Chapter I: John "Monarch" Ford
Of all the places to visit in Ajapolis, the Antheian Gardens were arguably the most beautiful. Containing flowers from every sector of the UNSA, the Gardens were the pride of the planet's capital. Every year, they would show off the most amazing collection of flowers in lavish contests designed to wow people from across Human-X'ndrian space, and these events were easily among the most watched events of the galactic standard year.
John, too, enjoyed the sights of the garden, and the noise, and the amusingly naive couples who used it as a prime dating spot. He loved the smell of the flowers, and the way they felt to the touch.
He would've probably enjoyed it more, however, if he wasn't currently being shot at.
"God damnit, boss!" Joker yelled at him from across the narrow pathway, hunkered down behind his own bit of cover. The man flinched as a chunk of the stone flower box broke off from a particularly nasty bolt of blue-white light. "How is it whenever we have a nice, simple deal, we always get shot at?!"
Ignoring his subordinate's whining, John turned his attention to the people presently attempting to put an ignoble end to his much-treasured life. Peeking around the corner of his cover, he saw the armoured figures steadily advancing towards them, still firing their magnetic repeaters like ammo wasn't a concern.
Well, maybe it wasn't. It wasn't every day you got chased down and shot at by a group of Black Hand mercenaries. He wondered who'd he pissed off this time.
"Probably the Duff," he muttered to himself as he leaned out and fired a couple of rounds at the advancing death squad.
"Did you say the Duff?!" Joker goggled at him. "The Duff? Did you piss them off again?!"
"Just keep firing, Joker!" John snapped. He fired a couple more rounds before ducking behind cover again. Ancestors preserve him, he didn't think any of his shots had hit home. If Snap found out about that, she'd have him in the shooting range until his ears rang.
Ignoring the terrified screams of Joker as the man tried to shoot back at the mercenaries, John tapped the earbud lodged in his ear. "Wings, where's our backup?" He asked as calmly as he could.
There was a moment of static that made John wonder whether his communications were jammed before a familiar voice answered him.
"Sorry about that, boss. Looks like someone tried to jam transmissions. Cypher's got a handle on it, though."
"It's the Black Hand, Wings," John informed his pilot just as he got up and fired a shot into a nearby Black Hand mercenary's chestplate. It wasn't enough to kill him, but it would hurt like a bitch. He ducked back down. "They're mightily intent on killing Joker, too."
"Ignore him," John said wryly as he leaned out and fired again. "Any chance we could get some backup sometime soon? Preferably before these mercs use our cold corpses to decorate the hull of their ship?"
"Oh, my god, we're so dead!"
"Oh, shove it, Joker!" John snapped at him.
"Tell Joker not to soil himself, boss. Snap and Bear are both incoming. They should be there in T-minus ten minutes."
"Great to hear it, Wings," John acknowledged before noticing a shadow looming overhead. Glancing up, he barely noticed the presence of the Black Hand armoured mercenary before unloading another shot into the man's chin. He paid no heed to the collapsing body before turning back to his conversation. "Just keep the ship ready to go; I doubt they'll be happy to see us leave."
"Roger that, boss. Wings, out."
"Ten minutes!" He informed Joker — not that he needed to. Still, it would help to comfort the panicking man; in his defense, though, Joker wasn't one of the crew's combat specialists — he was just the ship's engineer.
"Is every outing like this?!"
"Pretty much," John confirmed as he fired another round into an advancing mercenary. He eyed their surroundings, taking stock of the situation. If Snap and Bear were 10 minutes out, that meant their current position was pretty disadvantageous all things considered. Joker's cover, in particular, was all but atomised. His own wasn't that much better off, either. He estimated two minutes before staying put got him and Joker killed.
Which meant it was time to improvise.
Looking down at the dead mercenary, he momentarily thought about pilfering the man's much more powerful weapon, then discarded the idea. Despite its sheer power, a MAC rifle fired less often than his custom pistols, and keeping a steady rate of fire against advancing foes was basic tactics for situations like this.
The corpse's grenades, on the other hand….
Quickly snatching one off the dead merc's belt, John took a moment to analyse it — military-grade, magnetic lock. John smiled nastily — good. Just what the doctor ordered.
"Joker!" He called out across the small walkway. "Get ready to move on my mark!"
"You'll know it when you see it!" John assured him before arming the device in his hands. In his head, he counted down from three — on one, he fired his pistol around the corner and, sure he had them covering their heads, leaned out and aimed for the farthest Black Hand mercenary — just within throwing distance. Good.
The device sailed overhead, landing near the target. However, much to the man's chagrin, the magnetic lock on the device immediately engaged, causing it to seek out the nearest source of metal — the Black Hand body armour. For a moment, the mercenary seemed stunned before desperately trying to get it off himself.
John grinned as he ducked behind his cover. "Hasta la vista, bab—"
The blast deafened him and shook his vision as shrapnel tore through everything not reinforced and made short work even of the Black Hand's vaunted combat armour. Despite not being in the path of the explosion, it still flattened John and Joker.
By the time the dust was settling, silence had descended upon the gardens, with only the distant sound of police sirens approaching interrupting the post-battle serenity of the place.
"M-Mark," John coughed as he got up from behind cover, trying to lighten the mood some.
"Fuck...you...sir," Joker whined as he picked himself up — scratched up, but otherwise fine.
"Yeah, you're fine," John grumbled as he dusted himself off. He hadn't expected the grenade to pack that much of a punch...and honestly, that was on him. He'd certainly had the training to expect this to happen. He looked around, grimacing at the damage they'd wrought. What had once been a very nice part of the park was now little more than a smoking crater.
"Oh, hell...Wings is never going to let me hear the end of this…" he muttered.
As he heard the roar of his Fast Deployment Vehicle's engines approaching, ready to pick him and Joker up, he only hoped the tirade wouldn't last that long.
"In and out, you said!"
John sighed as he made his way down the hallway towards the ship's medbay, his combat boots clanking against the steel grating at his feet. "I'm not having this discussion," he informed his first mate flatly.
"A simple pay-off, you said!" Wings insisted stubbornly as she followed him to the medbay. The ship was safely away in slipspace, so she'd taken the chance to go and ream out her captain for his antics. "We were supposed to drop the money off for the Dray Brothers, and now gods know where that is, and apparently, the Duff Family is out for our blood?!"
John stopped in mid stride and bodily turned to face his irate pilot. "Look: so maybe it didn't go exactly as planned. And sure, maybe the Duff have put out a kill order on my head —"
"And that of anyone near you!" she insisted.
"—but all of that is behind us now," John carried on, ignoring her interruption. "We're in slipspace, they can't track us, and Joker and I are both fine!" he pointed out. "So can we please drop it so Doc can go ahead and prescribe me some goddamn painkillers?"
That seemed to sober her up a bit, and her eyes darted up and down his frame, trying to find some injury. "You said you weren't hurt," she noted, finally sounding worried for his wellbeing.
"I wasn't," he insisted. "I just have a damn headache. Do you know how loud a grenade is? Loud."
Rolling her eyes, his first mate fell into step behind him as he resumed his trek to the medbay. "Which is your own damn fault, then!" she chastised him. "And what about the Dray Brothers? They're going to want their money!"
"They can have it!" John answered as he reached the medbay door. He quickly tapped in his key combination before turning to her just as the door slid open. "All they have to do is go to the garden, find the atomised pieces, and glue them back together, alright? If they don't like that, then maybe they can take it up with the Black Hand!"
With that said, he stepped back into the medbay, hit the door's control panel, and watched in satisfaction as his first mate's outraged look disappeared from view thanks to the solid steel door now in between them.
A flanging chuckle behind him sagged his spirits, though. If it wasn't one crewman, it was the other.
"I take it Pilot Wright is most displeased with the results of the mission, Captain?"
John eyed his X'ndrian medic wearily. "That's an understatement, doc. If she didn't have to fly the damn ship, I'd bet my ship licence Wings would still be chewing me out."
The purple-skinned alien chuckled again as she gracefully moved from one side of the medbay to the other, opening one of the many secure overhead cabinets that stored the ship's medical supplies.
"What do you require this time, Captain?" the alien asked, the flanging of her voice enhancing her exotic appearance. "I do not see combat wounds anywhere on your person."
"Just some painkillers for a headache I've got, Kae," John requested as he sat down on the examination chair.
The X'ndrian medic made a humming noise as she rummaged through the cabinet. "Engineer King asked for much of the same thing not half an hour ago," she observed idly as she closed the cabinet, one hand grasping the requested medicine. "Did you perchance detonate a magnetic grenade in close proximity?"
John winced at how accurate her diagnosis was. The implied chastising didn't help. "Maybe?"
Kae tutted disapprovingly as she deposited two capsules into his open, awaiting hand. "Humans. Always so reckless with their lives. It's a wonder you managed to defeat us at all."
John knew she was kidding, of course; few X'ndrians alive remembered the Contact War. The last generation of X'ndrian warriors who'd fought against the emergent United Nations of Sol Alliance, or UNSA, had died well over fifty standard years ago. Only a handful of Human soldiers remained from that era, too.
"You know we could easily take you anytime, anywhere, Kae," John answered glibly before swallowing the capsules. He gratefully took Kae's offer of water and washed down the pills, hoping it would provide the quick relief the medicine insisted it provided. Fortunately, it did. "So Joker was already around here?"
Kae nodded her head regally. "Engineer King did indeed, Captain," she confirmed. "He complained of substantial battle injuries, but I found no such evidence on him."
"He's just trying to impress you," John explained dismissively. "A lot of Human women tend to get all excited if a guy gets injured in battle."
"But he wasn't, Captain."
John shrugged as he got off the examination chair and walked back to the door. "Didn't say he was any good at it," he observed before waving back at her. "Thanks for the pick-me-up, Doc. See you at dinner."
The walk back to his quarters wasn't a long one by any means, but with the lack of Alice haranguing him for being a reckless idiot and Joker's unending whining, John was finally able to think calmly — more so now that the painkillers were kicking in.
Alice had been right — this entire expedition had been a wash. Without the Dray Brothers' money, he knew the two criminally oriented siblings would not hesitate to blacklist him and his crew until the debt was paid. Even worse, mentioning the Black Hand mercenaries would probably make things worse — it was a mostly unspoken rule among their kind that you didn't bring personal business into a deal, and the Duff Family's problem with him and his crew was mostly personal.
"Captain, is it true the Black Hand was there?"
John made a note of finding out whether it had been Joker or Alice who'd gone off and blabbed, and resolved to make them perform double shifts for the entire week because of it. He turned to face the young man who'd spoken — the reason the Duff Family was out for his blood.
"Eli," he greeted his subordinate. "Yeah. They were."
Eliecer Duff, the youngest son of Braden Duff, the current patriarch's deceased brother, was the newest member of his crew in terms of service, and also the target of a UNSA-wide manhunt by the Duff Family. His uncle, having seized control of the crime syndicate after the death of Eli's grandfather, had proceeded to kill off the competition, as it were, by exterminating Eli's family.
And the only reason Eli was still breathing was because John had made the admittedly unwise choice of not kicking him off the ship when he was found stowing away on board. Even so, he never really found himself regretting that decision: Aiden Duff was a jackass anyway.
"Was it because of Uncle Aiden?" the youth asked insistently, moving to block his way.
John sighed, rubbing his forehead. "You really want to know?" he asked rhetorically. "Yeah. Odds are, your uncle found out we were here for the drop-off, and sent his goons to off us."
Eli's face drained of colour, but to his credit, he remained firm. "We have to stop him," he declared.
John had to bite back a laugh. Stop Aiden Duff? He would've had more luck trying to stop the heat death of the universe. Putting a hand on Eli's shoulder, he roughly pushed him aside.
"Don't bite off more than you can chew, Eli," he advised the youth as he walked away. "And don't forget you're part of this crew. What you do affects all of us, so don't go picking a fight we can't win."
He knew he was being harsh with the kid, but honestly, John was in no mood for Eli's crusader attitude. The Nightingale's Song wasn't a combat ship — if anything, the old, sturdy Resistance-class corvette had been retrofitted from a hospital ship he'd managed to get his hands on at a bargain. Unsurprising, considering no other ship of its class remained in active service within the UNSA.
Not that the authorities cared too much he was flying an old military ship — the smallest craft the authorities had these days was more than twice the size of his Nightingale.
And even if John wanted to fight the Duff — which he did not — he didn't have the crew for it. In all, the ship was meant to be fully crewed by up to 160 people, but he had the bare minimum of 10. Occasionally, if the job called for it, he'd hire a couple of extra hands for the job, but unless they impressed him — and they rarely did — he turned them out the moment their contract was done.
He liked his family small and trustworthy.
Reaching the door to his quarters, John sighed in relief as he tapped his personal lock code and heard the door hiss open. He needed a good rest after the fiasco planetside, and with Eli properly chastised and Alice back at the helm, he doubted anyone else would be so bold to keep him from his goal.
Entering the cabin, John swept his gaze over his small corner of home. For the most part, it was exactly how one would imagine a bachelor's cabin to be like — disorderly, clothes everywhere, and his personal effects scattered around haphazardly. A person less familiar with the way he did things might've even thought he'd been robbed.
But no — John liked the chaos.
Kicking aside a discarded shirt, John made his way over to his cot and let himself fall onto it with a contented sigh. It was hard, somewhat uncomfortable, and would be a literal pain in his back come wake-up time, but it was his bed.
John grumbled under his breath. Would there really be no peace for him tonight? "Hello, Iris."
Next to his bed, atop a small protruding mechanism, a small blue orb coalesced into the ship's AI — a diminutive, blue-hued young woman dressed in spacer clothing. Iris — the literal brain of the Nightingale's Song.
"I see you're getting at ease already, despite the utter failure of the mission," she observed snarkily. John idly wondered if there was a way to turn off Iris' sarcasm parameters...and then remembered that every time he'd asked, Iris had just reinforced her security codes. "How comfortable for you."
"Alice sent you, did she?" asked John knowingly, deliberately making no eye contact.
"She's quite miffed that you seem unrepentant," the AI responded, not really answering his question...and yet doing so at the same time. "And I appreciate my pilot's need for a calm state of mind, Cap'n."
"She's just exaggerating, Iris," he assured her, making a note to talk to Alice about griping to the ship's AI about personal problems. Unrestrained AIs, like Iris, were notoriously fickle, able to hold grudges for centuries. It was one reason why the UNSA shackled their AIs' emotional parameters. "Things went sideways, yeah, but it could've been worse."
The digital construct raised an eyebrow in a very human-like fashion. "My processing unit fails to see how."
John shot her a grin. "Joker and I could be dead."
The AI tilted its head in acknowledgement. "Point."
"What about the rest of the crew?" John asked curiously. He was obviously not getting any sleep anytime soon, so why not check up on the others? "Any grumblings?"
"No more so than usual," Iris reported dutifully. "Engineer King is still playing up the entire incident to the others, and the combat team appear to be miffed at having missed out on the action."
John snorted. "Big surprise."
Iris didn't comment on that. "Cap'n, I have some questions about our next job," she said evenly.
"Wouldn't it be wiser to put if off considering the Black Hand's involvement in our last mission?" the AI suggested. "By my calculations, their presence was highly anomalous, and potentially a sign of someone leaking our location."
John didn't answer immediately. Honestly, Iris was touching on a few concerns of his own. She was right that no one ought to have known about the drop-off — that had been information shared only with his crew and the Dray Brothers, and he trusted his crew with his life — even Eli. That meant someone on the Dray Brothers' end had leaked the information, but to what end, he didn't know.
"We need the money, now that we're probably not getting paid by the Drays," he pointed out. "And time's short before we need to restock, right?"
"Then it's settled. We're going."
"But Mina, sir?"
John chuckled. That had been most of the crew's reaction as well when he'd told them about the job. "Show me a planet with looser rules, Iris."
He heard the AI sigh before a flash of light informed him of her disappearance. "Very well, Cap'n," he heard her say over his personal intercom. "I'll let you know when we get there, shall I?"
"Thank you, Iris," he called out before letting his eyes droop and finally getting the rest he'd yearned for.