The summons came right after I had my connection ports flushed and cleansed. Half-groggy, with the ports still smelling of antiseptic and my neck feeling tender and sore, I made my way to the Sanctum. That was what the scions of the Chang-An dynasty called it. The Sanctum, where She resided, cushioned and shielded from the rest of the world and the cruelties of the war.
I had just been promoted to be a princeps, twinned to a powerful machine. The Warhound, Caelo, was as obdurate as her ceramite and adamantium skin. She was often restless and irritable, like a leashed and caged beast. Caelo paced in my head, eager to hunt and snap at all her foes. I shared her eagerness. Her passion burned in my blood, her plasma reactor bonded to my heart. I dreamed of the glorious hunts we would have.
The Sanctum was freezing cold, the air frigid. My breath plumed white. The walls shimmered with ornate patterns of green circuitry. Rhyming couplets Grandmother had insisted the priests inscribe and construct, it was said—rhyming couplets, like poetry. The green circuits flamed across the walls, tattooing across the floor, whispering a language we didn’t understand. The circuits joined at the middle of the Sanctum, with a cone of soft white light illuminating the tank. The rest of the Sanctum was kept at a deliberate low light. My cousins speculated about it over the clan moots and feasts. One theory was that Grandmother was extremely sensitive to light, after centuries of fighting in a Warlord where the interior was mostly dark with dim amber runes in the background. Another theory was that the low light calmed Her.
Grandmother was something. A legend. She had five children, three being physically born while she was still a Warhound princeps and two born to surrogate mothers. I was the fourth child of the fifth. When I was an infant, Grandmother still led the Legio as princeps majoris. She only retired ten years ago, formally unplugged from Indomitable, the grand old Warlord now reverently kept in stasis by the Mechanicus priests. Currently, my second aunt led the Legio as acting princeps majoris.
She floated in the tank filled with milky amniotic fluid. I shivered. I was a hard-plugged princeps. I never understood how it would be like to live permanently in a tank, with the fluid replacing air and everything else, your body left to decay and your limbs removed.
Grandmother seemed to have aged more ever since she was unplugged, her skin more shrivelled, her back more hunched over, as her bones became more fragile and brittle. She was now totally hairless.
‘Meixing,’ a voice filled the Sanctum. It sounded like a tired old woman. ‘Welcome.’
‘Grandmother,’ I bowed my head.
I looked up at a wizened face.
Grandmother’s eye sockets were now filled with the green jade found in the seams of our hive world. I knew she could still see me. It was hard to look directly at her for a sustained period of time. Grandmother moved constantly in her coffin-tank, her stumps churning the waters as if she were some sea creature straight out of bedtime stories. The women with fish tails, spinning sea silk. Her jade eyes stared straight at me as if she judged me.
‘Hello, Meixing,’ Grandmother’s voice said. It was her voice, my aunts insisted. Her real voice, before it had been synthesised, twinned and fused with the Titan’s imperious tone. It was soft and feminine, with a huskier undercurrent.
She sounded as if she was glad to see me.
‘Hello, Nai Nai,’ I bowed again.
‘It must be Winter Solstice now,’ Grandmother continued.
I felt a pang of guilt, for I still enjoyed eating, especially the wondrous food prepared by the clan’s chefs. Would I enjoy the lack of food, the sensation of taste, once I become like her, permanently ensconced in amniotic fluid?
Blood? Dripping down my chin.
‘It is Winter Solstice,’ I answered carefully.
‘I made glutinous rice balls, you know,’ Grandmother said with a chuckle. Then: ‘Sitrep.’
Her tone changed from grandmotherly to something not-quite right, as if she was suddenly back in Indomitable. My cousins had warned me about this. I was suddenly afraid.
‘We will ship out the next cycle,’ I replied, quickly slipping back into the role of moderati. Reporting mode. Matter-of-fact. Calm. Detached. ‘The total Legio count will be, in total, five Warlords, five Reavers and two Warhounds.’
‘Too small to be a Legio!’ Grandmother snapped. She swirled furiously. Something hissed in the background. Coolants. The water obscured her face for a moment, before she appeared once more, her visage drawn and colourless.
‘I am sorry, my granddaughter. I sometimes feel as if I am still princeps majoris.’
‘Heaven’s Sword and Hou Yi are still under repair. The priests promise two more weeks until they can walk once more.’
Grandmother was silent for a while. I thought she had fallen asleep. I waited patiently.
When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper.
‘How goes your training with Caelo?’
I smiled. ‘The training goes well, Nai Nai. She is stubborn. Hard to rein her in when she just wants to run.’ I remembered the physical tug in my body as Caelo’s chassis lurched forward like a hunting wolf, nose to the ground, ready to follow the scent. I was her.
‘She’s a Warhound,’ Grandmother laughed, and her laughter echoed in the empty Sanctum.
‘All Warhounds are wild, stubborn and fierce in spirit.’ Like daemons…
I also laughed. For a moment, I felt a kinship with Grandmother. Not because she was my grandmother, but she was a Warhound princeps.
‘Now you have to prove yourself in battle,’ Grandmother said, and her voice was as cool as the cold in the Sanctum.
‘I will, Nai Nai.’
Then, I donned the mask and walked on.
I woke up, and the daemon wolf hissed in my head.
We hunt. I need blood.
About the Author
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Their fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Their RPG experience started with Demon: The Descent (Onyx Path). They write about werewolves in Singapore and werewolf clan wars in space.