I was raised on a feral wilderness planet. My father was a hunter, trapping and killing for their meat the ferocious animals that dominated the planet. My mother ran a smallholding to raise grain, fruit and vegetables, heavily protected by fortifications and electric fences.
My sisters showed no aptitude or inclination for hunting but readily took to helping my mother expand her smallholding. I took to hunting like a duck to water, surpassing my father's skills by my mid-teens. I could walk the forests and plains with the vicious predators totally oblivious to my presence, and I became proficient in a variety of weapons from home-made bows and arrows to hi-tech plasma rifles.
When the time came for their three years of Imperial service, my sisters were assigned to safe, agricultural worlds where their farming experience could best be utilised. Two of the three met husbands that way and settled as farmers' wives on the worlds where they had been posted, the other sister returning home to help my mother.
When my time came, I wasn't so lucky. A series of aptitude tests pointed towards the military yet the regular armed forces had no use for someone with my skillset but no respect for authority. After more aptitude tests I was recruited to Special Ops and, following six months intense training, I was deployed on secret operations against the Otherworld Alliance, a group united supposedly by a philosophical opposition to the Empire's hegemony but in reality using that as a cover for harbouring pirates and terrorists. When my three years were up, I voluntarily re-enlisted.
After fifteen years, although I had made a significant impact in reducing the rogue elements amidst the Otherworld Alliance and helped to bring about a relatively peaceful trading relationship with the Empire, I was forced to retire albeit with a decent pension. The psych-doctors had ruled that fifteen years was the limit anyone could serve in my sort of role before the likelihood of deep psychological trauma became too great.
I took some time off, visiting my sisters and my parents. My home world had changed beyond recognition. The vicious wildlife was now penned in small nature reserves and my father was chief warden. The only shooting he did these days was with a camera, as he shepherded groups of tourists round protected walkways.
I travelled to the Imperial Capital to see what I had been fighting to protect, but I was unimpressed by all the politicians and petty bureaucrats. Hearing that I was looking for work, I was contacted by a group of former colleagues who had set up a private agency, Excelsior, to market their skills. The work was mostly routine and boring and I wasn't overly impressed. I'd do it if I was desperate but I wasn't really interested in being a bodyguard or spying on cheating couples.
While in the capital, I received an intriguing call from someone who wanted to hire my services but didn't want to give out details over a call. The least I could do was travel out to his estate to hear what he had to say. The estate was heavily guarded but with my experience I could see so many glaring weak spots that I could have walked in and out undetected virtually at will.
A security guard escort showed me into a large reception room where five people were waiting: Darius Fleming, the owner of Flemingway, the Empire's largest infrastructure company, his wife Claudia, their daughter Michaela, a stunning redhead who I learned was 21 and just out of Imperial Service, Leeza Rice, the Flemings' Security Chief and Donald Rumsfeld, their Deputy Security Chief.
After introductions all round, Darius and Claudia explained that their company had been the victim of a series of improbable accidents, fires at depots, explosions at transit stations, unexplained failures of critical pipelines. Although they had no proof, they thought someone was trying to sabotage the company. So far they had managed to recover from the disasters but they thought it was only time before someone came after them personally. They looked old before their time with the stress.
"So what do you want from me, Mr Fleming?"
"As you can see, Mr Swan, I have armies of guards for my family and my estate but I fear it's not enough. Through my sources I've heard a little of your remarkable exploits for the Empire. I want to hire you as a bodyguard. You can name your own price, my family is more important to me than anything."
My activities for the Empire were so top secret only a handful of people should have known anything about them and that list didn't include businessmen. Even my family didn't know. That pissed me off.
I noticed Michaela lean forward slightly with expectation, her lips moist. Despite her privileged upbringing, she had a natural grace and quietness about her that made me suspect she'd make a good hunter.
I sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr Fleming, but I'm not a bodyguard, I'm a hunter. But some of my former colleagues have set up a company which offers the sort of service you need."
I gave Mr Fleming the contact details for Excelsior, and told him to mention my name. I noticed how Michaela's face dropped. I would have liked to get to know her better but guessed that now wasn't the best time. I said my farewells and returned to the capital.
The next morning I was alerted to an urgent call. It was from Michaela.
"Have you seen the news, Mr Swan?" she struggled to say in between wracking sobs.
I turned on the newsvid. The leading story was how the Fleming estate had been attacked during the night and Mr and Mrs Fleming had both been killed.
"Hold on, I'll be right out," I said.
Needing the extra speed I hired a flyer, disabling the transponder so nobody could track me. I made it look like a wire had worked loose, an unfortunate occurrence that could happen to anyone. Knowing from the day before that the estate was protected from unauthorised flyers by electronic counter measures, I set down in a tiny woodland clearing, somewhere even experienced pilots wouldn't risk landing, and hiked the half a mile to the estate's perimeter.
The estate was crawling with cops and security guards. I could see where the perps had entered, ramming their way through a weak point in the perimeter. Slipping unnoticed through the security fence, I made like I had every right to be there and entered the house unchallenged. There was a lone guard outside Michaela's room. He never saw me coming and I put him to sleep by pinching a nerve.
Michaela was lying on her bed, surrounded by discarded soaked tissues.
"Thank you for coming, Mr Swan," she exclaimed when she saw me, leaping into my arms.
"Please call me Doug."
She felt really good there, with her fresh, clean scent and her firm breasts crushed against my chest, and I had to fight back inappropriate thoughts.
"Please hold me," she whimpered.
I held her firmly while gently stroking her as she worked her way through a fit of heaving sobs.
"Would you like to tell me what happened?" I asked, when I judged she was able to talk.
"They came in the night. Daddy managed to get me to our secret panic room then went back for my mum. They didn't make it. He died trying to save others. Five security guards also lost their lives."
"Do you know who did it?"
"No. Police are investigating but they say it was professional and they don't expect to find anything."
I held Michaela through another bout of wracking sobs then she looked up at me earnestly.
"Mr Swan, you said you're a hunter. I want you to hunt and kill the vermin who did this. You can have anything you want, the company, the money, the estate. I don't care about any of it, I just want justice for my parents."
I reluctantly pulled apart from Michaela to let her know we were talking business.
"Okay, I'll do it."
She looked ready to jump into my arms again then hesitated.
"What's your price? I'll need to contact the lawyers to sign it over to you."
Michaela paused for a moment as she worked out what I meant.
"Like a slave or something?" she asked.
She paused even longer and her forehead crinkled with concentration.
"You won't hurt me, will you?" she eventually asked.
"I would never knowingly hurt you," I vowed.
"It's a deal."
"I'll get started immediately. It's best if you don't know my plans and you don't know where I am, but I'll be around. I think they'll try for you again but not for a few days with all these cops here so I've got time to prepare. Can you manage your parents' affairs?"
"Daddy hired good managers. The company mostly runs itself, it just needed his input on major decisions like takeovers. The head of security can get the estate security back up to scratch. Do you want him to take any special precautions?"
"No. Too many people lost their lives last time. If we make it too difficult it might turn into a pitched battle and lots of people will be killed."
"So you're setting a trap and I'm the bait."
"I'd rather nobody knew that. I would also appreciate some petty cash because I'm going to need some equipment."
Michaela took my account number and transferred a million Emdolls from petty cash as though it was nothing.
I snuck out of Michaela's room just in time as her security guard was just beginning to stir. I didn't hear an alarm so he must have thought he'd fallen asleep. I didn't even notice until I was clear of the estate how wet Michaela had made my shirt.
.... There is more of this story ...