Carol had won the envy of the entire base by receiving the job of cleaning the Suit between uses. She would proudly enter the bunker with her soft cloths and polish, and tenderly buff away every scuff of dirt that marred the paint. Every single time, she held her breath with the anxiety that the Suit had been scratched, and she was relieved when her love revealed that it had magically held its integrity through every bombardment. No one knew where it had come from, but it had become the pride and joy of the military, and she was its sacred Keeper. She often joked that the Suit took up so much of her time and attention, she didn’t have any affection left to share with another human being.
Master sergeant Hartmann was considered to be the best pilot, and dominated the missions that were deemed to be ‘Suit worthy’ as a growing celebrity amongst the soldiers, and he reveled in the adoration that surrounded him during his off hours. However, unbeknownst to any of the higher ups and only vaguely suspected by his underlings, the cumulative effect of piloting the Suit was beginning to degrade his psychological resilience, and he was growing resentful of anyone else who touched what he was increasingly beginning to consider his own. Every time he donned the Suit, he thought about defying commands and never returning to base, certain that no one would be able to stop him if he turned renegade. Only the uncertainty of running from the military with no objective to follow kept him obedient, and his ache was a dark secret.
Brooding, he hung around to watch Carol work on his beloved Suit, and his heart stung with jealousy when he saw how tenderly she touched the metal. When she opened it up to wipe down the leather interior, he couldn’t stand it anymore; it was worse than walking in on a spouse in the thralls of another lover. He clapped his hand on her shoulder, roughly squeezed down, and growled, “You ever worn it?”
“No.” Carol winced and looked away, not daring to try to free herself. Something in his eyes wasn’t right, and she decided that it would be best to slip away as quick as she could before reporting him.
He lowered his mouth down next to her ear, and whispered with his lips brushing her skin, “Try it.”
“I’m not authorized,” she replied, tilting her head away. She scanned the bunker for anyone else to call out to, but it was lunchtime and the place was empty. Someone took her trustworthiness for granted, and only the surveillance cameras were there to keep Carol company as she worked. She felt a stab of betrayal at having been left alone.
“Do you mean to tell me that you can repeatedly strip the Suit bare, and not feel the impulse to climb inside? Go on and try it, I won’t tattle.” Hartmann’s other hand seized her upper arm, his fingertips digging in deeply enough to leave bruises. He pushed her forward, banging her head against the interior, causing her vision to flash white.
“Here, I’ll even tell you what to expect,” he said, turning her around and holding her in position with his forearm, as he kicked her legs to get her to step inside. “Don’t worry when you hear the words, ‘User unknown: booting safe mode’, because that’s what it does that for everyone. Then it will squeeze tight for a moment before it releases like a breath of fresh air, and you’ll feel like you aren’t wearing anything at all. Operating it is intuitive, so you should get the hang of it.”
He had completely lost his mind, Carol thought as she met his eyes. She was certain that he wouldn’t actually try to close her inside the Suit, knowing that it would give her the ability to turn him into a smoldering crater in a heartbeat – she counted on the idea that he didn’t know that she didn’t have the constitution to violently retaliate. He was likely trying to get her fired, and that she couldn’t allow under any circumstance.
“Let me go,” she ordered, hoping that her voice sounded strong and commanding. “I’m not authorized to use the Suit, and I will report you for misconduct.”
“You think I care?” Hartmann grabbed Carol’s chin and glared at her. “You’ll have a fatal accident long before you report anything to anyone.”
The look of sheer malevolence on his face caused her to panic, and before she knew it she had hit the button to close the Suit. Hartmann abruptly pulled his hand back with a cuss, and through the visor Carol could see that his wrist had been cut deeply, nearly severing his hand. She stayed very still, shocked and scared, wondering what she should do to get herself out of the metaphorical fire she had just jumped into. Then the interior of the Suit sprang alive with lights and the hum of circulated air, as a computer voice spoke,
“User detected: welcome back, Commander.”
Carol’s heart stopped.
Now she was really in trouble.