The invasion of the Crescent goes off just about perfectly. My intimate familiarity with the colony allows me to direct heavy forces toward the places where I know that resistance will coalesce. The niao are completely unprepared for an invasion and can't organize in time to stop us from crushing them piecemeal. My forces have no problem establishing their landing zones and soon the city, for the moment, belongs to Yggdrasil. Then we sack it.
I stare down at the planet and wonder how long it has been since humanity actually sacked a major city like this one. The Russians, maybe. Berlin in the Second World War. Since then, in the wake of that horrific war, it was agreed upon by the most powerful nations not to slide back into that kind of total war. Restraint was an expected quality in a soldier. That ruthlessness, though, that brutality, never left us. Now the niao would see it. They would see what happened when you pushed humanity to the brink. Civilization was a contract between people to live together peacefully and with something approaching equality. The niao would see what happened to every tyrant that upset that delicate balance. We would fight and claw and rage and kill and kill and kill.
Tiamat steps onto the bridge about thirty minutes after I do and I find that I am now hyper-aware of her. I suppress a sigh. This is going to be interesting. Poisonseed has already given me a number of sideways glances. I think she can smell it on me. It hasn't mattered so far since I've had to give orders regarding the invasion but I'm dreading the thought of her asking about it. I can't imagine that she will but even the thought of such an uncomfortable conversation makes me a little ill. Maybe it is time to go.
"I'll head down to the planet now," I announce.
"My lord?" Poisonseed asks.
"I have some things I'd like to do on the surface," I say. "Our forces have secured a number of landing zones. I'll be fine."
"Yes, my lord," Poisonseed says reluctantly. "I'll detail you an escort."
I wave my hand. "Unnecessary. Tiamat and I will go down on the Toxin."
"If you say so. My lord," Poisonseed says, clearly upset.
I don't have the time to deal with her. Or any idea how to do so, really. I leave the bridge with Tiamat beside me. We make our way to the Toxin, the Yggdrasil soldiers we pass beaming brightly and saluting fervently. I grin. I was right about them being loyal to me after all this. True, I hadn't foreseen my adventure on the Screwed but that was really only the cherry. They knew now that following the Lindwyrm would only lead to victory. The types of people who were willing to join this kind of enterprise wanted to cover themselves in glory fighting for humanity. Nobody would be able to pry them out of my grasp now, not even Poisonseed.
Tiamat takes the Toxin out and flies toward the planet. I decide to use the little tube shower I installed in the small ship. The water feels good, washing away the accumulated sweat and grime from the battle over Crescent and my following activates with Nailah. It even feels good on the new skin over the stump of my arm. I lean forward, resting my head against the wall of the shower. I let exhaustion overcome me, just for a moment.
A knock on the outside of the shower startles me out of it. "How much longer are you going to be?" Nailah asks. I frown. It's her normal voice, not the distortion of her Tiamat mask. She needs to learn to keep that mask on unless she has some specific reason to take it off.
"Why do you care?" I ask, shutting off the water. I pop open the stall door and freeze, water dripping from my hair and body. Nailah hadn't just taken off her mask, she'd taken off every stitch of clothing she'd had on.
She gives me that mocking, teasing grin that hits me like a disruption wave. "Well, I was hoping we'd have a little time to fool around before we hit the city."
I work some moisture back into my mouth and manage to croak, "The ship?"
"On autopilot." The heat of her smile goes up a notch. "I programmed it to take the long way." My lips are pressed against her the next second. Even though I'm missing an arm, I'm still strong enough to take her against one wall of the ship. Nailah joins me during my shower afterwards, despite the narrowness of the stall. We end up prolonging it until the water goes cold and we have to escape, laughing uncontrollably. The net effect is, when the Toxin touches down, I'm scrambling to get my clothes on and my hair is still wet. I'm very thankful the soldiers I meet at the landing point can't see how disheveled I look under my clothes.
The two men salute crisply and conduct me to the forward operations base. Really, it's just a traffic control building that the men seized because of it's useful equipment. The man in charge of the base and soldiers on the ground in this quadrant of the city refers to himself as Blunderbuss. I want to ask him how he ended up with such an inauspicious name—and how someone so named became a field commander—but I'm not quite sure how to go about it and let the impulse pass by. Instead, I say, "Show me what's happening."
"Not much," Blunderbuss says. He is a big man, with a bristling beard, a deep voice and large, cruel-looking hands. He brings up a holographic map of the part of the city he is in charge of pacifying. Several buildings light up red. "These were the police stations in this area of the city." Bluderbuss smirks and several of the red buildings go blue. "These are the ones that have been neutralized."
"Excellent." I notice one glaring red building. The police headquarters. Right next to the main office building of the government.
Perhaps guessing my thoughts, Blunderbuss continues, "The headquarters will be our next assault. We just have to gather enough men to do it."
"Are the soldiers not responding to recall orders?"
Blunderbuss hesitates. "My lord...the soldiers, their blood is up. Things are going very well and it is difficult to control them."
I snort. "Tell them that the Lindwyrm will be leading the assault on Police Headquarters in thirty minutes. That ought to get their attention."
"Yes, my lord!" Blunderbuss shouts. He gives the necessary commands to his communications officer.
I glance at Tiamat, who is watching the myriad videos of our operations a little ways away, and lower my voice. "How far are the men going? I explicitly forbid any attacks on humans." Maintaining the moral high ground of ‘fighting for humanity’ would be essential in the war of public relations. The last thing I needed was a human that hated Yggdrasil trying to infiltrate it. Property damage would be unavoidable but I considered the other urges of the men under my command to be controllable.
Bluderbuss sighs, much to my dismay. "There have been a few...incidents. One soldier killed a human that started yelling at him in the street. He was being a real prick, though, my lord."
"Are our men not strong enough to ignore a little haranguing?" I ask with exasperation. "I will want a full report on that and any other similar situations." Those men would have to be disciplined. Perhaps Poisonseed would have some ideas. "Anything else?"
"Yes, my lord." Blunderbuss was even more reluctant this time. "A...handful of men at most...have assaulted a few women." Blunderbuss scratches his beard. "Just a few men, my lord. Though now that I think about it, one of the accused is a woman."
My irritation spikes high. Rape? There is nothing that will lose us respect and any sort of moral prerogative as quickly as rape. I'd rather we firebombed an orphanage. At least we could pass that off as a mistake. "God damn it," I grind out. "I don't care how much their 'blood is up,' there is no excuse for that."
"Like I said, my lord, it is only a few men...and one woman. We'll get them right."
"No," I snap. "I gave explicit orders and I know Poisonseed trained them better than this. Execute them. Every one. I'm authorizing battlefield execution for any Yggdrasil soldier caught in the act."
"But, without any kind of trial? And execution?" Blunderbuss shakes his head. "The morale of the men will plummet."
"I don't give a damn," I snarl, poking Blunderbuss hard in the chest with one finger. "Any man unable to follow my orders has no place in Yggdrasil." Blunderbuss nods, clutching his chest where I poked him. "And get those men organized. I expect a sizable force to help me take Police Headquarters."
"At once, my lord."
I leave the traffic control building, Tiamat falling in step beside me. We take an elevator down to the surface. I decline any sort of escort and start making my way toward the police headquarters. Luckily, this is the richer part of town, where the niao have made things comfortable for themselves. There are many moving walkways to move us along quickly. The tube trains would be even faster but none of the soldiers know how to operate them.
I rest my elbows on the railing of the moving walkway and watch the city pass by. There is a fire or two burning deeper in the city and smoke clouds rising above it. Closer to us, there is plenty of evidence of the fighting. Just about all of the windows have been blown out from disruption blasts or explosions and the outsides of the buildings are crisscrossed with black furrows caused by laser beams. The dead are everywhere. Our soldiers have no time to take care of any bodies other than their comrades.' Most of them are niao, to my relief, but there is a human body in niao clothing to be seen here and there. The niao seem to be about fifty percent police or military and fifty percent civilian. I note that many of the niao civilians are armed, however. I sneer. Good riddance.
"This is awful," Tiamat whispers.
I shrug. "It's war."
We move off of one walkway and head for another. Tiamat abruptly stops and kneels down. I see what she is looking at. A dead niao. A child. It's chest was riddled with bullets from a ballistic gun. Tiamat is silent and I can't see her face. After a few moments, I grow impatient. "A naio is a niao," I say. "It would have grown up and stepped on humans, just like all of them do."
Tiamat surges to her feet. "He was a child, Lind!"
"It was a niao."
"So what? You don't know what he would have grown up to be! There are good niao. Niao that helped me. Niao that think that niao imperialism and the prisoner program are wrong. What if he was one of those?"
"You could say the same about just about any of the dead niao we passed. I can't worry about that kind of thing. I have no way of knowing what the niao in my sights is like. Besides, whether he approved or not, there is no doubt he would have lived with the benefits of human oppression." I shrug. "If a few innocent niao die at our hands, it is nothing compared to how many innocent humans have died at theirs."
Tiamat shakes her head. "That's an awful way to think. An innocent life for an innocent life isn't justice."
"Who's talking about justice?" I snort. "Justice is impossible, the way things are. I'm talking about freeing humans from the niao. I'm willing to do anything for that. Just or unjust."
"Lind," Tiamat says pleadingly. "You said before that Yggdrasil was the soul of humanity. What will happen if that soul is soaked in innocent blood?"
This actually makes me laugh. "Oh, Tiamat. The soul of humanity was soaked in blood long before you or me."
Tiamat doesn't respond for a long while, so I turn away and continue toward the walkway. Then she whispers, quietly enough that I doubt she thinks I can't hear her. "This isn't the way."
I don't say anything, even when she steps onto the moving walkway beside me. There isn't anything to say. She will see. There was no such thing as a bloodless or guiltless revolt. Change was pain. The humans on this planet would suffer for this. I wasn't naive enough to think otherwise. I just judged the price to be worth it.
We arrive at the staging area for the next assault a few minutes later. I am pleased to see how many soldiers have arrived to help. The one in charge is a tall man with a black mohawk. He introduces himself as simply Yao. "What's the sitrep?" I ask.
"Not good, my lord," Yao says with a frown. "They have two huge disrupter cannons stationed in front of the headquarters building. The way the block is organized, the front is the only way to attack. Any other avenue and we'd be going in single file."
"Single file, huh?" Normally that would be an invitation to show what I could so. Single file suits me just fine. Normally. My goddamn arm. I could probably still do it but maybe I should find an easier solution. "What about an airstrike?"
Yao shakes his head. "We thought about that but the buildings are so dense around here and we think those disrupter cannon might actually be able to hit an aircraft flying low enough. We were starting to think about a high-altitude bombing. It would require us to pull back some but it might be the best solution."
"No," I say firmly. "A bombing risks too much collateral damage. I don't want the capitol building destroyed." I connect back to Blunderbuss and tell him to get me on a line with all the active pilots in the area. When he does so, I say, "This is the Lindwyrm speaking. I am outside the Crescent City police headquarters. The cops have barricaded themselves in the building defended by two disrupter cannon. I need a pilot or two crazy enough to fly into this maze of buildings and blow the two cannon. Any volunteers?"
A woman quickly speaks up. “This is Atossa. On my way.”
"Do not hog all the fun," another voice chimes in. "I, Igor Kevetch, will serve as your wingman."
"Excellent, you two. Blunderbuss, feed them the coordinates." After that, I sit back at wait. Soon I hear the two fighters screaming in. They pass over us so low that I can almost feel the heat and start blasting at the two disrupter cannons. The cannons fire back but the hasty shots don't seem to accomplish anything. The fighters pass over the cannons a second later and disappear between two skyscrapers further on. One of the disrupter cannons explodes in a shower of sparks but the other keeps firing at the retreating fighters. "One down," I tell them. "One still operational."
"Fuck me," Igor says, sounding strained.
"We got this," Atossa laughs.
I wait and the sound of the fighters reaches us again. They appear from the direction they came. The operators of the remaining disrupter cannon are ready this time and fire shots along the most likely vector. Atossa drops even lower but Igor is a bit slower. A wave clips his wing just as he is dropping and his fighter jerks hard to the left. Igor either overcompensates or his fighter isn't cooperating because he swings wildly back to the right. He corkscrews into a tall building just across from the headquarters. The resulting explosion blows out all the windows of the building. "Oh my god!" Tiamat gasps, clutching my arm hard.
I barely notice because I am watching Atossa. There is no cry of rage or grief from her about her comrade's death. Instead there is cold silence and I watch as she zeros in on the remaining cannon and destroys it. I mentally salute her for her awesome display of flying. It seems that I will have to review the performances of my soldiers after this battle and find ways to maximize their talents. "Excellent work," I call out over the line. Then I turn to the Yggdrasil soldiers on the ground. "Atossa has given us our opening. No hesitation. Let's go!"
We race pell-mell across toward the headquarters, me and Yao in the lead. The disorganization caused by the destruction of the two cannons buys us enough time to get to the building without taking too much fire. A few men go down but the bulk of us reach the headquarters. I leap into the glass door, shoulder first, smashing though it. I hit the ground in a cloud of glass but don't let it bother me. Instead I roll into a crouch and bring my gun up, firing wildly. More to keep heads down than to actually hit anyone.
The rest of my soldiers stream in after me and it is only a matter of time from there. My soldiers swarm through the building, slaughtering police officers who were never trained for this sort of thing. Once the police headquarters is secured, I have Yao organize another, smaller force of men to help me with my next objective. A dozen of us, including Tiamat, leave and walk across to the capitol building. There are no disrupter cannons or anything waiting for us there.
I kick open the doors and stride in like I own the building. Instead of the white marble so prized by us humans for government buildings, the floors are blue crystal and the walls are shining amethyst. So decadent that I could gag. Our boots ring on the crystal as we march through. No niao comes out to face or greet us. I can see a few of them ducking down and trying to hide. I ignore them and ascend the stairs to the top floor.
There we are finally challenged. Two niao, presumably bodyguards, step in front of the door to the Colonial Governor's office and squawk at us to stop. My own guards shoot them down. I push open the door and go inside. Behind a great sunstone desk, the Colonial Governor hides. Pineneedle, the humans of the planet call him, or more commonly, Old Piney. He is an elderly niao but his crest is still a fabulous forest green and pale red. I wonder if it is fake but it holds strong when I grab it and haul him to his feet.
Piney is trembling but he manages to look me in the eye and say, "The Lindwyrm, I presume."
I grin nastily, hoping my mask mimics the effect well. "Governor. I've been eager to meet you."
Old Piney's trembling increases but he spits, "What do you think you're going to gain from all of this? I happen to know that a fleet is already on its way. None of you will get off this planet alive."
I chuckle. "Disappointing and predictable, Governor." I glance at the soldiers I brought along with me. "Which one of you has the rope?"
Yao holds it up, noose already tied. "I carried it myself, my lord."
"Wait," Piney says. "You can't be serious."
"Oh but I am." I fling Piney at his mammoth desk and he crumples against it. Then I walk over to the far wall, which is just one giant window. I stare out over the city. It really is an impressive view. Somewhat marred by the smoke rising from various parts of the city. I draw my gun and put two bullets into the glass. My boot follows, shattering a hole. "String him up," I command.
Piney starts frantically pleading with us to stop. Yao ignores him and gives him a vicious punch to the stomach when the old niao starts to struggle. Soon enough, the noose is around Piney's neck and the other end is tied to the sunstone desk. Yao drags the Governor over to me. "Please," the Governor cries. "I can be valuable to you! I know things. I'll tell you anything you want to know. Do you want money? Ships? Guns? I can get all of that for you. You'll get nothing out of my death. Don't be a fool!"
I grab a handful of his tunic and draw him close. "There is only one thing I want from you."
"What is it? Anything!"
I smile. "You already know what it is."
"No!" Piney shrieks. I push him backwards and through the hole. The rope unwinds and then snaps taunt. I walk back to his desk and sit down, putting my feet up. "Excellent work, Yao," I say. "You are relieved to rejoin your men. Tiamat and I will be fine from here."
"Are you sure, my lord?"
"Yes, of course. Just be ready to evacuate when the time comes."
Yao salutes. "Of course, my lord." He and his men file out, leaving me and Tiamat alone. I take a moment to rest. Soon I will start going through some of the files here on the Crescent that I couldn't access before without triggering alarms. Now, if they go off, it won't matter. I'll also need to erase any traces of mine or Nailah's faces from the database. I haven't slept since we entered the system, though, or really even just rested.
One of the primary causes of that walks over and peers out of the window where Old Piney is hanging. "I saw him on the television sometimes," she says thoughtfully. "He passed some reforms that made life a little easier for us here on the Crescent."
I snort. "A slave master isn't a hero because he decides to use the whip less so his slaves will be more content. It was just political expediency anyway."
"Hm." Tiamat wanders over to the desk and seats herself on the edge of it. "So what now?"
"Not much. I'm going to raid for some information. My soldiers will keep sacking the city and in a few hours we'll bug out."
"What? What about all the people here?"
My eyebrow rises of its own accord, despite the fact that Tiamat can't see my face. "What about them?"
"You're just going to leave them all here? On this planet?"
"I don't really have much of a choice."
Tiamat is silent for a long time. Then she says, "I thought you had some kind of plan. I thought we were liberating this colony or at least evacuating it."
"Do you have any idea how many humans live on this planet? Even if we stuffed all of our ships to the gills—which I assure you Crow would not allow—I doubt we'd even get twenty percent of the population. And then what would we do with them? There is also no time to organize such an evacuation. As for trying to take this colony from the niao...if we are still here when the relief fleet arrives, they'll wipe us out."
"Can't we do something? Take the children at least? Ones like me who were ripped away from their families and dragged to his awful planet."
I shrug. "Again, the logistics don't work. How would we find these children? What would we do with them when we left?"
"We could...we could make them soldiers for Yggdrasil."
"How is that any more of a choice than what the niao did? Besides, I have a high screening process for recruits. We can't let potential subversive agents in." Tiamat's shoulders slump. I decide to throw her a bone. "But if any humans down there have the guts to volunteer for Yggdrasil, I've ordered my men to conduct them to a few shuttles we have waiting."
I nod. "I doubt we'll see very many but having courage, decisiveness and self-motivation are all essential traits of a Yggdrasil soldier."
"Well that's something at least." Tiamat hesitates. "Lind, I have a few friends on the planet. Do you think it would be alright if I tried to find them?"
"Absolutely not," I say. I'd been expecting this. "You're a ghost now, Tiamat. Nobody can have an inkling of who you are under that mask."
Tiamat's hand moves to the hood of her cloak and I tense. Then her hand drops. "I didn't think something like this would happen," she says in a choked voice. "This is hard."
I get up and move to the window. It's starting to get dark out. "Your right, Tiamat. And it will only get harder from here. This will be long and bloody and nasty. The universe is a dirty place and you're going to get dirty if you want to do anything. But we'll make it worth it in the end. All we have to do is win. That's the only thing that matters."
Again Tiamat whispers something so softly that she clearly doesn't want me to hear. "Is it?" she says.