Chapter 2:

Lair of the Lindwyrm

The Lindwyrm

Banishing the need for sleep was one of the primary goals the good Doctor had when he created me. The fact that I still have nightmares about the things he did to me in pursuit of that goal is a testament to his failure. His experiments did come closer to making a sleepless human than any others, though. At least, so far as I've read. I sleep on the four hour flight back to my home and that should sate me for the next few days. I'm glad I don't have to sleep often. My unconscious mind drags up memories of Earth. War. Pain. Helplessness. Failure. Things I'd rather not dwell on. Bookmark here

Home is a welcome sight. The planetary system I reside in consists of a giant blue star I've nicknamed LT as well as a big gas giant I call Fat Man and its partner, Little Man, a far-flung miniature ball of ice. Fat Man has about fifty moons orbiting around it and it is one of those satellites that I call home. Moonbase One is the name of my little hideaway. Not especially creative but I always like the sound of it. This moon is caught in just the right situation to produce both a tenuous atmosphere and a relatively warm climate. Both just on the edge of being livable, unfortunately. Nanobots in my blood maximize my oxygen intake and even I can barely breathe unassisted on the surface of the moon. The temperature swings wildly due the thin atmosphere, getting up to ten or twenty degrees celsius near the equator during the day and dropping to thirty or forty below during the night. Bookmark here

The fact that Moonbase One is the most pleasant of the moons flying around Fat Man is the primary reason I can hide in this system. The great empire of the niao has discovered hundreds of thousands of star systems. Maybe millions. Of those, somewhat less than a hundred are currently inhabited. There are only seventy billion niao and at least a quarter of them live in the niaos' home system. I'm sure the leaders of the niao must sincerely regret the way their explorers, both official and not, forged ahead, finding system after system with no hope the niao could populate more than a tiny fraction. Bookmark here

To enter and exit a wormhole safely, a gate is required. Gates, as far as I understand, are permanent once deployed. The fact that there is an abandoned gate leading to my own system and thousands more devoid of life is proof enough of that. That situation has made the rivers increasingly dangerous to travel. I am far from the only pirate patrolling those space lanes and there are far too many hiding spots for the outlaws of the universe now. It has become a dominant talking point in niao news cycles. The military mostly wants to destroy the gates leading to nowhere systems but the oligarchs do not. They own those systems after all. Bookmark here

So, while I occasionally have to feed some false data to a drone sent to check on the system, I am left completely alone. And even though the surface of Moonbase One might not be that welcoming, one of the major perks of being a sentient is the ability to adjust one’s surroundings. I've burrowed deep into the crust to create a vast hideaway, safe from visual, radar, thermic and every other sensor I could think of. Of course, the only way in is through a specific broadcast known only to me. It actually takes five minutes and four seconds to send the signal to unlock the doors. And I never set the Psychopomp to automatically broadcast it. Nobody gets in unless I consciously decide it. Bookmark here

Once a gate slides open on the surface, I manually guide my ship through and down the long corridor to my hangar. I set down the Psychopomp into its normal spot and exit the ship. The hangar is littered with ships. The Psychopomp stands out because I designed and built it myself. It is a long, sleek ship with two big thrusters on the back and a pointed nose. Niao prefer curves and most of their ships are ovoid. So I specifically designed Psychopomp to be full of angles and sharp edges. Most of the other spacecraft I have are niao-built, with a few others coming from more distant alien civilizations. The exceptions to that being the Doctor-constructed Cruz and another half-built nameless craft of my own. Bookmark here

I walk across the concrete concourse and a small side door opens at my mental command. The moment I step inside the virtual interface of the computer that runs Moonbase One materializes. Its name is Walter and it appears as a man in his fifties, rail-thin, balding and always in a full suit with spectacles perched on his nose. "How do you do, good Master?" He asks me politely, as always. I often wonder why I kept the VI around. The computer could run Moonbase just fine without a pseudo-human avatar. And it was created by the Doctor. Yet, often, it was the only thing that spoke to me like I was human during my childhood. Unnecessary as it was, I took it with me when I left Earth and kept it around all these years. Bookmark here

"Hello, Walter," I say back. "How is Malice?" Before the VI can answer, Malice bounds into the corridor, yowling at me. I kneel down and pat his head. The black cat closes its bright green eyes and purrs loudly. I've always liked cats. Natural enemy of the bird, after all. Bookmark here

"I believe he missed you, sir," Walter answers. Bookmark here

"I can see that." I stand, much to Malice's displeasure. He stands on his hind legs, with his front paws on my leg, flexing his claws. Luckily, there is no way that he can get through the fabric of my jumpsuit. "I have a guest with me," I tell Walter. "I am going to set him up in room seventeen. How are our stocks of niao foodstuffs?"Bookmark here

"Excellent, sir," Walter responds without hesitation. "My estimates suggest that we would be able to harbor an average-sized male niao for up to three-hundred and fifty days without replenishment."Bookmark here

"Good." I turn over command of the spider-drones to Walter. It will see to it that Roots is incarcerated in his room as well as sorting, inventorying and storing the other products I pulled off of the freighter. I continue down the corridor and to my kitchen. Like everything other room, the kitchen is completely empty until I start to command appliances and counters to rise up out of the floor. This is purely an aesthetic choice by me. I have plenty of room. But I like the stark grey emptiness of my home. I know that it would drive any niao crazy to be in such pure and muted surroundings. Bookmark here

I cook all of my own food. It's tough to find human foods off Earth so I make due with niao ingredients and the odd find at some exotic food bazaar. The meal I heat up is kind of like orange chicken stir-fry, only if the orange sauce was pale pink and slightly sweeter, the chicken pieces were little slug-like creatures and the vegetables were from a random assortment of plants never seen on Earth. The rice isn't that different though. Slightly longer grains but nice and sticky. It took me a while to get used to using non-Earth ingredients but I actually kind of enjoy trying to recreate human recipes with wildly different foods now.Bookmark here

Along with my meal, I grab a beer. For unsurprising reasons, human alcohol of all different sorts managed to follow humans off Earth better than just about anything. Beer is much easier for me to procure than, say, an actual chicken. I carry all of it to the main room I use. Mental commands raise a chair and an end table to set things on. While I eat, I check what messages I have. Most of them are extensive reroutes of requests for Hachimantaro. Assassination contracts, hijacking solicitations and a number of invitations to join pirate crews. The reputation of the mercenary Hachimantaro is so well-known at this point that there are even a few communications from niao. Bookmark here

The message that catches my attention, however, is not for Hachimantaro at all. It is from one of the very few people who know how to contact me directly. Once I finish with my meal I toss the empty plate and bottle onto the end table and send it below the floor. I shoo off Malice who has come prowling around. Then I command the room to shift into the Lair of the Lindwyrm. A chair of tangled white wood emerges from the floor, the room darkens and faux torches appear out of the walls. The texture of the walls shifts to resemble rough grey rock and a banner floats down to hand behind the chair. The banner is pitch black with a pure white tree stitched on to it. Dozens of intertwining branches and roots swirl across the banner. The standard of Yggdrasil. Bookmark here

I command a wardrobe to slide up from the floor and go to it. I change from my black jumpsuit to a loose, long-sleeved, white shirt, a pair of tight, white breeches, white gloves and white boots that lace up to the knee. A voluminous white cloak artfully marred with streaks and spots of red is the final touch, I pull the hood of the cloak forward to obscure my face. Seating myself on the wooden chair, I dial up a holographic overlay of a face that replaces my own. Deep in the cowl of my hood is now the head of a dragon. It has dead white scales, burning yellow eyes and a chaotic mouthful of sharp teeth. The face of the Lindwyrm. Bookmark here

It takes a few minutes for her to answer my return call but soon enough, a life-size projection of the woman known as Poisonseed materializes before me. She is a diminutive woman of Han Chinese heritage. Though age and stress have caused her plenty of wrinkles and a permanent scowl, it has yet to leech any of the black from her hair or mute the burning intensity of her dark eyes. She wears an ankle-length black cheongsam with patterns of white, despite the fact that such human clothing is rarely dared to be worn off Earth. A belt slung around her waist has a disrupter on one hip and a ballistic pistol of human origin on the other. Both of which were outright forbidden to humans. Bookmark here

Poisonseed bows very low and holds it for a beat before rising. "An honor, Lindwyrm." Her voice is raspy. A relic from a life spent screaming orders. Bookmark here

"Poisonseed," I say. A modulator makes my voice softer and deeper than it normally is, along with adding a definite hiss. "How goes the preparation for Fenrir's Revenge?"Bookmark here

"Excellent, Lindwyrm," she responds without hesitation. Our men are in sublime condition. Morale is high. We are all eager to hurt the birds. It has been too long since we spilled niao blood." She caresses a pistol while she speaks. "Our recruits from the Sons of Liberty are practically foaming at the mouth."Bookmark here

"Fools!" I snap. "They destroyed their own organization with their impatience and recklessness. They will not destroy Yggdrasil. If one of them steps out of line, I'll have the lot of them shot."Bookmark here

Poisonseed bows again. "I will make sure they understand, Lindwyrm."Bookmark here

"So," I say, letting my anger subside. "If our troops are ready, why have you contacted me?"Bookmark here

"To beg you once again to let me get rid of Crow and the Murder."Bookmark here

"Is he not holding up his part of the bargain?" I ask.Bookmark here

Poisonseed reluctantly shakes her head. "He has done everything we've asked but..." She struggles for a moment and then goes back to the old argument. "He is a niao! We are killers of niao. Working with them, outlaws or not, is sickening. There is at least one brawl a week between his crew and ours."Bookmark here

"If you cannot control your people, I will find someone who can!" I snap.Bookmark here

"It is intolerable," Poisonseed insists.Bookmark here

"You will tolerate it!" I snarl. "We need Crow and his Stormking to ensure our success."Bookmark here

"We have our own ships," Poisonseed continues desperately. "And if you are loathe to risk them, we could hire on Birdshot, perhaps, or-"Bookmark here

I slam my fist down, cutting her off. Then I stand and stalk toward her. Even though it is impossible for me to touch her physically, she still flinches. "It will be Crow and no other," I say softly. "You will keep your men in line. The next one who touches one of the Murder will be cycled out of an airlock. Is this clear to you?"Bookmark here

"Yes, Lindwyrm," Poisonseed says stiffly and slightly breathlessly. Bookmark here

"I do not do things on a whim," I say, seating myself back down on the white chair. "I have never led you astray before, have I?" Poisonseed shakes her head. "Then have faith. Crow is a weapon, same as the disruptor on your hip. I am pointing him directly at the niao."Bookmark here

Poisonseed nods. I can tell that she is still unconvinced but she will obey me. "Understood. I will go and convey your orders to the squad commanders."Bookmark here

"Wait," I say. "Before you leave, there is another matter I wish to discuss." Poisonseed nods and waits, one hand folded on top of the other. "I have recently been informed that the mercenary Hachimantaro has apprehended a young niao." Poisonseed perks up. "Supposedly, he is the son of the Governor of East America." Bookmark here

Poisonseed's eyebrows climb her forehead. "How did that brigand get his hands on such a valuable hostage?"Bookmark here

"The details are unknown to me at present," I say. "A few pathetic slavers had been sending out messages trying to sell off this same niao, so I am assuming Hachimantaro took him from them."Bookmark here

"Idiots." Poisonseed's lip curls. "What can you expect from slavers? The only good thing Hatchet Man does is rid of us their ilk." Her fists go to her hips. "This is no good. He will give the niao to his Outremer masters."Bookmark here

I lean back a little. Hatchet Man was the derogatory name used by those that see Hachimantaro as nothing more than a hired thug. I find it mildly annoying. "Hatchet Man is a mercenary. Even Outremer must pay him for his service."Bookmark here

"If you say so."Bookmark here

"I do say so," I growl. "Nonetheless, we cannot let this niao slip from our fingers. I will attempt to negotiate with Hachimantaro. I want you to get a small team ready if the man won't sell to me. We will have that niao, one way or another."Bookmark here

Poisonseed bows again. A small smile is on her face. "It will be as you will, Lindwyrm." Her signal dissipates and I am left alone.Bookmark here

I restore normal lighting in the room and remove the vestments of the Lindwyrm. A few commands and the room shifts into a study. I pour myself a double shot of whiskey from the bar and light a cigarette. I don't think either properly affects me. The nanobots whirring through my bloodstream filter poisons. Both vices seem human to me, though, so I like them. Bookmark here

Settling into an overstuffed chair, I dive into the net. Technically, it's a collection of billions of niao networks, which do not interface with the internet on Earth. They call it 'the invisible ocean' or something silly like that so most humans just adopted the Earth slang for it. The niao's written language is actually an order of magnitude easier for a human to understand than their spoken language. Like the Chinese system, it began as a series of pictograms that eventually evolved into characters. There may be thousands of them but it's much easier, for me at least, to memorize all the characters than hear all the subtle variations of tone in the whistles and chirps. Bookmark here

I think at least half of my life is doing data sweeps. There is an impossible amount of information out there and I need to know as much as possible in order to do what I need. Of course, I start with the major news feeds that report stories of galaxy-wide importance. Most of those stories have to do with the operations of major niao figures, huge planetary-wide disasters and reports on the alien civilizations bordering the niaos' empire. Most of that stuff isn't pertinent to me, except to keep tabs on a few niao that may factor into my plans sooner or later.Bookmark here

One thing that does catch my attention is a story on the so-called pirate king 'Black' Flynn Oquendo hijacking a space station that was operating as a giant casino. It wasn't clear how much money he had made off with but the numbers they were speculating were astronomical. Plenty of commentators were calling for his head but no one was sure what would be done or who would do it. The reason the casino was operating on a space station was because most planets had laws against gambling. I have to smile at the audacity and cleverness of Black Flynn. I'm not a big fan of his 'Pirate Republic' and believe he will eventually be crushed. Especially if he keeps pulling such high-profile stunts. It does please me to see a human stick it to the niao like that, though. Bookmark here

After I clear the big news stories, I go down deeper. There are twenty-three planets considered major worlds in the niaos' empire, some fifty or so smaller colonies and a few leftovers that are barely inhabited with a military outpost or small time mining operations. I do my best to pick up all the important stories coming from all of those. I never know what strange little story can lead to an opportunity. I read and sort through information faster than perhaps any human that has ever lived. The Doctor made sure that I could process things at lightning speed. Still, it takes hours and hours. Daily.Bookmark here

Of course Earth, one of those fifty or so smaller colonies, is a major stop during my information gathering treks. According to niao news feeds, nothing much of consequence was happening on Earth at the present. The double blow destruction of first the Know Nothings sixteen years ago and the Sons of Liberty seven years later has left American resistance in tatters. There were reports now and again of trouble in the Middle East and the wilder places in Russia and South America. But even though such stories would occasionally blow up to huge talking points for bored reporters and analysts, nothing fundamentally changed.Bookmark here

It was frustrating not to be able to access the Earth's internet but the simple fact was it was flat impossible from a moon thousands of light years away. What I had instead was informants. Not just from Earth but from every place I could get a warm body. Some understood that they were reporting to the Lindwyrm, others believed it was a different person and plenty did it solely for the anonymous cash. They left their information in the most inconspicuous places on the net: a message board discussing how to season roncks meat so it was palatable for humans, the comments of an illegal niao/human pornographic video site, a channel discussing minutiae of a popular fictional universe and so many, many more. Bookmark here

Each of my agents has their own tailored code so they can't give each other up. It also means the entire spy network is completely useless without me. I watch the public leaders of Earth, the leaders of the much diminished underground and the leaders of the crime syndicates. Right now, the latter is what interests me most. With the governments kowtowing to the niao and resistance scattered and impotent, the Cosa Nostra, Yakuza, Tongs and others were actually occasionally acting as the forces they always professed to be: protectors of the little guy. The niao were having little luck combating the criminal organizations, from everything I could see. Bookmark here

The final thing I have to do is begin to obliquely announce as Hachimantaro that I have custody of a valuable niao. Smart persons will put together who I have based on the fool slavers broadcasting it not so long ago. I'll return after a suitable period of time and see how the offers look and make some of my own bids. See what the market looks like and decide if I want to win or not. The niao boy could be a valuable bargaining chip for Lindwyrm and Yggdrasil. Outremer would want him also. Though it is starting to worry and rankle me how associated Hachimantaro is becoming with the syndicate. Bookmark here

By the time I finish with my news gathering, I'm down half a bottle of whiskey and a dozen cigarettes. Malice is sitting on the arm of my chair, staring at me. I scratch the top of his head and he jumps into my lap with a little meow. He eventually settles down and shows me his belly. When I dare to pet it, Malice chomps down on my hand and starts digging at my arm with his hind feet. He's attacking my false arm though and can't get through the skin. After a few minutes of this, he leaps off me with a yowl. Malice begins to sprint around the room in what I can only imagine is frustration, leaving me laughing. Bookmark here

With a sigh, I lever myself up out of my chair. I suppose I should at least visit Roots and explain what is happening. That requires me to change into the black jumpsuit of Hachimantaro. I also prepare a little bowl of food for him. The same rice-like grains I had eaten except these were crawling with little black bugs, just the way naio liked. The room I placed Roots in isn't exactly a guest room but it isn't as cramped as the majority of cells I have. The worst part about it to a niao is probably the stark grey walls and bare floor.Bookmark here

When I enter, Roots is sitting on top of the bed, legs tucked beneath him and neck pulled close to his body. The bed is designed for niao, round with a depression in the middle for the niao to settle into. It is my one concession to niao comfort, since sleeping on a bare stone floor is arguably even worse for them than for a human. I step forward and hand him the dish of food along with a flask of water. Roots takes them warily and doesn't eat or drink.Bookmark here

I squat down. "Hello, Roots," I say easily. "I thought I should at least come by and explain what is going on." The niao says nothing, just staring at me. I shrug. "I'm letting it out that I have you and I'll see what kind of market there is."Bookmark here

"Market?" He asks incredulously. "What about my father?"Bookmark here

"Your father will have the same opportunity to bid on you as anyone else," I say with a cold smile. Bookmark here

"He'll pay for me. I know it," Roots says with desperation. "Just contact him. Don't sell me to anybody else!"Bookmark here

"I'm a businessman, little bird," I answer, grin still on my face. "Does me no favors to have a bidding war without as many bidders as I can get." I wink despite having no way to know if he understands what I am doing. "But nothing wrong with hope. Your father has a lot of money, after all." Roots lets out a mournful whistle. "None of that," I snap. The niao equivalent of crying involves a lot of high-pitched noises that hurt my eardrums. Roots subsides with a start.Bookmark here

I point toward one wall and a piece of it slides up, revealing a small room on the other side. "That the refresher. It will open four times a day for ten minutes so take care of your business quickly. If you are still in there after the minutes have elapsed, you'll have to wait until it opens again to get out. Food and water will be provided three times a day. Please do eat your food. If you lack an appetite, just consider the fate of all those slaves being transported on your freighter. I'm not interested in selling a corpse." I grasp his beak with thumb and forefinger. He jerks back but I hold him easily. "Do we have an understanding?"Bookmark here

"We do," Roots manages. Bookmark here

"Good." I stand. "You probably won't see me again until your fate has been decided. So pray you see me again soon. Or never again," I add with a soft chuckle. Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.