Stories, The Scion Suit

The Scions – 6

“You don’t need to eat dinner with me, master sergeant,” Carol protested, her face turning bright red. “Corporal Holmes has been assigned to watch me.”

“What’s the matter? Are you terrified of pigging out in front of me? Don’t worry, I like a woman with a healthy appetite.” he teased, letting himself touch her elbow, feeling the soft curve of her bone as her blush deepened and she sputtered,

“Aren’t you supposed to be busy, or something? Surely you don’t have time to …”

“I have all the time in the world for you–” Hartmann stopped himself before he called her the cleaning lady out loud. “Now that I don’t have the Suit.”

She caught the undertone in his words and turned away, silent. He noticed that she was clenching her hands into fists, and the glint in her eyes was too hard for her to be feeling any sort of regret or sympathy about ousting him out of his position in the Suit, sparking his own anger once again.

“I need to train you how to eat properly, since you’re practically skin and bones,” he snapped.

“It doesn’t matter in the Suit,” Carol retorted, catching Hartmann by surprise. “I didn’t feel the slightest hint of fatigue while I was inside it this morning. If anything, I felt better.”

“That’s … unusual,” he muttered. He had gone on countless missions in the Suit, and while he certainly had enhanced abilities, he had still been very conscious of the passing hours. The mental exhaustion had more than made up for the lack of physical exertion, and it was something that he had willed himself to ignore. The thought that Carol didn’t experience it at all was galling.

Everything about her pushed him to his limits.

But orders were orders. As much as he ached to renegade with the Suit, he didn’t know where he would go or what he would do, and practicality kept him there. After he had lived half his life in the military, he didn’t know what he would do without any missions to devote himself to – without orders, he would be adrift.

He needed to keep himself under control.

“Maybe I’m worried about your health,” he purred, knowing that it sounded too smarmy in light of the growing tension.

“I’d prefer to eat alone.” She turned to face him, her jaw muscle twitching slightly. “As alone as I’m allowed to be.”

“Have it your way, then,” he replied dismissively, and turned to leave.

Good riddance, he thought. He couldn’t keep up the act for much longer anyway; Carol was getting too much under his skin. Her reluctance to speak meant that he had to study her carefully, to pay attention to every twitch and turn of her body to read her thoughts, and she was starting to drive him crazy. The way she curled in on herself made her seem shorter than she was, and he wanted to grab her shoulders to straighten her out, to tell her to hold her head high so he could gaze at the curve where her neck met her shoulders.

He had never had to work so hard for a woman in his entire life. After he had developed a pair of biceps, women had practically lined up around the block to throw themselves at him, and all he had to do was learn how to pick carefully. Carol was making him doubt himself, because she didn’t seek him out with flirtatious eyes, or try to give him a peek of her cleavage to catch his interest. She made him feel … invisible.

The irony was almost hilarious. Perhaps invisibility wasn’t a talent that Carol had perfected, but an infectious disease that descended on everyone she interacted with. The moment he first touched her had sealed his fate, and he was now dissolving into the background, unnoticed.

Left on his own, he made his way to captain Lambert’s office with the deliberate swiftness that had become second-nature after the years he had spent in the military, and sharply rapped on the door. A gruff voice answered, “Come in,” and he opened the door.

“Do you have any idea how much paperwork you created for me?” Lambert growled after a quick glance up. “Would’ve been easier on all of us if you had left Carol alone to clean the Suit.”

“I am well aware of that, sir,” Hartmann replied, standing at ease. “And I regret my mistake.”

“The fucking cleaning lady …” Lambert pressed his hand to his forehead. “Between the two of us, MSG Hartmann, the General has gone off the deep end. One look at Carol, and it’s obvious that she’ll never be able to handle combat – even inside the Suit – but now that anxiety-ridden mouse is our problem whether we like it or not.”

“I know that, sir,” Hartmann replied. “She expressed concern over the possibility of going into combat, and I replied to her that I didn’t know the specifics of what was expected of her.”

“Basically, the General wants to see what sort of offensive features she has access to in the Suit. So, yes, she will be going into combat at the end of next week.” Lambert set his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “However, don’t mention that to her unnecessarily.”

“I won’t, sir. I won’t do anything to upset her,” Hartmann answered dutifully.

Hartmann had started working with Lambert two years prior after the captain had been brought on to the Suit project, and while their personalities clashed, they had developed an unique respect for one another. In many ways, Lambert was the opposite of Hartmann, and had achieved his rank through education – he had never had to prove himself on the battlefield, and that fact hung between the two of them every time they spoke. While Lambert was the commanding officer, Hartmann was the one with the experience, and had earned himself a level of admiration that the captain would never replicate.

“Did you need something?” Lambert asked. With his temper soothed, he was becoming more relaxed and amicable. They were comrades again, which made it easy for Hartmann to make his request.

“I would like the rest of the day off, sir. Carol has hit her limit with how much training she can do, and there’s nothing left for me while she is resting. I could use some personal time.”

“Granted.” Lambert picked up his pen and began writing. “But first, give me your report on how the first day of training went. You already mentioned that she’s concerned about combat … what else is there?”

“Carol has no endurance or stamina, even for a civilian woman. Otherwise, she didn’t talk much.”

“Very mouse-like, isn’t she.” Lambert smiled slightly. “She’s every bit as quiet and timid as one, and practically as small, too. I’ll have more free time tomorrow, so I will be assisting more with her physical training.”

Hartmann wanted to bristle. That was the nicest thing that he had ever heard Lambert say about a woman, and he didn’t like the idea of having to overtly compete for someone as difficult as the cleaning lady. Lambert was supposed to stay distant and divorced.

Fortunately, Lambert’s temper combined with his borderline alcoholism were certain to serve him poorly; Hartmann was much better at playing suave than the captain. If he worked the situation so that Carol pushed Lambert’s buttons, he would not only look better by comparison, it would create a vulnerability that Hartmann could exploit. Carol was definitely not the sort who could withstand being yelled at.

Hartmann forced a smile to hide the real one brewing under the surface. “I’m looking forward to your input, sir.”

“If that’s all, then you’re dismissed.” Lambert turned back to his notes, and Hartmann made his exit.

Stories

My week in haiku – 8/20

A crash and a cry
My child slipped on the stairs
And scraped her elbow

*

The life of a mom
Is chock-full of sleepless nights
I’m so exhausted

*

Biscuits n gravy
A delicious breakfast here
Fresh from the freezer 🙂

*

Soft white corriedale
Spinning wool into some yarn
On a drop spindle

*

Tiny sweet meows
With many sharp little claws
Kittens are abound

The Scion Suit

The Scions – 5

Hartmann waited for Carol out on the running track, smiling slightly when she came through the doors and squinted at him through the sunlight. The corporal was still with her, so the first thing that Hartmann did was dismiss the soldier, to ensure that they would be alone. She was nervous as the corporal left, so she bit her lip as her eyes locked onto the ground, and the action made her look younger and more girlish.

He had to find his tongue before he could say, “We’re going to run a mile to start.” It was hard to describe the effect that Carol was having on him. She wasn’t feisty like the women in the military, nor did she try to act sexy like the women at the bar. She was something else … something unfamiliar.

Carol nodded and murmured, “Yes, sir,” with her eyes still pointed downwards. Her hands tightened into fists.

“Relax, I’m under orders to be nice to you.” Hartmann smirked as he added, “And remember to call me master sergeant. I’ll let you off this time because you’re a civilian.”

“Yes, sir … master sergeant.” She glanced up, met his eyes for a split second, then looked away.

“Go on, get moving. It’s four laps around the track.”

Hartmann was silent as they jogged the first lap, giving Carol time to get used to his presence and feel more at ease. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, noting that it didn’t take long for her to begin breathing heavily, and compensated by slowing down the pace. When they started around the curve again, he said, “I’m sorry for being a dick.”

Carol didn’t reply, but he had expected that.

“Everyone knows I’m a real asshole to be around …” He feigned sheepishness, though inwardly he winced at his own words. He hadn’t even begun to get rough with her when she had jumped into the Suit, and if given the chance he would show her in a heartbeat just how much of a jerk he could be. However, at the moment he had a goal, and he wanted Carol to relax and open up to him. “I especially get a little crazy about the Suit.” That part was true.

He was quiet again, studying her closely, doing his best to read her thoughts through her body language. Her face flitted through a number of micro-expressions, enough to tell him that the inside of her mind was no where near as empty as her exterior, but it was going to take more time to be able to read her accurately.

“Master sergeant,” she said hesitantly as they began their third lap at an even slower pace. “Do you know what the visor is made out of?”

“Not a clue. I’d guess something similar to leaded glass, but I don’t think the minerals used in it came from this planet.” Hartmann stopped and grinned at her. “You noticed, didn’t you.”

“Not while we were inside.” Carol placed her hands on her knees as she huffed. “But when I had the Suit out in the sunlight, it was like seeing the world for the first time.”

“It’s amazing, but it’s something that you’re going to have to get used to. Those new colors have an odd way of swirling together and causing vertigo and nausea once you get moving fast enough. That’s going to matter during combat.”

She looked away. “Am I supposed to go into combat?”

“I’m not cleared for that information. I was told to train you, so that’s what I’m doing.” Hartmann was eyeing Carol up and down again. “In the military, you follow orders without question.”

“I guess that’s something we have in common,” she blurted, then bit her lip shyly as she began walking again.

Hartmann was momentarily lost for words as some sort of electrical shock pulsed through his chest. A feeling started to form inside his throat, then hardened into anger. How dare the cleaning lady suggest that they had any commonality – he was a hero, and she was a nobody. She was only there through some unexplained fluke, because some computer inside the Suit had called her “commander.” If not for that, her place would be in the shadow of his glory, unnoticed as she maintained the Suit for him.

He walked beside her, neither of them bothering with the pretense of jogging, until he regained himself and a quip came to him, “I saw the employee file on you, and it said that you’ve always been the picture of good behavior. I bet your parents loved you for that.”

Carol shrugged. “I guess they would have.”

“Would have?” Hartmann prodded.

“They died when I was three.”

He frowned. Carol didn’t look like the sort who carried childhood trauma, and she had delivered the news so blandly that it would have better suited a conversation about the weather. “How?” he asked, not out curiosity about the answer, but more for the opportunity to gauge her response.

“House fire.” Carol looked over at him and met his eyes. “I nearly died of smoke inhalation as well.”

“That is surprisingly interesting for you.” Hartmann cracked a grin. “I would have guessed that you grew up in some ordinary middle class family, did all of your homework and managed mostly B’s in school, then graduated and decided to twiddle your thumbs until you died.”

She scowled, finally annoyed by something. “No. I grew up in foster care, and got myself emancipated at sixteen. I got a GED instead of graduating, and I’ve been working full time ever since. I am not twiddling my thumbs.” A shadow of doubt crossed over her eyes, as if she was second-guessing what she had said.

“Foster care, huh? Dark place, isn’t it.” For a moment Hartmann felt the impulse to reach over and place his hand against her shoulder, to feel the crook of her neck with his fingers, but he tamped it down and kept his hands by his side.

“I survived.” Her mouth twisted downwards. “By becoming invisible.”

“That explains the great mystery of the cleaning lady,” he said smugly. “I should have guessed there was something tragic lingering behind that pretty face of yours.”

Carol stared at him, her expression blank. Then, abruptly, she began jogging again, her hair bouncing as she pulled ahead. Hartmann picked up the pace as well.

“Since I know that you’re wondering, but are too shy to ask, I grew up in some ordinary middle class family, but I got straight A’s, and was the captain of both the lacrosse and swim teams,” he said conversationally. “Then I enlisted when I was seventeen … to kill people.” Hartmann laughed at the series of expressions that flitted across Carol’s face when she glanced over at him, then added, “I had to get out.”

“Doesn’t sound like it was that bad,” she murmured.

“It wasn’t. It was so normal I was suffocating,” he replied.

Hartmann continued to study Carol, piecing together what he could about her from the small bits that she had told him. There was something off about her, some essential part that was either repressed or incomplete, that enabled her to speak almost monotonously about her past traumas. It intrigued him.

Stories, The Scion Suit

The Scions – 4

“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.

Commander.

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.

The Scion Suit

The Scions – 3

But that wasn’t what happened.

Hartmann was summoned back to the Base the next day, and waited in the bunker with no explanation of what was supposed to happen. He stared at the Suit and ached to touch it the way the cleaning lady did, but his training kept him in his position, ready to salute the moment a superior appeared to deliver orders. He mused over the possibility that some new intel had dropped, and he was on the verge of being sent out on another mission. In a matter of time, he would return home a hero, and the incident with Carol would be as forgotten as completely as she was.

What he did not anticipate was Captain Lambert to appear with Carol in tow. She was pale, and hid behind Lambert’s large frame to avoid Hartmann’s burning gaze, seeming even more timid and nervous than she had before. If he hadn’t been so annoyed over her reappearance, he would have found her behavior cute.

“MSG Hartmann,” Lambert said brusquely, “You are to assist me in training a new pilot for the Suit.”

Hartmann’s hackles rose sharply. “Who?” he demanded without any of the expected deference. “That bitch?”

Carol’s eyes teared up as her head swung away, her hands wringing together as she tried to shrink into herself behind Lambert’s back. It wasn’t the captain’s barked out punishment that twinged Hartmann with contrition, so much as the way Carol failed to defend herself against the word. He had expected her to bite back at him, to fling insults and posture as if she had a chance in a fight against him. Anything that would show that she thought of herself as too tough for him to feel guilty over. Compared to all the other women Hartmann had known, Carol seemed unnaturally quiet.

The way Lambert moved to shield her filled him with jealousy.

There was no way the captain was smitten with Carol. She was too pathetic and plain. All she had going for her was the fact that she cleaned the Suit … and the way her hair brushed the top of her petite shoulders, promising a feminine clavicle hidden underneath the neckline of her t-shirt. Hartmann thought about how she had felt under his hands, and how her soft muscles had struggled to pull away from him without any success.

Hartmann was the Suit’s pilot, and Carol was the cleaning lady. If she was going to belong to anyone, it was going to be him.

Not Lambert.

But he was determined to punish her for turning his world upside down.

Hartmann added extra energy into every push up, boosting himself off the floor to clap before catching himself again, purely for the sake of showing off. When he was through, he smugly noted the displeasure on Lambert’s face, and the amazement in Carol’s eyes.

“As I was saying,” Lambert continued gruffly, “The Suit considers Carol to be its ‘commander,’ and orders have come down for us to train her on how to pilot it for combat use.”

“You expect me to believe that, sir?” Hartmann narrowed his eyes.

“I verified it myself.” Lambert crossed his arms over his chest. “During the incident you created, the Suit automatically turned on and welcomed Carol as the ‘commander’ while she was inside. She has full access to all the Suit’s records, as well as a number of features that we never dreamed of. While you were lazing around at home, Carol and I were up digging through as much information as we could.”

Hartmann was lost for words. The muscle in his jaw twitched, but his teeth were locked together. He stared as Lambert proceeded to brush Carol’s hair back and clip a receiver onto her t-shirt, stared as the cleaning lady looked to the captain for reassurance who in turn gave her a small nod, and stared as she climbed up the ramp and enclosed herself inside the Suit. His Suit.

“Carol,” Lambert spoke into his radio, and it crackled as she replied,

“Here, sir.”

Then, disbelievingly, a computer voice sounded over the radio: “Welcome back, Commander.”

Was that why Carol had slid out of the Suit in an inexplicable daze the day before? Did she genuinely have a connection with it that he could never understand?

It wasn’t fair.

He was the best pilot.

He got the most important missions.

Why should the cleaning lady appear out of nowhere and take away his glory?

The Scion Suit

The Scions part 2

She didn’t notice when he approached her, intent on wiping down the headrest inside the Suit with a soft cloth to remove all traces of Hartmann’s earlier presence. He didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish, exactly, but he laid his hand on her shoulder and startled her. When her head twisted around, their eyes met for the first time.

“Can I help you?” she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably as her knuckles turned white around the cloth. He stared, taking in the strands of brown hair stuck to the side of her face, and the awkward water spill that soaked the front of her thick, baggy t-shirt. It was a shame that she was oblivious to her appearance, he considered, because the curves of her neck and jawline weren’t half bad.

“You ever been inside?” he asked, nodding towards the Suit. Compulsively, his fingers found the crook of her neck, but she flushed and pulled away.

“Of course not. I’m not authorized,” she replied sharply, though her voice trembled. Hartmann was satisfied to know that she was afraid.

“You know who I am?” he asked, and he grabbed her arm to keep her pinned.

She had to swallow hard before she could hoarsely reply, “One of the pilots.”

“I’m the fucking pilot,” he hissed, pushing her back against the door frame of the Suit. “Master sergeant Hartmann. You’re just the fucking cleaning lady.”

She nodded and squeaked, “Okay.”

“You have no right to love the Suit – you’re a nobody.” He wondered why she didn’t scream. The back of his neck prickled as others in the bunker were beginning to take notice, but as long as they kept their distance he didn’t care. Something kept her paralyzed, even as he pulled the stuck strands of hair loose from her cheek. “You’re going to quit this job,” he said softly.

“No!” She jerked against him then, but he easily pushed her back.

“I better never fucking see you near the Suit again.” His voice was low and dangerous.

Somehow, she slipped through his grip like water, and was inside the Suit before he could stop her. For a split second he considered yanking her back out, but her eyes and expression no longer matched the woman he had spent weeks watching. The look she gave him triggered his battle instincts, and he reflexively drew back, narrowly avoiding being caught by the Suit doors as they closed. His heart stopped as he realized what had happened, then he shouted,

“The Suit’s been hijacked!”

Hartmann drew his sidearm, knowing full well how futile it would be if the cleaning lady decided to blow him to smithereens. He very carefully backed down the ramp for the Suit, then moved to stand with the other soldiers who gathered with their guns held ready. Captain Lambert appeared at his side and growled, “What the fuck is going on?”

“I was messing with the cleaning lady, sir,” Hartmann replied slowly. “She jumped inside, sir.”

“The fucking cleaning lady?” Captain Lambert was surprised. “I want her file! The rest of you, keep ready but don’t move.”

“Sir, there’s something wrong with that bitch,” Hartmann muttered, narrowing his eyes at the Suit. So far it had remained motionless, and it was impossible to tell what was happening inside.

“Shut up,” Lambert snapped, then snatched the manila folder that had been brought to him. He skimmed over it, slapped it against Hartmann for him to take, then moved forward as he cussed, “We’re in for a fucking shit storm over this.” He boldly climbed the ramp and pounded on the Suit as he shouted, “Carol Smith! Get out here this instant!”

Hartmann watched in disbelief as the doors opened and the cleaning lady practically spilled out onto Lambert’s chest. She was dazed and unsteady as the captain helped her down, as if she had been drugged. Lambert’s eyes met the master sergeant’s, and he said gruffly, “You. Come.”

He took them to a small meeting room with a table and chairs, and ensured that Carol was seated before stepping back and folding his arms. Hartmann remained standing.

“You wanna tell me what the hell happened?” Lambert demanded.

Hartmann shrugged. “Already did, sir.”

Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Carol, what’s your side of the story?”

Hartmann expected her to let loose and demonize him in every possible way, but instead she echoed his shrug and murmured, “I don’t know.”

“How could you not know?” Lambert couldn’t keep himself from raising his voice.

“Something came over me, I think.” Carol nervously began to pick at her fingernails.

Frustrated, Lambert slammed his hand down on the table, causing her to flinch. “I selected you for this job based on your psych eval, and in all this time there hasn’t been a single incident. You expect me to believe that ‘something came over’ you?”

“I was … overwhelmed.” She squirmed and stared down at her hands as she bit her bottom lip. “The master sergeant told me to quit my job.”

“So you decided to get yourself fired instead?” Lambert scowled as he looked over at Hartmann. “Look, I know that MSG Hartmann was probably being an unreasonable prick towards you, so you need to focus on protecting yourself, not him. Got that?”

“I honestly don’t know how I ended up in the Suit.” Carol’s mouth twisted downwards and her chin quivered. “I was really scared that he’d find a way to force me out of my job, and I love cleaning the Suit.” For a moment she choked on her words, and Lambert’s expression softened. “I don’t know what happened,” she finished weakly.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lambert murmured, putting a reassuring hand on her arm. “I have to file a report on the incident, and someone is going to take the blame. That was a breach in security, and it’s not going to blow over on its own.”

Hartmann looked between Carol and Lambert with his eyes narrowed, mulling over the possibility that the captain was attracted to the cleaning lady. It was no secret that Lambert had suffered a nasty divorce several years back, and as far as anyone knew it had completely destroyed his interest in anything outside of work. It occurred to Hartmann that his hadn’t been the only gaze focused on her as she cleaned.

Out of curiosity, he opened the personnel file he still carried. Carol had a long history of showing up on time and following all the rules; she was described with words like, ‘respectful,’ and, ‘content,’ all of which boiled down to a polite way of saying that she was easily controlled and had no big dreams in life. Hartmann looked back up at her, noting the way she hunched over and kept her elbows close, and he thought that she likely considered any clothing brighter than beige to be too flashy. Carol was someone who had perfected invisibility, so why had the captain noticed her as well?

“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, sir.” Her voice was growing smaller.

Lambert sighed. “I’m going to recommend that your clearance be revoked, and that you’re reassigned. Wait here while I bring in your supervisor.” He then turned to Hartmann. “Your ass, on the other hand, is entirely at my mercy.”

“Go ahead and satisfy yourself, sir. I like it rough.” Hartmann smirked at the way Lambert’s eyes flashed angrily, then nodded at Carol as he tossed her file down onto the table. She was too shocked and pale to do anything other than stare.

“Move it, soldier!” Lambert barked, and pushed him out the door. “Consider yourself reprimanded for disrespecting your commanding officer.” He continued to shove Hartmann down the hallway. “Now, I want a detailed report on everything that happened, then you are to go home and await further orders. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Hartmann wasn’t thrilled at the idea of being removed from the Base, but the fact that Carol had jumped into the Suit on her own, combined with his status as the best pilot, made him expect that he wasn’t going to get more than a slap on the wrist for harassment in the end. The best part was, Carol was never going to be allowed anywhere near the Suit again. It was a small price to pay for the victory.

Lambert spoke into his radio, then informed Hartmann that someone would escort him off Base as soon as they were done, and a few minutes later they were in another small room. Hartmann wrote a glib statement, then signed his name with an exaggerated scrawl. Lambert’s radio crackled, and he stepped outside to answer it. Hartmann set his pen down then followed, but discovered that Lambert was already jogging down the hallway. He raised an eyebrow, but an MP approached him, and he knew that he wasn’t going to be privy to whatever had lit a fire under the captain’s butt.

He was going home to enjoy a little R&R before returning to duty.

CR1515

CR1515 – 2

Aurora was still alone when she awoke, but the door to the bedroom was open. She pulled the sheet off of the bed, wrapped it around herself, then tiptoed out into the main room. CR1515 was sitting in a chair in front of a giant screen, and although his face was completely expressionless, his body language was that of someone who was thoroughly bored of his desk job. Her clothes were still scattered across the floor, so she moved as quietly as she could to gather them up, praying that he wouldn’t notice her.

“You slept for nine hours,” he said, still focused on the screen. “Brain scans indicated that it was prudent to not wake you.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, blushing as she turned away, conscious of the fact that she was still nude underneath the sheet, and the soreness between her legs that attested to the reality of what had happened. “Is there a bathroom?”

“You may attend to all your needs in there.” He pointed back towards the bedroom. “When I am finished I will require sustenance, and you will eat then.”

She hesitated, then asked, “What are you doing?”

“Working.”

Aurora couldn’t stop her curiosity, so she turned to study the screen. “That looks like our underground base.”

“I maintain the security grid,” he replied. “One of the exterior cameras malfunctioned, so I ran a diagnostic and am now programming the instructions for the repair drones. I do this for all of your cities and bases.”

“Really?” Aurora’s fingers touched her lips with surprise. “I thought that was all automated.”

“As I am classified as a machine, it is.” CR1515 turned to look at her. “What are you doing?”

Aurora found herself shrinking back when he stood and approached her, and he took the bundle of clothing out of her arms then pulled the bed sheet away from her. All she could do was wrap her arms around herself and shiver as she looked down at the floor.

“I did not tell you to cover yourself.” He returned to the screen and sat down, then continued typing.

“I can’t always be naked!” Aurora protested. “Do you really intend to keep me as a sex slave?”

“Yes.”

“But …” A painful lump formed in her throat. “It’s not fair to do that to someone.”

“Is it fair to enslave someone for your protection then? To mock and ridicule them even as you demand their loyalty?” CR1515 tilted his head to one side and rested it against a fingertip. “From my perspective, taking a single human woman after decades of service is a small price to ask.”

Aurora squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to hold back the tears, and asked weakly, “Why me?”

“Because you sought me.”

She was silent, hugging herself as her mind tried to make sense of it all. Then, vehemently, she demanded, “If it had been Talon at the Gate instead of me, would you have done the same with him? Would he have been standing here naked now, instead of me? Was it really that arbitrary?”

“No.” CR1515 was either finished programming, or had come to the conclusion that she required his full attention, because he stood and approached her again, laying his metal hand against the side of her face. “If a man had come to the Gate, I would not have answered it.”

“Then why me?” Aurora couldn’t stop herself from collapsing against his hard chest, feeling too weak to stand under her own power anymore.

“You may wear clothing when we are not engaged in sexual activity,” he murmured, then as if he was attempting to provide comfort, he retrieved the sheet and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Dress, and we will have our meal.”

Aurora nodded and slowly moved towards the bedroom with her bundle of clothing held tightly against her chest, feeling ready to sleep for another nine hours. She didn’t know how to cope with abruptly losing everything in her life, especially when she had been on the verge of finalizing her engagement with Talon. He was definitely worried about her by then, and she didn’t have a way to send word of what had happened.

CR1515 shut the door to the main room, then walked across the bedroom to open another door. “You inquired about the facilities earlier,” he said, indicating toward the shower and toilet. “This one leads to the kitchen and dining area,” he continued, moving to another door. “As I implied before, all of your needs will be met.”

“Thank you,” Aurora whispered, then slipped into the bathroom and shut the door. It was comfortingly ordinary, down to the roll of paper next to the toilet, and she let out a heavy sigh of relief as she opened the shower door and turned the water on.

At the very least, he wasn’t callous towards her. Painfully blunt and unyielding, but … Aurora shook her head then upturned her face under the water, wondering if it would wash away the thoughts that she didn’t want. Perhaps Talon had been correct in wanting to finalize their relationship contract before engaging in intercourse with her, after how quickly she had thrown away her loyalty to him …

Not that CR1515 had given her a real choice.

He had revealed himself to her, then pressed his hands and mouth against her before promising to never take her for granted, after she had uttered a single, “Yes,” when he had asked if she would be his. She liked the simplicity and straightforwardness of it.

But that wasn’t what had really happened, Aurora chastised herself. CR1515 had been more than willing to let the artifacts fail and the mecha return to life if she had refused him. If she ever found herself back with Talon, she would tearfully explain that she had been blackmailed and raped, and he would be rightfully furious. He wouldn’t think that she had deliberately betrayed him.

Even though she was already wondering when she would have sex with CR1515 again.

“I’m such a mess,” Aurora whispered to herself, then turned the shower off.

She dressed after towel drying, then tiptoed out to search for CR1515. He was in the kitchen, once again out of his metal suit, with two meal trays waiting. She blushed and looked away as best she could until she was seated, but she couldn’t stop herself from sneaking in a glance at his golden skin that flawlessly covered his thick muscles, and heat twinged inside her.

They ate in silence, but Aurora’s appetite was small enough to disappear after only a few bites. She put her fork down, then stared intently at the table as she slowly asked, “You fought the mecha, right?”

“Yes,” CR1515 replied.

“Did you see Talon?”

He stared at her, and she couldn’t read his expression.

“I just thought that my betrothed should know that I’m …” her voice faded away.

“I wouldn’t know if I saw him.” CR1515 tilted his head to the side. “Why do you say betrothed instead of fiance?”

“We haven’t reached that point yet. After we agree on a finalized contract, we then set a date for our marriage, and that’s when we’re officially engaged.” Aurora squirmed under the look that CR1515 gave her, so she added, “That’s how it’s done.”

“A contract?”

“You know … we work out how many children we want, and when we want to have them. There’s also the financial agreements, how to manage the household, as well as what grounds the marriage may be dissolved …”

“You were planning out how to end your relationship before it even officially began?” CR1515 asked incredulously.

“Things don’t always work out.” Aurora felt small and ridiculous as she tried to explain, “Sometimes you grow to dislike each other and start arguing too much. It’s important to know how to proceed if that happens.”

“Hmph.” CR1515 folded his arms. “If you try to argue with me, I will teach you better.” He studied her for a moment from across the table, then continued, “I would gather that this contract of yours goes much deeper than the possibility of merely not getting along. Your attractiveness, age, and status as a virgin were all bargaining points for you, were they not?”

Aurora’s face began to burn as she nodded, and quietly said, “My mother wanted me to marry well, and the men who can afford to be picky …”

“Had I been satisfied with stripping you of your virginity and sent you back home, it would have hurt negotiations with this betrothed of yours, correct?”

“Talon loves me. He would have …” Aurora faltered. “He probably would have changed some of the terms to be more to his advantage,” she admitted.

“It appears to me that I have rescued you from the undesirable fate of having your every move dictated out beforehand.” CR1515 scowled, then motioned for her to come over and sit on his lap. Aurora obeyed shyly, all too aware of the fact that he didn’t feel the same need for clothing that she did. He pulled her firmly against his chest and touched his lips to her hair as he murmured, “My terms are simple: you belong to me.”

“But I have no grounds to assert myself on; nothing to protect me from your whims,” Aurora began to protest, then stopped when she saw the devilish grin spread across CR1515’s face, and his hand pushed up her skirt to rest against her thigh.

“No, you don’t.”

When they were finished, Aurora stayed slumped against him with her arms around his neck, and she couldn’t help but ask, “Did you really mean it when you said that you wanted to love? As in, love love, and not just …” she trailed off.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Will you love me even if I hate you?”

She didn’t wait for his answer, but instead buried her face in the crook of his neck, and breathed heavily as his hand stroked silently along the length of her back.