“A Matter of Possession” by Joyce Chng
Admiral Wu sat in the executive office sumptuously appointed in a personal favorite style – a lot of calligraphy and embroidery framed in lacquered rosewood. There was the mild fragrance of jasmine tea in the air, the sound of waves and the soft tick-tock of the clock with the golden mechanical canary on the mantle. Exquisitely painted portraits of family members and her child graced the large table. It was an idyllic moment and savored immensely like fine mellowed Burgundy wine, another personal favorite. Of course, the moment must be complete with the ornately carved teak betel box, filled with areca nuts and betel leaves to be chewed. An acquired taste, of course, from a tour of duty in the seas of Java; the other officers had found the taste strange and unfavorable.
It was indeed a rare moment. Paperwork had to be done with many files requiring her official acknowledgement. This was done with the usual red seal, carved with rank, name and ship’s name. Reports had to be written; at the moment, the stenograph was being prepared by Ensign Han Xing, a young lad eager to please his commanding officer. He was outside the office, waiting to be called in.
Oh, just a few minutes longer for tea. Yet, such thinking was indulgent. There were duties to be done, tasks to be accomplished. The Imperial vessel Feng Huang was not an idle ship.
A fastidious check of uniform, adorned with a braid corded with golden thread and a marker of seniority; very much in the style of the Western nations. There was another set of uniform, courtlier in fashion with brocaded sleeves and pants, in the executive cabin.
It was time. The tea had already been drunk and enjoyed in private. The poor ensign was perhaps impatient now. The bell was pressed and within a few seconds, Ensign Han Xing’s earnest face appeared at the door. He was twenty, having passed his Imperial Academy examinations two years ago. He had proven himself to be reliable, though a little pompous at times. He bore the stenograph, embossed of course with dragons and phoenixes, very carefully. It was a work of art, a gift from her family when the promotion to admiral was announced a year ago.
“Yes, Admiral Wu?” He snapped to attention, the stenograph held in front of him stiffly.
“Please. Come in.”
Ensign Han Xing went obediently to the side of the large mahogany table, his usual place, when he worked the stenograph. He set up the apparatus and waited expectantly, his ruddy face alert, eyes bright.
“How are the cadets settling in?” Admiral Wu asked softly. The eight cadets were fresh from the Imperial Academy, sent to her ship for practical attachment. She took special interest in the eight, because they were all girls, scions from a number of aristocratic and merchant families. A long time ago, she was like them, in a pioneer batch for “fair maidens” to join the illustrious Imperial Academy.
Ensign Han Xing answered, his tone neutral, just as he was taught: “They have settled down, my lord. They find their accommodations to their satisfaction. Cadets Xiao and Lee are experiencing slight discomfort and are coping at the moment.”
Admiral Wu had to stifle a smile. The constant rolling and pitching of the ship was something that the cadets had to get used too. They had to be prepared, eventually, for lift-off too, because the Feng Huang, like all the Hai Feng-class ships, had aero capabilities. Training at the Imperial Academy was one thing. Being on an actual ship was another. She remembered how her stomach lurched when the ship she apprenticed on – the Peony – went into emergency evasive maneuvers in mid-air, to avoid collision with the Mountain Spirit which was approaching too rapidly. The helmsman of the Peony was reprimanded by the then commanding officer for his negligence.
All officers of Her Imperial Majesty’s Aero-Nautical Navy had to be impeccable in their duties, honorable and steadfast in what they did. Negligence was a blemish in personal records. She knew that it was not entirely the helmsman’s fault; she recalled his name was Xu. But he bore the brunt of the commanding officer’s wrath. She hoped that the eight cadets would become good officers. They had after all gone through the rigorous basic training and had proven that they were physically and mentally fit. And young, she thought ruefully. With youthful idealism still in their eyes and hearts. It would be a steep learning curve for them.
The Feng Huang swayed a little. The sea was a little rough today. The stability was soon adjusted by the ship’s inbuilt ballast and Wu decided that she would look into the reports now. She signaled Han Xing who sat up straighter, fingers poised on the keyboard. Time to be impeccable in her duties now.
Morning brought fog and a bone-chilling cold. Most of the sailors and supervising officers wore their standard-issue wool-lined cloaks marked with the emblem of the Imperial Armed Forces: a golden stylized dragon. The Feng Huang creaked and responded to the cold weather. Already the boilers in the engine room were working hard to provide steam as well as warmth for the cabins.
Commander Tsang found herself blowing on her fingers while she was overseeing training. The ensigns and the cadets were going through the routine calisthenics, timed with rhythmic drumbeats. She was pleased that the eight girls – they looked so young! – were keeping up with their male counterparts. At least their feet were not bound and they were not in flimsy silks. They were doing something productive and the Navy certainly needed their contributions. She had already heard rumors that the commanding brass might launch an all-female ship. But rumors were rumors; if the interfering lazy eunuchs had their way, there would not be any female officer in the Navy.
Cadets Xiao and Lee were looking better now, after their bout of motion sickness. They would cope, in due time. Ming, Tang, Chu and Wang were going through their self-defense punches with some gusto. The two quieter ones, Ling and Ouyang, were diligent enough.
Suddenly something fell from the sky, a bright star-like object blazing a trail across the heavens. It arced, as if Hou Yi the divine archer was practicing his shots, high and wide. A splash and an explosion followed when it impacted. It was loud enough to make the Feng Huang shiver in response.
The calisthenics halted abruptly, with the ensigns and cadets gaping at the phenomenon.
“Stay in focus,” Tsang rapped out sharply, even though her curiosity was piqued. The youngsters scrambled into action again, afraid to earn her wrath. A movement drew her attention to the helm. Admiral Wu had emerged from her office, wrapped in her cloak. She too had seen the strange star fall.
“Do you know what that phenomenon actually is?”
The ship was speeding full steam ahead in the direction of the impact, the wind harsh against exposed facial skin. The two senior officers stood at the helm manned by Navigator Deng.
“A meteorite, perhaps?” Wu turned to face her first officer. “It was uncommonly bright.”
They had just received urgent code from the brass to retrieve the stellar object so that the Imperial scientists could start their investigations. A meteorite could provide so much information about the solar system as well as other essential questions like military defense and protection. So, the Imperial vessel Feng Huang was rushing to the scene as fast as her boilers could manage. Imagine how the discovery would galvanize research – and Imperial China would leap forward with technological advancements.
“My lord, we are approaching the target,” Navigator Deng announced respectfully and the ship slowed discernibly from full steam to gentle cruise. There were sea gulls riding the wind, their wings white against grey, dipping and out of the fog like spirits. They were circling above something in the water, squawking away in a chaotic chorus.
Commander Tsang peered into the churning sea, amused that some sea birds were perched floating on the surface of the water. She peered more closely and spied something dark, like coffee, half-submerged in water. It was huge, as big as an Imperial carriage and surprising light as well, bobbing noticeably with the current. The Feng Huang drew up beside the object and the two women could see that the object was also obsidian in color, looking like some dark jewel. Floating. Was it porous? What kind of material was it made of? Where did it come from? Do rocks float?
“Not from the moon,” Tsang hazarded a guess. “Chang’Er might be looking for a lost rock.” Her wry humor made Wu smile a little. They were friends and had spent the Pioneer Years as roommates.
“It looks light,” Wu leaned forward and made mental measurements of the size and weight. “I do not think it is an asteroid either. It looks… different.” Definitely for the stenograph, she mused to herself. She made notes on the logistics of the imminent retrieval operation. Where was she going to store that huge thing? Would it contaminate the ship and her people with something nefarious?
A cry broke the silence. It was from the crow’s nest. “Ship sighted!”
Tsang and Wu looked at each other. It was going to be interesting. No other Navy ship belonging to Imperial China was in the vicinity.
It was, as expected, not a familiar Navy ship making its way towards them. The make was different with a cumbersome-looking hull and ungainly body, clad in iron and smoking thick black smoke. A typical Western-style ironclad, steel-grey and grim as they came. Wu and Tsang had studied pictures and schematics of the ships belonging to the European West; they also encountered such ships in separate tours of duty. It looked like a British Caesar-class destroyer. Probably on border patrol and lucky enough to have spotted the bright star making its downward plunge.
For a moment, Wu thought of home, of the family courtyard pink with cherry blossoms in spring. Of children’s laughter. Strange that in moments of potential anxious confrontations thoughts of home became important and precious. She turned to look at the dark object still floating on the water.
The ugly foreign vessel puffed its way up to a fair distance away from the Feng Huang but close enough to allow identification of vessel type and its size. Caesar-class and armed with visible gun-ports and turrets.
Wu breathed in deeply. She was trained in diplomacy; she astutely chose classes in diplomacy and relations with other foreign countries (and their navies). The British Empire was an ally of Imperial China, though some officials said it was an uneasy friendship fraught with intense rivalry and subtle jealousies. The relations with her British counterparts had been polite enough, though not as cordial as she would have expected. There were few women officers in their Navy staffed mostly by men. She steeled herself for a war, not only of words but also of pre-existing attitudes.
The foreign ship was already signaling, with colored flags. The commanding officer of that ship wanted to talk to her.
Tsang looked at her again. It was very likely that the British vessel wanted the fallen star.
“Well met,” Wu greeted the tall British officer with a warm enough tone and smiled, welcoming him into her executive room. The gentleman was dressed in a smart Naval uniform, almost similar to hers. Dark blue, with a red sash around his waist and a ceremonial saber at his side. The gentleman was around her age, late thirties and early forties. He was blonde, streaked with premature white. His blue eyes were examining her intently and she looked back at him unafraid. There were many foreign men who thought that Chinese women were dainty and docile, with a doll-like fragility. In terms of designation, she outranked him and she was not some China doll, ornamental and pretty to look at. Her command of Queen’s English was excellent and she could see the man’s expression: disbelief.
She had her dark hair pulled into a severe bun, pinned together with an ivory comb, having eschewed long hair. Not when she was onboard her ship. It was highly inconvenient, especially when it came to hand-to-hand combat. Her skin was fair, though not like porcelain imagined by the European press. She was wearing leather boots, not embroidered silk slippers.
“Well met, madam,” the gentleman said with a nod. “Let me introduce myself. I am Captain Richard Harper, of the Royal British Navy. My ship – he indicated with a tilt of his chin, towards the porthole – is the HMS Wolfhound.”
“I am pleased to have made your acquaintance,” Wu kept her tone careful. Cordial but careful. It was obvious that Captain Richard Harper was also eyeing the floating stellar item.
“The Wolfhound was in the vicinity when we spotted a strange heavenly object,” Harper started by saying, politely refusing the offer of jasmine tea. “We traced its impact to this particular area.”
Wu inclined her head slightly. “So did we. My ship is on a retrieval mission.”
Harper’s nostrils flared a little. “We have received directions to recover the phenomenon as well.”
There was a brief electric moment of tension, both officers from two different navies sizing each other up. It reminded Wu of a dog-and-bone situation, with two dogs posturing over a tasty morsel. Her phoenix’s heart flamed brightly and waited for Harper to make his move. She watched him like an eagle watching a rabbit. He soon cleared
“May I suggest we share in the retrieval operation and take samples for our respective scientific investigations?” he said quietly, and waited for her response. He was watching her just as she was. Both of them wanted the whole object intact and she did not think that both of them were going to back away that easily.
“A good suggestion, sir,” she replied. He nodded
The cadets bantered amongst themselves, all curious about the ‘thing from the sky’ and wanting to know more about it.
Cadet Xiao watched the dark star-object move up and down in the water. Ensign Han Xing was on duty, collecting samples from the rock, tinkering away at the apparently tough exterior skin. It looked metallic. There were two British men, about the same age as Han Xing, helping him. Han Xing was more gentlemanly than those louts, even though he could be so arrogant. She had also seen him eyeing her a few times. She was eighteen, a maiden – but she was not going to let girlish emotions interfere with her duty.
The two British ensigns were talking animatedly while making sure the rowboat did not drift away from their center of attention. She wondered what London looked like, felt like. What she had heard and seen (from paintings) was a city filled with tall buildings, cramped streets and beautiful gardens. Pretty much like the main capital Beijng with its cobbled walkways and small lanes. The women were apparently stylish with pretty dresses and fashionable hair-dos.
Something caught her eye. A light. No, a glow, as if from the sun. It came from the rock. The three young men had noticed it too and seemed transfixed by it.
Her head throbbed. It felt as if she was having a relapse of the seasickness. She did not vomit though. Instead the throbbing continued; she felt as if there was a sound, like a high-pitched scream, emanating from the rock. She looked around worriedly and saw that her friends were also experiencing the same discomfort, their foreheads creased in pain. She flung an anxious glance at Han Xing and his companions. They were rowing desperately away from the rock and one of the British ensigns was retching into the sea.
It was at this moment the world turned blindingly white.
Admiral Wu came to, leaning against the helm. Nausea. She swallowed hard and pulled herself up slowly but firmly. Next to her, Tsang was having the same struggle.
What just happened? There was a blinding flash of light and the world became white, blanking out everything. There was also the strange sound —
“Han Xing!” She gasped and spotted the rowboat with the three boys unconscious in it. The rock was still there, a dark lode-stone of untold … menace.
They managed to rescue the three young officers. The Wolfhound rushed its ship’s physician over. While her own medical officer and his counterpart mulled over the boys, Wu made sure that everyone was accounted for and all right. Many showed signs of nausea and disorientation.
Someone was running up the stairs leading to the helm. Wu realized that it was Cadet Xiao; the girl’s face was drained of blood and she was in an obvious state of panic.
“My lord,” Cadet Xiao rasped out. She had tears in her eyes. “Madam. The rest are gone!”
“Who are gone?” Wu said firmly, shaken by the abject fear in the girl’s voice.
“My friends… the other cadets! They just vanished! One moment they were standing next to me and then they were gone!” Xiao blurted out and started sobbing, clearly traumatized.
Wu did not like what was happening in front of her. The situation was getting progressively worse. Captain Richard Harper had appeared on deck and was demanding an explanation. Did the Wolfhound suffer the same white light and the resultant physical disorientation?
While one of her assistants comforted the distraught girl, Wu turned her attention to Harper whose face was similarly pale and angry.
“What in blazes just happened?!” He roared and Wu frowned, disconcerted and displeased at the captain’s loss of emotional control.
“A bizarre occurrence. There was a strong piercing sound and many of my officers had lost consciousness .” She said truthfully. Harper looked as if he needed a stiff drink.
“So did Wolfhound,” Harper rubbed his face slowly, perturbed. “At least Jenkins and Smith are responding well to Doctor Halwell’s treatment.”
Wu was worried about Han Xing who was still out from it. She was also worried about the fallen star. Its status was now lifted to “Dangerous Item”. Is it sentient? Is it alive? What is it?
— Then there was music.
Beautiful celestial-sounding music, with qin (stringed) instruments. Voices too, laughter and singing.
Harper’s mouth fell open. Wu looked up and stared.
What Wu saw were seven young women and they wore the faces of the seven missing cadets. Dancing in the sky, these young women were dressed in flowing silks in the colors of dawn. Their laughter was merry and infectious and otherworldly. Straight from legends of the celestial place.
“Who are you?” Wu said, finally finding her voice… “Who are you? What have you done with my cadets?”
The laughter grew louder, even cheerful, sounding as if the girls were out on a lark, a leisurely stroll in the gardens. Wu narrowed her eyes and smelled something afoot. She had been in the Navy long enough to sense falsehood and danger.
“Whatever you are doing, let the girls go,” she said coldly. “They are innocents.”
“We serve a purpose,” the seven maidens chorused in unison. “We are the Pleiades sisters and we are here.”
“Why?” Admiral Wu hissed, feeling the anger build up inside her. How dare they? “Why are you here?” They were speaking Putonghua, the state-sanctioned Mandarin Chinese.
“We are visiting this earthly plane,” one with the face of Chu, clothed in peach, answered.
“We have been watching you,” one with the face of Ling, , piped in.
“We are the Pleiades,” one bearing the visage of Ouyang, announced, repeating the message. They spoke in riddles and Wu grew more and more frustrated.
“Let the girls go,” a masculine voice joined in and it was Harper coming up beside Wu. His eyes sparked with anger and his voice was hoarse with controlled rage. Wu lifted an eyebrow in surprise. Either he understood Mandarin Chinese or that the entities were somehow able to make comprehension possible.
“Why?” The question came back, taunting them.
Arrogant. It was going nowhere. The entities were … entities. Either from the rock or conveying messages from the rock, Wu did not know and did not want to make further guesses. Not at the moment, when the situation was tense and the lives of seven girls hung on the balance. She was not the type to believe in celestial visitors. They belonged to the realm of stories and legends, something to beguile children. Just like Chang’Er and the moon. Just like Hou Yi and his bow. Was she going to be fooled by beings from a constellation?
She was a trained diplomat as well as a naval officer. There were times that she dreaded using force and aggression. She knew that Harper was going through the same dilemma.
“Let them go,” Wu said. “Please state what you want from us.”
There was momentary silence as if there was some deliberation going on. The seven sky maidens hung voiceless, like marionettes, in mid-air. Then the one with Wang’s features spoke:
“Let us go. You are not ready for enlightenment
The answer was cryptic and infuriating. Ready for enlightenment? Wu snarled inwardly. “Do you mean we should leave that rock alone?”
“Yessssssss.” The seven maidens replied altogether, their mouths moving in harmony. In other times, Wu might have thought that the whole situation was eerie. But she was becoming cold with anger.
Why you pompous, conceited… non-earthly entity. Wu had enough of its trickery. She hated to be treated like some errant silly child. She turned deliberately to Navigator Deng who gaped foolishly at the seven flying figures. “Prepare for flight. Inform the engine room.”
“Admiral!” Deng’s eyes were doubtful, but he dutifully relayed the commands by hitting the signal-chimes before him. Soon, the Feng Huang began her transformation from sea-faring vessel to an aerial ship, valves and doors closing in the ship’s insides, pouring water from the ballast, so that it could be air-worthy. The ship clanked and shifted gears, added large vanes along aft, reduced the emission of smoke and channeled more energy to the boilers. Wu stood through the entire change from sea vessel to air-ship silent, keeping an eye on the “Pleiades sisters”.
Harper grinned roguishly and grimly at her. “I would have done that too.” The Caesar-class Wolfhound was also capable of flight since the nations were all pushing for air superiority.
As the Feng Huang began to lift clear from the water, her dragon bow glistening with moisture and her steam engine powering her ascent, Wu made orders to have the guns focused on the dark gleaming rock. Standing nearby, Commander Tsang realized that it was a game of bluff and she did not say anything else. Her head was still ringing from the unnatural music.
The seven maidens began to show signs of distress, wailing away, as if whatever or whoever was behind them was experiencing a certain degree of consternation.
“You expect us to sit down quietly and, suck our thumbs like little children?” Wu said coolly and she thought then of her little son in her family home. His pink-colored cheeks and happy smile. His boundless curiosity. She pushed that thought away. Put her emotions away as firmly, as coldly as possible. “You expect us to be obedient and just let you go?”
Seven voices started to rise in volume, higher and higher. The song seemed to go straight into the bone, drilling right into the skull.
“Shut up,” Wu snapped irritably and the seven voices ceased their unearthly wailing immediately. She had had enough of this entity masquerading as heavenly beings, putting her cadets in instant jeopardy. “Shut up. You have already hurt my crew. And if you hurt the seven girls, I will make sure that you will be let go, in a dazzling fashion.”
The wind whispered past her, swirling around her in eddies. The Feng Huang was air-borne, her guns directed squarely at the alien visitor.
“Let me go,” the girl with the face of Ming said in a subdued voice. “I will let the girls go, unharmed.”
“Do it now,” Admiral Wu stated sternly.
The music died down. The glow dimmed and the seven maidens were gently lowered onto the deck, their celestial façade gone, clad only in their normal dress uniforms.
“Admiral,” Deng said suddenly. “The rock is moving.”
Indeed it was, shooting up from the water, glowing brightly, sending a spray of surf into the air. It ascended into the heavens, seemingly in a hurry to get away.
“Ah,” Wu said finally. “All bluff.”
She then ordered the physician to check on the seven girls who were by now stirring from their unusual possession experience, expressions of confusion on their faces.
Captain Richard Harper imbibed the hot jasmine tea in tiny sips, calming his nerves. They had both retired into her executive room. Wu resisted the temptation to grab a betel nut or two; instead, she drank her tea demurely and watched the British captain.
“By Jove, you deal like a man,” Harper commented, putting his cup down.
Wu chuckled. “Wouldn’t you have done the same thing when such anomalies threaten the safety of your crew?”
Richard grinned ruefully. “I didn’t expect the whole ship to fly. Should have shot the blighter there and then. ”
“Vantage point,” she smiled, this time warmly. “Surely you have learned about it in your academy?”
The British captain laughed.
After Harper had left for his ship, Wu made sure she visited the seven girls in the infirmary. They were still drowsy from the medication Doctor Hu had prescribed for them, but no adverse side effects from the possession. Now, how was she going to write that report?
Xiao hovered worriedly in the infirmary. This experience would linger long in her memories. She thanked Wu though, profusely and gratefully, hero-worship shining in her eyes.
It was with some degree of exhaustion Wu headed for the executive office, her mind dwelling on the technicalities of reporting the whole incident. She paused in front of the door, feeling a sudden weakness in her knees. Perhaps she needed to go back to Zhejiang, to see her family and hold her son. She was long overdue for rest.
“Mei Tzu,” Tsang appeared from nowhere and Wu glanced at her friend tiredly. The commander was using her given name, indicating a level of trust and friendship. She gave Tsang a wan smile and nothing else. The first officer was holding a velvet bag and Wu recognized it immediately with a start of her heart.
“Han Xing?” The admiral opened the door and walked in slowly, feeling the aches in her shoulder blades. Too much tension in one day.
“He is recovering,” Tsang replied, herself looking no better. She had her own reports to write. “He gives you this though.”
Wu handled the bag and looked at the contents.
“You are not…” Wu said incredulously. “These…Zhao Jun?”
“From that thing. We managed to get the samples.”
“Now this is going to make the whole situation very interesting. Not to mention vexing. How are we going to explain to them that the rock flew away and the retrieval mission was naught?”
“True,” Tsang chuckled wryly. “The rock, though, did threaten the ship…” She grimaced at the recent memory. “How about Captain Harper? How is he going to write about this episode?”
“We are going to report the same thing. With different embellishments based on individual interpretation, of course.”
Tsang tactfully slipped away, leaving Admiral Wu to step into her office, for a moment of much needed peace. The room felt comfortable. The canary clock ticked and made soft metallic noises as the springs spun, telling time. There was still the smell of jasmine. Everything was normal, routine. However, what she had experienced with her crew and the Wolfhound’s, was nothing short of extraordinary. How was she going to do the experience justice? Writing the report as objectively and truthfully as she could was her main task now. The sequence of events spun in her mind, like a delicate spider-web of connections and patterns. The trick was to use the appropriate words. She had the physical evidence in the form of black obsidian shards. She had no doubt that the brass would pursue the matter, especially when it concerned the seven cadets. .
Her truth. Her crew’s truth. Harper’s truth. The girls’ truth. Different opinions, same event. She was not a person prone to dishonesty or lying. With a sigh, she began the difficult task of writing the report with a quill pen and parchment paper, the stenograph being not in use as Ensign Han Xing was still resting in his cabin. She was an impeccable officer of the Aero-Nautical Navy and she had a job to do. She started the report by stating her rank and her full name.
Perhaps, in the end, it all boiled down to a matter of possession.
About the Author
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore, loves sf/f, reading, writing, cooking, gardening and assorted stuff. She has a lovely daughter (and another one on the way) and a wonderful husband. Her two cats drive her crazy but they are very lovable.
Her other writing and publishing credits include a self-published anthology of speculative fiction (Envisioning: A Collection of Speculative Fiction) and a story “Waiting For the Full Moon” (2000) in Fang, Claw And Steel.
Her writings can be found at http://jolantru.dreamwidth.org.