They watched as Carol overshot again, and Hartmann instructed her to repeat the exercise. There was an air of resignation hanging over the three men as they settled into watching Carol running back and forth in the Suit, each time missing the mark. The corporal seemed more agitated by the repetition than his superiors, and it reminded Hartmann of his early years of service when he had still been developing his mental discipline.
“You in for the long haul, corporal?” Hartmann grunted.
“No, sir. I’ll be returning to civilian life as soon as my service is up,” Holmes replied stiffly.
“Got a girlfriend?”
“Is she faithful?”
“Yessir, she is.” Holmes grinned widely. “We’re getting married after she graduates from college.”
Hartmann nodded. “You’re one of the lucky ones then.” A small part of him hoped that Holmes wouldn’t receive any last minute “Dear Johns”, as he had seen happen so many times before during his years in the military.
Lambert’s growl cut through their conversation as he spoke into the radio, “Again, Carol. You’re not any closer to the mark than you were the first time. Over.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t quite tell where the mark is until I’m practically on top of it,” she answered. “Um, over.”
“You use your eyes to look,” Lambert snapped.
Hartmann smiled inwardly at the captain’s growing irritation, and commented, “She’s not going to be ready for combat at this rate,” knowing that it was an unhelpful thing to say.
“Shut it, MSG Hartmann. You’re here to help train Carol, not to narrate the situation.” Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Sorry, sir.” Hartmann held out his hand. “In that case, please allow me to assist in training her, sir.” Lambert slapped the radio into his palm, and he spoke into it smoothly, “MSG Hartmann here. If you can’t see the mark on the ground, then use other landmarks that you know are near it. For example, CPT Lambert and I are in the jeep parked near the line, so the closer you get to us, the closer you get to the mile marker. Over.”
There was silence for a moment, then Carol answered defensively, “I’m not stupid.”
“I know,” Hartmann replied, looking directly at Lambert as he added, “Over.”
“I’m just … overwhelmed … over.” Carol’s voice sounded exhausted.
“We’re all feeling overwhelmed at the moment, but we’ll get through it. At the very least, your connection with the Suit is astounding – too bad you can’t see yourself from the outside. Over.”
“What the fuck are you up to?” Lambert growled, and his frowned deepened as Carol’s voice answered,
“Thank you, master sergeant. Over.”
“Sir, you ordered me to be nice,” Hartmann answered dismissively. “I thought she needed encouragement.”
“Carol is officially a military asset now, MSG Hartmann. You stick to your bar sluts, and don’t get any ideas into your head. She’s off limits.” Lambert continued to scowl.
Hartmann narrowed his eye and shook his head slightly. “Yes, sir,” he replied, emphasizing each word separately. “I was simply following your orders.” He forced a scowl as he added, “Though if I may say, sir, she is not anywhere near as young or sexy as the women that I am accustomed to.”
Lambert grunted. “Good.”
Hartmann wondered if, given the opportunity, the captain would keep to the “off limits” rule himself, or if he was secretly envisioning coming home to the cleaning lady cooking dinner and a couple of kids playing in the yard. The war couldn’t last forever, and one day the military would have to surrender to the fact that Carol was a human being.
Why was Lambert also drawn to her? Why was she like a drop of water in their parched existence? There was a long list of things that she wasn’t, and at the end of it came the feeling of relief.
Carol wasn’t fake.