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“Clouds ahead!” are his last words. Oh, how dumb. These ain’t regular clouds. It’s like they’re alive, attacking them head on, red and thick like blood.

Pequod loses control of the helo immediately, struggles to twist a flight stick that feels like it has rusted in his hand between one frantic blink and the other.

Then his controls explode - can they do that? - and it hurts, his brain is on fire, there’s so much blood, everything tastes like rust.

His last thought as he dies is just, I hope the Boss is okay.

***

His first thought as he awakens again is similar, but not as eloquent. For a long time, he is confused, floating in blackness.

Who am I? What is going on?

Is Boss alive?

At last he comes up with an answer. He is Pequod. He feels he must have had another name, but he cannot recall it, and doesn’t think it matters.

He doesn’t know what is going on, but they taught him to start with small steps.

He knows who he is. Where is he?

Helicopter. That’s easy. It’s...different than what he remembers. It tastes like blood and rust, it’s huge and quiet and dead.

There is blood on the seat. It’s his blood. He knows because he can taste it.

Is he dead? Then why is he awake?

And most importantly, what happened to his body? Because right now, as it slowly dawns on him, he does not have one. He is dust, and rust, and blood, and something else. He catches a reflection in a dusty, darkened window. He has no shape, no eyes, no limbs. Does not remember his name but he knows, he just knows, that if he found a helicopter he could fly it.

He wonders if this is what being Quiet feels like. If he ever makes it back to Mother Base, he’ll ask her.

Mother Base. Boss. Quiet. Commander Miller, Ocelot, Queequeg, his baby pilots....

He has to go back. He has no legs and no hands and no body and does not remember his face, but he has to go back.

He slides, or maybe drips, out of the rusted carcass of his helo. Goodbye girl, he thinks as he tastes dirt and somebody else’s blood and crushed grass. It’s surprisingly easy to make your way around when you don’t have a body. There are corpses strewn all over. He cannot find anybody still alive and, even worse, he can’t find a functioning helicopter. All the birds sitting in the nearby hangars are dead and rusted inside out.

However, he discovers something interesting. When he touches metal, he can do the same thing the cloud did to all the helos. Doors and steel beams come apart into dust if he so much as wishes it. That will be useful. But for now, he has to leave.

After a while rolling into the dust - god, he would kill for a drop of water - Pequod finds a jeep. It’s not a helicopter, but it might get him closer to areas where he could find one. Maybe where he could find other Diamond Dogs.

Maybe even the Boss.

He climbs into the driver’s seat. Extends tendrils into the ignition, deep into the engine. The jeep roars to life, strong, loud, the first real sound Pequod has heard in hours aside from the howling of the wind. He can feel everything, the fuel burning, the pistons pumping, the grit under the wheels. When he wills the jeep to move, it does, and it feels so natural. Wind hits the windshield, the engine purrs, and Pequod is part of all of it. He can’t wait to find a helicopter.

Ironically enough, he finds the Boss first. Or rather, Quiet. He can feel her now, a vibration different to his but still in tune with whatever it is that they’re made of now. He abandons the jeep far away, slithers quietly up the cliff face to her. She is crouching behind a bush, the barrel of her rifle peeking out of the foliage, completely unmoving. She does not appear to have noticed him. It’s not until her earpiece crackles that she lowers the rifle and her gaze to him.

Black splatters her face. She does not shoot, but regards him for a long time.

Pequod wishes he had a voice. What was it that he used to say...?

“This is Pequod,” he says. Or vocalizes in whatever way he communicates now. A recording of something he isn’t quite anymore.

Quiet blinks. Bites her fingers, pulls off her glove. Touches Pequod with her bare hand.

She recoils, for a moment. But then she smiles.

Pequod knew there was a reason he liked her.

She unhooks her canteen from her harness and pours the entire thing on him. God, it feels good, he feels like he’s blooming, expanding, coming back to life a thousand times over. He feels softer, fuller, slimier, at his full potential - whatever that is.

Then Quiet points at the neck of the canteen. She can’t mean...

“Hrn!” She points harder.

Pequod resigns himself and seeps his way inside the canteen. It’s a tight fit, and it’s dark, damp, and tastes a little like mold. But he does fit. He vibrates so hard when he hears the low thrum of the Boss’ voice meeting up with Quiet he feels he might break his makeshift hiding spot. It’s really hard to wait inside and not slip out while they’re on the helicopter, and he can feel the rumble of the engine and the heat of the plating deep inside of his new form.

But he waits. He could puncture the canteen and escape but he trusts Quiet. He stays put until the helo has touched down and the cap has been unscrewed, the canteen “forgotten” between the seats.

He drips out, expands, breathes in. Or whatever it is that he does, without a mouth and lungs. The helo is alive, warm, ticking as it cools down. It smells like dust and mud and the Boss’ cigars. He’s magnetized to the pilot’s seat, the still warm leather cradling his formless body like a mother’s embrace. He makes to extend his tendrils towards the controls and he’s shocked to see it’s a hand, an actual human hand. His body is changing, expanding, drinking in microscopic fuel particles and Queequeg’s sweat on the leather and....

He has legs, feet to press pedals with, fingers, a chest. It might even be a heart beating inside of him, or maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter. Quiet does just fine without lungs, he’s heard. Whatever his body is made of is just copying what he remembers best, including looking down and seeing his legs encased in a green flight suit, the feel of boots between his feet and the flooring, gloves on his hands, the weight of the helmet on his head.

He looks to the side into the window, only to realize he still doesn’t have a face. The space under the helmet is a rust-colored blank slate, smooth and featureless. He touches it. He does not remember. He can’t recall his own face.

He rises from the seat. His legs shake, it takes him a few tries to stand up and take a few steps. It’s so weird to have a body again.

There are pictures stuck to the wall of the ACC. Pequod smiles, or something like it. Boss has started decorating his home away from home again. There’s just three for now: a picture of Commander Miller looking handsome, a faded picture of DD, and one with three people. The Boss has his arms around Quiet and a younger man with slanted eyes and short brown hair. All three are smiling at the camera. They seem happy.

With unsure fingers, Pequod lifts the picture. On the back, in the Boss’ blocky script, a description is scrawled.

V, Quiet, Pequod - 1984

Oh.

He lets the picture drop, looks at it again. Right. That is his face. He touches where his cheek should be, feels soft stubble. When he looks to the side into the window, his face mirrors the one in the picture, the helmet is gone and hair frames his new - old? - face. He blinks, smiles, exposes his teeth.

Still feels weird, but it’s a start.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing in my helo?”

He turns to face Queequeg, who looks angry for all of a split second before he shrieks, in pure fear. He falls, scrambles back up, he’s gone before Pequod can even attempt to talk to him.

Oh, right. He’s dead, isn’t he? It’s like he’s seen a ghost. He sits on the floor, new legs dangling out the bulk door, waiting for Queequeg to come back.

It’s not until he notices the security team slowly advancing on the hangar, rifles cocked, that he remembers there is much, much worse out there than ghosts, and they put the whole of Diamond Dogs in danger every day, and he’s one of them now.

He slowly raises his hands, palms out like he remembers it’s proper to when you have a dozen rifles trained on you. His nonexistent heart skips a metaphorical beat when he sees the slowly limping form of the Commander advancing on the hot tarmac.

The Commander looks terrible. He smells terrible too, he can smell him from here. Exhaustion, and grief, and fear.

He can also feel him the same way he could feel Quiet.

He’s always wondered how the Commander survived being attacked by the Skulls. Now he doesn’t wonder anymore.

“Who are you,” snarls the Commander, stomping his crutch onto the ground.

“I’m Pequod,” he says. His mouth feels weird, and he is not entirely sure his voice is the right one. But sounds come out of it, and that’s good enough.

“Bullshit,” growls the Commander, teeth bared like a dog. “Pequod is dead. His funeral was just yesterday. Whatever you are, you have a sick sense of humor to show up now.”

“Commander, please,” he says, dropping off the helicopter onto the tarmac, hands still up. The rifles clatter in scared hands. Pequod figures that at this point, even if he got shot, it wouldn’t really matter much. “I am not lying.”

Commander Miller does not even flinch. “Restrain him.”

Pequod does not resist as they handcuff his hands behind his back. What’s the point? He could melt these in a blink, or melt himself out of them. They’re just a symbol, a sign that he is willing to comply.

“With me,” grunts the commander, and starts walking back to the base. Pequod follows. The security detail follows them as well, smelling like fear and mistrust.

If Pequod had internal organs, he’d swallow when he realizes he’s being taken to room 101. He’s heard the stories. He knows what happens here.

The Commander closes the door behind them. None of the security detail comes in. “Sit down,” he orders.

Pequod sits in the folding chair. It tastes like pure terror. Like sweat and piss and blood and tears. Everything in this room does, it’s suffocating. “Commander...”

“Not a word. Not until he’s here.”

He? The Boss?

Pequod waits dutifully, watching the Commander angrily pace back and forth, his crutch stabbing the perforated metal of the floor.

Five or ten minutes later, the door swishes open, and Pequod’s hopes are dashed; it’s not the Boss.

It’s Ocelot.

He’s fucked.

“Miller, why did you call me here, I have other....” he trails off as his eyes fall on Pequod. “Holy shit.”

“Close the door.”

The door closes.

“What is going on?”

“I don’t know. Queequeg found...him...in his helo.”

Ocelot paces slowly around him, in a wide circle, peering at him with his pale eyes. “He looks just like him.”

“I am Pequod, sir,” tries Pequod.

“I didn’t ask,” says Ocelot, his voice so low and sharp it’s like a razor to his throat.

“I suspect parasites,” says the commander, sitting on the table at the end of the room. He’s taken off his coat and jacket. His empty shirt sleeve is pinned to his shoulder neatly, and his crutch rests close to his leg. “But I can’t check without you.”

Pequod is scared, but he’s also interested in how the Commander’s voice has gone softer, now. He’s known him for years, but never heard him admit he needed somebody, let alone Ocelot.

“Of course.” Ocelot steps off, joins him at the table. Gently takes the aviators off the Commander’s nose, folds them and slips them in his breast pocket. He rests his hand on the Commander’s arm.

Pequod is not surprised, per se, to see the black oily markings spread across the Commander’s face. It is startling though, as are his glittering, kaleidoscope eyes boring into him.

“So?” Says Ocelot.

“It’s weird,” says the Commander. “I can tell he’s not really Pequod, but...”

“I can explain, if you’d like,” he says sheepishly.

“Will you speaking kill us all?” says Ocelot.

“Not that I know of, sir.”

He glances over at the Commander. The Commander nods.

“Then talk.”

***

Pequod explains everything he knows. The crash, the way he woke up, meeting Quiet, his powers. When asked to demonstrate, he melts the handcuffs right off his wrists. He does not miss the way Ocelot instinctively steps between him and the Commander.

“I’m not the Pequod you knew,” he says, hands splayed on his knees. “But I’m not a threat.”

“Why did you come back?” asks Ocelot.

Pequod raises his new eyes. “Mother Base is all I have. Even if I have to share the brig with Quiet, it’s better than the desert, not knowing who I am.”

Ocelot and the Commander glance at each other. The markings are slowly fading from the Commander’s face, his stance relaxing. The Commander fishes his aviators out of Ocelot’s pocket, snaps them open, and puts them on.

“Alright. I believe you.”

Pequod would sigh in relief if he had lungs. He slumps on the chair, struggling to maintain his structural integrity and not drip onto the floor.

“You can stay. But!” he says, holding his hand up. “You’ll go through a full battery of tests and evaluations to make sure there are no agents in your new composition that are harmful to us or the base.”

Pequod nods. “Of course, sir.”

“And psychological evaluations, too. You are not to leave the medbay until you’re cleared completely.”

Pequod knows it means that more likely he will never get to fly again. Something hard and aching in his chest twinges, but this is home, and he’ll take being grounded over being alone. He nods. “Thank you, sir.”

“Can you take care of it?”

Ocelot nods, and motions to Pequod to get up. “You don’t need handcuffs anymore, I assume.”

“Only if it makes folks more comfortable, sir.”

He could swear he sees both smile as they leave the room.

***

Pequod thought he would get quarantined away forever, but he only stays locked up for as long as it takes for the doctors - and the old man they were carrying back to base when they crashed, who also is a parasite carrier - to declare him not contagious.

He still has to sit around in a bed for days, bored out of his skull. He uses the time to read his own personal files, that Ocelot brought around once he was cleared for visits.

He doesn’t remember any of this. His real name, his family, where he went to school, who his flight instructors were. They’re all words and images that evoke no memory, no emotion. It’s kind of sad, that all of those things remained trapped in the empty shell they burned at his funeral.

On the other hand, the file has a few pictures, and Pequod fine-tunes his human appearance, practices maintaining it until it’s natural.

A week in, the door of his room swishes open. Pequod expects a doctor or a nurse, but it’s neither.

It’s the Boss.

He sits up straight, words trapped on his tongue. He’s just so happy to see him.

“I hear you’ve been cleared for contact,” he says, and his quiet voice makes Pequod wish he had a heart to feel ache.

“I have,” he croaks. “Yesterday, Boss.”

The Boss’ eye lingers all over him, until even he is uncomfortable.

“Do I not look like Pequod enough?” he laughs weakly.

Finally the Boss lowers his eye with a smile. “Nah. A little different maybe, but you’re still you.”

Is he? Pequod has been wondering that for a while. But if the Boss says so, then he is.

“Here,” says the Boss, placing the package he’s holding in Pequod’s lap.

Pequod opens the thin paper to reveal a flight suit, brand new with his name embroidered in crisp letters on the breast.

“Your old one got...burned. With the body,” mutters the Boss, awkwardly scratching the back of his head. “You’re going to need a new one.”

Pequod holds the suit as his hands start to shake. “Am I...am I going to be allowed to fly again?”

“Well, Kaz...I mean, Commander Miller wasn’t thrilled about it at first.” He smiles, the kind of smile that suggests he has a few ways to...convince the Commander. “But I trust you.”

“Boss...”

“So yes, when you’re finally released from sickbay, you should report to Queequeg and get back in the air.”

Pequod smiles, his eyes itching as if he remembers how to cry. “He won’t be scared this time, won’t he?”

“He’s the one who insisted to the one to test your flying skills haven’t deteriorated.”

Pequod puts his face into the folded flight suit, that smells like new rubber and metal. His eyes prickle and dampen. Guess he does remember how to cry after all, or approximate it accurately enough. “Thank you.”

The Boss rests his big warm hand on Pequod’s shoulder. He can taste his sand-smoothed skin, the metal aftertaste of the blood under his nails. And there, finally, he knows he’s home.

***

“Pequod, in hot!” he yells into the radio as he barrels towards the giant monstrosity ahead, guns blazing. He should be afraid, but he can only feel the exhilaration of speed, the acrid taste of the smoke, so similar to him.

He yelps as the flaming sword (seriously? a flaming sword?) pierces right through the hull, sending the helo on a wild rotation around the white hot shaft. He takes a deep breath and suddenly his body is no more, dissolving into red particles that rust the control panel even as it explodes from the heat.

He lets himself precipitate, clinging to Sahelanthropus’ frame and rotting it from the inside out, just as the Boss shoots a missile straight into its fuel tanks. He can tell this monster is going to fall, he can feel it in the metal.

After all this is over?

He’s almost looking forward to the Commander berating him for losing yet another expensive helo.