The corners of Hartmann’s mouth bent upwards when he saw Carol in the bunker early the next morning. For a moment their eyes met across the distance, and she smiled in return. Then captain Lambert interrupted to clip the radio onto the collar of Carol’s shirt, and said gruffly, “We’re continuing with the drills again today. Your movements are too sloppy.”
“Yes, sir,” she murmured in reply. “I’ll do my best.”
“Do better!” Lambert snapped. “Your performance yesterday was abysmal, and I won’t have you embarrassing our military with your ineptitude when you’re out in the field. Do you understand?”
Carol was taken aback, and looked over to Hartmann for some sort of support. He shook his head slightly, so she squeaked out, “Yes, sir,” and fixed her eyes down on her shoes as her fingers fidgeted.
Lambert was in a sour mood. There was something else going on than a simple hangover, which made Hartmann suspect that the captain’s disappearance the day prior involved more than a few stiff drinks. Whatever had transpired, it had made him especially irritable in response.
Hartmann stepped close to Carol, moving subtlety to touch her back in a reassuring gesture, before sliding past to stand before the Suit and stare up at it. He missed it. Missed the way it felt to climb inside and settle himself comfortably, and the way he could move around with ease as a giant mechanical man. He also missed the praises that came after a successful mission, and the sense of having accomplished something important. Letting go was hard, and he didn’t understand why the General’s decision to make Carol a pilot also included firing him from the job.
Carol seemed smaller than she had before when she approached the Suit, and again it hurt to watch the doors close with her inside. Captain Lambert ordered her to practice running outside with Holmes supervising from the jeep, but he stopped Hartmann from following, and both of them remained inside.
“She’s going out on a mission tomorrow,” Lambert said gruffly. “Orders came down.”
A jolt shot through the master sergeant, but he kept up his practiced emotionless mask. “She’s not ready, sir.”
“I sure as hell know that – I told the General the same damn thing yesterday, too. But, he wants her out in the field ASAP.” Lambert’s brow was creased deeply, and his complexion was pale. The thought of sending Carol out into combat, even within the indestructible confines of the Suit, was terrifying.
“Sir, I am still the best pilot. I can go instead.” Hartmann knew that his words were nothing more than ungrounded hope. In a sane world, he would be sent out on missions until Carol reached an adequate skill level in her training, but that was not the world they lived in. With only one Suit, every day she spent training put them behind in their efforts to win the war, and putting Hartmann in the Suit would only take away precious time from her training. She was going to be learning on the job, irregardless of what everyone thought.
“Orders are orders,” Lambert grumbled dismissively. “She’s going to be in the Suit all day today. We need to get the most out of it.”
“Yes, sir.” Something cold and heavy was settling in the center of his chest. Hartmann had spent the night preparing for the subtle attentions he would use to seduce his clandestine girlfriend, only to discover that she would be separated from him inside a 12-foot mecha. Nothing involving Carol was going the way it should.
“Push her harder. Get her practicing a wider variety of maneuvers,” Lambert ordered with a defeated voice, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “But don’t scare her.”
“Yes, sir,” Hartmann mechanically replied.
“I need to prepare for tomorrow. Don’t let me down.”
“I won’t, sir.”
With a sense of unreality pressing down on him, Hartmann drifted to the jeep where Holmes was waiting, and instructed Carol through the radio to practice jumping and landing. His mind was racing for the basics, to reduce the formula for success down to something that could be learned in a single day, all the while wondering when his heart was going to start beating again.
It was crazy to send Carol out on a mission so soon.
What if she tripped and accidentally demolished a school full of children? What if the enemy bombarded her with artillery, and she didn’t have the maneuverability to avoid taking a direct hit? They had never pushed the limits to see just how indestructible the Suit really was.
Carol was too pathetic to be sent out onto the field. She didn’t have any survival instincts, and there was no way that she could succeed on her own.