Ten Years Ago
“Let me die,” Vask moaned. “Please.”
Ronin Kalgot steadied his hands as he tried to stop his officer from bleeding out on the space transport’s floor, which vibrated as it approached his planet. He pressed against the soaked bandages on pit in Vask’s chest as he suppressed the dread rising in his own.
“We need fresh ones,” Ronin called. He wouldn’t lose another comrade today. “You’re going to live, Vask Halen.” He had made a promise, and he intended to keep it.
Vask didn’t respond, the old scars patterning his bronze face were hard to see through his blood and grief. Fuchsia blood pooled on the ship’s glossy floor, but Ronin kept is eyes on Vask. He should have stayed behind and brought Vask to a Healer, consequences be damned.
“Ronin.” Kirin’s voice tugged at his attention, calm even in the cloud of panic. He stuck a handheld transmitter in front of Ronin’s face. “Call Hakim. We’re landing. We’ll be home soon.”
Ronin forced himself to sit back and allow Kirin to take over, the tech slipping in his trembling hands. Why wouldn’t they stop shaking? He used them now to wipe his face, grime clinging to a combination of sweat and blood. No more tears; his eyes had been dry for hours.
His fingers jittered across the small transmitter pad, dialing the frequency. If he could trust no one else, he could trust Hakim. Even if their last conversation had ended in an argument.
“Hakim. I need your help.” Would he answer? “Hakim. Illen’s team is dead.” Ronin swallowed. “We need help. You told me anytime—”
The voice from the transmitter cut him off, devoid of its usual warmth. “It’s out of my hands, Kalgot. You’re on your own.”
Chapter 1: Planet 419 — Alliance Outskirts
Firewood duty wasn’t so bad. An officer shouldn’t be too good for any job he asked his soldiers to do. And physical activity helped break up the monotony of Ronin Kalgot’s current assignment. Ten years into a disciplinary sentence felt like far more when each day was filled with menial tasks designed to crush his spirits.
Surrounded by trees papered with withered bark, Ronin bent to pick up another log, rain pelting the mud around his worn boots. His bronze hands were used to chores and grunt work now, still scarred from faded battles as they gripped the slick timber. The thong tying his short ponytail fell loose, black hair sticking to his back neck as he hoisted the log onto his shoulder.
After trudging to the sledge, he flipped the wood down the way he slammed his sparring opponents to the ground. They were the only opponents he had left—his platoon and the logs—a cold reality that had taken years to accept. At least his soldiers were safe; it would be hard to screw them over while stationed at an archaeological dig site on the outskirts of Alliance territory.
“Crack o’ thunder once an’ a while would be nice. Bit of lightnin’ ter break up the drudgery.”
Ronin smiled at the gravelly voice behind him. “Only you would find the possibility of electrocution exciting, Beris.”
“Stimulatin’,” Beris grunted.
Ronin turned to find his burly Third officer loping past him toward their sledge. The trunk of a young ash rested on Beris’s massive shoulder, branches waving along with his uneven gait. His indigo uniform was soaked through, water running from his mop of curly black hair, down his leathery face and off his shaggy beard.
“Beris, why aren’t you projecting your Qi to stay dry?” Ronin asked. Beris’s life energy was more than strong enough to produce a shield against water.
“Givin’ my Qi a rest.” He grinned down at Ronin, revealing several silver teeth. “Besides, better this than a bath.” He stood a head and a half taller than Ronin, towering over most Syrainians, who were already known for their large, muscular builds. But it was Beris’s infectious laughter that many found more memorable.
Ronin chuckled, eyeing the uprooted tree on his shoulder. “Couldn’t wait for Kirin?”
“Eh. Kirin’s the only one with a sword an’ I dun need a pointy blade ter get firewood. Mine dun look as nicely cut, but it’ll burn.” He unloaded his burden onto the sledge.
Another log fell from the sky. It thunked unceremoniously on the ground, mud squelching and smattering them with a fresh coat of gray.
“Oi!” Beris called, looking up. “Watch it!”
“I was breaking up the drudgery for you,” Kirin called. Ronin’s second in command was using his Qi to levitate above them, glowing sword in hand. He sliced through branches as if they were clay, swooping like an ash eel from tree to tree as the timber thunked to the ground in his wake.
Beris leaned around Ronin, squinting through the forest. “That an offensive speck o’ blue I see comin’ from the excavation site?”
Ronin turned, expecting this to be one of Beris’s jokes. But a figure was approaching them, dressed in the same indigo uniform they were, trimmed in red and gold. Even as Ronin’s heart leaped at the meaning of an ADF messenger, his skin nettled when he caught a glint of azure scales. The soldier was definitely a Gorin—that self-important strut was singular to the reptilian species that dominated the Alliance military.
Beris spat on the ground. “Haven’t seen one of them in months.”
They all knew what that meant. Only one reason a Gorin would show up on a backwater planet like this. New deployment.
“What’s wrong?” Kirin called from above.
“Get down ‘ere,” Beris said, waving an arm. “ADF sent new orders.”
Kirin sheathed his sword and descended toward them in a fluid motion, rain pinging off his invisible Qi shield. His silver eyes found the messenger. “Gorin,” Kirin said, long face solemn as an executioner, waist-length black hair secured behind his slimmer frame. “Bet Vask was pissed when he saw one of them tromp through camp.”
Pissed was an understatement. Hopefully, Vask hadn’t attacked the Gorin on sight.
Attempting to suppress his nerves, Ronin pulled out a spare strap to tie back his hair again. “Vask could find a reason to bitch about the rain stopping. Of course he’s going to be pissed.”
Beris snorted and slapped Ronin’s arm. “Yeh alright there, Ronin? Shittin’ on Vask’s my job.”
“Commander Kalgot,” the Gorin barked, thin mouth set in a grimace as he marched past Kirin. Water beaded the blue scales on his reptilian face and brilliant red hair clung to his scalp like soppy seaweed. He stuck out in stark contrast to the bronze, dark features of the Syrainians.
Despite expecting it, Ronin’s stomach dropped when the Gorin pulled a faintly glowing rectangle from his jacket pocket. A sealed holo-doc. He had given up hope deployment orders would be favorable—each assignment had been more dismal than the last.
Still, he couldn’t help but hold his breath.
The messenger extended the doc with thick azure fingers, but let it go just before Ronin took it. The tech fell, slicing into the marish ground at their feet like a knife through flesh.
“Really?” Beris scoffed.
Ronin glowered at the Gorin, but he was more annoyed with himself for not expecting something petty like that. He bit his tongue, refusing to let the reptile hear him complain.
The Gorin turned on a heel without uttering an apology, and Kirin put a hand on the pommel of his sheathed sword. With the swiftness of a Fire Sprite, he stuck out the tip of his scabbard, causing the Gorin to trip forward with a swear. The corner of Kirin’s mouth twitched, but his face remained straight when the officer glared over his shoulder before retreating.
“Yeh know,” Beris said. “Everyone thinks yer the reasonable one, but I sometimes think yer a pettier asshole than me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kirin said. “My sword just slipped.”
“Yeah. Yer sword’s slippy and Ronin’s fist is twitchy.”
“I’d rather not be reminded of that, thank you.” Ronin’s knuckles tingled at the distant memory as he stooped down to pluck up the doc.
His two Alphas continued to mutter, but their words faded to background noise. Ronin stared down at the hard doc, folded in fourths. He used a thumb to rub off a chunk of clay, revealing emblazoned letters along the surface. ADF: Alliance Defense Force.
Ronin had loved those words once; fighting for the Cosmic Alliance was honorable, thrilling. Protecting life itself against the unnatural force of nature seeking to devour it. Something many Syrainians aspired to do.
Now, apprehension twined up Ronin’s fingertips where his skin touched the tech’s abnormally dry surface, as if it were personally to blame for reassignment.
“Can’t be worse than lightin’ fires and actin’ as security guards fer space trash.” Beris searched for silver linings the way an embermite searched for dry kindling. Not that he could be blamed for holding out hope.
Death should be met while blood pounds in the ears, and be embraced with fists raised to protect life itself. Not from crippling monotony or old age. With Syrainian life spans extending to eight centuries, the monotony would probably kill Ronin’s platoon first.
“This contract’s more pleasant than others we’ve been dealt,” Kirin said. “Planet’s miserable, job’s boring, but at least we aren’t treated like shit.”
He was right. Fighting in the raids was far more preferable, but the archeologists here had been kind to the Syrainians. Ronin’s Warriors might be bored, but at least they were alive.
Beris glanced down at the holo-doc, still unopened in Ronin’s hand. “Are yeh gonna open it or what?”
Ronin glared at the orders and the orders glared back, promising to drag him along on another involuntary ride; one he wasn’t certain he wanted to take. Best to get it over with. He pulled at the small flap in the folded piece of tech, which unfurled on its own.
His eyes widened as they scanned the page, but the initial thrill at the first few lines twisted and buckled as he read further. His two Alphas huddled around.
“What?” Beris asked, unable to wait. “Where are we goin’?”
Ronin struggled to speak, words clinging to the inside of his mouth, fighting to stay put. This couldn’t be right.
“Ronin,” Kirin murmured. “What’s wrong?”
A few strands of Ronin’s black hair fell loose as he shook his head. “We’re being deployed to Feyeir with the Gorins. To a raid.”
Chills rippled in waves up his skin. This was too good to be true. He wouldn’t be sent there. Not without a reason.
Beris’s eyes lit up, his mouth dropping open. “The Feyeir? Yeh shittin’ me?”
Ronin shook his head. “I’m not shitting you.”
Had the raid zone lines pushed that far into Mortal Space in a mere decade? The safest, more densely populated area of the galaxy shrank each year. If Feyeir was now on the edge of it, that meant planets were being consumed at a more rapid pace than before.
“We’ll get ter fight again?” Beris crowed, unaware that Ronin wasn’t smiling.
His excitement was understandable. Nothing beat fighting Kaika’s hungry Void Clouds filled with nightmare creatures from space, the thrill of protecting the living who dwelled on planets at risk of being devoured. But knowing where these orders originated from, something more had to be behind the deployment.
Kirin frowned. “But Feyeir isn’t part of the Alliance. Why is the ADF going there?”
“Maybe they joined while we’ve been stuck on civilian jobs in the middle o’ nowhere,” Beris said.
“We would have heard about something that big,” Kirin said. “And why would they send weaklings like Gorins to defend something so important?”
Ronin couldn’t answer that question either. Being so far removed from the battlefront not only took away his opportunity to fight, it also took away knowledge about their wider world. His two main reasons for contracting with the ADF.
Kirin was still watching him, eyes finding the worry lines creasing Ronin’s face. “What is it?”
So many things. None of which he wanted to voice. “I don’t like it.”
“But this is our chance,” Beris said. “We could earn back our right ter fight in the raids if we succeed in a place like that. No more bodyguard duty.”
While Beris wasn’t wrong, Ronin didn’t buy it. “It’s too easy. Why would High Seat Yehl send us to fight in such a prominent raid? Somewhere we might gain attention.” The ruler of their home planet had it out for Ronin, personally handling his deployments now. One didn’t publicly insult the High Seat of Syraine and get away with it. Not that Ronin hadn’t had a damn good reason for doing so.
There was more to this. Gifts that seemed too good to be true usually were.
“Yeh think they’ll use us as Gorin meat shields?” Beris grunted. “Wouldn’t be the first time. We can handle it.”
“You could speak with our current contract holders,” Kirin offered, though it was clear that was the last thing he wanted. “Appeal and see if they can have the orders changed. They mentioned wanting to keep us on.”
Ronin watched the receding Gorin plod to the distant excavation site, a sour bruise staining their ashen landscape. His presence would be noticed; the rest of Ronin’s platoon would be waiting for news.
The platoon was almost sixty Warriors strong, and he didn’t deserve them. Their reward for loyalty was to share his disciplinary sentence, unable to return home. He should keep his soldiers safe, appeal to stay here, as Kirin suggested.
But Ronin knew he wouldn’t. The call of battle sang in his veins as it did in his soldiers’. And while he had little faith in superiors, he had faith in himself. In his Warriors.
Beris limped beside Ronin as the three of them trudged through the pewter trees, peeling bark wilting against the drumming rain. Liquid bullets assailing a vapid world.
“I dunno about you, but I’d rather have the chance ter die fightin’ than die of boredom,” Beris said, eyes distant. “I know I’m not the only one that feels that way. We’ve clawed our way out of the ass-crack of Kaika’s hell before. We’ll survive this too.”
Chapter 2: Feyeir—Historical Sector 4
Feyeir felt like the sweaty underbelly of a fire bison, and Ronin couldn’t stop savoring it. The air was thick enough to bite into, steam from the ochre clay adding to the humidity. He flexed his shoulders while he stood in the central registration line, trying to aerate his jacket, which clung to his back. Kirin stood at his side under the tattered expanse of yellowing canvas, waiting to present their orders.
The transport carrying Ronin’s platoon had landed in the middle of the Gorin encampment, precariously balanced on a makeshift platform as Feyeir’s inhabitants refused to use tech of any kind on their planet. From above, the ADF camp had looked more like a pustulous wound on a jeweled landscape than the saving grace it was supposed to be. And if they considered the Gorin species a saving grace, Feyeir was in a desperate situation.
Shabby tents plastered with clay spread out in all directions. No sign of the fancy, prefabricated cabins utilized by higher caliber soldiers like Torgan Elites. Just Gorin and several other Syrainian commanders in line with him. The general must have bought multiple contracts to assist in the raid. None of them looked particularly thrilled to be there, which was odd. But it wasn’t like he could ask questions.
Despite being from the same planet, fighting the same battles, the Syrainians barely made small talk, exchanging curt nods to one another. The ADF limited fraternization between Syrainian platoons. The sight of it still made his blood boil, but those feelings were best ignored—he had lost the ability to do anything about it.
Ronin scanned the faces of passing Gorin instead, perplexed.
Why had the ADF stationed Gorins here? Despite their corrupt political dominance in the Cosmic Alliance, Gorins were too physically weak to dominate in raid battles. They used their massive numbers and hired contract mercs like Syrainians to boost their success rates. Some could barely use their Qi to form shields or fly. The ADF didn’t use them to defend planets of value on their own.
The only Gorin that could pack a punch were the soldiers they Anointed with Elemental power, their enlarged bodies webbed with vicious black veins; but those volatile creatures were more of a hazard on the battleplane than the enemy. Thankfully, he had never served under one, but to say his few brief encounters with them were unpleasant would be kind.
“Next,” the Gorin with a glowing registration tablet barked, fish-finned ears twitching.
Ronin stepped up and extended his orders to the officer.
“Kalgot,” the Gorin said, scanning a list in front of him. “Looks like someone requested you.”
Ronin’s eyebrows rose, heart lightening. Someone must have recognized his name on the contracts his planet offered for the raid; one of his old high commanders from ten years ago. Gorin only lived for around forty years, so that list was small.
What were the chances?
The Gorin’s eyes were still on the list.
Keep breathing. Maybe this was it. Their way out. Maybe this assignment hadn’t been the High Seat’s doing at all. Maybe he could convince this superior to shift them back to the raids permanently, forgive the disciplinary term, at least for other members of his platoon.
“The general assigned you to serve under High Commander Jenron,” the Gorin said.
Ronin stiffened at the former lieutenant’s name, rising hopes freezing in place. Kirin swore behind him.
Jenron. So that bastard was still alive.