You know poor Jade Tree Frog is still off the active duty roster on recovery, but that doesn’t stop you from giving him a big smile as you prepare to walk right past him and into Miller’s office.
He shuffles through some papers to find the meetings schedule, peering between it and you in the sudden desperation of someone who knows rules are about to be broken on their watch. “Paper Hawk? I don’t see you on Commander Miller’s itinerary—”
“That’s because I’m not on it.” You shift the stack of manila folders to your other arm, pushing the access pad for the Commander’s office. “Don’t get up, I’ll deal with him.”
Steamrolling past, you can’t bring yourself to feel guilty: you do this with everyone on base, mostly because you know you can, and you know you’re right to. The confidence of the Base Development Unit’s team leader is legendary at this point, and you make every possible effort to live up to it.
Miller makes the face that he does whenever he sees you, the one like he’s just put a spoonful of spoiled food in his mouth and is now trying to let it all fall back out. “Whatever it is, no. How’d you get in here?”
“I have a proposal for a new strut.”
He gifts you with a vague wave of his hand before immediately continuing to write on an already crowded legal pad. “And I have a schedule, so, go file for a project pitch meeting like a civilized person.”
“Oh, you’re worried about your thirteen and fourteen-hundred hour meeting slots?” You smile brightly. “You mean the ones filled by Steel Jackal and Gleaming Aardvark? My direct subordinates? Who both took the day off this morning?”
He maintains what you think of as eye contact as if he can stare you down, before breaking and tapping to another menu on his nearby iDroid. From your vantage point, it looks like a copy of his schedule, which you had absolutely and shamelessly stacked for your own advantage. The spoiled food face returns, and you grin as you let the hefty stack of folders fall onto his deck, enjoying the way his coffee mug dances on impact.
You shift a stack of folders and books off one of the other chairs in his office and drag it noisily across the floor to sit in front of his desk. It’s always a bit claustrophobic in here, piles of organized chaos that he hates for anyone other than the Boss to move. But it always smells nicely of coffee.
Miller glowers and prods the folders you’ve left in front of him with the end of his pen, like they might be contaminated. “This had better be good.”
“It would be a development off the existing Animal Conservation platform.”
He scoffs. “The Mbele kids asked me for an elephant last week, are you their secret weapon?”
You make a note of that: obviously, housing real elephants here would be inhumane, but you’re certain there’s someone around who might be able to put together some kind of elephant-themed jungle gym equipment.
Squinting, Miller jabs his pen at you. “You’ve got that look— whatever it is, we don’t have the budget for it.”
Elephants later, proposal now. You open the first folder and spread out the proposed strut blueprint, along with some inspirational photographs to help him see what you’d started to. “An aquarium strut, Commander. A big complex filled with aquariums featuring ecology from rivers and oceans wherever the Diamond Dogs go, specifically for preserving animal life and biodiversity.”
“I can’t believe you booked two hours of my time for this.” Miller unclips a photograph of a parrotfish attached to one of the front pages, colorful and flashy. “Fish? We eat fish. Constantly. Nobody wants to look at fish on their time off.”
You reach across his desk and flip over the page he’s on to the next one before he can swat your hand away. “Actually, Commander, you’ll find there have been some pretty recent studies done on the effects of aquariums—they’re shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as promote generalized improvements in mood. Also, I took a poll and almost everyone I asked was interested in the idea.”
He gets to that page in the file and just sighs. You’d broken it up into a pie chart. He loves pie charts. “Okay. Let’s say I humor you. An aquarium would be… fun, and potentially helpful, but the cost, the materials…”
“Would you like me to bring up how much we spend on Battle Gear development?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. The two aren’t really comparable in terms of necessity and importance.”
“So, it’s fine to spend a lot of money on our military assets, but when it comes to quality of life concerns for the men giving their lives… hm, I’ll need a calculator for this one.”
Miller sets down his pen, fingers ducking briefly under the eyepieces of his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That’s not—I didn’t mean that, Hawk, I just can’t even write off on an appraisal for something as frivolous as a… a big fish tank.”
“You don’t have to, because I already did it.” The next manila folder is just that: estimates, research, interviews material considerations: you hadn’t been struck by a whim, this had been your dream for a surprisingly long time now. Everyone you’d consulted with had enjoyed the idea too, so it had felt like less work than it was.
Kaz flips through the folder, frowning. “Aren’t you helping coordinate FOB construction in Atlantic waters? When did you have time to do this?”
“When you’re really, truly gripped by passion for a project you know will benefit everyone around you, the time spent means n—”
“Lunch breaks and after hours work, what does it matter? I’m ahead of schedule on the Atlantic expansion, I’m still waiting on the good Major to process recruits for replacement training—”
“Don’t remind me.” Kaz leans back in his office chair, the joint squeaking. “This really means that much to you?”
“It meant a lot to me that everyone I spoke to about the idea just lit up. This is our home, isn’t it? There should be room for frivolous things, just once in a while.” Your voice softens as you say it, both as a coaxing tactic and out of genuine belief.
He’s quiet, fingertips resting on the picture of the parrotfish, iridescent under the sunny water.
You wonder if he recognizes it: the Boss had taken the photo, with the underwater camera R&D had cobbled together for his birthday. There had been a brief shore leave for him, demanded by Miller, and he’d spent some time sailing around Palau. It lasted about two days before something went wrong, but the pictures that had come back with him were wonderful.
Waiting a beat longer, you feel like you can see the wheels in Miller’s head turning as he thinks it over, and shift forward to help him along. “Sleepy Loggerhead is a tank enthusiast and did some oceanic studying—he’ll be able to coordinate which fish go where, what kind of environmental setup would be needed for various types of sea life, and maintenance for both the environment and the fish. Did you know, coral can be very fussy?”
“Get me a volunteer list of people willing to be added to the maintenance roster for an aquarium and—you’ve already got it.” He accepts the next sheaf of papers you offer him from the folder pile, flipping through both the personnel list and the suggested schedules for construction and regular maintenance. “Why, again, are you wasting this kind of effort on fish?”
“It’s not about fish, sir.” This part of the pitch is easy, mostly because you feel it with an almost embarrassing honesty. “I believe there’s a good reason why the Animal Conservation platform is so popular. Out here in the middle of the ocean, you can feel disconnected from nature, when even the floor you stand on was manmade. I want somewhere different from the sun and flat horizon for our men to retreat to. I want them to see the beauty in the vast oceans around us. I want them to remember why every day in our improbable lives is a gift.”
Miller grinds the palm of his hand into his eye. “They’re just going to make out in there.”
“They make out everywhere. Might as well be somewhere scenic.”
He stares into the mass of paperwork, thoughtfully. He’s got a sad, quiet voice when he speaks next that you hate. “The money, Hawk. This is too much to spend on a nonessential service.”
“That’s why I wrote to all these NGOs, Miller.” You match his soft tone and sweetly flip open the next folder.
You see him grab for the papers and barely manage to snatch them out of his grasp, the energy returning as he starts to yell. “You aren’t supposed to file for grants without clearing it with me! How many?”
“Enough. The Boss can finally get paid for fishing, thanks to me.” You grin, fanning yourself with the sheaf of letters. “They were practically begging me to take their money.”
Deflating, Kaz slumps back into his chair. The fun’s gone out of the moment, and he looks defeated in a new way. Maybe you’d hit a nerve by bringing the Boss into this, implying that Kaz wasn’t doing enough. You hadn’t meant it that way, and you hadn’t really meant to stress him out beyond what was fun for the both of you.
Leaning forward to the edge of your seat, you try to catch his eye. “Hey, Miller? If you don’t want this… genuinely, for a good reason, I’ll drop it. I wanted to do something nice for us, but it’s no fun if you’re legitimately upset.”
A strange expression flits over his face, and when he draws himself up it’s to adjust the set of his sunglasses, suddenly gleaming in the sunlight. “What, you’d back down just because my feelings got hurt? Here I thought you understood the business of administrative work.”
Getting into the spirit, you smack his desk with the grant papers for emphasis, standing up. “Oh, like I don’t? You’re the one always sitting around twiddling his singular thumb and waiting for the Boss to call, I’m the one actually working! Base Dev never sleeps!”
Miller stands up to match you, grabbing his crutch for support but also potentially to swat you with it. “You’re a short-sighted idiot—this is all possible because of the Boss, of course the Support Team has to be there for him whenever necessary—or would you see him unprepared for the battlefield?”
“What, you think a little on sight procurement would kill him? The Boss could change this world wearing a potato sack and throwing rocks at helicopters, you doubt him too much!”
“I’m going to bust you down to E rank and give you to Ocelot for a scratching post, you pushy, bureaucratic—”
There’s a little ring of metal against metal by the doorframe when he knocks, and the Boss is standing there, larger than life and twice as handsome. “What am I wearing, now?”
“Boss!” Kaz almost knocks against you as he joins you closer to the doorway, and you resist the urge to shove him. “We need you to make an executive decision—Hawk came up with a proposal for this elaborate, expensive aquarium setup—”
“On the Animal Conservation platform?” Before you have time to nod, the Boss claps a hand on Kaz’s shoulder. “Good idea. Full attention on this, Kaz. Let me know if you need my help.”
He’s off again, with a squeak of his boots and a jingle of his harnesses, and you can’t even wonder what he stopped by for: triumph is too important. You’re already grinning at Kaz, and he sighs hoarsely, hobbling back to his desk. “Full attention.”
“You’re taking advantage of his caring nature—”
“Full attention, Kaz—”
“Don’t you—ugh, give me those grant letters. You’re infuriating, go back to your office!”
Naturally, once Miller has bitterly signed off on everything and you’re just about to really dig into the beginning stages of construction, you have to leave.
An accidental death at the Atlantic Waters FOB had dealt an unexpected blow to morale, and you know in your heart that it’s time to take it more seriously: you’d been managing its development from afar, but it was time to put your best effort forward.
Kaz had visited your office to give you the travel orders while you were busy storming off to his office to announce your departure. Eventually coordinating, there were experienced members from other units willing to go with you to help the FOB get properly on its feet.
You know most of them pretty well, and they seem glad to have you along: your reputation for getting things done is going to help them all, and you intend to use it to your full extent.
Seeing you off at the helipad is Miller himself, looking pointedly neutral and unhappy to be baking under the sun. You stare him down and he makes a face like he’s smelled something unpleasant, so at least he isn’t feeling sorry for you.
Still, you can’t leave without clearing away the only thing here you can worry about, so you do your best to radiate genuine distress to him, and hope he takes it seriously. “Do you promise this isn’t a tactical maneuver to kill the aquarium strut project?”
“Are you kidding? The whole R&D team is trying to engineer a Fulton system for fish. I caught Ocelot tying flies for the Boss the other day.” He says it very casually, not rubbing your anxiousness in your face. “It’s untouchable.”
“Well, do your best and look after it while I’m away, alright?”
“I’m forwarding all the work to you.”
“Good, I don’t want you messing it up.”
Kaz laughs despite himself, and you wink at him as the chopper’s rotors start.
The Atlantic Waters FOB is a miserable little pile of girders. Your room is cold, nobody is happy to be there, and half the base is painted the wrong color.
First order of business is to let home know you made it there okay, so you set the tone for your correspondences by sending triplicate copies of personnel requests to Miller’s office. Only one is needed, but you feel the extras communicate a certain emphasis that marks the early days of FOB development.
It’s nice to pour yourself into a hard project, even when you’re away from home. The air is sharper out here, and there’s a kind of toughness you admire about everyone: the Boss visits as often as he can, but the long stretches in between feel like winters in themselves.
Personnel and resources start genuinely moving, and training the Base Development staff there to do what you do gets easier: a few of them even offer to help with the extra work you’re sent from home regarding the aquarium build, which is sweet. Updates on how it’s going generally come in the form of work order schedules needing to be approved and your team there checking in at certain milestones. You try not to wish you were there to see construction start, since you need to be full present at your own location, but you still hope the Boss takes a couple of pictures. Seeing the big plate glass panels balanced on the ends of the cranes would be amazing.
Here, construction is at the whim of stormy weather and resource management, which seems to take forever. Refinement processes are generally automated so there’s no lack of material, just manpower. It means juggling schedules, writing schedules, negotiating with the other teams to make sure nobody is short-staffed or overworked. Construction when the weather agrees is furiously paced, and you learn to sleep when you can to the grinding of nearby machinery and that one idiot Thunder Roach belting out Queen songs while he welds. Not that you sleep much—there’s too much to do, and so much to teach. There was a lot you took for granted at the other base, and there’s a certain pleasure in relearning the value of it here.
News from home is the one luxury you allow yourself at the end of a long, cold day: R&D’s fish Fulton system is ridiculously inefficient, and contests to catch the largest native fish around Mother Base have turned into a weekly occurrence. Rogue Coyote is the enemy du jour after testing smoke grenades filled with laughing gas on some unlucky Combat guys in a border skirmish. Kaz writes you a short note detailing a story from Angola-Zaire that has the Boss snatching something called a ‘Neumann’s suckermouth’ straight out of a river, which Quiet keeps recounting through pantomime to spellbound Diamond Dogs.
The FOB can only remain stagnant for so long under your care, and your passionate dislike of it dissolves into just passion, and you remember why you’re the best at what you do when you see it start to flourish. The weather stops seeming like an obstacle, your team develops the right amount of fear and love for you, and someone with talent for it finally rotates into mess hall duty. Life is good—still cold, but good.
When you get the call to come back to Mother Base, it almost feels unfair to leave now that you’ve finally adjusted. Jade Tree Frog stammers briefly before Kaz takes the line from him—Your stupid aquarium is almost finished. Don’t you want to see it opened for the first time? Come home already.
You don’t bother to stop off at your quarters: Pequod doesn’t mind taking you straight to the helipad on the aquarium strut, and you practically leap onto the platform with your bag still on your back. The whole place is empty except for the volunteer personnel getting it ready for an official opening: Loggerhead gives you a quick debrief as you walk and you do your best to try to thank and congratulate him, but he lets you go on your own, sensing what you want. It smells of new pavement and paint, although it’s remarkably clean of leftover construction materials. Basic rules like No Smoking! and No Firearms! are posted up around the entrance, and you just drop your bag as you enter into the mail hallway and begin staring.
All the blueprints hadn’t done it justice, and seeing it come to life in front of you is breathtaking. The construction, the solidity, the stability of the platform creates a reassuring feeling as the outside light closes off and leaves you in the hallway. The main aquarium runs around the whole octagonal shape of the platform in a large ring, with branching exhibits for freshwater or different ecosystems, all of it kept dim so the aquariums can glow.
There’s a humming silence among the huge tanks that you’d dreamed about, but it feels different in person. The fish pass by in clouds or exclamation points of color, looking glossy and agile. Sleepy Loggerhead had ended up running a small committee of volunteers to acclimate the fish to their respective habitats, a delicate balance between letting the fish adjust and making changes to the water’s composition.
You look at the platforms and typically see the function, as well as all the effort that went into them: you’d spearheaded almost all of them, and you think constantly about their upkeep, how to improve them, how to expand: they always look like projects.
But this… is different. If you concentrate, you can think about the financial numbers of having the plate glass manufactured and installed, but it isn’t what springs to mind. You just see the fish.
Blue light washes over your hands and uniform, rippling with the water. If you let your thoughts drift, it’s almost like you’ve made it underwater, still breathing comfortably.
“Is that your bag of dirty laundry by the entrance?” Kaz asks loudly, reverberating around the otherwise silent room.
You resist the impulse to give him a friendly hip check and instead loop your arm through his once he’s close enough, the two of you standing and facing the aquarium glass. “Somebody just couldn’t wait for me to come home. No time to do laundry."
“Poor time management skills. Speaking of… I didn’t think you could pull this off.” Kaz doesn’t say it with any real malice, more of a gently backhanded congratulations. It seems more natural than outright praise.
“I didn’t do it alone,” you say, with the cadence of patiently correcting someone. It only lasts a moment. “But, I did do it.”
“Roaring Slug kept hectoring me about the lighting the jellyfish room, which I don’t remember signing off on.”
That throws you for a loop: you can’t even remotely remember anything like in the original drafts. “Jellyfish…?”
“I asked for it.” Even the Boss’s soft voice seems to cascade in this room, and you both watch him watch the fish for a moment, DD clicking in uncertain circles around him on the tiled floor. You’ve never seen the Boss in lighting like this, and you’re glad Kaz has the presence of mind to speak for the both of you.
“You like jellyfish, Boss?”
“They have their priorities figured out,” he says, and somehow that’s an answer that makes perfect sense. He pats Kaz on the back and you can’t even be jealous. “Good job, you two.”
“Hawk did most of the work."
“Miller kept it going while I was away, though!”
“Fight it out amongst yourselves.” The Boss raises his hands in a bemused surrender, turning away and gesturing briefly. “C’mon, DD.”
DD huffs an acknowledgement but keeps his nose pressed to the floor, sniffing busily even as the Boss leads the two of them around the bend, maybe to find the jellyfish room.
Watching him go, you feel a wave of renewed reverence for your Boss. It seems impossible that your life will be different beyond this unlikely moment, but you’ll always have this moment in space and time with him. The silence makes you feel like Kaz is thinking the same thing.
Inexorably, you think about the Neumann’s suckerfish story. “Did he really--?”
“Right out of the water, with his bare hand. Took his glove off so he wouldn’t hurt it.” Kaz’s voice is husky, and you decide to let him go un-teased about it.
You relax against him, feeling him counterbalance against his crutch in response. The long trip home has caught up to you, but you don’t want to leave, not even to sleep. There’s too much to look forward to—everyone showing up for the grand opening tomorrow, getting to see Ocelot stare down the African catfish exhibit and refuse to make a joke, and eventually, the next project, whatever it is.
Kaz clears his throat. “You were right.” You make a point to fashion the most incredulous face possible when you look at him, but Kaz is still watching the aquarium. The blue bounces off his shades, and the circulation of fish look like passing lights. “It’s scenic.”
“Hey,” you say, nudging him with your shoulder and dizzy with taking a chance. “Do you wanna make out?”
Kaz makes a small choking noise. “You… didn’t build this… just to say that, did you?”
“I kind of want to say yes. You’d probably pass out.”
“You’re the worst. Yes, I do want to make out. Hurry up.”