Carol reluctantly pried herself from the Suit after returning to base, knowing that she would lose the sense of detachment that the help system provided her. Internally she kicked and screamed at letting go of the giant metal body to once again become her tiny self, and the frazzled nerves that plagued her every thought and action.
The inevitable debriefing was tedious, with more paperwork than she expected, as well as a recorded Q&A session. Lambert had wanted her to transfer the Suit’s onboard surveillance onto a flash drive, for someone to review on a later date, and Carol surprised herself by executing the task effortlessly.
When Carol was given her freedom, she went straight to the canteen with Holmes, though she didn’t talk to him. It bothered her that she was starving after she had killed several dozen people, but the emotions that had crippled her that very morning had become a distant memory – they belonged to a different Carol. It was as if the effects of the help system were lingering in her mind, keeping her sane even outside of the Suit. She ate enough to make up for the meals that she had skipped.
Lambert intercepted her as she was heading back to her room, with Hartmann in tow. He insisted that they all go out for drinks, pulling rank on Carol to negate her protests about wanting to rest alone. So, all four of them went out to the nearest dive. She didn’t know why Hartmann had to come along – perhaps because he belonged to the military camaraderie, and having shared a small part in the mission, he was now also sharing in the celebration.
Carol had to admit that her grudge against Hartmann was a personal emotion that no one else shared, and they saw the cast he wore as punishment enough for his mistake. She hoped that under the influence of alcohol, he wouldn’t try anything violent against her.
“C’mere and sit down, commander,” Lambert grinned as he pulled out the chair next to him, almost sounding light-hearted. “How does it feel, now that your cherry has been popped?”
Carol’s face burned bright red. “Captain,” she said reprovingly, “that is not an appropriate thing to say.”
The three men around her burst into laughter.
“It’s because you’ve had your first successful mission out in the field,” Holmes explained, wiping tears out of his eyes. “Carol, you’re a hoot.”
“She needs booze to work that stick out.” Lambert put an arm around Carol’s shoulders, giving her a strong whiff of his deodorant, and pointed to Holmes. “Go get us whisky, and lots of it.”
“No. No.” Carol shook her head. “I don’t drink anything that burns… Champagne would be nice though.”
Again, all three men burst into laughter.
“Commander,” Lambert almost purred into her ear, tickling her skin. “Today, you are one of us; today, you will drink like us.”
Holmes returned a few minutes later with glasses and a bottle labeled Jameson. Lambert poured a generous amount and set the glass in front of Carol, ordering, “Down the hatch!”
Everyone was watching her expectantly, waiting on her before touching their own drinks. Reluctantly, Carol picked up the glass and put it against her lips, the fumes burning her sinuses already. She took as big of a gulp as she could manage, then coughed as her face twisted up and a shudder ran through her. They laughed uproariously, and in turn downed their own drinks.
“You know, Carol, I expected you to be a sobbing mess right now,” Lambert mused, pouring everyone a second round, including Carol who hadn’t even finished her first. “Yet you are still coherent and on your feet. I have to say, I’m proud of you.”
“What’s that ‘help system’?” Hartmann asked, breaking his silence. He was different from what he had been a couple of weeks before, and only distractedly fingered his second glass as he studied Carol. “I’ve been piloting the Suit for ages, and I’ve never come across it. Sure made all the difference for you, though.”
Carol shrugged then shook her head in an effort to refuse the whisky that Lambert was pushing on her. “I don’t know. I just stumbled across it, that’s all.” Her resistance wasn’t that strong, however, because just watching everyone else drinking in the bar caused her to cave. Her reaction was even stronger when she swallowed than it had been the first time. She did not like whisky; it was already affecting her head.
“You know, the first moment I saw the commander here, I thought to myself,” Lambert spoke in a contemplative tone, and Carol suspected he was a philosophical drunk – he was going through whisky faster than anyone else. “That’s not a woman… that’s a mouse!” he finished, and everyone roared with merriment, including Carol. It wasn’t that she thought it was particularly funny, but more because the combination of alcohol and joviality was sweeping her up out of her control. “And it’s true!” Lambert slapped the table. “Carol is the most mousey person I have ever even heard of. She looks exactly like one too.”
“Well, you, captain, are a mean bully, and I do not like you,” Carol replied haughtily once she managed to get ahold of herself, causing everyone else to howl more.
“You’re blooded now, Carol.” Lambert chuckled. “You have my sincerest apologies for that, but it had to be done.”
“What about you, MSG Hartmann?” Carol’s head was really swimming now. “I don’t remember what you told me about you. With the hospital, I think.”
Despite all the whisky and laughter, Hartmann’s voice was sober when he replied, “They couldn’t repair all the nerves in my hand. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose it, but I’ll be partially paralyzed for the rest of my life.”
“I’m not sorry. That’s what you get for trying to hurt me,” Carol answered, then felt horrified at how bluntly she had spoken. She really didn’t like whisky – it was hitting her too hard. She tried to soften her voice, but her tongue slurred more instead, “What did you say about your brain?”
“I have decreased blood flow to my prefrontal cortex, while my amygdala has gone haywire,” Hartmann replied.
“I have no clue what an amygdala is,” Carol snickered. “I’m not that smart. I know that you’re not supposed to say that about yourself, but I’m really not. I barely graduated high school.” The booze was making her blab too much, so she drank even more to stop herself from feeling embarrassed.
“It means he’s unfit for duty, but it’s not his fault,” Lambert cut in. “MSG Hartmann will be given a medical discharge when the time is right.”
“Does that make me a bad person? ‘Cause I hate you.” She was really feeling dizzy now.
Hartmann shrugged, so Lambert replied, “Yes, commander, it does. MSG Hartmann dedicated his life to serving our country to the best of his abilities, and in reward he has to return as a disabled veteran with only one functional hand and a damaged brain, because no one knew the Suit had side effects. If you had a heart, you’d forgive him.”
Carol didn’t reply. The fuzziness in her head was rapidly dropping down to her stomach, and she felt herself turning green.
“Bathroom is over there,” Lambert pointed with his thumb. Carol got up and ran.
As she hunched over a toilet, trying hard to get past the funky smell of urine and deodorizer, she thought about what the captain had said. She didn’t want to let go of her grudge, but because she saw the wisdom in his words, she decided that she was going to hate him for it too. At least until she got it out of her system.
Sometime later, Lambert fetched Carol out of the bathroom and drove her home, though he didn’t provide any explanation about where Hartmann or Holmes had gotten to. Once on base, he carried her piggyback to her room, and let himself inside where he sat down on the edge of her bed.
“You can let go now. We’re here,” he said softly.
She dropped back onto her mattress and giggled. “Captain,” she said thickly, speaking through the taste of vomit that still clung to her tongue. “The Suit… it’s the real me. Not this…” she pinched her upper arm and pulled at her skin. “…thing. I just thought you should know.”
Lambert walked to the door, then paused, staring at her with hard, calculating eyes. “Goodnight, commander,” he said, and left.