Harimau jadian. Werecat. I first heard of the legend in one of Singapore’s open-air markets. Me and a couple guys off USS Aquila were ashore after a rough patrol in the South China Sea. Lim, a taxi driver, took fifty bucks from each of us in exchange for showing us around. We ended up in the market, where organic medicinals were hawked alongside exotic fruit, trinkets, and kebabs. A pink-haired Chinese girl, part of a film crew, was interviewing an aged Malay woman. The old woman jabbed her finger hard at the camera, insisting that full moons forced her transformation into a tigress.
Lim laughed. “It’s for a movie. If you guys are hungry, I know a great place to eat in Bugis.”
I saw a werecat less than a month later. By then I was AWOL from my ship, living out of a suite in Lim’s hotel, waiting for a game that I’d seen advertised on-line to start.
It began when the East-West MRT line went dark along with all of Singapore. MRT workers forced subway car doors open to release us passengers into the eerie quiet of the Bugis shopping district — a collection of colorful, colonial-era storefronts and modern glass and steel masterpieces.
People wandered Bugis’ sidewalks, cursing cellphones that didn’t work. Sidewalks bordered streets filled with vehicles that wouldn’t start. I imagined Lim was stuck in his taxi somewhere too. I slumped, my back against the corner of a boutique, and watched a cute pink-haired girl wearing a Misfits t-shirt hurry into an alley. Familiar? Maybe, but an argument among stranded drivers stole my attention long enough that, when I looked back down the alley, I saw a tiger climbing a low run of concrete stairs that led into the back of the restaurant in Lim’s hotel.
Notes: AWOL from USS Aquila.
When Aquila left Changi wharf, they were short a sailor to help chart their course and exchange messages by semaphore or flashing lights. Why did I go AWOL? The game is about luck and chance — luck can be hard to come by, so you have to take chances when you can if you want to win.
Except I wasn’t taking chances. Me and Lim were holed up in my hotel suite. He wasn’t doing well a week after the power went out.
Notes: Hotel manager. Taxi driver. 22 days until the next full moon.
“EMP attack.” Lim wheezed. “This isn’t a blackout.”
I was stuck in the hotel with Lim, enduring sweltering days and candlelit nights spent inventorying what was left in the hotel restaurant’s freezers so we could forage just enough to sustain us. Some nights, we carried our food up to the roof and gazed out at a Singapore whose darkness and pinpricks of candlelight matched black skies diamonded with stars. Offshore, dozens of cargo ships stuck at anchor in the strait were no different — proof enough for me there had been an EMP attack.
“I’m gonna get you help,” I told Lim one night.
Lim coughed. “Don’t waste yourself on me, you’re young, strong. You can make it.”
While Lim lay wheezing in the bedroom, I struggled between fitful sleep, time wasted pacing the floor, and moments spent staring past my balcony at a darkened Singapore where roving bands searched for food during hot, sticky nights. That was how I spotted a light brighter than most flashing in an upper floor window of a tall building blocks away. Morse code, but gibberish. I started scribbling the messages anyway, in case they mattered. They didn’t until the pink-haired girl I remembered from before knocked on our door.
“Look man,” she mumbled, “my name’s Amelia. I’m starving. If you’ve got anything, I’m not above turning a trick.”
Notes: 12 days until the next full moon.
Amelia’s offer was tempting — she was petite, cute, and it had been too long since I’d last been with anyone — but I couldn’t. Instead, I grabbed the message I’d pencilled on hotel stationary the night before and thrust it at her. “Help us figure this out?”
Amelia was wary. “Why me?”
“It’ll give you something to do in trade for our food.”
“Me and my friend Lim,” I explained. “He’s in the bedroom. He’s sick.”
Amelia studied: HWTML EUQMB JCPFU NGRRJ GGLBX YZGFM ICNHS LGGB COCJKY 780 RVU
“I’m thinking it could help Lim,” I pressed Amelia. “He’s getting worse.”
Amelia nodded. She began reciting letters, “J, U, R, O, N, G, W…”
I interrupted. “What is it?”
“Safe zones. Off-limits this coming hunt,” Amelia mumbled as she decoded names of Singaporean districts — Jurong, Woodlands, Little India, Bedok, Aljuneid — and finished with ‘Amelia 780 pts.’
“This coming hunt?” Like I didn’t understand the game.
“Part of the game. Every full moon, there’s a hunt,” she said, pausing to listen as Lim coughed long and deep from inside the bedroom. “He’s in bad shape.”
“Aljuneid’s close. Get Lim there and he’ll be safe?”
Amelia ignored my question. “If you think about where the safe zones are on an MRT map, they kinda look like the Aquila constellation.”
“Why Aquila?” I fired back.
Amelia smirked. “I knew you and your friends were from USS Aquila that day you watched us doing our podcast in the market.
My face flushed hot.
“Look, why you went AWOL is your thing, right? I just need a place to stay until the next full moon.”
Notes: 3 days until the next full moon.
Lim was fading. Me and Amelia weren’t — we were taking care of Lim, transcribing messages, and making love in between. Amelia tried to teach me the code. “Letter substitution.” She explained. “They take each letter and go up or down by two. It changes on each vowel. Like the J, in Jurong, could be an H or L. Numbers aren’t encoded.”
“So how do you break the code?”
Amelia smirked. “Like the one I decoded? I made two lists. I took each letter, went up two in one list, back two in the other, then I compared the lists and sorted it out.”
Later, while Amelia slept, I worked on another message the way she said — MBBQD CXMPH CAECQ XCPCO CJKYL GZV JSLR — struggling to make sense of it.
When she woke I asked her, “Why did Lim say you were filming a movie that day in the market, but you said it was a podcast?”
“Don’t you trust Lim?”
I shrugged. “No reason not to. It’s Lim’s hotel that’s keeping the three of us safe and fed, right?”
“Not like you couldn’t have gone someplace else.” Amelia deadpanned.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe being stuck here cut you off from something better.”
I changed the subject. “We ought to try and get Lim to Aljuneid.” I decided. “It’s close.”
“Go to Aljuneid, lose what you’ve got here.”
I wasn’t ready to give up sleeping with Amelia whenever we both wanted it any more than I could give up on helping Lim.
Notes: 1 day until the next full moon.
Amelia’s eyes didn’t meet mine as we lay there on the couch’s roll-out bed. “Full moon’s coming. You’ll want me gone.”
“Why do you say that?”
Lim’s guttural cough resounded from the bedroom.
Amelia laid her head on my chest. “Lim’s not going to make it. Navy people might come looking for you. Last thing you need is harimau jadian in here when the full moon comes.”
I laughed. “You believe in that stuff?”
“Jayce,” she said, “you saw me do it the day the power first went out. The moon was full then.”
“C’mon now,” I dismissed.
“You saw me climb the back steps into the hotel’s restaurant.”
“Okay,” I offered, “so before you turn into a tiger I lock you in a room here at the hotel until the full moon’s over. Then we can go back to this.”
Amelia smirked as she climbed on top of me and straddled my hips. “This game you and I are playing while Lim wastes away? Are you willing to take the chance that I won’t turn on you and Lim to score some easy points in the next hunt?”
My hands explored the soft contours of her body. “You wouldn’t.”
“Ever wonder how I knew to knock on your door?” She teased, then bent down and kissed me.
“I don’t believe in luck or chance.” Amelia countered. “I’m playing the game to win. What are you playing for?”
The message I’d been working on while she slept, if I decoded it right, favored my odds over hers during the next hunt — there was a chance I’d survive. All I needed was a little luck to make it through the next full moon so that once it was over, I could get Lim some help.
This story previously appeared in AntipodeanSF.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Andrew writes science-fiction and fantasy from the state of Maryland, often drawing ideas from jogs through forest trails at sunrise. His work has previously appeared in AntipodeanSF, 365 Tomorrows, Daily Science Fiction, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, and in MetaStellar as reprints and MetaStellar Anthhology – his work has also short-listed in several writing contests. Andrew welcomes reader feedback at [email protected].