The Raider ­­class shuttle looked like a tiny speck in space when it finally left the Iscariot’s fighter bays. A sleek cylinder-shaped vessel, the Raider was fast and efficient, originally designed to ferry small strike forces for surgical assaults. It barely had any armaments, but its phase shielding could withstand the most advanced weapon systems currently fielded by local Fed-All forces.

The descent from the Iscariot to Ilm’s upper atmosphere only took about an hour, but it gave Chen enough time to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the planet’s capital city, also called Ilm; for as far as the Federated Alliance was concerned, the planet Ilm existed exclusively to support the city called Ilm, and nothing more. Any deviation from that purpose was intolerable.

From within the Raider, Chen peered below at the closest urban districts and commercial hubs, marvelling at their massive size. The city stretched from horizon to horizon. Beautiful, tree-shaped skyscrapers—two to three kilometers tall—dotted the great metropolis, giving Chen the impression of a gargantuan silver forest with air cars and grav shuttles as its birds and insects. Chen had seen it all before, several times, but he still couldn’t help but feel amazed by the size and glory of the City.

As someone who grew up on the war-ravaged, poverty-stricken Exile World, Nashoba, Ilm—with its glittering towers and efficient urban design—looked like a jewel filled with light and prosperity.

Chen!” Toshir’s voice interrupted his ruminations. “Get ready. We’re almost there.”


Chen turned to look at his superiors, Toshir and Park, who were seated opposite him. Both were warrior gene breeds; hard-faced, brawny men, whose cord-like muscles suggested muscle-enhancing mods and forbidden breeding techniques.

Park had the distinctive Doric phenotypic features: a hard jaw, curly hair, bluish-orange skin and bright orange eyes. Powerful muscles were visible on both of his arms, and Chen saw the almost imperceptible bulge of an aggression enhancer on his neck.

Toshir, on the other hand, was a Taira, and Chen tried not to think about the stories surrounding his particular gene-breed; about their semi-illegal practices, and how they experimented with all manner of chemical weapons forbidden by the Terran Exarchate before their exile to Nashoba. The man’s eyes almost seemed like thin lines on his face, while his pale white skin appeared like luminescent silk covering cords of steel. He turned to face Chen, and the slit-like eyes opened wide to reveal monstrous black within black orbs.

Despite himself, a faint shiver ran through Chen’s spine, and he looked down to inspect his armor for the tenth time since they left the Iscariot.

“Chen!” Toshir’s voice rang out a second time, almost taunting this time. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Ye doan looks ready,” Park, the Doric breed finally spoke up. “An ‘Atavist’ likes yous’ probably wo’an likes wot’ll happens down there.”

Chen swallowed hard at Park’s taunting chuckles, and at the implications of “Atavist,” a term broadly used to describe “genotypic relics” from a time when humans had not yet tinkered with their genetic code.

Both men looked at Chen, their eyes harsh and critical, though without malice. They wanted to see if a few words were enough to make him crack.

Though every cell in his body seemed to freeze up in fear, Chen met their gaze and held it. Inferior though he may be, obsolete though his gene traits may be, he would not back out of a fight. Not now.

He had sacrificed too much to back out now. He will not return to Nashoba in disgrace.

“Knock it off, Park,” Toshir ordered, and the Doric breed leaned back on his chair, though his face remained a challenging smirk.

“Last chance to back out, Chen.” Toshir’s voice was kindly, but his eyes remained hard and pitiless. “You can still go back with the Raider.”

Chen answered with a cold, hard voice that seemed foreign to his own ears. “Not without seeing some action, sir!”

Toshir sighed and leaned back on his own seat. He could feel the Raider slowing down, and he knew that it was only a matter of time before it would land.

“Do you know why we’re going down there?”

“Yes, sir! A hostage situation. Keramlik secessionists have kidnapped several local leaders and their families. We are to—“

“Don’t give me that!” Toshir snapped angrily, and his tone became inquisitorial. “Opposition factions on the Keramlik homeworld have been gaining power, and they are pushing the Keramlik Ascendancy to secede from the Federated Alliance. This attack is the latest example of the ongoing low-intensity civil war in Keramlik space. Do you know what that means?”

“If the Keramlik secede, then dozens of minor alien races will follow them, and that will spell the end of the Fed-All,” Chen answered without hesitation

“Correct,” Toshir said. “Except the Keramlik Ascendancy will never secede because the secessionists are a small vocal minority, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Now, here’s the big question!” Toshir said sharply, and his eyes peered at Chen, like those of a predatory owl’s. ”Why hire human mercs for a critical situation like this? Why not send in a force exclusively made up of their best and most trusted soldiers?”

Chen thought about his answer for a moment. He considered a sly answer, but thought better of it. Better to play it straight. “Politics,” he said with an honesty that was alien to him. “And also because the Fed-Alls want us to watch over their best soldiers.”

Park roared with laughter, even as their shuttle’s engines began to die down. “Is you sayin’ the ram-ranchin’ Fed-Alls doan trust their own sodjers?” Park asked with a grin.

“No, sir! Absolutely not,” Chen said brightly, and this time, his voice was full of sly subtlety. “They just want expendable human mercs to draw fire for their team.”

Park and Toshir laughed at the answer. “That’ll do, kid,” Toshir said without malice. “That’ll do. For now.”


It was already noon when the Raider landed near a heavily barricaded area guarded by a small security detail composed of various species. The human mercenaries disembarked from their transport without fanfare, then quickly went on the central command post, a hastily constructed pre-fab structure with the company’s hammer and dragon logo stamped on its walls and doors. Other humans were already there, ready to fight and waiting for the signal to join battle.

The command post gave a good view of the forward area, a small industrial zone, not too far from one of Ilm’s gargantuan spaceports. The structure where the Keramlik hostages were being held was a tall administrative building shaped like a thin, spiralling stalagmite; however, the information on the imprinted briefing reminded Chen that the structure was stronger than it looked, though it had several weak spots that could easily be exploited by determined attackers.

The secessionists had originally planned to evacuate them off planet via the nearby spaceport, but when that plan failed, they retreated to this place and fortified it against the inevitable attack.

This happened 16 standard Terran hours ago.

Now, the area surrounding the building was a no man’s land. Here and there, Chen could see signs of battle, but nothing too extensive, and naturally, the structure was also surrounded with various weapons emplacements, mostly low-intensity mass accelerators.

The defenders, though, were a different matter. The briefing said that the terrorists were battle-heartened veterans armed with the best weapons the Keramlik Ascendancy had to offer. They supposedly had particle beams and various directed energy weapons, the kind of weapons that can actually threaten a combat-modded, war-breed human mercenary. And worst of all, there were supposedly over a hundred of them over there, armed and ready to die for their cause.

Chen, however, saw that almost none of that was true. The structure was poorly fortified, and he could identify five to ten different weak points that even the most incompetent attacker could exploit. The secessionists did not reveal themselves, but phasic scans revealed that they were just milling around in the upper floors, like untrained rabble. Chen was no expert in alien psychology, but something in his gut told him that the “hardened terrorists” were a scared, ill-disciplined, and demoralized lot.

The only thing that matched the briefing was the size of the force. There were over a hundred of them over there. How so many Keramlik secessionists reached Ilm without being detected or flagged Chen could only wonder.

What was even more surprising was the Fed-All presence in the area. Sure, the armed emplacements were there, but the security forces sent to man the barricades were a skeleton force that could easily fall apart should the secessionists decide to break out in force.

And despite the official blackout, there were also plenty of civilians nearby. Comely Hithariki journalist-scriveners prowled the command area, as though the whole hostage crisis was some sort of excursion where they could get a nice, juicy scoop. There were also Mit-Mit researchers poking through equipment and speaking with the task force. One attempted to speak with Chen, but the creature’s substandard translator failed to convey his thoughts, and Chen drove him away with an irritated growl.

To pass the time, Chen checked his own equipment. Due to his inferior gene breed and lack of mods, he was forced to carry more gear than the standard merc in the company, but he took pride in the fact that he took good care of them. He already had his synth skin armor on, a series of semi-organic magnetorheological fluid plates that clung to his flesh using a series of Randot phasic nodes. They weren’t exactly top of the line, but they were the best that he can afford, and they had a few extra upgrades to increase their durability.

His weapons were likewise simple. Just a standard plasma thrower with a few upgraded heatsinks and a recently repaired molecular disruptor, its smooth shape and decorative filigrees concealing its low quality. Poor range, but durable and dependable.

All good. All green.

As Chen was about to join his fellow mercs, Toshir clasped him on the shoulders and dragged him away from the command post and towards an area filled with supply crates. Park was already there busily drinking, his rough face fixed in a frown.

“Change of plans, Chen,” Toshir whispered to him, his pale white skin almost glowing under Ilm’s noon sun. “We’re not joining the main assault.”

“We’re not?” Chen asked surprised and a little anxious at the sudden change, but he quickly recovered. “Of course, we’re not.”

“The Ilm governor is sending over a VIP, a Fed-All Justicar named Kiritata. Know him?”

“Only what I’ve learned from the local propaganda,” Chen said.

Toshir leaned closer then began speaking in a calm but cautious tone. “The Federated Alliance doesn’t produce propaganda. The Federated Alliance only provides pure and unbiased information to its citizens, and the galaxy. That’s the truth, and telling the truth keeps you healthy and employed, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, because if Kiritata is involved, then this mission just got a lot more complicated, which is why it’s important to say the truth all the time, right?”

Chen opened his mouth to speak, but he shut it just as quickly, suddenly remembering the rules of the game. “Yes, sir. I only speak the truth. Of course.”

“Good,” Toshir said. “Kiritata is tasked with saving the hostages. He has his own team, but the three of us, we’re providing support. The rest of the company, as well as some Fed-All troops, will engage the Keramlik and draw fire away, while we move in.”

“And our plan of attack?”

“We’re going in through a tunnel,” Toshir answered. “Scans and initial recon indicate that the basement is not heavily defended; mostly automated defences: drones and turrets. That’s also we’re we’ll most likely find the hostages. Our job is to keep Kiritata alive. Just follow our lead and you’ll be fine. We’ll make our move once the diversionary attack begins.”

“And the hostages?” Chen asked, hesitantly.

“Are Kiritata’s problem. Keepin’ Kiritata livin’ and pissin’ s’ours,” Park said with a strange joviality that was so patently false that it almost seemed true. “Now, ’member! Jus’ follow our or’ers. No matter wot happens, follow our pissin’ orders.”

Park and Toshir turned to leave, but Chen stopped them.

“I’m not sure I’m right for this sort of job, sir!” Chen couldn’t believe that those words came out of his mouth, not after everything he said back in the shuttle, and yet they did. And now, he was frozen in fear.

Toshir’s face flared up with anger, but it was Park who stepped in to deescalate the situation, grabbing his partner’s arm with a brawny hand, before glaring down at Chen. “Ye knows how ta shoots and kills, right? Y’ killed things; ‘umies and xenies?”


“And ye understandin’ wots goin’ around ‘ere?”

“I…” Chen hesitated. “I think so, yes.”

“Ye thinks so’s or na’? Make’ep yer head.”

“I do, sir!”

“Good! Then all’s ye be needing to do’s to shaddup and follows yer orders. Tha’s all. Shaddup and follows orders. Long Pants sen’ you here fer training, and that’s wot yer gettin’,” Park said with a smirk that seemed foreign to his bluish-orange face, “assumin’ ye survives, acourse. Come on. We’s gotta meets tha birdie, Tosh and I. Ye may as’ ell come ‘long.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of several heavily armed Keramlik soldiers, their armor and weapons lighter and less ominous than those used by the human mercenaries, though no less potent. At the center of this group was a tall Keramlik warrior, its featherless avian face brightly painted and its beak-like protrusion decorated by exotic jewelry.

“Speak a’ the dev’l,” Toshir muttered, as much to himself as to Chen.

“Human friends,” the lead Keramlik greeted through his translator. Chen had met other Keramlik before, but this one was taller than the others, and he bore a virile dignity that the rest of his species seemed to lack. Unlike the spindly limbs and thin torsos of his kind, Kiritata’s body appeared powerful and resilient. His most prominent features, however, were his four alien eyes, which were five times the size of a standard human’s and which now peered at them ominously.

“Justicar,” Toshir replied in greeting. “We are honored to join you in the assault.”

“The honor is mine, human friends,” Kiritata answered. “But I was not informed that human friends would be here…” He paused, as though considering the situation carefully. “I did not even learn of you until I arrive. Strange, isn’t it?”

“Most likely a mistake,” Toshir said quickly. “Your own leaders believed that you and your men needed further support. Recon indicates that the terrorists are well-armed.”

“Indeed. Secessionists will be punished,” Kiritata answered, his eyes becoming larger than before. “These terrorists are a threat to the Federated Alliance. Rebels. I understand that the founders of Nashoba and your great mercenary company are also rebels.”

Chen was caught off-guard by the remark. Was this alien intentionally baiting them or was it really an honest mistake?

“To the Exarchate, Justicar,” Toshir corrected, without pausing or showing any sign of anger. “Nashoba, our company included, are rebels against the tyrannical Terran Exarchate, which is a corrupt and oppressive regime, and an enemy of all sapient life.”

“Hmmmmm. Yes. In any case, human friends, I am pleased with the support of your arms. We shall surely triumph over the perfidious rebels.”

“Thank you, Justicar. The honor is ours,” Toshir replied, then turned to Park and Chen. “These are the men of my squad. This is Rodrigo Chen and you’ve already met Park before. Chen, the Justicar Kiritata is doing us a great honor by speaking with us before the mission. The Keramlik are among the most honest and straight forward people in the entire Federated Alliance. Isn’t that right, Justicar Commander?”

The alien’s eyes relaxed and let out a sound that Chen believed was praise. He and Toshir exchanged more pleasantries, then the Justicar and his entourage left, walking towards a small prefab shelter filled with several Keramlik females as well as a few Fed-All bureaucrats.

“That’s it? I thought he was going to brief us,” Chen complained.

“Everything you need to know was included in your imprinting,” Toshir said brusquely, his porcelain face frowning.

Chen paused, then slowly, deliberately, he said, “Everything I can talk about was included in the imprinting.” Toshir and Park looked at Chen curiously, and he held their gaze without flinching, his normally plain features now surprisingly hard.

“Ye wanna handle dis or should’s I?” Park asked.

Toshir sighed and led Chen to a secluded area with Park keeping watch.

Keeping his voice low, Toshir said, “I’ll make this brief, so try not to interrupt me. About three standard Terran months ago, a group of Fed-All investigators uncovered a Keramlik secessionist cell operating in one of their outer colonies. They found a lot of high-end weapons and equipment in their armory, the kind only high-ranking officers and military personnel have access to.”

“Like Justicars?” Chen asked.

“Yes, like them. Exactly like them,” Toshir said, but quickly added, “Of course, the weapons could have come from anyone, but the Fed-Alls have a list of suspects.”

Chen looked at the Keramlik commando, Kiritata, and his team. They were inspecting their gear, but he knew that they were watching the humans as much as the humans were watching them. Suddenly, Chen realized something. He liked the intrigue. It fit him like a glove.

“And Kiritata knows a lot about these suspects, doesn’t he?”

“That he does,” Toshir said with a sardonic smirk that appeared more like a feral grin.

“And this list of suspects? How many of these ‘suspects’ were traced back to this planet?”

Toshir didn’t respond. He simply smiled.


For all installments of “Martyr’s Blood,” click here.