Chapter 1: The Ronin
By Derek Hawkins
There was an almost tangible sense of a change in the air as Ian Masterantonio entered his bosses’ audience chamber. Boss. That was an interesting term to apply to his current employer. His ancestors had other words for what his new employer was: Mafioso, mobster, Capo, Sicilian. Of course, that had a lot to do with the fact that his ancestors were Italian, all the way back to the ancient Earth’s 18th Century. In some ways, he was fulfilling a traditional role in organized crime that many of his fore fathers had occupied. He was a security officer for a mid-level crime lord. His Boss, the Italian warrior thought.
His heritage also had much to do with his physical appearance. Masterantonio was of prototypical Italian decent,1.8 meters tall, with thick wavy black hair, and a naturally deep copper tan. That tan had come in handy more than once in his previous lines of work, he recalled, as he made his way down the length of cavernous audience chamber to Xenra‘s dais.
Masterantonio had been several things in the last two decades. Starting out as a simple foot soldier in the last tyrannical government before the successful completion of the revolution that brought democracy to the galaxy in the form of President Kazanzky, Ian had moved up quickly in the ranks. From infantry, to scout, to special forces, and on to the Private Guards, Masterantonio, or Master T as they called him in the field, was always eager to learn anything and everything he could about being a warrior. And that’s what he ultimately considered himself, a warrior. Perhaps the best warrior in the galaxy, who’s to say? At any rate, Ian pushed himself to learn all that he could, even about topics seemingly meaningless to the soldiers in the field, the ‘ground pounders’ as they are universally know. He picked up quite a bit about ship operations and space combat in a stint as a space ops trooper.
Beyond his time in the military, and especially after the revolution, he bounced around from job to job, picking up a whole range of odd, and seemingly random skills. Ship-jacking, or ship theft (a serious crime on many worlds) taught him a few things about breaking and entering, security systems, and smaller ship capabilities. Free-lance mercenary work helped him keep his skills sharp, especially in the first two years of the new democracy before the government got a tight reign on most of the old tyrant loyalists. Bounty hunting, his last profession before this current gig, helped him to develop his investigative skills and raise his streetwise senses.
As he approached the dais, Master T scanned the faces already present for this meeting. The was, of course, Xenra, a Kanous Crimelord. 2 meters tall, 1.25 meters across at the shoulders, and looking reminiscent of a bi-pedal man-wolf with a hairy fur coat and a mouth full of fangs to complete the look, Xenra was not to be crossed lightly. And she was only just below average size for a Kanous.
Next to her, standing beside the dais was Flynn Malstrom, Xenra’s Majordomo. Master T recalled what he had learned of the human in the short few months that he had been with Xenra. Malstrom was 1.9 meters tall and approximately 39 standard years old. Heavily muscled, Flynn had a blaster scar running the length of his right forearm and wore a dangling, five pointed dagger-star earring in his left ear. A former gun runner and smuggler, he came over to Xenra’s organization after the Crimelord that he had been working for took an “early retirement”. In short order, Malstrom worked himself up to the position of the Kanous’s chief lieutenant.
Seated comfortably on the other side of the raised dais was two faces, one familiar, one not. The familiar one was his long time friend, and “loose” partner, Yannakoric Kojurka. Yanna was a shuttle pilot that Masterantonio met in the very last days of the tyrant’s reign. Both had been in the direct service of the Dictator when Kazansky’s rebels won their greatest victory, smashing the dictator’s palace and killing the tyrant in the process. Ian and Yanna both decided that there was no time like the present to put some distance between themselves and the Dictator’s armed forces and escaped from the planet in a shuttle. While Master T had always kept there relationship on a proper business level, he had to admit that her looks were certainly a welcomed distraction from the mind-numbing monotony of hyperspace travel during their first days on the run. Kojurka was 1.7 meters in height, with the thin frame of a runner or a dancer and firery red hair that she alternately kept short or in a bob. Ian also knew that Yanna had the matching temper to those flaming follicles.
Seated on the same side of the dais as Yanna, but about as far away from everyone else as he could be without being considered extremely rude, sat a freighter captain in the employment of Xenra. Masterantonio knew relatively little about the captain, other than that the man was somewhat behind on his loan payments. The captain, like Ian, was also 1.8 meters tall. He was normally seen wearing his black long-coat where ever he went. Master T suspected that the long-coat hid all manner of weapons.
Masterantonio turned his attention back to the Crimelord and her Chief Lieutenant. The meeting was about to begin.
“Greetings, Lady, and Gentlemen,” Flynn began, speaking from his position next to Xenra. “You’re all wondering why you’re here, I’m sure.” He paused long enough, Master T noted, just long enough to look over the small gathering before continuing. “I’ve called you all here to offer you all a chance to earn some easy profits.”
That’s interesting, Ian thought, he said I instead of Xenra. This was going to be interesting indeed. It appeared Malstrom was going to run a private operation using the Crime lord’s own labor. Xenra must be getting a cut off of this, he decided. The Kano was, he knew, after all a business-being at heart. Pure and simple. Just business. If she stood to make a profit off of this little adventure, and Xenra only got into something if there was a sizeable profit to be made, then something very interesting must be going on here today.
“As you are all aware, the Dictator’s forces have been in full retreat mode since the smashing of the palace five years ago.”
Ian remembered that night all too well. He was stationed in the Palace on the night of Kazansky’s greatest victory. The Dictator had gathered all of his top military commanders and experts together for a strategic planning session. The rebels had won a string of hammer-blow victories against the Dictator’s Armed Forces, each more devastating than the last. The people at that evening’s gathering were desperate for a way to reverse the tide that was sweeping over the Dictator’s Reign.
Politics never mattered to Masterantonio. He was a soldier. He took his orders as they were given to him, went where they told him to go, shot at who or what they told him to shoot at. Because he had no burning love for politics, he often volunteered for some out of the way duty assignments. That fateful night he was on roving patrol, walking the beat near the palace shuttle hangar. The duty pilots usually had a card game running in the ready room and he often sat in for the occasional hand or two while he was on patrol. He generally liked most of the pilots stationed at the palace, and he was always sociable with them whenever he ran into one of them in the bars and saloons in town. Especially when he ran into the redhead, the one they called Yanna. He was in the ready room talking to the redhead and watching the card game when the palace’s attack siren began wailing.
Before anyone could sort out the confusion on the tactical radios the Guardsmen carried, someone shouted out an intruder warning that was suddenly cut off in mid-sentence by the shrieking sounds of humans dying. Rebel troops had appeared out of no where and attacked the palace with an insatiable fury. Many of Master T’s fellow guardsmen were killed before an organized defense could be initiated.
Not, Ian remembered, that an organized defense would have ever really had a chance. All of the Dictator’s Warlords had brought troops to act as a personal Honor Guard. Ranging in size from as small as two platoons to as large as a full regiment, each of the Warlords began issuing commands to his troops that, for the most part, countermanded orders given by the other Warlords, and only helped to bog down the palace’s defensive response. Only one unit, the regiment of Warlord Victor Rush, moved quickly and decisively.
The Warlord’s troops, it was revealed after the completion of the rebellion, were in fact rebel soldiers. They, and Warlord Rush, brought the attack from an unexpected quarter, and devastated the Dictator’s troops. With its back broken, the Palace defense crumbled away faster than sand falling through an hour glass. Within an hour, it was over. The Dictator and his leadership cadre were rounded up.
Masterantonio knew all was lost when a frantic call came over the tactical radio that the throne room was surrounded. It was time to collect his chips and cash out. Master T made it to his barracks and grabbed up his foot locker. It always stayed packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice in case he was given a detached duty assignment that he had to leave for right this instant. He returned to the pilot’s lounge and found the redhead coming out the pilots barracks with her footlocker. They looked at each other for a long moment, then the pilot broke the silence. “Going my way?” she asked, nodding toward the shuttles in the hangar.
That, Ian remembered, was a wild ride. They broke out of atmosphere and swung around to skirt the edge of the battle in orbit around the planet. Yanna never kept the shuttle on the same course for more than a few seconds as she ducked and dodged stay rounds from the battle. Ian made himself useful by watching the sensors and shouting out an audible warning whenever an errant missile pointed their way. Once they cleared the battle, Yanna plotted a short navigational course and the shuttle jumped into hyperspace.
Ian jumped out of his reverie of that fateful night and back to the present when Flynn repeated his question. “Tauklo? It was really nothing more than a small supply outpost.” Ian answered.
Malstrom nodded. “Five years ago it was a small supply outpost. Now, its the major
supply house for the remnants of the Dictator’s forces.” He looked at the assembled personnel carefully. “We are going to fleece it right out from under their very own noses.”
The freighter captain snorted derisively. “It’ll never happen.”
Malstrom turned to face the smuggler. “And why is that, Captain Hayden?”
So his name is Hayden, Masterantonio thought. That’s a little bit more than I previously knew about him. As a security officer, it was his job to know as much as possible about everyone that came in contact with Xenra. But, so far, this smuggler had been a tough nut to crack.
The smuggler gave Flynn an easy, casual look, Ian noticed. “You said it yourself, Malstrom, this is the main supply house for the remnants of the Dictator’s Forces. That means it will be guarded seven ways till the supernova. You don’t really expect to just walk in and shop around like you do at the local convenience mart?” Hayden didn’t wait for Malstorm to reply. “And unless you’re sending in a Fleet of battleships that you aren’t telling us about,” he made a sweeping gesture that took in himself, Yanna, and Masterantonio, “this little group in a frontal assault will stand no chance.”
Ian had to admit that he was impressed with this Captain Hayden’s reasoning skills. Hayden was succinct, to the point, and more importantly, right on target. He quickly looked at the other two to get their reactions. Yanna was quiet, sitting there waiting. Xenra, on the other hand, was sitting there with a bemused smile on her face, seemingly enjoying the whole little show.
“So, Flynn?” Hayden continued. “Got a fleet of battleships hiding in your pocket?”
Malstrom shook his head no, then began to grin wickedly. “No, no battleships. Just your freighter and Captain Kojurka’s shuttle.”
Hayden shook his head and glared at Flynn. “You’re crazy.” He made a move to get up. “I’ll be no part of this.”
“Sit down Hayden.” Xenra bellowed, a raspy growl starting in the back of her throat. “I’m a part of this, so you’re a part of this.” She glared laser bolts at him, daring him to defy her. As long as he was indebt to her, she controlled his future. There would be no way he could get free and clear title to his ship. And he knew it too. Hayden sat back down. She shifted her gaze to Flynn and allowed the look on her face to soften to something slightly less deadly than laser bolts. But only slightly. “Get on with it.”
Master T had noted the wicked grin that Flynn displayed before Xenra’s outburst, and just then something clicked. Malstrom had said fleece, not rob, raid, steal, or assault. Fleece. That suggested to Ian that there was going to be some sort of deception, or trickery involved. This, he decided, should be an interesting job.
Malstrom nodded and bowed to the Crimelord. “As always, I obey, Master.” He clasped his hands behind his back and began to talk. “Captain Hayden, you are correct in assuming that a straight up frontal assault by this small group would fail.”
Yanna interrupted him. “Excuse me, Flynn, but why exactly have we been chosen for this mission?”
Malstrom smiled benignly at Yanna. “A good question, and certainly one worth an answer, but that will become apparent all in good time Captain Kojurka.” He cleared his throat and then continued as if the interruption had never occurred. “That is why you will not be assaulting the Supply house.” He reached down to the small table on the corner of the dais and passed small packages to the ship captain’s and an even smaller one to Ian. “Captains, inside you will find transponder modules matching ships of the same make and model to your own ships. These modules will allow you to gain entry to the planet and onto the supply base.”
Yanna nodded and got a confirming nod back from Masterantonio. “Nice to see that the Dictator’s forces haven’t become lax in their security procedures.”
“Indeed.” Flynn agreed. “All three of you will find identification cards that match established IDs that were inserted by computer hackers into their computers. These should stand up to the most intense scrutiny.
“Each of you were chosen for this job for specific reasons.” He turned first to Yanna. “Captain Kojurka, your shuttle, while fitted out more comfortably than the more utilitarian version, is no doubt externally indistinguishable from the cargo model. This would allow you into most of the places the Dictator’s forces now call home without some much as a second glance.” Flynn waited for Yanna to acknowledge that before continuing. “Your experience as a shuttle pilot will greatly increase the chances for a successful completion of this mission.”
Malstrom next turned to the freighter captain. “Captain Hayden, the freighter you pilot is a design used extensively by the Dictator’s forces and is quite common in the galaxy.” Hayden, Masterantonio noticed, snorted loudly at the thought of his ship being ‘common’. Master T knew from his familiarity with personnel files that several of Xenra’s freighter captains shared two common traits; all have had extensive ‘modifications’ performed on the ships they ‘owned’. The other common trait was that they were all in debt to Xenra. More than anything else, Ian suspected this was the real reason Hayden was included on this job.
Masterantonio looked at Flynn. “I guess I’m tagging along because you think my past service in the Dictator’s army will come into play in the mission’s favor if we get into a tight situation?”
Malstrom was unflapped by Ian’s pre-emptiveness. More importantly, the soldier was dead-on in his assessment of his role in the mission. “Correct.”
Ian looked over at his partner and noticed that she was getting what he called ‘the pre-launch twinkle’ in her eyes. She was always ready to lift off and head out into the stars. To tell the truth, Masterantonio was coming to really enjoy the little shuttle and was even becoming a passable pilot himself. “Is there anything else we should know, Flynn?”
“Yeah,” Hayden piped up, ‘like how much are we getting paid?”
This got a laugh out of the otherwise quiet Kanous. “You are being paid well Airic that is all you need to worry about. For now.”
Hayden glowered but didn’t say anything. This one, Ian decided, required some watching in the future.
The balance of the meeting concerned the astro-navigation packages to and from the targeted planet, recognition procedures with their contact once on the ground, and escape routes on the off chance that anything should go wrong. Masterantonio sat through it all cataloging the information but not especially paying attention. After all, this was all in the packages that Flynn passed out earlier.
Malstrom finished the meeting, ending with ”If we do this right, lady and Gentlemen, we all stand to profit handsomely.”
Each of the participants shuffled off to make hiss or her own preparations for the journey they would be making in the morning.