The next time I open my eyes—that I can remember at least—I am lying on my back in a brightly lit room. I dart my eyes from side to side and it swiftly becomes clear I am in a recovery room. The IV bag to my right is the only tangible evidence of this. The room itself is more like a tastefully decorated bedroom, with a few pieces of art and hardwood floors. The bed I am in is large enough to dominate the room. I have been here before, though, and so know exactly where I am.
Carefully, I wiggle one foot and then the other. They are both moving fine. I close my right hand into a fist and feel the tug of the IV tubing. Then my left hand. To my great relief, it not only responds but responds with full feeling. My left arm is functioning again. And so is my head, I think. I scoot up until I am sitting against the backboard and stretch my back muscles with a grunt. How long have I been out? I reach up and touch the spot on my head that has been sending the occasional sharp sting since I woke up. There is a long laceration and rows of stitches. Brain surgery then. Fantastic. I should forward the bill to Oquendo.
The door to my room opens and then man who undoubtedly performed my operation walks in. Doctor Luis Cesar is a tall, clean-limbed man with a well-groomed goatee and long, perpetually frowning face. He is dressed in grey scrubs and sneakers. His dark, intelligent eyes sweep over me judgmentally.
"Hello, Doctor Cesar," I say brightly. "Brain surgery?"
"What the hell happened to you?" Cesar asks with just a hint of his Argentinian accent. "When I cracked open your skull, just about all the wiring in there was frayed and cracked. That girl who dragged you here told me how you had been acting. I'm honestly surprised it wasn't worse with all the random electrical signals your brain was receiving."
I ignore his question. He knows I won't answer anyway. "Is everything back the way it was before?"
Cesar walks forward and sits on the edge of the bed. "Yes, though it wasn't easy. I don't think you suffered any permanent damage."
"Well, that is why I have you on an incredible retainer," I say. Cesar is without question the best doctor and surgeon on Port Royal. He would probably be the best physician in any hospital he chose to join, if he wasn't a fugitive. Cesar charges an astronomical amount for his services but he was also the only doctor on the planet with any kind of modern equipment. If I had to guess, I would say that acquiring and maintaining his equipment leaves him barely breaking even, no matter how much he charges. I bring up my left arm, flexing it and closing and opening the fist. "Seems like you corrected whatever was wrong with my arm, as well."
"There was something wrong with your arm?" Cesar laughs. "To be honest, I feel like I barely have a handle on how your body works. Anybody else would still be in a coma."
"Yeah," I say. I live in this body and I'm not exactly sure about what all goes on in it. The Doctor tinkered with me so much when I was young that he once said he considered me as much a work of art as science. "Speaking of that, you can probably take these stitches out now. They itch and the wound will close soon enough without them."
"No problem but I feel like I should let your...friend," he says that with just a hint of a question, "...see you. She's been coming by every day so I called her went I noticed your increased brain activity." I nod. Nailah. For some reason I feel a little pit of anxiety in my stomach. Cesar opens the door and says, "You can come in now." Nailah hurries through but stops short at the sight of me.
She got new clothes from somewhere. It's the first time I've actually seen her in something that fits and suits her. She is wearing black, calf-high boots, black tights, a grey skirt and a dark blue sweater. They are plain but seem to be good quality, especially for Port Royal. I wonder where she got them. "You have new clothes," I say.
Nailah starts and then flushes slightly. "Your friend Jezelle made me. She said she would add it to your tab." Nailah tugs at the cuff of her sweater nervously. "I tried to say no but she is a very, um, forceful woman."
I laugh and then tension in Nailah visibly lessens. "You don't have to tell me how...forceful Jezelle is." I keep a smile on my face but wheels are turning in my head. So Jezelle and Doctor Cesar at the very least know about Nailah. I trust them as much as I trust anybody but I have a sinking feeling that they are far from the only people on Port Royal who know.
To my dismay, Nailah lifts her hands to her face and tears start rolling down her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
"Sorry," she says, wiping the tears away. "I'm just glad you are alright. It was terrible before. You wouldn't talk or eat or respond." She shook her head. “I think you had some kind of seizure one time. You…” She shook her head again.
I notice Doctor Cesar slip out of the room while she is talking. "I'm sorry I worried you," I say awkwardly. This might be a first. I can't remember anybody crying over me before. Not for this reason at least. "Sit down," I say, "and tell me what happened between when I...went away and now."
"Okay." Nailah sits down on the edge of the bed. "There isn't much to tell though. The Psychopomp knew where it was going and I didn't know how to stop it, even if I wanted to. Once we were here, there was a traffic officer or something named Mindee who popped up on the console. Once I explained things to her, she helped bring you here." I have to work to keep a grimace off my face. Mindee was something a stroke of luck because she knew to bring me here. But now I owed her. "Doctor Cesar called Jezelle and I've been staying with her for the past several days." Nailah perks up a bit and says, "She gave me a job, too, working at her inn as a server."
"That was nice of her," I say vaguely. Nailah hasn’t mentioned it but the truth of the matter is I would likely be dead if it wasn’t for her. Probably in that gulch, slipping in and out of memories until I starved to death. I am unsure of how to react to owing somebody my life. It has been a very long time since that has happened to me. "Nailah," I say. "I want to thank you. I have no doubt you saved my life a few times over. You showed exemplary courage, cleverness, determination...um, foresight..." I trail off because I can see that Nailah is trying not to smile. I narrow my eyes. “What is it?”
"Sorry,” she murmurs, clearly still trying to control herself. Then she gives up and laughs aloud. “Sorry, sorry,” she says again between giggles. “You just looked so uncomfortable and your ‘thank you’ was so formal.."
"I see," I say evenly.
"Don't be mad. I was just so...you," she says, still grinning. "I do appreciate the thank you." She hops of the bed. "I should head back to Jezelle's. She let me off to come visit when Doctor Cesar called." I make an ambivalent noise. Nailah stops at the door and looks back. "I'm really happy you're alright. I'll come back tonight."
I struggle to hold back my annoyance. Having my nose-tweaked is not something I am used to. If anyone has earned the right to do it, though, she has. I sigh and say, “I’ll be here.” Not sure what else to say. Nailah smiles and I think there is laughter in her eyes again. Then she is gone and Doctor Cesar comes back inside.
"Do you still want those stitches out?" he asks.
"Yes and get this IV out of me too."
Cesar frowns. "I have anti-infection medication along with the nutritional supplements in there, you know."
I wave his objection away. "It's fine. I won't get an infection and I need my arm free."
Cesar shrugs. "It's your body." I decline his offering of pain medication and let him go about his business removing the stitches. While he does so, I cautiously try and connect to the net and feel great relief when the flood of information enters my brain no differently that it did before Flynn attacked me. That relief is almost immediately subsumed by the crushing backlog caused by my nearly three week absence.
First and foremost are the increasingly urgent messages from Poisonseed. The Lindwyrm was supposed to be on sight by now and certainly hasn’t ever dropped out of communication like this before. I wish I could contact her directly, but that is impossible at the moment. Instead, I am forced to send her a quick message telling her that I won't be there for a week or two. That's cutting it close to the beginning of Operation Fenrir's Revenge but I don't see that I have a choice. I had wanted to be there for the final preparation. Poisonseed can handle it, though.
The message makes my rage at Oquendo open anew. I spend some time digging up what I can on him. There isn't much. He isn't on Port Royal and hasn't been seen anywhere since he tried to kill me. Also, based on the number of messages I have waiting, he hasn't spread word of offing Hachimantaro. Strange. Also somewhat surprising is the fact that he paid for Roots in total. The credits are there in my account. He must have truly expected Hachimantaro to join his ridiculous little Pirate Republic. Though, if what he told me was true, it isn't so little. There must be someway to benefit from that when I kill him. Perhaps the Exile King could take over the organization? I'll need to think about it. Regardless, his death will have to be postponed for now. Much as I hate it.
Once Doctor Cesar has the stitches out of my head and the IV out of my arm, I get out of bed. My muscles are sore and I feel a little unsteady but not bad. As I continue to methodically work my through the backlog of news and messages, I also work my way through a series of exercises. I take a short break when Nailah comes by with food and we chat about Port Royal. As soon as she is gone, I pick up it up again and work through the night. Doctor Cesar warns me not to overdo it but I don't pay him any heed. I need to get back as soon as I possibly can. I still can't quite believe how much time I missed nor how close the universe came to losing me and all I've worked for.
When I go to sleep later, I am satisfied to wake up three hours later, feeling completely refreshed. It is stunning how well the recuperative elements of my body work when I am at full strength. I tug on my bodysuit, which Doctor Cesar was kind enough to send out of be cleaned once he pulled me out of it, and leave his office. Port Royal is freezing, as always, but my suit retains heat decently. One of the reasons humans have been able to settle this planet unmolested so far is that it is basically a ball of ice. It is just barely survivable on the equator and deep under the ice there is undersea life to hunt. Truly, though, the planet is not habitable. It exists mostly as a stopover and black market for pirates, smugglers and other assorted outlaws.
Up orbiting the planet is another reason the colony exists. The Archangel, a no kidding niao battleship, has been caught in Port Royal's gravity for as long as anyone can remember. I have heard a thousand and one different stories for how it came to be there but even I am not a hundred percent sure of the truth. For the last half century, various humans have been working to bring it fully back online. I don't think it will ever break orbit again but they do have a lot of the weapons ready. That, plus the myriad pirate vessels that are in orbit or on planet at any given time, mean that taking down Port Royal by force would be a nasty prospect indeed. The niao could do it, without question, but nobody wants to take on the job because they losses would assuredly be horrendous.
Despite the early hour, Jezelle's motel and bar, known as Pirate's Bay, is open. The place is set up like old tavern, with a common ground floor where there are tables, a bar and even a small, raised platform that serves as a stage for occasional acts. Rooms for rent are upstairs. Behind the bar is Jezelle, who I have had just cause to wonder if she ever sleeps. She is a small woman with dark skin and black hair that is greying at the roots. She has a puncture scar on one cheek that is assuredly from her time as a pirate. She was one of the few who survived long enough to retire with enough money to do something else.
Jezelle eyes me when I walk through the door. There is a single man shoveling food into his mouth but other than that, the common room is empty. I sit down at the bar. Without asking, Jezelle pours me a double shot of whiskey. "You look pretty good for a man who just had brain surgery," she says, screwing on the cap.
I throw back the entire glass of whiskey. It's acceptable, which is more than can be said for most liquor on Port Royal. "Doctor Cesar knows what he's doing," I say, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
Jezelle refills the tumbler. "It's been less than a week since you had your skull cracked open. It ain't normal that you sauntered into my bar already." She shakes her head. "The more I learn about you, the less normal you get."
"Feel free to stop prying into my business, then," I say coolly. Jezelle, like most people on Port Royal, knows me as Hachimantaro. A select few, including her, know my real name as 'Saladin.' Jezelle isn't stupid, though. I'm sure she has guessed that there is more to me than what I seem. Jezelle just grunts at my harshness. She is used to it by know. "I heard that you gave Nailah a job," I say with affected casualness.
Jezelle almost smiles and the spark in her eye tells me she isn't buying the casualness. "I couldn't rightly leave a wide-eyed girl like that alone. She'd be picked up by some gang and never be heard from again." Now Jezelle does grin. "And she had so many stories to tell! Who knew that Hachimantaro was heroically rushing to aid damsels in distress these days?" I swirl my whiskey, gritting my teeth. "Softening a little, my dear?" she asks, twisting the knife. "After all, I never would have expected a dog like Black Flynn Oquendo to almost take out the supposedly unkillable Hachimantaro." My hand tightens on the glass so much that it cracks. I instantly loosen my grip so that it doesn't explode. Jezelle frowns at me anyway. "I'm adding that to your tab."
"I heard that you already added a few new outfits for Nailah on to my tab," I say sourly.
"Had to be done," Jezelle says firmly. "The girl was liable to freeze to death in those hand-me-downs of yours." She raises her eyebrow, clearly interested in the fact that Nailah was wearing my clothes. "Seemed the least you could do was buy her some clothes after she pulled your ass of wherever the hell you were."
I had been planning on thanking Jezelle for looking out for Nailah but now I am too annoyed. Instead, I change the subject. "Tell me something. Oquendo claimed that he had a large number of pirate crews to throw their lot in with him. Even the Archangel up there, despite the fact that last I heard, it is stuck above Port Royal. Is it true? What have you heard?"
Jezelle nods, pouring herself a shot. "Are you truly surprised, Hachi? Most of the captains, at least, are aware that there isn't a happy ending for pirates. Flynn is offering something at least. Hope. It doesn't matter how unlikely it is. It's better than nothing." Jezelle takes a sip of her whiskey and I nod. What she is saying makes sense. I should have thought about that before dismissing Oquendo as small fry. "Just about everybody has gone over to him. A few of the more independent-minded are holding out, though. LL for one. And..." Jezelle trails off with a frown.
"Shentza," I supply. "You can say her name, Jezelle. Oquendo already told me about that when he tried to recruit me."
"He tried to recruit you?" Jezelle asks, clearly surprised.
"Right before he tried to kill me."
A gasp makes me look to my left and halfway down the stairs is Nailah. She is wearing the same clothes she had been when she came to see me earlier. I smile slightly. Probably Jezelle could only bully her into buying one new outfit. "Cato? You're up!" She looks astonished.
"Cato?" Jezelle asks.
"Don't act surprised," I say. "Is it okay if I borrow your new employee for a while?" I ask.
Jezelle shrugs. "Sure. She's only up this early to go and visit you anyway." I'm quite sure that I mislike the twinkle in Jezelle's eyes.
"Good. Will you bring us some breakfast?"
Jezelle's eyes narrow. "We will be settling up your tab before you leave the planet, Hachimantaro."
"Of course." I get up and walk to Nailah, who has made it to the bottom of the stairs. I jerk my thumb at the table furthest from the bar. "Would you like to have breakfast with me?"
Nailah blinks. "Um, yeah. Okay."
We walk over and take our seats. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, I ask, "How are you liking working here?"
"Oh. It’s fine. It is a lot easier than the work I was doing in the City. Plus I get more food and the beds are more comfortable. She lets me keep the tips I earn too."
"I see," I say with a glance at where Jezelle had been standing before she went back into the kitchen. How very like her to get some free help while convincing the helper they were being done a great favor. "Have you thought at all about what you want to do from here? I know that you were hoping to go back to your Mother..."
Nailah scoffs. "All I've been thinking about is what I should do from here. Going back to Earth would only put me and my mother in danger, I know. So I don't really have ideas," she says, shaking her head. "I suppose I'll just stay here for now and keep my eyes open for an opportunity."
I lean back and look at her for a moment. When I think about the types of things she's been through, the obligations she could put on me for both disrupting her life and then saving my own life, that answer is rather extraordinary. It only confirms in my mind what I came here to do. I lean back forward and say, "What do you know about me, Nailah?"
She shrugs, looking a little lost. "Only what everybody does. You kill slavers and rescue slaves. You always work on your own but you never lose. Somehow you defeat them with just a sword." She laughs happily. "I guess I know a little more now. You have a secret base and an amazing, unique ship called the Psychopomp. You have a cat named Malice and you can cook." She grins. "You're a good person despite being a little rough around the edges."
Good person with rough edges? Interesting conclusion. I stay silent while Jezelle puts down two plate of food in front of us. The breakfast consists of the rather unappetizing combination of grits and some kind of native seafood that seems...chewy. "You want coffee?" Jezelle asks. I decline but Nailah eagerly accepts. Once Jezelle pours her a cup, I stare at Jezelle until huffs in annoyance and walks away.
Ignoring my food for the moment, I say, "You know more about me than I lot of people but you've never asked me about my past or why I'm doing what I am doing. Or anything, really."
Nailah blows on the surface of her coffee. "You learn not to pry into people's pasts on the Crescent." She raises one eyebrow. "That's a lesson you could stand to learn, by the way." She takes a sip of coffee and winces.
I take a moment to gather my thoughts, since this is something I have never done before. "Nailah, what would you think if I told you I am up to a lot more to me than rescuing a ship full of slaves from time to time."
Nailah chews and swallows her mouthful of grits before answering. "I wouldn't really be that surprised."
"No?" I ask cautiously.
"You have a secret high tech hideout and a ship that you say you built from scratch. You must have something else going on."
I smile. "I see. How do you feel about what your father was trying to accomplish?"
"You mean, like, a free Earth?"
"Yes, liberating humanity from the niao."
"Well..." Nailah stirs her grits absentmindedly. "I think it is a noble goal but..."
"But you don't think it can be done," I say. Nailah nods. "I actually agree, if we go about it in the normal manner. The direct confrontation your father tried will never work. There are ways, though. I've been working to undermine the niao, slowly, carefully and secretly and I can beat them." I see doubt in Nailah's eyes and I chuckle. "You saw what I did on that corvette, Nailah. You know how many slave ships I have taken down. Do I seem like the type to overestimate my own ability?"
"No, but..." She shrugs. "How can you possibly take on the niao? The way they destroyed Boston...there wasn't even a chance the Sons of Liberty could beat them...but I never thought that my dad could be killed. He was just as confident as you."
"I don't mean to denigrate your father but he was an amateur." There is a flash in her eyes and I hold my hands up. "That's not an insult. It is a fact. I have been fighting the niao for my whole life. It is all I have ever done. I have people with me who have fought them for decades. There is no one better suited to this than me."
"So what?" Nailah asks, gesturing at me with her fork. "You want me to join your rebel organization? Be a soldier for the cause?"
"No, Nailah. I want you to be my partner."