Dr. Halsey glanced up from her work. She sat up stiffly, moving from the hunched position she'd been in for hours now, her fingers flexing as they recovered from the nonstop typing. "Ah, Chief Petty Officer, come in."
CPO Mendez hesitated for a fraction of a second before he entered Halsey's lab. It was more of a… well, it looked more like the proverbial "man-cave," but was cluttered with empty Styrofoam coffee cups, stacks and mounds of paper, and various scientific oddities. He had to move carefully to avoid stepping on what looked like an important naval document, and almost tripped over a hidden stack of books. But Mendez had navigated the worst of battlegrounds as a soldier, and darn him if he was about to let a woman's mess upset his footing.
If her lab was a mess, it was a testament to the condition of its proprietor. Halsey's silver-shot brown hair hung down over her face in unkempt locks. She had dark rings around her eyes and thin lines that certainly hadn't been caused by laughter. Her mouth was a flat line, and her skin was pale, as if she had become imprisoned in this subterranean lair, like some cave creature. Her lab coat was stained in spots and had become wrinkled.
"Exhausted? Disgusting? Honestly, Franklin, if you were about to say 'well,' I'd have to scold you for lying," Halsey chided. She steepled her fingers in front of her face and sighed. "I must say, it's refreshing for you to come down here. I've been waist-deep in nearly a dozen projects for the last eight hours and I'm in need of a break."
Mendez stiffened somewhat when she called him by his first name. His strict military indoctrination made him resent it. But deep down, it was almost comforting. Comforting because he wasn't "Franklin" to anyone else, hadn't been for a very long time. Too long. But war and duty and dedication had swept him away from his old life and given him a new purpose. Catherine Halsey was part of that purpose. After all, she had masterminded the Spartan-II program, right down to which candidates were actually selected for training. Had handpicked him from a sea of other drill instructors, men who had higher rank and better recommendations.
So he let it slide, as he so often did, and gave a slight nod. "Then I regret to inform you I come on official business… Catherine." Her name felt awkward to say, as he was so accustomed to barking official titles and salutations. But she had said his, so why not return the favor…
"This is about the Spartans, yes?" Halsey perked up. A bit of color returned to her face. She sat back in her chair and swept a tendril of hair away from her face, placing it behind her ear. He could see his reflection in her antique glasses. "Please, tell me everything."
"They seem to be recovering just fine," Mendez said. He met her gaze, his black eyes connecting with her icy blue ones. He wondered what she saw in his. People told him he had shark's eyes, eyes that were cold and ruthless and bereft of soul. He didn't deny that claim, but still, what Halsey might think intrigued him. He might be the hard-hearted war machine, but she was inscrutable, like some sort of fickle deity, always plotting and planning and changing her mind. Now and then he would catch her off guard, get to see her real, human side, but mostly he saw this part of her, the part that processed data like an AI and resorted to pure, cruel logic. "There were a few injuries that required hospitalization, but otherwise they remain in top-notch condition. However… Tango Company has reported severe injuries, three MIAs, and the loss of over twenty attack dogs."
"Indeed," Halsey murmured. "Which children were injured?"
It sounded odd that she said "children" instead of "trainees." Perhaps her intense workload was temporarily confusing her vocabulary. "Solomon-069, Vinh-030, René-005, and Grace-093. The most serious injury was 030's fractured tibia. Quite a few cuts and bruises on the lot of 'em. I was expecting more serious casualties, to be honest," Mendez mused. "I suspect this success was a revenge-strike against Tango for its treatment of Green Team during the last field exercise."
"They use live rounds and torture methods against thirteen-year-olds," Halsey muttered, her eyes narrowing.
"Against thirteen-year-old Spartans, ma'am," Mendez reminded her. "You know as well as I do what they're capable of. The tactics employed by Tango Company may not be the most desirable, but you and I both know what happens in real war. The Insurrectionists won't be half as kind as Tango's Marines."
"I know." Halsey rubbed her forehead between her eyes. "Yes, Franklin, I've thought it over a hundred times, and yet sometimes I still wonder how they can take what we put them through."
We. The word hung heavy in the air between them, almost as tangible as the thick smoke from one of Mendez's Sweet William cigars. Mendez cocked his head a tiny fraction. Was that guilt he detected in Halsey's voice? Remorse? Or was it… fear? Fear of what? That she had become a monster? That they both had?
Mendez was rock-solid. A man of few words and much action through and through. Protocol dictated action and he followed through to the letter. But watching Halsey berate herself made his insides squirm somewhat. He wasn't afraid, not of his own feelings, not of anything. He couldn't identify what he felt, because giving it a name meant he acknowledged his own weakness. And a man who supervised the training of Spartan-IIs could afford no weakness whatsoever.
Halsey raised her head, staring out of the dark rings on her face.
"Coffee?" Mendez grunted, the best friendly invitation he could muster from the depths of his soul.
Dr. Catherine Halsey sipped down the dark, steaming liquid and leaned against the wall, relishing the flow of hot coffee down her throat. It was crap coffee, ONI coffee, but right now it tasted like the most exotic brew in the universe. Mendez drank no coffee, instead standing a few feet away like a watchdog. As if there was anything to watch for in this heavily-guarded, ultra-secure facility, but still... it amused her that a man could become so steeped in his traditions that it almost seemed ridiculous.
"You called them children instead of trainees, you know," Mendez harrumphed, turning to look at her sideways. His profile was craggy, as harsh as his voice.
"I know." Halsey lowered her cup and stared at the remaining coffee inside, swishing it around gently by moving the cup. "Now and then I… slip up and allow my emotions to override my logic." The swishing stopped and she took another sip, closing her eyes. "I must seem a silly woman to you, I suppose?"
"Never." Mendez was almost offended that she would assume that of him. "Never silly. Maybe distracted. Maybe overworked. But never silly."
The sincerity in his voice, coated though it was with grit and the DI's growl, was almost reassuring. Halsey drained her cup and paused to toss it into the tidy little metallic trash bin that sat beside the coffee table. "You may not believe it, but that's comforting. Lately I've been pulling all-nighters, alone with Déjà and my demons, and it chafes at me so. Especially with the upcoming phase in the Spartans' training. It's eating what bits of soul I haven't sold to ONI yet." She smiled humorlessly. "The procedures will be… difficult, to say the least. For the Spartans… and possibly for us, as well."
They walked side-by-side up the deserted hallway. Mendez didn't like it. But Halsey's work was of the utmost importance, so ONI had stuck her in the most isolated wing the facility had to offer so as to eliminate distractions. His brisk military stride contrasted with Halsey's measured pace, so he had to slow himself considerably for her to keep up.
When they reached the door to her office, Halsey turned to him and pushed her glasses farther up on her nose, then put her hands on her hips. "I'll be sure to stop by and personally interview the trainees on their experiences so I can compile a detailed report of their actions. I'll have Déjà retrieve all security footage relative to the incident and also the debriefings of the Tango personnel involved. Thank you for keeping me up to date; sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you, Chief." She smiled again, a weak attempt. "Having a mind like a machine can be such a bother at times. I almost forget I'm human."
Mendez straightened even more. For a moment he reminded her of Lieutenant Jacob Keyes, always stiff, always proper.
"Forgetting you're human," he said. His voice was almost soft, almost thoughtful, almost something other than his customary military bark. "That easy to do in this business, isn't it?" Suddenly the lines and scars on his chiseled face didn't make him seem fierce or proud, they made him look like a man who's seen too much and lived through too much for too long, and his black alien eyes looked less like an alien's and more like those of a haunted man. Then the moment passed and he scowled and the invisible shield came up again, masking whatever he felt beneath a layer of discipline and iron resolve. She admired him for it. That was what made him a great trainer, the only man fit for the demanding job she'd assigned him. He could live with himself no matter what happened.
If only she could be so strong.
Halsey reached out and hesitantly brushed Mendez's clenched fist with her fingertips, feeling the veins and muscles there. Then she took a step back, retreating into the recesses of her lair, and crossed her arms. "It's what we have to do," she replied, answering his question. "We've come too far to have any thoughts of turning back now. Now all we can do is see this thing through to the end… no matter the cost."
The short distance between them seemed like a yawning abyss. The word "cost" rang like a stroke of judgment in Mendez's sharp ears. Embedded in that word were several meanings. This project had already cost them both their souls. What more would be taken from them before the end?
Irrelevant. Personal satisfaction and morality paled in comparison to duty. He swept whatever qualms he had under a mental rug to join the many other hidden secrets that lay dormant there. "Yes ma'am," he answered, his tone gruff and hard.
"Anything else you'd like to say?"
"That is all, ma'am."
It was an outright lie and they both knew it, but what else was there to say? Nothing could be changed now, no deeds undone, no sins repealed. The only way out was forward. He had to go back out there and train the Spartans while she huddled in her cave and crafted the blueprints of their futures. Perhaps someday forgiveness and pardon could be sought after, but not now. Not when there was so much at stake.
So Halsey watched as Mendez marched down the hallway, his stride loping and quick, then the door of her lab cycled shut and sealed. She trudged toward her desk, having memorized where to put her feet as she walked. She reached her chair and sat down, sighing. She entered her password and her laptop displayed classified information, information on an experimental procedure called "carbide ceramic ossification."
"Doctor," a disembodied voice queried, then motes of light swirled beside her computer and formed the shape of a woman in a toga holding a clay tablet, "I do not presume that you have been harboring second thoughts, but perhaps the conversation you just had with Chief Petty Officer Mendez suggests such?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Déjà," Halsey claimed, scrolling down the list of risks and results for the augmentation. "It matters not what we might think or feel at this point. The hammer's about to come down hard, on all of us… especially the children."
"The trainees," Déjà corrected, her tone that of an admonishing schoolteacher.
Doctor Halsey gritted her teeth and resisted an impulse to send her fist smashing through Déjà's hologram, knowing it wouldn't do any good.