Chapter 7:

Khuushuur

The Lindwyrm


I stride past Nailah and into the kitchen. As asked, Walter has gotten the ingredients to make khuushuur ready. I scrub my hands and then dump a measure of flour onto the countertop in front of me. I shape it so there is a bowl in the middle and then I fill a cup with water from the sink. The water goes into the bowl and, after adding a pinch of salt, I start to work it all into a dough. Nialah walks into the kitchen and leans up against the doorjamb. After watching me knead the dough for a little while, she asks, “Can I help?”Bookmark here

“Have you ever cooked?”Bookmark here

She snorts. “You don’t work as a convict for as long as me without doing some cooking.”Bookmark here

“Alright, then. Why don’t you keep kneading the dough?” I step back and gesture at the dough with a raised eyebrow. Bookmark here

“Happily.” Nailah washes her hands and then takes over. I rinse off my own hands and then check the defroster. The beef is looking good. I move to the two cloves of garlic set out with an onion and begin to mince them. Nailah looks over at me when I am about halfway through the onion. “I think this dough is about as good as it is gonna get.”Bookmark here

Pointing out the rolling pin with my knife I say, “Go ahead and flatten it out a little.” I watch her. “Alright, that’s good.” My onion and garlic are minced so I step over and cut a slice from the dough. I then roll the slice into a cylinder, cut it into three pieces and flatten each of the pieces into a flat circle. “Can you do that with the rest of the dough?”Bookmark here

“Sure,” Naiah says with a small smile. I retrieve the beef out of the defroster while she works. After shredding it I mix the beef in a bowl with the onion, garlic and a little water. By the time I am finished mixing the filling, Nailah is finished with the dough. I carry the bowl over to the circles of dough Nailah has made and spoon a portion of the filling into one. Then I set the bowl aside and draw the edges of the dough together, pinching them so that the top of the closed bun looks like it was braided closed.Bookmark here

“What to give it a try?” Nailah nods and attempts to duplicate what I’ve done. Her braid isn’t quite as clean as mine but it’s not far off. I leave her to keep trying and gather up a large frying pan and cooking oil. I activate a burner and a circle of orange light appears on one of the countertops. It quickly heats to the right temperature. I place the pan on the stove and fill it with oil. Then I gather up a few of the completed buns. The oil is sizzling in no time and I toss a few of the buns in. I handle and turn them with a pair of long-handled cooking chopsticks. Bookmark here

Nailah joins me when she is finished. Once my second batch of buns is cooked, I ask, “Do you think you want to cook a few of these?”Bookmark here

Nailah gives me a baleful look. “I think I can handle it.”Bookmark here

“Alright,” I step back from the pan and hand her the cooking chopsticks. “Be careful of the oil,” I add. Bookmark here

Nailah plops a few of the buns into the pans and instantly leaps back clutching the bottom of one arm, crying, “Oh, fuck! Jesus.” Bookmark here

I laugh. “I told you to be careful.”Bookmark here

She shoots me a glare in return. “What exactly was I supposed to do?” Taking on a look of determination, Nailah returns to the pan and successfully cooks the batch and then the one after that without issue. Though she does flinch every time she introduces a new dumpling. Bookmark here

While she is finishing up, I head to the fridge. “Do you drink beer?” I ask. I think water may be the only non-alcoholic drink I have.Bookmark here

Nailah looks over her shoulder at me, surprise written across her face. “You have beer? What kind?”Bookmark here

I scoff. “I’m sure it is better than whatever swill you were drinking on the Crescent.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know,” she retorts lightly. “One-eyed Durga made a pretty good batch.”Bookmark here

Collecting two bottles, I say, “Well, let’s see if Durga can compete with the Germans.” Nailah picks up the plate of khuushuur and looks at me questioningly. I point to the main room and follow her out, shutting off the burner as I do so. Walter will take care of the cleanup. In the main room, it hits me that I don’t have a dining table. I’ve never needed one before. After cycling through all my furniture options, I eventually decide just to sit against one wall. Apparently unconcerned by this, Nailah sets the plate down next to me and sits on the other side of it. I pass her one of the beers. Bookmark here

Nailah twists off the cap easily and takes a swig. She gasps and closes her eyes. “Oh my god, that is good. This makes One-eyed Durga’s brew taste like piss.” She opens her eyes and looks at me. “You said this was from Earth?”Bookmark here

I nod. “Germany. Warstein.”Bookmark here

Nailah delicately picks up one of the buns. “And what are these?”Bookmark here

“Khuushuur,” I say. “Staple food of Mongolians. Try one.”Bookmark here

Nailah bites into one and quickly has to swipe at a line of grease that runs down her chin. Her face is pure delight though. After chewing and swallowing, Nailah sighs. “It has been so long since I had real beef.” To my surprise, tears spring to her eyes. “It’s so good.” Left tongue-tied at her emotion over food, I quickly take a bite of one of the buns. We both eat our way steadily through the entire plate of khuushuur.Bookmark here

When we are finished, Nailah leans back against the wall with her eyes closed, breathing deeply. I stand up and her eyes flicker open. “I have to go for a few hours,” I say. “If you need anything, ask Walter. Or Waltina.”Bookmark here

“Oh, um, okay.” She waves her empty bottle at me. “Any chance I could have another one of these?”Bookmark here

“Sure, just ask Walter to bring the fridge up.” I turn and head back toward the kitchen. Bookmark here

“See you later?” Nailah calls out. I make a noise of agreement and enter the kitchen. Walter has already taken care of the mess. I walk into the hangar and across to the other side of it. There is an elevator waiting for me there, which I ride to the topside of the moon. At my command an enormous satellite, camouflaged to look exactly like the moon rises up out of the dirt and orients itself toward the sun. The base of the satellite also projects a small oxygen bubble. I seat myself against it and deploy a small wire from the first finger of my false hand. Plugged into the satellite, the nanobots in my body begin to charge using LT’s rays.Bookmark here

At the same time, I dive into the net. The first thing I do is look at the fallout from the events on the Crescent. They have identified me as Marcus Cato and all the details I can find are consistent with his fabricated identity. So at least they haven’t associated him with anyone else. Nailah was identified as well. The authorities picked up a few of her friends. It seems as though two of the niao died and another is in critical condition. Assuming that no lone two humans could take down four niao, the police decided that Nailah must have lured them into the alley for a gang assault. The motivations were widely speculated about and the story was dominating the new cycle. The convict-lease program was controversial and a number of supporters and detractors were using the event to talk about it. Bookmark here

I think that I should probably keep most of that from Nailah. Especially the part about her friends being arrested. I wasn’t surprised though. Niao always felt like they needed to punish somebody, even if they couldn’t get their hands on the actual culprits. I move on from the Crescent and do the rest of my data sweep, annoyed that I forgot my cigarettes and didn’t bring anything to drink. Not much of interest is happening, though some of the self-proclaimed watchdogs among the antiwar niao are growing a little distressed. Many of them are delusional conspiracy theorists but that doesn’t always mean they’re wrong. The increase movement of niao warships is a little curious. I file it away to keep an eye on. Bookmark here

Once I am done with data sweep, I decide that I need to finally make a decision on Roots. In the end, it is Black Flynn Oquendo that makes the most sense. Reason number one is that that is the decision that Hachimantaro would make. Oquendo offered the most money, therefore he gets the hostage. It would also give me a chance to learn a little more about the notorious pirate. The man had made overtures toward Hachimantaro, hoping that one of the most infamous outlaws in the galaxy would join his fledgling pirate republic. I spurned him, of course. Hachimantaro was beholden to no man. I also hadn’t expected Oquendo to achieve anywhere near his level of success.Bookmark here

I compose a carefully worded message and then send it off to him. Then I unplug from the satellite and command it to return to the dirt. Judging by the sun, I have been out here for five hours. I wonder if Nailah needs to eat again. My body only needs about one meal a day. I return down the elevator and through the hangar and kitchen again, thinking of what I might I might cook her, only to find her asleep. Bookmark here

She must have asked Walter to bring up the bed and she is splayed out on top of my black, bamboo cotton sheets. I walk around and see that she is drooling onto one of my pillows and my eyes narrow. Malice looks up from where he is curled up, just behind her head. “I see you’ve decided she is alright,” I say softly. He mewls back at me. Also on the pillow is a book of mine. I read electronic copies of books, of course, but one of the ships that Hachimantaro raided had had a collection of old analog books. Collectibles, maybe, for some museum. I was never sure. I decided that they were better off with me. I only read a few of them, including the one face down next to her. It was about a boy sorcerer. “How did she get it, though?”Bookmark here

“She asked me if there were any books in the house, Master,” Walter says from beside me. “Is there a problem?” Bookmark here

I shake my head. “No, it’s fine.” I leave her behind and take a shower myself. The hot water relaxes even me. The Doctor had had a difficult time making sure none of my false parts would be damaged by water but I’m very glad he did. I take this chance to wash out the black dye I have in my hair. It is time to become Hachimantaro again.Bookmark here

Nailah is still sleeping when I return to the room. I am unsure what to do. The bed is big enough for the two of us but I would have to wake her up to get under the sheets. I also don’t know if she would be comfortable with that. She was the one who summoned the bed though. My bed. What a pain in the ass. Like most things, I don’t need a bed. I just like it. With a sigh, I seat myself in my reading chair and turn down the lights. The blackness is so complete that even I can’t see anything. Then I set my internal alarm for four hours and put myself to sleep. Four hours later I awaken and increase the lights a touch, just enough so I can see some greys mixed in with the black. It looks like Nailah is actually sitting up on the bed. I squint and say, softly, “Nailah?”Bookmark here

She gasps. “Cato?”Bookmark here

“Yes.” Who else? “I’m going to turn up the lights so protect your eyes.” I turn them up. Not all the way but just until it gets dim instead of dark. Bookmark here

Nailah has one eye closed and the other one only half open. “Sorry, I didn’t remember falling asleep and then when I woke up it was pitch black. Kind of freaked me…” She trails off, staring at me.Bookmark here

“What?”Bookmark here

“Your hair…”Bookmark here

I instinctively reach up and grasp the end of one white lock between two fingers. “The black was just to blend in. This is my actual hair color.”Bookmark here

“Oh. It’s nice. Just surprised me is all,” Nailah says with dubious sincerity.Bookmark here

“This actually brings me around to something I have been wanting to talk to you about,” I say, getting to my feet. Since I decided last night that continuing under the guise of Marcus Cato with her would become untenable. “Marcus Cato is simply an alias that I use when I am on the Crescent.”Bookmark here

“Okay.” Nailah hardly seems surprised. I suppose it wasn’t hard to figure out something strange was going on with me. Bookmark here

“Have you ever heard of Hachimantaro?” I ask.Bookmark here

“Hachima…you mean the Hatchet Man!?” she exclaims.Bookmark here

I curse the day I ever came up with this name. “Hachimantaro,” I say firmly. “I am he.”Bookmark here

Nailah swipes a hand through her hair, finally looking absolutely flabbergasted. “Hatchet Man. The niao talk about you like you’re the bogeyman.” She scrambles around so that she is on her knees, which on the bed brings her eye level to me. “I knew a guy who said he saw you once. You rescued him and a thousand other humans from slavers. He said you killed a hundred slavers with just a sword.”Bookmark here

“If I saved him from slavers, how did he end up on the Crescent?” I ask, vaguely annoyed. Bookmark here

“Oh, I don’t know,” Nailah says, waving off the question. “He said you were bigger though. Seven-feet tall with a blazing glare and flowing mane of white hair! Oh my god! Holy shit! No wonder you blew up that niao ship like it was nothing.” Bookmark here

Her stare and wide smile make me a little uncomfortable. I cough and then say, “Well, would you like some breakfast?”Bookmark here

“Uh, sure! Do you need some help again?”Bookmark here

I hold up my hands. “No, I’ll be alright.” I head to the kitchen and quickly make some eggs, sausage and toast.” I don’t have an enormous stock of exclusively human foods but it feels wrong to cook niao foods for another human. Bookmark here

Nailah stands in the doorway and watches me the whole time. When I present her a plate she shouts, “Eggs!” She takes a bite and while she is chewing, says, “Niao explicitly forbid eating eggs on the Crescent. They’re not really birds but for some reason they are very sensitive to bird-related things. No eating eggs or like chickens and turkeys. It’s very strange. But I guess if we were ruling a bird-like race that was eating little monkeys or some shit, we might be a little upset, right?”Bookmark here

“Maybe,” I manage. Bookmark here

“I think so too. Jesus, I forgot how good eggs were. How do you get this human food out here in space? We are out in space right? In the Hatchet Man’s secret high-tech base!” Bookmark here

“Yes, we are in space,” I confirm, suppressing my desire to point out that everywhere is technically ‘in space.’” “There are markets out here for human commodities.”Bookmark here

“That’s cool.” Nailah finishes up her plate and sets it on the countertop. “That was really good, thank you.”Bookmark here

“Your welcome,” I say and then I call out, “Walter.” The avatar appears beside me. “Are Nailah’s clothes ready?”Bookmark here

“Yes. I have cleaned them to the best of my ability.”Bookmark here

I raise an eyebrow at Nailah. “Do you want to get changed into your own clothes?”Bookmark here

Her face falls a little and she tugs at the lapel of her shirt. “Do I have to? Is it alright if I wear these for a little longer?” Bookmark here

I can’t rightly ask a human to stay in the uniform of the niao if they don’t want to. I’m also not very attached to either the dress shirt or leggings I gave her to wear. “That’s fine. You may want to put your shoes on, though. I don’t have any that will fit you and we are leaving.”Bookmark here

“Oh!” Nailah blinks at me. “Alright. Where are we going?”Bookmark here

“I’m not quite sure yet.”Bookmark here

“Okay,” Nailah bobs her head, quite a bit more agreeable than when she thought I was Marcus Cato. “Can I use the bathroom first?”Bookmark here

“Yes, of course.” Nailah bounds from the room, Walter, shifting into Waltina, following. I head into the main room behind them, summoning a wardrobe, needing complete my change into Hachimantaro. I strip of my clothes and start pulling on the black bodysuit I wear when raiding niao ships. Bookmark here

It is only halfway on when Nailah surprises me by coming out of the bathroom. Her eyes open wide and she steps back. Then, continuing to surprise me, she gives my partially bare body a frank once over before backing the rest of the way into the bathroom. The door closes behind her. Heat suffuses my face. I jerk my bodysuit on the rest of the way, sourly wondering why the Doctor didn’t get rid of my ability to blush. Lastly, I buckle my sword on so it slants down my back. Bookmark here

“It’s fine now,” I call out. Bookmark here

Nailah emerges, a small smile on her face. “Sorry about that.”Bookmark here

“Think nothing of it,” I say, a little stiffly. Bookmark here

Nailah giggles. “Are you embarrassed? You shouldn’t be.” She punches me in the arm. Bookmark here

“You weren’t so cavalier when I saw you in just a towel,” I grouse.Bookmark here

She just shrugs. “I’m just a skinny convict from the Crescent. You’re the fucking Hatchet Man. I’ve never seen any so…” She shakes her head and eventually comes out with “…muscley.”Bookmark here

“Great.” I sigh. “Well, if we’re done with that, are you ready to leave?” Bookmark here

“Uh, yeah. Yeah.” She looks over at the bed and points at her book. “Do you think I could bring that book?” Bookmark here

“Yes. It’s yours.” Nailah walks over to get it and I go to Malice, who is sitting on the arm of my reading chair. I scratch the back of his head.Bookmark here

“I promise I will stay longer next time.” He stares at me. “Don’t believe me, huh?” Glancing at Nailah I see that he has her book gathered up, so I command all the furniture in the room to descend. Malice, old hat at this, leaps from the chair and scampers away. “Wait here,” I tell Nailah. “I’ll be back shortly.”Bookmark here

I leave her and head deeper into the complex, to the prison cells. I open the one containing Roots. He gawks at me and then stumbles to his feet. “I thought you forgot about me,” he croaks. “I thought I would die in here.”Bookmark here

A little dramatic, in my opinion, but solitary confinement could be hard on some. “On the contrary, Roots. You’ve rarely left my mind.” I walk around him and grasp his shoulder, pushing him toward the door. “Come on and please do not try anything. I have no desire to break your spine and drag you around but it wouldn’t dismay me either.”Bookmark here

“You are talking too fast,” he whistles at me. “I am not sure I understood all those words.”Bookmark here

I grit my teeth in annoyance. “Go where I tell you or I will hurt you. Understand?”Bookmark here

“Perfectly clear,” he chirps.Bookmark here

I give him another shove so he starts moving toward the door and lead him to the main room. Nailah gawks when she sees him. “Who is that?”Bookmark here

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “He will be joining us for part of our journey.”Bookmark here

“Uh, alright,” Nailah says, seemingly short of breath. Bookmark here

“Come on.” I push Roots through the kitchen and into the hangar. I search Nailah’s face when we stop before the Psychopomp and can see that she is impressed.Bookmark here

“I’ve never seen a ship like this.”Bookmark here

“It is one of a kind,” I say, “because I built it myself.” Roots makes a croaking sound. Bookmark here

“How?” Nailah shouts. “How did you build a whole fucking spaceship by yourself?!”Bookmark here

A little taken aback by her yelling, I say, “It took me a long time.” A mental command lowers the doorway into the ship and I walk Roots in with Nailah on my heels. I take the niao to the brig of the ship and toss him into a cell.Bookmark here

“Are we going to see my father now?” he asks. Bookmark here

I almost have to laugh at his pitifulness. Instead, I say nothing, returning to the front of the ship. Where I find Nailah poking around. “This is really great,” she says. “You’ve got a like a whole house in here! A bed, a kitchen, a shower. Not as nice as your actual house, of course, but better than I had on the Crescent. Most humans on the Crescent would kill for amenities like this actually. And you have them on a ship!”Bookmark here

“Thanks,” I say, not sure what else I should say. “I like it.”Bookmark here

“Yeah.” She sits down on the bed. “So what was up with that niao?”Bookmark here

“Just…work. Listen, I am going to take off now. I need you to stay right here. My secret base really won’t be that secret if somebody else knows what it looks like, right?”Bookmark here

“Oh! Oh, yeah. Yeah. I get you.” She holds up her book. “I’ll just sit here and read my book until you tell me that it is okay.”Bookmark here

“Thank you.” I leave her behind and head for my cockpit. I sink down into the pilot’s seat. What a headache. At least I only had one stop to make before I could dump her on someone in Port Royal. Just after I woke up, a message came through from Black Flynn. It gave me the coordinates of an unoccupied system where we could make the exchange. I could get rid of Roots and Nailah both in the same trip and then focus on my real priority. Operation Fenris’ Revenge, the culmination of years of work by the Lindwyrm and Yggdrasil. I need to keep my eyes on the true prize. Bookmark here

With a thought, I fire up the engines of the Psychopomp. My ship slowly lifts off the hangar floor and spins around. Then it shoots out of the landing tunnel and into the space beyond Moonbase One with phenomenal speed. I close my eyes. It feels so good to be back in a ship with real power and speed. In no time, I am saying goodbye to LT, Fat Man and Little Man and slamming into the wormhole.
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