"Tell me, Nailah, have you ever heard of Yggdrasil?"
Nailah looks up at me. She is at the controls of a little gunboat named Toxin, the personal ship of the Lindwyrm. Her eyes crinkle as she thinks. "I've heard the name before." She pauses, presumably trying to remember. "I think I heard something about them assassinating a governor of some colony a while ago." Her eyes light up and she waggles a finger at me. "Weren't they also the ones who hijacked a cruise ship and crashed it into a space station?"
I frown. "No, that wasn't Yggdrasil. That was actually done by a niao pirate named Bloodbeak." I'd like to murder whoever started a rumor that that was Yggdrasil. Once the niao news orgs had a human to pin it on, they pressed that angle. "We did assassinate that governor though. He was turning a blind eye to humans being worked to death in the mines." Not that the niao that replaced him was much better.
"We?" Nailah asks. I nod. I've been wondering how to have this conversation with her. It would have been much better if I had more time but the operation couldn't wait. Since Port Royal, I'd rushed us back to the Moonbase and hurriedly dumped Nailah's things out of the Psychopomp and loaded everything we needed on to the Toxin. After one night back on Moonbase, we left to travel to the rendezvous with the rest of Yggdrasil. I've been trying to train Nailah as much as I can, including letting her do almost all of the flying, but I have no time. Now I'm going to have to introduce her to Yggdrasil a lot sooner and more awkwardly than I would have liked. At least it should be a good test of her commitment.
"Yes. You won’t have heard this but the leader of Yggdrasil is a man known as Lindwyrm." I pause, to let the moment build. "You are the first person in the galaxy to know that the Lindwyrm and Hachimantaro are the same person." Nailah nods. I wait for a more extreme reaction but none seems to be forthcoming. I suppose that revelation is a bigger deal to me than to her. I cough and say, "So for as long as we're amongst Yggdrasil, you are never to refer to me as Cato or Hachimantaro. I am only the Lindwyrm."
"Okay, I'll try to remember that," she says with more than a hint of doubt.
"You'll need to do better that try," I retort. "But I actually think you'll have an easier time of it than you might think." I grin. "I'll be right back." I leave Nailah and head to the back of the Toxin. There, I change into the raiment of the Lindwyrm: knee-high white boots, tight white breeches, a billowy white silk shirt laced up to the neck, white gloves and a cloak of pure white artfully marred by streaks and spots of red. I attach a neuro-whip to my left hip and a ballistic pistol to my right. And, of course, the crowning glory. When I pull the hood of my cloak up, it activates a hologram that completely hides my face. The holo is the head of a dragon with white scales, mouthful of sharp, misshapen teeth, a long tongue and burning red eyes. The holo moves with my mouth, so when I talk, the head of the dragon talks.
Nailah actually shrieks when I walk back to the front of the ship. "C-cato?" she asks doubtfully, even though it could be no one else.
"The Lindwyrm," I correct. The voice modulator that is part of the hood makes my voice come out soft and dry and raspy.
Nailah runs a hand through her hair. "Jesus fuck, that is terrifying. Could you," she waves her hands, "take that off?" I pull back my hood, collapsing the holo. Nailah puts a hand on her chest. "Thank you."
"You'll need to get used to it. That is what I will look like when we are with Yggdrasil."
"Really?" Nailah looks completely lost. "Why?"
"An organization like Yggdrasil needs to be theatrical," I say resolutely. "I'm trying to terrify the niao. Plus it is a good way to make sure that nobody even has a hint that it is me running the group." I also just like it.
"Alright, then," Nailah says, obviously unconvinced.
I pull my hood back up and then point at her ominously. "You also must hide your identity. I've prepared an outfit for you."
"Really?" Nailah asks unenthusiastically.
I nod. "It is in the back. I think you'll like it." She looks doubtful but dutifully gets up and heads to the back. I sit and glance at the controls. The ship mostly flies itself in the rivers so I don't have to actually take over for Nailah. I look at the time remaining until we gate out. About four hours. I am eager. The nature of the Lindwyrm required that he be far less known than Hachimantaro and the Exile King. It felt like I was finally letting him out of his cage.
"I'm not so sure about this." Nailah has returned and she is wearing what I designed for her: a sleeveless black unitard, black calf-high boots, a wide black belt with a amethyst buckle, black gloves that came to her upper arm and, of course, a sable cloak. Like me, she has a ballistic pistol on one hip but there is a long knife on the other.
"You look great," I say with a clap. She really does. "Pull up the hood of your cloak." She does so and her face disappears, replaced by a visage of a dragon. It is much like my own but with black scales and deep purple eyes. Perfect. "Tiamat," I say. "You are Tiamat, left hand to the Lindwyrm."
"Tiamat," she says carefully. "That's not bad."
"Good," I say, feeling pleased.
Nailah pulls down the hood of her cloak, revealing her face once more. "So explain to me just exactly what we're doing here."
I pull back my hood and nod. It is about time. "Take a seat," I say, gesturing in front of me. There is only the pilot's seat on the Toxin so Nailah sits on the floor in front of me. I take a moment to marshal my thoughts and say, "You know that I have claimed to be undermining the niao." Nailah nods. “Yggdrasil is my instrument to that end. Hachimantaro was the face I presented to the universe, to gather money, contacts materials and anything else I needed to do myself. But I was never so delusional as to believe the lone Hachimantaro could affect real change in this universe, no matter how many slaves I freed."
"That's not true," Nailah interjects. "Hachimantaro helped a lot of people."
"Kind of you to say so," I say dismissively. "But I have higher goals than that. For nearly two decades, I have painstakingly built Yggdrasil. I had to be extremely careful. Even now, the naio could crush us like a bug if they managed to catch wind of us. I've only allowed the soldiers in Yggdrasil to engage in a few highly covert missions where the chances of success were basically a hundred percent. Mostly for training." I gesture at my outfit. "That is partly what this is about. Many of my soldiers have been in Yggdrasil for years and years without doing anything real. I needed to create a culture and a sense of belonging for them. That's one reason for all the pageantry and the pomp you might see when we reach out destination."
I frown, wondering if she really does. "I recommend you adopt a more aggressive attitude when you are Tiamat as well. The persons of Yggdrasil are all soldiers and we encourage competition. Many may see you as an interloper. My word counts for a lot but you will still need to prove yourself. Don't take any guff."
Nailah cocks her head. "Guff?"
I sigh. "Just don't let them push you around."
A grim cast comes to Nailah's face. "Don't worry. I don't let myself get pushed around easy."
"Good. I'll want you with me most of the time but I'm going to be very busy. Yggdrasil is finally launching our first major operation. It will be our introduction to the world and it will need to be very carefully coordinated." I feel a twinge of nervousness in my stomach. An unusual feeling but I have been waiting for this for a very long time. "There will be a lot going on but just observe and learn. And be very careful what you say. Some of the crew are a little...hot-headed. You have any concerns or anything, please bring them to me privately."
"Sure," Nailah says with a sigh.
"Don't worry, Nailah. Just relax and take it in. I won't be expecting you to do anything for now. We'll pick up with your training as soon as we finish here."
"Alright," Nailah says, looking a little happier.
I let her resume command of the ship and soon we are gating out into one of the plethora of empty star systems. Here, in orbit around the moon of a small planet, is the fleet of Yggdrasil. It mostly consists of small ships; fighters, gunboats and patrol ships. There are a few frigates as well, along with two destroyers. And most magnificently, the flagship of the fleet, the battlecruiser Nidhoggr. All painted a ghostly white. The sight of the fleet makes me break into a smile. Oquendo thought he had assembled a fleet? That mishmash of ships with stubborn, independent captains? This was the greatest fleet ever assembled by humanity.
Nailah gasps aloud. I see her tense on the controls. "Don't worry," I say. "Those are friendlies."
She gapes at me. "Are you serious?" I nod delightedly. Nailah slumps in her seat. "I don't think I've ever seen a ship that big. How could it be yours?"
It hadn't been easy. When I acquired the ship that would be the Nidhoggr, it had been a barely functioning wreck. And I still had to pay out the nose and jump through a thousand hoops to be sure that the niao wouldn't know it had fallen into the hands of a human. If I had gotten a cruiser destined for anything other than the scrap heap, I'm sure that I couldn't have kept it secret. Then I had to put almost as much money into renovating it as a brand new cruiser would have cost. That had been my most tumultuous time as the Exile King. The other leaders of Outremer couldn't understand how I was spending money as fast as it came in. But it was worth it for the Nidhoggr, the first cruiser captained and crewed by humans.
"That is a story for another time." I grin. "But I promise I will tell you."
"This is fucking nuts." Nailah is staring at the fleet. "All of those ships are being run by humans?"
"Yes," I say proudly. "And the niao are about to see what happens when they face humans in a fair fight." I pull up the hood of my cloak and gesture for Nailah to do the same. "We are being hailed."
As soon as Nailah has her hood up, I accept the call. The head and shoulders of Poisonseed materialize. "My liege!" she begins brightly. Her features are hidden behind a mask of a Philippine eagle, though it is an actual physical mask rather than a hologram. Then her eyes find Tiamat and she trails off.
"Poisonseed," I say in greeting.
"Who-who is that?" Poisonseed asks.
"This is Tiamat." I look down at Tiamat. "This is Poisonseed, the executive officer and field commander of the forces of Yggdrasil." I add that last bit, so that Poisonseed hopefully doesn't view Tiamat as a threat. I turn back to Poisonseed. "Tiamat is my aide," I say. "She has access to all confidential material and is outside of the command structure. Please proceed as if she was not here."
Poisonseed's eyes flick from me to Tiamat and back. I can tell she is uncomfortable with this development but she will obey. "I am glad you have finally arrived, my lord. We are eager to show you our preparations. Operation Fenrir's Revenge is ready to begin as soon as you command."
I steeple my fingers, wishing I was sitting. "Excellent, Poisonseed. You have never failed to impress me." Poisonseed bows her head. "Prepare the Nidhoggr to receive me," I say.
"At once, my lord!" She says with her normal forcefulness. Hopefully my praise will set her straight after seeing Tiamat knocked her off balance. I close the link and she disappears. "Guide us in," I tell Tiamat.
She takes the controls and sends Toxin racing toward the battlecruiser. "So that's who runs Yggdrasil when you're not there?" she asks. The voice modulator makes Tiamat's voice cold and emotionless.
"Yes," I say, watching the Nidhoggr grow larger. "She was a longtime rebel leader on Earth and one of my very first recruits. She has a natural gift for leadership and tactics but I persuaded her that my grasp of long-term strategy was better." Truly, Poisonseed had been nearly indispensable. I had no time to do all of the training the soldiers needed and she was likely better at it than I ever would be. The one worry was that the soldiers would end up more loyal to her than to me. That was probably true for the rank and file. Fortunately, there was no doubt that that Poisonseed was loyal to me.
Tiamat drifts through the bay doors of then Nidhoggr and sets the ship down softly. I smile. If nothing else, the girl was a gifted pilot. I mentally command the ramp to lower and then walk down it. To my approval, Tiamat falls in a step behind and a little to the left. Poisonseed is waiting at the bottom of the ramp, in her full regalia. In addition to the eagle mask, she is wearing a red silk shirt with voluminous sleeves, red silk pants and soft red slippers. A tasteful amount of swirling gold embroidery covers all three. Her long black hair is also done up and held together with red and gold combs.
Behind and perpendicular to her are two ranks of Yggdrasil soldiers. The uniforms they are wearing are nearly exact copies of my own, only without the cloak and with a white breastplate designed to limit the damage of disruption waves. The armor wasn't as effective as Hachimantaro's bodysuit but the materials to make it were significantly easier to procure. In their left hands, each of the soldiers cradled a helmet of the same armor. It too was white with a reflective black visor. On their right hip was a ballistic pistol. I wasn't so foolish or arrogant as to not allow my soldiers to fight with disrupters but I liked that their personal sidearms were of human origin.
Poisonseed bows low to me and all of the soldiers fall to one knee, with their right fists planted into the ground. She straightens up when I reach the bottom of the ramp. "It is good to see you in the flesh, my lord."
I nod. "I am pleased to see you as well, Poisonseed." For the Lindwyrm, this mask was flesh. I raise my voice. "The soldiers are impeccable." It is difficult to tell behind the mask but I think Poisonseed is delighted by my comment. She should be. Getting them ready has been her entire existence for over a decade. I noticed, too, that her habit of referring to me as a 'lord' has increased over the years. Perhaps because she needed to believe in me and everything I was doing very strongly in order to give her life meaning. I had always thought that I would take the rank of 'admiral' when I took over the Yggdrasil fleet directly. I didn't mind 'lord' though.
"If you'll follow me, Lord Lindwyrm, the command crew of the Nidhoggr are eager to see you."
"And I, them," I say. I knew of them from the reports Poisonseed sent me but she had been the one to select almost all of them. The two exceptions were the captain and the executive officer, much to Poisonseed's chagrin at the time. But I wasn't about to let anyone other than me to choose the person who would captain the flagship of the first true human fleet.
Poisonseed leads me out of the bay and through the innards of the Nidhoggr to the bridge. Whenever we come across crew, they drop to one knee and remain that way until I pass. The ship crew who are not soldiers are wearing more abbreviated uniforms, with shorter boots, no breastplate and a white domino mask instead of a helmet. All the bowing is already starting to get a little old. I will have to speak to Poisonseed about that. Stopping tasks so that they could go to one knee merely because I was present was foolish.
The Nidhoggr is so large that we need to take a short shuttle ride and an elevator to reach the bridge. The command crew of the battlecruiser all jump out of their seats and fall to their knees when I enter the bridge. All that is, except the Captain, who looks around at the rest and laughs. Poisonseed takes an angry step forward but I catch her arm and hold her back. I walk up the man I handpicked to be the captain and stare down at him. Glover Myles is a tall, lean black man and unlike the others, his uniform is a faded pink and he has eschewed any mask. His smile slips away and there is a long silence. The his lets out a guffaw and gets to his feet.
"Lord that mask is ugly," he says. His accent is unchanged, even though he hasn't been to his birthplace of Atlanta, in the United States, in over a decade.
I smile to and stick out my hand. Glover clasps it. "It is good to see you, Glover," I say. I'm glad that he hasn't changed, despite Poisonseed--I'm sure--trying to instill a little discipline. He wouldn't be the man I wanted if she had.
As if our handshake was a signal, the rest of the crew begin to get to their feet. Next to Glover is the only other person I personally appointed to her position. Sora Aishisu is a Japanese woman who was actually courageous or insane enough to defect from her homeland and join Poisonseed's resistance. When she was sixteen. I had almost given her control of Yggdrasil rather than Poisonseed but instead decided to give her a position possibly more difficult and certainly more thankless: Executive Officer to Captain Myles. I knew and had known when I appointed her, that she would be the true authority on the Nidhoggr. She also had the daily headache of being the check on Glover's impulsiveness and eccentricity. That sort of delicate game would have driven Poisonseed insane but Sora Aishisu had a more flexible mind.
I take her small hand and shake it. "It is always lovely to see you, Sora." She is wearing the standard navel uniform of Yggdrasil, including a white domino mask over her dark eyes, and her black hair is cut at the chin and pinned back.
"The pleasure is mine, Lord Lindwyrm," she responds in flawless English.
Glover abruptly chops his hand down between us, separating our handshake. "Stop hitting on my Sora, you lizard." Poisonseed takes a sharp intake of breath behind me but before she can say anything Sora glares at Glover so fiercely that he actually seems to wilt.
"I thought you promised to comport yourself as a captain today, Captain," she says sternly.
Glover throws up his hands. "Well, I didn't know that you were going to make puppy eyes at Mister Ugly Face. You never look at me like that!"
"That's because you always act like this!" she shouts. Then she jumps and looks at me, apparently horror struck by her outburst. "I am terribly sorry about this, Lord Lindwyrm." Glover does not offer an apology but instead glares at me sulkily. Truthfully, I am a little bothered by all of this but Glover does not respond well to aggressiveness. I decide to leave him to Sora. She's been dealing with him for years now.
"It's fine, Sora." I look to Poisonseed. "To tell you the truth, I am weary from the journey. If you could conduct Tiamat and I to our quarters, I would be grateful."
The mention of Tiamat seems to alert Glover to the fact that she is on the bridge. His head swivels over to her and he walks up to her. "What do we have here? Another lizard? Who are you, little black lizard?" Tiamat stays silent. Glover smiles at her mockingly. "Can’t you speak, little lizard?" Tiamat lifts up her arm and then flips him off. Glover's eyes widen in shock and then he begins to laugh. "I like this one."
Clearly seething, Poisonseed says, "Follow me this way, my lord." She briskly begins to walk back out of the bridge. I follow, as does Tiamat. I notice that as soon as we're out of earshot, Sora starts speaking furiously to Glover. At the same time, Poisonseed says, "I'll never understand why you chose that man."
I sigh. An old argument. "You know why. The man is a tactical genius. You've seen it yourself."
"I still think we would do better with someone a little more stable at the helm." Not that I would ever tell her so but I sometimes wonder the same. It's too late though now, though, and I just have to believe I chose the best person for the job. I also had faith in Sora to keep control.
That sparks a thought. "What was that with him and Sora?" I ask. "I was under the impression that the man was gay."
"He still is, if my fraternization reports are to be believed," Poisonseed says grimly. "I am not sure what he believes his relationship to be with Sora but he is very possessive. As far as I know, Sora considers their relationship to be purely professional."
That is odd. It also lets me know that Poisonseed is still keeping tabs on 'fraternization' between her soldiers. Another old argument between us. She believed that any fraternization between soldiers should be banned and strictly enforced. I knew that such strictness would never work and only cause problems. I’d finally relented and allowed her to keep tabs in the interest of heading off cases of conflict or favoritism. I do wonder how liberal her ideas of such things are, however.
We chat about other goings on with Yggdrasil as we move through the ship and it seems to put Poisonseed in a better mood. Until she suddenly stops short. "What's wrong?" I ask.
"I just realized that I had prepared a cabin for you but I had no idea you were bringing your...companion."
I think about it for a moment. It might cause rumors but I that was bound to happen anyway. "Tiamat will be staying in my cabin," I say. "Have another bunk brought up for her." Poisonseed seems less than pleased behind her mask. I glance at Tiamat but it is impossible to tell what she is thinking.