It’s different, this time.
What Kaz can remember of 1975 is hot and fractured and dark. There’s no set order of events, no final cut: he remembers Paz’s blood on his hands, the roar of the wind and the rotor blades, the dead weight burning around him, the Caribbean Sea crystallizing like black ice in his lungs.
Before that, Morpho, age twenty-two, put avgas in a Huey on a strip in the Tamá Massif and then put it down at the end of the ramp when the engines seized. The thing is, Kaz gave the order. It was a cocaine nosebleed of a disaster, but the MSF was always in the red, back then. Snake never knew about it.
Now: no one is breathing. Quiet, who can’t breathe anyway, is standing, staring straight through the chin bubble, raw-muscle hands tight on back of the copilot’s seat as Ibis pulls the Blackfoot back in a flare. Kaz blinks sweat from his eyes: the bones of her knuckles are blinding white.
Afterimages vibrate at the corners of his vision.
The rotors clip through the crown of the Cambodian jungle and Kaz feels his heart slow as the console pitches forward. He can see the break in the trees up ahead, blanketed in mist as thick and pale as the sky. Ibis levels out and the Blackfoot shudders, finally sinks through the foliage.
The Diamond Dogs’ answer to the Sikorsky UH-60 comes from a factory in Croatia and it runs on experimental biofuel. Theoretically. Right now half the warning lights are on and the engines have starved to death, but Ibis’s grinning like a maniac, wild and wound up, eyes bright as he eases them into the clearing. “Any landing you walk away from on two legs is a good landing, Commander! Well, one leg. Whatever–“
Kaz actually smiles, through the taste of bile in his throat and the shock and the dull realization that this isn’t the end of the world.
Then the world falls away, and Quiet screams.
“No response, hit him again!”
He can’t see anything more than the slick heat of daylight on metal, dust, latex hands twisting through soft red shadows behind his eyelids. The pain from the crack in his collarbone and the broken ribs and the sun searing through the roots of his teeth is blunted by the needle taped four inches deep in his arm. He can’t see.
The surge of the countershock freezes time for a full second and Kaz opens his eyes. Time resumes to the beat of a human heart.
“How’s he doing?” His voice sounds broken, even to him. Far away.
“Well, he’s stabilized. But it took too long.”
He opens his eyes again and finds himself alone. The afternoon sun is filtering through the canopy, dappling the forest floor with patches of pure gold. His aviators are sliding down his nose. One of the lenses is shattered. Kaz shifts, finds his good arm, pushes himself up. There’s a Mylar blanket around his shoulders, half his face is stiff with dried blood. It feels like his brain is leaking from his tear ducts.
“Quiet?” Panic is making him shrill. “Ibis–?”
Nothing. Kaz swallows, suddenly hyperaware of the volume of his own voice, the flash of the Mylar, the echo of the– if they hadn’t been trapped under a low cloud ceiling, if he hadn’t been gunning to get back to the Heiwa Maru– if he wasn’t so ready to be home–
Something snaps and Kaz flinches, catches the glittering dark outline of a skeleton in the shade.
She materializes all at once and relief rushes through Kaz like fentanyl. Her skin is charred black to the bone in places, sparking and smoking with parasites, and she’s favoring one leg, but she’s as alive as she ever was. There’s a duffel slung over her back and her free hand is curled in a fist.
“Hey,” Kaz is staring up at her stupidly, aching eyes locked with hers, daring her to disappear a second time. Quiet drops the bag, sinks to the moss next to him. She’s close enough that her arm’s flush against the stump of his shoulder. She smells like death and jet fuel. “Hey,” he starts again. “Where’s–“
She opens her hand. A diamond rolls in her palm, sharp against a smear of oil, and Kaz exhales. “Shit.”
Quiet nods, presses the diamond into his hand. He has no idea what to do with it. Ibis was named for a Singaporean oil tanker, the one that supplied FOB Andaman until–
“Where are we? What about the chopper? What the fuck happened?”
She jerks a thumb up and Kaz follows the gesture, squinting dizzily into the sun. At first it’s lost in the glare but as his eyes adjust he can make out what she’s pointing at: a wall of rock is splitting the sky in two.
“We went off the plateau?” She may as well have punched him in the gut. Kaz closes his fingers around their pilot’s diamond, feeling faint as the points of the gem cut into his palm. “Quiet–“
He’s shaking. Quiet rolls up on her heels, pulls the Mylar close around his shoulders, holds him still. He hates every second of it. Half the time she’s about as subtle as one of her rifles and the other half he can’t tell what she’s thinking, if she’s thinking at all.
He can’t imagine what it’s like, when she’s alone with anyone else.
He can’t imagine what it would be like if she ever really spoke.
Kaz leans into her, limp and annoyed, more than half-expects her to shove him off. Instead, Quiet settles. She keeps her hands on him, one on his ribs under where his arm used to be, one light in the sticky, matted mess of his hair.
“We’re fucked,” Kaz mutters, presses his face into the cool flesh of her thigh. She gives off none of the body heat he’s craving. He’s never noticed before. “The iDroid was– it was hooked up to the onboard computer when… we lost the engine. Unless you–“
She hums in agreement. No comms, then. No map or intel channel, either. “You think we’re in walking distance to the city?”
He knows the answer to that. Limping back to the capital isn’t an option, not with the Vietnamese occupation, not when they’d put Phnom Penh behind them hours before the crash. Yeah, he has contacts here, PFs looking to merge with the Diamond Dogs, but what good is that when they’re five provinces away, minimum? He’d keep his fingers crossed that Quiet knows her way around, but he needs his hand.
Quiet twists her fingers into his hair, forces him to look up at her. He has to fight to keep his breathing steady, fixes his gaze on an oozing scorch mark across her forearm and not– not– on the crescent of her nipple slipping out from under her useless bikini top.
She taps her radio collar and Kaz jerks to attention, elbows her hard as he tries to sit up again.
“Yeah, there’s a locator in there.”
Quiet’s brows furrow and he shrugs, relaxes under the weight of her hands. He’s concussed at the very least, staying down is probably a good idea.
“Everyone has one,” Kaz explains. “We’re at the bottom of a ravine, right? A valley?”
“So there’s no way in hell the signal’s getting back to Mother Base. We have to get to–“ He waves his hand vaguely. “Higher ground. A search party will get to the crash site in a day. Maybe it’ll take them a few more to find us. My bet’s on four, five if the weather turns. What about you?”
She holds up two fingers in a peace sign, a V for victory, sticks her tongue between them, and Kaz can feel his lips split as he grins. “You’re on.”
Kaz sleeps for eleven hours. He half-wakes up as the sun’s setting, offers to keep watch. He can barely string a sentence together and Quiet ignores him.
The next time he comes to it’s barely dawn and he’s soaked in sweat and he has to piss so bad, he could puke. Kaz kicks off the Mylar and drags himself to his feet, only to immediately collapse, because–
“Hey! Where’s my fucking leg?”
Quiet’s sitting cross-legged, barefoot, busy looking after her G44. The gun’s in pieces on a cloth next to her and the cleaning rod is dangling from her lips like a cigarette. There’s dew beading on her skin and in her hair. She’s humming a song that’s low, sweet, too new or too old for Kaz to recognize.
“My leg,” he repeats, louder, as if she’s deaf and not mute. “What did you–“
She yawns, puts everything down and crawls over until she’s on top of him and he’s on his back in the mud, chest heaving. “I didn’t say fuck me,” he spits, eyes rolling. “I said–“
She reaches past him, and a second later his own prosthesis falls in the moss by his head.
“Ah,” Kaz says. The polypropylene is crushed, half-melted, and the only thing holding the ankle joint to the fake shin is his steel-toe boot. “Well. That’s lucky.”
Quiet snorts, and Kaz claps his hand on her shoulder. “C’mon,” he gasps, face burning. “Get the fuck off me.” He tries to shove her away, but it’s like pushing a tank– it takes all his strength and she just stays there. “Quiet–“
She helps him piss. Kaz is too sick and desperate to argue, digs his nails into the soft bark of a tree for balance as they wait for his cock to go limp in her hand. It takes forever. All he can focus on is the friction, her calluses and scars, how she runs the pad of her thumb over his slit for the hell of it– but she’s being careful with him, for once, patient the way the Phantom used to be, so he must be really fucked up. The feeling is somewhere in the gray area between comforting and gut-wrenching, where the atmosphere is thin and it’s hard to breathe one way or the other. Kaz knows it like the palm of her hand.
When he’s done, she wipes her hand on his mouth.
“Do you remember,” Kaz asks, “the day Ibis ditched a jeep in the ocean?”
Quiet’s got him, sunburned and peeling, over her shoulders in a fireman’s carry and his sweat has been dripping down her back for the better part of the morning. It’s relentlessly humid. His crutch is gone for good, not that it matters– the skull fracture is what’s really keeping him from walking. He’s on the edge of being viciously motionsick and sour spit is running from his nose. Talking helps.
“That defunct PF we used to work with in Egypt– uh, Osiris Cross? Osiris something. You really don’t–?”
“Nn.” She’s concentrating on making her way up a shale slope, using one hand for balance on the grooved, wet rock. It’s steep enough that every few steps her fingers dig a little deeper into his knee.
“Huh. Maybe it was when you were… well, anyway. Back in ’84 they traded us some 4x4s for a crate of artillery, so Pequod had him long line training. He let the fucking thing go, like, a thousand feet up, the whole Base Dev division saw it… and, you know pilots.”
She grunts an affirmative.
“We had this guy in the MSF–“ Kaz falters as Quiet vaults up the cliff, right through a waterfall. Drops of water hit his face like sparks.
“No, he… died. In the attack on Mother Base." Kaz saw him, laid out beside– "He was the best. For some fucking reason, though, once– he’d just shut down– anyway, he jumped for the rotor, wanted to stop it with his bare hands… nearly got himself thrown off the helipad.”
Quiet lets out a hoarse bark and it takes Kaz a second to realize she’s laughing. The sound hurts, sends a jolt of static down his spine. There’s no way he’ll ever get used to it, doesn’t matter how many times he hears her– her words won’t kill him, not anymore, but he can still smell the blood between her teeth. He laughs with her.
It took nine years to come home, once.
Once he was chased across Argentina by a pack of dogs. This is kind of like that, or maybe the opposite, because what they say is true: when you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.
The thought makes him itch. Quiet is boiling water, stark naked with her hair down. Mosquitos land on her only to pop and melt into her skin. She’s like one of those carnivorous plants.
“Like a Venus fly trap.”
She’s opening the instant coffee from a DD-ration. Kaz has already choked down the sliced franks and beans and now he’s examining a tortilla chip. Factory contracts are what got Diamond Dogs through the late seventies.
“Remind me never to take you to the cricket farm,” he says, as Quiet passes him a cup of coffee. It’s still boiling. “It’s in Thailand. Cheap protein.”
She nods. She spent enough time in Southeast Asia as a human, before she bought into CIPHER’s spec ops bullshit.
“Entomophagy’s gonna change the world once the West catches on. That and biofuel.” Kaz closes his eyes. They’re aching, blistered black across his nose and in pooling in the whorls of his ears. “Maybe we should get into solar. Stealth camo is already photosynthetic regenerative polymer, there’s gotta be a large-scale application.” He cracks open one eye. “You’ve made us a lot of money, you know. Maybe I owe you.”
Quiet stares back at him, expressionless.
“Or maybe your fucking parasites are what crashed our ship.”
Yeah, she saw that coming. It doesn’t even phase her. She knows where the first strains of biofuel came from. Even Kaz could see it pulsing through the Blackfoot’s fuselage, so he can’t imagine what it looked like to her.
Maybe what he needs to do is take a leaf out of Monsanto’s book and grow corn.
She shrugs, and Kaz sighs. Everything is crisp and cool, and the evening casts their camp in violet light. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, the pollenating bitch has done far worse than cause microbiological growth in a fuel tank, and Ibis was a good man but Kaz can’t seem to care. Not enough to blame her. It was a good landing, until it wasn’t. Breaking the news to Pequod will hurt like a bitch but the chief pilot makes sure everyone knows the Commander still won’t spring for copilots, for fuck’s sake, sexually reactive jet fuel is just another occupational hazard–
His eyes are really burning, now. Quiet’s humming and he knows the song, and, well, what else can he do?