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The Liberty Gun

an extract from the novel
by Martin Sketchley


March 3, 2479 (Earth equivalent)

The Liberty Gun by Martin SketchleyTwo of the Seriattic pilots walked over to Delgado and looked down at him.

"A human male," said the slightly taller of the two, speaking Counian. "This is not something I expected."

"The other is also human. A female."

Delgado could tell from their voices that one was a vilume, the other a mourst. At least he now knew with certainty that they were still on Seriatt.

He raised his head and looked across at Ash as two more copters settled on the ground nearby. As their pilots alighted and walked towards her, the taller of the Seriatts -- the vilume -- crouched in front of him, forearms resting on thighs. The pilot's clothing was made of tough black fabric that was covered in a layer of russet dust.

The Liberty Gun by Martin SketchleyDelgado looked up at the vilume's face. He perceived the Seriatt as female. She raised her glossy black goggles onto her forehead and revealed striking amber eyes. The skin around her eyes was incredibly smooth and more deeply tanned than that of any vilume he had previously encountered. It also appeared to be elaborately tattooed around the right eye, while the rest of her face remained hidden by the thick scarf that wrapped the lower part of her head. She looked kind, tolerant.

"You are an unexpected surprise, indeed," she said, peering down at him. She reached out with a black-gloved hand and pulled at his clothing. "You are wearing Seriattic garments. Medic's clothing, is it? I have seen nothing like this for quite some time. Who are you? What are you doing here?"

"How's my friend?" Delgado demanded. He tried to see past the vilume, but the Seriatt pushed him down firmly.

"Could be a Sinz shifter," said the mourst, who was standing to the vilume's right. "One of their tricks to infiltrate us."

The vilume shook her head. "I do not think so. If he was a shifter, he would have become something else when we brought him down. A form that would have easily been able to escape from our ropes. And only their best shifters can accurately adopt a form as complex as this. They would not risk losing one. Inconsistencies and imperfections would be obvious at this close range if it were a less skilled shifter. He is truly human."

"Even if this is true, we cannot afford to assume they are on our side."

"I am not about to do that, Keth," said the vilume with patience. "Tell us your name, human."

"Not until you tell me if my friend's okay."

The vilume looked over her shoulder in Ash's direction and shouted something at her colleagues; Delgado caught a glimpse of Ash being pulled from beneath the fallen gatkurd by some of the other Seriatts, one of whom replied. The vilume looked back at Delgado. "Your female companion has some bruising to her legs and minor skin damage, nothing more. Now tell us who you are and what you are doing here. There have been no humans on Seriatt since before the Sinz invasion. Where did you land? Where is your ship? How did you get through the shield?

"Release us; then I'll talk."

Keth snorted. "He is surely human. Even the best shifter would not be able to replicate their attitude so precisely."

The vilume did not disagree with Keth's assertion. "Very good," she said. "You stay quiet if that is what you wish. We will take you to our camp. If when we get there you still do not wish to answer our questions, although it is not my usual way, I will have to consider giving Keth here the opportunity to encourage your cooperation."

Delgado stared at the vilume and tried to convey an intimidating demeanour, but the expression in the Seriatt's eyes did not change. Delgado and Ash were made to stand. Their hands were bound, and they were marched to separate copters.

"In there," said the vilume pilot to Delgado, indicating the small craft's rear seat. "You will come with me. Keth will take your colleague." Delgado looked across at Ash as she walked towards another aircraft with the mourst. She was limping slightly. She simply shrugged when she saw Delgado looking at her.

Delgado stepped over the copter's low side; it seemed a very fragile machine. He did his best to settle himself into its rear seat. It was small and hard, and although long, the cockpit was narrow. When he moved his elbows outwards, the thin hull flexed under the pressure. The butt of the chain gun mounted on the side of the copter was right next to his head. Although he would be able to use the weapon if he so wished, the barrel was too long for him to threaten the vilume with it, which would in any case be suicidal.

As the vilume leaned over the side of the machine to strap Delgado into his seat, the Seriatt looked at him. Her bright eyes shone above the black cloth scarf. "You should tell me your name, at least," she said. "If you give me something, no matter how small, I will be able to convince Keth that he should not harm you. I do not perceive that you are against us. Tell me your name."

Delgado looked at the Seriatt, and considered. The traces his nobics fed to him indicated that she was genuine, and that the kindness he saw in her eyes reflected her true personality. "You tell me yours," he said slowly, "and I'll tell you mine."

The vilume yanked at Delgado's straps, pulling them as tight as she could, then stood and looked down at him for a few moments before stepping over the side of the aircraft in front of him, and settling herself at the controls. "I am called Cowell," she said, reaching over each shoulder for her own harness straps. "But this information will not help you. Now tell me your name, human."

"Delgado," he said. "Alexander Delgado."

Cowell momentarily stopped untangling the earbuds that had been hanging across the small joystick in front of her; although she did not turn or question him, she seemed to recognise the name.

Cowell then placed her goggles back over her eyes and reached out, flicking switches in preparation for flight. There was a mechanical cough above Delgado's head, and the small copter's rotors began to turn, slowly at first, but rapidly increasing in speed. Behind him he heard the thin whine of small turbines. Clouds of dust rose as all around them the pilots of the other copters also started their machines' engines. Within moments, all aircraft were ready for flight.

Delgado saw Cowell speaking as she looked towards the copter piloted by Keth. The vilume then increased the power to the turbines and turned the machine in a tight circle, with the other aircraft forming up behind her. The machines then spread out in a line abreast, facing in the same direction. There was a brief pause; then the pilots opened the throttles.

The copter accelerated rapidly, vibrating as it rumbled across the uneven ground. A few moments later Cowell pulled back on the joystick, and the shuddering ceased as the aircraft climbed steeply, the desert falling away.

The formation levelled off at a height of around one hundred metres, then turned towards the point at which the first of the birds had hit the ground. Delgado could see another copter landed next to the dead creature. As they approached, it he could see that the bird had no feathers, but skin like that of the Sinz they had seen earlier, wrinkled like a scrotum. Its vast, pointed wings were like thin membranes.

They descended again and landed between the carcasses. The Seriatt pilot was hacking at the nearest with a large cleaver that glinted in the sunlight as he delivered each blow. The Seriatt appeared to be trying to separate one of the bird's wings from its body.

Cowell powered down the copter and unbuckled her harness. As the rotors slowed, she stood and stepped out of the cockpit. "We will harvest what meat we can from these Sinz corpses," she said, raising her goggles to her forehead once more. She began to unbuckle two long leather panniers strapped to either side of the copter's fuselage.

Delgado glanced around. "What do you mean? What Sinz?"

Cowell moved her head to indicate the slain bird nearest to her. "These, of course."

Delgado looked at the dead bird nearest to them. "But we've seen Sinz," he said. "They were skinny little humanoids."

"Humanoid. How very human of you to say that, Alexander Delgado. The Sinz take many forms. Some are avian, like these; others are amphibians. I am puzzled that you do not know this."

"So when you've killed them you eat them?"

"That is correct. This may seem barbaric, but there is little food. We must take what we can when it is available. Now, I must go and help Entass. The wings are particularly difficult to remove, as the muscles are large and run deep."

"There's not much meat on those wings," Delgado said. "Seems like a lot of effort."

"Although the wings themselves carry little meat, they are particularly tasty when crisp." Cowell drew a long-bladed knife from a sheath attached to her thigh as she turned and walked away from the copter towards the dead Sinz and her Seriattic colleague.

Delgado looked across at Ash and saw Keth walking away from their copter to join his counterparts in their butchery. Delgado raised his bound hands in front of him, gave a thumbs-up, and mouthed, Are you okay? Ash nodded, then glanced from Delgado to the Seriatts and back again.

Delgado recognised something in her eyes and expression. "Shit, Ash," he muttered. "What are you thinking of trying?"

Keth reached Cowell and Entass, and they seemed to begin discussing the best way to dismember the Sinz carcass. When he looked back towards Ash, he saw that she had somehow freed her hands. The next moment she leaped from the copter and was sprinting towards him.

Delgado heard a shout from one of the other Seriatts, which attracted the attention of Keth, Cowell, and Entass. Keth immediately gave chase. Despite his bulky mourst physique, he was a fast runner and quickly gained ground. When he was still several metres behind Ash, Keth took his lasso from his waist and threw it gently and skilfully.

The rope slipped easily over Ash's shoulders and down around her calves. Keth yanked at the rope, and Ash fell heavily to the ground just a few metres from the copter.

"Goddammit," she cursed, spitting grit. She sat up quickly and tried to release her legs, but before she could do so the Seriatts were upon her.



© Martin Sketchley 2006, 2007.

Martin Sketchley's Structure series is published by Pyr in the US and Canada, and Simon & Schuster in the UK. The third in the series -- The Liberty Gun -- was published by Pyr in November 2006, and in February 2007 by Simon & Schuster.

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