“Get here whenever you can, Mendy. It’s not like we have training today or anything.”
As expected, Rendez doesn’t waste any time mocking me as soon as I enter the SPO locker room. I look around to see Smittie and Rodgers waiting with him, their gear in hand.
“Holy shit, you look terrible. Get enough sleep, princess?” Smittie lays into me as soon as I hit speaking distance.
I’m not exactly sure how the moron even knows what I look like, he hasn’t taken his eyes off his weapon. He is obsessively cleaning his .40 caliber Heltzer assault rifle to the point where it’s likely to slip out of his hand as he fires.
The Heltzer is the standard issue for the SPO program, but Smittie has modified his with a shorter barrel and stock, and about a gallon of polish. Since he is the point man of the patrol, he prefers a quick draw. His modifications would make his weapon useless at a greater distance, yet perfect for tight quarters combat.
Rodgers and I have limited our modifications to magazine capacity and personalized optics. Rendez decided to attach a grenade launcher to his rifle. Why would you need a grenade launcher in a pressurized tin can in space? Because it’s fucking Rendez.
The full power of our weapons are essentially worthless on Portway, or even the Ironsides for that matter. These personal cannons are devastating on a planet, but the fact that a single stray shot could mean the death of everyone within a particular compartment complicates the situation. We are trained to only fire when we are certain we have a shot.
That’s why I don’t miss.
“He must not have heard us.” Rendez speaks up, in an attempt to land another jab. He is standing in full battle kit, looking like an asshole. Rendez isn’t the brightest amongst us.
“You know we’re just training incursion drills today, right, Rendez? We’re not executing a guerilla war.”
“The man speaks.” Rendez says joyously, “Mendoza, you know I’m always ready for war. It’s just standard issue gear, no reason to be intimidated by me.”
The only thing intimidating is Rendez’s belt size. He has forty pounds on me, and I’m no small man.
“I’m surprised you could still fit in your gear, Rendez. Your fat ass has been slowing us down for months.”
“Whatever. Go fuck yourself, Mendoza.”
In normal groups of military personnel, this kind of exchange may lead to hurt feelings or even a punch to the mouth. In the Special Protection Operations, it is just a part of the daily interaction. We may damn near kill each other in internal squabbles, but each of us would lay down his life for the man beside him without a second thought. It’s a brotherhood that can’t be explained or understood unless it’s experienced.
“Every time you boys try to bring me down, you just embarrass yourselves,” I say while patting Rendez on the back. “Why don’t you save some energy and pick on an easy victim like fat-ass-Rendez over here?”
“How about I stick my fat boot up your ass?”
“I’d love to see you try. I’d take you down and finish my first celebratory beer in sixty-three seconds.”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” They all scream in unison. It’s the most coordinated thing they have ever done without me. I think they have started rehearsing that.
“Do we really have to hear this every day?”
Sixty three seconds is the current record for the vacuum test at the SPO qualification program. The vacuum test is the first hurdle you have to make it through to even be worthy of the program. It involves throwing a group of four candidates into an air lock with self-contained battle suits stored in a nearby locker. When the alarm is given, the airlock begins to decompress and it’s a race to suit up before you run out of air. Almost every test, someone passes out before donning a suit. Once every five years, or so, someone dies. It reminds us what type of program we signed up for.
I still have the record for fastest time. My suit was on and fully pressurized in sixty-three seconds. This was no small feat considering it takes twenty seconds for the suit to self-pressurize to one atmosphere. My squad mates shrug off my record by claiming I got lucky, or the suit was somehow pressurized quicker than normal. I’d rather them think that than know it was the countless hours I spent practicing alone in my bunk, running through every detail of the drill in my head hundreds of times before the actual test. I didn’t want to just pass the test, I wanted it to be a statement as to my intention as a member of the SPO. I wanted to be remembered.
The record was thought to have been broken a couple months later. Johnny Lawhorn, a fresh eighteen-year old recruit, managed to finish the test in sixty seconds. Or at least he thought he did. It turned out poor Johnny’s seal wasn’t airtight. He discovered something was awry when he continued to lose oxygen and ended up passing out, fully suited. If he hadn’t been bragging so excessively, and telling every damn person that he was going to beat the record, I might not have felt the urge to puncture his intake valve. Two months in sickbay was the humility he needed. That’s what it means to be in the SPO. You do whatever is needed to complete the objective. Morality and ethics are illusory, only results go down in the history books.
Like my SPO instructors always used to say: ‘When the rules say you lost, you change the rules.’
Rendez still has a huge smile on his face. His big mouth gaping on his wide head makes him resemble a reptile. He must sense that I’m not in the best of moods, only fueling him further.
“Why are you late, anyway? If you need help getting out of bed, the guys and I would be happy to come down and throw you a pillow alarm.”
“I’m in.” Smittie couldn’t help himself from joining in with Rendez. He always loved the pillow alarm.
The two are alluding to a ritual in SPO selection that we used as an effective tool to weed out the undesirables. We would throw handfuls of bolts, bathing supplies, and even the odd sidearm into a pillow case and wake any shitheel by mercilessly beating him until he was bloodied enough to require a visit to the medic. The beatings continued every morning until the recruit voluntarily quit. Our victims were mostly privileged sons of high ranking military officials, or the recruits who never stood a chance of passing anyway. Fortunately, no women ever made it far enough into the program to force that decision on a class. The beatings may be frowned upon by any god or gods running an afterlife, but the greater sin would be allowing an unworthy recruit to wear the insignia of the SPO.
“Come at me with even a pillow case and I’ll cut off all your dicks, and feed them to Smittie.”
Smittie takes a beat before he finds his voice to respond.
“Calm down there, Mendoza, you know we’re just giving you shit. You’re awful delicate today. Did your mom pull her titty out of your mouth too early this morning?”
“He does look a little peckish,” Rendez adds.
Rendez is a genius. I’m going to kill this motherfucker one day.
“Just leave him alone.”
Everyone in the room stops and turns to look at Rodgers. He normally stays out of these grief sessions, so we’re all momentarily confused.
“Can’t you see this man isn’t feeling well?….Obviously, Smittie went in dry last night.”
We all burst into laughter, out of the awkwardness of Rodgers’ delivery more than anything else. With that one joke, the tension in the room is immediately dissipated.
“Don’t worry, champ, you’ll learn to like it.” Smittie says while slapping me lightly on the back.
“Mendy, if I ever say ‘watch my six’ will that send you a mixed signal?” Rodgers continues, “I don’t know if that’s some secret bedroom code.”
Fucking Rodgers coming in with the ambush shot.
Corporal Samuel Rodgers is a blonde, tall, slender man with a disproportionally large head. While a little on the thin side, he’s incredibly agile and a remarkably quick reloader. Rodgers is the perfect example that you don’t have to possess favorable genetics to make it in the SPO program. Take the universe’s greatest athlete and he would fail out of selection before an average man who refuses to quit. Rodgers possesses a will that is unrivaled in the SPO program.
Hopefully, the guys will move on to discuss things other than my tardiness.
“I didn’t see you at the NCO club last night.”
Smittie is disappointed that Rendez didn’t wingman him last night, and for good reason. Rendez isn’t classically good looking and he’s incredibly unfunny, but he does possess a charisma that does him well with both men and women. The man will fuck and be fucked by anyone and everyone who can afford to pay his bar tab.
“I was too busy getting laid last night to help you catch some dick in your mouth, Smittie,” Rendez mocks.
Mario Carlos Rendez is the shortest out of the group but in many ways the most imposing. His wide frame allows muscle to build in a way that makes him resemble a human bowling ball. He is tough as nails, a formidable grappler once the fight takes to the ground. Unfortunately, he isn’t all that smart, even by military standards. His math and physics tests during SPO qualification took a group effort to pull him through. A couple times, the instructor even left the room with the answers open on the front desk, trusting the group to decide whether or not Rendez deserved a place beside us. We chose well.
“Mendoza, what about you? Where the hell were you last night?” Smittie won’t be satisfied until he has an answer from all of us.
“Every time I hang with you idiots, the only action I get is my left hand in the shower. I like my chances by myself.”
“You’re roaming Portway Station looking for pussy by yourself? Mendy, you have no chance to bag a woman that way. It doesn’t help that you look like a serial killer with a fingernail collection. You need me by your side. The ladies love the gays. I think.”
Staff Sergeant Jonas K. Smith can be irritating, but he’s a brilliant soldier. He’s also the only non-commissioned officer in the squad. I would never tell him this, but I have a ton of respect for the son of a bitch. He just might be the smartest person on Portway. He attended Chadwick University for seven years and managed to leave with two doctorates in chemical engineering and astrophysics. Basically, he knows how to blow shit up in space. Not only did he decide to become a Marine instead of a professor, he forwent an officer commission to kick doors in with the rest of us grunts. I used to think that he made the choice for some noble reason, but now I know that he’s just like the rest of us. He doesn’t fit in anywhere else. If he wasn’t SPO, he’d be dead or in prison. I’m just glad he’s on our side.
I finish putting on my gear and load my weapon for the day’s training. I look at my squad and notice an odd mixture of aggression and affection staring back at me. Every time we train together, we become better soldiers. Stronger. Faster. We know what each other is thinking without speaking and sometimes without even looking. We move and operate as one unit. One heart. One soul. To stand against the four of us is to stand against destiny. I wouldn’t wish our wrath upon my worst enemies.