“Book learning” saw Carol in a small classroom with her military entourage. Lambert was up front, using the projector in an attempt to teach her how to read maps, while Hartmann leaned against a desk close behind her. He noted that Holmes was in the back corner furtively glancing at his phone, and simultaneously felt annoyed at the lack of discipline with the younger soldiers, yet relieved at finding a weakness he could exploit.
After an hour, the captain gave in to the despair in Carol’s eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he grumbled for Hartmann to take over, then left the classroom. Unlike Lambert, Hartmann wasn’t under any pressure to turn Carol into a soldier, so he found her ineptitude comforting – the woman had such a hard time grasping basic geography, it made sense that she only traveled by bus; if it was up to her to navigate, she’d never make it anywhere. By the end of the week, he was certain, Lambert would report that Carol was impossible to work with, and Hartmann would be back in the Suit for the mission.
“Let’s switch over to something easy,” he said, not moving from his spot. “The NATO phonetic alphabet.”
“What is that?” Carol asked, turning around to look at him.
“It’s for over the radio, to reduce potential confusion.” He grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen, and began scrawling down a series of words. “You memorize it, then use it instead of the ABCs.” A minute later, he handed the paper over to Carol, and she stared at it.
“Your handwriting it terrible,” she blurted, then turned red with embarrassment.
Hartmann grinned. “I’m a military guy, remember? It’s a miracle I even know how to write, given that my career revolves around point and kill.”
She smiled in return. “Maps and running too, apparently.”
“Words just get in the way. Why, if I picked up a book and started reading, I might get ideas in my head.” He sat down in a chair next to her and leaned towards her.
“Like what?” Carol asked, her eyes seeming huge as she looked at him.
“Like that I’m actually a person, and not a killing machine.” He jabbed his finger down onto the paper. “Alpha, bravo, charlie,” he said. “C’mon and repeat it.”
Carol repeated it, over and over, until it sounded like a sing-song. Then he moved her onto another group of letters to recite. After reaching “tango,” she randomly commented instead, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually a person, too.”
Hartmann paused, an uncomfortable lump forming in his throat. “Why do you say that?” he asked, his voice rasping a little.
“You said that we have more in common that you realized at first,” Carol answered. He hated the sincerity in her words, and the way that she looked at him earnestly. “It occurred to me that was something that we shared.”
Hartmann unconsciously clenched his hand into a fist, but forced a smile as he replied, “You’ve been thinking about what I said?”
Carol blushed deeply and turned away to stare intently at the paper, muttering, “Sorry.”
He glanced back at Holmes, ensuring that the ever present corporal was distracted with his phone, and reached over to lightly touch her fingers. “Most people don’t see through me. I didn’t expect that you’d connect the joke with what I confessed earlier.”
“I didn’t mean to, I …” Carol stuttered, then bit her lip.
“Be careful, Carol,” he said quietly. “If you keep this up, I might not be able to keep myself from liking you.”
She was red clear to her ears, and pulled her hand away as she recited, “T-tango, uniform, victor. Tango, uniform, victor.”
“All right, commander, it’s time for that push up,” the captain said calmly, and Carol looked surprised.
“Just one?” she asked.
“Just one,” Lambert repeated. “If you can manage.”
Carol stretched out on the ground with her hands propping her up, but before she started, Lambert instructed, “Lower your ass and keep your legs straight. Don’t drop your head like that. Now your ass is too low.”
Once he was satisfied with her form, Carol lowered herself down to the ground, and her face turned bright red. Her arms wobbled as she struggled to push herself back up, then her arms gave out and she dropped down to her stomach, where she buried her face in her hands to hide.
Lambert squatted down beside her. “I know that you aren’t a soldier, Carol,” he said reassuringly. “But you still need to keep trying.”
“Why?” Carol looked up, her eyes rimmed red, and she made a noise that sounded like half of a sniffle. “The Suit doesn’t require much physical strength.”
“Because a strong body makes for a strong mind, and it’s still going to be your responsibility to make snap decisions in the heat of battle. You can’t be distracted because you didn’t sleep well, or because you skipped breakfast. Understand?” Lambert answered.
Carol nodded pathetically from her position on the ground.
“Besides,” the captain added, lowering himself all the way to sit, “it’s physically strenuous to be out on a mission for ten or more hours. The Suit helps, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still human.”
“… Yes, sir,” Carol murmured, and for a moment she stared at the captain. Lambert squeezed his hand into a fist and thoughtfully pushed against the ground, then rose and gently kicked the soles of her shoes.
“C’mon and try again. You can lower your knees if you have to, but I want that ass in perfect position.”
“Yes, sir!” Carol raised herself up once again, and with some difficulty managed to complete the modified push up, the stood with a beaming smile on her face.
The whole scene was sickeningly cute.
And there wasn’t anything that Hartmann could do.
He kept his face expressionless, folding his hands together to stand at ease though his muscles still remained rigid. His mind was racing, searching for any possible way he could redeem the situation, his eyes locked on both Carol and the captain.
Lambert cast a sideways glance at the master sergeant, scowled, then muttered, “Don’t be too proud of yourself, commander. Any man could do better.”
The corners of Carol’s mouth abruptly turned downwards, and she also looked over at Hartmann, no doubt thinking of the day before when he had shown off by clapping in between his push ups. “Yes, sir,” she answered monotonously.
Lambert looked down at his watch, and said, “Break for lunch, then we’ll start on your book learning. I’ll get corporal Holmes to escort you to the mess hall.”
“I’ll take her, sir,” Hartmann interjected. “The corporal can meet us there.”
Lambert’s scowl deepened. “Fine.” He spoke into the radio from his belt, then nodded to Hartmann. Without looking at Carol, he turned to walk towards the building. He stopped before entering the double doors, glanced back to ensure that Lambert had gone in the direction of his office instead, then grinned at Carol as he placed his hand on her shoulder.
“Good job,” he said.
She looked at him with earnest eyes and asked, “You really think so?”
“Absolutely. You pushed yourself out there, and you did much better today.” Hartmann opened the door and held it as Carol walked through.
“The captain was right though,” she mumbled, then bit her lip.
“Everyone starts somewhere.” Hartmann shrugged. “Don’t take the things he says too personally. He’s your commanding officer, and it’s his job to keep you motivated to produce results. He’s going to be a jerk to you no matter what.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” Carol answered slowly.
“Welcome to the military.” Hartmann stopped just inside the mess hall and gestured towards one of the tables. “May I join you, or are you going to chase me off again?”
“No, it’s fine.” Carol’s cheeks turned pink as she became flustered. “Where’s Holmes?”
Hartmann quickly scanned the large room. “He’s not here yet.”
Carol hesitated, looked around as well, then blurted, “What gives? Why are you being nice to me after calling me a bitch and telling me to quit my job?”
He had known that he would have to face that question sooner or later, but he hadn’t yet come up with a perfect answer that would erase any doubts in Carol’s mind. Hartmann frowned, knowing that if he dodged the question or failed to give a satisfactory reply, it would permanently harm his chances with her. When his mind was still blank after several seconds, he replied truthfully, “I was jealous of you.”
Carol was taken back. “Why?”
“You know the Suit better than I do.” Hartmann’s eyes found Holmes on the other side of the mess hall, so he added quickly, “I still am, too.”
“So why are you being nice?” She repeated.
“Because … we have more in common than I realized.” He strode forward to meet the corporal, aware of Carol’s gaze fixed on him. Good, he thought. It was about time that she had begun to notice him in return.
Lambert was a lot more strict with Carol’s physical training than Hartmann had been. She was still fatigued from the previous day’s exercise, and moved with the stiff sluggishness of sore muscles, but the captain was determined to not ease up on her. Hartmann remained silent as Lambert informed Carol that he wanted her to jog for the entire mile, then took up his position in the rear with the other two side by side in front of him.
While Lambert hadn’t directly ordered him to tag along, he hadn’t dismissed him, either. Hartmann wasn’t going to leave Carol alone with the captain when he had a choice in the matter, feeling oddly fearful that the other man would have no trouble in snatching her away.
Hartmann had never been in an actual relationship before. While he carried himself with all the bravado of a stud, he didn’t know if he had what it took to entice a woman to stay with him for longer than a night. He was empty – yet Carol’s blandness echoed that emptiness back to him, and made his heart ache for someone to share it with. Especially with how unapologetic and open she was about her nature.
Lambert was a real person, and could easily win against a life-sized action figure.
When they finished the first lap, he overheard Lambert murmur, “Good. Keep going.” He watched as Carol looked up at the captain and smiled. He traced back through his memories to figure out if she had smiled at him the day before.
He wanted to insert himself, to steal the moment away from the captain, but he had nothing to say.
Then Carol’s strength gave out. She halted and bent over, pressing her hand into her side as she gasped for breath.
Lambert faced her and gently urged, “Just one more lap.”
She shook her head and protested, “I’m going to throw up.”
“All right then, we’ll walk. But you are going to finish the full mile, Carol.”
“I can’t!” she snapped angrily.
Hartmann felt a lump form in his throat, from both shock and amazement. He hadn’t expected her to bite like that, especially at her commanding officer. She was too mousy, too obedient, to behave like that. Lambert, on the other hand, didn’t seem surprised at all.
He barked, “Get your lazy ass moving, commander!”
His words cut through to her, and she yelped, “Yes sir!” and began jogging again, her face turning an even deeper shade of red.
Lambert took up his position in front of her, moving backwards so he could face her. “When you cross that finish line, you’re going to drop and give me a push up as punishment for talking back to your superior. When I tell you to finish the mile, you finish it on your hands and knees with vomit trailing down your chin if that’s what it takes, do you understand?”
Hartmann couldn’t make any moves with Lambert watching. He remained in the background, observing but not participating, waiting patiently. Carol slowed down to an awkward gait, holding her side as she walked, her eyes fixed directly at her own feet. She didn’t notice when she crossed the finish line or when the captain stopped, and she would have bumped into Lambert if Hartmann hadn’t quickly reached out to catch hold of her arm. He let go quickly, and avoided Lambert’s narrowed eyes.
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.
The best course of action came to him in the middle of the night. Hartmann had seduced the bar chick by playing coy, but she was the exact opposite of Carol in many ways – such a tactic would backfire if he tried it. Carol, the woman who had perfected invisibility to survive, needed to be seen.
If he acted distant or kept her waiting, she would fade away before he had the chance to make his move. He needed to keep her in his sights. He needed to let her know beyond a doubt that he had seen her.
So, the next morning when he rejoined Carol and captain Lambert, he gave her a warm smile. “Hello,” he said. “Are you rested up for more training?”
She nodded, answered, “Yes, master sergeant,” and looked up to meet his eyes. He noticed the fleck of green in her otherwise brown eyes, and thought about how appropriately they matched her. There was something about Carol that was easy to pass over, that hinted at something colorful inside of her, that he was only now beginning to see after all the time he had spent watching her. Hartmann liked her eyes, and only after Lambert gruffly ordered her to approach him did he realize that he had been staring.
“Let’s get this radio on you,” Lambert said, clipping the receiver onto her shirt. “We’re going to practice some maneuvers in the Suit today.”
“Yes, sir.” Carol climbed the ladder up to the cockpit of the Suit, then hesitated and glanced back at Hartmann. He nodded.
“Corporal Holmes is bringing the jeep around for us,” Lambert said quietly to Hartmann. “I want to see how she handles the Suit while we transition outside.”
“She should do much better today, sir,” Hartmann answered, somewhat reluctantly. “Provided that she doesn’t forget how much bigger she is.”
Lambert lifted the radio to his mouth and pressed the button as he asked, “Carol, are you settled?”
“Good. We’re going back out to the airfield, where you will be drilled on the essential skills of running and stopping.”
There was something redundant in Hartmann’s presence. As the top pilot, he knew that he belonged there to offer his expertise, but there wasn’t anything new for him to say; Carol was the one who had full access to the Suit, while he had merely mastered the demo version; he had no clue how much more the Suit was capable of. With Lambert coaching her through the drills, Hartmann was left to sit and watch.
“Is that all, sir?” Carol asked, sounding surprised.
“It’s harder than you think, commander.” Lambert shook his head. “Go on and get your ass outside.”
“This is all unorthodox,” Hartmann muttered as they watched Carol precede them through the giant double doors. “I suppose that we aren’t going to bother with teaching her how to stand at attention and salute.”
Lambert shook his head. “Carol is … the classified radical faction in the military. We can skip building her identity as a soldier and go straight into the specifics of what she needs to know.”
“Like how to take out the enemy without blowing up a hospital in the process.” Hartmann smirked. “We’re in trouble, sir.”
“I know.” Lambert lifted the radio up and spoke into it, “Okay, Carol. There’s a mile marker painted on the ground out there. I want you to run as fast as you can, then stop precisely on it without overshooting.”
“Yes, sir,” Carol replied, then took off.
Corporal Holmes was ready with the jeep, so Hartmann waited until they were both settled in their seats with the younger soldier as a witness before he said, “You need to teach her proper radio protocol, instead of using it like you’re chatting on the phone to your girlfriend … sir.”
Lambert’s jaw twitched, and his face turned the slightest bit red. Holmes silently chuckled. “You’re right,” he admitted quietly, then cleared his throat. “She’s going to need to know how to communicate efficiently.”
As they approached in the jeep, Hartmann said, “Looks like she overshot,” and pointed to where the Suit was standing some distance away from the marker.
“Dammit,” Lambert growled, then said into the radio, “Carol, you’re way off. Over.”
“I’m sorry, sir. When I tried to stop, my feet just kept going on their own,” she replied.
“When you’re done speaking, you need to be in the habit of saying over.” Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You know about stopping distance with driving a car, right? Over.”
“No, sir. I’ve always ridden the bus.” There was a pause, then Carol quickly added, “Over?”
“Of course she wouldn’t know,” Lambert muttered to himself. “That would be too convenient.”
Hartmann took the radio. “MSG Hartmann here. Bigger objects like the Suit get a lot of momentum going, especially when you’re moving fast. If you want to stop on target, you need to start slowing down before you reach it. Try again, now. Over.”
Lambert scowled. With his little comment, Hartmann had put the captain in the position of becoming self-conscious about how he treated his subordinate, and it was starting to eat at him. Especially with corporal Holmes silently bearing witness.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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,
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?
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.