“Now, Carol, MSG Hartmann is going to be a good boy and coach you through how to move the Suit. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that he plays nice,” Lambert spoke into his end of the radio, then gave Hartmann a warning scowl as he handed it over. “I mean it,” he growled. “Follow orders, and play nice.”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann replied sulkily, then found his throat too thick to speak to Carol. He had to clear it first, then pushed the button to transmit, “The best way to explain it is that you connect your mind to the Suit, and after that walking should be as intuitive as it is with your own body. Don’t overthink it; just let it happen naturally.”
Silence answered, and Hartmann wished that Carol was more verbal. He missed the nonstop noise that usually surrounded women, that left no mystery as to what they were thinking. Dealing with Carol felt a lot like going up against a wall, with no way of knowing what he was going to find on the other side if he managed to break it down. It was frustrating. Unnerving.
Then the Suit took a step forward, and the two men jumped back as the screech of twisting metal filled the bunker. In one fell swoop, Carol had completely destroyed the ramp.
Hartmann stared as a grin crept across his face, then doubled over in laughter. Lambert cussed profusely, shouting into the radio, “God fucking dammit, Carol! Watch where you’re going!” It was satisfying to imagine her crying inside the cockpit as the captain 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. Sorry, sir,” Carol’s voice sounded broken, but her mental connection with the Suit was continuing to improve. Hartmann could see that it was imitating her body language, trying to curl up and disappear, which was comical for a 12-foot mecha. There were definitely tears on her cheeks, and it was time for him to wipe them away, so to speak.
He reached over to take the radio back, and purred, “Don’t sweat it, that was only the ramp. Give your legs a stretch, and see how it feels … just remember to be mindful of your surroundings.”
Lambert crossed his arms over his chest and growled, “Get her to the airfield, then join me in the jeep.”
Hartmann was satisfied as Lambert stormed away, certain that his sour mood wasn’t over the wrecked ramp. “All right, the captain wants us outside,” he spoke into the radio. “You up for it?”
“Yes, sir,” Carol replied dutifully, so he answered playfully,
“Save that for the captain. I want you to call me … master sergeant.”
She was silent, confused by his behavior as she went through the massive double doors that had been pulled open, and Hartmann followed her outside, ordering her to jog down the length of the airfield.
He dropped his affectation as soon as he was seated next to Lambert in the jeep. Carol was adapting to the Suit much faster than he had, despite his intuitive grasp of it, and the way she moved around the airfield was too natural – to the point of becoming unnatural. Hartmann knew that he was the best damn pilot to ever climb inside the Suit, but that was all he did: pilot. Carol, on the other hand … she was inhabiting it like a second skin, especially as she was becoming more and more comfortable with moving around the airfield. It crossed his mind that, with the way she was catching on, the Suit could have been made for her.
Hartmann had been in the military for far too long to let anything show on his face. His instructions to Carol over the radio became more mechanical and routine, but his thoughts remained perfectly hidden. He almost managed to keep them from himself, but as he stared it was undeniable that she was better at maneuvering the Suit than he was, even despite lacking the discipline that would have given her grace and efficiency.
“The Suit is following her body language more than I expected,” Lambert muttered beside Hartmann, though he was speaking more to himself. “She’ll need to be physically trained to clean up that sloppiness.”
Hartmann shrugged, muttering “Yes, sir,” when he failed to come up with an obnoxious reply. He had never watched the way he piloted the Suit from the outside, and he wondered if it responded similarly to his movements, or acted more like a robot.
Lambert continued, reluctantly saying, “You will work with her on the track this afternoon while I attend to other duties. You will be courteous, considerate, and respectful, and you will not make her cry. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann echoed. He had to stop himself from asking why the captain cared so much about the cleaning lady’s feelings in a world where tender emotions were a dangerous weakness. He already knew the answer.
Sometime later when they were back inside the bunker, Carol parked the Suit in its usual place, opened the doors, then stood hesitantly looking down at the drop to the floor. Hartmann wondered why she hadn’t kneeled in the Suit first, given that she was the one who destroyed the ramp and knew damn well that it wouldn’t be there, but Lambert stepped forward and held up his arms.
“Come on, we haven’t got all day,” he snapped, but Hartmann recognized the false gruffness of someone who had adapted to his rank to survive.
She cautiously dropped down to Lambert, and his hands closed around her waist as he lowered her to the floor. His fingertips curled in slightly, and trailed along her t-shirt as he pulled his hands away, his face too stony to be anything other than a mask. Carol was appropriately oblivious, which Hartmann found soothing; he wasn’t the only one she completely failed to notice.
“Get some lunch, then report to MSG Hartmann for physical training,” Lambert ordered. “Like it or not, we’re going to beat the civilian out of you, commander.”
“Yes, sir,” Carol replied, then turned and trotted to join some corporal that Hartmann only vaguely recognized. An assigned escort, he hoped.
Having time alone with Carol was going to give Hartmann the advantage, and if he worked his magic right, Lambert wasn’t going to stand a chance. Underneath the boring beige of her existence, he’d bet anything that Carol was still a woman, and still susceptible to his charms.
If the Suit couldn’t belong to him anymore, then he was going to claim ownership of the next best thing.