(We hope you are enjoying the serialised novel ‘Starfang’ by Joyce Chng. Here is the third chapter for your enjoyment. We’d love to see your fan art or werewolf cosplay pics, so please send them in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add them to our gallerys)
Starfang emerged from the jump gate in a sunburst of light.
I watched her re-entry into known space from my chair, the wide screen awash with ‘fireflies’, as I always called it, drifting in a cloud. Starfang’s heart thrummed beneath me, as her steel body fought to slow down. The centrifugal engine-heart must be on the verge of over-heating, cooled somewhat by the automatic coolant system. Prolonged jumping often stressed ships, even warships who plied the space routes in packs and fleets.
“The rest of the fleet are now emerging from the ‘gate, captain,” First Officer April Yue announced calmly. She was sat on my right side, her face lit by the consoles. Her hand flew over the panels. “Starsong, Startear and Starsword.” My destroyers, dutifully accompanying Starfang.
“We are now in Sector 41B,” Mariette announced on cue from her section. “Shields ready, captain.”
“All stop,” I ordered. Ju Fan inclined her head to signal acknowledgement. Starfang didn’t really stop like a vehicle with the usual braking of speed, but I felt it in my bones. She now hung over the orange-grey planet like a ready dagger. The orange-grey planet was a hive planet, shrouded with pollution. My skin prickled at the thought of the air touching my face. Neo-Samarkand. Drug planet.
“They will know we are here,” April said. “Their ships are probably hiding. Cloaked, if they have that technology.”
“Signal the destroyers to point their main cannon at the planet,” I said. “The word for firing the cannons will be ‘prey’. Mission log: started at current system time, 0900hr.”
Slinking down the paths of underhive Neo-Samarkand, in wolf form, dark like the night and silent, paws on soft effluvia. Hunting the prey, in silence, with the trails in golden before me. Nobody cared about the feral form slipping in and out of the darkness. Until somebody glanced over, saw the size of it, smelled the smell of it, and turned away, knowing it was his nightmare made flesh.
My prey was right in the middle of the underhive, in the dripping sewage-covered streets.
My informant, my lead into the Pariahs’ den.
In this form, I was no longer Captain Francesca. I was now a hunter, sniffing out the trail. I was aware that I was being followed, shadowed by two trusted pack-members. Somewhere, the snipers waited and watched, with their rifles trained on certain targets.
The informant was there, huddled in front of refuse. A bundle of rags and something else: cancer in the lungs. My nose picked up rotting, fermentation, and I snarled. And the hint of something sharp, like mint. Craz. The entire planet was hateful.
My paws sank into shit-filled mud or vice versa. Underhives were shelters for the poor, but they killed hundreds with dismal hygiene. The main sewage pipes ran through the underhives; they leaked and streams criss-crossed the streets. Food was openly sold beside these toxic streams.
Wide eyes peered from the pile of rags. Male, ageing fifties. Craz addict.
I padded forward, snuffling, making sure that he had seen me.
His response was explosive. Gibbering first, before back-peddling in a burst of violent energy. He dropped a silver of jagged metal and started sobbing. Tins overturned in front of him, spilling pieces of rotted vegetables and meat, cowrie shells, oak corks.
“Let’s talk, Dek,” I said in my human voice.
A pungent ammonia scent filled the air. He had peed into his pants.
“Where’s their den?” I snapped. Back in human form and in my full uniform, I walked around Dek, the informant. I was dressed to intimidate: heavy black high-collared cloak, shoulder armor, grey uniform edged with the gold and crimson of my clan, and shiny black boots to complement the same gloss of the fighting pistol in its holster on my right leg. Mariette and April paced in their wolf forms, heads lowered threateningly. Dek had peed again in his pants, creating a golden puddle at the bottom of his chair.
“You should know better,” Dek grumbled, trying bravado now. He was pure human, without any ‘R’ gene, not a Pariah either. He was one of their mules, a runner. He shrank into himself when Mariette began to growl loudly. I raised a hand, and she subsided, still baring her teeth. In the light of the room, her fangs looked dangerous.
I carefully placed my face in front of his. This close, I almost cringed at his halitosis. Rotting gums and teeth too. “I will give you one chance, Dek. Tell me where they are, help us, and you get a bath, clean clothes and decent food. You haven’t had decent food for… more than two decades, am I right?”
Dek’s eyes watered, his lips quivering. “Don’t try to bribe me.”
“Then I will feed you to my wolves. They haven’t had decent food for one day.”
Mariette edged closer now, back to growling and showing her teeth. April started to sniff Dek slowly, who flailed and shielded his frail body with his arms.
“Stop, please stop!” Dek blubbered. “Ask them to stop. I am not worth much as food.”
“So you will tell us where their den is?” I sat down on the chair opposite him, steepling my fingers thoughtfully.
“They are… they are at Old Church Avenue, Upper Hive, 33. It’s… heavily guarded,” Dek whimpered, his skinny fingers tugging at his hair. It had lice. My skin itched at the sight of tiny black specks moving in the white hair. And fleas, he had fleas.
“Well, then, that wasn’t that hard,” I said. “Eat him.”
Dek screamed and passed out cold, face first in the puddle of urine.
April was the first to revert back to human form. She shook her hair out. She looked beautiful, just doing that. “That was a little heavy-handed.”
“He was close to bolting,” I said. “Get him to one of our guest rooms. Hot shower, clean clothes his size. And a decent meal. Did you notice he was selling rotted meat in a tin?”
“I reckon he might be lying, captain,” Mariette joined us, shrugging into a blue-colored mechanic jumpsuit. “My fingers. They stink of shit and urine,” she grimaced.
“Charming. We are supposed to love this stuff by rolling in them,” April grinned, showing her white teeth. “Keep an eye on him, captain?”
“Put a bio-tracer on him, and a watcher,” I nodded and looked at the pile of rags on the floor. “He will go back to them for his fix.”
“He will, captain,” April glanced at me with a quiet knowing look.
Going incognito had its benefits. We had a lunch at a street-side café, up hive. The mood in up hive was the opposite of its counterpart: it was colorful, proud to the point of arrogance, and wealth shown in various ways. The rich stayed on its many serrated and levelled towers, the higher the richer they were. They displayed their wealth unabashedly. The women wore shimmering headdresses made of jewels, beads and feathers from the phoenix-egret, their cloths se-quined and cut low to show cleavage and tattoos. The men wore suits and coats, their faces tattooed with their family sigils and their hands showing off rings studded with precious gems. Up hive air was also laced with traces of craz and other drugs. Most of the families had relations with a criminal gang, or were gangs themselves.
I picked at the saggy-looking artichoke. It tasted like a cross between a celery and a yam, with the bracts tinged with brown and yellow. “This is vile.”
“You hate vegetables,” April was also picking at her plate of noodles. “If you don’t like it, give it to me.”
I switched plates with her. “This looks much better, though I am not sure if snails are part of their diet. Stir-fried snails in noodles?”
“They eat everything,” April tugged at the bracts of the artichoke. “Like us. We of the Han eat about everything under the sun.”
“I am not sure how they grew this,” I tapped the artichoke with my fork. “Not with all the pollution and lack of space.”
“Hydroponics. Indoor hanging gardens.”
The communication bead in my ear chimed.
“Captain speaking,” I whispered.
“Tracer is working. Informant is on the move. Follow him, captain?” Mariette said on the other end, her voice made tiny by the transmission distance.
“Affirmative,” I said, standing up. Food would have to wait.
We caught the monorail, alighted at the station nearest and merged into the crowd of fashionable travellers and merchants. People tended to edge away from us when we were in uniform. They recognized our clan and backed off. So we walked in relative safety, unmolested by curious folk who wanted something extra. The fact that we also displayed our side-arms openly might be another reason.
Old Church Avenue, Upper Hive, 33 was a rather secluded level of up hive. The name was based on a remnant of an ancient church worshipping the male Trinity of distant Old Earth still standing proudly with lurid green and red graffiti sprayed all over it: CRAZ RULZ! SMACK OFF AUTHORITY! The rich inhabitants left the wall alone, simply for its novelty value.
“Pariah markings,” April reported. Her sense of smell was the keenest of us all. “Male. Female. A few hours old.”
“Their patrol,” I said. “Mariette, you copy?”
“Loud and clear, captain,” Mariette replied. “Hide. Informant is on his way.”
We found an alley way beside a nondescript white door. 33 was just opposite. Another white door. Right on cue, Dek shambled down the street, past the church wall, and staggered his way to the door. He knocked once, twice.
The door opened. I could smell… wolf… feral dog. I began to growl softly. My dislike was that instant, that automatic. Dek was gesticulating frantically, before a hand yanked him by the collar and dragged him in. I could hear him screaming.
It was the scent that alerted first. That same scent that woke the instant dislike within. I grabbed my pistol and aimed at the tall gentleman standing like a louche before me.
“Well, well, well,” he said smoothly. An Amber Eye.
I recognized him straight away. Yeung Leung? What the hell was he doing here?
“What do we have here? Two Black Talons snooping around like the mongrels they are.”
I felt April bristle beside me. I forced down my urge to fight. No matter what, I needed a cool head. Challenging him to a duel now and then was too sudden. Rash.
“Investigating a clan who shares more in common with hyenas,” I said. “What have you been feeding the Pariahs? Drugs? Worsening your family’s karma?”
“Watch your mouth,” the handsome face grimaced, baring his teeth. “A pretty face like you should stay in the den and look after a litter of cubs.”
That was low. “While you destroy one clan for your own benefit. That is noble of you.”
He had a pistol in his hands. “Off my territory. Now.”
“We have a blood feud,” I said almost calmly, with ice in my voice. I saw him start a little, a lifting of eyebrows. “My ships have pointed their main guns at the planet. You?”
Yeung Leung fired. Blessed as all wolf clans were, thanks to the interference of flesh engineers, my reflexes saved me and I dodged the bolt. It narrowly whizzed past my ear. There was the smell of gunpowder. Burning.
I fired, automatic response. So did April.
Yeung Leung vanished.
I swore, rolled and shook my head. “Signal the destroyers. The word is prey. Repeat: the word is prey.”
A bright beam of light, like the lance of a vengeful god, pierced through the pollution and hit one of the hives.
“Give it up, Yeung Leung,” I shouted into the chaos. Emergency sirens were braying. The targeted hive tower had began to topple forward, setting forth violent tremors. Inhabitants were screaming and shouting.
“Captain, the planet’s governor has protested,” April listened carefully to her communication bead.
“Tell him that we are on a mission to hunt down a criminal, a drug lord. This is clan business,” I said. “Tell him it’s blood feud.”
“The Amber Eyes fleet is turning around to face us,” Ju Fan informed us when we appeared on the bridge. At this moment, Neo Samarkand was in total lockdown, with one of the towers entirely destroyed. I would mourn the loss of lives later.
“Finally,” I said on my chair.
“They decloaked,” Ju Fan continued. April gave me a “I told you so” look.
“The flagship is hailing us,” Mariette said. “It’s the War’s Siren.”
Yeung Leung’s face appeared and I had a secret pleasure on seeing a bloody cut on his handsome playboy face. His eyes were wolf-amber now, his canines sharpened.
“Was that necessary?” Yeung Leung’s voice was ice. “Ordering your ships to fire on an innocent planet.”
“I was tasked to stop the drug trade and to stop you,” I said. “Main cannons on the War’s Siren. Full shields.”
“Are you insane?” Yeung Leung growled.
“Captain, his ship’s weapons are also powering up,” Mariette’s clear announcement was heard through the bridge.
“Stop your pretense of innocence,” I stared straight at the image of Yeung Leung, the man I was asked to best by my father.
Ju Fan cursed long and loud. The consoles flickered and the bridge’s light dimmed. “What the hell?”
“He jumped. Without a jump gate!” April yelled. “How did he do that?”
“Get a lock on their fleet signature!” I snapped. My prey was running away.
Mariette shook her head, clearly disappointed and a little ashamed. “They are just gone, captain. No traces at all.”
Neo-Samarkand spun before me, with an obviously black splotch covering one of the continents, and spreading even further.
I hated failure. I also hated the fact that Yeung Leung was right.
My entire being burned. “Work backwards. Extrapolate his possible destinations. I will be at my headroom.”