Out of habit, I walked along as the barrier moved me towards the shore.
I didn’t really need to. It actually made progress slower than if I just stood still and let it float me ahead, since I had to reshape it forwards to catch my foot with every step. I wasn’t in any hurry, though.
Fader just kind of drifted next to me. I didn’t have any idea how fast her image form could go. It was probably in one of my files, but I had been much more focused on her attitudes and history than her capabilities the last time we’d been by my house. I’d figured that if I needed info on her gift, I could just ask.
“How fast can you go, like that?” I asked. No harm in making conversation.
“About as fast as I can run,” she said. “But I can go in any direction at that speed. I don’t slow for turns, I can go up or down, makes no difference.”
Must be nice. It would be petty, of course, to complain that the gift that made me invulnerable move me around slightly more slowly than the gift that made her invincible.
“I wish my own gift was a bit faster. I fall off if I move the barriers much faster than this though.”
Never let it be said that I was not petty.
“No rush, no rush. Actually, I am kind of glad we are taking it slow.”
That was a bit weird. A few moments ago she’d been worried about Esther spoiling things for us before we actually got to the island.
I looked over at her, pointedly not putting the cube that I was dragging Haunter along with in my field of view. I was ‘rolling’ that dice along, very slowly, and it was no doubt annoying her to no end. I’d lose plausible deniability if I had to explicitly ignore whatever signs she had her slaves waving around.
Fader saw the look on my face, put a hand up.
“Yeah, I know, I know. Earlier I was all about us getting there fast. I’m not making a huge amount of sense right now. To be honest, it is a bit hard to hold it together. You don’t know, I mean, you can’t know, how the Link is going to change you guys. I haven’t been alone, like, really alone, in decades. It is taking an awful lot to not just sink into the ground and throw myself a pity party.”
It was weird to think of Fader, famous for being impassive in the face of Her slaughtering people by the dozens to try and get her to become real again, getting all weepy. She didn’t look it, but I couldn’t really see a reason for her to lie about it.
“So, what is our strategy going to be? We are basically a team of all anchors at this point, assuming we don’t meet up with Twister. Our offensive capacity isn’t exactly what you’d expect.”
Fader looked momentarily alarmed.
“Uh, I’m thinking our strategy should be to walk up and start talking. Like Adder said. If She is going to be angry with us for being off of the Pantheon diplomacy mission anyway, no reason not to make common cause with the Union.”
I tensed as my mouth flared with pain, took a few steps before replying.
“We actually tried to be friendly with the Union once. They ambushed us like chumps. I’m not in love with the idea of a replay.”
Fader considered a moment, taking her time to word her reply just right. She looked over at Haunter’s cube and repressed a chuckle.
“Nobody is saying put ourselves in their hands. If they want to fight two invincible Ultras they can lose as many resources as they’d like. I’m just saying that we should talk it out first. We wouldn’t gain anything by fighting them.”
All of the rumors said that Sixth Fist had been the least combative of Her fists. It looked like losing the Link hadn’t changed Fader’s instincts.
“I guess I can live with that,” I said. “So you want to walk up and ask to talk to their leaders, begin peace negotiations or whatever?”
She shook her head.
“No, I’m thinking more of a middle ground. It feels like just explicitly deserting and joining up with Her enemies might make Prevailer warp out here and throw her weight around. I’m thinking we tell them that we are a Fist from the Regime, here on a secret mission from Her. Tell them nobody has to get hurt, they just don’t bother us and we’ll get along fine.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works. The Union protects its people from us, right? That is what they are selling the daggers on anyway. I don’t think they can just let us walk around on their turf without a challenge.”
Fader looked taken aback for a moment.
“I forget, sometimes, how new you are to this. You haven’t done a mission in the Union before, have you? Outside of the diplomacy thing I mean?”
I made a kind of nodding motion that was supposed to convey agreement and annoyance, in roughly equal measure.
“I’m not trying to big league you here. I’m just saying that, if you did, you’d realize that the Union maintains a pretty tight control on their information. The civilians aren’t going to hear about anything that the military doesn’t want them to hear about.”
“So, we land, tell them to bug off, and that’s that?” I asked.
“Look at it from their point of view. Preventer and Fader are sitting around on the edge of your turf. The Pantheon is maybe a month or two away from campaigning season. You want to lose some Ultras? Or is it easier to just leave us be as long as we don’t attack anyone?”
I could see the sense in that.
“Of course, this whole conversation is moot if Twister got there ahead of us. She’ll tear whatever garrison they have here apart.”
“You don’t think the garrison can take on one Ultra?” I asked. “I thought the Union were tougher than the Pantheon, all things considered. Esther isn’t in a Link anymore.”
She gave a sad smile.
“You don’t know her. If you let Haunter out to talk she’d tell you about the fight on the deck. Twister is a stone cold killer if you piss her off.”
We walked a couple hundred more yards in silence.
I could see the dark bulk of the island ahead of us now. There were no visible lights, no sign of motion that I could see. It might as well have been entirely uninhabited.
“That EMP thing,” I said. “Does it affect guns?”
“No, it shouldn’t. They weren’t that close to the blast, and I don’t think even Union guns need their delicate parts to fire. They might have lost some aim assist, but they’ll still send bullets out the front when you pull the trigger.”
“I meant my gun,” I said. “We were at the heart of the blast, is my gun going to work?”
She looked at me strangely.
“Your gift should have shielded it, right? Same as it did for your clothes? I don’t know the particulars of your gift, but I can’t see why your gun would be damaged if the rest of you is intact.”
“I guess it depends on whether it counts as ‘harm’. My makeup stays on me, but bullets bounce off. I’m trying to work out if this phenomenon counts as more like a change, which would probably work, or more like damage, which wouldn’t do anything.”
Fader made a shooting motion, shrugged again.
“Oh, I can’t just shoot it now to find out. I keep the firing pin in a separate holster. It takes a few minutes to get the gun ready to fire.”
“Why?” she asked.
I just grinned at her.
A few paces later she made an ‘ah-ha’ sound.
“I get it. You are like me, immune to damage. So you don’t care about defending yourself quickly. You can take all the time you want to get ready to fight. But if somebody strips the gun off of you, picks your pocket or whatever, it is useless. Neat.”
“That’s part of it,” I allowed. “But mostly it is just about my temper. With my gift there is no excuse for not taking my time and thinking through significant things, and shooting someone is definitely that. I use it to enforce a kind of discipline on myself.”
“I can see that,” she said. “It isn’t quite the same for me, of course, but I also find that my gift gives me the time to be careful. I think the reason Third Fist is so violent is that they don’t have an anchor like one of us, so they have to be ready to kill or be killed at any moment.”
It seemed like she had boxed up whatever trauma losing Blinder, Consumer and Charger had caused, at least for now. She was talking easily, almost casually. I hoped she could keep it up until my Fist came back in the morning.
“Makes sense,” I said, and left it at that.
More walking. We were only a few miles away from the shore when she spoke again.
“Can you get Haunter over here? We need to make sure she’s on the same page.”
I stopped and pulled the cube round in front of us. Haunter didn’t look any the worse for wear from the slow tumble I’d subjected her to, but she did give me a death stare and a raised middle finger.
I thought for a sec about how to open it in such a way as to allow minimum radiation in. Shaking her up was all well and good, but if I cost her a shade she might actually do something. I ultimately settled for separating one of the walls slightly from the rest of it.
“Get that all out of your system?” asked Haunter. “Maybe I’ll forget that you shopped Andy to the same Pantheon clowns that just tried to kill us if you turn me over again.”
“What?” asked Fader.
“You know what,” I said. “Let’s air this out.”
No one said anything, both of them looking to me. I crossed my arms, grimaced through another surge of pain from my jaw.
“Yes, I turned Andy over to the Pantheon. I used Condemner to do it, and I killed him to keep you from finding out. If you were at all serious about overthrowing Her you’d have been right there with me. Zeus is the only one who might have a chance at stopping Her. He needs to be tuned up by Andy. Keeping him for ourselves would have been profound selfishness.”
It took a while before Haunter replied.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” she said.
“You never listen to anyone but your ghosts. The rest of us aren’t real to you, not like they are. You’d never have taken my words to heart while your flock clamored to you for help. That’s not who you are, and you know it.”
I couldn’t see, with the barrier in the way, how she was taking this. Her voice was calm and steady, however.
“I do listen to you, Rebecca. So do my passengers. We listen very carefully. We hear more than you realize that you are saying, in fact.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but I wasn’t about to beg her to clarify.
“So, are we good? This is a rare opportunity to talk while the others aren’t around. Are you satisfied about the Andy thing? Anything else you want to bring up?”
Once again she took her time in responding. I could only imagine how all the daggers she had stuffed in her head were debating.
“I’d hoped, when I saw your feelings for that boy at your house, that you might have been influenced by the Link. I’d hoped that you might be adopting our values as your own, that this might become a true partnership, rather than a mere Fist.”
“Leave Thui out of this,” I told her.
“I’m satisfied. You are what you are, and I’m going to give up on hoping that you ever grow up.”
That stung a bit.
Fader spoke up before we could get into things anymore.
“Ladies, do we really have to do this now? We are probably being watched even as we speak. We are the only glowing thing on the ocean, and I guarantee nobody on that island is sleeping tonight.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s talk about what we are going to do when we get there. Fader has suggested that we land on the island and basically just wait around for the rest of the Fist to get back. If we are lucky, we might even find Twister.”
“That’s alright, as far as it goes, but may I present a slight modification to that plan? My shades have been gaming this while you were spinning me.”
I felt a trace of shame as she mentioned that. It had been a childish act.
“Once we make landfall, I’ll send out some shades. They’ll locate the island garrison and see what we are dealing with. Then you go and speak with them, assure them that we mean no harm.”
“That’s actually what I was thinking too,” Fader interjected. “I didn’t want us to just skulk about, we need to assure the Union that we aren’t here to take them out.”
“I thought you said they wouldn’t fight us if they didn’t have to?” I asked.
“Oh, sorry, I can see where I wasn’t clear. I meant that they won’t go out of their way to hit us once they know we aren’t after them. They will definitely think we are against them at the start, and after that explosion there will be reinforcements on the way. We need to get them out of frantic defense mode, and back into the usual détente.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’m the obvious choice for negotiations, I agree. They can’t hurt me, and even if they somehow do I’ll be right back as long as they don’t take out Jane. But I’m not sure I can do it. I only speak English.”
“They’ll understand English, don’t worry about that. But to be perfectly sure we could have one or two of Haunter’s friends go with you. They still understand the languages they knew in life, right?”
“Yes,” said Haunter. “The people in my reserve can speak and act as they will. I exert no control. I can certainly find a translator or two for Preventer.”
“Alright,” I said. “So I tell them that we are from the Regime, we come in peace. Seems simple enough. Tell them as long as nobody gets in our way, nobody gets hurt.”
Fader looked relieved.
“They will almost certainly accept. No point in fighting with us. They say yes, and then we camp out and wait for your friends to return, and then we decide what to do next.”