The first few hours were tense, scanning the area for any more drone ships. I spent a frantic hour reading tactical readouts and reports, and approving the current ammunition count. We were too far from any friendly dock.
Messages from the Sector 41B governors were starting to pour in. Most of them openly denied involvement with Yeung Leung, with the usual effusive offers of assistance and help. I read the messages with a growing lump of cold fear and rage in my stomach. They were hiding something. Fools. Liars. Cowards.
They were just trying to protect themselves and their families. It was a vicious cycle.
With a sigh that came straight from inside, I shut down the comm. Screen. We would be short of allies in the sector.
Do not rattle the grass. You might startle the snake.
The message blinked at me. Father’s imprint. I could just hear his solemn voice behind the words. He had also used a hanzi proverb, one which he liked to drill into my head when I was younger. I wasn’t exactly the best student when it came to proverbs. I was above average for tactics. A lot of hanzi proverbs were used in tactic class, including the ancient Art of War manual. I listened, jotted them down dutifully, and promptly forgot about them. Actual combat was different from words.
It was going to be a mind game.
“You don’t like chess,” April commented once, when we were just about to enter the academy. We were on break until the new semester started. So we filled our time with hunts, beach walks, and playing board games, April’s favorite. I was more a reader; I didn’t want to disappoint her.
I stared glumly at the chess pieces on the board. We were at the main family mansion, under the ancient peepul tree. As usual, April was winning.
“I don’t like mind games,” I said. I was fast running out of board.
April lifted an eyebrow in silent question. “We are wolves. Wolves play mind games too.”
“No,” I slid the knight piece forward. The moment I made the move, I knew I was wrong. “It’s mind games with a twisted human behind them that I don’t like.”
“We are human too,” April said. She moved her piece up, took away the knight piece.
I growled softly. “You know what I mean.”
“Of course, I do. How long have I known you for?”
“Long enough. And you are my cousin.”
April’s face looked sad then. “I feel that we are more than cousins.”
“I know,” I said and left it at all. “Want to go for a run then? The forest is beautiful at this time of the year. I think we will miss the forest once we are in the academy.”
“Summer,” April sighed. “Checkmate.”
“Oh bloody hell.”
We packed up, stored the game set back into the cabinet, and ran off to the forest where we lingered in wolf form. Laughing, dancing in the sunlight, we relished the time together. We ended up soaking in the hot spring, soothing our stressed muscles. We got out reluctantly from the hot water, toweling ourselves dry.
“I still hate mind games,” I reminded April later during dinner, when my family was gathered at the table.
I gnawed on this thought, while preparing Starfang for possible future confrontations. The Amber Eyes were playing a dangerous mind game. Who would give first? Who would blink?
It was another game of “chicken”.
The alarms brought me running to the bridge again. Mariette was on shift this time. Her eyes glittered. “It is an Amber Eyes ship. The War’s Cry.”
“Fire on my command,” I gritted my teeth.
“Captain,” Mariette’s voice was rich with surprise. “They want to surrender.”
I stood straight, my back so rigid I couldn’t breathe.
“They want to surrender?”
“That’s what they say.”
The captain was an older woman with iron-grey hair, dressed in Amber Eyes colors: grey and black. Her bridge was filled with smoke. Did they just have a fight? What in the eighteen hells happened?
“I am Captain Viviane Yeung Ma,” the captain said, her voice low, husky. She was holding herself with remarkable control. Red blood trailed on her face, coursing from her right eye. “We come in peace. We surrender.”
Viviane Yeung Ma. Yeung Leung’s older sister?
“Be quick, I do not tolerate deceit,” I said coldly. “Our ships’s cannons are trained onto me as of this moment.”
“Their ship is powered down,” Mariette reported. “Engine damage. Weapons systems are down.”
“If you are telling the truth,” I said then, “come on board my ship and we will talk like civilized beings.”
Captain Viviane Yeung Ma nodded. “In two minutes.”
“My terms, Amber Eyes.”
She arrived as promised, while her ship was guarded by the two destroyers commanded to fire if deceit was detected.
Vivian Yeung Ma walked with a limp. Her uniform pants were dark with shed blood. Someone had fired on her. Who would fire on a captain? Mutiny?
Two armed guards stood at the door, ready if she planned to escape. She glanced at them, at the heavy-assault rifles.
“I am not totally convinced by your surrender,” I said without preamble. “Your presence is merely tolerated.”
“You have to believe me,” her voice grated, but I sensed weariness deep inside her words. “I am going against my brother. I have enough of his brutality and how he is plunging my clan into civil war.”
“Elaborate,” I demanded.
“Yeung Leung’s quest for power is draining our family coffers, we are at the brink of declaring bankrupt. I disagreed with his policies and he sent his ships after me. I ran for my life.”
“With your crew and pack on board. How noble.”
“There were supporters on my ship. A fire fight broke out. We managed to quell the uprising and take control of the bridge. My clan is in disarray now, Captain Francesca Ming Yue. Our ships are scattered around the galaxy.”
“Who sent the drone?” I said flatly.
Captain Viviane Yeung Ma stared at me blankly. “Drone?”
“Someone sent a drone ship at me. I destroyed it. Was it yours?”
“No, not mine. You have to believe me.”
“My trust is in short supply. Besides…” I stated without emotion. “You might be missing something of your kind.”
Lien entered, escorted by April and two more armed guards. Mog was in Lien’s arms and he began growling the moment he saw the Amber Eyes’ captain. Lien hid behind April the moment she saw Captain Viviane Yeung Ma.
Captain Viviane Yeung Ma’s reaction startled me: she recoiled back instantly. Revulsion. Disgust. Fear. And that was the most obvious. “Where did you get her?”
“From a cargo box, three weeks ago,” I said.
“She’s of Pariah blood.”
“And Amber Eyes, you fool. Can’t you smell it? I don’t do offers, Amber Eyes captain. My ship isn’t a charity.”
“I do not know her. My clan is big, like yours.”
A clan is close-knit, I thought furiously. “How do you not know?”
“She is of illegitimate birth,” the Amber Eyes captain said with obvious distaste.
“Lien, do you know her?” I asked the little girl whose big eyes were watery with tears.
“No,” her answer was so soft, but wolf ears picked it up.
My fury turned cold. “Whatever it is, captain, she’s just a child. You shouldn’t use children as pawns. My guards will escort you to a new cabin. My medical officer will provide you with a check-up and medication if you so need. You will be my guest.”
Captain Viviane Yeung Ma’s face fell, deflated.
“And oh yes, there’s another person you might want to meet.”
My smile was cruel with bared fangs.
Lien’s eyes looked at me. Trust.
Her reaction to the officer in a coma was… heart-breaking. I didn’t expect that. She wept openly at the sight of the man with tubes attached everywhere.
“Where? How?” Her voice wavered, cracked. “He’s my nephew.”
My curiosity spiked; my eyebrow lifted in response. “Their ship was destroyed. I saved the first officer and him. The first officer died of his wounds.”
Her eyes gleamed bright amber. I could feel her fury rise, bristling, a wolf caged up and angry at the injustice. “My brother.”
April darted me a look. Was the Amber Eyes captain really telling the truth?
“My clan owes you a debt,” Viviane said.
“Blood feud,” I stated simply.
“You want to destroy us?”
“Yes. And your brother.”
“Then let me join you. Let me help you.”
I turned away from her, a blatant physical and emotional rejection of her words, her presence. “I will think about it.”
“She’s chafing,” April commented, watching the close-circuit video on my comm. screen. Captain Viviane Yeung Ma, the sister of Yeung Leung, paced up and down like a trapped animal. Perhaps she was, held captive by an enemy clan’s captain. I had made sure that her lodgings were adequate from her needs: her food was from the cooks and she had access to soap mixes and snacks in her cabin. Dr Myint gave her an once-through, and pronounced her fit, despite of the nasty cut she received together with the rifle shot through her leg. We disabled all the communication abilities from the comm. beside her bed. She could watch announcements to pass her time.
She wanted to talk to me. I said no.
Her ship was under the scrutiny of the destroyers, escorted like a prisoner to the gallows. She understood that her life was in my hands. She was pacing like my Aunt Gertrude, caged up and frustrated with the enclosed space.
“She’s chafing,” April repeated, to draw my attention. “She might rebel. Stage a breakout.”
I tapped the table, thinking. “I have guards. They are ordered to shoot to kill. Besides her ship is now escorted by our destroyers.”
“Are we supposed to render compassion?” April stared thoughtfully at the pacing woman.
“I can’t trust her. She’s Amber Eyes.”
“She might be telling the truth. There might just be civil war in their clan.”
April cleared her throat. “Uncle and Aunt didn’t tell you about the civil war bit.”
“No. Only that the Pariahs and humans are involved.”
“Intriguing. I do believe there are many levels to this problem. The Amber Eyes’ civil war is just one of them.”
“Explain further, please.”
April began to walk around the table, tossing her thoughts out. “Yeung Leung could be the root of the problem with his apparent brutality. The Pariahs are pulled in for their help with craz as the bait and enticement. There might be people who collaborate with the Pariahs. Splinter groups with their own little packs. Lien might just be a product of such unions. Added to this problem is their own internal strife: family quarrels brought to the surface and exacerbated with the usual clan obsession on glory and honor.”
“Go to the root. Kill him. He’s the problem.”
“If everything is that simple, captain. I sense there are outside forces we cannot control here. Remember the sudden jump Yeung Leung’s ship made in the middle of our battle. That’s not clan tech, captain.”
I had to stand up and pace, like the restless and frustrated captain in the cabin. “You mean Outer tech.”
“The Outer species might be involved. I mean, we saw them trying to gain entry in the Alliance Senate last year. Humans – including us, wolves – are their stepping stones.”
Outer species. That was the single thing I didn’t think of. The Outer species like the shishini and the juka were only “recent” discoveries in the galaxies. Thejuka, however, had been making longer incursions into Earth’s history: they were scientists, meddlers and political creatures. Large black eyes and balloon-like heads, they interfered so many times that they were charged for crimes against humanity. They were named the Greys by old Earth governments who mostly viewed their abductions abhorrent. There were the usual few who accused them of meddling and tinkering with genes, including clan genes that enabled our transformation into four-legged wolves. Some theorists suggested that some of the governments might have worked with the juka in exchange for tech and data.
The shishini were relatively harmless in comparison to the juka. Tall, feathery, like upright ethereal reptiles, their ships were the fastest I had ever seen. They were mainly traders, but I had heard cases of their participation in certain political coups. Their planet was somewhere away from the Milky Way. They were mainly methane breathers.
At the moment, the two species were held at bay by the regular patrols along galactic borders, and by treaties that limited their participation and involvement. Which was fine with the clans and other groups: to the shishini and the juka, we were inferior beings.
The idea of juka or shishini interfering in clan politics was immensely unpleasant.
It might have just come to that.
To soothe my frayed nerves, I paid a visit to Lien’s cabin. Her chaperone-nurse was there.
Lien was drawing again. More starbursts and gaping-mouthed stick figures. She was using a black marker and was drawing with such intense concentration that I had to smile. She had since recovered from her encounter with the Amber Eyes’ captain.
She smiled widely when she saw me walking in. To my surprise, she flung her arms around me.
“Have you eaten?” I said, gently untangling her off.
She nodded, pointing to a tray with pile-up bowls. She was eating quite a lot. I insisted she had fruits with her meat. We were still human, after all.
“Bad captain gone?” She asked. Mog panted at her feet.
“She’s in a cabin faraway from yours. Do you know her? Is she an aunt?”
Lien shook her head hard. “No. Don’t know her. She’s a wolf.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Is she going to kill me?” Lien said.
Such words! “Oh, no. I am not going to let it happen.” I will kill Viviane first, I thought fiercely.
She went back to drawing. Four year olds could be so focussed at times. I looked at the gaping-mouthed stick figures. She had drawn sharp teeth in the mouths.
“Keep an eye on her,” I instructed the chaperone.
The rest of the week was uneventful, interrupted by regular and monitored ‘chats’ with Captain Viviane Yeung Ma. She basically repeated the same thing: she was rebelling against her brother and she wanted to help us by joining the fleet. Her ship coasted along, sandwiched between two vigilant destroyers with the third blocking its escape route, if it chose to run away. I sometimes brought Viviane to the Sick Bay while she kept silent vigil at her nephew’s bed side. Dr Myint drew me aside once, informing me that the patient was showing symptoms of waking up, which was a good sign. To put it bluntly, they were draining my resources and my resources were not infinite.
I made the point to check for a neutral dock in Sector 41B. This was an edgy and hostile region, with partisan passions and Amber Eyes patronage. Neutral docks were a rarity. With some degree of relief, I found one.
“We are going to replenish the fresh water supplies,” I told my Pack-crew in my headroom. It was a private conference, only for trusted ears.
“How about our “guest, captain”?” Mariette pointed out. Her hair was looking more spiky than usual.
“She will stay on board the ship, under strict supervision,” I nodded, acknowledging her comment.
Ju Fan cleared her throat. “You know, captain, they might hide in the asteroid belt nearby Accord Station.”
“They might. Do a full scan of the area.” It was a good precaution. I had hid in asteroid belts before, to wait out hostile ships or to lurk before the hunt. I couldn’t take any chance with a restive sector filled with enemies and their collaborators.
“Viviane had also hinted at cloaking technology being used. Factor that in when you scan the region. Our experiences with Amber Eye ships should reinforce our caution. Officer Mariette, I want a full detailed report on Accord Station, especially their backers and frequent users. I want a list of irregular dockings as well, within this time period. You may want to stretch the parameters to six months to a year.”
“First Officer, I want a list of the perishables and non-perishables requested by Mess. They said they wanted more carbohydrates in their last update. Input in vitamins C and B – we definitely have to fortify our bodies with food containing these vitamins. Any questions?”
April had a wry expression on her face. Yes, mom, it said and I stifled a chuckle. I sounded like Mother on days when I was lazy with exercise or forgetful when it came to healthy food. “Yes, captain. Loud and clear as crystal.”
The gathered officers laughed, breaking the tension. The ship was still on Red. But I could sure use some levity. On Noah’s Ark, it must be nearing Mid-Autumn. I thought about mooncakes wistfully.
I would get some of the delectable festive pastry once I am done with this assignment.
If I get back.
That was a grim thought. I pushed it aside. I will get back. I will defeat Yeung Leung.
“Go back to bridge,” I ended the meeting. “See to my orders.”
It would take a solar day to travel to Accord Station. Things might just happen in between. Sector 41B was getting to me.
I am wandering down a forest trail in wolf form. Around me the forest ripples with lives and smells. My wolf heart itches to hunt. Rabbit is nearby.
Yet, I am hunting larger prey. Not the deer, though I smell them in a herd, grazing and cautious. They have newborn fawn.
Larger prey. My own kind. Hiding from me. Elusive.
I will find him.