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I'll Pick Up Your Bones When I'm Done

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ART BY STARLOCK

 

 

1999

“In a real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3am,” Solid Snake thinks as he chips the black mud from his boots. The air in the Tselinoyarsk jungle is humid and thick enough to slice with a knife, but Snake’s been trudging through so many swamps and sewers that a chill he can’t shake has settled beneath his skin. His uniform is stained dark from the soil, and from the blood of Big Boss’s many lieutenants: Red Blaster, Predator, Kyle Schneider -

Snake’s knife slips and he accidentally nicks the side of his hand. He hisses and brings the split skin to his mouth, sucking hard on the wound to stop the bleeding. The truth is that his Dark Night has barely begun; his mind is off the mission now. His thoughts are scattershot, disorganized. He still can’t shake the sight of Gustava’s shredded torso as she bled out in his lap, the sound of Gray Fox’s voice, filtered through the grating that enclosed Metal Gear’s cockpit...

He shuts his eyes and tries to think of nothing: purification of the senses is the first step to purification of the soul. David isn’t a religious man, but the absolution St. John of the Cross finds in oblivion is a universal desire. ‘cesó todo y dejéme, dejando mi cuidado...’ - the freedom found in God is similar to the freedom a soldier finds in following orders. Purify the senses and give yourself over to the mission. Everything else will come naturally. The man who taught him that, he -

- a voice drifts through the mist to answer the hanging couplet of his verse. Snake’s nerves are so shot that at first he thinks he’s hallucinating. “- entre las azucenas olvidado.” my cares… forgotten among the lilies. Snake hadn’t realized he’d been speaking aloud, so how could anyone possibly respond? He drops his knife and checks his radio. Maybe he’d left it on since his last briefing? If so, it’d be a disaster; they were using burst communication, but even switching frequencies would be detected if left to dangle for too long. Besides, that voice - it was so familiar. It -

“A blood drenched jungle like this is the last place I thought I’d hear someone mumbling the words of a holy man. Then again, this is you we're talking about.”

The words are accompanied by the dulled clang of a metal cylinder (a cane?) hitting wood. It strikes again and again, in the pattern of an appreciative slow clap. There is only one person Snake knows who expresses condescending approval like that. He leaps to his feet and spins with one hand on his holster. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to see at this point; after all the shit Big Boss has thrown at him it could be anything: a shape-shifter, a man with perfect control of pitch imitating a voice he’d heard Snake speaking to on the radio, a disturbingly realistic hologram...

The most obvious answer is also the most inexplicable. In the middle of Zanzibar Land’s dark, dense jungle - half a world away from where he’s supposed to be right now - Master McDonnell Benedict Miller is leaning nonchalantly against the spine of a young Kapok Tree looking like he belongs there. He’s got a modified camo poncho slung over his shoulders and he’s wearing a red beret emblazoned with a ‘ZL’, denoting allegiance to Big Boss’ walled nation-state. A scarf of the same colour is tied like an ascot around his neck. His expression, as usual, is impenetrably shrouded by his trademark aviator sunglasses.

“- but I’m proud of you, David,” he says with a very sincere smile. “No other soldier could have made it this far, and no other soldier would still be desperately searching for his soul with so much blood on his hands. You really are one of a kind.”

All Snake can do is rasp his name. “M-Master Miller? What are you… how are you here?”

Miller quirks an eyebrow, amused, and raises his arm. He sweeps his cane through the air and says: “I’ve always been here. This is my home.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m the X.O. of Zanzibar Land. Those are my men you’ve been killing too, David.”

“You-” Snake is faltering. He can’t find the words to respond, he can’t find the presence of mind to make logic out of this. “You’re… a traitor too? How can you have gone over to Big Boss’ side?” Kyle, Madnar, Gray Fox, it’s too much.

Miller shakes his head and tsks. His tone turns chiding.“His ‘side’? David, David. You really don’t understand - after all this time, your thinking is still too black and white. There was no ‘side’ for me to go over to. That’s the point.”

Miller pushes off from the tree he’s leaning against and walks towards Snake, maneuvering on his cane and fake leg with the ease of a decade’s practice. “The battlefield should not divide soldiers into “ally” and “enemy”. We've talked about this before. The criteria we use to determine these things is entirely arbitrary when you sit down to really think about it, isn’t it?”

“I -” Snake feels younger beneath the harsh scrutiny of Miller’s opaque gaze, like he’s a green cadet falling just short of the Hell Master’s required 110%. Was he supposed to admit that after all this time, he’d still never thought about it that way? He fails to answer the question and Miller sets a friendly, fatherly hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, David. I’m not trying to give you an exam. This is the kind of thing they train you not to think about in the military. Countries - lines on a map. Ideologies - words in a book, rarely followed to the letter, an excuse for domination and exploitation. Religion? Very convenient for excusing social inequalities. Don’t get me wrong - it’s all well and good if it keeps society structured. We need false constructs to function as a species. That's what makes us human. But should soldiers really be forced to die for things that mean nothing to them?”

Snake says nothing. He can feel the parts of himself that philosophize and intellectualize shutting down one by one. The other part of his brain is kicking in - the one that makes him an excellent soldier, the part of him that made Colonel Campbell beg for him to come back this one last time despite how final he’d made his resignation in the wake of Outer Heaven. This part of him watches the world with animal eyes - looks for weaknesses in people’s gaits, faults in their stance. He begins to shut away the things he’s felt about Master Miller in the past (teacher, friend, father figure, no, more than th -) and forces himself to coldly categorize the man as one thing only: potential enemy.

Miller frowns at Snake’s protracted silence. “Soldiers should be allowed to choose their own cause. Their own comrades. They should be the architects of their own crusades. That’s Big Boss’ dream. That’s the dream of Zanzibar Land.” He pauses and takes his hand off Snake’s shoulder. When he steps back, his sunglasses catch the moonlight for just a moment, flashing bright as he throws his cane to the ground. “That’s the dream that I came here to defend.”

Solid Snake is ready now, all traces of David-the-student buried beneath a shield of confidence carried by a warrior who has never lost a battle. He cocks his head back and forces a thin smile. “You really expect me to fight you like that, Master?”

“Oh, you mean because I’m a cripple?” Miller chuckles and grabs the edge of his poncho, folding it over his shoulder to show the shape of a sleek, mechanical prosthetic. “Did you really think that someone like me would let myself go? Don’t worry, David - I know that you like a fair fight.”

Snake sets his left heel back to steady himself, preparing for a physical blow (the prosthetic looks Russian, probably rigged with a few tricks; usually the joints clamp down with approximately 43% more force than standard human strength), but Miller reaches into the depths of his cloak and pulls out a smoke-grenade. Snake’s eyes fly wide and he dives aside, covering his face to avoid getting choked by the chlorate composition. When he raises his head, Miller is gone. Above, a loudspeaker whines to life and the clap of a spot-light switching on echoes against the jungle canopy. Snake shields his vision against the sudden and harsh light, surprised that he hadn’t noticed the broadcast system in the trees before.

As the smoke dissipates, Snake’s eyes adjust. He can see now that he wasn’t in an abandoned patch of jungle like he’d thought; hidden beneath palm leaves and ghillie blankets is familiar equipment - ropes, ramps, carefully-dug pit-traps. It’s a military grade obstacle course hidden in the middle of the woods, very similar to the one back at FOXHOUND HQ.

Over the loud-speaker, Miller’s voice cracks crisp and clear.

“How about it, Snake? You up for one last training session with the Hell Master? Show me what you’ve learned!”

”What do you want?” I asked.
“To be with you in hell,” he said.

I laughed. “It’s plain you mean
to have us both destroyed.”

- Anna Akhmatova, from 'The Guest'

 

1994

Show me what you’ve learned.

David is fumbling with a trap-wire, his gloves made clumsy and slick by the kind of thick, misty rain that only falls on the West Coast, here in a forest cradled on one side by mountains and the other by the Pacific Ocean. It’s the kind of rain that hangs in the air even after it hits the ground. The radio in his ear is crackling loud with the confused whispers of the other FOXHOUND recruits out on this training exercise with him. The confusion started fourty minutes ago when the voice of Roy Campbell - Executive Officer of FOXHOUND and the highest authority in the unit besides Big Boss himself - cut into their radio frequencies and began issuing subtly conflicting orders against Mission Control. Things got unconventional after that as “Mission Control” - their usually trustworthy if somewhat hard-assed survival trainer, Master Miller - began issuing “helpful tips” that led his students straight into cleverly hidden traps.

That’s where David was right now. He’d walked into his trap intentionally and with purpose. The very last thing Campbell had said to them was: “Mission parameters changed. Miller is now the enemy. Bring him in. Campbell out.” What caused the confusion was that he refused to respond to or confirm any queries. Any attempts to call back were met with radio silence. David’s radio beeps to life again with the voice of his comrade, Vibrant Hawk.

“Snake. Going after Miller. What’s your position? Out.”

Instead of answering, David pulls his gloves off with his teeth and uses his bare fingers to loose the last bit of the trap wire’s taut knots. The “C4” on the other end isn’t armed. The worst it will do is trip an alarm and broadcast his failure across half the forest, tipping off his target that someone was closing in. With the trap safely disabled, David drops to his stomach and begins pulling himself through the muddy underbrush.

He has no time to wait for Hawk to help him pincer in on their teacher’s position. He already knows where he’s going, had discerned the purpose of the exercise the moment Campbell’s gruff voice came on over the radio. He is certain that he knows where Master Miller is broadcasting from now, after passing multiple red-herring posts manned by decoys that watched the world through clumsily applied, knock-off sunglasses.

Miller’s transmissions are backed by the steady thrum of rain hitting a roof, meaning that he’s either above the tree-line or nestled in a clearing. He was calling in the trainees one by one, leading them to the traps that probably surrounded his position, to throw the ones who didn’t fall for it off his trail. All David has to do is follow the audial intensity of the rain. It’s not long before he catches the glint of glass between the trees. As he crawls closer, he can see that there is a shadow moving unsteadily in the window. Bingo. The sentry-post is built into the rise of a small hill, formed by two rectangular boulders long lost beneath a sea of soft moss and red peat.

It’s not hard to sneak around the back of the structure with the rain and the wet ground dampening the fall of his footsteps. He walks slowly and carefully, to mitigate the noticeable squelch that accompanies each raise of his heel. The sentry post has no door so Miller’s back is clearly visible the moment David climbs the hill. He’s got a size-too-big raincoat thrown over his tracksuit but he cuts an unmistakable figure with one sleeve empty and his left pant-leg clinging wetly to the inhuman shape of his outdated prosthetic.

David pads his way into the post and sets his empty gun to the back of Miller’s head as soon as he crosses the threshold. Miller goes stiff, but he doesn’t raise his arm, which David allows because the man’s dependent on his crutch for balance.

“I’m gonna guess,” Miller speaks slowly and with surprisingly good cheer, “either Bastard Crow or, judging by the fact you went immediately for the gun, Solid Snake.”

“Gig’s up, Master,” David says. “Good show, though. It almost worked.”

Miller doesn’t respond, which should have been a clue that he was about to do something risky, like using his cane as a pivot to make a hard dodge left and knock the gun from David's hands with the brunt of his skull. The momentum makes the crack hit hard and the gun goes skittering off into the dark corner of the shack. Miller regains his balance using the wall to brace himself and draws his own gun, setting his good foot on David’s weapon and kicking it further away for good measure.

“If that was a loaded gun, I could have shot your brains out,” David says.

“50/50 chance can still mean success,” Miller huffs, clicking the safety off his pistol. “You didn’t even pull the trigger on instinct. David, what have I told you about going easy on people because of something like a few missing limbs? Men who have already lost something take bigger risks than men who haven't.”

David considers their position for a few seconds: Miller steadied by the wall, the distance between them only a few inches off arm's length… he calculates the variables in his head, tracking potential movements like mathematical certainties. When the equations add up, he moves.

The art of CQC is to blend multiple moves into a single, fluid attack. David starts with the roll of his heel and feels his muscles ripple like a wave through his body as he turns a leg pivot into a tackle and then draws his knife with the same motion that he grabs Miller’s wrist and twists it. When he lands on the ball of his right foot, he’s already got the blade against his teacher’s jugular.

Miller grins. “Much better. Go on. Call it in.”

Solid Snake does as he’s told.

*

The air at the rendezvous point behind the gymnasium is tense. Campbell stands beneath an umbrella, his body swallowed by the wide lapels of his standard issue FOXHOUND trenchcoat. Miller paces in front of the students - two rows of some of the unit’s best new recruits, most of them barely out of their teens and all of them soaked to the bone. “It’s raining today, I bet the Hell Master is going to make you do something tedious outside for ten hours,” was a common exaggerated refrain amongst the older soldiers and David was beginning to wonder if there was something to it. Like being miserable and cold would somehow drill his lessons in more surely; etching them in stone, instead of sand.

Miller ceases his pacing and comes to a stop beneath Campbell’s umbrella. He digs his cane into the mud and tips his shades down a half-inch.

“Well,” he says, “that was interesting.”

The soldier beside David lets out a barely audible exhale. Everyone here knows what that tone of voice means - it means that there is probably going to be a written portion to this exam. The first time Miller assigned them an essay after a training exercise, Hawk had complained about it in the mess over dinner, saying “I didn’t join the military to write fucking research papers”. Miller caught ear of it as he passed by and smacked him over the head with his cane: “That’s the goddamn point, soldier.”

(Later Hawk said: "He talks big but I think the bastard just likes paperwork." )

“Before I say anything else, I’d like to give a round of applause to my co-star.” Miller taps his cane against the ground in place of a second hand to clap with. The soldiers remain standing to attention.

“I’m afraid I’m not a terribly good actor,” Campbell says, very sincerely.

“Nonsense. You were very authentic, Colonel,” Miller replies.

Campbell's face softens in embarrassment. He turns his head to address the soldiers: "What you did today was not an exercise of Master Miller's design, but a standard FOXHOUND training protocol. We've gone easy on you so far, but in the future, you should be prepared for your mission parameters to be flexible, unpredictable and occasionally..." the Colonel grimaces before finishing, " - disagreeable."

Miller picks up the thread: "This exercise is always an educational experience. I think that we learned a lot about ourselves and each other this evening. I want you to all go cool off with two laps around the field.” He pauses, relishing the tremor of dread positively radiating from his students: “... and then go back to your quarters and write me 750 on what, exactly, we learned. You’re all dismissed.”

The cadets lag through their two laps and begin filtering out, Campbell shaking everyone’s hands as they pass on their way to the showers. David paces himself and finishes third last. As he ducks into the building, Miller stops him with his cane.

“Everyone dismissed except you, Snake. You - come to my office in fifteen minutes. I want to talk to you.”

David hesitates, casting a baleful look downwards at his mud-caked uniform. He doesn’t argue, however. He wouldn’t have joined the military if he were the kind of guy to kick up a fuss over this sort of thing. Before heading to Miller's office, he stops off at the barracks to grab a clean shirt and a light jacket.

He takes the long way around the exterior wall of the mess hall and gymnasium to clear his head and get some air. It always takes him a while to quiet his blood, to get his head back into “civilian mode”. He'd been christened Snake for his ability to “slither” effortlessly and unnoticed into foreign environments, but as with all FOXHOUND codenames, there were a few more components to it once you peeled back the layers.

The other cadets often joked - with that thin, edged humour that was actually about fear - that he slipped into a cloud of hyperfocus when he was sparring, or “hunting” a target in a field; he pursued victory like a constrictor with the scent of blood, “you know how they get - so wild they’ll smash their noses against the glass, leaping at shadows with their fangs bared”. David didn't think of it as bloodlust. He felt it as a primal satisfaction, one that came from using your body like a well-oiled machine in a task that it excels at - all the parts and pistons moving in perfect symphony.

Any attempt to explain this subjective experience had ultimately failed in the past, which told David that maybe if they saw something dangerous in his eyes when he fought, he would do well to watch for it. That’s why he doesn’t pull the trigger unless he has good reason.

David arrives at the administration building with three minutes to spare. He steps inside and removes his soaked coat, tucking it under his arm. Standing in the narrow hall beneath the harsh, fluorescent lights, he stops to examine his right hand. There is dirt caked under his nails, and an angry, red mark running lengthwise across three of his fingertips from where the trap wire cut into the skin.

‘You didn’t even pull the trigger on instinct…’ David grimaces and wonders if he’s in trouble. If Miller knew how much that sort of calculated, intentional restraint cost, how important it was… well, either way, this wouldn’t be the first time that Miller’s dressed him down in private. He had a vicious reputation, but he never singled a student out - for praise or reprimand - publically.

With David, however, it's a little different. Miller had, almost immediately, taken a special interest in him - not just as a soldier with particular potential, but as a person. They had similar hobbies, shared love of a certain kind of literature, and surprisingly natural rapport when off-duty. Miller, of course, was a consummate professional and did not let that fondness affect how hard he came down in the field, but David is acutely aware of the fact that he is the only first year FOXHOUND recruit with the Master's dog eared copy of Spring Snow sitting at the bottom of his locker.

The door to Miller’s office is open a crack, so David lets himself in. Miller is behind his desk, furiously signing his signature to a stack of paperwork. There’s a bottle of whiskey and two glasses at his side. He gestures for David to sit down, but doesn’t look up. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he says. David slides a chair out from the desk and lowers himself into it carefully, setting his jacket down under him so he doesn’t smear mud over the seat.

Miller signs off on the last paper with a flourish and puts the stack away. Then he uncaps the whiskey and pours two generous shots, one into each cup. “Here," he says, pushing a glass in David's direction. "Have a drink with me.”

David hesitates; technically, he’s still on duty. He wonders if maybe this is a trick - Miller had a reputation for presenting recruits with unwinnable riddles. That sort of sadism is what earned him the nick-name ‘Hell Master’, but David had figured out pretty quick that it was just his way of efficiently picking apart the personalities of his students while still having a bit of fun. Right now, Miller’s game face is switched off, and there really isn't much of David left to pick at. Miller had his number the moment they met.

So David makes a careful assessment of the situation and accepts the alcohol. He knocks it back easily (hopes Miller doesn’t notice how easily).

“Good. You gonna relax now, or what?”

“Sir?”

“You’re always wound up so tight. I want to have a conversation, but I don’t want you to take everything so seriously.”

David glances up and catches the outline of Miller’s eyes visible beneath his sunglasses. His handsome face hardly shows its age, but he’s got deep wrinkles along his laugh lines. When he’s playing the role of ‘Hell Master’, they’re more like scowl lines, though. David looks away - Master Miller doesn’t need to know how practiced David is at knocking back hard liquor, and he especially does not need to know the effect his softer smiles have on some of his students.

“I’m not tightly wound,” he says. "I just don't see the point in wasting time padding down my words with transparent pleasantries.”

“Mmm hmmm…” Miller leans his chair waaaay back and folds his arm over his stomach, his smile flattening. “On one hand, I like that about you, David. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of thing someone wound way too tightly says when told that they’re wound too tight. Why don’t you have another shot?”

“I’m technically still on duty.”

“Don’t make me order you to take another drink, soldier. I’m not above it.”

David does as he’s told. Miller grins and taps his fingers against the arm of his chair. “Pour me another too while you’re at it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Enough of this ‘sir’ crap. Do we really gave to go though this song and dance every time we talk? You’re a completely different person face-to-face than you are in the field, you know that?”

Two shots of whiskey is enough to make David bold. With deliberate care, he says: “If you say so, Master Miller.”

“Jesus christ, you’re unbelievable,” Miller says. He hits his glass against the table. “David,” he begins, a bit more seriously this time. ““Join me in a thought experiment, would you? Let’s say... you’re sent into the field. Your Mission Operator betrays you. You’re alone and cannot secure reciprocal communication with your Commanding Officer. The balance of some small Banana Republic’s economic obligation to the United States hangs in the balance. What do you do?”

“You know what I’d do. Wasn’t that the point of today's exercise?”

“Partially. The reason I singled you out is that every other recruit in that field hesitated for a moment. Even those who acted quickly had a single half-second of doubt where they questioned themselves over whose orders to follow. You were the only one who forged ahead - without a single look back - and put a gun to my head. Without waiting for clarification. Without even waiting ten minutes for backup.”

“Do you think I made the wrong call?”

“Of course not; chain of command is everything. If we abandoned that one philosophy in the military, it’d be absolute chaos. I’m curious why you didn’t hesitate.”

David tips back his whiskey shot and then rolls the glass between his thumb and forefinger, watching the way the light plays over the curvature, distorted and fractured, a warped reflection of the room’s stark ceiling. He didn’t hesitate because there was no reason to hesitate. David had discovered at a young age that he possessed a certain talent for turning his conscious objections off temporarily. He saved all his thinking for after the mission. He wasn’t certain how to articulate this to Master Miller without sounding strange. It was this kind of mentality, he was aware, that found him struggling with relationships, had found him shuffled from one foster home to another with disheartening rapidity, unable to reciprocate the sort of openness and care those transient parents seemed to crave.

“I’m… very good at following orders without thinking,” is what he says. ‘I’m not sure I like what that says about me,’ is what he doesn’t say. Three shots of whiskey and he can be mostly honest, he supposes. He pours himself a fourth.

“Without thinking?”

“Yeah.”

“That simple?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Let’s approach this from another angle.” Miller tips the whiskey into his glass for the fourth time. For David, it’s the fifth. Miller holds his shot up and says ‘cheers’, wiggling it impatiently until David humours him and clinks their glasses together. When the shots are downed, Miller begins: “In this scenario, you’re alone in the field, no backup, no on-site support personnel, just you and your radio, alone in the dark. You’re aiming for Alpha Team, right?”

“Yeah.” ‘Aiming’ wasn’t quite the way David would have put it. Colonel Campbell had told him months ago that Big Boss was keen on scouting him for the Stealth unit. “The Boss man himself thinks you have a talent for it, recruit. You should be honoured.”

“Well - that’s how Alpha Team operates, much like the defunct CIA F.O.X. unit that FOXHOUND was based on. One man infiltration operations aren’t just about physical and mental acumen - of which you’ve got plenty. They’re also about personal judgement. When you’re in the field on a mission like this, you might be thousands of miles away from the person who calls your shots. You might as well be on a different planet than them. Any number of things could go wrong. Aerial noise could permanently jam your communication, you could lose your radio, you could be captured by the enemy. Dependence on the chain of command when you’re deep inside enemy territory is a fragile, tenuous thing.”

Miller’s thought experiment is beginning to sound a little like a lecture, so David - without really thinking - says: “You got a point here, Master, or are you just gonna ramble on all night?”

Miller’s eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline and he chuckles, impressed rather than annoyed. He leans forward and makes a great show of peering at the half-empty bottle of whiskey. “Amazing. And it only took a third of a quart of hard liquor for you to loosen up.”

“I shouldn't have-”

“Don’t apologize. Shit, you nearly cracked a grin. This is a historic moment. C’mon, let’s have another.”

So they do. Miller takes this shot sloppy - a line of bright liquor dribbles down his jaw, catching in the cleft of his chin. It’s the sort of detail David would have had the self control not to notice with less alcohol in him. It wasn’t uncommon for younger recruits - female and male - to harbour a crush on McDonnel Miller. He wasn’t like the other high ranking FOXHOUND officials; there was a dressed down elegance to him despite his uneven gait, and an easy-going charisma that seemed to have a switch on and off depending on whether he was on the job or not. He was a good drill instructor because he made people want to impress him. His recriminations hurt more because his rare compliments sounded sincere.

David realizes that there is probably a good measure of calculated artifice to his approachability, but it's hard not to fall for it, to believe that most of it is real.

“I’d say it’s just me showing my age, but the Boss always said that I have a bad habit of never being able to shut my damn mouth. Says I love the sound of my voice too much.”

“You mean Big Boss?”

“Yeah. Who the hell else would I mean? He uh,” Miller laughs to himself and trails off. David realizes with a numb sort of fascination that his teacher is tipsy off just four shots of whiskey. Well, of course he is; two less limbs means a lower alcohol tolerance, but it’s still a delicate, humbling sight. The FOXHOUND staff often seemed impenetrably worldly with their zig-zag military careers and dossiers filled to the brim with classified information. David files away this humanizing knowledge: “Hell Master” Miller cannot hold his liquor.

He lets Miller grin to himself over some private joke for about a minute before leaning forward and clearing his throat. “Master?”

Miller rocks back in his spinning chair. “David?”

“You were saying?”

“Ah - right. What I’m trying to say is that today’s exercise was meant to be an examination of your personal judgement up against the chain of command. It was not meant to be a pass/loss trial to see who follows orders best.”

“And I failed to show good judgement?”

“I wouldn’t come down that hard. No one involved in the exercise really succeeded on that front. And that’s fine - you weren’t prepared. And in the real world, no one is prepared for an outcome like their immediate superior betraying them. But it’s not unheard of. But let’s extrapolate those orders a bit. Say you’re told to bring the target in at all costs, but your communications cut out before you can receive clarification on what sort of state you’re supposed to bring them back in. You have no idea what kind of informtion they could have.”

“I bring them in alive for questioning.”

“They fight back.”

“I… take them in alive.”

“It’s not always that easy. He won’t be taken alive."

"Tough for him. I take him in alive."

"He fights back. Hard. Your life is in danger. He does something risky - this is a man with everything to lose. You fumble, like you did today, and now he’s got the advantage. But he’s not like me, and this isn't a training exercise - that advantage means a bullet in his head or a bullet in yours. You’re looking into the eyes of someone you trust. You know that they might pull the trigger before you do. In fact, they probably will.”

David takes initiative and fills the glasses without being told this time. He takes his time with his shot, sets the rim of the glass against his lip and lets the taste of the whiskey linger in his throat. “Are we,” David asks quietly, “talking about Operation: Snake Eater?”

No one dared to invoke it casually, but everyone in FOXHOUND knew the now legendary story of how Big Boss obtained his code-name. Not the “real” story, of course - even the version that official military personnel heard was stripped bare of full context, boiled down to the bones, the same kind of pithy soundbites that the CIA was forced to concede to the national newspapers.

Miller’s countenance turns serious and he reaches for the bottle again. “Not specifically,” he says. “Not in so many words. But it’s a good illustration of how what we believe to be the ‘Truth’ as told to us by our superiors is defined only by who is giving the orders, and who is hearing them. ‘Enemy’ and ‘ally’ are arbitrary definitions that can change in a flash on the battlefield. These are things you’d do well to think about, David. They’re not things that your superiors can decide for you.”

David does think about it, but it’s not the most pressing matter on his mind at the moment. He sets his cup on the desk and pins Miller with an intense stare. It doesn't have its desired effect, unfortunately, since Miller's not actually looking at him.

“Master Miller. You aren’t going to have this conversation with anyone else, are you?”

“Hmm?” Miller’s attention wanders and he eventually makes eye contact with David. It’s difficult to read his exact expression with those antique aviators dominating so many of his facial features, but the quirk of his mouth and the way his eyebrows pinch into a light furrow sure make it seem like he’s abashed. Interesting. “Ah… no, no. I didn’t plan on it.”

“Why single me out?”

“Are you worried that I’ve singled you out unfairly?”

“The opposite, actually. I’m worried that you’re giving me an unfair hand up. I’m not the only recruit on base applying for Alpha Team.”

“No, you aren’t.” Miller’s silent for a moment. A long, strained moment punctuated only by the waning rainstorm pounding a din against the tiny window. Miller frowns and raps his fingers against the arm of his chair in uneven staccato. The lines on his face twitch like he’s getting halfway through opening his mouth before thinking better of it.

“Well,” he says, sounding a bit defeated. “You caught me. I try not to play favourites, but it doesn’t always work. I worry about you, David. You have a lot of qualities that say you’re made for this job. I try to imagine you doing some white collar gig and it seems wrong, you know? But you’ve also got a lot of qualities that tell me that when something finally does hit you - and it always does, in this line of work - it’s gonna hit you like a train going four hundred kilometres an hour. Ah, sorry -” Miller taps his temple. “Two hundred and fourty eight point five miles. I always forget.”

“Master, I-” am honoured? Flattered? What’s the word for it? David is frozen in his seat wishing suddenly and quite desperately that he was anywhere else right now, doing something easier like weapon storage inventory or one hundred push ups. He’s now aware that this situation is incredibly inappropriate. Miller’s right: he is a completely different person on the field than off of it. The person he is off the field doesn’t have the life experience to exit this conversation gracefully and the person he is on the field doesn’t want to.

Miller mercifully puts him out of his misery by attempting to stand up. He doesn’t make it all the way the first time. He glances up at Snake, clearly embarrassed. “Heh, that’s what I get, trying to keep up with you at my age. Could you, ah, get the door for me?”

David does as he’s told, hitching the door open while his inebriated teacher struggles to his feet. Miller succeeds this time, using his crutch to steady himself. When he’s standing, he adjusts his sweater, caps the whiskey and clumsily scuttles the bottle and the glasses into the top shelf of his desk. “It’s getting late. Sun’s gone down. I should let you go. You’ve got work to do tonight, after all.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, we’re back to ‘Sir’ again.” Miller sighs. “Well! I tried.” Standing up, he seems drunker. There's a sway to his steps that suggests he'd started in on the whiskey even before David arrived.

When Miller crosses beneath the door-frame, his cane slips out from beneath him and he nearly takes a dive. David moves fast and manages to catch him before his skull hits the wall. The door swings shut behind them, trapping David in the darkening office with Master Miller pressed up against his chest, Miller’s arm slung all the way around his neck and his breath warming the skin beneath his left ear. David’s fingers tighten instinctively around the swell of his upper arm and the hard arch of his rib-cage. He's momentarily surprised by how dense Miller’s muscles are under the loose gym-clothes. But of course, David chides himself, why would a guy like Miller let himself go over something as minor as a war wound?

They stay entangled long enough for it to become uncomfortable. When Miller speaks, what he says is: “Interesting. For someone so quick to violence on the field, you’re surprisingly gentle.”

And that's just - his voice is low, almost… and David is certain that he’s misinterpreting this, but Miller’s tone has shades of flirtation. He almost convinces himself that it would be an objective interpretation to call it “sultry”.

But that can’t be it. Miller is drunk and tends to tease even when sober. The responsible thing to do would be to apologize, to let go and help his teacher out the door. There’s a part of David, however, that always speaks in a traitorous voice in the back of his skull, reminding him that he’s the kind of person who doesn’t always have to be responsible. He’s the kind of man who can very easily get exactly what he wants. That’s why it’s important for him to be so careful. That is why he's not going to test the boundaries of his teacher's favoritism, even though something is telling him that he's just been invited to do exactly that.

David pushes Miller away and sets both hands on the man’s shoulders. He keeps them, just there to make certain that he’s not going to topple back over.

“Doing okay there, Master?”

Miller raises his hand to rub beneath his sunglasses. David catches a flash of his eyes beneath the shades; his irises are an oddly pale shade of grey. “I haven’t drunk in a while. Should have been more careful. You recruits are brutal in more ways than one.” He rolls his shoulders out from under David’s hands and shoots him a lopsided grin. “I’m fine now, David,” he says.

David takes a wide berth on his way back to the door, blood thrumming in his ears. He holds it open for Miller and gives him a quick, respectful salute.

Before they go their separate ways in the hall, Miller turns back and says: “Hey - don’t forget what we talked about today.”

David cracks a cocksure grin. “Do I still have to write the essay?”

“Don’t think that I’ve gone soft on you, soldier. I expect it on my desk at 5AM sharp, along with everyone else’s.”

“Typical.”

Miller laughs. “You’re a good kid," he says, then he ambles down the hall, humming to himself off tune.

David watches him go - the taste of whiskey on his tongue and the memory of Miller's shape in his palms - and thinks: No, I'm really not..

NOTE: all surveillance recorded in the C.O.’s office is scheduled to be destroyed pending examination and approval by a senior staff member - by order of Roy Campbell
NOTE: approved - M.B.Miller

[CLICK]

(door clicks open then slams back shut.)

“Evenin’ Boss.”

“Mmm.”

“Another successful day of playing the affable mentor - aren’t you going to ask me how it went?”

“... Kaz, are you drunk?”

“That kid can really hold his liquor.”

“I see.”

“And not in a ‘oh, I guess he’s your son after all’ way. In a ‘I’m really worried he spends a lot of his free time crawling into the bottle already and he’s only twenty-two’ way. Tell Roy to get someone to search his quarters, would you.”

“Worried about him?”

“What? C’mon - someone’s gotta take a paternal interest in him and we both know it’s not going to be you.”

"I've not washed my hands of him entirely. Not the way you seem to think. There are things I plan to teach him, Kaz. Things that he can only learn from me. Not as his father, but as his superior."

"Funny that I'm the one they call 'Master'."

(stumbling steps cross the floor, out of synch. ------ eases into a chair. a sigh)

“So. Which way do you think David is going to jump?”

“When it comes down to the wire? It’s hard to tell. That kid lives inside his head too much. He won’t be like you - all instinct until the unimaginable happens. He’ll think it through. More likely than not, he’ll just do what he’s told.”

“Good to get him thinking about it now, I suppose.”

“In the end, it doesn’t ultimately matter who comes out on top.”

“Hnh. Those paternal feelings of yours disappeared pretty quick, Kaz.”

“Personal feelings and business don’t mix, Boss. Don’t worry - I learned that lesson from you a long time ago.”

“If you wear a mask, your face will grow to fit it, Master Miller.”

“Have you even read Orwell’s essays?”

“Give me some credit, Kaz.

“Hmph. Well - I might be two faced, but at least both faces are still good looking. Don’t you feel privileged that I don’t hide anything from you anymore, so you get a nice long look at both of them?”

“Speaking of which... a mutual friend of ours dropped something off for you today. Something that you’ve been wanting to see for a long time.”

(the creak of a chair as ------ leans; the slick sound of paper moving over paper. an envelope is carefully ripped open. a sharp intake of breath follows.)

“... hah. Hah! I knew he couldn’t hide forever... and his son is with him too. After everything that happened, he couldn’t bear keeping his nose to the ground, living under a fake name. What a piece of shit.”

“Don’t do anything about it right now, Kaz. Wait until the Operation is over. One thing at a time.”

“I know.”

“I know you know, but when it comes to this sort of thing, you can be... impatient.”

“Heh, damn right I’m impatient.”

(uneven legs hit the linoleum, followed briefly by the sound of a spinning chair groaning on its legs and the clatter of several things falling off a desk.)

“... heh heh, oops.”

“You’re really on a roll tonight.”

“I got a foot in the door to an incredibly unethical seduction on your orders, the least you could do is help clean up.”

“I never actually told you to handle David that way. That was your decision.”

“If this is how you’re gonna be, maybe I should go track him down after all. He was very eager to take care of me.”

Kaz -”

“Woah, hey - I’m not actually going to do it. I was just trying to piss you off. It’s remarkably hard to get you riled up these days.”

“You’re getting old too, Kaz, too old to have this little self control.”

“Oh nevermind.”

(tap, tap, tap. the desk creaks quietly as ------ hoists up to sit on it. a moment passes with only the sound of pen scratching over paper filling the room.)

“Hey Snake, remember that time... oh, back in early ‘73 I think? When we got the jeep stuck in the mud by the Rio Palmonia?”

“Was that when you dragged me halfway across the country to talk to that mining magnate about providing security to his mines? And I said no?”

“Yeah.”

“Heh... you were furious with me. I think that was the first time I’d ever seen you really angry, not just puffing up your feathers for show. ‘Shit costs money, Boss’!”

“Shit does cost money. I couldn’t understand why you’d turn down such easy bank when you were willing to work for the Colombian government.”

“He wanted to hire us for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to make us his private army.”

“I get it now... but at the time... “

“You gave me the silent treatment for eight hours. What is that - the longest you’ve kept your mouth shut in your entire life?”

(the sound of something small being thrown - a pen, or maybe a bullet casing - whistles through the air and hits fabric.)

“Funny stuff, Boss. But y’know... I never told you what was going through my head the whole time. I was angry, yeah, but it was more than that. I was having second thoughts about the whole thing. You might have been a living legend, but the MSF was barely holding together at the seams and you threw out as many of my good ideas as you kept. The whole thing was beginning to feel like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. And I told you, I-”

“- didn’t want to live like a pauper.”

“Mmm. So I was trying to figure out if I could make a decent break for it the next time we stopped for gas and food. You’d made it more than clear that my only option outside the MSF was execution at your hands. I was trying to figure out if I could outrun you, outsmart you - lose you in a crowd if we got to a big enough a town... I spent the entire eight hours mapping out complex escape strategies in my head and preparing myself for what would happen if you caught me. Asking myself if I was prepared to die over this. I can’t believe how cool I kept it - inside, I was panicking. I’d never felt so trapped as I did in the carriage of that shitty jeep, driving back to Barranquilla with you. Not before, not since. Not even when... god, not even when I was in the hole in Afghanistan. At least there, I knew - one way or the other - that it would end.”

“Then, if we hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud... “

“Would you have killed me?”

“I don’t know. It’s impossible to know. It’s not a decision I would have made ahead of time.”

“Of course not. Thank god for that rainstorm, then.”

“Is that why you...?”

“Stuck my hand in your pants once we were finished hollering at each other? Pretty much. You know me - I have a few tricks up my sleeve when my back is up against the wall, and that one often works. Not with you, though. You just punched me in the nose and told me to have a little self control.”

“When you think about it, not much has changed.”

“No, Boss. A lot of things have changed.”

“Still. A strange time to share a secret you’ve been sitting on for twenty years.”

“I’m really goddamn drunk right now.”

“What made you think of it?”

“Sometimes... I need to remind myself... “

(a protracted silence; the tape skips.)

“Kaz?”

(very softly) “... sometimes I wake up from dreams where I still have two hands, and both of them are around your throat.”

“Remind me not to let you sleep in my bed next time you come knocking.”

“It’s not a fucking joke.”

(a beat of silence, followed by a bitter laugh.)

“- and sometimes, Boss, I wonder what it would have been like if... ”

“You wouldn’t have won.”

“Your ego gets more unbelievable by the year, Snake. You always underestimate me... “

“No, Kaz. I understand you.”

“You don’t think that I could have taken you down. Not even if I really put my mind to it?”

“That’s not it entirely. I don’t think you could pull the trigger.”

“Ahaha... Snake, of course I couldn’t. That’s why I would have gotten someone else do it.”

“You would have done that to David?”

“Honestly? Yeah - in a heartbeat, if it got me what I wanted.”

(a very light chuckle of amusement. the chair’s wheels go spinning out across the floor and the desk is rocked by the impact of bone and muscle being slammed against the it. papers rustle, something heavy hits the floor.)

“Oh, now you want to fuck.”

[CLICK]