“It’ll be just a moment, Commander Martinez.”
Marian’s receptionist was irritatingly cheerful. I put on my best scowl and sank into a chair. Hurry up and wait. Typical.
Being recalled to Dartmouth was never pleasant, under any circumstances, but something about the insistency of the order had made me think it was crucial. I’d envisioned arriving just in time to take command of a raging battle. Instead I was sitting in a waiting room.
At least it was a pleasant waiting room. The furnishings were hand carved. The chair I was sitting in was comfortably upholstered, not threadbare or ragged. The trim on the walls was some kind of brass or bronze, picked out exquisitely by the steady illumination of a chandelier fashioned to look like the solar system.
I was the only one here, other than the receptionist. I put my hands before me, arranged in a simple 0 shape, thumbs to thumbs, fingers to fingers. I’d told Mario that it was an old meditative posture. The lie had gone over easy.
The message had been top priority and they’d used my personal code. It had come from this office. The Foreign Secretary was the only one who could have sent it. It had instructed me to return with all haste, commandeering vehicles if necessary.
I’d raced up the coast, motor boated across the Bay, and for what?
To marvel at her lavish digs. Some things never changed, and the friction where civilian oversight met military hierarchy was one of them.
I was continuing down this train of thought, my hands flexing slightly in a throttling motion, when Isaac bustled in.
I fought down my instinctive animosity as the spook approached me, shook my hand.
“Fidel, they dragged you back here?” he asked.
I just nodded, squeezed his hand a little too hard.
“I’m a bit surprised you came. I know how much you hate leaving the front line.”
Was that a dig? He had to know how passive we’d been forced to be for the past couple of years. So few new Ultra, no permissions to take offensive action and always the constant trickle of veteran reassigned to the European front. The front line was scarcely more active than this room.
“Don’t tell me that you relish leaving your traitors to fend for themselves either. We both know the value of having a boss on hand when something goes down.”
He nodded, conceding my point. I doubted that he had any real worries about his agent’s loyalties. Our intelligence assets tended to be motivated by the same thing that I was. Homicidal resentment of the Regime’s evil asses. He could leave them cooling their heels for a decade and they’d be eager to assist him when he got back. Anything to hurt the ones who had hurt them, hurt us.
“Sometimes, though, the real battle is waged in rooms like this. In pleasant agreements that set the stage for all of the struggling.”
He sounded almost philosophical about it. Just idly remarking on the strange ways of fate. Nuts to that. I had to come when the Secretary called, but I wasn’t about to fool myself that this was actually a battle. I’d been in enough fights to know that they were rarely catered.
“You know what this is about?” I asked.
The question was mostly rhetorical. Isaac was an old buddy, and in all of the years that I’d known him I’d never seen him surprised by our leader’s actions. At times I suspected that he spent more time watching the Union than he did the Regime. The real question was whether or not he’d feel that it was beneficial to him to enlighten me.
He chuckled slightly, looking a bit pained, and glanced over at the receptionist. Turning to block her view, he rubbed his thumb against his fingers.
I rolled my eyes, reaching into my pockets.
“Chandra thinks I smoke these, you know.” I pulled out the cigar. Carefully rolled and loaded with special ingredients, they were an Expeditionary Force specialty. Isaac enjoyed them, but his wife didn’t let him keep them around.
Isaac plucked it neatly from my hands.
“So they are made with love?”
“She’s hoping I get cancer, so some other dagger gets my slot, one she can boss around.”
He chuckled, sliding it carefully into his phone pocket.
I cocked an eyebrow. Something about the way he’d said that made me think it was a hint.
He said nothing. I made the “go on” gesture, moving my hand in an impatient circle.
“You’ll need to watch your language with the Regime Ambassadors.”
I controlled myself. I did not shout. I did not kick the ground, didn’t lapse into my oft repeated fantasy. I received the news that we might be talking to those monsters without a single change in my expression.
“The Secretary will see you now!” called out the receptionist. Isaac walked away without saying anything more.
I followed, fuming.
I had had nightmares like this. When my nightmares got bored with revisiting my experience with First Fist they occasionally promised a rerun. In my dreams we lost the fight, the tyrant’s forces crushed us. Or we won, but just before I got my hands on Remover I woke up. Or we won, but the Pantheon took over Europe because I’d selfishly fought against sending them the assets that they needed. Or… they tricked my bosses with a fake Peace.
I fought for calm, strove to center myself. Now would be a dreadful time to lose my composure. If I was to have any chance of saving this situation I’d need to be entirely in command of my demeanor.
With every step I took I willed myself to serenity. My heart to a steady cadence. My breathe to an unhurried rhythm. My face to a placid mask.
I entered Marian’s office without saying a word, without making one protest, without exploding in anger. Without flashing back to the gas station.
Marian looked weary, dark circles around her eyes. She was older than I was, and it seemed like she’d aged ten years in the months since I’d seen her last. My best guess for her fatigue was that she’d just gotten back from Britain. She was wearing a rumpled pantsuit and had a comband on her forehead, so we were probably telepresenced with some of her more trusted advisors.
She reached out, shook my hand. She didn’t say anything, but I was suddenly conscious of my disheveled fatigues, my portly figure. I didn’t ordinarily care what I looked like, but Marian had that effect on everyone. Presentation suddenly felt more important when you were face to face with her.
The Dragon was also here, standing in a corner, eyes never still. I had worked for the Union for my entire life, and Isaac was as trusted a man as we had, but Marian’s pet Ultra still looked at us like we might become threats at any moment. Some men envied Marian her bodyguard, but not me. Just the thought of living eternally under that stare made me shudder.
I greeted her.
Marian nodded, motioned for Isaac and I to sit down. We did.
“Commander, I’ll move straight to business. Director, can you summarize the report that you sent me?”
Isaac nodded. I wasn’t surprised when he started talking without looking anything up. Isaac would have memorized anything that he could have possibly needed before a meeting of this import.
“Within the next week Prevailer’s Regime will approach us with an offer of truce. They will ask us to give up Bangor and Sherbrooke, in exchange for a two year cessation of hostilities.”
He fell silent, letting Marian take over.
“I don’t need to tell you, Commander, how happy this would make our superiors. They need every Ultra to meet the big push that everyone swears the Pantheon has coming. If we can deliver this peace, the Union will be forever in our debt.”
I nodded. I knew what I needed to do, but it was hard to figure out where to start.
I let it hang there, just for a moment. Let them think I was on board if they liked. I was putting something together, fitting the pieces in my mind. Every moment to think was another in which I might fit all of the pieces.
“Daria, what do the Ultras think about this?”
The Dragon cocked her head to the side as though considering the question. She was technically under my command, of course, but there was no way to disguise the fact that it was a request. She was a rank 3 Ultra, and I was unpowered. Whatever our respective ranks, she was not a being that I could demand anything of.
“We will follow orders, Commander. Whatever you want us to do, I’ll see that it gets done.”
Her voice was hollow, smoky. A thing of dark corners and stolen hoards. In all the time that I’d known her, I’d never known it to rise above a murmur.
“And this will give you time to refortify. The typical drawbacks of pulling back don’t apply to a negotiated withdrawal. We can pull the frontiersmen out alongside your forces, reestablish a line further up the coast.”
Marian’s statement wasn’t exactly ‘wrong’ per se. But it was ignoring the most important considerations.
I hadn’t been able to plan out my statement, not perfectly, but I had to start raising objections now, or the consensus would harden against me.
“Isaac, the reasons that this is good for us…does Prevailer know them?”
Isaac looked uncomfortable. He didn’t like having the extent of his knowledge bruited about. Certainly not to whoever was sharing Marion’s view through her comband.
“Assuredly. Her Regime may have rotten counterintelligence, but they have sufficient tradecraft to keep aware of our general situation. She knows that this truce would be a God send.”
“And, in your estimation, is Prevailer’s Regime in need of a truce at this time?”
This question gave away where I was going, but there was no harm in that because I was basically already there. Marian had a sour look on her face, but she’s not stupid.
“Not to the extent that we are, no,” temporized Isaac.
I wasn’t sure if he was deliberately helping, but I’d take anything I could get.
“To any extent then?” I followed up.
Isaac shook his head, dropping his gaze so that none of us could look him in the eye.
“Prevailer’s Regime has unrestricted access to the Process, and units that are immune to attrition through Linker’s fabled gift. She could sustain considerably greater activity than she is experiencing on our border, indefinitely.”
I let that sink in.
“So, Prevailer can still go. She can go for ever. But we can’t. The Union can’t afford to keep us in the fight, needs every bit of strength we can send them. And Prevailer knows this. She’s got spies, like the Director said. She throws people to her Torturer. She knows that we are on the ropes. She knows that she’s far from them. And she bails us out?”
I saw it then, in Marian’s eyes. The turning. I had more convincing to do, but I’d passed the crux. She wasn’t experiencing this as a calamity or as insubordination, she was actively thinking, assessing probabilities. I’d evaded the path that my nightmares took, where she was just obstinately refusing to consider the worst possibilities.
“You think it’s a trap then?” she asked. “That doesn’t seem exactly like her style. The tyrant usually prefers to come at her enemies head on.”
I clamped my teeth together for a moment, trauma surging within me. I heard Isaac saying something, but for the life of my I couldn’t hear him. I clenched my fists as though they were closing around Karen’s neck, and rode it out.
Marian’s voice brought me back. I was here, in her office. The gas station was the past, it was gone. The past couldn’t be changed, it was prologue. I had to attend to the duties of today.
I brought up a hand, rubbed my temple.
“Unngh, sorry. I was just pondering.”
Marian was staring at me, naked concern on her lined face. Trust a politician to show sympathy when she had to be about ready to drop herself. Isaac’s expression was much milder. He knew exactly what was going on, which made his pity twice as hard to bear. The Dragon’s eyes, as always, had no expression. Daria wasn’t even looking at me. She hadn’t broken off her unceasing vigil for intruders.
“Isaac, how many truces has the Regime broken?”
Marian responded before Isaac could answer.
“All of them, everyone knows that.”
“All of them.” I repeated, letting the word hang in the air. “They have never let even one of them reach the end of its duration?”
“Two of them did, actually,” Isaac corrected. “The two immediately following the Third Defiance reached their endpoints.”
“So, if we agree to this, we know that they will break it.”
“But Commander, as you say, we will be ready for them to breach this truce. They will gain nothing, no surprise and no confusion, by making and breaking a peace agreement. The days of anyone being unprepared for a Regime backstab are decades past.”
“So, you are planning to agree to their deal, use whatever time they give us to reinforce our homeland and be ready when they strike?”
There was an art to phrasing an idea you intended to rebut. You didn’t want to obviously strawman it, or make it sound like something that a fool would come up with. It was actually better if you could, while presenting, convince yourself that it was an idea that you supported. It wasn’t hard in this case, seeing as we’d done substantially this the last time that the Fists had sidled up with talk of peace.
Marian didn’t respond, waiting for me to go on.
“What if, instead, we don’t do what they expect?”
Daria smiled. It was a truly unsettling expression, her gapped teeth seeming like jagged fangs. I looked away from her, back to Marian and Isaac. They were the ones who really mattered in this conversation, the ones that I had to convince.
“Where is it written that we must always be dumb? That we must pretend to fall for these monster’s shit, over and over? Why do we have to respect their offers, take their words, treat them like a real nation instead of a roving collection of thugs and monsters?”
I pounded home each rhetorical question with a tightening of my hands, dry rinsing them to the sound of my voice.
“Let’s just take whoever they, whichever one of their so-called Fists they want to parade around here lying to our faces. We take these bastards, and we kill them. We kill them by surprise, just when they think they are putting one over on us with their bullshit negotiations. Kill a fifth of her most powerful forces, get our reprieve that way, not by begging for scraps.”
I’d gotten carried away. I should have let them talk after the initial presentation. I looked from face to face, dread writing within me at the thought that I might have blown it.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Marian, and the Dragon’s grin almost swallowed her face.