Lambert joined them again in the evening, and Hartmann stepped back as the captain took the lead with directing Carol’s training. The captain kept her repeating drills in the dark, until with a frown he looked at his watch and told her that it was time to call it a night. Holmes escorted her away, and Hartmann waited for his own dismissal.
“My office,” Lambert grunted instead. Once they were behind closed doors, the captain took a key out of his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and pulled out a folder which he slapped down onto his desk. “You’re going to help me get as much of this shit programmed onto autopilot as we can.”
Hartmann picked up the folder and opened it, silently reading for awhile. “I can program in the coordinates to get her there and back,” he mused after awhile. “The targets are a different story, but at least there shouldn’t be any civilians to be concerned about.”
Lambert opened his drawer again, and took out a specialized flash drive that he handed over to the master sergeant. “Better than having her lost over the ocean. This came in last week from R&D, so here’s hoping it works the way it’s meant to. C’mon, to the Suit, now.”
The two men proceeded to the bunker, and Hartmann sat in the pilot’s seat of the Suit, but didn’t close the doors. He plugged in the flash drive, and put together a basic computer program to get Carol through her first mission, testing and verifying as much of his work as he could without actually leaving the Base. Lambert stood close by, leaning against the doors as he quietly dictated the necessary data, but the going was slow. Hartmann had always operated with coordinates and objectives, and while he knew that others were working on an external drive that was compatible with the Suit’s computers, he never thought the project seemed interesting or relevant. He certainly hadn’t expected that he would be the one learning how to program the autopilot settings for someone else to use. He tested as best as he could without actually taking the Suit out, knowing that if he screwed up, Carol would struggle enormously with navigating on her own. It resulted in him performing a number of redundant checks, but Lambert listened to each one patiently without pushing him to hurry up – his thoughts were likely the same.
By the time that they were done, the captain took one glance at his watch and immediately headed for a vending machine to buy a couple of energy drinks. There wasn’t much point in trying to sleep before the mission was scheduled to start, and with their suppressed jitters, neither of them would be able to anyway. Instead, they passed the next couple of hours in silence, sitting kitty corner in the cafeteria. When Lambert stood, Hartmann stood as well.
The hallway outside of Carol’s room was dimly lit, and the captain pounded on the door with such force that it was certain to startle and scare the mousy woman, bellowing “Rise and shine, commander!” There was a thump inside, the sound of bare feet slapping against a hard floor, and the door flung open to a disheveled Carol looking up at them with alarm. “Get dressed. Quickly,” Lambert growled. “You have thirty minutes to eat a light breakfast.”
“What’s going on?” she asked faintly, but the captain barked, “Just do as you’re told!” in response.
The door closed, then opened again after a mere two minutes. Carol was still hastily pulling her unbrushed hair back into a ponytail, and her boots were unlaced, but she was willing to accompany the two military men. Lambert’s face softened with approval, and with a nod the three of them set off towards the cafeteria.
The three of them sat down to a meal of granola, yogurt, canned fruit, and sausage. It satisfied the basic checklist of nutritional requirements, but Hartmann still secretly wondered how Carol would fare if she vomited up a combination of yogurt and sausage during the course of her mission; it was a disgusting thought. Lambert still hadn’t offered any explanation about what the day would bring, likely holding the news off for as long as he could.
Holmes arrived after ten minutes, saluted dutifully, then stood at attention. Carol’s suspicions were definitely growing, but she willfully avoided looking at Hartmann. In fact, with the way her eyes skipped over him and lingered on the captain, he struggled to suppress the jealousy that welled up inside of himself.
It was my hand you held last night, he thought, tightening his fingers into a fist. My lips that kissed you. Look at me, not him.
But Lambert was the commanding officer in charge of giving orders.
“I’m finished eating, sir,” Carol said slowly. “What are we doing today?”
He stood, nodded to Holmes, the replied dismissively, “You have your first real combat mission. Congratulations.”
Lambert was a coward, Hartmann thought as he watched the captain retreat. He, however, remained to watch Carol blanch, her face turning pale enough that he wondered if she was going to lose her breakfast already.
“You all right?” he felt compelled to ask, and she looked at him blankly before nodding.
“Yeah. I guess.” Her voice squeaked. The color was completely gone from her lips.
Hartmann frowned. Part of him wanted to assume the role of the doting boyfriend, and assure her that everything was going to be just fine because he had spent all night working to make her job easy for her. The other part, the one crafted and shaped by his life in the military, barked orders for her to toughen up and grow a pair – to ‘fake it till you make it,’ the same way he did. He reminded himself that he was playing the good cop, and he couldn’t be calloused towards her.
“The Suit will help you,” he said slowly, carefully considering each word. “You’ll laugh about how nervous you were later tonight.”
“Yeah,” Carol faintly repeated. Her eyes were unfocused, and Hartmann wondered what sort of tumultuous storm was raging inside her head.
He stood. “Have corporal Holmes escort you to the bunker. I have something to take care of first.” He headed in the direction of the nearest restroom to throw them off, glanced back to ensure that Carol wasn’t watching, and ducked through the doorway and around a corner to escape out into a hallway. He pressed his back against the wall and took in a deep breath, fighting against the thought that they were hopelessly fucked.
When it came to Carol, he was turning into as much of a coward as Lambert. Seeing her repressed internal struggle had gotten the better of him, and he had fled on a flimsy excuse just like the captain had.
Cut her loose before she ruins you, some deep inner voice urged him, but he knew that he couldn’t let her go.
Carol was under his skin.
And he was going to spend the next several hours monitoring her using the Suit in combat – it was certain to be a fucking miserable day.