"Crow," I say in simple greeting. A holo of the niao is broadcasting onto the bridge of the Nidhoggr. His yellow eyes are sweeping around the bridge with an unmistakable air of amusement. Crow is tall for a niao and his long, black crest is somehow menacing when compared with bright plumage most niao sport. His second-in-command, known to us humans as Firebird, stands next to him. As opposed to his leader's cavalier attitude, Firebird is deadly serious. His crest is shorter than Crow's and has a normal dual coloration, in this case red and orange. Hence the name.
The techs and officers on the bridge are all obviously uncomfortable and a few even flinch when Crow's eyes pass over them. I make a note of who, to pass on to Poisonseed. They don't belong on the bridge of my flagship. I am uncertain how Crow views me but I know that nothing good will happen if he thinks he can intimidate us. The niao wasn't one of the most wanted beings in the Empire for nothing. Fortunately, Sora stares right back at him challengingly and Glover is slumped in seat, bored as he always was outside of battle. Poisonseed and Tiamat, back on the bridge after a long absence, are flanking me. Poisonseed is icily collected behind her eagle mask and Tiamat is inscrutable behind her glowing purple eyes.
"Lindwyrm," he chirps laconically. "That's what all those frightened hens are calling you on the news." The niao have given me a name that, like my human name, relates to an ancient monster of theirs. I looked it up and was impressed. The thing was like a mutant cross between a dragon and a scorpion. Apparently it was also an unceasing murder machine. It's always nice when your enemy does your propaganda work for you. "It's amazing that you got them this worked up," Crow continues, "when all you did was crush a couple of shitty understrength garrisons."
None of my subordinates take the bait, to my relief, though Sora's fists are so tight it’s a wonder she hasn't drawn blood. "They're bored and looking for a story, as always. It's nice of them to help me out so much," I say with a certain amount of smugness.
Crow makes a kind of screech that I've learned is the equivalent of a scoff. "Idiots. The pure white of your ships is helping. I don't know what that means to humans but niao don't like it at all. You seem like dead things to them."
"I did my research."
Firebirds orange eyes stare at me appraisingly. "You aren't a bad strategist," he says. "For a human."
Before I can respond, Crow makes a strange keening wail and then then complains. "He's been talking about you nonstop all the way here. You should be careful, Lindwyrm, or one day you'll wake up to..." I don't quite understand what Crow says next. Something about dancing and flexing or something. An idiom that is completely lost on me. That is why it is shocking when Tiamat laughs aloud. She takes a half-step back when practically every person on the bridge stares at her. Crow makes a noise and then says, "I'm glad to see one person on your ship has a sense of humor."
"Yes," I say softly, refocusing on Crow. "Well, why don't we get back to business? We'll be deploying the blackout device the moment the enemy ships exit the gate so we need to have everything settled now."
"It there anything left to talk about?" Crow asks. "Ship comes in, we blast it, we leave."
I choke down my annoyance. "Essentially that is it. I just wanted to remind you that we cannot afford to let a single fighter or escape pod get back to the gate."
The niao cackles, "Oh, you won't have to worry about that."
I ignore him and continue, "I also want to remind you of the formation we agreed would be the best for this." Using the projectors on the bridge bring up a holo of the space around the gate. It shows the Nidhoggr stationed near the top of the gate., relative to the closest planet, and the Storm King hovering a distance away, parallel to the gate. "This way we will catch the enemy battleship in our crossfire." I play the holo and it shows a battleship exiting for the gate and moving toward the Storm King. The Nidhoggr drops in behind it and together the two ships reduce the other to scrap very quickly. "Our position keeps the battleship from having any chance to escape back into the gate."
Crow makes a noise that I take to mean agreement so I continue, "We'll both need to deploy all of our fighters and smaller ships to hunt and destroy all of the fighters and support ships of the big one. Remind them that the blackout will silence even ship to ship communication so they won't be able to coordinate in their usual manner. My suggestion would be to let each individual pilot pick targets and go, without worrying about coordination at all. The other pilots will be confused and panicky. Should be easy pickings." Crow cocks his head. "They should be easy to kill," I clarify.
"If our pilots are fighting amongst the crossfire between all of our ships, there could be issues with friendly fire," Firebird puts in.
I narrow my eyes. "Our pilots are willing to risk themselves."
"And no niao is afraid to go where a human will," Crow says, with a dirty look at Firebird. "Your plan is fine," he adds. "The regular niao navy is nothing but worms at this point. We'll crush them as easily as..." Crow makes another reference that I don't follow. It might be something about a particular insect. I glance at Tiamat, wondering if she understood. "Even you humans shouldn't have much trouble," he continues, with a queer sort of cackle.
"We'll do our part. Have no fear on that count," I say a little stiffly. "Be ready."
"The Storm King is always ready." With that, Crow signs off and disappears from the bridge. There is an audible sigh of relief and I glare around. I had thought better of my Yggdrasil soldiers. With a flare of my cloak, I turn and leave the bridge without a word. Tiamat hurries and catches up with me.
"How did you understand what he said?" I ask softly. I've studied and spoken the niao tongue extensively but I still have trouble following their idioms and metaphors. Even if I can understand the specific chips and trills, they do not go together in a sensical way.
Tiamat shrugs. "I've heard it before." I hadn't thought about it before but it makes sense that a person living amongst the niao would pick up on slang and such better than me, who usually has formal conversations or is reading characters completely divorced from the spoken language. Tiamat has revealed another unexpected ability.
"So what did he say?" I ask.
Tiamat hesitates for a moment. "Basically he was suggesting that you might wake up married to the other niao."
"Hmm. So what was that bit about the flexing?"
"I think it was part of a mating ritual along time ago." Nailah scratches the back of her head. "Something like that."
"I see." I stop, a thought occurring. "Do you want to do a little piloting?" I ask.
"Yeah," Tiamat says with a bit of confusion. "That would be cool."
"Excellent." I turn and head in the other direction. Tiamat hustles to keep up with my long-legged strides. We enter the Toxin and Tiamat takes out of the bay of the Nidhoggr. I stare out of the little viewport. The system we're in has several planets of varying size and makeup, orbiting around a yellow star not so different from the sun. None of the planets are prime candidates for colonization, though. None of them quite hits that sweet spot. More than one are chock full of precious minerals, however. I know the oligarch that owns this system. Not only is he greedy and panicky but he has invested a lot of bribes into the niao navy. I am betting a lot on him diverting a major ship to check on his star system.
My eyes track down to the Storm King, floating gently in the distance. "Head toward the Storm King," I tell Tiamat. "Not too close, though." The massive battleship looms closer. It is a newer model than Nidhoggr. A little bigger, a little faster and a little better armed. Traditionally, anyway. The retro-fitted Nidhoggr was a far more capable of punching above its weight class than it was before. The Storm King was a bit of a mystery, too, though. Crow seemed like the type to tinker with his ship.
The renegade niao's ship was normally painted black and neon green, a muted color scheme for a niao. Now it was painted a much paler green with yellow. Those were the colors of the unit I pegged as most likely to be assigned to search this sector. I was betting a lot on that, too. Close up, I can see the slap-dash paint job, which irks me a little bit. It is unlikely to matter, since Storm King only has to keep up the ruse for a short while. But I dislike that kind of sloppiness. No reason to chance fate. I expected it though. Crow isn't the type to mind little details.
Once the ship is close enough, I murmur for Tiamat to change course so she is paralleling the battleship. Then I start to give her commands, the same way I did when training her on the Psychopomp. The Toxin has nowhere near the maneuverability of my custom ship so I keep the commands within reason, but soon enough, the Toxin is looping through space. That should give me cover, should anyone be curious about the presence of my little shuttle.
While Tiamat reacts to my commands, I reach out and connect to the Storm King's net. Then I start poking around, just to see what I can see. To my vast surprise and displeasure, however, the Storm King's net protection is much better than the niao military's. Who ever is in charge of cyber security on that ship must be very good. After a little longer, I decide to give up. I could probably burrow my way past the firewalls if I really wanted to but I had no particular goals in mind when I started. I make sure to cover my tracks as I leave but I wouldn't be surprised if they had already detected me, with the kind of defenses they had set up. It shouldn't matter. Crow respects this sort of game.
Once Tiamat is exhausted, we head back for the Nidhoggr. She flops down in her bunk soon after we return and falls asleep. I sit and try to read. My mind is too keyed up to pay attention, however. Even scanning the net is unproductive. In the end all I can do is pace and wait. For seven more days. One more than I had expected.
Just when I am about at the end of my rope, contact alarms sound through the ship. I turn toward the red strobing light with excitement, forgetting that I have Nailah in a headlock until I hear her frantic, "Ow, Ow!" I hurriedly let her go and she falls to her knees. She rubs the back of her neck and mutters, "Fuck, Lind."
"Sorry," I say already pulling on my raiment. But I can hardly muster up any contrition. It's time. It's time! I dash out of the cabin as soon a my mask forms and race toward the bridge. Any Yggdrasil personnel not already at their battle stations are doing the same. The wait for the elevator is interminable and the ride up, even worse. When I finally reach the bridge and burst in, I shout, "What have we got?" A little out of character for the Lindwyrm and I tell myself to rein it in.
Sora looks at me, her face the stern mask she needs to command the bridge but her eyes filled with excitement. "Niao battleship and attendant fleet gated into they system approximately two minutes ago. Tentative identification has the battleship as Target Prime." Her delight finally breaks through and she grins widely. "Sir, it's the Lord of Lightning!"
I'm already staring at the broadcast of the ship that gated out and having trouble breathing. The Lord of Lightning. I shouldn't be this stunned. After all, I was the person who designated it as having the highest percentage of any ship to investigate this system. Still, to see it actually show up was somehow mind-bending. That was the exact ship I told Crow to model his new paint job after.
The thought of Crow snaps me back to reality. "Have communications been successfully interdicted?" I ask coolly. Show them they have to stay steady.
"Yes, Lord Lindwyrm. Five seconds after Target Prime reverted into real space, the blackout device was successfully deployed. They won't have had time to send any messages beyond the fact that they reached the system." I nod, clasping my hands behind my back. The blackout device was niao-tech but the military had basically disowned it after they couldn't calibrate it to jam only enemy communication. The niao military rarely found themselves in a position where a complete communications blackout served them.
"Is the Storm King moving to engage? Are they keeping formation?" When I had told Crow that the most likely opponent would be the Lord of Lightning, the niao had shrieked with humor and practically demanded to fight the battleship one on one. Only a few almost imperceptible tones separated the name of the Storm King and the Lord of Lightning in the niao language and it seemed Crow took that as a challenge. I'd talked him down but didn't for one second believe that the niao wasn't fully capable of doing something insane like interposing his own ship between mine and the Lord of Lightning to keep me from firing.
"Yes, from what we can tell," Sora says without much conviction. The blackout device was hell on our sensors. I resist the urge to ask further questions. The crew of the Nidhoggr was competent. It wouldn't do to micro-manage them. Instead I watch the feed being broadcast into the bridge. It is impossible to see the individual fighters at the distance they are at. Even the light from any explosions is masked by the horribly bright red of the lasers pounding into the Lord of Lightning. Ambushed on two sides by two well-armed and well-crewed battleships, there is little the niao captain can do. Soon enough the techs are announcing that the ship is breaking up. The ferocious attack doesn't stop, only lessens as the Gunnery Chief details some of his men to focus on stopping the escape pods. We can't let a single one get through the gate.
I am stunned when I see that it has been an hour since I reached the bridge. It feels like it's been less than five minutes. It is another hour before the technicians are sure that we've managed to dispatch every niao that was on that ship or with its meager fleet. An entire line battleship, destroyed to the last niao. Even if we did nothing further, this is the worst attack the niao have suffered since the end of their war with the Je'Techt. This alone would make the names Yggdrasil and the Lindwyrm go down in history. I grin cruelly behind my mask. I'm only getting started.
Glover recalls our own fighters and then makes for the gate, the Storm King following close behind. "Stop," I say.
Glover glances at me, "What's up, Lindy?"
"Let the Storm King go first."
The captain frowns, "Ain't we stopping off in another system to meet with Hati and Skoll? What's it matter who pops through first?"
I come close to snapping at him to just do as I say. I can't have him questioning my orders in the heat of battle after all. I try a different tactic, though, letting my voice drip with the clear irritation of explaining the obvious. "If we should encounter another niao vessel in the river, I want it to be clear that we are chasing the Lord of Lightning."
Glover's eyes harden and he nods stiffly. "You got it, boss." That the first time in a long time I've seen him actually angry. Perhaps that was the wrong way to go about that. I haven't spent enough time among my Yggdrasil soldiers. Glover orders the Nidhoggr to reduce speed and the Storm King blasts past us. I hadn't discussed starting the ruse from the first moment we entered the river with him but Crow is clever enough to have figured it out. He has the Storm King moving at full speed. A lesser ship and captain would even be in danger of losing him. As it is, I get a little nervous at how close Glover is following him. It seems to turn into somewhat of a competition between them as we fly through the river.
The ruse turns out to be pointless, though, as we make it to the rendezvous system without encountering another ship. Thirty-six hours later, the Hati shows up in system looking no worse for wear. Kasana buzzes in and salutes. "It was as you said, my lord Lindwyrm. Two corvettes investigated the system and we crushed them without incident. The Hati stands ready for phase four."
I salute back. "Excellent work," I say. "Make sure your crew rests while they can. We'll be leaving as soon as the Skoll is here."
"Yes, sir!" Kasana says with a grim smile. I don't think I can recall her smiling before. My good mood doesn't last for long, though, because there is still no word from Skoll. Mitul should have been back before Kasana. Did something happen? It was no guarantee that the Skoll was faced with an easy battle, just a high probability. Crow urges me to leave without him, contesting that the Nidhoggr and Storm King can handle anything that we'll find. He might be right but he might not be. I know that the garrison will be severely weakened because of the search parties but there is no way to know how much. I also just can't bring myself to believe that I lost one of my precious destroyers already.
However, just when even I was starting to lose hope, the Skoll limps into the system. "What the hell happened?" I ask as soon as Mitul is before me. The man looks exhausted but I am too angry to care. The Skoll is half a wreck. The technicians inform me that the armor integrity is at thirty percent, weapons have been reduced by fifty percent and engine damage has cut into the speed and maneuverability.
Mitul stiffens at my accusatory tone. "As you said, the system we were in was investigated by a niao fleet. Unlike you thought, though, the fleet was quite formidable. Two corvettes and a frigate." That was more than I expected. Still, even though it was three on one, the Skoll outmassed and outgunned all the other ships. "Did you at least destroy the enemy?"
Mitul hesitates. "The frigate and one of the corvettes were annihilated. The other corvette managed to flee into the river."
Unbelievable. The ship managing to escape didn't really affect my plans at all, in fact it may have drawn even more ships toward that sector of space, but Mitul was ordered to destroy the investigating fleet and failed. I am tempted to sack him right here. "I assume you are late because you attempted repairs on the Skoll."
"Yes, my lord. My crew worked without sleep until we could bring the Skoll into the best condition possible."
This was the 'best condition possible?' I seethed at the thought. As soon as Fenrir's Revenge was over, I was going to go through the personnel files of the soldiers on the Skoll and evaluate them myself. I was also going to find them a more competent captain. "I hope they got some sleep on the trip through the river because we are leaving in two hours," I spit, holding up two fingers.
Mitul blanches. "Two hours! But my crew is exhausted. We need more than two hours."
"We've tarried here too long already," I snarl. "You will be ready in two hours or you will be replaced in two hours. Your choice!"
Mitul goes stiff and his face drains of all emotion. "Two hours. My lord." The signal dissipates.
My glare shifts to Sora and for once I think that the baleful yellow eyes of the Lindwyrm are probably more pleasant to look at than my own livid brown ones. "Message Captain Kasana and Crow, letting them know that we will my heading for Target Zeta in two standard hours."
Sora snaps a salute. "Yes, my lord!" She goes about her business and Glover gets the Nidhoggr ready to go. I watch all of it, my black mood oppressing the bridge. I notice Tiamat, next to me, subtly shifting her stance, probably tired of standing for so long. I sneer. Poisonseed, easily forty years Tiamat's senior is standing with her arms crossed in front of her body, back straight. She doesn't shift a centimeter during the two hours.
When the appointed time comes, the Storm King blasts by, sporting some black scorch marks on its new paint job courtesy of the Nidhoggr's lasers. We're next, with the Skoll and Hati less than a minute behind. All of us fly through the river at full speed. The damn Skoll starts to lag behind but I don't order reduced speed. The system we're flying toward isn't that far away. At the rate it is falling behind, the Skoll should only arrive in the system about fifteen minutes after the rest of us. That's fine. Hopefully it will give me time to set up the battle lines so that Skoll won't be a hindrance.
"Approaching gate to system of Target Zeta!" one of the technicians cries.
"All hands prepare for battle!" Sora shouts in response. The wail of battle station alarms also sounds through the ship. We hit the gate at full speed and the peculiar oranges and reds of the river walls are replaced by the sight of a lonely planet.
Tiamat takes a step forward and stares at the planet. "No!" she gasps.For the first time since I saw the state of the Skoll, I smile. "Yes," I say quietly. "Welcome back to the Crescent."