After the meal, I bade Mother good bye and headed for my own personal quarters. The servants had cleaned and aired it out, letting the fresh scent of pine. I sniffed appreciatively. The balcony looked out into the clan’s forest area, replete with lake and trees. I would meet up with my pack-crew later in the evening, perhaps sharing a hunt with them. They had to know about their new assignment. At the moment, I had the luxury of being alone.
I dressed in a light cream robe and padded out on bare feet. My quarters were secluded, away from the main mansion.
When I reached the pine grove, I stripped naked, letting my skin drink in the air, the space, the energy. With a laugh, I stretched and turned.
Oh, the flesh engineers made it simple for us to change. I couldn’t explain it and could only say that it was all based on energy and the transmutation of cells. Illogical explanation, but all I knew was that it was pleasure to turn, and agony to turn.
The limbs shortened first, followed by the rest of the body stretching, cracking and adjusting the spine, the ribs and the muscles. It also triggered the stretching of the jaw bones and the emergence of the fur. I would say that the agony and pleasure would leave me panting, writhing, like sex and orgasm. But oh so subtly different. Turning was never sexual or sensual: it was ugly as heck. There were sub-groups in the clans who used turning as a fetish – but we didn’t normally talk about them.
I lay on the grass, exhausted by the turning. My senses were now different. One thing the flesh engineers had done to our wolf bodies was to retain our human consciousness. I was aware of my wolf limbs, wolf body. Slowly, gingerly, I got up, shaking out the kinks and the aches. I didn’t normally induce a full-body change, except on vacation and shore leave. Most of the time, the shifts were minor: fur on skin, hands into claws and the lengthening of canine teeth. Full turning would require focus and concentration. And of course, going full nude.
My strength returning, I trotted into the forest.
First Officer April Yue was the earliest. I could smell her from a distance. She smelled rich, pungent, feminine, primal. I loved her.
I forced myself back into my human form, pulled into all direction by the pleasure of it, by the pain of it. With a sigh, I clothed myself in my cream robe, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Good hunting, I gather,” April said with a smile. A human smile. Wolf smiles were different. In her other form, she was a sleek brown, almost black. Most of my clan were black wolves, with variations of dark brown or dark grey. “Rabbit?”
“I have had better,” I tilted my head. “The rest are arriving.”
Indeed they were: Tactical Officer Mariette, Chief Pilot Ju Fan. My Pack-crew was all female. They were my command staff. The ship was then staffed by a mix of genders: fighter pilots and squads of trained soldiers. Starfang was a large ship, but I could only trust my Pack.
Mariette had just had a bath. She smelled of lemongrass and vanilla. Her black hair was spiky. She was shorter than all of us, but she fought like the possessed when angered. Mother said she was a berserker, from the ancient Norse legends. Ju Fan was tall and graceful, a bit like Mother. Her amber eyes were lit with an inner amusement. She was often calm, collected: the perfect pilot and conn officer. All of us were blood relatives of some kind. I loved April, yet I couldn’t touch her.
That was my secret.
“We have a new assignment,” I said without preamble. “Sector 41B.”
The response was a collective gasp, then a soft growling from throats.
“That place again, captain??” Mariette shook her spiky head.
“Unfortunately, yes,” I sat down on the grass. The sky was slowly edging into early evening, a wash of orange and pink. My senses after turning were still wide open. I was drunk with the beauty of it, the colors, the breeze.
“Are we going there without the fleet?” April asked. “I have a feeling we are.”
“The Alpha didn’t say,” I answered. “I think she will tell me more in the week.”
“Aiyah,” Ju Fan said, tsking with her teeth and tongue. She smiled again, at her apparent breach of protocol. “Apologies, captain.”
“I know that the sector is infamous, but we are going to stop the Pariahs and the Amber Eyes.”
“They are involved?” April again. “This is intriguing.”
“And dangerous,” Mariette snapped. A faint scar ran across her face and lips, a remnant from a fight with an Amber Eye squad. It marred otherwise beautiful features. “I look forward though, to another scrap with their mangy hides.”
“It’s a good thing I upgraded the weapons system before this,” I pointed out.
April lifted a hand to forestall any protest. “True, captain. But this assignment will depend on our wits. Human wits.” And our wolf instincts, I saw her glance.
“Exactly,” I nodded.
“Send me the coordinates and lanes,” Ju Fan licked her lips with a pink tongue her amber eyes gleaming brighter. Her adventurous spirit was surfacing. She was an excellent hunter.
“I will,” I said. “Let’s hunt, my friends.”
I couldn’t sleep. I kept on thinking about Mother’s words, about the Sector 41B assignment. My body felt shot with too much adrenaline. Restless, pacing, I ended up going to my personal training gym. I picked up a staff from the weapons rack, flexed my limbs, before launching a series of Nangun or Southern Staff moves. All clan children had their own particular wushu styles – mine was Nangun. It took some time to get myself focused and into the flow. I was anxious, edgy. Sifu often shouted that I lacked patience. When I finally relaxed, it was a dance where my body moved fluidly with the staff. A flow of chi, a dance of the body as universe.
I worked myself into a fine sweat, before collapsing in a delicious heap on the hard practice mat. I stared at the roof, where the transparent ceiling showed Noah’s Ark’s constellations. Somewhere out there was Sector 41B.
Sleep was slow to come.
Instead I found myself working on mental projections, equations and possible manoeuvres to take – the strategies, tactics and formations – and Starfang, always Starfang, before I drifted into a dreamless deep sleep.
The next morning saw me visiting Aunt Gertrude to say hello to her. She was more wolf inside her cell, growling and snarling. She didn’t reply back in a civilized (human) manner. The other scent was stronger now, almost overwhelming. We might be losing her for real now. I heard her claws scrapping desperately for a way out, my heart clenching with fierce pain, with terrible regret. All she wanted now was to be free.
Breakfast was subdued: simple rice congee with a few plates of pickled cucumber hearts, salted vegetable slices and fermented tofu. I tried pressing Mother for more detail. She demurred and refused to say anything. Why was she so evasive? It wasn’t like her to be evasive. She had taught me to be direct, blunt. I might just approach Father instead. Perhaps he knew more than his mate did.
The last time she was that evasive was before the Clan War with another unfriendly clan. The Winter Suns, if I could remember correctly. They declared blood feud. They lost at the end, their fortunes wiped out, their ships destroyed. Our clan’s fortunes took a while to recover.
The Amber Eyes had blood feud with my clan, the Black Talons or the Yue.
Blood feud. The words sent a shudder up my spine. I returned from one mission, only to face another dangerous and potentially fatal task.
With an annoyed growl, I made my way to Father’s office.
Father’s office faced the forest as well, a few doors away from Mother’s chambers where guests waited with fragrant tea and hand-picked delicacies before they had an audience with either her or Father. I was in luck: Father was indeed at his work, poring over files. He was still old-fashioned, relying on physical files made of paper and leather. It was the textures he wanted to touch.
He was once fleet admiral of the Starclaw, the flagship of our clan. When he retired, the flagship went with him, decommissioned and turned into a training ship for the academy cadets from our cadet houses. A model of the fine vessel with its typical dirk-like shape graced his table. Standing up, he was imposing, tall and broad. All Northern-blood and sharp nose. His wolf form was larger than the rest of the pack, body form and fur suited to the snowy plains and tundras of the Chinese mainland.
“Father,” I saluted, fist on chest.
“Ah, Francesca,” his voice rumbled. His hair was all white now. His eyes were however bright, calculating, unnerving to some of our clients. At the moment, they were warm. “I guess you came with questions. Your beloved mother and my wife had warned me as such.”
I couldn’t control the instinctual shiver, the rising of hair along my back. “What is so special about the Sector 41B assignment?”
Father leant back against his huge armchair and tapped his hands on the desk thoughtfully. “Your mother told you about our feud with the Amber Eyes and their involvement with the Pariahs, didn’t she?”
“She did,” I said. I remained standing and stared at the walls instead. There were symbols and reminders of the clan’s power hanging on the wall: the war swords, the banners, the dedication plaques from ships, including Starclaw’s. When I was a little cub, I hated the office. So oppressive, so scary. It was all Power in Father’s office, his domain, and he was not afraid to show it.
“It’s blood feud,” Father said softly. “Yeung Leung is sending his best in. I want you to do something important.”
“Best Yeung Leung in combat. If not, kill him.”
The words sank into me, cold, unyielding. Said in Father’s calm tones, he might well be describing the weather or food on the dining table.
Yeung Leung was Father’s rival, the alpha of the Amber Eyes. He was much younger than Father, having taken over from his own sire. I had seen holos of him: handsome, a playboy, according to media gossip. Captain of the War’s Siren. I had seen his ship before.
And he was the king of the drug trade.
But killing him… I stared at Father, wordless. “Best him in combat?” I repeated, trying to digest everything.
“You are my best,” Father said and his voice was softer, kinder. “You represent the best in our clan. You are the next alpha, my flesh and blood. You have the strength and will to best him.”
The belief in his voice, absolute belief, warmed me, filled me with hot fire. I straightened and clicked my boot heels, fist on chest. “I will make you proud.”
“No, you make yourself proud. Now, go.”
I stayed a week at the main mansion, catching up with family gossip and news, hunting, training my physical body in the gym at night while the rest slept. I informed my Pack-crew about my personal assignment: they nodded solemnly. They stood behind me, unwavering.
Having received word that Starfang had completed her customary checks and re-fittings, I made ready to leave. Before I did, I paid another visit to Aunt Gertrude.
This time, she was lucid enough to give me her blessings.
“Hunt well,” she croaked.
I saluted, knowing that she, Aunt Gertrude – Yun – would not be there anymore when I returned from the assignment. She would be entirely and truly wolf.