody. He had tears in his eyes, too, and begged for the chance to ask for her forgiveness when he realized the futility of his situation.
“The hospital,” he replied, cutting through Carol’s fantasy.
“Commander, this is classified information,” Lambert’s voice interrupted, and something about it was a relief. She liked knowing he was still there, listening to everything.
There must have been some words shared off the air, because Hartmann continued explaining a few minutes later, “The doctors have discovered that the Suit was changing the structure of my brain. Pretty soon here, they’ll want to start running some tests on you, too, so I hope you like being probed while wearing a hospital gown.”
She had stopped paying attention, instead watching the altitude numbers decrease on the visor. “Oh, wait, I think I’m reaching my destination,” Carol said. “Um, what do I do after that?”
“None of our guys are going to be there, so don’t worry about friendly fire. Just… make everything explode, okay? Don’t think about it,” Lambert replied, completely devoid of his usual confidence.
“The weapons system has auto-targeting. Tell it to use missiles, and the Suit will do everything for you. Mostly. Avoid being hit by heavy artillery if you can,” Hartmann added. “This was supposed to be my mission, so don’t you dare fail it.”
They were scared, which made Carol scared as well. The Suit landed in some sort of encampment, and thirty seconds later she was surrounded by men who were all shooting various guns at her. The worst part was, she could see their faces, which made her terrified that she would see them die as well. She couldn’t do this on her own, and she no longer cared about being overheard.
“Access help!” she screamed.
“Accessing help system,” the computer answered.
Again, Carol’s mind divided, and all of her emotions floated away. With the help system active, tactical options and operational parameters arrayed themselves in her awareness; her consciousness merged with the suit, making it easy to stop thinking of her targets as people. She had been given orders to blow everything up, and that’s what she was going to do.
“Weapons system, find and eliminate all targets within a fifty-foot radius, living and non-living; use thermal tracking, and do not allow anyone to retreat. Evade incoming fire as necessary.”
The next several minutes were a complex dance as she rained hellfire on her surroundings, the woman ceasing to exist as an individual separate from the Suit. In that moment, she forgot that she was human.
It was over just as suddenly as it had begun. Carol found herself standing in the middle of smoke and fire, unaffected by the dying screams that echoed around her. She scanned for anything else that needed to be destroyed and, satisfied with her work, announced, “Mission complete. All enemy targets have been eliminated.”