I woke up from a dream where April sat before me, our chess set laid open, and the peepul tree rustled in the afternoon breeze. There was brewed jasmine tea on the marble table. Her eyes were intense, looking straight into me, while she pushed her Queen in front of my chess piece.
Her lips parted, whispered Love You. Something the real April wouldn’t do.
Yet, in the dream, I cherished those words. Held them to my chest, to my heart. They were my talisman, holding the demons at bay.
The drab surroundings greeted me. I sat up. Another day. S’sahrak would be arriving in twenty minutes for its “daily interrogation activities”. S’sahrak was punctual to a fault.
I tore into the bread, feeling the hollow and biting hunger inside me. The bread was laced with the drug. So was the water. Yet I ate and drunk. I needed to have energy to face S’sahrak. Somewhere in my head, I imagined copious amounts of Mother’s herbal tonics, dishes of delicious food, my favorite trotters in ginger and vinegar. Real things to sustain me, to keep me from falling. I wanted to fight the addiction.
“Consider this,” S’sahrak said, flexing its claws. I focused on the glistening half-moon talons, fascinated by their obsidian sheen. “Consider this, your situation. Ever wondered why you were here.”
“You are an agent of Yeung Leung, my enemy,” I said calmly.
S’sahrak tilted its head. “As you wish.”
“You are not an agent then?” I pushed on.
The shishini did not answer. Instead, it began to pace around the table, tracing a definite pattern. “We of the claw are not confined by such restrictive parameters. Agent? Enemy? What are those words? They restrict us.”
“Now you are a philosopher,” I muttered.
“Shishini are philosophers,” S’sahrak said without missing a beat, its tail swinging a rhythm as it continued its pacing. “Like what is male or female, but restrictive and confining identifiers. We choose to be male or female or none, when we are ready to move on. You are restricted by your female-ness, but you choose to desire-to-mate with your first officer, have you not?”
Ice drenched my back. “How did you know?”
“I am an agent of Yeung Leung, am I not?”
“You speak in circles.”
“Life, my captain, is a circle.”
“Is it?” I admitted that S’sahrak’s pacing was hypnotic. The rosette patterns blurred with every circuit around the interrogation table. I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear a nascent headache.
“Your bond with your first officer might be a liability, my captain.”
“I am not your captain,” I grit my teeth. They are going to go after her! April, no! I began to smile grimly, a wolf smile. No, April won’t let herself be caught that easily. April would hunt them down. April would destroy them.
“I see,” S’sahrak nodded slowly, as if it was contemplating a piece of outlandish artwork. “Then why do you persist to be female?”
“Stop,” I said dangerously. “You are being oblique.”
“Am I not?”
I felt the wolf grow larger inside me, heard the growling in my throat. With iron will, I caged it back. “What do you want, S’sahrak? Irritate your prisoner?”
“Isn’t that my goal, my captain?” S’sahrak clicked its claw-tips together. Tink-tink-tink.
I stared directly at the shishini clawleader, staring straight into its pupil-less eyes. I felt as if I was looking into pools of oil. Was S’sahrak male, female or none?
“I do not want to play games,” I said finally. “But if you want to play games, so will I.”
“As you wish.” A gentle incline of the saurian head. “You have to realize this is already a game. I am your captor. You are my prisoner. There is a relationship here I can exploit.”
Shishini play games. Mind games. They play them like puzzle games. Stay focused, Francesca. Do not lose it.
“Then how do I address you?” I sat down, the very picture of an obedient prisoner. Even a day-old pup would sniff out the pretense.
“Call me clawleader or S’sahrak,” the shishini said, settling down in front of me. Now we were face to face. “At the moment, I am none. I am rar.”
I nodded, wondering at the terms.
“Now shall we begin?”
I counted the days. S’sahrak’s timing was clockwork and regimented. Wake up, meal time, interrogation, shower, interrogation, sleep. Despite of S’sahrak’s insistence that it was a philosopher, it still believed in strict order and routine. Perhaps, everything was a circle and a cycle indeed, with its rhythm and time.
My hunger grew and abated with the food drugged with craz, the very drug I was supposed to put a stop to. I managed to tease the name of the drug from S’sahrak’s roundabout questions and answers one day; I was so angry with myself, with Yeung Leung, promising revenge. How dare he? How dare he drug me and make me an addict? Because he can, I had thought then, depressed. Now I had a beast inside, not my wolf, not who I was, but something artificially imposed and had somehow wired me to desire it all the time. Craz had no antidote, only withdrawal symptoms and cold turkey rehabilitation. I had seen vids of drug addicts. They weren’t pleasant. Sunken cheeks, eye sockets and gaping mouths – end-stage withdrawal symptoms.
S’sahrak seemed unwilling to talk about its gender fluidity, though I kept asking. It was evasive, turning its conversations into riddles and puzzles before I stopped questioning.
“Where are we now?” I said after a long discourse on food, of all things. Without ceremony, I bit into the bread, relishing its texture. In my mind, I imagined home-cooked food.
“Travelling the flow,” S’sahrak answered, which I took we were going through a jump gate. As far as I knew, the ship was fast, faster than clan ships. Alien tech,shishini tech. “Now, we speak of pertinent things.”
“Food again?” I said, in an almost-casual manner, as if S’sahrak was my friend.
“No, my captain,” S’sahrak said, shaking its head, obviously learned behavior from its human conspirators. “We will speak about perfidy. Why do you hunt Yeung Leung?”
“He’s my enemy. Our clan has a blood feud.”
“Indeed, continue.” The claw-tips clicked once, twice.
“I have said what I needed to say,” I said firmly.
S’sahrak glanced at me. “You hide something.”
“I see, my captain, intriguing. You hide much.”
Silence stretched between us. S’sahrak’s eyes were unwavering. I leaned forward and was satisfied to see the shishini back away a fraction. Shishini had strict observations when it came to space and boundaries.
“The drug you put me on. Is there an antidote? Can I be ever free of it?”
“My captain, my answer will be the same as the last: no. You are tied to it.”
“Get me off it.”
“No, I can’t do that.”
This time, I stood up sharply. My chair fell backwards with a crack. S’sahrak didn’t react, but I saw a tic in its right eye. I opened my mouth to reproach it, to harangue it, only to have the shishini clawleader lift its right claw as if it wanted me to stop whatever I was about to say.
“No, my captain, no more lectures about nobility and high-mindedness. You are a prisoner. You are allowed to have certain privileges on our behest. The drug, unfortunately, is not one of them.”
I picked the chair up and sat down. “Right. Continue.”
“I see you finally understand the game,” S’sahrak said and I caught a hint of … pride in its voice.
My throat was parched and the hunger lurked like a thin feral animal. I sipped the water from the glass and wet my lips. “Then we should play chess.”
“I have heard of this humani game,” S’sahrak leaned forward now, perking up, eyes shining. “We play a similar game.”
I kept the conversation banal. S’sahrak had the dinner meal brought in, nodded to me, and left. The room was my own again, not counting the secret cameras and sensors. I ate the dinner; it was simple veal drizzled with a mushroom sauce and lightly-blanched vegetables. I mopped up the juices with the single piece of bread.
“How about some real food?” I said aloud, knowing that they could hear.
The after-hours were the hardest. The isolation and captivity reinforced my sense of loneliness. I was away from my pack, from my clan. I was a lone wolf. Yeung Leung was effectively cutting me off from my support network.
Clad in my under-shift, I paused in my gentle wushu drills, loosening muscles. I still needed to maintain tone and flexibility. No, he was a sneaky and smart bastard, because he was also wolf. He knew how to exploit the weaknesses, twist the dagger in my gut.
I rolled my shoulders slowly, feeling the tightness in my neck. No wonder wolves hated being caged: the body entropies, withers away from disuse. Not to mention, the lethargy and the madness that came with the feeling of being trapped, confined.
Yeung Leung, you sneaky bastard. Once I am free, I am going for your throat.
It took some time, but I finally found my rhythm, flowing into the nangun moves without a staff. I visualized myself wielding the staff, moving, dancing to it. I wondered how my captors felt about the drills and realized I didn’t care less.
My space was my own.
I was keeping the hunger, the demon in me, at bay. I reminded myself who and what I was. I had to do that again and again. I recalled the time spent in the dark cell and hated it. Loathed it. I didn’t want to go back to that darkness. The hunger was bigger in the darkness, replete with fangs and claws, waiting to consume me whole. I was weaker then and I fought hard to remain strong.
Acknowledge your weakness, fool.
That was Aunt Gertrude’s voice, kind but firm. Relentless but gentle.
I will, Aunt.
I envisioned April’s eyes and her smile before I slept. At least I was allowed that.
“Consider this,” S’sahrak said after appearing on time. It started its pacing again. I only stared at the clawleader blearily. I had a rough night, peppered with vivid nightmares. And failure, the rank feeling of failure.
“When you address me, it should be S’sahrak rar-se. Rar is used for those who do not have a specific gender and se is my nobility suffix. If you are of a linguistic inclination, you might find it interesting.”
I held the glass of water in my hand. My hand was trembling this time. The hunger screamed hollow in the stomach. The breakfast was late.
“Why are you telling me this?” I said, trying to find courage. Even my voice shook.
“So that you are aware of our relationship.”
“Stop that. Pulling rank is stupid.”
S’sahrak eyed me contemplatively. “Indeed, but it is important in my culture. You should be a kett-sa. But you are not one of The People.”
My hand shook harder. The pangs were sharper.
“I see you are hungry. Hunger is such a humani sensation. Do you desire food?”
“No,” I said, while my body demanded – no, screamed for – food. I wanted to eat. I wanted …
“Then, Francesca kek kett-sa, we should continue our discussion.”
“Go ahead,” I sipped the water and knew it wouldn’t satisfy the hunger. It growled, glass-sharded and hateful.
S’sahrak continued to talk about the difference in gender and gender roles between shishini and humani. I hunched over, trying to stem the stomach pangs and not think of them… Oh, the pain, the pain. I had teeth tearing into my organs. Halfway through the conversation, S’sahrak paused and regarded me with its dark eyes.
“Are you feeling unwell? Should I stop?”
I clenched my hand into a fist, to stop it from shaking violently. “No, no, continue.”
“As you wish.”
Something chirped on S’sahrak’s belt and it listened to the sounds with a solemn expression. “I see. I will be on my way.” With an eerie bird-like look, S’sahrak turned to me. “I have to cut our discussion short. I have something to attend to.”
The door opened and the clawleader slipped out, its tail swinging like a metronome. When the door closed, it did so with a hollow metal sound – and I simply sat on my chair, too weary to even speak. The hunger took the moment to flare up and I gasped, doubling in pain. I started to retch, my stomach clenching so tightly that the pain triggered tears in my eyes.
I crawled back to the table. Trying to pour more water into a glass with shaking hands was… Most of the liquid spilled and splashed. I had to use my two hands to hold onto the glass. My teeth clattered on the rim, but I gulped the water down.
The relief was breath-taking…
… before I vomited everything out once more. My stomach was protesting so much it was refusing food. The agony was enormous.
The wolf inside me, the other me, howled and tore free. My body was on fire. I was dying.
“Fascinating,” S’sahrak’s voice wove in and out of my consciousness. I opened my eyes. I could only see the shishini’s clawed feet. They were sharp, like its talons.
“Fascinating. You responds to extreme pain by transforming into a wolf. Fascinating.”
I shook my head and tried to say something coherent, only to have a growl emerge from my mouth. I was still very weak from the turning. Shame burned, warring with the hunger, always the hunger.
A clatter of metal dish and something slid in front of me, a zookeeper feeding a wild dangerous animal. I smelled meat. Wolf responded first, brushing everything aside, and plunged face first into the dish. I was tearing into the meat, all humanity gone. Only the hunger, always the hunger. The blood and juices flowed down my throat, submerging the beast that was the addiction, the agony.
“You were hungry,” S’sahrak’s distant voice said, a scientist’s observation. “Interesting. You should have informed me.”
I would have answered, yet I simply ignored it, gorging myself with the meat. When I was done, the hunger was gone, at least it had quietened down and I was more or less sane. The returning shame was a slap on my face. I was weak.
Wolf only reacted by curling up on the floor and sleeping off the heavy meal. When I woke up, I was back in my human form. My limbs trembled as I pushed myself up. The smells of wolf, woman and meat were thick and pungent. I padded into the toilet and washed up, staring into the mirror, trying hard not to see the dark rings around my eyes and the traces of dark dried blood at the corners of my mouth. With fresh determination, I washed those traces off. In the end, I tied up my hair with a rubber band I found on the sink.
“Focus,” I told myself. “Focus, Francesca. You cannot fail now.”
Dressing back into my uniform and pants was a comforting act. My uniform and pants smelled and felt clean. S’sahrak had them laundered and folded into a tidy pile.
So it was all a game to the shishini and Yeung Leung. A game of give and take, push and pull, of granting and withdrawal of privileges.
My body ached, my bones dragged with a certain sickness. Turning had taken most of the energy out of me. The energy benefits of the meal were almost negligible. I was back to wherever I was.
Somebody had replenished the water in the jug and left a bowl of … pork trotters in ginger and dark vinegar with a pair of black enamel chopsticks and a cream-colored porcelain spoon. The fragrance was rich; I was transported immediately to the kitchen and the dining table. My mouth watered. It was an instantaneous response, automatic, primal. I want it! I need it! So, they had heard my words.
The food was most probably drugged. I didn’t care. I simply started eating, savoring the taste like a long-lost lover. It wasn’t as good as Mother’s. It felt like a copy, someone trying to replicate a great dish. Yet, when I was done, I was content.
Did I fail, Aunt Gertrude?
I did, didn’t I?
Please forgive me.