I wake up to almost complete darkness. After another day of training, I had put myself to sleep while Nailah went to take a shower. The darkness surprises me because I'd fallen asleep with the lights on and hadn't expected her to turn them off. What's more, the single bit of light in the room is coming from her bunk. I sit up, careful to be silent and stare over at her. The two pinpricks of light are reflections from her contacts. It is normally next to impossible to see that a person is using their contacts in this manner but the total darkness allows it. I command the lights to come on.
Nailah jumps when they do and then turns to me with an unmistakable look of guilt. That's all the confirmation I need to know that she was watching niao news feeds. She'd been distracted all day. Did it really bother her that much? I'm not certain how to approach this so I silently gather up my uniform and begin to pull it on. My cloak goes on last and I stare at Nailah with the burning yellow eyes of the Lindwyrm. After an extended silence, I say, "I need to go to a meeting now."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"Have you gotten any sleep?" She shakes her head. "Then get some sleep." I leave without another word.
Her actions bother me all the way to Poisonseed's office. She seems to have the necessary temperament to be my protégé in just about all other respects. I never expected her problem to be sympathy for the enemy. Especially with those two horrendous scars on her back.
I still have no answers when I step into the office and have to force it out of my mind. Poisonseed, Captain Myles and Sora are already waiting for me, seated around a small table. As are the captains of the Hati and the Skoll. The captain of the Hati is a bald, grey-bearded Indian man by the name of Sandeep Mitul. The man typically behaved with cold military formality and his uniform was always perfectly creased. Mitul had been an admiral in the Indian Navy before being sacked for his continually hostile attitude toward the naio. He had been planning a coup when I found him. The captain of the Skoll is a sturdy Pakistani woman with short black hair named Rashanpreet Kasana. She's not quite as precisely correct as Mitul but she had been recommended to me by the Indian man, strangely enough. I am unsure where or why she was trained but Mitul was correct in his judgment of her abilities.
All five of them jump to attention and salute when they see me. I return their salute and they relax, Glover slouching, Mitul rigidly at ease and the rest somewhere in between. "First of all," I begin, "I would like to commend you all on your efforts so far. The first two phases of Fenrir's Revenge were the easiest, this is true, but we couldn't afford a single mistake. And we didn't make one. Things will be much more difficult from here and it is good that we are in almost prime condition." I glance at Kasana. "Captain, how are the repairs on the Skoll."
"As well as can be expected, Lord Lindwyrm," she says stiffly. She is a force when barking orders on the bridge of her destroyer but any other form of communication seems to make her uncomfortable. "My engineers are reinforcing the armor damage as best they can but we will need to be in dry dock to bring armor integrity to one hundred percent." Her eyes open wide with something approaching fear. Not fear from me, I think, but fear that she would be sent to complete repairs while the rest of us continued the fight. "My ship is more than ready for battle, though, sir."
"I have no doubt," I say and she is noticeably relieved. "You all knew at least the broad strokes of the first two phases of the mission. Now it is time to explain three and four." Using the room's projectors, I throw up a map of nearby space. Two systems light up in red. Targets Alpha and Beta. "These are the two targets we attacked," I explain, probably unnecessarily. "These are all the systems close by that have a niao military presence," I continue as several more systems light up in red. "And these are the uninhabited systems in the same area." A huge number of systems light up in blue, nearly drowning out the red systems. I smile behind my mask. "The next step of our operation will be to hide."
Kasana blanches and Mitul's eyes widen with disbelief. Only Poisonseed shares my grin, since she's the only one who has any idea what is coming. Nobody interrupts me, though, to my gratification. "When we don't attack for a few days, political pressure to hunt us down will build. Especially with the stunt we pulled on Target Beta."
Mitul is the first one to understand. "Ambush," he says with satisfaction.
"Precisely," I say.
Sora stands up and walks to the map. She gestures at it and says, "There are hundreds of systems for them to search. Maybe thousands! How do we know they will stumble into our ambush?"
"Because I can predict their search pattern. The niao navy, like any navy, has a pattern in the way that they go about things." I highlight one system. "This is Target Gamma." I look to Captain Kasana. "You will take your destroyer there immediately upon your return. I will detail elements of the fleet to go with you. In a nine days or so niao ships will enter into the system. Annihilate them."
Kasana snarls, "It will be done, my lord!"
I highlight the next system and glance at Captain Mitul. "Target Delta. You will take the Skoll to this system immediately upon your return. In a week, niao ships will gate into the system. You will annihilate them."
Mitul salutes gravely. "At your command, Lord Lindwyrm!"
Then I pick another system. "This is Target Epsilon."
"The Nidhoggr will proceed there right away. In one week, niao ships will gate into the system and we will annihilate them," Glover says in a, rather poor in my estimation, parody of my voice.
"Eight days" I say, giving him a baleful glare. "We will also be rendezvousing with the last element of our fleet."
Even Glover perks up at this bit of news. They all had to be wondering when this final ship would join us. All except Poisonseed, of course. She grimaces and looks away. I bring up a hologram of a niao battleship of a size with the Nidhoggr. Instead of the bone white of the regular Yggdrasil fleet, this battleship is mostly black except for a few, jarring swaths of neon green. Next to the ship, I bring up a holo of a niao. Unlike most of his species, his crest isn’t dual colored, instead being a monochromatic black. Even through the holo, it is possible to see his arrogance in the way he holds his head.
"I’m sure that Crow needs no introduction." A human moniker obviously but the niao actually seems to embrace it. A far cry from how niao usually react to a human nickname. "He is the captain of this battleship, the Storm King. He will join with us at Target Epsilon and work with us on phases three and four."
"Are you serious?" Sora snaps, startling me with her anger. “I was hoping that you’d changed your mind about working with that scum!”
"He is scum," I say coldly. "Scum who has done worse things to his own race than to any human. He also has a larger price on his head than any human." Part of that was due to his possession of the Storm King. He was the most dangerous renegade in niao space. Besides me, of course. "You don't have to worry about him turning on us. The niao would rather have him dead than the whole lot of us. For the moment."
"That's not the point!" Sora shouts. "He is a niao. How can we stoop to working with their kind? I joined Yggdrasil to kill niao!" Mitul and Kasana are nodding while Glover seems apathetic as usual.
"I told you this was a bad idea," Poisonseed mutters.
I stalk forward until I am right in the face of Sora. She cringes back, not quite able to meet my visage straight on. "You joined Yggdrasil to get the niao off Earth or you joined Yggdrasil for the wrong reasons," I say softly. "Crow is essential to the plan going forward. You will work with him or you will no longer be part of Yggdrasil. Wakarimasu ka?" I ask in her native tongue.
Cowed, Sora looks at the ground and whispers, "Wakarimasu."
"Good," I say and turn back to my map. "As I was saying, Nidhoggr will join with the Storm King here. I believe that there is an extremely high chance that a battleship will be sent to investigate this system. We will jam their communications and cripple the battleship. From there, the Storm King will assume the identity of the battleship. I will send a signal to Captains Mitul and Kasana. When you receive it, you will report here, with all speed." I highlight another system."
"Hold on, isn't that—?" Mitul begins.
I cut him off. "The Storm King, broadcasting as a friendly, will flee into the system, followed by us. From there, the whole fleet will engage the niao fleet above the planet designated as Target Zeta. We will destroy the fleet and seize the target."
Mitul slaps his forehead. "I knew you were bold, Lindwyrm, but this is insane." A grin spreads across his face until it resembles death's head. "I like it."
"What are you talking about?" Sora asks. She leans forward and studies the map. Then her back snaps straight up and her jaw drops open. "No!"
I bark a laugh. "Yes."
We hammer out a few more details and then Mitul and Kasana leave to rejoin their ships. I proceed to the bridge with Glover, Sora and Poisonseed. The Captain and his XO begin to get the ship ready to depart.
"This is a very bold strike, my lord," Poisonseed says from beside me.
"You knew it was coming," I say. "We've been over this. Our attacks have knocked the niao off balance but we haven't done any true damage yet. This will hurt and leaving a lasting impression. It will also inspire humanity."
"I know and I agree, it seems so soon, though. I feel like we just started. Our troops are so inexperienced. Perhaps it would be better to get a few more engagements under their belts. These ambushes...why should we stop at just one?"
I turn to her. "The ambush game will only get more dangerous and unpredictable. One of our fleets will eventually get caught and destroyed. The only reason I am doing it this once is to make sure that the niao stay out hunting us." I look back at the forward viewscreen. "Your training was superior," I add. "It will make up for any lack of experience."
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Poisonseed look down with her eyes screwed shut, obviously keeping back tears. That should keep her from complaining any further. "Thank you, my lord," she says thickly. "I do hope your faith in that niao proves true, though." Apparently I was mistaken about the complaining. I sigh. Poisonseed hurriedly says, "I am not trying to argue against him any longer, my lord. I know it is too late for that. I just wish I knew why you had enough faith in him to risk alienating Sora."
"Sora will remain. Especially when we succeed in this endeavor." Poisonseed nods reluctantly. "Poisonseed, you must understand, to fight the niao, it is necessary to understand them. To see that they aren't terribly different from humans." A noise in Poisonseed's throat shows what she thinks of that. I chuckle. "Like a human, there are three reasons that a niao would betray his own kind. Greed, ideology or hatred. Luckily for us, Crow possesses all three motivations. I don't have faith in Crow. I understand Crow."
Poisonseed is silent for a long time and then she bows low. "Once again, you have reminded me why you will be the one to lead humanity from the clutches of the niao. You humble me, my lord."
My eyebrows raise in surprise, a gesture I'm glad Poisonseed can't see behind my mask. I should have explained all of that a long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of bellyaching from Poisonseed, clearly. On one hand, an expectancy that he will be obeyed is has always been a part of the Lindwyrm. Yet perhaps I am too ready to give commands without explaining myself. It may be the wrong tack to take with the strong personalities I've gathered to form Yggdrasil. I can't believe any of them would sell out to the niao a few of them probably think that they can operate Yggdrasil just as well, if not better, than I can.
I watch as first Skoll and then Hati form up their little fleets and gate out of the system. I've sent them both to systems probable to have relatively small hunting parties but it is impossible to know for an absolute certainty. My stomach twists a little. I'll need both destroyers for Target Zeta, I think. I hate having them outside my direct control. I hate having any of this outside of my control. If I could accomplish my goals as Hachimantaro, I would. That brings a muted sigh. Even Hachimantaro no longer works alone.
The Nidhoggr rumbles under my feet as the massive thrusters send us toward the gate. It is a thirty hour journey to the system of Target Epsilon. With a nod to Poisonseed, I leave the bridge and return to by quarters. Nailah is asleep when I enter, curled up in her bunk under a blanket. I sit on the bed and stare at her. It is no trouble for me to hack into her VI and see what she was watching while I was asleep. As I thought, videos of the attack on the resort at Target Beta. What foolishness. I can't think of anything to do about it at the moment though.
So I let her sleep and take care of some of my own business. There are plenty of messages for Hachimantaro. Job offers. I don't bother to respond. Hachimantaro is well known to only take a small fraction of the contracts he is offered, anyway, because of his vendetta against slavers. It would be nice if I could escape being the Lindwyrm for a little while but that simply isn't possible at the moment. Nothing from Nadja at the moment, which is disappointing. I hope she can find Oquendo's hideout soon. I plan on taking care of him as soon as Fenrir's Revenge is over. It makes my blood boil that I have to let him live for even that long.
There are a few things that require my attention as the Exile King. The Outremer organization is basically a machine by now but I still funnel some decisions through the Exile King deliberately. It would be too easy for it to continue and thrive without me, albeit with diminished information broking. I've been gone too long, the personages of Hachimantaro and the Lindwyrm dominating my time. The sub-bosses of the criminal organization are as ruthless and ambitious as any within Yggdrasil, except without a shred of morality. I grit my teeth. Perhaps my revenge on Oquendo will take even longer.
"Lind?" I snap out of my musings and see that Nailah is awake and sitting up, her legs dangling over the side of the bed. She stretches and then winces.
"Are your muscles sore?" I ask.
"Just a little," she says reluctantly.
I scoot back on the bed, crossing my legs and then point to the spot where I had been sitting. "Sit here," I tell her. With a look of curiosity, Nailah comes over and sits down, halfway facing me. "Turn around," I say. She does. "I'm going to touch you now." I close my eyes. Could have phrased that better. "I mean, I know some pressure points that will relieve pain and help your muscles relax."
Nailah laughs but there is definitely an edge of nervousness to it. "Okay."
I start with her shoulders, working the muscles and applying pressure at a few points. Nailah hisses a few times but doesn't tell me to stop. "It may be a little painful at first but it will help," I assure her. It was actually the Doctor that taught me how to do this. He wrecked his back somehow while he was building his lab. I used to do it for Shentza as well. For her, I studied various theories and developed something of my own. If she was any judge, I got pretty damn good at it.
After her shoulders, I work my way down both arms. Then I switch to her lower back, working my way up. My proximity gives me a better chance to study her scars and I am almost shocked anew at how vicious they are. I compare it against my forefinger and learn they are a little bit wider. The wounds had to have been incredibly deep. They snake down her back, crossing each other multiple times. Little tendrils radiate out from the main scars, evidence of how ragged the lacerations had been. "Do you ever have any pain in your back?" I ask. "From the scars?"
"Sometimes," she says. "It's not a big deal though." She groans loudly as I press two pressure points along her spine. "Oh my god."
"Alright, lie down on your stomach." She does so and I slide of the bed. I go to work on her hamstrings and then her knees and calves, working and stretching the muscles. Her feet, I leave alone. As far as I've been able to tell, the idea of pressure points in feet affecting the rest of the body is pure bunk. When I lay Nailah's left leg down on the bed, I note, with some amusement, that she has fallen asleep. I decide to leave her be. She clearly does need to recuperate.
I move over and sit at the desk that is part of my room's furnishings. Odd choice, really. What would I need a desk for? Poisonseed only knew. I wonder what I should do. It's an odd feeling. It is a very rare occurrence to not have something that demands my immediate attention. What I should be doing is scouring the nets for information, as is my custom. The sojourn to Flynn's World put me behind however and Fenrir's Revenge has only exacerbated the problem. I just can't quite find the motivation to do it right now.
Instead, I find myself wondering what I should do about Nailah's education. She hadn't ever attended high school or college. I should teach her history at least, with a particular focus on rebellion and revolution. I chuckle to myself, thinking that I'll probably avoid Gandhi and Martin Luther King. She already seems to think my methods are too harsh. I should teach her other things, too, though. Math and science. The Doctor, despite his vast knowledge, only ever taught me things that he considered relevant to his vision for me. That bastard. Probably never imagined I could understand and operate all his equipment without him.
Unsure of how to even approach this, I start poking around in the standard curriculums of several different Earth countries, just to see what they consider a normal level of education for an adult. Then out of curiosity, I take some of the standardized tests in the few different languages that I understand. I smirk my way through most of them until I try the Chinese one. I may need to refresh my knowledge of hanzi, the Chinese characters. When the score comes up, I irritably close it out, wondering what I am doing.
Nailah wakes up a few hours later and during that time I have developed what I think should be a comprehensive syllabus for her. I also narrowed down a few tests for her, so that I get an idea of where she's at. "How are you feeling?" I ask.
Nailah sits up and rubs one eye. "Better," she says. Then she twists her torso each way, stretching out her back muscles. "Still a little sore but, I don't know...energized or something."
"That's good, that's good," I say with a nod. "Because we are going to start something new today."
"What would that be?" she asks with a certain amount of wariness.
"The completion of your high school education!" I announce.
I expect a bit of grumbling, since that has been her response to the fighting and exercise. Instead, I smile lights up her features. "Really?"
I stare at her face for a second to long before I respond, covering up the pause with a cough. "Really. I think it's important. I've loaded a few tests on to your VI, so we can get a sense of where you are at."
"Okay!" Nailah presumably opens her VI so she can see it through her contacts. After a bit, I see her forehead crease in concentration and her fingers start typing at an invisible keyboard. I begin to pace the room while she works, filled energy. I feel it more and more recently. Pent-up energy from being stuck on this ship, stuck in this role. Almost unconsciously, I start doing a kata, falling into the ritualized forms of Wing Chun. Nailah looks over her shoulder at me. "Would you cut that out? It's a little distracting." I stop and lean against the wall.
An hour and some later, Nailah is finished. I eagerly examine her tests and begin to grade them. A small frown of confusion forms as I do so. These are good. Much better than I expected. "I thought you said you never went to high school."
"I didn't," Nailah affirms. "That doesn't mean I stopped learning."
That statement actually seems to line up with what I am seeing. Her scores on history and science are below par but her reading and math comprehension is well above average. Even her writing is solid, if a little basic and unsure. This isn't what I imagined at all. More akin to a smart person who received a below average education, rather than none. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that she didn't stop learning. I didn't either. But I hadn't thought she had the tools.
I lean up against the desk. "Well, you're further along than I thought, so I guess we can do away with the basic education." I mentally delete the syllabus I spent so much time on. "Instead, why don't you tell me what kind of things you are interested in learning?"
Nailah, who had been grinning at my praise, closed one eye and purses her lips. "What I'm interesting in learning?" she murmurs. "I guess I'd like to learn more about physics."
I nod. "That's a good idea."
"I always wanted to learn another language. Maybe Italian?"
"Chinese," I say firmly.
"There are a lot of Chinese people working for the niao. Besides English, Chinese is the most common human language off of Earth."
Despite looking a little put out, Nailah nods in agreement. "Chinese. Sounds fun." Fun is not exactly the word I would have. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Damn hanzi.