"Good," I say as Nailah grasps a fistful of my shirt and juts her hips backwards in a way that pushes me off balance. "Now slide your foot into mine to destabilize me further." She does so and then grunts as more of my weight falls on her back. I'm draped over her as if I tackled her from behind. Her movements are causing me to lose my balance and I scrabble for a better grip on her. My hand inadvertently cups her breast. It's not the first time that such a thing has happened. Grappling is an intimate activity. Still, I'm finding it distracting. Nailah hasn't said a word about it so far. "Now flip me!" I command, a beat too late.
Nailah does her absolute best but she doesn't have the strength to flip me from a standstill, no matter the leverage. Her foot slips and we tumble to the ground. I smack the ground with one hand, rolling myself away from her before I fall on top of her. I take a breath and push myself up. "Are you alright?" I ask.
She still face down on floor, breathing heavily. "Sorry," she mumbles.
"Don't be." I get up and walk over to her, holding out my hand. Nailah takes it and I pull her to her feet. She still hasn't caught her breath and she is sweat-soaked, her hair wet and messy. In nothing more than a tanktop and shorts, she makes an alluring sight. My eyes wander down to her heaving chest before I snap them back up to her face. It's not any better. She is sweaty and tousled and my brain is making connections. "That was my fault," I say. "I was trying to show you how to flip somebody who tackled you from behind but a critical element of that is the forward momentum of the attacker. In that case, you are redirecting the force, not generating it yourself."
Nailah nods. She closes her eyes and makes a few small movements. I've noticed her doing this from time to time, mentally running through the exercise. Her dark eyes snap open, steely with determination. "I think I can do that." She wipes some stray strands of hair away from her face and rolls her shoulders. "Let's try it."
I smile. "Sounds good." I point out where I want her to stand and then take a few steps away from her. This will be pointless unless I generate some forward momentum so I decide to run at her at about half a full sprint. Then I leap into the air with a cry to let her know where I am. I also angle myself to hit her at a point that will be maximally beneficial to her. Nailah pitches forward when I hit her but keeps her balance. She correctly uses the motion to jam her backside into me and grabs me and pulls me forward. It almost works but she doesn't bend forward enough and I don't clear her body. Instead we go down in a heap.
Again I manage to roll away from her so that I don't end up crushing her. I exhale and sit up. Nailah hasn't stirred. "Are you hurt?" I ask.
Nailah punches the ground. "Damn it. I thought I had that."
"It wasn't bad, considering." We've only been grappling for a few days now, in addition to continuing her strike-based fighting and strength-building exercises. Nailah sits up, pulling one knee close to her chest and resting her forehead against it. She looks exhausted. I hope that she is getting enough food and enough sleep. It is hard for me to tell what she needs and she seems to have a hangup about asking for anything more. "Let's take a break." Based on the time, I need to be leaving anyway. Nailah nods absently, her head not leaving her knee.
I go to the bathroom and take a quick shower. The Doctor left my sweat glands alone as well as the accompanying stench, for whatever reason. When I get out, I curse softly, realizing that I only have the smelly tanktop and shorts I came in with. With a towel around my waist, I poke my head out of the bathroom. It turns out to be a moot point. Nailah has crawled up into my bed and fallen asleep. I step out of the bathroom and look down at her. Her clothes are twisted tight against her body. I shudder and then quickly get dressed.
I step out of my room as the Lindwyrm. Soldiers snap to attention as I sweep by. Poisonseed meets me near the elevator toward the bridge. Her eyes dart around, presumably looking for Tiamat, and then a faint smile graces her features. I hadn't considered just how threatened she would be by Tiamat. I wonder if I will need to replace Poisonseed if I want to install Tiamat in any official capacity. That might be trouble. Or maybe not. Once this campaign is complete, the rank and file will have no doubt who the true leader of Yggdrasil is. Still, Poisonseed is excellent at what I ask her to do.
"I am glad to see you, my lord," Poisonseed says as we step into the elevator. "I had hoped we would have more time together with you on the Nidhoggr. To better acquaint you with the soldiers," she adds lamely.
I turn my burning yellow eyes on Poisonseed and she wilts a little. "I have much to do," I say in minor rebuke. Poisonseed nods unhappily and doesn't press the issue. Surely she can't believe that I am spending my time playing house with Tiamat or some such nonsense.
We step on to the bridge and take our customary spots behind Captain Glover Myles. The large clock is counting down from five minutes and there is constant activity on the bridge as we prepare to gate out. This will be the first fight since taking Target Alpha. It has been ninety-one hours and thirty-seven minutes since that time. I know because I calculated the timing exactly. After we left the system of Target Alpha, we made a short stop in an uninhabited system. Partially to recharge the ship’s solar energy coils but mostly to avoid the reinforcements rushing to the system of Target Alpha. After that, we made straight for Target Beta.
We gate into the system and find exactly what I was expecting. The fleet protecting the planet known to us as Target Beta is slightly more formidable than the one protecting Target Alpha had been. There is a corvette in the fleet and four patrol boats instead of two. There are also two defense stations bristling with more guns and armor than a light cruiser but constrained to the orbit of the planet. Crucially, however, the cruiser and one of the corvettes that are normally part of the fleet are absent. To reinforce Target Alpha.
I want to cackle in delight but the Lindwyrm just gives a cool nod and says, "You are free to engage, Captain."
Glover smiles like the predator that he is and orders the Nidhoggr forward. Skoll and Hati stay on his flanks instead of separating this time, with the rest of the fleet flitting between them like a school of fish with three sharks. The captain of the corvette, codenamed by us as Lonely Boy, is no fool. He has no chance against either of the destroyers alone, not to mention the battleship. He retreats, taking the patrol boats with him. They are heading for the closer defense station. Even with the station, there is no chance of victory. He is likely planning to sell his life dearly. Too bad we won't give him that chance.
Our fleet heads the other way. The planet we named Target Beta is known for two things. One is the military training grounds. The defense station that the Lonely Boy ran to is in orbit over these training ground to protect them. The other thing Beta is known for, the thing the other station is protecting, is a huge and famous resort for the very rich. There are regular colonists on other parts of the planet but if Beta were attacked, those two places would be the natural targets. I predicted the response of the captain of the Lonely Boy would be to protect his own.
The defense station begins to fire on us as we close, choosing the Skoll for reasons known only to the algorithms controlling the stations behavior. It manages to do some minor damage but a skillful screen by Captain Myles and the combined fire of the entire fleet soon reduces the defense station to slag. Glover glances at me and I nod. "Commence orbital bombardment."
The Nidhoggr rotates so our starboard guns are pointed at the planet and Glover orders a full salvo. The heavy lasers will lose some of their potency traveling through the atmosphere but the rail spikes will be incredibly devastating. I can only imagine the chaos at the resort right now. I desperately hope that the niao down there ignored whatever warnings they were given. We only have time for one more salvo before the smaller ships from our fleet start diving into the atmosphere. They will raise more hell than our random firing could.
Soon the Nidhoggr is left with only the Skoll and Hati for company. The bridge waits silently until a tech shouts, "The Lonely Boy is leaving the other station! It is proceeding on intercept course with patrol boats Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee and Zulu. Intercept time is twenty-seven minutes."
"Acknowledged," Sora says. She looks to Glover. "Captain?"
I manage to stifle my glee but Glover doesn't bother. He laughs loudly. "Prepare to engage," he says in between gales. Sora gives him a severe look but doesn't admonish him. It really is too ridiculous. Glover moves to attack the oncoming ships rather than waiting for them. He has the Skoll and Hati hang back while he flashes through the formation of enemy ships, firing from both port and starboard. The Nidhoggr takes some cosmetic damage from the maneuver and in return cripples two of the patrol boats and severely damages the other three ships. The two destroyers follow, cleaning up the rest, All too easy.
We move to the other defense station next, taking it out quickly. Like the last one, it targets the Skoll and manages to get in a few good shots before we trash it. I mentally revise the next phase of the plan, switching the roles of Skoll and Hati. I think the captain of the Skoll is slightly more skillful but not enough to offset the now superior condition of the Hati. All three ships begin firing down into the atmosphere, tearing apart the military grounds until we receive word that our smaller ships have reached the training grounds themselves. We give them one hour to wreak as much destruction as possible and then order the retreat.
The smaller ships in the fleet all check in as they exit the atmosphere. The training ground had a wing of fighters that scrambled to engage the attackers. Even though we had the superior numbers, I know how chaotic dog fights can be and am relieved that we only lost two fighters. Both pilots were killed, which is both a relief and a disappointment. I'm sorry to lose the soldiers but we also can't risk leaving behind any person to fall into niao hands. I'm keeping operational knowledge very close to the vest but I don't want the niao to know anything about us that I don't let out. If the pilot's weren't KIA and we couldn't rescue them within the available timeframe, they were expected to commit suicide. I'm glad they had the dignity of going down fighting instead.
Once the fleet is regrouped, we make best speed for the gate and slip back into the river. Another mission phase completed successfully. I nod to Sora, Glover and Poisonseed. This time, Glover manages to keep his composure. Sora and Poisonseed both have faint smiles, the closest either one will come to celebrating. I sweep off the bridge. On the way back to my room, I play some music directly into the auditory cortex of my brain. An old human musician whose aggressive style suits me right now. I'm bursting with energy and spoiling for a fight. I'm not used to sitting back and watching a battle. I want to be out there, mixing it up. It's just not practical for the Lindwyrm.
I enter my room and see, to my disappointment, that Nailah is still asleep. Probably for the best though. I might be a little rough as a sparring partner right now. I take off my cloak and throw a combination of punches in the air. Nailah groans and shifts in her sleep. I walk over and stand over her. In her sleep, her tanktop rolled up, exposing her midriff. Her shorts are also pulled tight. I swallow hard, staring down at her. Why not? She kissed me once. If I woke her up right now, would she say no?
I lift my hand and rub it down my face, breaking the spell. There is some vague feeling telling me that I shouldn't. I don't understand it but, for the moment, it is stronger than my desire for her. All the jubilance has drained out of me and I stagger over to a chair and slump down in it. I had been hoping that my time with Nadja had tempered my libido for the moment. But Nailah was doing something to me. The last woman I wanted badly enough that it actually bothered me had been Shentza. Is that why I am reluctant to do anything with Nailah? Or is it because I don't want to complicate our relationship? I need to be able to think about her rationally. For perhaps the millionth time, I curse the Doctor for leaving me with these feelings but teaching me nothing about them.
"Lind?" I look up and Nailah is awake, propped up on her elbows, looking at me. 'Lind' seems to be her compromise, now that I've asked her to stop using the name 'Cato.' I am letting it be, for now.
Nailah blinks slowly and yawns. "How long was I out?"
"About nine hours."
She sits up all the way. "Jesus! How did that happen? I'm sorry."
I shake my head. "Don't worry about it. You need sleep and I was preoccupied with our attack on Target Beta anyway."
Nailah's eyebrows raise. "Oh, I'm sorry I missed that. How did it go?"
I grin, some of my good spirits returning. "Complete victory."
Nailah grins back at me and I feel myself flushing a little. "That's awesome. I'm sorry I missed it."
I wave a hand. "It wasn't that interesting. When you're as overmatched as we are, the only way to fight is to strike with overwhelming force where your enemy is weak."
"I see." Nailah nods. She crosses her legs and stretches her arms up over her head. Tightening her tanktop against her breasts, I can't help but notice. Her belly rumbles and her eyes snap open. She covers her stomach with her hands with a sheepish look.
"Hungry?" I ask, rhetorically. Nailah nods. I step up to a speaker by the door and connect to the kitchen. Audio only, of course. Figuring I could use some food as well, I order two suppers. The cooks tell me that it will be up shortly. I walk over to the bed and sit down close to Nailah. "I know I haven't given you a lot of time to think." The look on Nailah's face tells me that she thinks the same. "But have you considered my question at all?"
Nailah absently pulls at one of her toes. "You mean about what I would do if I had your forces available to me." I nod. "Well, I get why you say that you can't attack the niao at Earth. The Nidhoggr is big but I imagine that they have a ship as big as the Nidhoggr protecting Earth."
"Three, in fact." At Nailah's start of surprise, I explain. "Not because they are afraid of humans. The Je'Techt almost wrested control of Earth away from them during their war. They've made sure Earth was heavily protected since."
"Oh," Nailah says. "Shit."
I give her a tight smile. "Still, I could probably conquer Earth if I was so inclined. I could draw off some of the fleet using the tactics I'm using now. I might even be able to beat them in a straight fight, if I got the drop on them. But even if the niao fleet was smaller, I still wouldn't try and free Earth."
"Because you wouldn't be able to hold it."
"Exactly," I say, feeling pleased that she understood.
"By attacking niao colonies, you can escape before they have time to retaliate."
"That keeps you from being defeated," Nailah says slowly. "But can you defeat the niao that way?"
"No," I say, now a little put out. "However, the goal is not to defeat the empire, now is it? The goal is to get them to leave Earth."
"Right." Nailah stares into the distance for a moment. "So you would have to cause the niao more trouble that Earth is worth. A lot more, since they're pride is on the line as well."
I nod, my eyes narrowing slightly. "That is the conclusion I came to a long time ago."
"So do you think that it's working?" Nailah asks.
Before I can answer, there is a buzz at the door. I put on my cloak and pull up the hood, restoring the visage of the Lindwyrm. It is one of the galley workers with our dinner. I take it with a nod of thanks and bring it back to the bed, shedding my cloak along the way. Nailah takes hers with a murmur of thanks and quickly digs in. The meal consists of noodles, shredded bits of chicken and vegetables in a sweet sauce. All of the food on our ships is freeze dried and usually somewhat unappetizing. Whoever seasoned this did a good job of it, however.
"You asked if it was working," I say after I've had a few bites and Nailah has wolfed down more than half of hers.
"Uh huh," Nailah confirms after a few moments of chewing and swallowing.
"Open your VI so that I can see it too." She does as I ask and soon a virtual screen is projected above her arm. I lean over her and open up the site of one of the more mainstream niao news orgs. "You've probably seen videos from these niao before," I say.
"Yeah," Nailah says. "I recognize the anchor."
The anchor in question is a female niao with a—even I have to admit—gorgeous crest of silver and green. I open the live feed and say, "Let's see what she is talking about."
The niao anchor, who goes by a name that I think vaguely references Autumn, is saying, "Once again we have reports of an attack by the terrorist group known as Yggdrasil." She doesn't actually say Yggdrasil but utters a bizarre trill to refer to us. It is a reference to a demon tree from the niao's own mythology. Not exactly a spot on translation but not half-bad. "The human terrorists attacked the planet of..." She names the colony but I have no translation for it in English. "The fleet there was understrength and we have video of the attack."
The feed cuts to a remarkably sharp video of the Nidhoggr slicing through the formation of the Lonely Boy and the patrol boats and absolutely laying waste. It seems to be a recording from one of the patrol boats. It must be one of the ones that survived a pass from the huge, white battleship because it keeps recording until the equally sinister Skoll floats into the frame and then the screen flashes white and then black. I'm sure that was hardly the only recording of the fight to make it out of the system but it was a very good one.
Nailah, looks at me, eyes shining, "That was amazing!" I smile at her.
The news feed goes back to Autumn and she turns to a male niao with a crest of brown and grey. "What are your thoughts on what happened there, Admiral?"
"Pure incompetence!" The admiral screeches. "You see that the captain of that corvette left his defense station to engage three ships that significantly out-massed him."
"He did have more ships than Yggdrasil," Autumn points out. "Perhaps he believed that ships crewed by humans would retreat in the face of superior numbers."
The niao admiral chirps with derisiveness. "Ridiculous. First and foremost, those ships can't be crewed by humans. Their leader won't even show his face!" A shot of the Lindwyrm flashes up on the screen. The admiral brings up a miniature holo of the battle in front of him and has it play until the Nidhoggr is firmly in the middle of the niao formation, blasting in all directions. "This is a classic maneuver taught in every naval academy. There is no way a human would have the tactical wherewithal to attempt this, not to mention pull it off so flawlessly."
"Who do you think is piloting the battleship, then?" Autumn asks, seeming genuinely confused.
"Who knows?" the admiral chirps disgustedly. "Deserters? Pirates? Perhaps one of the games between the oligarchs is getting out of hand."
"I see," Autumn says tactfully. "Perhaps, though, the captain felt he had to move because elements of the Yggdrasil fleet were attacking the resort directly. Our editors are piecing together what we have that as well. Here is exclusive footage of the attack." The screen goes black and then flashes a warning about the graphic nature of the following video.
When it opens, it is immediately clear that it is security camera footage from the entryway of a building. Two niao are crouched down, staring out of a window. The camera shakes and there is an explosion in the distance. One of the niao curls up tighter and the other hovers over him protectively. A few more seconds pass and then, without warning, the room explodes. The camera jerks around crazily for a while and when it eventually settles, the two niao are down and not moving. Implanted in the floor is a gigantic spike that only could have been fired from the Nidhoggr.
I glance over at Nailah and see that she is not smiling in triumph anymore. Before the feed cuts back into the newsroom, I lean over and exit out of the site completely. "That's how much trouble we're causing them," I say with a certain amount of smugness. "And we're just getting started."
"Those niao in that last video...what was it that happened to them?"
"A spike from our railguns hit the building they were cowering in," I say bluntly.
"They didn't look like soldiers...I didn't realize you were targeting civilians." I raise an eyebrow. Refraining from attacking civilians? What does she think this is?
"The point is to make popular opinion turn against holding Earth," I say. "Killing soldiers won't accomplish that. Soldiers are supposed to die. Besides," I say with a flick of my hand. "That was a resort exclusive to the very rich. I have no doubt that every one of them engaged in some form of human exploitation."
Nailah looks away, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. My temper flares but I take control and decide to move on for now. She will understand the necessity, sooner or later. I clap my hands, startling her. "Alright, let's get back to it. Why don't you start with twenty push-ups this time?"