Hal and Dave belong to Hideo Kojima, or Konami, or whatever. Not me.


Echoes

"It'll be in his office. Can you see it?"

"Yeah." The man eased the door open and slipped into the room, invisible in the inky darkness. The papers lay on the desk as though they meant nothing at all, and he brushed them apart from the others with gloved fingertips before photographing them. And that was it; his task was complete. His stealth cammo crackled briefly, reminding him of limited battery life. "All done. I'm getting out."

"Wait, Snake. I'm picking up a really interesting signal. Are there any guards on that floor?"

"Nope. Only the guy with the torch downstairs." This was, after all, an urban office block, not a remote military outpost. There was one security guard scratching himself in the foyer and a lot of automatically operated cameras, but no armed presence whatsoever. "What've you found, Otacon?"

"I don't know." He had that tone of voice that suggested he was adjusting his glasses excitedly when he should have been running away, the tone of voice that Snake had learned to dread. "Something alive and human-sized. Look, I know this is only a little side quest for us, but the guys who offered to help would be really grateful if we could get some kind of hard evidence of freaky goings-on."

Could've guessed. "What do you want me to do?"

"Just some pictures should be enough." There was a brief pause. "Please?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where is it?"

"Really close to you. The floor above and a few doors down, I think. Just some photos. Maybe a DNA sample."

DNA sample? What did Hal expect him to do, tackle an experimental, genetically modified creature to the ground and take a buccal smear? Probably. Snake rolled his eyes, and headed for the stairs. It would be an employee working late, or a managers' fish tank. You didn't keep nefarious secrets in an undefended, unhidden public location like this. Why, anybody could just wander in off the street. He pushed open a door and walked into an autopsy room.

He stared hard for a moment but, yes, unmistakably an autopsy room. A white-tiled autopsy room, with a stainless steel autopsy table in the centre. There was a battery of lights above it, but he didn't turn them on, trusting instead to his night vision goggles. As he moved forward, his footsteps splashed. The room had been recently hosed down. He still imagined he could smell blood.

There was a doorway with no door in it at the rear of the room, wide enough for a gurney to be wheeled through with ease, and he entered the second chamber with caution. He expected, and found, rows of steel cages with wire mesh doors. It reminded him of a veterinary surgery, or a pound. All seemed empty, but from one in the far corner came a soft, rhythmic scratching. That must be Otacon's animal. Readying the camera, he went over and knelt down.

And spat a swearword.

"Otacon, it's a girl."

"What?"

"It's a little girl."

She was crouched in the wire cage, naked, and staring blankly into space. The fingers of her left hand moved aimlessly over the metal floor. Snake put his hands on the wire mesh, and she stopped scratching, but didn't look up. He remembered he was invisible, and turned the stealth camouflage off.

"Hey," he whispered. "What's your name?"

No response.

"Can you understand me? Can you hear me?" He reached for the lock. It was simple, designed to hold only animals, and he flipped it open. "Otacon, I'm getting her out."

"Snake, what do you mean, a girl? Do you mean, like -"

"I mean a goddamn girl. Get it together or I'm turning the codec off." The door swung open, and he reached into the little hutch to pull her out. She was biddable to the point of tameness. When he took her arm and tugged, she moved forward, slid out of the cage and stood up. Whatever direction Snake gently pulled her in, she would walk. When he stopped pulling, she would stand still. Her eyes did not even flicker with fear. He thought she must be blind, deaf and retarded, a failed experiment about to be dissected. Her body suggested she must be about fifteen, small and skinny, but post-pubescent. His shock was turning into pity and revulsion, and he thought about how to get her out of the building. "Otacon, I'm giving her the stealth cammo. Help me get past the cameras."

"You got it."

He clipped the webbing belt around her waist, wishing some other part of his gear was detachable so she didn't have to be so naked. He turned it on and she vanished. Blind, deaf, dumb and dense - he'd better not let go of her wrist now. When they reached the first flight of stairs, she stumbled, and rather than try and manoeuvred her down the many steps, he picked her up.

"What did your contact say they were doing here?" he murmured into the codec.

"Cloning," replied Otacon. "And finding ways to make the clones copy more perfectly and live longer. But I thought cattle, racehorses, not... not this."

The pair entered the foyer. Stealth cammo was hardly flawless, but Snake didn't expect to have to tell the motionless girl to stay quiet as they made their way towards the glass doors. It was startling, then, when she sprang from his arms like a cat, kicking against his chest as she leaped away. There was a metallic click - the sound of a silenced weapon firing. He realised the holster containing his tranquilliser pistol was empty just before the guard noisily slumped to the floor.

Right. Not blind, possibly deaf, mad, armed and invisible. "Otacon. I've got a problem."

"What's up, Snake?"

He explained. Suddenly, with a crackle of light, the girl reappeared. "Oh, one less problem. The batteries have run down." She was standing stock still a few metres away from him.

"One less problem?! You mean we've discovered she's a merciless killing machine?"

"Guard's not dead." He gently removed the pistol from her unresisting grip. "Quiet, obedient - she'd make a great pet."

"Snake!"

"Can you bring the car closer? I don't feel like getting caught kidnapping a naked teenager."


"This is very neat stuff." The man was pale and nerdy. He had glasses, which he had perched on top of his floppy-haired head while he examined the copies of the data Hal had sent him. David suspected his name was Hank. "Did you find anything else?"

"We found a - a live sample."

"No way! You get any DNA?"

"We took the sample. She's a human."

The sample was huddled against the sofa, wearing a massively oversized t-shirt as a kind of dress. On top of the sofa, David sat and chain-smoked angrily, listening to Hal's exchange with possibly-Hank. This whole episode had been nothing more than an aside, a brief jaunt into an office to look at some papers that might prove mutually beneficial. Now, they were stuck with a special-needs mutant.

He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, and absently reached over to ruffle her fur-short hair. "I'm not angry with you. It's just one thing after another." He'd expected to find scars on her scalp, but there didn't seem to be any. "I'm tired, Hal's tired. You were supposed to be a dog, not a girl."

In the bedroom, the scientist was still wittering into the web cam about science crap that David couldn't bear to hear any more. Telomeres and free radicals and things he'd heard so many times they were meaningless. He scratched the girl's head.

"Everybody dies, right?" It was easy to ask rhetorical questions of the mute. "Better a battlefield than an autopsy table." Unbidden thoughts of Gray Fox came to him. Nothing wrong with a clean death. He hadn't realised he'd pulled his hand away until the girl suddenly moved against him. "Huh. You like that." He rubbed behind her ear. "Good girl. Who's a good girl?"

"Dave, she's not a dog!" Hal walked into the room, so tired he was weaving from side to side. "The intel is good, but he needs pictures and DNA. We've arranged a rendezvous for tomorrow. You want a coffee?" Without waiting for a reply, he held the kettle under the tap and turned it on. "He thinks he can help you. There's a drug in development that's made rats live three times their usual lifespan in laboratories. You know how they punch holes in mouse ears to identify them? The technicians walked in the next morning to find they'd all healed. Like a miracle." Mugs, instant coffee, sugar, hot water. "But he's going to have to move. When the company goes down, he'll lose most of his funding." He put one of the mugs on the low table in front of David, and glanced at the motionless girl. "Geez, I can't believe we've found a cloned human!"

"We haven't." He reached over and put one finger on the back of her hand. She had no nails, only blunt, pink flesh. When he pressed down, a long, straight claw slid from a slit in her fingertip.

Hal put his hands over his open mouth and stared, wordless and wide-eyed.

"I found claw marks on my suit after she jumped off me," continued David, as if he hadn't noticed the man's reaction. "I don't want you alone with her."

"Oh, God." He knelt down to look at her stubby hands, and her unfocussed eyes. "What is she? Some kind of weapon?"

"Probably," replied the soldier, with just a trace of bitterness. He stood up, tugging the girl to her feet as well. "I'm gonna see if I can get her to use the bathroom. I don't want to be mopping up any puddles."

Hal said "Good idea," and crawled into the kitchen to fix himself another coffee. Then he frowned. "You're very okay with this," he called, accusingly.

"Spend long enough on a battlefield, and you'll find yourself helping someone go to the bathroom." Suddenly, he made a surprised, amused noise. "Heh. She knows how to use the toilet."

"Um, great?" Hal sounded faintly repulsed, and wondered if he should go in and make sure Dave wasn't getting off on this.

"She doesn't know how to sit on a sofa or pick up a cup, but she can go to the bathroom by herself and shoot like a trained assassin. There's something wrong here, Hal."

They ate cereal, the girl eating directly out of a bowl on the floor in one of the most vile acts of abasement either man had ever seen. It was hard to watch, physically disgusting, even; she ate cleanly, but that only added to the sense that she was some kind of animal in a human body. When the meagre meal was finished, she lay down on the carpet.

"We need to find somewhere better for her to stay tomorrow. We're the worlds crappiest excuses for psychiatric nurses," said Dave, as he lay a blanket over her. "She's cute, though. In a psycho sort of way. I wonder if she can learn anything, or if -" He turned to Hal, only to find him fast asleep on the sofa, with his mouth wide open. Carefully, he took the man's glasses off and tucked the quilt from the bedroom around him.

He made himself another cup of coffee and paced around the room to keep himself alert as he watched over his partner.