Chapter 20:

Victory Haze

The Lindwyrm

By the time Toxin lands in the bay of the Nidhoggr, I've somewhat pulled myself back together. The nanobots in my blood have stabilized my severed arm and spread out through the rest of my body once more. I still feel drained but I'm not about to let that slow me down. My arm may be gone but I'm sure that I can dig up the Doctor's notes on it and get a replacement built. An arm for a battleship and a defense station. I try and tell myself that it is a fair trade.

Tiamat walks up to me from the pilot seat, her black dragon mask giving no indication of what she's thinking. "Are you alright, Lind?" She glances at my cloak, which I've twisted around to cover my left arm.

"I'm fine," I say. "Come, Tiamat. We must return to the bridge." I disembark from the Toxin and begin to march toward the bridge, swiftly and confidently. I wonder if Poisonseed has made it back yet and curse myself for indulging in my weakness by resting in the Toxin. I should have gathering information on the battle. It has been thirty minutes since I took over the backup bridge of the Screwed. Thirty minutes that I've been out of the loop. Battles have been won or lost in a far shorter amount of time than that.

When I step onto the bridge, Glover, Sora and just about all the technicians turn to look at me. The they spontaneously break into applause. I straighten up, not having remotely expected this. Glover leaps out of his chair and runs over to me. "Lindy, you crazy motherfucker! I never expected you to do anything like that!" He throws an arm around my shoulder and shakes me around.

"Captain!" Sora cries, looking scandalized. "Please return to your post. We are in the middle of a battle!"

"Yeah, yeah," Glover sighs. He jerks a thumb at her and whispers. "When’s she gonna let herself enjoy something?" Then he scampers back to his seat.

I study the maps and the broadcast from the exterior cameras. "Sora, give me an update."

"Yes, my lord," she says with a nod. "Your sabotage of the battleship Screwed worked and it crashed into Defense Station B before the defense station could move into position to attack us. This has allowed both us and Storm King to focus our efforts on battleship Scrapped. The Skoll entered the system shortly after you left and has engaged with the second frigate. Captain Kasana destroyed her assigned frigate and is moving into position to support the Storm King against the Defense Station A."

What I'm seeing allows me to fill in the rest. The Scrapped is coming close to breaking apart but so is the Storm King. In the same way that we've been focusing on the Scrapped, the enemy has focused on the Storm King. Crow's ship could take a lot of punishment and he was cleverly moving into overlapping fire-zones that inhibited full attacks from the enemy battleships lest they hit their allies. Still, it was only a matter of time with two battleships and a defense station firing on him. There had to be something we could do...

It hits me. "Glover," I begin.

He looks over at me and smiles insolently. "Way ahead of you, boss." He raises his voice and commands, "Tell Captain Mitul to take Skoll and move to support Hati and Storm King against that goddamned defense station." Then he ordered the vector by which Skoll was to approach the defense station and changing the heading of the Nidhoggr just a hair so that it would draw in line with the second frigate while keeping Scrapped in its sights. I grin in satisfaction. That was perfect. Exactly as I would have ordered. Mitul might have disappointed me but Kasana and Glover were exceeding my expectations.

That reminds me. "Has Poisonseed returned to the Nidhoggr yet?" I ask Sora.

"Right here, my lord." Poisonseed strides onto the deck. I almost laugh aloud seeing her. She doesn't look she's been in a fight at all, her red uniform practically in parade condition. Clearly the old rebel still has it.

"Poisonseed," I say, hoping that a modicum of my joy makes it through the voice distorter. "I am glad to see you made it back."

"I feel the same, my lord," she says, glancing at my cloak.

"How about the marines?" I ask, ignoring her unspoken question.

Poisonseed grimaces. "Seven dead and five in critical condition."

I mentally add them to my tally for the battleship and defense station. "How did you return? Our own transports?"

"Yes, my lord." She grins. "You worked so fast that we were still nearby when you called the retreat."

"Excellent." I turn back to watching the battle. The Skoll has broken away from the enemy frigate and the Nidhoggr is moving into place. "By the way, the pilot of the second transport, did she survive?"

"Yes, my lord, I believe so."

"What is her name?"

"Crazy Horse, my lord."

"Crazy Horse?"

Poisonseed chuckles. "Well, since both me and you go by assumed names, many of the newer recruits have taken to choosing an alias."

"I see. Do you know if she is an American Indian?"

"I do not. May I ask why, my lord?" I guess the Indonesian woman wouldn't have had any reason to make the connection. I'd only read a small tidbit on Crazy Horse myself while reviewing American history. He seemed like the type of person who would have done well in Yggdrasil. If this Crazy Horse were anything like her namesake, my consideration for her taking over Skoll had taken another step forward.

I shake my head slightly. "It's not important. Please forward all of her pertinent files to me."

"Of course, my lord." I nod and continue watching the battle. The second frigate drifts into the Nidhoggr's sights, trying to evade too late. Glover lets the frigate have it with a full broadside and practically blasts the thing in half. The Skoll's still prodigious firepower adds to the fight against Defense Station B and parts of the station start to go dark. Most importantly, either the Storm King or Nidhoggr hit pay dirt and a huge explosion tears the Scrapped apart from the inside. The huge battleship buckles, bending right in the middle and then starts to break apart.

Glover leaps to his feet. "Nidhoggr move to engage the Slagged. Get in between it and the Storm King. Let the Storm King and the destroyers handle the defense station." The Nidhoggr rotates on its axis and starts driving for the Slagged. I approve again. The Storm King and the Skoll had both taken heavy damage but now they would be fighting three on one. The Nidhoggr was practically untouched and though the Slagged hadn't been the focus of the attack, it had still taken at least one broadside from Storm King. Our battleship would be more than a match for it.

The rest of the battle is inevitable from that point. Defense Station B goes first. Then the three other capital ships join us in attacking the remaining enemy battleship. When it ceases putting out power and starts drifting dead in space, there is a long silence on the bridge. As if nobody can quite believe what has happened. I certainly can't. We'd been badly outmatched and yet we not only had we won, we'd done it without losing a ship.

Then the gunnery chief yells out, "Hail Lord Lindwyrm!" And then the entire bridge is shouting and stomping their feet. "Hail Lord Lindwyrm! Hail Lord Lindwyrm!" Glover is next to me, arm around my shoulders, shaking me from side to side, laughing and screaming with the rest of them. Even Sora is jumping up and down like a schoolgirl. Poisonseed is actually crying. "Hail Lord Lindwyrm! Hail Lord Lindwyrm!" I stare around at the bridge crew, feeling like I'm not really there. I've accomplished great things in my life but never had I been surrounded by this kind of euphoria afterwards. I was always on my own. This is uncomfortable.

I break away from Glover and find Poisonseed. "I need to rest," I say.

"Of course, my lord!" she gasps. "How thoughtless of us."

"Message Crow and the other captains," I continue. "In four hours, we assault the planet. Get food in the men and get them ready. There is no time to waste."

Poisonseed snaps a salute. "Yes, my lord. You are right. I will make sure our soldiers are ready."

"Thank you, Poisonseed." I stride away, hoping I don't put a damper on their zeal but knowing that I really do need to rest. My body doesn't feel as bad as it did on Flynn's World but it's not too far off. The further I get from the bridge, however, the better I feel. It slowly penetrates that I've succeeded. Years and years of work and studying and planning to accomplish this. A haymaker strike on the colony that most represents humanity's oppression. It was only the first blow in what would certainly be a protracted fight but I did it. I won!

New energy is pouring into by body and suddenly I don't feel much like resting. I enter my cabin anyway. I should rest, at least for a couple of hours. Then I can review my plan for invading the surface. It would be significantly easier than the naval battle, though, really. Niao military power was concentrated primarily in their navy. There was a small base on planet and maybe some soldiers on leave but mostly we'd be dealing with police. From what I'd seen so far from my Yggdrasil soldiers, any police officer that got their way would be in for a world of hurt.

Maybe I should even push up the invasion time? No, sloppiness is our worst enemy now. It would take the niao at least forty-eight hours to round up a big enough fleet for a counter-strike. Plenty of time for a lightning raid down to the Crescent. Invading the planet was almost a formality anyway. The real point was the defeat of the fleet. To show the niao that they were vulnerable anywhere. Raiding and pillaging the planet was just a bonus.

The door to the cabin opens and Tiamat runs in. She pulls back her hood and Nailah's face pops into view. She's smiling, her face flushed and her eyes bright. "You left so quickly it caught me off guard," she gasps.

I chuckle. "Sorry."

"My god, Lind. You seem like you're barely excited at all!" Nailah shouts. "Do you realize what you've done? The fleet you put together just outfought a niao fleet that was bigger than it. A human fleet beat a niao fleet in, like, a real battle." Nailah put a hand to her head. "I'm saying it, I saw it and it doesn't sound real. And you! You killed a battleship by yourself. And that defense station. Do you know how many times I looked up at night and saw the lights from those defense stations? They were like prison wardens. Every time I looked up and saw them twinkling, it was a reminder that there was no way to escape." Nailah's eyes start to shine wetly and I can't look away. "You'll be a legend every human on the Crescent." She shakes her head so fast that her hair whips from side to side. Then she tilts back her head and screams with pure joy. "I can't believe it! You liberated the Crescent!"

I smile at her enthusiasm. "Well, I don't know about liberated..." I say, swinging off my cloak.

'What?" Nailah asks but then she gasps. "Jesus Christ! What happened to your arm?"

"Oh," I say, looking down at nub of a limb and wiggling it. Skin has already started to grow over the end of the stump and the pain has receded to just a dull ache. "I lost it during the fight."

"What!" Nailah screeches. "How can you say that so casually?" Nailah walks up to me. "Are you alright?" Then she winces. "That's a stupid question. Of course you're not alright. Your arm is gone. What are you going to do? Oh, Lind."

I place my hand on top of her head and laugh. "It's alright, Nailah."

"How can it be alright?" She stares at me almost challengingly.

I shrug. "I'll make do until I can get it fixed."

"Get it fixed? You can get it fixed?" she asks disbelievingly.

"Sure. I just need to make an appointment with Doctor Cesar." Though it was annoying that I had to add another thing to my to-do list. Another inconvenience occurs to me. "I suppose I won't be able to train you as effectively for a while."

Nailah sighs. "Lind, you idiot." She drifts forward and rests her forehead on my chest. My arm instinctively drops around her. I don't know that I've ever been insulted with such affection before. Shentza was all challenge and fire. If she insulted you, it was because she meant it. She was fun because I had to stay on my toes constantly. Nailah, here now against me, feels...relaxing. "Lind..." I look down and Nailah pushes herself up on her tiptoes, pushing her mouth into mine.

The kiss shocks me. For a moment, I'm frozen halfway between kissing her back and throwing her off me. Some part of me is telling me to push her away but the voice is getting quieter and I can't quite remember the reasons I had. All of it is being swept aside by how good Nailah feels against me. Before I've made any rational decision, I'm kissing Nailah back and pulling her tighter against me.

Nailah moans, her hands sliding up my chest and to the ties on my shirt. She tugs my shirt up and over my head. I go right back to kissing her the moment my shirt clears my face. Nailah slowly steers me around and walks be toward the bed, without ever leaving my embrace. When the back of my knees hit the bed, Nailah pushes me so that I sit down on top of it. She giggles as I stare at her and then begins unlacing my boots. She pulls them off one at a time. My belt and breeches go next.

Nailah steps back and smiles teasingly at me. She unlatches her cloak and belt and they fall into a pool around her feet. Then she takes off her gloves, pulling at each finger separately and then removing the whole thing with a flourish. The boots are less seductive, as she ends up hopping awkwardly on one leg while taking each one off. It only makes her more alluring. Her hands to the neck of her jumpsuit. Despite her confident teasing, I notice that she's blushing heavily.

She pushes the jumpsuit down to her waist. I'm having trouble breathing but I manage to say, "I didn't realize you weren't wearing a bra under that."

Nailah gives me a mock-frown. "You really didn't leave much room for one with this thing, you know. How'd you get my exact measurements anyway?"

I laugh nervously, trying not to leer at her. "I have a program that can do that." She has three puncture scars on her left breast and my eyes keep returning to them. How had that happened?

"You pervert!" she shouts playfully. Then she pushes me back onto the bed, climbing on top and kissing me passionately. My hand roves up and down her bare back, eventually moving to the jumpsuit around her waist. I push it the rest of the way off, struggling a bit with only one hand but she twists to help. Nailah kisses her way down my throat and to my chest. I'm surprised by how confident she is. She takes the lead and I let her.

It isn't long before I'm on the brink. I warn her, though I'm having trouble with complete sentences. "It's alright, Lind," she says, kissing along my neck. "They made me get an implant...." That's right, I knew that. Any female in prisoner labor program was required to have an implant that prevented pregnancy. Which is just as well, since I can no longer hold on.

Nailah rolls off me and flops onto her back. We lie next to each other, breathing hard but contentedly. My mind is a blissful fog for a few moments but the rational side soon reasserts itself and I can't believe we just did that. A sick feeling settles in the pit of my stomach. I am supposed to be able to view Nailah through a rational lens. What are the chances of that now? Honestly, though, the real reason I feel sick is that I know that seeing her rationally has probably been something of a delusion for a while now. What a fool.

"I'm glad I finally worked up the courage to do that," Nailah says, rolling onto her side next to me.

I turn my head slightly so I can see her. "What do you mean?"

Nailah walks two fingers up my ribs and over my chest. "Well, I wasn't sure what you would do..." She laughs. "I mean, you groped me about a thousand times when we were training and it never seemed to affect you."

"It affected me," I say quietly.

"Really?" Nailah huffs. "I couldn't tell. You're a difficult man to read." I don't have an answer to that. I should be a difficult man to read. And it shouldn't have affected me. I should be better than that. Complete control. That's what the Doctor envisioned for me. I think. Yet he made me like this. Why? "Is everything alright?" Nailah asks.

"Fine,” I lie. "You know, you're not always exactly easy to read, yourself. Why did you decide to act now?"

"Maybe I just thought that you couldn't stop me now that you only have one arm," Nailah says flippantly. I stare at her in shock. Her eyes go wide. "Oh, Lind, I'm so sorry. That was such a dumb thing to say."

I start to laugh. It feels good. Nailah looks like she's split between being concerned and relieved that I am cracking up. I roll her over so that I am looming above her, braced easily on my remaining hand. "Don't get cocky. One arm is all I really need. You know I single-handedly destroyed a battleship a few hours ago right?" Nailah stares up at me with heady mix of nervousness and lust. I look down at her body and can't believe how beautiful she is. The word doesn't really do it justice. There is something about Nailah. Something special.

Maybe that's it, I think, kissing her deeply. Maybe she's an exception. Maybe everything that I think about her is correct, whether or not I am in love with her. Is that so hard to believe? That there would be a woman out here who could match me? Shentza's face floats into my mind but I banish it. I also ignore the little voice telling me that I am rationalizing. Instead I focus on achieving the same kind power over Nailah that she had held while I was underneath her. It isn't long before I am ready again and she shudders when I enter her.I feel in control this time and I'm damn well not going to come before her this time.

We lose ourselves in the haze of lovemaking, beginning to test each other's boundaries, focusing on nothing but doing something that reduces the other to helpless pleasure. So when the com to my room buzzes I am very thankful it is audio only. I snap my head up and take a moment to find my voice. "What is it?" I ask.

"My lord." It's Poisonseed. "Um, it has been four hours. The invasion of the Crescent is about to proceed." Oh shit. "Is everything alright, my lord?"

"Fine," I say with affected casualness. "Do not hold the invasion on my account. I will be with you shortly."

There is a long pause. "Very good, my lord."

I wait a moment to make sure she is truly gone and then I scramble out of bed, nearly falling over when I try to use my non-existent arm. "Damn it, damn it, damn it!" I mutter. How had I lost track of time that badly? Nailah laughs at my flailing and I glare back at her. Of course. The sweaty, mocking, naked angel in my bed. That's how. I groan softly. What an idiot! Trying to pull my pants on one-handed does not do a lot for my present self-esteem.

Nailah takes pity on me and helps me get them on. My boots and shirt follow, with Nailah lacing them up for me. For some reason, either the activity or her proximity makes my cheeks heat a little and rustles up some butterflies in my stomach. Two sensations I am pretty unfamiliar with. She helps me with my belt next and then my glove, which I realize might be a literal impossibility without her. Nailah adjusts my cloak so that it is sitting the way I had it, covering my severed arm.

My clothes feel in disarray and I tug at them and shrug my shoulders, trying to get them right. I'm still all sweaty. It hits me that I probably smell and I wonder if I should take a shower. No time! "Damn you, Nailah," I growl, not entirely sure myself how much I am kidding and how much I am serious. "You've made me late and sweaty and sticky."

Nailah raises an eyebrow. "Me? I'm used to boys who are good for one shot. I didn't know we were engaging in a damn marathon."

I laugh. "Any man who doesn't go the distance with you is an utter fool." Then I frown. "Boys? As is plural?"

Nailah rolls her eyes. "Shut up, Lind." She gives me a lingering kiss. Then she pulls up the hood of my cloak, generating my mask. "Better get to it."

I nod and then still hesitate. It's hard to leave her. "You'll join me on the bridge?" I really want to punch myself in the face for that one. Get it together!

Nailah laughs and grins at me mockingly. "I'll be there. But I'm going to take a shower first."