It didn’t take long for Haunter’s minions to track down the garrison.
I’d been half expecting a big civilian presence. It wouldn’t have made a lot of sense, this close to the front lines, but it was hard to imagine the Union telling a bunch of its people that they’d have to leave their homes.
The Union garrison was a squat pyramid shaped building, located a decent distance from one of the abandoned cities.
The ghosts assured me that no one had seen us approaching, as they led me towards it. We’d hiked for about forty minutes from where I’d left Haunter and Fader, and the Link assured me that Haunter, at least, hadn’t moved. She was probably buried in something, trying to hide from fallout. I hoped she’d managed to find some decent clothes.
I took in some more details of the base as I got closer. It had a fence around it, a tower with a lookout post on top, and some rectangular things which presumably would have been doing something impressive if the nuke hadn’t knocked out all of their machinery. The only people I could see were a pair of silhouettes on the top of the tower.
Haunter’s shades pointed me toward a path that would let me creep up a bit nearer before being spotted, but I shook them off. I got up and started walking down the road towards the building, waving to attract attention.
Sneaking up on them would be counterproductive. My main goal was to establish communications, get them to understand that the blast hadn’t been an attack on them, and ideally persuade their leaders to not dispatch whatever their anti-Fist plan was to attack us.
I half expected them to start shooting when they saw me, but instead the guys up in the tower called down, and someone came running out of the gate towards me.
I didn’t alter my stride or react in any way, and the woman they sent nearly got to grabbing range before she suddenly pulled up short.
She was taller than me, naturally, and wearing some kind of tactical gear. Everyone was taller than me, but this lady was exceptionally tall, she’d come up to Indulger’s nose. I wasn’t sure whether Ultras and daggers wore different uniforms in the Union, but decided it was better to err on the safe side.
As she came to a stop she had a shocked look on her face. She jumped back in alarm, spitting out a burst of some foreign language or other.
It took me a second to work out what she was so shocked about. Of course, they hadn’t jumped to the conclusion that I might be an enemy. They’d probably assumed that I was one of their people, caught outside for whatever reason when the bomb went off. That’s why they hadn’t fired, and instead sent this person to get me.
“I only speak English,“ I told her. “Do you understand me?”
She didn’t respond directly, instead speaking rapid fire into a thing on her arm. That was worrying, I’d been assuming that their handheld devices would have been damaged by the blast. Maybe this had been inside the garrison when the bomb went off?
“I only speak English,” I said again, slower and louder. “I am from the Regime. Take me to your leader.”
This time she reacted, unmistakably. At the mention of the word ‘Regime’ she whipped out a weapon and trained it on me. It was a thick, short gun with some kind of coiling around the end of it.
I feigned an elaborate yawn, stretching a hand up to cover my mouth in a deliberately slow and casual fashion. She didn’t relax in the slightest.
“That won’t do anything to me,” I told her. “I just walked out of that big bomb. I want to talk to your officers.”
She started backing off, keeping the gun aimed at me.
I shrugged and started walking after her. I only got a step before she stopped and yelled again.
“Stop right there!”
Not even an accent.
“I’ll stop right here, as long as you are bringing me your captain, or lieutenant, or whoever. I want to talk to your leader.”
“Don’t move! I am taking you into custody in the name of the-“
Might as well get this over with. I reached for my gun.
Her weapon didn’t make any noise when she fired it, beyond a muted whirring noise. It also didn’t do anything to me, unsurprisingly.
I bent over to examine the pile of twisted spiky things that had suddenly appeared in front of me, even as she threw herself sideways and fired again.
Her gun seemed to be some kind of upgraded shotgun, firing a whole bunch of tiny drones instead of unguided pellets. From the fins and things on the projectile I’d picked up I was willing to bet they aimed themselves once fired.
I looked up from the dart just in time to see her scramble to her feet, and shoot me in the face. I kept my mouth closed so none of the shots would end up in my mouth. One of them knocked my Sigil off.
“Hey!” I said.
She turned around and ran back towards the garrison, even as I was going back to pick up my hat.
It was ruined. The drone had torn a huge gap through both sides of it. I turned my head slowly back to the pyramid building, and began to march after her.
I wasn’t surprised when a pair of Union soliders came running through the gates before I could get there. If I’d been worried about an oncoming Ultra it is what I would have done. Their job would be to buy time, to get me to reveal my gift.
They spread out, one heading to either side of the road, keeping weapons trained on me. These looked like more conventional rifles, although I wasn’t close enough to get a good look. It didn’t really matter.
I ignored them, just kept heading for the gates. One of them shot me a few times, but I didn’t break stride. No reason to deal with these chumps. If they were Ultras they’d come for me, as soon as I got their boss, and if they were daggers then it wasn’t worth it.
A few desultory shots came from the tower as I walked up, but these slackened as I drew near. They had enough evidence to start treating me as bulletproof now, at least.
“Regime Combatant, state your intentions!” blared a voice from a hidden speaker.
I couldn’t tell if it was someone with a voice amplifier who was crouched down behind something, or an actual speaker relaying the words of somebody deep inside the base.
“I want to talk to your leader. Stop wasting ammo and get out here. I promise, in Her name, I’m not here to harm you.”
There was a momentary delay. It made me think that this was an actual loudspeaker situation, and the wait was their command staff talking among themselves.
“Who are you?”
That was a decent question.
“I am Preventer, I am part of Fourth Fist. You should have files on me, somewhere in there. My Fist sent me to talk to you, we want to avoid the problems that broke out the last time we tried to speak with the Union.”
I shrugged, then brought forth a barrier. It rotated around me once, then passed back into my form.
“Satisfied?” I asked.
There was a sort of a ‘schunk’ kind of sound, and the gate cracked open.
I hadn’t actually believed that they’d go for it. It spoke well of their commanding officer’s rationality. It would have been easy to just hunker down and fire, hoping that reinforcements would arrive before I could do anything too serious.
I walked through the gate, into a courtyard. There weren’t all that many Union troops around, they’d mostly relocated. A few watched me from behind low walls scattered around the yard, presumably put there exactly to be of use in a firefight. I was tempted to wave, but controlled myself.
The door cracked open in front of me, the tall woman from before was behind it. She led me into a meeting room.
The guy on the other side of the table had was old and fat, and had on the same kind of black pseudo armor outfit that she’d been wearing. I couldn’t get a grasp on what determined who got the ninja stuff and who got normal camo.
“Hello Preventer,” he said. “I am Major Hobes. I’m the highest ranking officer present. If you have demands, or intend to take a hostage, I offer myself.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I don’t want anything from you. I am just here to tell you some things. I’m certainly not about to take you hostage.”
He smiled, gestured for me to be seated.
“That’s reassuring. Your file suggests that you have indulged in that kind of behavior before.”
I fought down a sudden, irrational desire to read my file.
“I usually have Knights do that sort of thing. It turns out to be a huge hassle, especially if you are keeping a kid or two.”
He blanched a bit, at that. This guy was no diplomat, and probably didn’t play cards all that well.
“Well, why don’t you say what you have to say, Rebecca?”
“Fourth Fist is here to offer our assistance to your Union, in the upcoming battle with the Pantheon. I don’t know if you have the records of the last time we tried to meet with you people, but this is what we were about that time as well.”
He spread his hands.
“We are having some difficulty contacting the network, at this time. It makes it complicated to look up the information that you are referring to.”
“You found my dagger name easily enough, Major.” I said.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he said. “We had the file on your Fist, and others, cached locally. I don’t have any records of this meeting that you are referring to though.”
That sounded plausible.
“It isn’t important. What matters is that we are here to help, if you’ll let us.”
I was actually coming on a little stronger than we’d talked about before, but I thought it was warranted. For all Fader’s talk of them being willing to let us swim for a while as long as we didn’t make trouble I still felt like the safer route was in getting them to think of us as allies, rather than merely inactive enemies.
“You must realize, I have no authority to negotiate with agents of a foreign power. Even if she sent you to come to terms with us, even if you compel me, my assent would be meaningless to my nation. My promises would not bind them.”
“Even if She sent you,” I corrected his pronunciation.
He looked duly chastened, and a bit worried.
“Yeah, I get that. I’m not asking you to sign us up or anything. I’m just trying to get across to you that that big explosion wasn’t step one in us attacking you. Can you relay that up the chain?”
“Then what was that blast?” he asked. “No, more important question, how did that bomb get past the Umbrella? If you truly have no hostile intentions, would you mind sharing what you know of the event?”
He hadn’t answered my question, but at least he hadn’t said ‘no’. I didn’t see any harm in filling in the blanks for them a bit.
“The bomb was on our boat. Your Umbrella is probably some kind of interception system, right? This explosive was never in the air.”
He shook his head, slowly.
“It should still have been caught, even if you carried it in along the surface. It picked up a Pantheon suitcase nuke last year, inside of an armored truck.”
I just shrugged.
“Then I don’t know. Maybe it is tuned to pick up the kind of bombs that the Pantheon uses on you, and they make up different ones when they try to take out a Fist.”
Actually, given what we’d pieced together, it seemed likely that there had been no bomb for their system to detect, right up till the instant of detonation. That was too complicated to explain here, however.
“So this explosion was the Pantheon’s work then? They were attacking you?”
I just nodded.
Lying to the Union was a terrible way to kick off whatever friendship Haunter hoped to form, but the truth wasn’t really an option, not if we wanted to keep Sixth Fist’s broken Link a secret.
“Very well. I will let my superiors know what we have discussed, as soon as our communications are restored.”
“Excellent,” I said.
We sat there in silence for a bit, until he kind of awkwardly stood up.
“Agent Raindrop will see you out.”
The tall woman who’d been my escort thus far was apparently waiting for this cue, as she opened the door.
I started leaving, then stopped on a sudden impulse. I reached up and swiped her beret, set it on my head in place of the Sigil she’d ruined.
She jumped back and pointed her gun at me, again, but an impatient gesture from her boss got us moving.
There wasn’t any incident as we left the gates, and she stopped there. I walked back down the road alone. Haunter’s ghosts joined me once I was out of the tower’s sight line.
“How did it go?” asked one.
After I told him he flashed back to Haunter, leaving me and the other to trudge the rest of the way back in silence.
They’d made a campfire, I saw when I got back to the beach. Or at least Haunter had. Fader was still in her image form, and judging by the unbandaged state of her hand she hadn’t gone back to flesh since the explosion.
“Good job,” said Fader. “I appreciate you keeping your calm when they were shooting at you.”
“Comes with the gift. I think they will probably keep back for tonight, at least, but I doubt that little song and dance will have any real effect in stopping them from filling this island with countermeasures tomorrow.”
Haunter looked somberly across the fire.
“Diplomacy is no mere ‘song and dance’, Preventer. I wish you wouldn’t be so flippant about the possibility of cooperation.”
The paradox of Haunter was that she was impossible to ignore, but when she said things like that it was incredibly hard to take her seriously.
“Sure Jane,” I said. “I bet this will just go great.”
“It needs to,” said Fader. “The Union is a lot meaner than most Regime Ultras realize. If it bends its efforts in our direction we might be in real trouble. Remember, until just a few hours ago we ‘knew’ that there was no way to break a Link. What else might we be about to learn?”
That was a good point, actually. A bit sobering.
“Hope you know what you are doing, Haunter,” I said.
“I don’t,” she responded. “We do.”