The story of Starfang continues…
I spent a long hour placating and explaining matters to Governor Seeto. In the end, we worked out a budget for hive repairs and loss of lives; Clan Black Talons would foot half of the bill. In return, Seeto would conduct a purge of the hives of any Pariah activity and provide squads of enforcers for the purge duties. As for the craz trade, Seeto refused to budge. It was far too lucrative for him.
Didn’t Mother mention humans were involved? Bah. Humans and their addictions. Clans and their addictions. Horrible.
Switching off the comm-screen took some effort. My body craved energy. I fixed myself a cup of carbohydrate-rich soup and downed it in two gulps. I rubbed my face, my back twitching. Were my actions shameful? I had to obey my father and carry out the assignment. And it was blood feud… which ate up lives like a glutton with food.
I hated the fact that I had to stand between right and wrong, white and black. All my tours of duty had been straight forward. Not this one.
I would sleep with the screams of the dying and injured tonight.
An alarm sent me bolting out of the bed, but it was the bedside alarm set to wake me up. Blearily, bone-weary, I checked the time. Three hours since I had slept. I tapped the comm button: “Bridge?”
Ju Fan’s voice answered: “Captain, nothing’s amiss. We are still tracing the War’s Siren’s energy signature.”
“Received,” I replied shortly and terminated the call. Yeung Leung had run and was hiding now. It would be a cat and mouse game, a hunt across the sector where more of his cronies had bases. We would have no allies here, just a lot of negotiations and compromises.
I stood under the shower jet for a long time, letting it massage my stiff back. Then, later, I made myself a micro-waved meal – stir-fried beef with rice. It was dry, as all micro-wave meals were dry and unappetising, and daydreamed of hunting a juicy fat doe in Noah’s Ark. Yet it filled the stomach and gave the body the needed energy. I washed the rest down with tea.
Dressed in an off-duty uniform, I monitored the bridge and scanned through my messages. Some infuriated messages from Neo-Samarkand’s gang families, vowing revenge and retribution. Some messages of gratitude and solicitation for help from (also) a few gang families, perhaps desperate for clan backing. Two messages from Governor Seeto: confirming his half of the payment and preparations for the purge being underway, and to inform that the Pariahs had fled, carrying with them a large shipment of craz. The Neo-Samarkand police-boats tried to stop them, but they jumped before the bulky patrol ships could catch up. Damned mongrels. The police was probably in cahoots with the Pariahs.
When I met Ju Fan at the bridge on shift-change, she was exhausted, her eyes sunken and her posture stiff. “Thank you. Go rest. Ensign Chan Ping will take over.”
“Thank you, captain,” Ju Fan murmured gratefully before stepping into the lift.
I went around, talking to each officer, smiling, sharing a private joke. The bridge was fine, albeit a bit tired. We had done this before, silent in space, hiding in the shadows of it. We had caught prey like that.
I was in the act of sitting on my command chair when the proximity sirens blared across the bridge. It was an automatic response, the ship’s sensors picking out something in the immediate vicinity.
My hair/fur stood, my teeth lengthening, bared. “Screen. Hurry up!” I snarled.
It was a metal blob – or that it was travelling in such a speed that the motion sensors struggled to ascertain its shape. Mariette’s substitute, Shu, worked frantically on her panels, her fingers flying over the colored lines. The metal blob sharpened, became a box.
“Cargo box,” Shu confirmed immediately. “Two life-signs inside.”
“Where did it come from?” I demanded, searching for any markings, clan or gang sigils. None. It was just an ordinary cargo box, the kind I saw often at docking.
“It came… from the jump gate,” Shu’s reply was hesitant, as if terrified of my censure. “It was just there.”
“You didn’t find it in the beginning?” I pressed on.
“I am sorry, captain,” Shu’s expression almost made me smile. In wolf form, her ears would have lowered.
“Nevermind. Life-signs? Two?”
“One … child. One animal.”
“Child?” I blinked and horrible thoughts tumbled across my mind, all of them terrible in magnitude.“Tractor-beam the cargo box in.”
Double-cross, I thought bitterly. And a tragedy, if it isn’t.
A security detail escorted me when I headed for the cargo bay. Sounds echoed across the huge cavernous hold, home to our shuttles and three fighter ships. They were grasped securely with metal claws, hanging from the ceiling.
The cargo box lay faintly steaming in the middle of the cargo bay, with yet another security detail arranged around, their rifles pointed at it. April was already there, tampering with the seal. “A few more seconds,” she breathed. Out of bed, she still looked fetching. I shook my head. Duty first, always duty first. She had always known, but kept her distance.
The cover hissed open, releasing a puff of cold pressurized air. April and her security detail went in first, rifles ready for ambush and subterfuge.
“Captain, you have to see this,” April said from the inside. I sensed something was wrong.
I grabbed a rifle from one of the security officers and stepped in, rifle cocked in front of me. My hunter senses sharpened. The cargo hold was intensely cold; it was meant to transport perishables or meat. My nose and finger tips started to ache.
“Captain,” April appeared next to me, her breath a white plume. “Here.”
Beneath was a little girl, about four, curled up into a tight ball. A shaggy-furred brown puppy, a real dog, snuggled beside her. They looked as if they were in a really deep sleep.
“Both alive,” my first officer saw whatever expression on my face. It must have been shock or surprise. Ice crystals hung on the little girl’s long black eyelashes.
I caught a whiff of something. She was clan too. Not mine. Another deeper analysis, a closer sniff. Amber Eyes… and Pariah. How could it have happened?
Was she a cross-breed? And why was she cast adrift?
Who in the world would do that?
We were a warship, in the middle of a blood feud and a vowed hunt. We couldn’t…
I bent down and scooped the girl-pup in my arms. Her skin was freezing cold. She stirred a little, disturbed, as if by a dream. I could feel the tension around me. Everyone identified what she was.
“I am taking her to sickbay,” I announced curtly. “Bring the puppy too.” The security detail glanced at one another. I gazed at them, and they lowered their heads.
As I suspected, the girl-child was just knocked out by the g-forces. The med-staff had wrinkled noses and gleaming amber eyes. A girl-child from not our clan, an enemy clan, at that. She was only four. A toddler. A child. Dr Myint checked.
“I have found something embedded under her skin,” Dr Myint said, wrinkling his elegant nose. “Not, not a tracer. An encrypted message-code. Clan-crypted.”
I glared at him. “An encrypted message-code?”
He inclined his head. “Affirmative.” He had served us for decades, first as Mother’s chief medical officer, now as mine. He was diligent, meticulous and fussy to a point: an excellent medic and surgeon. “I am sending it to your message box.”
“Send it over now,” I said. “At the moment, monitor her. Alert me immediately when she’s awake.”
“I will, captain,” Dr Myint said, turning to the sleeping girl. Warmed by the heaters, she looked so much better, hints of light brown and gold in her hair. She looked thin, her arms skinny. A little girl. On a warship.
The message code only had two words: Help her.
I stared at the words for a long time.
My heart sank.
I had a problem.
I showed April the message.
“That’s not helpful,” she gnawed at her bottom lip, a childhood habit she didn’t want to change. “But she’s obviously Amber Eyes and Pariah.”
In the privacy of my headroom, we spoke frankly, without the limits of protocol.
“Who’s she then?” I said. “And why us?”
“If this is a ploy by the Amber Eyes to distract us…” April let her words trail off, her expression stricken. I wanted to lean forward and cup her face in my hand.
“Perhaps it is. But a child… that’s low, despicable. Children are precious in clans. We don’t put —”
“— children in cargo and shoot them into space.”
I poured more tea into our cups. “A lot of things in this case do not make sense.”
“No, they do not,” April sighed and sipped at her tea, grimacing. “Dr Myint couldn’t find any thing on her. Just a little girl. Clean. Nothing.”
“Only the encrypted message,” I added.
The alert-chime broke our conversation. It was sick bay.
“Captain,” Dr Myint’s voice was dry, amused. “The girl has awoken.”
We reached the sickbay, hearing only commotion, a lot of shouting. I muttered “What in hell?” before the door slid open, presenting a rather comical sight: the nurses and aides chasing an obviously very alert and very awake little girl around the medical beds. A brown puppy harassed the adults, snapping at their heels and yapping like… a puppy could.
“What is going on?” I raised my voice and everyone stopped, including the merry circus and the puppy who growled at me. I looked at him, showing a bit of wolf, and he subsided, rolling on his back and showing his belly.
The little girl, backed into a corner of the sick bay, snarled at me, baring her very white teeth. A feral, I thought instantly, Amber Eyes or no, she’s a feral.
Someone must have tried giving her a bath, because her hair was curling and still dripping with water. And as sanity returned to the sickbay, I realized she was also naked, her hair being that long enough to hide the rest of her body.
“Captain?” Dr Myint said.
“Give me a clean towel,” I said quickly. “And some crackers, food. Anything.”
I had the items in a couple of minutes, looking all the while at the girl who stared at me with a mixture of hostility and curiosity. She had smelled my scent. Her eyes were bright amber and she was literally bristling, unaware of how cute she looked. Ferals bit. I was cautious. I knelt down, taking care not to startle her, placing the bowl of salted crackers in front of me. It must be someone’s lunch. I picked one cracker up – it smelled of cheese – and said softly: “I bet you are hungry. Want some food?”
The little girl cocked her head to one side, sniffed at the bowl.
“And water,” I hissed fiercely. “I need a cup of water, or something. She’s hungry, can’t you tell?”
A cup of clean warm water was produced quickly. I placed it beside the bowl of food.
“Food and water,” I repeated. “Don’t worry. I am not going to hurt you.”
The brown puppy sneaked up and started rubbing my lap. The little girl’s eyes widened and her lips curled into a smile. She was still wary, starting when I nudged the bowl forward.
She must be really hungry. She crept forward, sniffed again at the bowl of crackers, and began to eat noisily, face first into the bowl. Slowly, I moved forward too and gently draped the towel around her. She jumped a little, before settling into my embrace. I could hear her chewing and slurping of the water. Her body was warm against mine. I was surprised to feel affection.
By the time she had finished the crackers and water, her hair was dry. She curled into me, sleepily. I looked at the feral girl. Washed, she looked even better, her hair brown-gold under the light of sickbay. Her skin had an odd golden cast to it, a hint perhaps of her mixed parentage. A fine layer of gold down covered her arms and legs.
Gingerly, very gently, I carried her to an empty bed, the puppy tagging at my heels. She whimpered a bit when I placed her down. Where’s your mother, little girl? I thought. Who’s she? With a shudder, I covered her with a blanket and motioned the nurses to back away.
“You will make den-mother next time in the next Spring Festival, captain,” April said, her tone teasing.
“Shut up,” I whispered back. “Give the puppy some food and water too. Call me again when she’s awake,” I told the medical staff. My ship was still a warship, pursuing an enemy fleet. I had things to do.
My arms tingled, still feeling the warmth of that little body. It was a confusing sensation.