The waiting room outside Ocelot’s office at Intel is quiet, and it makes you wish you’d just declined the invitation.
You’d been a Diamond Dog for about a month now, settled into routines and gone through the standard training with a fairly large batch of other recruits. Physical conditioning with Brass Moth, basic first aid with Canary, some appearances here and there from the higher ups, even the Boss had showed up once or twice. There hadn’t been a lot of contact with Ocelot after the very first interview, which sticks in your mind as a place of bright lights and questions that were easy to answer.
The good news is you’re not alone: Silent Rhino, Roaring Centipede, and Prancing Shrew are all guys you know from your batch. Rhino and Shrew were the two you’d put closest to the top, if you were honest: Rhino took to everything so easily and never turned away someone looking to learn from him. Shrew said nothing to nobody but did everything faster and better, maybe as a result. You class yourself closer to Centipede’s level, which is to say, average at best.
The four of you are stuffed into the little waiting room together, and the silence is startling. It took you a while to place why, but the inner catacombs of the Intel platform are extra soundproofed, so the hum of the base has nowhere to go. You sit in a fog of it.
It’s impossible to say how long you’ve been there: there’s no clock, and nobody expects to see Major Ocelot right away. Either through his busy schedule or a psych out tactic, he never sees anybody on time, but he does know if you’re late.
Eventually the door opens and the four of you jump out of your respective skins. Ocelot looks bored as he calls for Silent Rhino, who stands up and reminds you of just how tall and broad he is. But he steps quietly, and the door closes behind him.
Prancing Shrew is next, and he doesn’t look at any of you as he stands and follows Ocelot. Rhino settles back down into the chair he’d left empty, and Centipede knocks his boot heels together idly in the silence.
Shrew comes back out, trades spots with Centipede. Time is passing strangely but you know Centipede’s is the shortest interview so far, and Ocelot lets him go with a sour look before reading your name off his list. You pass by him, smelling both cordite and the pervasive scent of horses, just briefly.
His office is boring enough, just bookshelves, filing cabinets. No plants or pictures, almost papered in maps, but nothing indicating anything on any of them. No push pins or writing. It’s easier to look at Ocelot’s surroundings than Ocelot himself, even when you take the single chair in front of his wooden desk and he flips through a folder with your name on it. He’s very handsome in a troubling kind of way.
“Wounded Civet, hm?” He looks at you for probably the first time, pale and intense. “You know that prefix is reserved for those that have a history.”
You’ve gotten good at keeping your face composed, and you let it slide off you like oil. It’s a triage marker, not a condemnation. “It’s all in my file, sir.”
“Don’t like talking about it?”
“That was my last life, sir. It informs who I am now, but I don’t think it defines me.”
He makes a face like he doesn’t disagree, and flips back and forth on something that looks like your medical records. “As you know, there are specialty divisions within the Diamond Dogs, and your intake results stood out to us as someone suitable for one of those specialties. So, we’ll have an interview and decide where you go from here. If you change your mind, you can back out at any time, no questions asked.”
Ocelot’s mouth quirks, like he hadn’t been expecting to fend off a smile.
He asks a lot of questions, which you answer truthfully. There’s no point in lying, and he doesn’t ask anything worth lying about. Things about what you’ve done in your life, what skills you have that you value, what kind of friends you’ve had, your moral estimation of warfare. A few ethical puzzles, like the train and the switch, a man accused of murder when your friend did it, stuff that you feel is more to judge about your character and decision-making qualities. His pencil scratches on a clipboard irritatingly after every response.
“You’re crossing a suspension bridge. Your destination is the other side, but the bridge is only wide enough for one person to pass at a time.” Ocelot looks up at you again and it strikes you that he hasn’t done that much, preferring to keep his eyes on the paper. You sit up straighter. “A man is approaching from the opposite side. He’s carrying a gun.”
You can feel yourself looking off into another direction while you think, but it doesn’t seem like a reflex worth trying to stop. “Do I have a gun?”
“Do I know the man?”
“Does it matter?”
“I jump.” You resist the impulse to shrug when Ocelot doesn’t immediately write something after your answer. “The guy’s irrelevant, right? The whole point is to get to the other side, and I can do that without dealing with him.”
Ocelot leans back in his office chair, and you feel like it’s the first time you haven’t seen his shoulders at exactly the same level. It takes you off guard in an unexpected way, and one red hand lingers near his mouth as he thinks. Fingers flicker in a dismissal when he makes up his mind. “Hm. That’s all for now, Civet. You can go.”
You shut the door behind yourself as you leave and let out a breath you didn’t know you’d been holding, before finding three pairs of eyes watching you. You sit down quickly and try not to nervously smooth or pick at your uniform, instead shifting towards the front of your seat to look at the others. “Hey, what did you guys answer for the bridge problem?”
“Bridge problem?” Centipede leans around Rhino with some difficulty.
“I shot him.” Rhino shrugs. “Tried talking to the guy, but he said there was no way to make him move.” Shrew says nothing, which doesn’t surprise you.
“You guys got a bridge problem?”
You lean your chin on your hand and prepare yourself for nonsense. “What did he ask you, Centipede?"
“He asked what I would do if I were a cop and I pulled over a guy who was speeding, but it turns out the guy’s my dad…” Centipede explains, gesturing as he goes.
“What’d you say?”
“Well, first of all—my dad? After all these years, and this is how we meet again--?”
“I get the idea,” Rhino says, cutting him off. “And you, Civet? What did you say?”
“I jumped. I probably should’ve shot him, though, that sounds like the right answer.”
“Wish I’d gotten the bridge problem, that sounds easier.” Centipede mumbles, tapping the toes of his boots together. “What if you wiggled the bridge until the guy fell off?”
You crack a grin, but Rhino heaves a sigh that seems to go through his whole body. “Centipede, what are you doing here?”
“The guy with the shades said my scores were inconclusive, and a bunch of other stuff like, ‘he might be faking to get out of more work,’ and ‘leave it for Ocelot to find out,’ whatever.”
You catch Shrew pulling a face at the thought of causing so much bureaucratic strain and are about to ask him about it when Ocelot’s office opens back up, cutting through the mood like cold air.
“Rhino, Shrew, Civet, in my office.” Ocelot holds the door open while the three of you try not to trip over each other filing in. “Centipede, you can go right back to Miller.”
“Cool. What do I tell him?”
“Whatever you think will make him angriest.”
Centipede gives him a double thumbs up and spins on his heel to leave.
The office is more crowded with the three of you in it, and you seem to step back as one thing as he puts himself between you and the desk, leaning back against it. The posture emphasizes the holster at his hip, whether he means it to or not.
“What do you think I want out of the three of you?” he asks, and nobody jumps forward to answer.
He arches his eyebrows so you know it’s not rhetorical, and eventually Rhino stirs, lifting his chin. “I don’t think what we think matters, sir. You’ll get out of us whatever you want us to give you.”
“Good answer, Rhino. You’ve all been through basic, so I imagine you must’ve run into Commander Miller once or twice.” Ocelot moves his hands while he talks and it weaves a pattern of red that’s hard to look away from. “He makes good soldiers. Practical, efficient, perfectly dependable for what the Boss will ask them to do. And that can be you, any time you want it to be.”
“I am not Commander Miller. I am not particularly interested in good soldiers. The only thing that interests me is the fulfillment of the Boss’s wishes, visions, and whims. Sometimes those require men who are not good soldiers, who can do vile, uncompromising things because they were told to.”
“That’s what I intend to make out of you. The creature that you transform into may be unrecognizable to you as you are now. But the nice thing is, you won’t care. You don’t have to care. Whatever happens to you, it’ll be of no consequence to you, because you are mine, and we all belong to the Boss.”
He drops his hands to his thighs with a little slap and the three of you jump. “That’s my big speech. If you’d like to drop out at any time, just swing by Command and have your designation changed.” Ocelot says it casually. “Training starts at sixteen-hundred, in hangar B. Try not to be late.”
Ocelot pushes you farther than you ever wanted to go. Up early, out late, constantly moving. You eat so fast that food doesn’t have a taste anymore. Your body hurts constantly and you sleep like the dead. But like all things, your body adjusts to it. You find yourself elbow to elbow with Shrew and Rhino in the cafeteria and make time to smile about it, finding that it’s a nice feeling to know exactly what they’re capable of. What you’re capable of. The three of you can pull, aim, and fire at the same target in almost perfect sync, and it feels like a dance.
Training starts to shift from daily schedules to new things every day, once you’ve grown comfortable with each other. Sometimes it’s endurance, sometimes it’s fighting until you drop, sometimes it’s field stripping and reassembling guns you can’t even name, but the shape of their moving parts becomes more familiar to you than your own face.
Every day he tells you what fine Diamond Dogs you are, how valuable you’d be to the other units if you stopped now. How proud the Boss would be to see you alongside your comrades, your family. All you have to do is call it quits.
The scary thing is, you know he’s not lying. Other members of the Ocelot Unit—real, true Ocelot Unit members, who have gone through all this—have come up to you during dinner and told you with a kind of tired smile and genuine eyes that it’s okay to quit. That it’s better to quit before you injure yourself seriously: you’re no good to the Boss if you’re broken. That’s not what Ocelot wants, that’s not what the Boss wants. Diamond Dogs you’ve admired for their efficiency and smarts have taken you aside and told you that they dropped out of it, that they don’t regret it. Take care of yourself, Civet, okay? It only gets worse.
You appreciate it, but it puts a bitter taste in your mouth. No one wants to congratulate you for getting this far. You’re losing track of your days and the number of people you speak to regularly is shrinking rapidly towards three.
You feel like you’re chasing Ocelot, and you have dreams about it, when you manage to dream. Sometimes long, huge hallways that you can’t see the end of, sometimes you’re crashing through cramped spaces behind him. Sometimes you’re drowning and you can see red gloves just above the surface, outstretched.
He looks at you like he knows. Your field of vision has narrowed down to yourself and your survival almost exclusively, so you can’t tell if he looks at Rhino and Shrew the same way. You smile at Ocelot whenever you can, even if you’re drooling from the heat or swishing a mouthful of blood.
He was right. It’s nice, to be his.