IT TOOK SEVEN MINUTES for Snake to backtrack to the elevator. Once he arrived, he waited off to the side, and once the elevator announced its arrival, he cleared the inside, just in case reinforcements had been sent to support the squad that Gray Fox had slaughtered on his way to Dr. Emmerich. That he met zero resistance on the way back bothered Snake. The security around Emmerich had been airtight, and their commander would have been foolish not to demand regular situation reports. Liquid had to have an interest in the detail guarding the one man who could neutralize their bargaining chip. It smelled like a trap, but to what end, Snake could not place his finger on.
When the elevator arrived at the first floor basement, Snake stayed out of sight and held his SOCOM at the ready. An empty hallway greeted him, which encouraged him to move to the edge and peer down the hallway, towards the women's bathroom. He checked his Soliton and saw that he was clear to his six. There was a guard in the men's room and two patrolling the offices. Snake exhaled and sprinted towards the women's bathroom, taking cover behind one of the pillars.
Snake had weighed his options on his way to the first floor basement. A proactive approach would allow him to find Meryl faster, but it left him more exposed. Despite his skill, if he were caught, Snake could not guarantee that he could differentiate between Meryl and the male guards in the middle of a firefight. On the other hand, a passive approach would literally bring Meryl right to him, and in the event that he encountered another female soldier, it would be a one-on-one fight, rather than three-on-one with reinforcements to come.
Eerie, hypnotic music flowed through loudspeakers. Snake's brow furrowed as he lit up a smokeless cigarette and took a drag. He had not heard the music anywhere else in the complex. Maybe a quirk of the detail leader? Snake wondered. Something about it creeped him out, but he pushed it from his mind. With his cigarette pressed between his lips, Snake grabbed his binoculars and surveyed the other end of the hallway.
A guard emerged from the men's bathroom, his gait content as he made his way back to his post. Another few moments passed, then a second guard left the bullpen and hung a left at the elevator door. His stride was normal and he was headed in the wrong direction. Snake now had visual confirmation of two-thirds of the guard force, both males. He hoped that there was some sort of break rotation in place, which would mean the next person would be Meryl, if she was even on the first floor basement.
That thought gave Snake pause. What if she were on the ground level? Finding her there would be much more difficult. That would require the proactive approach that he dismissed as too risky. Additionally, Naomi's nanomachine meddling would mean guaranteed death if he were caught. Even if he were to find her on that floor, there was not a whole lot of private real estate for them to talk shop. They would either have to backtrack to the snowfield, which would move them further from the objective, or return to the first floor basement and get to the ladies' room. Both required the two of them to evade enemy patrols together, which went against his training. FOX-HOUND specifically utilized solo infiltrations for the autonomy a single operator enjoyed.
Snake's reverie was broken by the second guard leaving the restroom. He strolled back towards the offices and went inside. Thirty seconds passed before the next guard made their exit. This one immediately turned right, and walked with a different strut, her hips gyrating with every step. Snake slipped behind the column. He dropped his cigarette, extinguished it beneath his boot, and drew his SOCOM. His left wrist rose to his face as he watched the red dot make its way to the column. When the dot cut diagonally, Snake shifted to the side and peered around the corner. The guard's buttocks, like their hips, were decidedly female, fully rounded and sensual in movement.
Once the door closed, Snake moved to it. It would not open initially, and Snake looked around for some indication of a door level. As he reached out to touch the door, it slid open to reveal an empty bathroom. His first reaction was to call out to Meryl, but he had no idea if it really was her, her derriere notwithstanding. His thumb flicked the safety off of the H&K handgun and he moved forward. His eyes took in the entire bathroom as he moved, searching for any sign of life.
As he reached the corner of the first stall, he stood far enough away that his barrel would not graze the stall as he pied the corner. Once he was in front of the first door, he brought the SOCOM close to his chest and reached out with his support hand. Gently, he nudged the door open and came up with an empty stall. Snake looked to his left and shuffle-stepped, foot to foot, as he moved to the second door. He reached out and quietly opened the second stall door. Nothing. As Snake moved to the third one, he could see the door was ajar, and he took a step back and extended the SOCOM in front of him. He carefully rounded the corner and found a balaclava, a pair of olive drab fatigues, and combat boots.
The tell-tale sound of rifle movement and a safety being switched off reached Snake's ears, but by that point, it was too late for action.
It was the same voice from the prison. Snake did not make any sudden movements, but the sound of her voice lowered his heart rate a few notches.
"That's the second time I've been able to sneak up on the legendary Solid Snake."
Snake lowered, safed, and holstered his pistol as he turned around. There she was, just like in the photograph that Campbell had shown up aboard the Discovery, her eyes tired but with the twinkle of an adolescent girl at a rock concert. She held a FAMAS in her right hand and wore nothing but a tight black tank top and gray bikini panties. There was no bra, as evidenced by the pair of solid bumps at the apex of the swell of her chest that fought against the fabric. Her legs were immaculately toned, and her arms were defined but not overly so. It took Snake a half-moment to find his words.
"You're Meryl? There's no way you could pass for a man for long."
Meryl gave him a look. "What do you mean? Hey, men aren't allowed in here!"
Snake gave Meryl an evaluative second once-over. "I had no idea you were so feminine."
She rolled her eyes and looked at him with a hint of disgust. "This is no time to try and hit on me, Snake."
Without another word, Snake left the stall and made his way towards the front door, his mind off of her figure and on how she had managed to get the drop on him. By the time he reached the sinks and turned around, a tentative theory formed. She was in the second stall. When she heard me clear the second one, she slid into the first. Once I moved for the third, she waited until I could not see her in my flank and maneuvered. Smart girl.
"Besides, it's a waste of time," Meryl said, bringing Snake back to reality. "When I joined up, they gave me psychotherapy to destroy my interest in men."
Snake pointed to Meryl. "Same smart mouth. You're Meryl, all right. Are you hurt?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. After all, I was disguised as a Genome Soldier."
"So, why'd you change?" Snake asked. "You'd be a lot better off dressed like one of them."
Her jaw clenched as she fixed Snake with a hard look. "I got tired of disguising myself." His gaze did not waver, and Meryl faltered. Her eyes grew soft, and after a moment, she could not look him in the eye. She hung her head, and her fatigue laced her tone as she admitted, "The truth is…the uniform smelled like blood."
Snake squinted as he studied the artwork on Meryl's left arm. It looked familiar, but from his angle, he could not make it out entirely. "What's that mark?"
"Huh?" Meryl looked down at her arm, then turned it so Snake could see it head-on. It was a grinning humanized fox with a MAC-10 in one hand and an M61 grenade in the other. A cloud of smoke surrounded the barrel, and a bullet with fangs had circled its way around the fox. The logo brought memories of simpler days to the forefront of Snake's mind.
"Oh, this?" Meryl continued. "It's a paint tattoo. It's not real. I was a fan of FOX-HOUND way back, when guys like you and my uncle were in it. None of that gene therapy like there is today. You guys were real heroes."
Snake shook his head. "There are no heroes in war. All the heroes I know are either dead or imprisoned. One or the other."
Meryl took a step forward and made an emphatic hand wave. "But Snake, you're a hero, aren't you?"
"I'm just a man who's good at what he does: killing." He shook his head again. "There's no winning or losing for a mercenary. The only winners in war are the people."
Meryl's eyes lit up as she saw an opening to make her point. "That's right, and you fight for the people!"
Snake's voice grew brittle. "I've never fought for anyone but myself. I've got no purpose in life, no ultimate goal."
Her shoulders fell as the words reached her ears. She averted her gaze once more. "C'mon…"
"It's only when I'm cheating death on the battlefield," Snake confessed. "The only time I feel truly alive."
Meryl locked eyes with him again. Hurt and anger filled her gaze and dripped from every word as she spoke. "Seeing other people die makes you feel alive, huh? You love war and don't want it to stop. Is it the same with all great soldiers throughout history?"
She'll learn in time, Snake thought. He elected to redirect the conversation. "Why didn't you contact me?"
"My Codec was broken," Meryl said off-handedly.
He gave her a skeptical look and crossed his arms. "Is that all?"
She scoffed frustratedly as she turned towards the first stall's outer wall. "Shouldn't you just be happy we met up like this?" She stooped to prop her FAMAS against the wall and asked, "How did you recognize me in disguise?"
Snake looked directly at her dead giveaway physical attribute. "I never forget a lady."
Meryl cracked a smirk as she stood and faced Snake. "So, there's something you like about me, huh?"
The right corner of his mouth tugged toward his ear. "Yeah…you've got a great butt."
That merited a laugh from Meryl, and she unconsciously ran her hands over her backside. "Oh, I see. First, it's my eyes. Now, it's my butt. What's next?"
His smirk was gone as quickly as it came. "On the battlefield, you never think about what's next."
Meryl raised her eyebrows and smiled as she turned towards the first stall. When she reappeared a moment later, she held a pile of clothing and a web belt. She set it on the ground, found her fatigue trousers, and slid them over her legs. As she tucked in her tank top and fastened her pant buttons, she asked, "So, Snake, how are the negotiations going?"
Snake looked to the mirror to give Meryl a semblance of privacy. He shook his head. "No progress."
She slipped her socks over her feet, then pulled on and laced up her boots. Next, she donned her coyote brown knee pads and made sure they were snug enough that they would not slip to her ankles, but loose enough that they did not impede her range of motion. "So, it's all up to you, huh?"
He shrugged as he scratched his chin. "Somebody's gotta stop them from launching a nuclear missile."
Next came her fingerless gloves. Once those were fastened to her wrists, she picked up the pistol belt, buckled it around her waist, and then snapped the thigh holster buckles in place. Meryl tested that the holster was high enough on the hip to ensure for a faster draw, and then walked towards Snake. He turned to face her once he heard her footfalls.
"There are two ways," she said. "Either we destroy Metal Gear, or—"
"We override the detonation code," Snake finished. "You got the card keys from Baker?"
Meryl's brow furrowed. "Card keys…" She reached into her cleavage and felt around. After a moment, she produced a black piece of plastic, about the same shape as a credit card, with gold markings on a black background. "You mean this?"
Snake took it from her and inspected it as his features twisted into a scowl. "Where are the others?" he demanded. "There should be three keys!"
She held up her hands. "This is all I've got!"
He lowered his tone a notch, but the frustration was present as he pocketed the card. "Where could the other two be?"
"I have no idea," Meryl confessed, "but they must be somewhere. If we can't find them, we'll have no choice but to destroy Metal Gear."
"Metal Gear is an underground maintenance base to the north," Snake said.
Meryl leaned forward, both of her hands on her sternum, one over the other. Her tone and her expression shared a pleading urgency. "Take me, too! I know this place better than you do!"
Snake gestured in the negative. "You'll just slow me down. You don't have enough battle experience."
She took another step forward and doubled down on persistence. "I won't slow you down!" she said assertively. "I promise!"
"And what if you do?" Snake insisted.
Meryl took a deep breath, straightened her posture, and held her arms at her side. Her eyes were the surest that they had been in the few hours he had known her, and her voice was steady, resolute. "Then you can shoot me."
Snake gave her a hard stare, a chance to squirm, to recant her declaration. Her posture was granite. If she was scared, then she hid it well. After a moment, he saw that there was no talking her out of it. Snake made a decision, his words chilling.
"I don't like to waste bullets."
"Got it." She nodded dutifully. "I'll be careful."
A moment passed before Meryl walked over to the sink. She planted both of her hands on the counter and rest her weight on them. Her shoulders slumped and her chin dropped to her chest. A tired sigh fell from her lips. Snake turned his attention to her as she raised her head and studied her reflection in the mirror.
"You know," Meryl murmured, "I don't use makeup the way other women do. I hardly ever look at myself in the mirror." She squinted her eyes. "I've always despised that kind of woman. I always dreamed of becoming a soldier. But I was wrong. It wasn't really my dream." She averted her gaze from the mirror. "My father…he was killed in action when I was younger."
Snake took a step towards her and recalled Campbell's mention that his brother, Meryl's father, had been killed in the Persian Gulf. His battle experience had taught him that there was no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method to motivating soldiers to stay in the fight. Some needed to have a swift boot up their backside, while others merely needed the acknowledgment that they failed, and their psyches would do the rest of the work. With Meryl, however, a softer approach was needed.
"You wanted to follow in your father's footsteps?" Snake asked.
She shook her head. "Not really. I thought if I became a soldier, I could understand him better."
"So, are you a soldier yet?"
Meryl looked at Snake through the reflection, her eyes bloodshot as tears trickled down her cheeks. "I thought I was until today…but now, I understand. The truth is, I was just afraid of looking at myself, afraid of having to make my own decisions in my life." She inhaled deeply. "But I'm not going to lie to myself anymore. It's time I took a hard, long look at myself. I want to know who I am, what I'm capable of…I want to know why I've lived the way I've lived until now." Her head drooped again. "I want to know…"
Snake drew his SOCOM, dropped the magazine to inspect how many rounds were left, slammed it back home, and press-checked for a hot chamber. He dropped his gun hand to his side. "Take a good look," he said, an edge to his voice. "You won't get another chance for a while. You should wash your face too, while you're at it."
"This isn't a training exercise," Snake growled. "Our lives are riding on this. There are no heroes or heroines. If you lose, you're worm food."
Meryl nodded. "Yeah," she said numbly. She turned on the faucet, collected a pool with her hands, and splashed it on her face. The water rinsed the tear streaks away, though the blood lingered in her eyes for a few more moments. They would clear up by the time they moved onto their next objective. Snake shifted conversation to the rifle that rest against the stall barrier.
"Is that FAMAS functional?"
Meryl turned around and nodded. "Unfortunately, it's out of ammo."
Snake nodded to the hand cannon on her hip. "Where'd ya get that Desert Eagle?"
A smile flickered across her lips as she drew the Israeli handgun and held it in front of her chest. "I found it in the armory. It's a .50cal Action Express. There was a SOCOM pistol, too, but I chose this."
"Huh." Snake eyed his handgun. "So, I've got a leftover, huh?" His eyes shifted to the Desert Eagle. "Isn't that gun a little big for a girl?"
Meryl rolled her eyes. Men. "Don't worry. I can handle it."
Snake held out his SOCOM on his open palm. "C'mon. Use my .45."
She scoffed tiredly and stared Snake in the eyes. "Listen, I've used a gun like this since I was eight years old. I'm more comfortable with it than I am with a bra." To demonstrate, she dropped the empty magazine that she had not yet swapped out from her last firefight, reached into her cleavage for a full replacement, slammed it home, and racked the slide. Snake grumbled something incoherent and slowly holstered his own pistol. Meryl smiled, holstered the Desert Eagle, and placed her hands on her hips.
"If we're gonna go to the north, we'll have to go through the Commander's Room on this floor," Meryl said. "The overland route is blocked by glaciers." She reached into her shirt once more—eliciting a look from Snake—and produced a PAN card. "The door to the Commander's Room is security level five. This card will open it. It was inside the pocket of the uniform I was wearing."
Snake held the card in front of his face for inspection, then pocketed it. "Looks like he must have been guarding someplace important."
Meryl nodded, then drew her Desert Eagle, which prompted Snake to arm himself. "Okay, let's go. I know this place better than you. I'll be point man. Follow me."
She took off running before Snake could respond. He turned on a heel and followed her out the door as quickly as he could. When he reached the hallway, Meryl was looking left to right, her expression confused.
"That's strange…there's no guard."
Snake also sensed something was off. It took him a moment to put his finger on it. "What happened to the music?"
Meryl gave him a skeptical look, as if she had no idea what he was talking about. Instead of focusing on that, she said, "I'll keep a lookout. Make sure you're ready, okay?"
They parted ways. Meryl took up an overwatch position that afforded her clean shots at both the door that led to the Commander's Room and the elevator. Snake went for the offices, which he could see were completely empty on the Soliton Radar. Regardless, he kept his hand on his weapon as he entered the bullpen. He collected ammunition for his SOCOM and a few stun grenades, which were the only useful things in the room. Snake no longer had a FAMAS, and he had ditched the Nikita after destroying the generator due to its bulk, but there was still plenty of ammunition for both weapons.
That's life, Snake thought. He paused before he left the room, took a knee, and dialed Colonel Campbell's frequency on his Codec.
"What is it, Snake?"
"Colonel, your niece is fine."
Snake watched Campbell breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness!"
"We can't relax," Snake reminded his CO. "Not yet."
The elation evaporated as quickly as it had spawned. "I know. Snake…"
"She's quite a woman," he confessed.
Campbell took a deep breath. "As commander of this operation, I can't ask you to watch after Meryl, but…"
Snake nodded knowingly. "Duty first?"
"Maybe I was wrong." Campbell hung his head. "Sending my own flesh and blood to war."
"She understands duty," Snake insisted.
"I know she does…"
Snake switched tack. "But, what I want to know is, what was the real purpose of this exercise?"
"I don't know," Campbell said, with little conviction. "Like I said, I'm nothing more than a middleman."
It took a moment for realization to hit Snake. "Is this transmission being monitored by the military?"
Campbell nodded. "Of course."
"I get it. All the world's a stage and we're merely players, right?"
"Yes, but even players can influence the play."
"I just hope we can prevent it from having a bad ending."
Snake killed the transmission and moved to the door. Meryl flashed him a thumbs up, and he replied with a curt nod. With her pistol at the ready, she led the way down the hallway, and stood by the door. Snake caught up a moment later, and the door oiled open. She gestured for him to take point, and he led the way past the threshold.
Sixteen hours and eighteen minutes until doomsday.