The fire had burned down to embers, casting only a faint red glow about the cabin, but Captain Lambert didn’t care about the darkness. He stared out the window, watching the raindrops trailing down the glass as flashes of lightning illuminated them, followed by the delicate sound of thunder.
It had been a long time since he’d taken leave. After the incident with the Suit, the General had been discharged for approving a mission which had lost the military their top asset, especially with the captain’s objections on record. Lambert found it hard to care. The last thing he had done in his commission had been to fail to protect one his own, even if she hadn’t been a real soldier.
That damnable woman was the reason he was out here in a hunting lodge, a hundred miles from nowhere. He needed time and space to think, to reason out if there was anything he could have done.
And to mourn the dead.
He had known that she would never come back. Perhaps that was why he had given up everything in an effort to keep her solidly on Earth, where he could continue to watch over her. He missed her.
Suddenly he jumped as the phone in his pocket was vibrated. It was impossible for him to receive any calls; he was well outside of signal range, and had set it to airplane mode as well.When he drew it out, the screen lit up with the familiar answer/reject screen, only there was an anomaly – there was no incoming phone number. It didn’t even say “Caller unknown”. The space was simply blank.
Curiosity piqued, he swiped his finger across the screen and lifted it to his ear, gruffly answering. “Hello?”
“Hello, Lambert,” the voice echoed in his ear, and a sense of unreality washed over him. The voice was hers, but not at the same time. It resonated in a way that no human voice ever could, and the intonation was flat like that of a computer generated voice. He wondered if someone had found a way to play a sick prank on him.
“Who is this?” he growled.
“I’d like you to know what really happened.” the voice answered, ignoring his question. “I’m worried if I don’t tell you, you’ll end up drinking yourself into an early grave.”
Lambert glanced to the glass on the table beside him, barely visible in the dim light. It was mostly empty, as was the bottle beside it, and he laughed humorlessly. “You’re not too far from your mark,” he replied. “Okay, so what actually happened?”
“They sent me up to the ship, but you already know that. You also know I never came back. People all across the planet are probably wondering why the ship disappeared so suddenly: was it scared off? Left for reinforcements? I’m sure there are rumors.”
Lambert nodded, unconsciously beginning to pace as he listened. “Yes, something like that.”
“The reason,” the voice murmured into his ear, sounding more and more like her, yet still frustratingly mechanical at the same time, “was that it was a retrieval mission. They were only interested in retrieving me. I wasn’t joking that night when I said the Suit was my real body, and as it would turn out, I was more right than either of us knew at the time.”
Lambert came to a halt. “So let me get this straight: I spent all that time working with an extraterrestrial?” He couldn’t stop himself from adding, “I always thought aliens would be more dignified than that little mouse.”
There was a peculiar buzzing on the line, which changed gradually into laughter. “Yes and no. The body I live in – the biological body – is human. The Suit is mechanical, as is the Commander – the part of me which connects the two. I’m far more complicated than you gave me credit for.”
Lambert snorted. This was preposterous. Even if it was true, that just meant the world itself was a bad joke.
“Oh, don’t be like that. We’re not a threat. And nothing you could have done would have stopped me from returning. We’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long, long time. Everything about Carol, the cleaning lady, was designed to ensure things would play out like they did. If it’s any consolation, you figured it out much faster than average.”
“It’s not a comfort,” he retorted. “But I suppose I’m glad to hear that you’re not dead. By the way, you know that my phone is tapped?” He began pacing again, smiling.
Carol chuckled. “No one will ever know about this call unless you tell them.”
“No, I don’t think I will.” Lambert turned to stare at the dying embers in the fireplace, and thought of how he could draw the moment out to last a little longer. “Just out of curiosity, what would have happened if I’d managed to have you confined away from the Suit?”
Her reply was blunt,“There are certain protocols that can be remotely activated. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but the result would have been the same. My body would have found me, and I would have left Earth. The only difference is that people would have died.”
This time Lambert frowned, his eyes fixed on the faint red glow until they stung from dryness. “There are things worse than failing, I suppose,” he murmured.
“I wanted to apologize for letting you down, and to let you know that you didn’t do anything wrong.” Carol’s voice sounded more like her old self, feminine and a touch neurotic. He had never considered her as a woman before, but that fact seemed more evident on the phone than it had in person. “I thought you deserved that from me.”
Lambert nodded, slowly. It was true – it had been eating at him ever since that day at the hospital. He had blamed himself for failing her as he had with Hartmann, and believed that it reflected poorly on his abilities as a leader. The closure she gave him helped enormously.
“Thanks, Commander,” he replied.
“Please, call me Carol. I’m still as much human as I am Aurigan.”
“Is that the name of your species?”
Lambert glanced back at the empty alcohol bottle. Somehow it didn’t seem quite so appealing, but neither did going back to civilization. “Say, Carol…” He felt nervous for some reason. “I don’t suppose your people are looking for individuals with a military experience and a background in psychology.”
“That… is quite a thought, captain.” There was a pause, and Lambert cursed how blind he was, speaking over the phone. He wanted to see her face, to read her body language, and know what she was thinking. After an eternity, she said, “I didn’t expect that. Are you serious?”
“As serious as I can be with this much whiskey in me.” His heart was pounding. Was he really asking to run off on some alien spaceship? He must have gone mad. However, there wasn’t anything left for him on Earth. He was no longer in the military, and his country was on the verge of a crushing defeat. What he wanted was to start somewhere fresh, even if that meant traveling the stars.
Her answer was simple, “I’ll ask the others. Perhaps we’ll be in touch.”
“Good enough for me,” he said, moving back to the window to look out at the sky. He wondered where she was, the mousey woman who lived in a giant mechanical body. Was she hidden just beyond the clouds and rain, or had she already left the galaxy? He unconsciously touched the glass.
“Goodbye, Lambert,” she said.
“Goodbye, Carol,” he replied. The phone signal went dead, and there was no record of the call. If it hadn’t been for the sheer craziness of the conversation, Lambert would have thought that he had hallucinated the whole thing.
He hoped that he would see her again.