The Scions

The Scions – 4a

“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.

About Me

Followers

Seeing that made me oddly satisfied.

In case you suspected that all of my ranting against social media was hypocritical, I give you this screen shot as proof that I don’t engage with it at all.

0 social followers.

😀

The weird part is the number of views I’ve gotten with Facebook as the referrer. It’s not my doing, and I have no clue who is posting links to my blog.

art

Handspun sock yarn WIP

I received the supplies for this project with Paradise Fiber’s fiber of the month club, back in May 2022, and I’ve been sloooooowly working on it since August.

The wool is the Walkin’ On Sunshine blend, which is 75% cheviot and 25% faux cashmere.

I’m only partway done. I decided that I would pause the spinning process to dye the singles before plying them, and as of this moment, the other half is still in the dye pot. I plan on using my spinning wheel to ply, so I handwound the finished portion onto a bobbin.

I used a drop spindle, which is part of why it’s been taking me so long. The other part is my tiny humans providing plenty of interruptions.

Instagrammers be crazy jealous of my breathtakingly beautiful yarn turtles.

Actually, despite how it looks, those little yarn balls are easy to hold in the palm of my hand and wind up into a proper skein. They’re quite handy.

With any luck, I’ll have the yarn completed before too much longer. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get it made into socks for my birthday this month.

The Scions

The Scions – 3

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.

She was skinny, and combined with her lack of stamina, it made him suspect that she was a chronic under-eater, though not out of body-image issues. He’d guess that Carol was completely unaware of herself as a physical being, and probably wasn’t aware of her nervous habits. The way she pulled her teeth slowly across her full, pale pink, bottom lip was sensuous – more so, because of her naivete – and if she had any idea of how it made him think about her mouth, she would stop doing it immediately.

He wondered how she would taste.

After they finished their final lap, he took her to the vending machine and bought an electrolyte drink for her, then debated how much more exercise he should put her through. He liked the sheen of sweat on her forehead, liked the idea of pushing her so hard that her muscles burned, and wanted to make the most of the opportunity that he had been given. The obstacle course was guaranteed to be too hard for her, but he could drill her through calisthenics out on the field for as long as he liked.

She was going to be sore when he was through with her.

art

Turtles

After I inflamed the tendons in my foot with sloppy treadling, I decided that I should mix up my yarn spinning by using a drop spindle every now and then. Eventually, I got a turkish drop spindle set.

Naturally I made a quick reference of video tutorials to ensure that I was winding the yarn on correctly to create a center-pull ball. I very quickly noticed that everyone was neatly lining up their yarn to make very neat “turtles” that visually look very neat. (Turtles are what they call the yarn balls that are woven around the cross sticks)

Context:

I’m an INTP. When I saw this video by Frank James about how the different personality types kill their relationships, my initial reaction was, “I would never go out in public wearing pajamas … but yeah, he’s spot on.” I’m not all that big on social presentation. I can’t remember the last time I wore makeup, and while I do clean house every day, I’m terrible at organization. I figure that I don’t have any room in my life for people who are going to be pissy about my house being full of children. There are toys everywhere. Deal with it.

So, when it comes to spending extra time making a temporary ball of yarn look pretty, I’m skeptical.

If there’s some other purpose, then I’m open to the idea. Does it tangle less when being unwound? Fits more yarn? I’m genuinely curious. I don’t mind spending the extra time if it somehow benefits me later — I’m just not going to do it purely for aesthetic. I’m waaay too INTP for that.

I almost asked about possible other benefits on one of the youtube tutorials, but was overcome with anxiety instead. Would my question be taken as an insult, and get me attacked and ridiculed? I daren’t say anything.

Which paints a depressing picture of how I’ve experienced socializing with other women.

Personality wise, I strongly prefer spinning wheels anyway. I’m only doing this to avoid aggravating the tendons in my foot again.

So I’ll just quietly do my own thing, and stay far away from those pretty little “turtles”.

About Writing

Context

I posted the second half of chapter 2 for The Scions yesterday, which gives the basic setup for the rest of the story.

Yes, Hartmann is crazy.

And, driven by a mixture of resentment, jealousy, and competition, he decides to pursue Carol for a possessive relationship.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Scion Suit world, Carol’s responses are probably going to be uncomfortable to read. There is a reason behind them, as there is a reason for Hartmann’s craziness. Also, since I’ve chosen to place the camera (so to speak) behind Hartmann’s shoulder, we’re seeing Carol through his interpretation.

I’m not a cookie-cutter genre writer, and I don’t color in the lines. I write to express the human condition, and not everyone lives a sheltered and privileged life. Not everything is pretty.

Anyway, I guess I just want to give the proper context for this story. The hard part about throwing it out there is knowing that many people aren’t going to understand it. Consequently, I feel protective of both Hartmann and Carol — I’m not out to vilify or condemn anyone.

I don’t usually get so emotionally attached, but this story is special.

byautumnrain.com

The Scions

The Scions – 2b

“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.

About Me

Christmas Culture

I grew up in the sort of community where the entire month of December was dedicated to giving and receiving Christmas goodies with the neighbors. Sometimes I miss the connection of having lots of people to share with, but these days I daren’t risk offending anyone by putting both gluten and sugar in the center of their awareness — I’d never hear the end of it.

Besides, the Mormons already dislike (hate?) me enormously, and giving out treats would only make it worse. I hold the honored distinction of having been lectured by them for being too old fashioned, and that was before I discovered the joys of spinning and weaving. It’s one of those situations where there’s no possible way of winning, so it’s better to pretend they don’t exist.

The culture I grew up in is dead.

Everyone was quick to trade it in for social media dieting trends, so it wasn’t worth that much to begin with.

I’m the sort that lives life on my own terms, so I don’t sit around feeling helpless over small things. I make plenty of Christmas desserts for ourselves, full of gluten, sugar, and fat — all of those naughty things people tut-tut over. We’re happy, and that’s what matters. (We’re also healthier and more energetic than those on restrictive diets, but we don’t talk about that)

I hope that my children grow up into a better world, but in the off-chance that it doesn’t improve, we’ll still have each other.

About Me

Winter Solstice

Happy solstice everyone!

Yule is in full swing around here, and shall continue through January 1st. And, just like every other year, there’s a list of activities that I wanted to do, but didn’t have enough time to get around to, ha ha. Such is life.

Maybe I’ll be able to sneak in making some hazelnut brittle and fudge somewhere. After all, that liminal week between Christmas and New Year is perfect for a variety of activities, especially for people like me who prefer to avoid crowds.

It always makes me a little sad when the festivities are over.

For now I’m cruising on coffee and sugar, going a little bit crazy, and having the time of my life.

I love holidays.

Photo by Jay Fauntleroy on Pexels.com

Byautumnrain.com

The Scions

The Scions – 2a

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?