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Though Stars May Fall - Prologue: Priority One

By CMK 2004

Office of Defense
Planet Tr'kl'thos, Galactic Federation Outpost

Bounty hunters. To some, heroes. To others, the scum of the galaxy. To a select few, partners. To even fewer, friends. But to all, dreaded and fearsome foes, living legends during their time, mysterious and deadly assassins known to few and trusted by none. Questions surrounded them like a second skin. Who were they? Could they be trusted? Why did they love money so much? Such was John St.-Varda.

St.-Varda was his true name, but among his peers and customers he was known simply as "Ronin," his preferred callsign. He was a male human, relatively tall for his species at two standard meters and five centimeters, with keen brown eyes and crisp, neat walnut hair. He was well-built, with a look of one who maintains strength despite the debilitating effects of zero-g environments. Among his large variety of skills was charm; to his credit, few females of his species could resist him. For this day and occasion, he wore a slightly threadbare military uniform and long rubber boots.

Opposite him was the Galactic Federation's Commissar for Defense. The two men were seated in the commissar's office, a simple, small room lined with metallic tiles and bare of anything without relationship to business. Which happened to be what they were discussing. The commissar cut straight to the point. "What do you know about the planet Noriath, Mr. Ronin?"

St.-Varda, seated across from the commissar in a simple folding chair, leaned back. "Located on the very edge of the galaxy, supposedly in the 14-62-339 sector, if my memory serves. A class-A planet, rich with life, vegetation, atmosphere, and its main export is grain. A farming planet, with a population of approximately 145 million, most of which is concentrated in the capital city - and only city - of Sa'is Da'ar. Speaking of population, it's one of the few planets where humans are the only sentient species. I've never been there before, though." He tapped his fingers on the commissar's desk. "Would you get to the point, Mr. Commissar?"

The commissar nodded and passed to St.-Varda a sheet of plastic paper containing the vital statistics of the planet. St.-Varda took it in at a single glance, then folded it away for later inspection. "We lost contact with the planet two weeks ago," the commissar stated. "The level of technology on Noriath is by no means impressive. News is gathered, shipped to a central telecommunications system, and then passed through a series of satellites that ultimately bring the information to Sagittarius Station. From there it can be accessed from all over the Federation, but of course you knew that already, Mr. Ronin."

St.-Varda made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "My profession, Mr. Commissar, is bounty hunter, not technician. And my time is valuable."

The commissar remained unruffled. "I understand that, Mr. Ronin. The bounty for this mission is twenty million Federation credits. Before you decide whether or not to accept it, I must first say that a technical crew was first dispatched to inspect the satellites, then the planet. The satellites were found to be free of defect; rarely does a communications blackout occur from a planet, but this was suspected for this particular case. The technical crew reported from Noriath's orbit that short-range communications also seemed to be hampered; quite unusual for such a blackout to last a standard week. They did a ground inspection."

"Let me guess, Mr. Commissar," St.-Varda ventured. "They were never heard of again."

"Very observant of you, Mr. Ronin, but not quite correct. The last word from the crew was sent some time after touchdown, and it was not received until nearly one standard hour after the technical ship had already landed. Federation procedure is to report -"

"Yes, I know, every two standard hours. And they haven't reported for a week. And no Federation crew makes a mistake like that." St.-Varda shrugged. "Maybe your crew had a problem with its equipment."

"A technical crew, sent specifically to repair communications, experiencing a technical breakdown? Of a standard week? Mr. Ronin, I am disappointed."

"So why should I take the commission?" St.-Varda demanded, a little put off by his rashness. "It's a task for the military. Granted, twenty million's kinda tempting, but I could make just as much hunting down some criminals that the Commerce Guild wants. The Guild's credits are every bit as useful as the Federation's."

"Perhaps this will change your mind, Mr. Ronin." The commissar shifted his computer monitor, allowing St.-Varda to see into the screen. Then he pressed a button and a transmission - broken in places and somewhat faded - began to repeat. "This is the first mate of the Herald's Path, making standard transmission as per Federation protocol upon touchdown. Noriath is strangely quiet - no one hailed us on the approach to the tower. Equipment's fine here, though, doesn't look like anything catastrophic happened - no ion storms, no abnormal weather, nothing. Anyway, the captain ..." Here the transmission faded into static before resuming. "... but no ... of life yet. If this is a prank, it's an awfully big one ... otherwise, Sa'is Da'ar is fine. On a last note," but here an alarm klaxon began to ring in the background, "... battle stations? Looks like an emergency, HQ, I'll report when it's been ... what the ...! Aargh, help! Hel-" A sick squishing sound abruptly cut off the first mate's transmission. After a few more moments, in which sporadic gunfire could be heard on occasion, the transmission ended. The commissar looked at Ronin expectantly.

"What did your analysts make of that, Mr. Commissar?"

The commissar spread out his hands. "Inconclusive, Mr. Ronin. It was the last heard of the crew. The military sent a number of scouts in an attempt to contact the crew of the Herald's Path from orbit, but these were unsuccessful and Sagittarius Station was not willing to risk another ground investigation in light of what had occurred."

"Hmm, can't exactly blame them. So, if I do take the mission, how much of the money is up front?"

"Half a million credits, Mr. Ronin."

St.-Varda sighed an exaggerated sigh of strained patience coupled with unknowable suffrance. "Fine. Sounds like the potential fun outweighs the measly front pay. When do I leave?"

"In eighteen standard hours, Mr. Ronin. This mission is priority one. You will travel aboard the battlecruiser Star Shard, where you will be more fully briefed, and there you may contact your team members."

"Team members?!" St.-Varda exploded, losing his complacency in an instant. "Wait a minute, now! I work alone, Mr. Commissar. Either that or I don't work at all! If I'm expected to be part of a team, I'm backing out now."

"We do not like this arrangement either, Mr. Ronin, but the nature of Sa'is Da'ar's main communications relay is that at least four operatives must be on hand in order to restart it. A solo mission is a technical impossibility. Your other three teammates are as well-qualified as you are and should already be aboard the Star Shard."

"I said it before and I'll say it again, Commissar, I only -"

"What if we double the bounty, Mr. Ronin?"

St.-Varda had to admit that he was tempted by the offer, but he held firm. "A 'no' is a 'no,' Commissar!" He stood up, somewhat indignant. "I've wasted my time here, and my time is valuable. If you'll excuse me, there's -"

"One of your teammates is Samus Aran." The commissar's eyes now held a sharp, calculating gleam that St.-Varda did not like one bit. A distant part of his mind suddenly became worried - how did he know? But St.-Varda realized that what the man thought didn't matter anymore. It was what he had said - that was where the importance lay. The equation had changed, drastically; money was insignificant compared to the temptation laid out before him now.

St.-Varda paused for a moment before reseating himself and replying, "That is ridiculous! Samus always works alone."

Jodi's Bar and Grill
Two hours have passed

To John St.-Varda's knowledge, almost all bounty hunters had one girlfriend per planet, two with luck. A bounty hunter's work could take him anywhere, and naturally most of them made acquaintances on the various planets where they found work. It was easy, really. Women were so quickly charmed by a bounty hunter, a fascinating, hardened individual with an endless supply of tales, supplemented by jokes in a few cases. The bounty hunters were quickest to exploit the mystique that surrounded them, the aura of an unflappable warrior who had seen it all through his wide travels. In a few rare cases, it was actually true.

But John's friend was no mere acquaintance, not just someone who listened goggled-eyed to his stories, but someone who seemed able to truly emphatize with him. Justine B. Lee was nearly his height, a serious, straight-faced blonde girl who had the look of a sleek panther. She worked a day job as a quartermaster for the Federation Navy. Of all his various girlfriends, John found that he easily preferred Justine above the rest. Even now her eyes showed concern that he was about to leave on a new mission. "... you've only been here for two days. And you're leaving so soon? How long will it be before I can see you again?"

John sighed and put down his drink. Jodi's Bar and Grill was a dim, poorly-lit tavern, a heaven of information for a man involved in a questionably legal activity such as his. Justine liked the atmosphere. Business was, at the moment, in full swing. Situations like these made him comfortable; he blended in well, though his camoulflage was somewhat compromised by Justine, who was without doubt easily the most beautiful human female in the room. John didn't mind. "I can't tell you, remember? I wouldn't worry, though; just a quick and easy mission, and then I'll be back with - let's see, the commissar and I agreed on one hundred million credits."

Justine's eyes shot skyward. "One hundred? That's a lot, even for someone of your caliber."

John shrugged modestly. "It's not much compared to a whole planet - which is pretty much what we were bargaining over. I'm sorry, but I can't give more details until the mission's over." Justine nodded silently. She understood; she always understood. John sometimes found it a little more than uncanny. "Problem is, this time I'm working as part of a squad."

"Coming out of your shell?" Justine teased.

He chuckled. "If only. Actually, it's because - well, I can't say that, either."

"So where are you going?"

"Noriath. Ever heard of it? That's okay, most people haven't. It's an agricultural planet, one of those backwater hunks of rock that have no redeeming feature whatsoever other than their stunning scenery and the fact that the Federation's citizens would starve without their contribution. Noriath is special since it's populated entirely by humans - no other sentient species. If you ask me, that's a bad thing. But what do I know? Anyway, I'll be gone in sixteen standard hours. Did you see the big battlecruiser at the spaceport today? That's my ride."

"Wow. They sure think this is important." She winked at him. "Maybe I'll get to come along, too."

"You don't know what you're asking for; trust me, this sort of work is no glamor at all. Huh, I've never understood how bureaucrats think. Asking me to work on a team! Ah, well - could've done worse, I suppose. They've paired me up with good fellows. Tim McDalen's one of them; good man, an officer of the Galactic Navy's Praetor Squads. I remember fighting him a year ago on Serapa. Remember that story? Well, Tim was the shadow hunter that I kept referring to. I'd trust my back to him anyday - given, of course, that he no longer sees me as an enemy. Let's see ... oh, yes, there's also Owen Custer, a fellow bounty hunter. Rumor has it that he's the biggest liar in this quadrant of the galaxy. If he's even a tenth as good as the stories say, then I'd be honored to fight alongside him, too." John laughed and downed a sizable portion of his bottle. "If."

"So, a three-man army?" Justine laughed. "The Federation's sending a three-man army to take an entire planet?"

"Well, there is a fourth ..." John trailed off.

"Hmm? Who?"

"Samus Aran." John was no longer laughing or even smiling. He stared at the bottle of spirits. "You haven't heard of him, but he's quite famous in the bounty hunter world - a living legend. I've met him before. It's just ... well ... there's some bad blood between us." As he said the words, John's memory drifted away from Jodi's Bar and Grill, away to the past, two years ago on his home planet. Even now the events were imprinted into his mind as clearly as the day they had occurred. No way to forget them, or to forgive.

"Move it, the train's coming!" St.-Varda yelled.

Civilians, human and nonhuman alike, crowded around the refugee elevator. They had been trapped in a cave-in on an underground railroad, and their dirty, bedraggled appearance instantly convinced Ronin that any hope would be most welcome. But with the approach of a distinctive, high-pitched whistle that marked the coming of a bullet train, panic had set in. They were trapped straight on the tracks, and the train would surely run them over. For the thousandth time St.-Varda cursed the architect of the system for neglecting to place the train under sentient guidance or at least installing an emergency stop. Light shone through the surface into the tunnel from thirty meters above. A makeshift elevator went a little more than five-sixths of the distance. St.-Varda's partner and best friend, Wraith, was already at ground level amongst the refugees, hoisting them up onto his shoulders where he himself could reach down and pull them into the elevator. St.-Varda suppressed a shudder as the elevator creaked dangerously. The elevator was low enough to be clipped by the bullet train, which would kill everyone aboard. Then St.-Varda looked up and spotted a familiar figure.

"Samus!" The figure's head jerked up at his call. "Pull up! Now!" In the background the whistle of the approaching train rang ominously. Cries of hysteria rang from the few survivors left in the tunnel. The elevator shot up quickly, so quickly that St.-Varda nearly toppled over the edge. The survivors crowded out at ground level, many sobbing and tear-stained. "Quick!" St.-Varda cried to Samus. "There are still a few left down in that tunnel. Get me down there!"

"It's too danger -" but the armored hunter abruptly cut off and merely hit the controls again, sending St.-Varda back into the tunnel. He frantically reached down and took the last few survivors onto the elevator. By now the train was so close that its headlight nearly blinded him, and sweat poured down his uniform in rivers. "Hurry up, Nathan, you're the last one left!"

Wraith leaped up, a leap that seemed to defy gravity, and very nearly reached St.-Varda's hand, falling short by a few centimeters. "Ah, blast it - Samus! Lower it as far as it'll go!" There was a slight pause as the train howled, and the elevator jerked but would go no further. "Samus! Take it down!" St.-Varda cried, his plea echoing up the escape shaft. He was nearly staring into the bullet train. Again Wraith jumped, soaring up until his fingers grazed his friend's hand. St.-Varda, by a superhuman effort, reached down further and caught his friend's wrist.

Abruptly the elevator responded - by shooting upwards out of the tunnel and through the shaft, rudely breaking St.-Varda's grip and sending Wraith back down like a brick. His last view of Wraith burned itself into his memory; a defiant Wraith, shaking his fist at the train, daring it to do its worst. Then there was just the blur of metal moving by at half a thousand kilometers an hour and Wraith was gone. St.-Varda screamed as if he himself had been hit.

The elevator reached level ground and the survivors spilled out. There was a brief pause as St.-Varda rammed his fist into the floor of the lift, hard; then a crunch of armored boots.

"Blast you, Samus! I was right there!" St.-Varda shrieked in despair. Heads turned everywhere to stare at him, but he didn't care, as his grief and rage poured out of him in one mass torrent. "I nearly had his hand! Just a few more centimeters and he would've been here! How could you do this after all the lives he helped saved?" Furious, St.-Varda rammed his fist into the elevator's sides fiercely and repeatedly. "Why did you do this?! Why?!"

"Some must die that others may live," Samus stated coldly.

John stared into his bottle, suddenly realizing that he had spoken the story aloud. "I lost my best friend that day. I lost my happy-go-lucky self, too ... you wouldn't believe this, but I used to consider raising a family. If I'd just had a little more time ..." He sighed and emptied the bottle in one gulp. "Ah, Samus - I hunted him afterwards, but he was always a step ahead of me. Now, finally, this is my chance."

He felt Justine's arms around his shoulders as she whispered into his ear. "That's so horrible, John ..."

He gently pushed her arms aside. "Thank you, Justine." He leaned forward a little as she reseated herself across from him. "Don't go around talking about this, but - I happen to be one of the few people who knows Samus' secret. You see, I happen to know ..." here John glanced cautiously from side to side before continuing "... that Samus is actually a woman."

"Are you serious?!"

"Shh. Heh, no kidding, I'm serious, I saw her without her helmet once, from behind." He had been so close that time - just half a second more quickly on the trigger finger ... "She's a woman alright. I call Samus 'him' out of habit, since very few people know what I do about Samus. Certainly she would never suspect me of knowing her little secret." John chuckled. "I wonder how many of Samus' fan nodes would implode if they discovered that. We bounty hunters tend to keep secrets to ourselves, though, and besides I want to have a bit of leveraging room when I run into her again." He snickered darkly. "I'm sorry; I tend to ramble sometimes. I have to go. The mission calls. I'll be back once I'm done, though. Here's enough money to cover the bill, and some more if you want to shop later. Ha, I'll be as rich as the pope by the time I finish." With that, he walked out of the bar, still preoccupied by various nightmarish memories.

He breathed out deeply. "Wraith, my dear friend ... now I avenge you."

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