And we return to our serial StarFang – Aunty Fox
I only met April when we were ten. It was the year when our clan defeated the Amber Eyes and held a big celebration to honor this victory. It was also held during the Mid-Autumn Festival; the event was very grand with the entire clan and sub-clans gathering on Noah’s Ark. Clan duties had kept my aunt, April’s mother, away for a long time – and the celebration was the only time she could attend. She wasn’t a ship captain, but a planetary governor, overseeing the agricultural growth and exports of food. April was the only cousin I didn’t get to see during every Spring Festival.
Dressed in a sky blue gipao, I fidgeted and tugged at the horrible fabric which was making my skin itch. I was standing dutifully beside Father and Mother while they toasted the assembled guests, relatives and allies with expensive wine. The hunt would be later. I glanced around, feeling bored; the green forest was calling out to me. At the same time, I felt awkward and uncomfortable, all gangly limbs and a body which had started to rebel against me. I hated the idea of growing up. The stupid gipao was attenuating every curve, every bulge.
I caught the eye of another girl, about my age, dressed in a red gipao and looking as uncomfortable as I was. The red shimmered under the light of multiple lanterns hung in the guest hall like a contained fire. She had huge eyes and curly black hair. But what drew my attention to her was her smile. It lit up the hall. I was suddenly consciousness of my hair, tied in a neat ponytail… and I wanted to tear out the stupid hair-band and run screaming away to the forest…
She smiled back and my world froze. I had never seen her before.
During the banquet, she came over, the strange new girl. She stretched out a hand in greeting.
“I am April Yue,” she said. Up close, she was pretty. “You must be my cousin, Ming Yue.”
This girl was my cousin. I tentatively grabbed that hand in return. She felt warm.
“Ma told me about you, said that there would be a girl about my age at the banquet,” April smiled. “Have you eaten already?”
I stared at the half-finished bowl of longevity noodles, my appetite gone. My parents were talking to their guests, going around each table, wine glasses in hand. I wasn’t part of their celebration.
“I am not hungry,” I said.
“Interestingly enough, so am I,” April shrugged. “You going for the hunt?”
“I can’t… turn yet,” I confessed, feeling my cheeks redden with heat. April pulled my hand and we slipped out of the banquet hall, which was loud with conversation, into the central courtyard with its lotus leaves and flowers. I often hid here, on normal days, to feed the koi fish that dwelled beneath the lotus leaves. As we ran along the corridor, the koi swirled in flame-colored patterns of red and orange, eager for their daily feed of fish food.
“I can’t either,” April said. “I can only do the eye-color changing thing.” She concentrated, inhaling slowly. Her eyes became gold with black rings. “But everyone can do that and turning is not a competition.” The gold faded back to brown.
A long howl interrupted our conversation. It was the signal for the hunt.
We didn’t take part in the hunt until we reached fourteen, the age where most youth experienced their first turning. By then, we had spent so much time together, my aunt having sent April to study at the school before entering the academy.
April gave me a rose agate pebble with smooth edges when I turned thirteen. It fit in the center of my palm. She said that she found it while she scoured the beach. She loved beaches. I loved her for that. When we were twelve, we realized our relationship was different. We were cousins, but we felt something stronger than that. Young as we were, we couldn’t describe how we felt.
I had the pebble made into a pendant. I didn’t wear it though. Instead I kept it in the main drawer of my desk on board the ship, to remind myself of what was real and tangible.
It was one of those days when I had to take out the rose agate pendant from the drawer. Our ships were deeper in the sector now. The Amber Eyes’ officer was still in a coma. Lien was fast worming her way into my heart. I still had to fulfil my task: best Yeung Leung and defeat the Amber Eyes.
The pendant was cool on my palm and I stared thoughtfully at it, admiring its color and remembering the person who gifted it to me. She was on board the ship with me, separated by rank and blood ties.
She had given me the rose agate almost twenty years ago. We had both changed. I had cut my hair and left it short. I was not that gangly or awkward anymore. April had grown taller, slimmer, but lightly muscled. She still had that dazzling smile and wisdom that was my anchor in times of stress and upset. I sometimes wondered how she was that calm, and that she should be made a captain and given her own ship.
“I declined,” she told me once. “I didn’t think I was captain material.”
I was shocked and not shocked. “You should have said ‘yes’.”
“And miss out on the shore leaves?” She was teasing. She enjoyed being a First Officer. She was such a good people manager, meticulous and compassionate at the same time.
I made a fist over the pebble, feeling its coolness seep through my skin. It was time to execute Plan B.
Attn: Planetary governors
Subject: Harboring of Wanted Criminal
Greetings and salutations!
I am Captain Francesca Ming Yue of the flag ship Starfang and of clan Black Talons. I have been tasked to arrest or capture Yeung Leung, Captain of the War’s Siren, and leader of the Amber Eyes clanMost recent crime: drug dealing and facilitation of drug trade (drug: craz) on Neo Samarkand. Attempts to arrest him resulted in destruction of hive tower and at least, 1,000 casualties. . List of his crimes will be added as an appendix to this message. Note: A list of ships under his fleet will also be provided. Recent ships destroyed: the War’s Shield and War’s Call.
Please be aware that harboring of said criminal is a mortal crime. You are strongly advised to give the criminal up if you are harboring him. If you have any information about his whereabouts, please contact me immediately via this protected code. There will be a reward for relevant information. I appreciate your help and assistance in this matter.
Remember that harboring the said criminal is a mortal crime. If you are found aiding or abetting him, you and your entire family will be arrested and charged for such crimes. Bribery and coercion will be tolerated.
Your cooperation is strongly appreciated.
Captain Francesca Ming Yue
Starfang, clan Black Talons
Homo homini lupus
“I have initiated Plan B,” I said over a cup of much needed tea. April nodded. Now we waited. Patience is a wolf’s virtue.
During my off shifts, I spent time with Lien and Mog. We played games and made paper cranes out of colored paper (provided by crewmembers). She insisted we hang the paper cranes in the sick bay and the cabin she was staying in, with a chaperone/guard. I drew the line when she suggested the bridge. She was starting to look much better, healthier, with a glow to her skin and a much improved appetite.
She still couldn’t tell me who her mother was, or where she came from.
When she was annoyed, her eyes changed from brown to a vivid gold rimmed with black rings. We pretended to hunt and play in my headroom, so that she could release the pent-up frustration and energy. Sometimes, I brought her to the gym and I found myself teaching her simple drills, just like Mother did when I was little. I taught her how to breathe, how to draw energy from the dan tian(stomach area). Her attention span was short, as expected of a four year old. Yet she clearly enjoyed it, giggling at times, looking very serious when she tried to concentrate.
Deep down inside me, I wished she wasn’t on the ship. It would be dangerous in the near future. The hunt was ongoing and sometimes… just sometimes, prey fight back.
Prey do fight back.
The hunts were where we learnt how to work and hunt in a pack. The clan celebrated major festivals with full moon hunts, with the only exception of the Ghost Month where we huddled down and remembered the wandering wild spirits with offerings and libations. Every young member of the clan loved the hunts, simply because it gave the opportunity to hunt, and to meet up with friends and cousins. It was the hunt where we learnt the importance of trust and cooperation – the pack exists as a whole. We learnt cues and how to catch them, or detect nuances and subtleties. At the same time, it was the hunt where we learnt – painfully – that prey fight back.
A panicking deer kicked me in the mouth one Mid-Autumn Festival hunt. Cornered, surrounded by my relatives snarling in wolf form, the doe was frothing in the mouth and desperate to bolt away. I inched forward and startled the already-edgy doe. She wheeled back and kicked my mouth with her back legs. It fractured my jawbone and I spent months healing afterwards. I still bore the faint surgical scar on my face as a reminder of my folly.
Other relatives suffered the consequences of confronting cornered prey. We had cases of broken ribs, fractured limbs, slash wounds by antler and hoof, and lacerated skin. Most of the clan bore the scars as glory scars with their personal stories to share and boast during other celebrations and get-togethers. Sadly, there were a few deaths, mostly accidents and from wounds too serious to heal. Young wolves learnt that hunting is also deadly – deaths diminish the clan and the pack, reducing the number of valuable clan members. Of course, to us, it was never a numbers game.
The success of the hunt did bring the unarguably good benefits of extra protein to replenish bodies exhausted by the intensity of turning, and to reinforce the strength of the pack. I loved the immense pleasure of tearing into fresh meat, the gushing hot coppery blood in the mouth, and the immediate sense of fulfilment when the meat was in the stomach. I would sleep for half a day after a hunt; everyone did. We normally topped the hunt off with a sedate celebration where the food was simple and conversation was kept at a minimum. Some of my relatives nursed hangovers and indigestion, a subject of gentle teasing from the rest.
I missed a few hunts when I was on duty, either on missions or patrol detail. Older in-service clan members were bound to miss the hunts, especially when their ships or their duties brought them too far away from Noah’s Ark. The clan understood. It was our duty.
The prey, this time, was larger than the usual deer or boar, and made more dangerous because he was also human and humans were the worst predators in the universe.
I checked on Lien when she was sleeping. Her minder, a nurse by the name of Jiu Ling, smiled at me shyly, saluting belatedly. I chuckled, shaking my head and pressing a finger on my lips. Lien was curled up on her bed, Mog snuggled up against her, snoring softly. I never knew puppies could snore, but there he was, making soft noises as he slept. Lien had made her cabin truly hers: paper cranes hanging from every angle. She had drawn pictures too, the crew providing her with marker pens and plain paper. I saw starbursts in all of her artwork. Already a few weeks in, she had already made her mark on boardStarfang.
She has such long eye lashes, I thought, stroking her hair. I experienced that warm surge of affection again.
Reassured that she was deep asleep and safe, I left her cabin, determined to squeeze in some Nangun practice before I had a short nap. It would be my shift in four hours’ time.
Alarms blared out, bathing the corridor in red, like blood pouring from a fresh kill. I was already dashing towards the bridge when my bead stated the obvious: “Captain, a ship detected with weapons primed.”
“I am on the way,” I snapped.
When I stepped onto the bridge, the view screen was showing a ship with similar markings to an Amber Eyes vessel. The yellow patches superimposed on the ship indicated weapons primed for an attack.
“Hail incoming ship,” I ordered. “Stand down or face the consequences.” One ship against three? It sounded like a desperate move, a bravado move. “Our cannons are primed, incoming ship.”
“Captain, this ship is not identified,” April said. She was the officer on shift. “We scanned. Nothing. It’s… an Unknown.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“It’s also refusing our hails,” the ensign who replaced Mariette piped in. “Its shields are 100%.”
“What on earth is this?”
The ship came closer and closer.
“Remember the game of ‘chicken’?” I turned to April. “It’s playing it. Any life-signs? Could be a drone.”
“It’s manned,” the ensign’s face scrunched down in a frown. “Life-signs… of a sort, captain.”
There were some clans who made use of flesh-engineered cyborgs for their more menial tasks. I wasn’t surprised if ships were manned by these non-lives. Flesh-engineered cyborgs made my skin prickle and my hair stand. Instant revulsion.
Starsword’s intervention destroyed the torpedoes before they could impact against Starfang’s shields. The torpedoes exploded like fireworks. I could feel the vibrations though: boom. Starfang shook.
“More torpedoes, captain!”
This time, they splattered harmlessly against the shields. The other destroyers caught the stragglers.
“Captain!” A shout this time.
I whirled around to glare at the ensign, but her shout preceded the explosion wrapping the drone ship. The screen filled with bright light, fire and shrapnel. Most of the debris pinged against the shields. The explosion was so strong it rocked the ship.
“Brace!” I barked. Starfang responded, her metal shell and frame whining with the sheer force of the explosion. Proximity alarms went up for a minute, before they were silenced. The bridge remained bathed in orange.
“Damage?” I said curtly.
“The two ships reported no casualties,” the ensign said. She was young, fresh from the academy. Her name-tag read Feng Li. Her eyes were wide, her hands trembling. It was her first encounter with combat. I gave her a small smile and nod; she brightened, taking heart. “Starfang’s integrity is intact. No hull breach.”
“Sickbay?” I contacted Dr Myint directly.
“Despite of the shaking and bumping,” the doctor reported, “the Sick Bay is intact. The patient remains stable. Enemy vessel, I presume?”
“Ah, I see, captain. I will inform you duly if there are any changes to the patient’s condition.”
“Noted,” I replied. The view screen showed only an expanding ring of debris.
This was infuriating.
“Put the ship on red alarm,” I announced, adrenaline coursing through my veins. I hated it, hated war… simply because Lien was on the ship. A little girl caught in the cross-fire. Then there was the officer on life support, his life hanging by a thread and artificially-induced breathing. “First Officer, initiate War Plan.”
Who knows what kind of provocation I might encounter next time? Bloody hell, there would not be a next thing, if I nipped the problem as soon as possible.
“I want tactical readouts as soon as possible,” I sat down on my chair. They all knew my timing. As soon as possible meant with five minutes or so. “And ammunition counts as well. Section leaders, please take note: we are officially Red Alert.”
Lien, the thought spun persistently.
“Secure all sections,” I continued, putting her to the back of my mind. “Engineering, make sure the power core at the centrifuge is reinforced. Pay attention to the coolant issue.”
“Yes, captain,” the chief engineer said via comm.
The life door hissed open and Lien ran out, Mog in her arms. Jiu Ling chased after her. “Captain, I couldn’t stop her!” the nurse panted. “Lien… stop!”
She cannonballed into me and I grabbed her. She was sobbing and gibbering. The explosion had triggered something in her. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Little girls shouldn’t have PTSD. The explosion…
I remembered seeing the starbursts in her drawings. In different colors, but the same motif. Starburst. Explosion. She must have seen and experienced an explosion.
“Explosion,” she was muttering into my uniform pants. “Explosion.”
She must have felt it through the steel and protection. She had recognized an explosion by feeling its impact.
“I am so sorry,” I whispered. “Did it scare you?”
“Yes!” Lien sobbed even louder. The poor girl was shaking violently now. I might have to sedate her. With a growl, I promised myself to strengthen Starfang’s defenses. Next time, I held a trembling little girl in my arms, next time.
The stakes are higher now. As of now, Starfang is on Red Alert.
Reason: Ship was attacked by drone ship.