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WASHINGTON STATE 1995

 

 

It’s one of those nights that’s more red than blue, pale and deafeningly still. Even out on the backroads the Washington sky is bright with light pollution, overcast and the same color as the thin crust of snow that came down all afternoon, got close to melting, and then froze solid as soon as the sun set. It glitters in the headlights of her Nissan Patrol, cracks under the tires as she swings over the center line to take a curve. The AWD is brand new, boosted straight out of the long-term lot at Sea-Tac International. After years of driving battered rovers– or, more recently, running alongside them– the Patrol handles like a dream, even in this weather. With the heat and the radio on full blast against the icy silence outside, back in the First World after a lifetime spent in war zones and wilderness, she feels like she could win the Indy 500.

Quiet pulls a cigarette from the box crushed in the cup holder and lights it, lets it burn between her teeth. Her coat’s crumpled on the passenger seat, under a map that’s folded the wrong way, a cassette tape, and her old Delta. She’s not carrying a rifle, not this time. This is– it’s not exactly leave, and it’s not an op, it’s–

“-a favor?"

Pequod is halfway through the preflight for his Hind and holding a vial of crystal-clear fuel up to the light, checking for grit or water or whatever.  The hangar is sheltered, cool where the desert sun hasn’t yet bled in from the open bifold door, and Quiet’s been shifting around trying to stay in the shade. Right now she’s on a workbench between a nest of stained rags and a scattered wrench kit, one leg drawn up under her.

“Mm?”

“Yeah.” He tosses the fuel out in the gutter. “Can you get me the flashlight?”

Quiet untangles herself, twists around to look for it. Freak perfect vision has a whole lot of advantages but parsing clutter isn’t one of them. She’s never seen the hangar in anything less than a state of supreme organized chaos– the Boss allows anything that keeps Outer Heaven running like the well-oiled machine it is, and Pequod swears up and down that he and the rest of the pilots and the ground crew all work better this way. She finds the flashlight next to her foot.

“Thanks,” Pequod catches it easily, one-handed, and buries himself in the Hind’s guts. “So, anyway, this… uh. Vacation. Where are you going, again?”

She frowns, follows him as he circles around to the far side of the gunship. She’s had days off, sure, in a decade that’s spanned the Seychelles to South Africa, but the last time she went off base by herself– really by herself– for anything other than a mission was in 1984. There’s nothing for her out in the land of the living.

“I know I’m taking you as far as Johannesburg, but–“

Quiet puts a hand on his shoulder so he looks up from the tangle of torque stripes and wires and shuts up for a second. She wasn’t planning on explaining herself to anyone– her formal request for leave is bullshit, says something about Morocco and then the Czech Republic– but Pequod trusts her and he likes to play along with her bad ideas and that’s a two-way street.

She signs one word at him. It’s all he needs to see.

“Oh. Shit.”

–it’s for her own peace of mind. Venom Snake doesn’t know she’s here. She doesn’t have a US passport anymore. Only a handful of the Intel operatives have been issued fakes on a case by case basis subject to review, but that’s a nonissue when you can go invisible. That, and–

“He’ll listen to you.”

Her cigarette’s burned down to the filter so Quiet stubs it out on the dash, wishes she could inhale properly, misses V’s cigars. The smoke has settled in her skin. Yeah. The Commander listens to her.

 

 

NAKHON RATCHASIMA 1985


 

Ever so rarely, that man in a billion is born

Gentle and soft but who’d just as soon–

 

–I’m looking out over that Golden Gate bridge on another gorgeous sunny Saturday and I’m seein’ that bumper to bumper traffic–

 

–will find a way, and I will have you

Like a butterfly

A wild–

 

Quiet gives up and switches off the music, settles back against the copilot’s seat with her hands folded behind her head. She owes her life to pirate radio, probably would’ve dropped dead of sheer boredom without it, but today the lyrics are rattling around her skull like rimfire casings and all she can stand to listen to is the rhythm of the Blackfoot’s rotors against the wind. They’re four hours out from Forward Operating Base Andaman, a rapidly-expanding ocean platform off the southernmost tip of Burma and property of the Diamond Dogs since last September, but it’ll be another six before they’re anywhere near their next destination– and that’s with Queequeg gunning it. At Hong Kong, they’ll board a jet to Sapporo, where– fingers crossed– another helo is parked in a hangar waiting to fly north across the Sea of Japan to Okhotsk. It’s a miserable fucking itinerary.

It’s also her first semi-solo op as– get this– Major Quiet. An official rank all her own. Overkill, really, since this is just escort detail. Babysitting. With any luck the trip will be relatively mundane and one-hundred-percent uneventful–

–and that explains exactly why she’s so on edge. She can literally– literally– take out a Soviet patrol unarmed with both hands tied behind her back, can step on a Claymore and walk it off, but she has no fucking clue how to deal with her commanding officer when they’re not being shot at. 

“–the security setup at Andaman works great, for what it is. But you’re disregarding all the insurgent activity in–“

Commander Miller is on the floor, his back against the jumpseat Venom Snake usually occupies, with spreadsheets and personnel files fanned out around him on every available surface. He’s been on a conference call with the Base Development team leads for the past hour and a half.

“Yeah, I know it’s the launch point for our best combat division. The key word there is launch point. They’re not hanging around protecting the research facility. I– what, you want our biofuel tech in the hands of the Chinese? Or fucking Merryweather? Tell that to Heron. Better yet, tell it to Marv–”

Quiet closes her eyes behind her sunglasses. If she focuses on the blinding sun and the sound of the engine, Miller’s voice fades to the background and she can almost forget he’s her responsibility until they set down back in the Seychelles. The whole operation is, she suspects, Ocelot’s idea of a sick joke. The Commander refused to take a security team– they’d attract unwanted attention at a civilian airport– and V refused to let him off base with only a pilot for company. Ocelot had been more than ready to cut in with an objectively reasonable solution guaranteed to piss everyone off.

So, here she is. Riding along on the overdue first annual inspection of the Diamond Dogs FOBs as Miller’s handler and suffering from what’s starting to become a permanent migraine.

“–talk to the Boss about resource allocation. This needs to move forward, so– yes, pull in some of your contacts in Iran and Cambodia and we’ll get to work. No. We are not bringing… South Africa… into this. Forget it. That’s a separate venture for now. Yeah. I’ll get back to you. Miller out.”

Quiet turns around in time to see Miller unhook his headset. It gets caught on his aviators and he untangles himself from the mess with a sharp sigh.

“What?”

His eyes are clearer, these days. Right now they’re rimmed in red and black, puffy from lack of sleep, but his pupils are bright and the parasite stain sinks easily under his skin as he watches her. Andaman was stiflingly humid and he’s still dressed down for it, barefoot, shirtless, reeks of sweat and ripe fruit. There’s mango juice drying on his chin.

What?” Miller’s bristling. She climbs out of her seat, ignores the crinkle of paper under her feet as she pads over to him. “Hey, watch it–“

Quiet pauses, arches her eyebrows. If he didn’t want anyone to step on his shit

Miller gets the hint. He growls under his breath and starts cleaning up his makeshift office. She makes no move to help him, sits cross-legged with her canteen as he loses patience with arranging the files in any kind of order, shoves them aside. There’s a streak of coppery blood across one of the spreadsheets and he puts his finger in his mouth, sucks the papercut dry. His eyes keep flicking up to her.

“Would it kill you to put on a shirt?” Miller snaps.

Really?

With nowhere to be right this second, she’s stripped to her underwear and a pair of shades. She has to fight hard to keep her poker face, because, yeah, it would kill her to put on a shirt. Or at least, it would make it difficult to breathe and she’s uncomfortable enough as it is. He knows this. Quiet clicks her teeth.

“There’s such a thing as mesh, y’know,” he says haltingly. “I… R&D can look into that. Real fatigues.”

Quiet stops in the middle of unscrewing her canteen, genuinely surprised. She hasn’t thought about proper gear once since she stepped out of the XOF safehouse. No call for a standard uniform when you’re next to indestructible and photosynthetic. But if she’s going to have a standing rank with the Diamond Dogs, she may as well–

“You’re a distraction.”

fucking forget about it. Quiet smirks, lets Miller sweat as she stretches, rolls her shoulders, makes a show of the way her muscles sometimes flex and shine through her skin. She’s been running ops with Venom Snake for over a year now and he’s never had an issue with getting distracted. Not by her, anyway. If Miller’s distracted, he’s more than welcome to feel sorry for himself all he wants and jack it in the Hong Kong hotel room later. That’s not her fucking problem.

…Except, if she ever wants to be more than the Boss’s attack dog, if she wants to do more than go there, shoot that, she’s going to have to prove she can be trusted off-leash, and that means Miller’s libido and his bad attitude are her problem.

It hasn’t escaped her that he’s trying, in his way, to treat her like any other soldier, but it’s like harnessing a wild wolf to a team of sled dogs. Ill-advised, and pretty fucking futile. Which is probably what’s pissing him off the most, out of everything– Miller is, after all, the two-legged swing dog in that metaphor and as riddled with parasites as she is.

Well– they’ve mapped out this common ground before and no one died. No reason they can’t try again. Right?

She pours water from the canteen into her hand, wipes it over her face, then reaches for Miller’s wrist. He recoils instinctively but she’s too fast, and he’s got nowhere to go. His skin is hot and sticky and his shoulder cracks as she pulls him in.

“Hey

Quiet twists his arm, pours more lukewarm water into the hollow of his palm. He swallows, goes stock-still. His pulse is hammering beneath her fingers. The roar of the rotor is deafening. When she lets him go, Miller glowers at her, licks his lips, presses his hand to his mouth. The water runs down his neck and pools in the hollow of his collarbone, glistens in the sun. 

“If you’re like this with the Boss–”

She isn’t. With Venom Snake, she only ever has to be Quiet. The language they speak is built on shared silence, on gunshots and static on the radio, a binary system of affirmative and negative. It’s lost on a man like Miller. If she’s all bite, he’s all bark, so– yes, she has to get creative. It’s the conversational equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight and winning.

He exhales, slowly.

That’s right. Breathe.

She opens her mouth– doesn’t say a word, just opens it– and the moment shatters. Miller jerks away all at once, winces as the motion causes his shitty prosthesis to twist wrong and dig into the stump of his leg. He shoves his fingers through his hair, presses his back to the sliding cargo door, rests his forehead against the warm glass. Sighs. Stares eight thousand feet down. The sun is setting and the jungle below is streaked with pearly fog.

Mist.

“Hey…” He begins again, and he’s calm, this time. Unfocused. “When you’re on the edge… up high, like this. You scared that you’ll fall, or that you’ll jump?”

A shudder ripples through her body as she takes in the last few drops of water. Miller was in that helicopter crash in ’75, over the Caribbean, but he’s had a decade to get over it– and he doesn’t look tense, now. Just pensive.

“They say everyone’s afraid of one or the other.”

She honestly hasn’t thought about it, not since she fell through that hospital window in Cyprus. Now she can keep her balance, land on her feet.

“It’s bullshit,” Miller agrees. “Just don’t fucking jump, am I right?”

 

 

WASHINGTON STATE 1995

 

 

Quiet parks the Nissan off the shoulder, right under a red-on-white sign that reads DANGER: OFF LIMITS: US GOVERNMENT MILITARY TRAINING AREA, starts humming a measure of Danger Zone as she pulls on her coat and straps her thigh holster back together. 

The cold is a convenient excuse for the solid minute she spends with her fingers on the key before she kills the ignition.

The cold hits her like a charge from V’s stun arm, winds her up taut as a garrote wire. She forces herself to remember it’s barely sub-zero, nothing compared to a real North American winter– like what you’d run into in Alberta, or Alaska– grits her teeth, curls her fists under her cuffs, and runs.

She crashes through the underbrush at a pace that leaves a trail of powder and pine needles and churned-up mud in her wake. The chainlink fence that marks the perimeter of the compound is tall, rough with ice. Quiet falters, takes in the snarl of barbed wire and the soft whine of an electric current, and phases straight through it. Past the fence is a field, pitted with bootprints and knots of dead dry grass. Her coat snaps behind her in the wind, and she hunches over, pops her collar and pulls a red beret from her pocket down over her ears. It’s reasonable to assume the security cameras use thermal imaging, so rather than stay invisible, she just stays out of the floodlights.

The US Government has been hard-pressed to keep up with the spread of private forces and so has managed to drain an impressive defense budget out of Congress. The War on Drugs has been abandoned for a war on global militarization. There are training facilities like this all over the country, but only a select few focus on spec ops and only one employs a man named McDonnell Benedict Miller.

And, of course, there’s only one FOXHOUND.

The central compound is a grid arranged around a brutalist eyesore of a building that’s classically northwestern and clearly the HQ. Quiet blends right in, gets past blocks of barracks and a really nasty obstacle course with her paramilitary getup and her purposeful stride and by keeping her distance from anyone who’d notice that she’s next to naked under her overcoat. Not that she’s so out of place here– like XOF in the seventies and eighties, FOXHOUND is all international black ops rejects and failed experiments, balanced out with a certain quota of exceptional all-American jarheads. And, in a roundabout way, she works here, too. She’s not above pulling her Big Boss card to get what she came for.

That’s a last resort, though, so when she rounds a corner and finds herself staring down the lens of a blinking security camera, she pivots on her heel and slips back into an alley between a storage area and what might be a shooting gallery. The path is flooded with brittle, half-frozen mud that sticks to her boots like glue.

“Isn’t this below your pay grade?”

It takes everything she has not to go for her gun.

“Hellmaster” Miller is leaning against a shipping container, looking right at home, looking for all the world like he’s been expecting her. Maybe he has. His aviators are like panes of black ice in the dark. “The operation must be hard up if Sn– if Venom’s got his top officers playing spy versus spy again.” Kaz almost smiles, swallows it like broken glass. “Are you here for him, or for me?”

So he’s been waiting for someone to come and cap him for the last five years. Quiet holds up her hands, waits for him to realize that if she wanted to kill him, she’d be a thousand yards away and he’d already be bleeding out.

Don’t flatter yourself, she signs, just in case Kaz has learned ASL since his Diamond Dog days.

He hasn’t. No reason to.

“Oh, wait– don’t tell me. Fucking Sha-la-shas-ka couldn’t be fucked to do it himself. I get it.”

She won't dignify that with a response.

Kaz straightens, takes a step towards her. He’s still sporting a limp but his stance is solid.

Balanced.

He’s never been a match for her.

Quiet loops an arm around his neck before he can make a move, pulls him into a mean, sloppy excuse for a hug and that’s when it really, ha, hits her that he’s got a right arm. She takes a metal elbow to the face before she gets him pinned against the shipping container with one hand. 

“Fuck,” Kaz says. He’s laughing, breathing hard, sounds only slightly hysterical. “Quiet, you–“

She grins through the torrent of blood pouring from her broken nose, spits a tooth at him.

“You look good.”

 

 

HONG KONG 1985

 

 

“You look good.”

They have a fifteen hour layover in Hong Kong. Queequeg left them on a helipad sixty-four stories up, on the roof of a cylindrical skyscraper that’s the tallest building in Wan Chai and, according to Miller, belongs to a property mogul he’s owed a favor since 1980.

Quiet’s doing her hair in the mirrored elevator that’s taking them to street level, comb in hand, bobby pins between her teeth. Makeup’s not an option– clogs her pores, tastes like shit– but she’s changed into a tactically revealing black minidress and  heels that give her an extra four inches up on Miller. She looks like your standard slut ready to hang off the arm of any executive with enough zeroes tacked on his offshore bank balance– in this case, Miller, who does actually run a multibillion dollar global franchise and for once has dressed the part, sans shave or shower.

She cranes her neck to check her work, pulls a strand of hair loose so it falls in front of her ear and covers a mark on her jawline from a landmine in Zaire, fixes her posture so it’s less soldier, more trust fund nympho. Not great, but– good, yeah. She’ll take it. There’s nothing to be done about the ropy scar down her neck, her muscle tone, the rest of their various, obvious war wounds. There’s no room under her dress for a weapon, either, but she knows where Miller keeps his pistol, can draw it faster than he can. Quiet turns to him, starts fastening the empty sleeve of his suit to his shoulder.

“What’re you– oh.“

Quiet smiles thinly and coils her arm around his waist, ignores his hiss of indignation, draws back to survey their combined effect in the mirror. It’s patently ridiculous and therefore passable, no better or worse than anyone else fresh off the red eye from JFK.

“Fine,” Miller sighs, flips one of her dress straps so it stops twisting like a spandex corkscrew. “Ready to hit the town?”

Hitting the town means a quick taxi through midnight traffic to Central, it means Miller lying, badly, to an apathetic bellboy about the ultra high-impact copolymer case that holds Quiet’s rifle (“Film equipment,” he’d said). It means sunglasses at night and draping herself over the lacquered reception desk at the Mandarin Oriental while Miller checks them in under a pair of fake names and charges it to a credit card.

They come off like a couple of highbrow pornographers with a stake in the amputee fetish market.

“Fucking Ocelot.” Miller’s all pissy again by the time they get to the bar, the direct result of jet lag, paranoia, the hotel bill, and now, Revolver Ocelot. Intel is in charge of handling shit like hotel reservations and a tacky five-star establishment like this isn’t beyond the scope of the Diamond Dogs. Miller’s signed as many contracts in villas as ditches in the desert, but as far as she knows they don’t have any dinner dates set up with the local warmongers.

Maybe that’s why he's glaring at his cute pink vodka/choujiu cocktail and not at the sparkling skyline that crowns Victoria Harbor, or the array of corrupt spoiled beautiful people that are still here even though the server told Miller, in a hushed, apologetic tone, that the bar is closing in ten minutes.

“Sure you’re set?” Miller pulls himself, with great effort, out of his one-man pity party and knocks back half his drink in one go.

Quiet puts a finger to his lips, watches him swallow as her parasites burn. Vodka isn't something she can handle anymore. A trickle of her blood runs down his chin and she wipes it away, licks her hand clean before he remembers to exhale. Miller’s nostrils flare and he pushes a tiny black cocktail napkin towards her, looking everywhere but her mouth. He's bright red already.

“Oh, thanks. Really. Just what I–“

“This guy isn’t bothering you, right?”

She can see the man reflected in Miller’s aviators from the neck down- he’s in a sweat-stained silver silk suit and a tie that’s come loose, revealing the fringe of a faded tattoo. His voice sounds handsome and when she turns around he is, if you like your Eurotrash cocky and harmless and high. He can't be over thirty. 

Miller sighs, reflexively finishes his drink. “She’s with me.”

“And anyone can see you’re boring her to death."

He's got his hand on her thigh. It's appallingly soft, tastes vaguely of baking soda, and his eyes water when she twists his arm up onto the bar. Miller yawns. “Hands where I can see them... by the way– fuck off?”

“No, hey– let her speak for herself!” His manicured fingers twitch helplessly. He's getting nervous, now that he's noticed the scars, the shades, Miller's missing arm, his good one around her waist, but he's too wound up to do anything about it.  Stays frozen, eyes blown and unblinking. Hypocrite. 

“You know what they say about actions and words."

“I–“

“Let him go,” Miller suggests. His breath is hot in her ear. “We’re on vacation.”

She opens her fist one finger at a time, uncrosses her legs and runs the side of her foot up Miller’s shin– the real one– then sets her heel in the soft crease of his patent-leather dress shoe and presses. Hard. Miller tenses up, but his grip on her waist only gets tighter. Eurotrash sees it all. He wolf-whistles as he backs away, nursing the red weal she’s left striped around his wrist.

Madonna di dio cane,” His grin is bright, frantic, fear held back behind his teeth. "Good luck with her."

“What do you think?” Miller releases her once they're alone, leans back to give her space like he's the one who got burned on contact. “On a scale of one to ten.”

Quiet thrusts two fingers down her throat, and he laughs. “CIA, or KGB? No, wait– definitely both."

She shakes her head, hides a smile behind the back of her hand as he orders a round of shots and downs them both. Salt glistens on his lip, his tongue. She can't fucking look away.

“What about Ocelot?”

What about him?

“Out of ten–“

Nine fingers. No hesitation. Miller frowns, pushes against her knee a little.”Seriously? C’mon, he’s– that's a six. Seven at best. Objectively.”

Objectively, he’s right, but it’s so worth it for his reaction. Quiet laces her fingers together and waits. She can feel the heat burning off him through his designer suit, every shallow breath, every raw nerve. He’s a mess.

“The last time I was here I was with–“

 

°

 

“–fucking Ocelot,” Miller storms past her into their suite, nearly crashes into her as he tries to limp right back out again. Quiet ignores him, focuses on removing her shoes. Blisters have already bubbled up and burst on her heels, which is fair and to be expected from knockoff runway shit.

“This is unbelievable. It’s the same–“ He laughs, then drops his crutch and falls back on the offensive faux-Ming four-poster bed with a deeply aggravated sigh. “He did this on purpose.”

Quiet gives the suite a once-over while Miller swears under his breath. No mics or cameras, nothing weird apart from a service alcove she doesn’t like. From what he’d told her– while racking up an outstanding tab, turns out the M Bar will stay open for anyone with a black card– he and Ocelot were here on “business” a few years back. She’s a hundred percent positive he implied they fucked and also that he probably shouldn’t have set his remaining foot in the country again but it sounds like the deal– whatever it was– went pretty smooth, all things considered.

The last time she was in Hong Kong, it was for R&R after three months of crawling through the jungle in Vietnam. Hell of a different story and one she’d tell if it wasn’t going to involve handwriting a light novel.  Ocelot’s been teaching her sign language, but Miller barely knows military commands and she has no idea how to sign “–absolutely fucking blitzed.”

Maybe it’s better she can’t talk.

Instead she pulls Miller up by the collar so he’s sitting on the edge of the bed, starts helping him with his shirt. His brow furrows behind his aviators and he sinks his nails into her thigh for balance. He’s flushed down to his collarbone. His hand is rough, calloused, and she realizes it's from his crutch, not his pen or his gun.

“This is stupid,” he mutters. Quiet braces one knee on the mattress between his legs as she peels the suit jacket off his shoulders. He hums, placid, grimy, boneless from the combo of exhaustion and alcohol. Thumbs her hip bone as the dress rides up to her waist. “Mm– aren’t you with the– with–?”

It’s such an inane question, he can’t even make himself say it. She slides her knee forward, presses it against his still-soft cock. He groans, chokes on his own spit. Just slightly.

“You sick of fucking a dead man?” Kaz hisses, inspired, drunk. “I know I am. They’re all dead– God, or is it he won’t put out at all– wouldn’t know what to do with a pussy if–“

Her palm cracks across his cheek, splits his lip, leaves him winded, drooling. He laughs. It’s so hollow, so fucking lonely.

“C’mon, Parasite– Quiet–“ His breath catches in his throat and Miller swallows, shivers, because his hand is between her thighs, palm up, fingers pressing through wet fabric. He tastes like his own piss, doesn't feel that good, but she whines a little and his pulse spikes. “This is–“

She covers his mouth with her hand, and he bites and scrapes his teeth on her palm like a dog snarling through a muzzle. Yeah, it’s fucking stupid, fast and easy, riding his first two (and then three) fingers until she's shaking and come's leaking through his pants, and it’s worse to drag him to the shower fully-clothed, to hold him up against the wall while the water runs hot and chokes the room with steam, to kiss him because that’s what shuts him up, and–

–and that's too far for both of them. Miller throws a pretty good left hook, it turns out. That's what they need. His mouth falls open stupidly when she cracks her neck back into place and when she shoves him to his knees, he locks his fingers around the bare bones of her forearm and pulls her down after him through the thick warm mirage of her parasites. They end up on the floor, shot through with adrenaline, half-asleep and bruised, tiles gridding into their slick red skin.

“Maybe we’re all dead,” he murmurs, and that’s the last he says about it. 

 

 

WASHINGTON STATE 1995

 

 

Master Miller’s office is on the corner of the fourth floor of the FOXHOUND HQ building, two walls of blinds behind a desk camouflaged by paperwork. Half the documents are classified, blacked out, the rest are stained with coffee rings. Kaz switches on the space heater that's nestled next to his trash can and gestures for her to sit.

She makes space on his desk among the quarterly personnel reviews and a stack of essays, catches the roll of paper towels he throws at her.

He said it first, but Kaz is the one who looks good. He's in filthy fatigues and a track jacket, hair pulled back in a ponytail, halfway through folding his trademark shades over his collar. He doesn't need his cane to walk anymore– it’s leaning against the doorframe, reduced to an affectation, or an intermittent aid. Maybe both. 

She catches him staring back, blows her nose into a tacky, bloody paper towel. 

"So," Kaz says. "Ocelot isn't ready to bury me with the hatchet, huh." He sounds disappointed, which raises as many questions as it answers. Quiet just rolls her eyes. He’s working in Big Boss’ new backyard and everything’s stamped with a big fat US Government seal of approval, so what–

"What the hell kind of stunt is this, then?"

Quiet thinks about it, wipes a final strand of bright red snot from her face. Now that she’s starting to thaw out, she’s shivering uncontrollably, her fingers are blue, her skin’s burning all over from the cold, and she can’t remember why she’s here. This is fucking–

“You’re gonna get frostbite if you’re not careful,” Kaz turns up the heat another notch, and she offers him half a self-deprecating smile. The molar he knocked out is coming back in already and it hurts like a bitch.

“Then again,” Kaz continues, acidly, “If you lost your trigger finger, it would just grow ba–“

She wraps her hand around his bionic wrist, pulls him close, cuts him off. Kaz huffs, and the familiar stain leaks out across the skin around his eyes. The parasites are faded, now, gray instead of tar-black, but they're still there. He settles just from the pressure of her hand on the artificial tendon and muscle, and she wonders how much he can feel. If it hurts.

“Hm?”

“When? Uh… three or four years back, now. 1991? Yeah– four. Got the first one when I started with the SAS.” Kaz swallows hard, won’t really look at her. “This one came with… all this. The gig. Talk about workplace benefits, huh?”

Quiet reaches for his flesh hand, pulls it forward for comparison. His skin is sun-damaged, thinner than she remembers– the fine bones in his hand feel closer to the surface, like there are less veins knotted between them, less blood. There’s a gold band on his ring finger, just thick enough to be ostentatious. It looks strange, out of place next to his skinned, scabby knuckles and the dirt under his nails. Matches the ugly Rolex, though. She runs the pad of her thumb over the ring.

“We’re getting a divorce,” Kaz says automatically, as if he couldn’t be any more predictable. She snorts. It’s so like him to hole himself up behind the white picket fence of the American Dream out of fucking spite and then screw it up.

“Oh, fuck off.” He sounds so painfully defensive that, for a second, she pulls herself together. “At least I know when to give up.”

No, he did not just– Quiet laughs out loud at that, lets go of his hands so she can cover her mouth when she starts coughing up filmy bits of parasite residue. He crosses his arms, waits for her to finish gagging.

“That’s… funny, to you?”

Kaz Miller trying to take the moral high ground with her for playing along with Big Boss’ bullshit? It’s fucking hilarious. Quiet wipes her mouth, gestures to Kaz, the office, all of FOXHOUND. He’s nowhere close to throwing in the towel on this and she called it a decade ago.

Sure, she’s the one sucking cock in South Africa, but you know what? At least it’s summer in South Africa.

 

 

KHABAROVSK KRAI 1985

 

 

There’s an ambush waiting for them at the airstrip when they set down to refuel at Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Quiet’s in the middle of clipping on her radio collar when first bullet ricochets off the fuselage, drops everything to scruff Miller and slam him to the deck. He tries to get up immediately, the idiot, so she plants a boot on his back to keep him down as a wave of SMG fire cuts into the tarmac outside.

“Oh, come on,” Their pilot– a South Korean with her ring finger severed at the first knuckle, call sign Pyramus– cranes around to make sure no one’s dead. "I thought we were all friends here–"

"Scavengers." Miller's voice is muffled by his scarf. Quiet lifts her boot half an inch, gives him enough room to roll on his back so he can get to his pistol. The other Diamond Dog they picked up in Sapporo– a kid called Crying Bobcat– takes over for her, keeps a hand on Miller’s good shoulder so he won’t do anything stupid. "Don't shut down."

"Yes, sir. Hey, Bob, you wanna play door gunner?"

Miller shakes his head. "Take it easy, kid." He's dangerously close to smiling, and it's winding Bobcat up. Pyramus doesn't like it, either.

"Commander, these pricks will get a lucky shot sooner or later if we don't-"

Quiet can see the calculations running behind Miller’s aviators, the sweat beading on his temple as he turns, fixes his milky eyes on her, on the M-2000 gleaming in her hands. Chances are high that their opportunistic attackers actually want the Blackfoot and so won’t go out of their way to ground it. 

Go,” he snarls.

She gives him a thumbs up.

The day is brilliantly clear, the landscape cut up into triangles of snow and salted gray concrete under a cloudless blue sky. Quiet squints through her shades as she phases, invisible, right through the Blackfoot’s armored hull, pulls herself up so she’s flat on her stomach. The blades are still spinning full force overhead. She doesn’t have to see her scope to look through it, relies on muscle memory alone to mark the eleven– no, twelve– men in mismatched fatigues and balaclavas in cover around the airstrip, yapping at each other in Russian. One of the fuckers is waving his gun around like he wants her to shoot him between the eyes.

She can make that happen. Quiet unscrews her suppressor, shoves it down her bra as another burst of gunfire comes alarmingly close to the fuel tank, and sets up her shot. Pulls the trigger.

The man stays standing a good few seconds after her shot thunders across the active and blows out the back of his skull. His buddies howl and scatter, redirect their attention to the closest hangar– no way infantry troops from a fifth-rate PF have ever seen anything in the family of stealth camo, no way they expect the sniper they’re looking for to be right in front of them. Quiet picks them off lazily, misses on purpose when the last couple turn tail and bolt.

The Diamond Dogs have a reputation to uphold, after all. Can’t get that without witnesses.

When she’s convinced they’re not about to circle back around, she vaults down to the tarmac, knocks hard on the Blackfoot’s window.

“Clear!”

It’s just one word.

“What the fuck?” Miller rolls the door open, stumbles out into the sun with Bobcat at his heels. His parasite stain has split his face apart, cut all the way to his cracked lips.  What the fuck–“

Just–

You could talk this whole time?!” He reaches out and seizes a fistful of Quiet’s poncho, yanks her forward and she rematerializes, grimaces as the cold hits her like a flash grenade. And again, as the suppressor falls out of her tits and rolls away somewhere under the chopper. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, bitch. Start talking–“

She’s got a mouthful of blood and for a second she considers spitting it in his face, opts for swallowing when she realizes Pyramus is staring and Bobcat’s got his MRS-4 at cocked at her. One fucking word, and this is what happens.

Miller sees Bobcat, too. “Don’t just stand there rubbernecking, soldier, secure the area. This is under control. Pyramus, cover him. S formation.”

“Sir–“

Move!” Miller barks, and Bobcat backs off with a salute, Pyramus right behind him. “…Quiet?”

She grins, grotesquely, shows off the blood between her teeth.

“Oh, for– what were you trying to prove, huh?” Miller lets her go, puts his hand against the Blackfoot for support instead. “You fucking moron.”

Quiet nods. She feels hazy, frozen, like her bones aren’t there at all and her skin is going to slide off. Maybe they’re not. Maybe it is. All she can taste is iron.

“Shit, are you okay?”

She nods, again, and throws up on his boots.

 

°

 

Later, KnAAPO hears about the whole thing and the Diamond Dogs get a shiny new defense contract–

–but that’s later. Pyramus rules the Blackfoot fine apart from a few fresh scratches, takes them north to where the Amur River empties into the sea. Forward Operating Base Okhotsk is another hour out off the coast, a former oil rig that towers above the ice, all corroded steel and peeling red paint. The extant facilities amount to a helipad and a few scabby hangars–  it takes less than an hour to see it all and to understand that everything’s in pretty shit condition.

Miller loves it. “This is gonna be better than Andaman,” he assures Ruby Elk, the sunburned, whip-thin, ex-Red Army officer in charge of the disgusting death trap and the platoon tasked with fixing it up. He’s so happy to be out of the Middle East, he’s matching Miller’s enthusiasm.

“No! Really?”

“Oh, yes. Mother Base was a wreck when we got her. This is a palace.”

Quiet’s hanging back as they circle the patrol route Elk’s set up around the deck for the fifth time, glaring at any soldier who looks at her twice and grinding her teeth to keep them from chattering. She can still smell the crude from when the rig carried an active drill, can taste it with every exposed inch of her skin along with salt from the ocean and the bitter nylon-poly blend of the poncho over her shoulders. The pressure of the straps and belts and wires of her gear, the weight of the rifle on her back, the radio collar around her neck– it’s uncomfortable, cuts into her flesh where it doesn’t chafe, but the sensation pales in comparison to how fucking freezing it is. There are wisps of vapor trailing from her skin.

“That was in ’81, right?”

“September 1983– she was in rough shape. Nothing the Diamond Dogs couldn’t handle,” Miller’s breath is coming in clouds that blur out his mouth but she can hear the grin in his voice, the light. He taps his crutch on the base of a mortar bolted to the deck, leans over the railing with a sigh. “You should’ve seen it… the helipad had more holes than a cheese grater. Ha, it was hell. It was home.

Elk is hanging on to his Commander’s every word, too starstruck to feel the icy wind that’s kicking up now that the sun’s setting. He’s shivering, though, and she’s reduced to humming mismatched measures of last year’s Billboard Top 100 to keep warm so Miller clears his throat, jerks his head towards the cargo elevator. “The Major’s gonna kill me if the cold doesn’t, so let’s finish this inside, yeah?”

Elk laughs. It comes out uneasy, a little forced. “Yes, sir.”

It’s only when the elevator’s battered, rusty gate slides shut and Elk won’t stop throwing wary glances her way that Quiet realizes Miller was talking about her.

The weather turns fast and by the next morning a blizzard has blown in, clouds hanging so heavy and dark over the sea that the only indication that the sun’s risen is the digital clock on the wall of a gutted pump room and a certain amount of blind faith. Miller’s taken over the area, spread out his balance sheets and blueprints across two workbenches for want of a real desk, and Quiet’s stationed on the floor. She’s hunched in front of a Japanese space heater, squinting in the dim light as she sorts through personnel files. Miller helped her dodge the snow-shoveling draft, cited medical reasons– playing secretary is a fair trade.

No, scratch that– it’s more than fair. The room’s been lined– temporarily– with plywood. It smells like sawdust and WD-40 and the leftover borscht Miller’s abandoned in favor of reviewing the differences between a fixed platform and a compliant tower. He’s so focused on this, in fact, that he’s been silent for hours, content to listen to the muffled howling of the storm outside and the Spandau Ballet tape Quiet keeps running through the base’s only cassette player. It’s no five-star resort, but it’s– yeah, you could say cozy.

 

There’s something I could have learned,

You’re indestructible, always believing–

 

Miller pops open a can of zero-cal soda and her eyes flick up in time to catch him sucking foam from the rim. “Want one?”

She raises a hand and Miller breaks another can off the six-pack, tosses it to her. “You know what the Boss wants this place for?” he asks.  Quiet shifts closer to the heater and yawns, mentally prepping herself for a lecture on the state of the regional war economy.

“Nuclear disarmament.”

Quiet rips the tab right off, stares at Miller in dumb awe as soda gushes over her hand. Nukes are the backbone of their whole industry. The last time anyone wanted to render the world’s arsenal obsolete it was Skull Face and his English ethnic cleansing project. If the Diamond Dogs are mobilizing on global disarmament, it means there’s a replacement doomsday weapon on standby and it’s even more fucking insane–

Andaman.

Biofuel.

She licks a rivulet of soda from her forearm, slowly.

 

There’s something I could have learned–

 

“Wh-t?” Her voice is stripped raw, barely audible over the tinny stereo, and Miller’s lip twitches. Don’t forget: she’s a bioweapon, too.

“He’s opening the door, to a new age,” he says, and Quiet knows– she knows– she knows he can hear how fucking full of shit he is. His eyes are clear and blue. “You’ll be with him.”

He really believes it.

 

 

WASHINGTON STATE 1995

 

 

“…How is he?”

Quiet taps the ash off her cigarette, watches as it falls between her knees onto the passenger seat of Kaz’s Saab. He’s given up on getting her to open the window– she only just got the feeling back in her fingers, and it’s snowing again. The car is rank with smoke and steam, suffocating, hot now that the dawn is piercing through the cloud cover and turning everything gold. Kaz is sweating under his track jacket.

They’ve been driving all night.

“Why the hell d’you smoke, anyway? You don’t have lungs.”

That’s an exaggeration. Quiet grinds out the cigarette on her own arm, watches dully as the parasites spark and reform around the welt until all that's left is a fading white scar.

“Okay, okay. Really, though– how is–?”

She waits. She wants him to say it. 

“…V?”

Quiet shrugs one shoulder.

“You’re gonna have to give me more than that,” Kaz says, so she flips open the car’s cassette deck. She’s been stalling on this since he elbowed her in the face, let him drown out her silence with– with what? Empty threats laced with the latest gossip from the rumor mill that seems to run nonstop at FOXHOUND. Commentary on the local fast food. He and his ex-wife have a two-year-old daughter. Nadine won’t believe it, but there were no other women. Men, maybe, if you count Big Boss, or his Phantom, or his son. He wants to talk about Diamond Dogs, but there isn't anything to say, is there?

It’s only in the last hour that he’s remembered she’s not another woman, much less here to ride shotgun on his midlife crisis.

Kaz finally catches on to what she’s doing. “Is that from–“

She shows him the tape.

“…Outer Heaven. Fine. Yeah, play it.”

There’s a minute where neither of them breathe, where Kaz’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel and static crackles like lightning until the recording cuts in. The audio is sharp but the voice that comes in through the speakers sounds faint, far away. Split in two. 

“Kaz.”

The name comes easily to V. He’s standing with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, beret pushed back from the shrapnel spiking through his hairline. He’s gone gray since they came to South Africa. The xenon floodlights of the TX-55’s hangar wash everything out, make it colorless, leave his silhouette fractured. It deepens the lines scored across his face, turns the last trace of blue in his eye to clear.

Artificial sunlight is the only way she can live underground. The lights are set to her key card and switch on when she enters a sector. When an op takes her to the surface, to the west coast or Lesotho or the red sand and blue sky of Sossusvlei, Outer Heaven stays dark.

There’s a place for everyone here, he’d said, the first time the lights came on. Remember?

“…why are you still here?” She doesn’t answer, because V doesn’t ask her questions like this. “Kaz–?”

Quiet hums. White bars of light cross the lenses of her aviators, and V turns away.

“Where is he?”

“Hm.”

I know.”

She signs at him, something only he will understand. Sets a hand on his shoulder. His pulse is erratic, rushes under her fingers.

“Huh. You know, I don’t think he’d find that funny.” V smiles, and plucks the sunglasses from the bridge of her nose. There’s a breath. The sound of cracked glass.

“Are you recording this?”

Kaz brakes hard at a Chevron station, doesn’t bother to kill the engine before he ejects the cassette and snaps it in half. Tape spools out around his fingers, shimmers like entrails as it catches in the joints of his bionic hand.

“Fuck you.” His voice is heavy, strangled. “You think– this is gonna change my mind? That I’m gonna come back on my hands and knees, just because he wants–?”

She’s not the one who said it.

“He’s a dead man walking.” Kaz won’t look at her. “Quiet… he’s not– there’s. Nothing. There.”

Quiet doesn’t move a muscle.

“Isn’t that why you love him?”

The Saab rocks on its axel as she slams him into the driver’s side door, cracks the safety glass with the back of his skull. Kaz snarls, as shocked as she is, trapped by her hands and the seatbelt that’s cutting into his neck. He tries to draw his knee up to get a kick in, but his leg gets caught under the steering wheel and she throws all her weight forward– too vigorously, because the seat folds back beneath their combined weight and her boot connects with the gearshift. Hard.

There’s an unpleasant mechanical crunch and the car starts rolling forward. Kaz nearly pokes her eye out as he scrabbles for the ignition, digs his nails into the old scar across her side so she shoves him down again, straddles him, twists his arms above his head.

The tires bump harmlessly against the curb.                                                       

“Great,” Kaz spits. “This is a lease.”

Quiet doesn’t care. There’s red bleeding into the corners of her vision. She got the answer she came for and all she wants to do now is take the tape that’s tangled between them and choke him, to rip his throat out and leave him to rot. She lets go of his wrists, ready for him to give her a good reason, fully expecting it.

What Kaz says is: “I deserved that.”

She blinks.

He traces the stinging cuts left by his fingernails, leaves the taste of his sweat behind when the wounds seal. Outside, snowflakes melt as they hit the windshield and for once, for once Kaz doesn’t speak. He stays still, barely breathes, and her anger burns off slowly until all that’s left is silence and the cool pressure of skin on skin. It feels like nothing. It doesn’t last.

“He needs you. What I am, to him… ha. Did Ocelot ever tell you, exactly what he did? Or is that above your security clearance? I’m just a line of code. He doesn’t really–“

That doesn’t matter, she signs, bares her teeth when she remembers he can’t understand her. It doesn’t mean anything to him.

The human brain is capable of many illusions. Of pain, of the future.

Kaz reaches for her hands, brings them down so they’re resting on his chest. “Quiet,” he says, gently. “Shut up.”

 

 

°

 

OBTAINED TAPE: [JOJO]

OBTAINED TAPE: [WE BUILT THIS CITY]

OBTAINED TAPE: [OBSESSION]

OBTAINED TAPE: [GOLD]