“Franklin Mendez, I’ll be damned.”
Lora Park maneuvered her way through the chaotic room towards his familiar face. Various crates and weapons had been tossed about the cargo bay in the ships last maneuver to outrun a Covenant vessel. It had been a year since the human-Covenant war ended, yet splinter factions remained wreaking havoc on the UNSC and its allies. The grizzled SCPO knelt next to a dented weapons locker. She watched, arms crossed, as he latched the module locker to the floor. The old smell of Sweet Williams drifted from the cigar firmly planted between his lips.
“I see some things never change,” she mused.
Mendez let out a light huff, then secured the last latch and rose to meet her, “Lora,” he said as he appraised her, “What’s a spook like you doing here?”
She gave him a warm smile, he was every bit the soldier she remembered, “I heard about your retirement, wanted to congratulate you myself.”
Mendez gave a curt nod, “Keep that to yourself,” he dropped his voice low and calm as he cast a glance at the nearby group of Spartans.
Lora couldn’t hide her amusement, “They can hear us whether you whisper or not chief.”
“Yeah, they can hear everything, but they’re not listening. So, let’s not give them a reason to,” his words were muffled by his signature cigar as he gave her a pointed look. Lora replied with a soft hum, studying the hard edges of his face. It never ceased to amaze her how he could be so in tune with the Spartans when they were encased in their armor.
Lora followed his gaze to the Spartans. There were five in the cargo bay helping secure some of the heavier gear. It appeared that no task was too small for Spartans.
“Seems like the cleaning crew got an upgrade,” she gave him a smirk, “didn’t know they made Spartans scrub the deck.”
Mendez let out a snort, “They’re required to help like all other enlisted personnel.” In all the years they worked together on the Spartan programs that snort was the closest she’d seen him come to a laugh, but it was undercut by the way he looked at them. There was guilt in his eyes.
Lora recognized the three larger II’s; 104, 087, and 058 if she was remembering the tags correctly. The two smaller ones had to be IIIs, probably B259 and B091 or Tom and Lucy – they never strayed far from the chief after leaving Onyx. But in truth, Lora couldn’t be sure. She had been the liaison between ONI, Mendez and Doctor Halsey throughout the Spartan II program, and then later took up the same role for the Spartan IIIs, but her involvement had diminished with the Covenant advancement. Seeing them now it was almost laughable, watching heavily armored Spartans cleaning up a mess felt odd. No one expected them to clean. As far as everyone else was concerned Spartans were meant for killing- nothing more.
Lora gave him a knowing look, Spartans could be excused from non-combat duties in preparation for future missions. He seemed to understand what she was thinking and shrugged, “They want to help.” She respected him enough to not push the matter. During both Spartan programs they had gotten along well enough, she let him do his job and he didn’t interfere with her reports; she took it as a sign of his guilt. At the time, what they were doing seemed necessary, and perhaps it was- but it took a toll.
Lora nodded, “That’s fair enough.” Mendez remained rigid, but the tension in his shoulders dropped with her words. They stood in a comfortable silence surveying the scene before them. Six marines struggled to push a large metal crate. Its sides were dented and scratched revealing the silver beneath the drab military green paint. They grunted and pushed only to move the box half a foot. The two Spartan IIIs approached, and the marines stopped. They gathered around the crate as if they aimed to protect it from the approaching Spartans.
“It doesn’t look like they want help,” Lora stated. The chief only grunted in response, clearly unamused.
The marines were waving the two Spartans off, tossing all manner of insults at them. They sneered calling them robot and freak while telling them to piss off. The Spartans larger counterparts came to attention, leaving their boxes of ammunition. All three stopped. There was a moment before the largest of the group directed the other two to continue stacking and began to approach the two IIIs in distress. It was 104, Fred, one of the 4 emerging leaders of the SII program. While Halsey placed her money on John as Mendez had done with Kurt; Lora had taken a liking to Fred and believed that he would make an excellent leader.
A sudden shift in the ship’s direction caused the large crate to shift. The Spartans braced themselves, spreading their weight to avoid falling. Lora reached out and grabbed Mendez’s arm and he did the same. They steadied themselves against one another. Others were not so lucky. The ship continued to bank hard to the left and the crate slid from its place threatening to crush anyone in its way. Within the blink of an eye, all five Spartans were on the box. Each stood several feet apart holding it along two of its worn faces keeping it in place.
The whole ordeal was over in less than a minute, yet chaos had broken out in the cargo bay once again. Some had been injured by debris that had not yet been stowed, others cursed looking at the damage around them. Mendez broke away and started barking orders to ‘lock it down.’ Much to Lora’s amazement the same IIIs that had been berated by the Marines were offering their hand in helping the very same men and women to their feet. One man sneered and turned from the small III, the private however hesitantly took the Spartans hand and thanked them quickly before rushing off.
The marines returned to the crate, all their previous work now undone they stood there dejected. The Spartans not far off, but far enough to avoid any more conflict.
“What are you standing there looking at it for? Think if you stare at it long enough, you’ll get it to move? Get your asses in gear marines!” Mendez barked. The marines let off a resounding ‘yes sir!’ before turning back to the crate.
One brave marine stepped forward, “Chief this thing must weigh a ton, we’ve gotta get a mantis to move it.”
“Most of our gear’s in for repair,” Mendez gave the young man a passive look, “you’ve got help,” he nodded to the Spartans standing by, “so make damn use of it.” They looked to the Spartans then back to Mendez as if they thought he was joking.
Spartan 104 stepped forward, “We would be happy to help.” Lora was shocked by how deep voice was. She had never considered the Spartans children, couldn’t, but hearing his voice slammed home the fact that they weren’t 14 anymore.
Mendez gave them an expectant look. The short blond corporal spoke first, “Alright robot get over here, let’s see what you guys can do.” With that Mendez left them brushing past Lora. She turned and followed on his heel, “You should be proud of them…” He gave her a short indifferent grunt while stepping up to a terminal. The man’s gruff attitude certainly hadn’t changed.
Lora looked back to see that 104 and the two Spartan IIIs were helping to push the crate into place. They seemed to effortlessly move the cumbersome box.
“You should… be proud that is,” she pressed. Mendez shook his head and began to tap at the screen of the terminal, “Yeah, they’re really something. The best the UNSC has to offer.”
Lora sensed his sarcasm, “That’s not what I meant.” That seemed to get his attention. He peeled his eyes from the ships manifesto and locked eyes with her like he was trying to see through her.
A sad smile passed her lips, “Look at them.” Lora turned to attention back to the marines and Spartans working together. Some of the marines pushed beside the Spartans, though it was clear that the Spartans were doing most of the heavy work, yet they never barked at the marines or told them to get out of the way. Instead, 087 and 058 directed each person telling them how they could assist properly, while they guided the crate. There was no malice or disdain in their voices.
Lora turned back to look the chief in the eye, “They’re kind and they’re patient. It’s a damn shame we won’t have you around to teach the next group of IVs.”
“I’ve done enough,” Mendez said his voice like gravel.
There it was again, his guilt, “You trained them well. You taught them to be good people, don’t hate yourself for that.”
Mendez stood stock still chewing on his cigar as he watched his Spartans. He seemed to have something to say. Lora cast him a quizzical look, “Throw me a bone here chief, I can’t read your mind remember.”
“You mean to tell me ONI hasn’t figured that one out,” this time it was her time to let out an amused snort and looked at him expectantly.
Mendez gave her a sideways glance, “They are good people, always have been,” he turned to her to pin her with a hard stare, “What are you really doing here?”
Lora smiled a genuine smile. He caught her, but he didn’t need to know that, “Just like I said, I came to give my congratulations.”
The look on his face told her that he didn’t believe a word she said, “Awfully kind of you.”
Lora continued to give him a warm smile. She might have ulterior motives, but that didn’t mean her words weren’t true, “Good luck chief,” she extended her hand and he took it giving her a firm handshake, “we’ll be in touch.”