Nailah pauses with her cup halfway to her lips. "Partner," she says as if she'd never heard the word before. "What...how...what are you talking about?"
I finish chewing the bit of meat in my mouth, which is very much like a piece of rubber, and say, "I meant just what I said. I have many operatives and contacts and assorted underlings. I don't work directly with any of them though. I need somebody to watch my back."
"But me?" Nailah asks, staring at me intently.
"You already saved my life once," I say softly. "You're also smart and capable. You think well on your feet and you learned to fly the Psychopomp with stunning alacrity. I also know that I can trust you." I leave my less flattering reasons unsaid. She is a nobody and therefore has no strings attached to her. She is also naive, moldable and trainable.
Nailah slumps back. "What kinds of things would I be doing?"
I shrug. "Whatever I tell you." There is a flash in her eyes at that but I ignore it. "You would accompany me when I do things like assault a slave smuggling ship. You would also be with me when I visit the Crescent to fence goods. Too many other things to mention." I half-smile. "I work to undermine the niao empire. The short answer is that you will be doing whatever I think furthers that goal."
Nailah puts a hand to her forehead. "This is...a lot."
I stir my food, not really wanting to eat any more of it. "I suppose I should also tell you what you'll get out of this, besides the satisfaction of fighting back. Number one, I will teach you how to fight. Hand to hand, guns, ship combat, all of it. That will be necessary. You'll get to see the universe, if that sort of thing appeals to you. And I think I could probably pay you something like five hundred thousand credits a year."
Nailah's eyes open wide. "What did you just say?"
I smile. "Five hundred thousand credits." When she was working on the Crescent, the five thousand credits needed for a ticket back to Earth probably seemed nearly impossible to acquire. Honestly, for me, the five hundred thousand is a pittance. Especially compared to what it took to build the Psychopomp or set up my network of contacts. "A little more than you'd make collecting tips here, I would think." Nailah nods dumbly. "But more importantly, it is a chance to do something that matters. They stole your life away from you. I mean, did you even finish middle school?" She shakes her head. "Well this is your opportunity to be somebody who makes a difference. The only question is: did the niao beat the fight out of you? Do you want the universe to forget about you so you can live the rest of your life without any challenges? I wouldn't blame you if you did. But I don't see it."
"I...I don't know," she says, avoiding eye contact with me. "Could I have some time to think about it?"
I frown with a calculated amount of disappointment. "Look, Nailah, there are only two reasons to hesitate and either way the conversation is over right now. If you're not sure that you want to do this, then don't. You can't have any hesitation about committing. If you're worried that you can't do this, don't be. I'm telling you right now that you can. If you don't have faith in yourself, then have faith in me."
She finally meets my gaze, eyes shining with mixed emotions. "You really believe in me that much?"
I nod my head without hesitation. "Follow me, Nailah, and we can change this universe together." I reach out one hand toward her. She glances down at my hand and then back to my eyes. Then, almost as if she can't believe she is doing it, she reaches forward and grasps my hand. I pump my arm once and then pull her to her feet. "Go and get ready to go out.We have a lot to do before we leave Port Royal."
She nods jerkily. "Okay." Then she scampers away.
Jezelle is staring at me hard from behind the bar. I smirk as I walk up to her. "Sorry, Jezelle. I think I just hired away one of your servers."
"You're really insufferable when you're pleased with yourself," Jezelle mutters. "I never heard of Hachimantaro hiring somebody before."
I wince slightly. That I was hiring her was probably more information than I should have given. "It's not something I normally do, so I would appreciate it if you kept that information to yourself."
Jezelle looks offended. "Do I seem like a gossipy girl to you, Hachi?"
"No, I'm sorry."
Jezelle rolls her eyes. "You never did have a sense of humor." She sighs but then her face goes serious. "She's a good girl, Hachimantaro. You be good to her."
I rest my elbow on the bar and look at her crosswise. "It's not like we're dating, Jezelle."
"Mmhmm." Jezelle wipes at a probably nonexistent spot on the counter.
"You always were good at annoying me," I gripe. Nailah appears at the top of the stairs, now wearing a black coat that falls to her knees and a grey cap. She also has a small purse over her shoulder. I watch as she descends into the common room. She's cute, sure, but not enough that I'm deluding myself about her potential. Right? I shake my head. "Save a room for me tonight, Jezelle, and we'll settle up in the morning." Jezelle grunts in acknowledgment. I push myself off the bar and walk to Nailah. "Ready to go?"
"Yes." She nods excitedly.
We step out into the cold air and I hear Nailah gasp sharply. I almost join her. It really is no wonder people are listening to Oquendo if he is promising to take them from this frozen hellhole. I look around and consider. "I think that Remy Giroux should be our first stop." Nailah nods agreeably. I head toward his shop and she falls in beside me. It is too cold to talk so we just walk quickly. Remy's shop is a squat grey stone building, like most of the buildings on Port Royal. Ice and rock are the two most plentiful resources on the planet.
I step up to the brown door of his shop and start hammering on it, even though I know that he isn't officially open yet. "Remy!" I shout. "Open up!"
Nailah glances at me nervously. "I don’t think they're open."
"It's fine," I say, continuing to pound on the door. "Remy!"
Eventually a window on the second floor of the building is thrown open and a man pokes his head out. "What the f--!" He begins to scream, stopping short when he actually sees me.
I step back from the door and wave. "Yo, Remy."
Remy glares at me. "I should have known. Only you would be so rude," he says with thick French Canadian accent. He then curses in French and slams down the window.
"He didn't seem happy to see you," Nailah says, with a raise of her eyebrow.
"He never does," I say with a shrug. "But he never turns me down for a sale. For outlaws, money is more important that social niceties."
Remy opens the door and says, "That is no excuse for you being a dick all of the time."
I smile. "Don't act like you're not thrilled me and my credit-line are at your door."
Remy shivers, unsurprising since he is wearing only an old white tank-top and grey sweatpants. "Come inside if you're coming. I'm freezing my balls off." He steps back and both me and Nailah step inside.
Nailah stares around the shop her face reflecting the sort of disgusted amazement that most must feel when they enter. Remy has mountains of electronics piled in random heaps all over the floor. Many of them are powered and glowing. In addition to the electronics, there are old dishes and wrappers and other assorted trash mixed in. "What the fuck?" Nailah mutters.
Not quietly enough. Remy glares at her. He has a little black mustache and it seems to bristle with his frown. "Are you finding something amiss, Miss?" he barks.
Nailah jumps. "Uh, no. You have a very...it's, um, really...uh..."
I clap her on the shoulder. "It's a dump," I say. Remy lets out a loud noise of displeasure. "But the kind of dump where a person kind find treasure."
My last line hardly seems to soothe him. "So for what reason did you disturb me, Hachimantaro? It had better be worthwhile. My patience is thin."
I gesture at Nailah. "I need a chipcomp for her and contacts. If you have ones that can shift colors, I'll pay for them."
That puts a bit of pep into his step that no praise would. "Ooh, I think I have just that thing. Wait one moment."
Nailah turns to me. "What are we getting?" she asks with a touch of anxiety.
"I need you to be able to access nets quickly and potentially surreptitiously," I say. "This is the easiest way to do it. It might be better if you get wired like me to use your brain directly but that's a major surgery plus time to learn how to use your brain that way." If it would even work. It was normally best to have that kind of brain wiring done at an earlier age, when the mind was more adaptable.
"Oh. Yeah." Nailah looks away. "I'm not sure I want some doctor messing around with my brain anyway."
I frown. "It would be Doctor Cesar. He's very good."
"Yeah," Nailah tilts her head from side to side. "He does seem very smart. But still..."
Remy is heading back our way, so I drop the subject. "Follow me," he says when he catches our eyes. We carefully pick our way through his collection of junk until we reach a small workbench, brightly lit with two lamps. "Sit down here," he instructs Nailah. She does and then Remy bends over and begins to examine her eyes with a small retinoscope. "Have you ever worn contacts before?" he asks. "Glasses?"
Nailah, her eyes following the light of the retinoscope, says, "I haven't."
"When was the last time you had your eyes checked?"
"Um, probably a decade ago?" Nailah says with uncertainty.
Remy takes it in stride. Hardly unusual for a human off Earth. "Hmm. Looks like you may be just a little nearsighted."
"Since when are you an optometrist?" I ask with just a hint of derision.
Remy clearly hears the tone and shoots me a glare. "I took a course."
I wave my hand. "Fine, fine."
Muttering in French, Remy lifts up his right arm. A virtual display projects up from his forearm and he types in a few commands. A small box sitting on the workbench whirs and glows. "Okay, the lenses are being made." He looks at Nilah. "Stick out your right arm, girl."
"Sure..." She cocks her head a little and looks at the tattoo of a musket on the underside of Remy's forearm. "That tattoo...were you a Son of Liberty?"
Remy goggles. "You know the Sons of Liberty?"
"I was in Boston during the time." Remy's jaw drops. "Did you know Faruk Siddiqui?"
Remy slaps his forehead. "The Colonel? You...you’re the Colonel's daughter!" Nailah nods. "That is unbelievable. The Colonel's daughter." He stares at her. "I remember you. You were the Colonel's little pride and joy." Nailah looks down but I don't think Remy notices. "That brings me back. Fighting the good fight." I have to restrain myself from laughing aloud. The good fight? All they did was kill a few niao and cause some property damage. In return, one of the biggest cities in America was wiped off the map, hundreds of thousands of humans dead and hundreds of thousands more pressed into virtual slavery.
Apparently picking up on neither my nor Nailah's mood, Remy continues. "God, I miss those days sticking it to the niao." He laughs. "I remember this one time that me and your brother..." He finally stops. Nailah is staring at her lap. Remy looks at me and I glower back at him. "Sorry, Miss. I was not thinking. Your brother was a hero..." Judging by that comment, her brother must have died in the revolt as well. "My father always said I was an ass," Remy says. "I seem to find a way to prove that anew every day." He gently takes her arm. "I am going to insert the chipcomp now." He presses a small cylindrical device against her forearm.
Nailah winces and hisses in pain when the device delivers the chipcomp into her forearm. Remy pulls away the cylinder and sets it on the workbench. "Okay, now flex your hand back like so." He demonstrates, pulling his wrist back and contracting the wrist muscle. Nailah follows suit and gasps when a virtual interface opens up in the air in front of her, glowing orange. "Good, now," Remy takes her hand gently in his. I feel a flicker of irritation. He guides her hand to a specific spot in the interface. "Close your hand around that sphere." Nailah does so. The sphere glows brightly through her fingers and then chirps. "Okay, now you can lock and unlock this interface by grasping that sphere and letting it read your fingerprints. In a bit we can do the same with your eyes." He smiles at her. "Which are beautiful by the way."
Nailah looks more surprised than pleased. "Oh, thank you." Remy moves around until they are shoulder to shoulder and begins to show her how to do various things with the VI. I watch, with more than a just flicker of irritation this time. Remy glances at me and blanches. Then he moves a few centimeters away from her while continuing to show her how the VI works. After a while he gets the contacts from his workbench and they both start laughing as he fumblingly helps her put them in. That's the last straw for me.
I connect to her VI and hack my way almost instantaneously through the poor initial defenses Remy has set up. Then I give her access to one of my accounts containing a hundred thousand credits. "Nailah," I say and they both jump. "I've given you an advance of a hundred thousand credits." Both her and Remy's eyes bulge. "Remy should be able to help you access it. Use it to pay him when it's done." I shoot a look at Remy so that he knows I'll check how much Nailah transfers him. "Then go out and buy whatever you need. Get a variety of outfits. Including some niao clothes."
She bobs her head and says, "Oh. Okay, I will. Um, thank you."
"Do you see the clock in the VI?" I ask.
Nailah's eyes dart frantically around until Remy helpfully points it out. "Okay, yeah."
"We'll meet at twenty hundred at Jezelle's. Be sure you have everything you need transferred to the Psychopomp by then."
With a last warning glare for Remy, I stalk out of his shop. I've always found his antics annoying but too much longer in there and I was going to have to wring his neck. The man was a genius with technology but a sleazebag and seemed to consider his involvement with the Sons of Liberty as something to be proud of. Why be proud of a giant failure? The concept of fighting even though a cause is doomed to failure has never appealed to me. There's no point in waging a war unless you mean to win it and no sense in not doing everything in your power to win it before it started.
I shake my head and head away from his shop. Remy was Remy and there was no point thinking about him. Instead, I should consider what else I need to do for Nailah. I'll be hooking up with Yggdrasil soon and I'll need to bring her along with me. She obviously can't come as herself so we'll need a disguise. Something theatrical so as to be appropriate as the Lindwyrm's right hand. A few ideas for an outfit float into my mind. I'll need to come up with a name first. I usually name things in Yggdrasil after Norse mythology, of course. Some kind of Norse monster then. I do a generic search for Norse monsters on the net and start perusing the answers. A few interesting ideas.
It occurs to me that I could also name her after a dragon, since the Lindwyrm is in reference to dragons. That would be a good symmetry. I begin scrolling through a list of dragon names as I enter one of the shops I like on Port Royal. I have one eye on the net and one eye minding the physical world and that is how I manage to spot Mindee just in the nick of time. I hurriedly duck down and skirt my way around until I am in the aisle furthest from her. Of all the places, why is that woman here? I peek up between a two bags of dried rice and see that she is still in the shop, talking and laughing with one of the clerks. I sink back down. What a pain.
"What are you up to?"
This is one of those times I'm glad my fight or flight doesn't work like a normal humans. Otherwise I'm sure I would have attacked the speaker rather than turning calmly. I'm not used to getting snuck up on. Squatting down next to me is a woman with a bob of brown hair, wearing black slacks and a large green coat. Her brown eyes are filled with amusement. Nadja Tresler, also known as 'the Ferret' and 'that hungry bitch.' Professional information broker and amateur snoop. "What are you doing here?" I ask suspiciously. She raises her eyebrows and points at the basket of items next to her. "Oh."
"What about you? Who are you hiding from?" She half-stands and peers between the same two bags of rice that I had just been looking between. "Mindee? Is that who you're hiding from?" I don't answer but Nadja starts laughing anyway, She squats back down. "Why would you be hiding from her?" I keep silent and look away. "What, did you screw her?" I can't help but flinch. "You did! You finally fucked her!" Nadja starts laughing so hard she's screeching.
"Shut up!" I hiss, clapping a hand over her mouth. It lowers the volume but Nadja keeps laughing uproariously for several more seconds.
Eventually she subsides, wiping tears from her eyes. I remove my hand. "Why, Saladin? Why would you finally sleep with her after all these years?"
"It happened a few months ago," I grumble. "And I don't know why. I convinced myself that if I just did it, she would finally leave me alone."
"Well, she'll never leave you alone now."
"Thanks for the news flash," I grouse. "Instead of making fun of me, how about you help me get out of here." Najda lifts one eyebrow. After a moment, she clears her throat. "What?"
"I'm waiting for an offer."
I grit my teeth. 'Never do something for nothing' was Nadja's personal motto. Hence her unpleasant nickname in some circles. "If you get me out of here, I'll hire you for an exclusive job. How about that?"
Nadja rubs her chin. "Alright but I'm adding a surcharge to whatever rate we agree upon for the job. How does an extra two point five percent strike you?"
"Whatever!" I snap.
"Good." Nadja stands up. "Get ready to scurry, boy. Meet me at my ship in twenty minutes." Nadja grabs her basket and walks around the aisle. "Mindee? How are you doing, you old slut? I heard you finally bedded the Hatchet Man!"
My eyelid flickers in rage. Did she always have to do things in the most irritating way possible? I take another glance at Mindee and, assured she is distracted, crawl from the shop. Once I am out of sight, I stand back up and brush my knees off. That wasn't fun. And I didn't even get a chance to look around. I mentally shrug and start walking. Meeting up with Nadja was a stroke of luck though. She didn't tell me where her ship is but she knows I'm resourceful enough to figure it out. It only takes a few moments of poking around on the net to figure it out. The landing area is about fifteen minutes away so I stop and buy some coffee from a vendor. Caffeine does nothing for me but the warmth of the coffee does.
Unlike the high-tech platforms on the Crescent, the landing pads on Port Royal are just relatively flat areas of land separated into zones with white paint. There's also no security though captains need to pay a small fee and register their ships in case their crews get up to mischief. Not that Port Royal has a police force but everybody knowing who everybody else was and what ship they belonged to helped keep things honest.
I'm pleased to see that Nadja beat me to her ship, a little yellow niao freighter she'd named Pinkepinke. Nobody could ever accuse Nadja of not having a sense of humor. The ramp is down, so I head inside. Nadja spins around her pilot's seat as I enter. "I love how you never keep a woman waiting," she says with a smirk. The inside of her freighter is more like a studio apartment than a ship. There is a bed, a little kitchen nook, a shower and all sorts of odds and ends. It made sense. Many outlaws, unless they were brave enough to stay on Port Royal year-round, had no home other than their ship.
"I live to please," I say, smirking right back at her.
Nadja laughs. "Want something to drink?" I show her my coffee cup." Nadja rolls her eyes. "Straight to business then?"
"You say such sweet things."
"Yeah, yeah. So what do you need, Sala?"
I frown. "Have you heard much about how I came to be here?"
Nadja's face finally turns serious. "Rumor is that you were nearly killed by Black Flynn. I find that hard to believe, personally, but..."
"It's true." Nadja squints at me, as if she can't quite believe what I'm saying. I shrug. "He ambushed me and managed to tag me. I'm not proud of it."
Nadja slowly shakes her head. "Black Flynn. That's...huh." I keep silent, not particularly enjoying this part of the conversation. "So, I'm guessing you want me to find him?"
"You men. So predictable." Nadja thinks for a moment and says, "That won't be easy. Wherever Black Flynn goes to ground these days, he's been uncommonly good at keeping it secret. Plus, if he catches me snooping around, I'm certain he'll try and kill me without a second thought."
"So you won't do it?"
"I didn't say that." A glint comes to her eyes. "Triple rates."
I start. That's steep. But I can afford it. Nadja is the best in the galaxy at what she does and, more importantly, never leaks information on clients. "Done." I stick out my hand. Nadja bounds off her seat and takes it.
"Excellent!" she crows. I agree with the sentiment. That's a weight off my mind. I turn toward the door but it snaps closed just as I do so. I glance at Nadja. The smile on her face as turned suggestive. "What say we celebrate? I'm sure I'm more fun that that clingy mess, Mindee." Her eyes spark. "Maybe you can work off that two and a half percent surcharge." I grin.