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I held the rose agate pendant so tightly in my grip that the contours pressed hard into my flesh. They were taking her away from me. She was screaming my name. Telling me not to save her.
And somewhere, Lien was crying. Lien, the feral child on board Starfang. Her large eyes swam with glistening tears.
I started awake, my heart pounding so hard it was painful. The ship was thrumming with a rhythm that immediately informed me that it was pushing its engine drive. It was moving hard, in one direction. Was it being pursued?
The dream hollowed me out. I cleaned up with a sense of grimness heavy in my limbs. The food was late again. I sipped the water, feeling the clawing demands of the hunger. Hurried footsteps halted in front of my door and a tray slid in, rattling loudly. There was only two slices of bread this time. As I paused to retrieve the tray, the footsteps pounded away with an urgency I found intriguing. S’sahrak was late too. S’sahrak was never late.
I pushed myself into nangun drills, ignoring the biting pangs in my stomach and in my veins. I kept the visions of April, my Pack-crew and Lien before me, goading myself on. Somewhere, they lived and that mattered.
Would they accept me, an addict to craz?
The ship suddenly shook significantly to knock me off my feet. I rolled onto my haunches, using my hands as traction. I was too experienced, too ship-wise, to know that was a strike on the ship’s flank, possibly starboard. When I carefully got up, another strike rattled the ship, a warning blow this time. Two ships seemed to be firing their cannons at it.
The door slammed open and S’sahrak stepped in. Immaculate and precise the shishini was, I sensed it was disturbed and harried.
“Please come with me,” S’sahrak said. Its rosettes were vivid brown now. I noticed the pistol hanging by its left side. It was an assault-type weapon used by many clans.
Two black-armored guards backed S’sahrak, carrying heavier weapons. They meant business, right down to their visored faces. I also smelled wolf off them. So, I was indeed on a clan ship. I inclined my head and walked out obediently. I couldn’t stare down the wolf guards – they must be trained to ignore the instinctual reactions when it came to more dominant clan members. I reined in my urge to escape – wait, Francesca, wait. Not now, not now.
Another strike – and the corridor lights flickered and the emergency sirens rang. S’sahrak hunched into itself while we fast-walked along the dim corridor; the sound might be abrasive to its sensitive hearing.
“Where are we going?” I asked casually, as if I was on a ship tour.
S’sahrak didn’t answer.
The ship listed and the corridor suddenly tilted sharply to my right, causing the guards to fall and S’sahrak to trip and curse in its growling and hissing tongue. This time I hit out, punching one of the guards in his groin and he doubled over, groaning. My hands were now claws, one of the minor changes we could make without the torture of a full transformation. I landed a raking blow on S’sahrak’s snout and I smelled the instant copper of blood… or whatever the shishini had for bodily fluid. The shishini screeched, all the pretense of calm gone, and launched forward. I met the body blow with a growl of my own, lashing out with clawed hands. The alien interrogator had the scythe-like front claws and I knew it would slash out my stomach without any trouble. Instead I channelled all force into my shoulders, barrelling forward.
S’sahrak snarled, reaching for its pistol, and I froze. Time held, when it came to things like that.
The corridor rocked and S’sahrak lost its footing and its pistol. I grabbed it and aimed it at the shishini and its wolf guards. I fired two shots, punctuating the thighs of the guards, and they shouted in pain. I lamed S’sahrak by hitting its leg. The air was rich with blood.
Without saying a word, I ran down the corridor, the pistol in my hands. My dash was half-blind, half-driven by instinct. The ship had a slightly different make and design from the Starfang. I had got to find the bridge, or something vital.
Mariette, my thoughts went, burning with bitter vengeance.
I heard shouting and the rumble of many booted feet ahead. I ducked into a recess to hide. More men and women in black armor ran down in disciplined rows. It was a mixture of wolf and ordinary human. Was this a mercenary ship then?
When the security detail was gone, I slipped out again, checking my surroundings. The emergency lights had turned everything blood-red. I used my nose, sniffing out the trails and traces. If I could find the control panels, I could theoretically sabotage the ship and cripple it further. It was taking a lot of abuse from the attacking ships, rocking and groaning. Some areas were thick with coolant. There were leaks.
Yeung Leung. Damn you. Damn you and your ship.
A lithe form emerged from the fog and I tensed, thinking it was S’sahrak. Yet as it slunk closer, I knew the smell.
“Mariette,” I breathed, but this Mariette had glazed eyes and salivating mouth. She looked decidedly non-human – more wolf-like in human form. Her hair hung wild like a mane.
So she was drugged too.
“Mariette, it’s me,” I said.
With a shriek, she leapt at me. My reflexes took over. I fired.
The bolt hit her square in the chest and she oofed, hurling backwards. She hit the floor hard, head first. Sorrow blurred my eyes, squeezed my heart. I had injured my own pack-member.
I scrambled forward, still holding the pistol. Marietta was breathing shallowly, the hole in her chest shiny with welling blood. Heart’s blood. I hated myself.
“Captain,” her voice was low. “I…”
“Don’t speak,” I cradled her in my arms. “I will get you out of here.”
I heaved her up, her weight against my shoulders. I had to save her, get her to sickbay or something. Mariette’s breathing bubbled and her blood flowed, staining her uniform. She too wore only her inner shirt and pants. I smelled the stink of stale urine on her and something else… that made me bare my teeth.
“I am sorry, captain,” Marietta was murmuring repeatedly. “I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.”
“Shh, don’t talk,” I soothed her, trying to keep her alive, keep her breathing…
It was instinct that warned me of another presence in the dim passage and a hint of something familiar, something hateful.
Without hesitation, I fired.
Warm salted water spilled into my mouth and I began to gag. Light pierced the thick darkness and I saw Dr Myint’s craggy face, clouded with worry. His eyes lightened and he quickly assisted me into an upright position. I was in pain; somebody had decided to strip the flesh from my right arm and it was on fire.
“Weapon overload,” Dr Myint – Dr Myint! – explained while he jabbed a needle into a clear bottle. “Your arm was caught in the flux. It would heal, but in the long run.”
Mariette! I was still on board the enemy ship. Explosions sounded, echoing down the corridor. A phalanx of guards, my clan’s guards, stood in a protective circle. Sweat and blood mingled. “How’s Mariette? Where’s she?”
“She’s critical,” Dr Myint tried to evade my eyes, turning around to work on more equipment. She’s dead, I thought and my heart broke. She’s dead.
“We boarded the War’s Siren approximately an hour ago,” Dr Myint continued.
“We are defeating them as we speak. Gentlemen, we are bringing the captain back. Get ready.” This he directed at the guards.
I recalled the pistol fire catching Yeung Leung’s smug face right on target. He was reeling and screaming, a human candle.
“Yeung Leung escaped,” Dr Myint said, almost contritely. “The shishini forces helped him.”
“Damn the shishini,” I cursed and retched instead in dry heaves. Dr Myint jabbed something on my left arm and warmth flooded through my body. My eyelids grew heavy. “Get them, get them!” I muttered.
Darkness claimed me back.
While I recuperated in Starfang’s sickbay, April – sweet, sweet April – and Lien visited me regularly, sitting beside the bed, touching my hands, mostly silent.
Lien tried to tell me stories. She even kept Mog, her shaggy puppy, away from Sickbay, because I was sick and Dr Myint didn’t like Mog running around. Lien seemed to have grown taller and she looked healthier than before. April simply sat, holding my hand, her eyes telling me all what I wanted to know. I wanted so much to tell her I missed her, I loved her. But I was often groggy from the medication and snappish because I was frustrated with myself. In my lucid moments, I noticed that the rest of the beds were empty. Even the Amber Eyes officer who was in a coma was gone. Where did he go? Did he die? Then I slipped back into medicated sleep and I didn’t care.
Damage was done. My right arm was crippled, frozen in position, fingers curved into claws. I forced myself to watch Dr Myint when he changed the dressing. The skin was wrinkled, the flesh shrunken. I was staring at a mummified limb. That was not the only thing I hated. Dr Myint explained craz addiction to me in his calm stark words. There was no cure. Addicts remained addicted, unless cold turkey treatment was strictly imposed. He had engineered a pill to keep the basic withdrawal symptoms at bay, but I was essentially still addicted. What would my parents say now? Was I too broken now?
“Side-effects?” I asked, disturbed at the hoarseness in my voice. Dr Myint nodded.
“Some addicts report an increase in vitality and strength. Most experience euphoria. It works… strangely on clan people. It enhances their feral side,” the doctor said.
“Like Mariette,” I pointed out.
April told me that Mariette’s body was dressed and washed and wrapped in the clan mourning shrouds, kept in the ship’s morgue. It was a grim and terrifying moment for the Pack-crew. We had voyaged for so long that her loss was a howling gap, a huge tear in the fabric holding the crew together. Her death diminished us and the Starfang was nothing without her. The loss burned in my heart, and I knew that I still bled, inside. The damage was in my head.
I will kill Yeung Leung this time. I will.
Yeung Ma visited me one day. I was not surprised she was still around. But what surprised me was the Amber Eyes officer walking behind her. Her brother.
She said without pride that her ship helped in the attack of the War’s Siren. For her, it was a sign she had indeed turned away from her brother.
“I see,” I said coolly. I was slowly gaining my strength, thanks to my human-wolf physiology.
“You still don’t believe me?” Yeung Ma tried bluster, but she deflated visibly.
“Your brother did this,” I showed her my damaged arm. “And he killed my tactical officer.”
Yeung Ma was crestfallen, her posture one of reluctant submission. “Do you want me to apologize for what he did?”