Accord Station was like any other dock I had visited: grey, functional and sterile. It had its pleasure and entertainment section of course, but the station’s circumference was dedicated to ship gantries and grapplers, numbered slots for the various ships that came to dock, refuel and re-stock. It hung-spun in space, beside the asteroid belt ringing the water planet Lucidia, a neutral dock, silent and majestic when seen on approach. In the center of the circumference were Station control, entertainment joints and the habitat section for the station workers and guests.
Station control didn’t bat an eyelid when five warships appeared at the borders, four escorting an enemy vessel. Calm instructions were given to us, our docking slots provided for our convenience. I was mentally calculating the bill for this re-stock and re-fuel, with half a mind to make the Amber Eyes pay half of it.
News would already be circulating on the station: four Black Talons ships escorting an Amber Eyes cruiser, do not get involved, do not get involved, stay down.
“Any other ships docked?” I drank in the sight of Accord, glad somewhat for a short breather.
“One shishini ship,” Mariette reported. “R’rrakak. Merchant ship dealing in ores.”
“Go on,” I flexed my hands, clenching them into fists.
“Two other merchant ships. Didn’t say where they are from. Merchants. Verity and The Joke.”
“Mixed. Station control claims that they are neutral. Clan-less.”
“I see.” Starfang was on automatic dock now, the machines and sensors taking over the procedure. “I will be at my headroom.”
Starfang started taking in fresh water and food stock an hour after it docked. The Amber Eyes ship was on her right. Starsword and Startear orbited close to us, keeping watch on the War’s Cry. I ordered the access ramp disabled for the War’s Cry. The crew would have to stay put on board their ship.
I had my terms made clear to the station master who simply agreed and left at that. Discreetly, I made a scan on the drugs used on Accord. Piss, hardcandy,mox and… craz. Crewmembers were ordered to carry a weapon on their persons if they wanted to leave the ship to visit the station.
Captain Viviane Yeung Ma’s resignation was palpable when I informed her that we had docked at Accord.
“Can I go back to my ship for a hour?” her voice was almost plaintive, her posture submissive. So, she had taken to treating me as a dominant wolf.
“No,” I said flatly.
Her shoulders visibly sagged. “How much do I have to convince you that I am not lying?”
“Probably a planet’s worth. And remember, captain, we have blood feud.”
“You really hate us.”
“For a clan who was our rival and still is, yes. You are not my kin.”
The Amber Eyes captain shook her head slowly. “You bled us dry.”
“Of course we did. Your brother has caused a lot of damage. Consequences like that need to be deal with. You made use of the Pariahs for your own selfish gains. That’s unforgivable.”
“Surely you use mongrel clans too.”
Mongrel clans. I growled deeply. “No, we don’t.” Mongrel clans. What some clans have descended to: race politics and purity. Total bullshit.
“You will have sufficient entertainment,” I got ready to leave. “I trust the food is adequate to your needs.”
“Yes,” Viviane turned away and stared out of her cabin window, with at the particular angle, gave her a view of the blue-watered planet.
“I will talk you then,” I said curtly and tapped the door open.
“Captain Ming Yue,” she called out.
“I miss the forest,” Viviane said with a dead voice. “Do you?”
I glanced at her and walked out.
The fresh lukewarm water coursing down my face in a wonderful jet was refreshing. I stood under the shower for a while, letting the jet massage my shoulders and back. They felt stiff, knotted with tension. I washed my hair too. Mother often had this belief that bad luck was stored in the hair. The longer it was, the more bad luck accumulated.
In the mirror, my hair was short and dripping with water. I would grow my hair out.
I wore my second-best uniform, with stiff cufflinks and braided collar in the colors of the clan. My boots were glossy black. Eventually, I stared at the reflection of the captain. She wore her navy coat, her medals and clan symbols gleaming. Her smile was wolfish.
Before I left, I visited Lien in her cabin. She was happy to see me and hugged my waist tightly. “Francesca!” her lisp made my name cute, tender even.
“I am going to go to the station,” I told her. “We are now at a neutral dock called Accord Station.”
“Neutral?” She looked at me curiously, with her large eyes.
“That means that they are not friends with everyone, but will treat everyone the same.”
She nodded. I wondered if she truly understood.
“Stay in your cabins and listen to Jiu Ling. If it’s urgent, notify First Officer April immediately.”
Impulsively, I hugged her and she nestled against me.
This time, I had Marietta with me. Agile on her mind and feet, she was good at hand-to-hand fighting too. There was a private joke that she was born when the moons were too full and the energies too wild. I could use her wildness and strength in combat.
We walked down the access ramp, inhaling station smells. Engine oils, stale food odors and hints of rusted metal. Otherwise, the station interior was sterile, functional as a dock would be. Somewhere, music thumped and there was the distant rumble of a crowd. The entertainment section was obviously thriving.
Drug trade, my mind insisted. Pay attention. A neutral dock is not always neutral.
We walked past R’rrakak’s access ramp. The steel doors were close, though the LED panel still blinked green. I detected hints of other gases: methane. Oxygen was poisonous to shishini. They had to wear masks in order to walk in our environment.
I patted the business-like pistol holstered at my side. That provided slight comfort and security.
Accord’s entertainment joints – five bars, two restaurants and a run-down café serving sub-par coffee – were filled with patrons. Merchants had also set up their items for sale in a designated zone, right beside the joints. Kitsch, pretty baubles, semi-precious stones and geode, and live-stock in the form of fluff balls who skittered in cages. The shadier trade was done silently; the merchants had their own code and hand signals. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was carnival with laughter and loud conversation. It reminded me of a couple of Spring Festival carnivals, complete with drink, street food and music.
Armed guards stood in discreet corners, solid sentinels in black armored suits.
I took notice of them as I walked along the main thoroughfare with Mariette right beside me. Most patrons recognized our clan sigils and badges, and politely gave way. No doubt they would have seen or heard about our ships.
“They feel cagey,” Mariette hissed to me. “Something smells funny.”
“Keep your eyes and nose open,” I said, courteously refusing an offer to have my back massaged by a woman with shimmering pink feathered hair. She licked her lips with a forked tongue and waved me away, attending to a man in fatigues. Many patrons, I saw, had body modifications. They wore their mods openly, brazenly: fangs, fur, claws and cyborg parts. If we had walked in our wolf forms, nobody would care.
I recalled Dek and his skinny frame. Probably dead now, crushed by hive debris. Or killed by his Pariah masters.
We passed a row of street food vendors hawking their versions and interpretations of street food, including shishini delicacies like fried fluffballs and boiled animal eyeballs, of what sort I didn’t want to know. My nose twitched at the rank dead-fish odor, probably delicious to a shishini. There were – fortunately – human food items being sold, things I recognized or had come across. More fried things on sticks, sweet desserts that dripped sugar and syrup, and a lone vendor selling boiled peanuts with spices. I used to eat those; they were my favorite during Spring Festival carnival jaunts. I won’t touch the ones sold on Accord, with the high chance of them being polluted or poisoned. Some vendors worked for thief syndicates.
Reluctantly, I walked away from the vendors. Mariette was intent on her hunt, whatever her hunt was. She was scanning the area with her senses and additional readers she had brought along. “Captain?”
I turned to her, as if I was talking to her casually. Too many people about and none a friendly or trusted face. “Yes?”
“I detected craz,” Mariette gestured, also pretending to point at the merchant selling ferns and their variants tucked in a corner of the thoroughfare. “There. In the café.”
A flash of bright orange feathers, and a shishini stepped out in front of us. Its resemblance to ancient velociraptors was uncanny. Orange feathers lined its taloned arms and its back. On its saurian face was a black metal mask. It had a pattern of leopard-like rosettes across its flank. Obsidian pupil-less eyes watched me speculatively, before it – she? he? – padded away, its tail swinging slowly. I also marked the pistol strapped on its left arm, and how scarred the arm was. The shishini was remarkably graceful.
“That’s…” Mariette regained her composure with some effort.
“A shishini. Probably a crewmember of R’rrakak.”
“That was quite a surprise,” the tactical officer blinked. “Should we check the café out, captain?”
I stared after the retreating back of the shishini thoughtfully. It seemed to be minding its own business.
“Please do. Stay alert.”
“Yes, captain,” Mariette checked her pistols.
Help her, I recalled the message. Help her.
For a brief moment, I was anxious. Dread. I had to stop myself from running back the ship. Within me, wolf was snarling. I had felt something. I just didn’t know what it was.
“Captain?” Mariette sounded worried. “You looked… wild.”
“I felt a premonition,” I explained. “Alert the ships. Standby mode or something.”
Mariette obeyed without comment.
We entered the café like two ordinary diners keen to have a hot drink after a long day’s stroll. The tables were all occupied, the lighting dingy and flickering. The conversation was low, animated. I felt eyes on me the moment I walked in. Watchful eyes. Hunter eyes.
My back shivered with ice-cold claws moving up my spine.
The scent of mint – craz – was stronger in the back of the café. I pretended to admire the decorations. Pictures of past patrons grinning at the vidcam: Accord celebrities, known merchants and captains. Memorabilia of sector sports: balls signed by famous players, the well-known claw-spear for the violent sports favored in some sectors. With some alarm, I noticed two more shishini huddled over a table, their long clawed arms hunched. They had similar markings like the orange one we had encountered earlier, only that their rosettes looked bigger and more vivid. Seniority? Age? Rank? Their hides were darker than orange, leaning towards almost-ocher.
The shishini were glancing up occasionally while eating noisily. Something white and oily-fat writhed on their plate. They were scooping them in with gusto.
“Captain?” Mariette placed a cautioning hand on my arm.
The waiter managed to find us an empty table. We sat down. The dread grew stronger. The shishini were staring directly at us now, licking their reptile mouths.
Mariette’s voice alerted me. Woke me. I couldn’t move. My limbs seemed to have fallen asleep. “Warn the ships,” I husked. Even my throat was thick, my vocal chords refusing to work. “Now.” Something in the air… Hints of antiseptic glue…
Mariette was experiencing the same lethargy too. Normally she was nimble-footed and quick to respond. She fumbled for her comm, her frown indicating frustration and surprise at her own slowness.
“Mariette!” I managed to snarl out. Shapes danced in front of me. Time stretched and looped. My mind coldly reminded me that I might be drugged. Then Mariette fell face first onto the table. She was out cold.
Yeung Leung appeared, smiling smugly, handsome and unscathed. “Hello, Captain Francesca. I believe we need to talk.”
For the next few minutes, my mind was blank. I knew I fought with teeth and claws, bowling over Yeung Leung to swipe that smug smile off his bastard face. It was instinct, it was how wolves reacted to enemy wolves encroaching their space. Smoke filled the café, there was a lot of screaming and shouting. Leopard-like rosettes weaved in and out of my vision. Mariette!
Yeung Leung responded in kind, tearing at my face. We were both rolling on the floor, each of us aiming for the throat. His teeth were bared, sharp, out to tear. I struggled against the sensation of lethargy in my muscles, growling and swiping back. We were trying to kill each other.
Then my world exploded into darkness, with a terrible pain smashing into my head and a howl, my howl, my wolf howl, echoed and echoed as I spun into nothing. April!