Sylt, a member of an elite group of mercenary shock troops, finds himself isolated and in need of Evac when bad intel puts the mission in jeopardy. Which will catch up with him first—his survivor guilt or the strange Venner-Florum plant men?!
I’m watching Des sit against a tree, one hand holding a branch while the other shakes over a gaping wound in his side like some voodoo man performing an exorcism. Des tells me he’s dying.
“Yeah,” I respond.
“Don’t you care, Sylt?”
“Yeah, Des, I care.”
You’re my friend, I want to say, but I know it will just make my next move harder. The Ronin code states that I have to go.
“You know I can’t stay, Des.”
Silently, I watch him. Even through the thick paneling of his FLEC-suit, I can tell he’s trembling. I’m thankful the designers of the FLEC-suit decided to encase the face completely and make the eyepieces reflective. I don’t want to see Des’s expression.
He breaks the silence, says he’s dying again. “Dying in some damn swamp on a planet I never saw until today.” My bet is his liver’s been fried a little; nothing will save him now.
After three years it was bound to happen. Des liked to brag about how good he was at sneak jobs—and he was the best—but he got too damn smug about it and let his conductor shield down. Today, he hadn’t been sneaky enough.
Those ghostly fucking Venner-Florum. I can still hear them closing in around us, war cries on the wind.
Des brushes fingertips over the wound in his side. He laughs harshly, and from the way his shoulders shake, I can tell he’s masking sobs.
“Swamps aren’t so bad a place,” I say. “Space would be worse, just frozen and drifting around. A swamp’s a better break than most contractors get.”
He tries to plead with me more. All I can do is shake my head then stare at my reflection in the eyepieces of his FLEC-suit—six feet of cold gray. I realize he’ll watch my back as I leave, and it will be one of the last images he ever sees. Damn. Des was good Ronin, a good friend.
I turn and jump into the knee-high swamp water. Des’s hoarse screams trail me as I move away. I have to get out of the hot zone before they’ll send a lifesaver pod to extract me.
My lungs burn as I push my way through the coal-colored water. Each step sinks a few inches in the mud, but my knees drive up and win free stride after stride. I can’t stop. Although our failed mission was carried out far from where the Venner-Florum and the conscript army of the Hayanthay battled, I still run the risk of getting swallowed up by the fighting.
A high keening comes from behind me, followed by the brief thudding of single-shock photon cannons. I don’t turn around but I know there are small colorful bursts landing only a few kilometers away. I know because a few years is a long time to work as a contractor. That’s the official name given to all war-for-hire-soldiers in the galaxy; one which Intelligence Commander Ramlyn would spit on.
I can see him now, eyes hidden behind pitch black glasses—looking God knows where—leaning back in a chair, leather gloved hands locked behind his head. “Fuck that! You’re a Ronin, Sylt. Other contractors don’t have shit for code. Nothing they can stand by like us Ronin.” He picks then flicks something from his nose. “We gotta stand by something.”
Black-limbed snare bushes scrape on the hard carbon panels of my FLEC-suit as I turn out of the swamp and onto the bank. The suit has absorbed enough moisture to sustain me a couple days, but my real concern is the possibility of ghosts tracking my unit from the mission site. Hopefully, the swamp makes it a little tougher for them. Maybe there will only be a couple of them and Des will kill them before he tags out himself.
I shut my eyes hard, try to blink away the image of Des’s fluttering hand, his pleas for help. I sprint on and flip open a panel on my forearm, switching my suit to maintain mode.
Nutrients, water, and rich oxygen flow into my body. As an afterthought, I also press the enhance symbol. There’s a twinge in my thigh. A shot of aggresterone—a hormone extracted from Tytanox males—spreads throughout my body. The paneling around my ankles and knees contract, securing my joints.
Distant fields, hazy and diluted a moment earlier, resolve into clear contours and sharp dimensions as my vision intensifies. I get the feeling I want to break something. My testicles retreat upwards. I relax, like I’m trained to do, and allow my muscles to work naturally with the forceful impacts as I pick up speed. Where one running step had carried me less than two meters before, I now bound over five.
It is a drastic measure, using the enhance button, but the Ronin code is clear; break it and you’ll never work again. That’s why I had to leave Des. I recall the smell of meat and dank water by the swamp. I’m dying, Sylt…
I clear my head and think back to the day I signed the touch-grid to be a Ronin. “Run like the damned gingerbread man on steroids,” Ramlyn had said, “literally. Save the ‘fight to the last man standing’ hero stigma bull-shit for flat-brained nationalists or those engineered lab-spunks from the Meta-Xeno Sphere.” Ramlyn’s mouth had split into a large toothed grin beneath his light brown mustache. He pointed at me, “Ronin pick smart engagements and special missions. We get out—quick, clean, and cost effective. If one guy stays behind—and yeah I know we got women too, just listen to what I’m telling you, not how I’m telling you—if one guy stays behind one time, then the next time it gives a whole group the go-ahead to stay behind. Pretty soon everyone is staying behind, and I got no more Ronin. Which means no more money.”
I nodded, unblinking as he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to indicate money. “We gotta get paid. You gotta get paid. I sure as hell better get paid. That doesn’t happen if we don’t have Ronin to fight our wars. Save yourself. That’s the number one rule for a Ronin. Do not break it.”
I remember asking why I would want to work as a Ronin when I knew I could get left for dead at any time.
More smiles from Ramlyn. “Good question. Here is your simple answer: don’t be stupid and you won’t get left for dead. Here is the answer you’ll probably like more: out of any contractors in the galaxy, no one can offer you the protection—the tech—we can. We’re the only ones in the universe who can create these suits, and we—you—make a lot of money using them. Gun fighting is a ghost of the past, but only to us. Even if a client could afford a hundred of our suits, he wouldn’t have the right soldiers to use them. Warfare is an evolution, and we are its future. We need masters of close quarters combat like you. So you get your ass home when the getting is good.”
A beep accompanies a green glow on my ring finger, indicating I’m another kilometer closer to the safe zone. It won’t be long before the lifesaver pod can get me.
Suddenly, I have a voice in my ear. “Secure: SR Sylt confirm status.”
I slow down, bringing my muscles under control, each one itching with the need for use. “Secure,” I say, and wait for the clicking sound that tells me the cryptograph recognizes my voice. “Shining Sword. Send a lifesaver—”
Des breaks in on the transmit. I forget he has a voice-jack and can pick up anything coming from the drop-ship. “Shining Sword!” he yells. “I got a hole in my side…” All I hear next is a soft moan as Des realizes the words he’s spoken are all too real. “I’m tagged. I—send a lifesaver.”
The reply from Shining Sword is immediate. “Secure: SR Des, you are not out of the hot zone. No pick up. Confirm.”
My feet stop. I put my hand to my head as if this might help me hear. The aggresterone starts to hurt as I stop burning it and go completely inactive.
“No.” Des mumbles. He screams. “No! No! Help me you bastards. I—”
A boom echoes through the transmit from Des’s end. The transmit goes haywire for a couple seconds. Shining Sword repeats their earlier statement to Des, adding another, “Not out of the hot zone,” to the end, affirming their statement like an adult speaking to a slow-witted child.
Des pops back on, panic in his voice. “Hurry. Please.” His voice lowers to a frantic whisper. “I see them. They’re heading this way. A quick-ship, and three ghosts. Please…”
Des forgets to end the transmit. He starts muttering prayers over and over. I’ve never heard him pray before. For some reason, it hurts, not knowing whether that might have been important to him or if it’s just because he’s dying. Now I’ll never know. I kill the line, switch over to an emergency transmit circuit. My leg muscles spasm painfully.
“Secure: IC-Ramlyn, you there? Confirm.”
My body thanks me, euphoria seeping into every fiber as I start sprinting again. A few minutes later, Ramlyn transmits. “Secure: Sylt where the hell have you been? Confirm.”
“Secure: Bad info. Fifty ghosts in the hothouse, armed for close quarters like they expected us. Mission was aborted. Lost two on the run, Mosca’s team separated from ours. Des got tagged. Confirm.”
I leap a seven-meter wide river, ascend a rocky slope then crest it. A small valley greets me on the other side full of giant plant life. With my hormone enhanced vision, the array of colors is disorienting.
Ramlyn comes back on, all business. “Secure: Mosca’s team got rescue missioned. Three dead on bad info, got it. Keep heading out of the hot zone. Confirm.”
Three dead. Not two. I grit my teeth before replying. Pain shoots up my back as I tense. I focus on relaxing myself, or I will have to stop. Thirty seconds later, I’m back on the line. “Secure: No confirm on last transmit. Two dead. Only two. Des only tagged. Getting out of hotzone. Send lifesaver. Confirm.”
Barely a second passes before Ramlyn is back on and shouting. “Secure: Quit messing around on this line, Sylt. This ain’t a soap opera. Three dead. Confirm goddamnit.”
I don’t get a chance to reply, to say I could go back and get Des, take out the quick ship and ghosts with ease, because movement on the opposite ridge of the valley grabs my attention. I kill the transmit in case someone with the right equipment is close enough to catch the line.
My hands and toes sink into the earth. I drop to my belly and crawl down the slope like a lizard toward the vegetation below. Beauty is the last thing on the mind during war, but it’s not so hard to notice when using it for cover. Like most things on the Eranthis Sphere planets, this bed of valley flora is interconnected. Great blooms of every color ride along enormous stalks that have grown and spiraled to create a system of arcing tubes six meters in the air. The plants get larger towards the center of the bed, and I remember to be careful, that the Venner-Florum have been known to use random valley beds like this one as arms and resource depots, guarded by monster plants that will kill and eat anything from the Sapien Sphere planets.
My position is safer than it was, but my vision is blocked by flora. The aggresterone is starting to ebb, so I can move slow and subtle without my body protesting. I jump and snag the lip of a broken plant stalk then climb into the tube. Luckily it has grown deep and firm in the ground on the other side and takes my weight without buoying. There is just enough room for me to crawl on my hands and knees inside it. I check my ring finger: still blinking green, but faster now, which means I’m close to being out of the hot zone.
The tube runs for four or five meters before it bends down and away. I stop crawling at the start of the bend and unclip a metal cylinder as long as my forearm from my thigh. I grip it tightly in my hand and move my thumb into a notch on the side. It takes a split second for a telescoping katana blade to shoot out, accompanied by a sharp hiss. A half meter of the sword penetrates through the plant wall with ease. A repetitive thudding accompanies the faint flash of energy rippling up and down the blade from an ion-pulse. I maneuver my wrists down, making a narrow slit, and then hit the notch with my thumb again to recall my weapon, silencing it. It’s all hands and aggresterone enhanced strength from there. I pry the fibrous wall open. I’m careful not to make the hole too big or my movements too quick, in case I’m not the only one on the lookout.
I peek out of the hole for half an hour before I see movement. The aggresterone shot has all but worn off, so my vision isn’t as sharp as it was when I first saw movement on the ridge, but I think I spot the fully bloomed mane of a Venner-Florum soldier. Metal glints in the sunlight.
The ghost comes into view. It’s dragging itself over the lip of the ridge, and I know it’s in bad shape. The Venner-Florum are a civilized race, so I know they aren’t using one of their own as bait, like the Sisters of Lunessa might do. All I have to do is pop out of my hidey-hole, kill it, and continue on my way out of the hot zone. I can’t leave it alive, or Shining Sword will pick up its suit’s electromagnetic waves and refuse to send a lifesaver. Too expensive… too risky, Ramlyn would say.
The thudding of my katana is comforting as I reactivate it and cut my way out of the plant stalk and then make my way around the valley bed. My muscles begin to feel rubbery, my breathing ragged as the post-aggresterone crash washes over me. I banked on using it and getting out quick, a sure bet when things go right, but a dangerous gambit if they don’t.
When I get to the spot where the ghost started its descent for cover, I see why it took me a half hour to see movement for the second time. There is a cloudy liquid, like oxygenated water, in a long trail up to the ridgeline from the other side, then another one beside it. It must have crawled to the top and then slipped and rolled back down before attempting the climb again.
I look down. The Venner-Florum soldier is lying on its back, barely cognizant, on a small outcrop of earth halfway down the slope. Slowly, I descend, coming to stand over the ghost.
Even lying down, muddled fluid spilling from two clean, long gashes across its leg-stalk and side, I can tell it’s taller than me by a half meter—small for a Venner-Florum. Its face is a network of fibrous ridges, eyes perfect circles of emerald—no white. It lacks a mouth and ears. Its blooming mane is beautiful: broad petals of orange and pink cover its skull and neck to the waistline. A field generator vest—a weak attempt by the Venner-Florum to mimic FLEC-suit tech—is clamped around its chest, bulky and heavy-looking, almost the opposite of our flexible, sleek armor. I almost laugh.
It grabs feebly for a zip-knife at its hip. My katana whips through the space between us, ignoring the proximal field generator that can do nothing for him at this range. Its hand of twisted flora, dotted with colorful buds, flies through the air and into the plant bed below. I hear the ghost scream in my head as it releases a mass of complex, emotive pollens into the air that seeps through my helmet. It’s eerie as hell when they do this; it’s why we call them ghosts.
“I didn’t make you reach for the zip-knife, asshole.” I step closer. Its emerald eyes stay locked on me, awaiting the killing blow.
It raises its remaining hand. A bright orange glow emits from a fist-sized orb on the back of its command gauntlet. I’ve seen this before. I know what it means. As I turn and sprint up the slope to get to high ground, the wounded Venner-Florum releases more emotive pollens, talking in my head: war in a way that suits you, Ronin, and you will die the same. Damn Venner-Florum, always talking like cryptic sages.
I reach the top. A quick-ship is speeding toward my position on the hill. It fires its short range cannon hoping to catch me with my shield down, but it’s up; my conductor field absorbs the energy without harm. They will have to fight me close. Where it suits me.
The ship stops, hovering on the ridge fifteen meters away. With a quiet pop, the bubble top opens and three ghosts climb out. I smile, thinking they will probably see I’m not some conscript trooper or other inferior contractor—that I’m actually a Ronin—and take off knowing they don’t stand a chance. In truth, I’m sick as hell from the hormone crash.
They lumber forward, single file along the ridge, three meters long, metal-alloy tridents clutched in their green hands.
Emotive pollens assail me. A dog fed too much grows soft and knows not the hardship of the strays. We will teach you the determination of feral life.
Shut up, I think, but instead I say: “I don’t care how the Hyanthay treat you. Risking your life trying to kill one Ronin is stupid, no matter how feral you are. Come a little closer, ghost; I’ll show you hardship, quick and dirty.”
They don’t, choosing to talk instead. I wonder if it’s a game for them to see who can formulate the most poetic and ridiculous statements. The dog can only think upon his master’s actions, the scraps that will be fed him, unaware and uncaring if the boot finds the others of his litter.
It’s a lot of bull, but it makes me think of Des and I start to feel sicker than I should, even with the hormone crash. I glance down and spot the wounded ghost. If I weren’t crashing so hard, the ghosts wouldn’t stand much of a chance against me; they’re big but slow, under-teched, and under-trained. They’d be facing likely death just for their comrade who might already be tagged out. The difference between Venner-Florum and Ronin isn’t lost on me. I shake my head, angry at myself for getting sentimental before a fight, especially when I’m in such bad shape. I could hit enhance again, take another shot of aggresterone… but I’ve never heard of anyone doing it and living, so I don’t.
They spread out in front of me and approach. Battle cries resonate through my head. The closest one lunges at me. I sidestep and almost fall, aggresterone crash nausea giving me the spins, but I manage to hack its trident in two with a downward cut. In one continuous motion, I regain my balance, step forward and slash upward at an angle. Its head rolls down the hill like a huge, colorful cabbage.
Another ghost, with dense scarring where one of its eyes should be, tries to stab me as I step back from the falling body of its decapitated comrade. I’m a second slower than usual, but the blow is poorly aimed and skids off the carbon panels of my FLEC-suit. I twist away. I wonder if they can hear me sucking in heavy breaths while I prepare for the next attack.
The other ghost is trying to get around behind me. I feint towards it. It jumps back causing the tips of its violet and indigo flower mane to bounce in the air. The scar-eyed ghost takes the bait and comes at me again. I duck the blow then thrust my katana into its chest, straight through the metal field generator. Ghosts take a little more to kill than that, their organs vastly less sensitive and interdependent than Sapiens’, so I pull out my blade and thrust again, this time through its face. The blue ion-pulse of my katana momentarily light up its emerald eyes before I withdraw it and let the ghost topple.
The remaining ghost charges. It’s all I can do to get my katana up in time to deflect the thrust from its trident. It moves past me. I back away to buy myself a little time and catch my breath, each movement now a labor.
It charges again. This time I aggressively deflect the blow with the last of my strength and put the ghost off balance. It stumbles and I take its head off, and then watch huge petals of indigo and violet drift around me. The body lurches past and disappears down the slope.
By the time I make it down to the wounded Venner-Florum, it’s already dead. I stare at its corpse for a minute then back to where its comrades attacked me. The ridge is littered with their remains, and I can’t help but be mad at their stupidity. All dead, for one already tagged-out ghost; one of over fifty million on this planet. Just one.
I’m dying, Sylt…
Green light reflects off the chest of my FLEC-suit, drawing my attention. I lift my ring finger and see it is blipping faster now. I’m not too far from clearing the hot zone.
Before I go, I need to disable the ghosts’ quick ship so I can transmit to Shining Sword without the risk of our transmit getting intercepted and funneled back to Venner-Florum’s central intelligence. Ronin don’t have the luxury to be lazy, or indiscreet; our mystique is a big part of what make us the most expensive and effective special-missions contractors in the game.
I look in the direction of the swamp where I left Des. The colorful lights of battle illuminate the horizon. The conscript army is undoubtedly pulling back now, back to Hyanthay; another feint by the army and a special recon mission for the Ronin, likely already in the works. Ramlyn is going to let our buyer have it, ask for compensation for bad info and three dead Ronin.
On the side of the ridge the ghosts came from, it’s all rolling hills, and though I can’t see it, I know, more valleys full of stunning plant-life. I’m somewhat relieved that the Hyanthay have decided to assault the swamp-lands, far away from the sprawling city-beds where plants tower as high as the highest buildings on the Sapien planets, and their half kilometer radius blooms catch the sun, casting hypnotic rainbow glows in all directions. I’ve only seen pictures of them in debriefings, but even then they were dazzling. I recall Ramlyn quickly moving past the photos, saying, “It isn’t the beauty of the Venner-Florum that the Hyanthay covet; it’s the soil, which has been proven to enhance the density of any organic energy source grown in it.”
Money, it’s always about money.
I approach the quick-ship cautiously, double checking my conductor field in case another ghost is hiding somewhere and takes a pot-shot. My katana is at the ready as soon as I spot the form of one of them in the back seat. But it’s far too small to be a Venner-Florum. They have a captive.
As soon as I see him, I drop my katana. It’s Des.
I’m dying, Sylt…
I walk over and lean in. He’s dead. His mask is off. The expression I’d been so happy not to see earlier in the day is staring me in the face, slack and pale. The wound his hand fluttered over so disbelievingly is now wrapped, completely soaked in blood. Two organic brown cords run from the ship to Des’ wrist and side. Pools of fluid are gathering on the floor, a result of Des’ body being unable to absorb any more of the meds they tried to pump into him. The Venner-Florum tried to save him. The enemy… my friend.
I turn away, fumbling for the button that unlatches my FLEC-suit mask as vomit rises in my throat. I swallow desperately. The feeling passes and I stop, hands on my knees, taking deep breaths that hurt. Angrily, I grab my katana from the ground.
I turn and slash the quick-ship’s control panel: once, twice, a third time for good measure and satisfaction. I take a look at Des, and the satisfaction flees faster than it came. I open a transmit to Shining Sword.
“Secure: Shining Sword. SR Sylt is out of the hot zone. Send lifesaver. Confirm.”
They confirm then give me pick-up coordinates which I plug into my forearm panel. I turn to Des’s corpse. “I—at least you didn’t die in the swamp.” I feel the tears, falling down my face, spreading along the neckline of my suit. “I’m sorry, Des.”
I kick myself for not bringing a combustion charge so I could give Des some semblance of a Sapien funeral pyre. Instead I stick a sucker-charge on the hull of the quick-ship. I run. I look back just in time to see the ship and a good chunk of the ridge be violently sucked in by a charge of amplified gravitational force, then collapse into a small heap of debris.
It takes a grueling half hour to finally make it to the pick-up, my feet barely clearing the ground for most of it. A small craft descends through the thick atmosphere of Venner-Florum. The lifesaver extraction pod.
Soundlessly it drops, slowing when it’s directly over me. I stand motionless as two rings of metal expand outward from the center of the pod and begin to rotate in opposite directions. As soon as it’s in position, I twist the green light on my ring finger. Four metal cables extend from the pod, hooking into my FLEC-suit, and then an energy bubble spreads out and around me, connecting with the rotating rings. The pod lifts into the air and speeds upward.
A transmit comes through from Ramlyn: “Secure: SR, Sylt. Good to have you coming back. Enough dead Ronin today already. Hope you left that crazy soap opera bullshit behind.”
I don’t respond. Nothing I say will help. Nothing I say could explain how much I left behind. I feel like I died in some damn swamp on a planet I never saw until today.
When Michael A. Michaels isn’t filling his role as a school counselor, father, or life coach, he can be found hammering away at a laptop in his favorite local coffee shop, or holding his own in a game of table tennis. With influences like George R. R. Martin, Cormac McCarthy, and R. Scott Bakker, he understands that light is brighter when framed in darkness, as evidenced by the gritty and psychological nature of his stories.