Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Liberty Gun by Martin Sketchley


High Earth atmosphere, somewhere above Australia

February 26, 2379

When the Buccaneer reached an altitude of twenty-eight thousand metres the aircraft’s engines shut down. Their roar was replaced by the softness of rushing air, and the machine decelerated quickly as it approached the top of its arc.

As the Buccaneer levelled off its only passenger, Colonel Viktor Saskov, undid his straps, stood, and performed his final equipment check. Suit seals and pressure were good. The light above the door was still red. Even though he would not use it, he briefly activated the visor display just to check that it was functional.

He breathed deeply and assigned a few nobics to keep him level-headed: the buzz of a jump never faded, and seemed resistant to any attempts to quell it. But that was almost certainly a good thing. He also instructed his nobics not to provide him with automatically updated altitude and atmospheric information: he wanted to be in complete control. He had to be in control—or at least as in control as his nobics would allow him to feel.

But do nothing, do the wrong thing, or simply do the right thing a moment too late, and you were dead.

That was the thrill.

That was why he jumped.

He opened a visual to check weather conditions. There was some cirrus cloud, haze lower down, and a crosswind at ground level. He could cope with all of that without the aid of nobics, no problem. He just had to keep his eye on the altitude and make sure he didn’t drift too far. Anyway, a jump from this high meant that he’d have five or six minutes of freefall to enjoy before he’d have to open the canopy. That alone made the expense of hiring the Buccaneer worthwhile. While much less expensive, a low-altitude jump would give him only around forty-five seconds of freefall; but that wasn’t enough. Not for Viktor Saskov.

He checked the time as he stepped towards the hatch. Just five minutes had passed since the launch. He looked up; the light above the door was still red. Saskov punched the button and gripped the handles on either side of the hatch. A moment later it began to open.

Cold gripped him like a fist for the moment before his suit automatically adjusted to the conditions. A visual opened in his mind: the outside temperature was minus sixty.

Despite the Buccaneer’s speed, the sense of stillness outside the craft was striking. The immeasurable void of space was just a few metres away, the moon a shining silver disc directly in front of him; it seemed so close that he felt as though he could reach out and touch it. He smiled at the sense of freedom and isolation he felt. The euphoria never faded.

The highest layers of cloud were thousands of metres below him, a rippled, icelike sheet. A secondary visual appeared in his head advising him of the limited time remaining before the aircraft began its descent.

Saskov shuffled forward until the tips of his toes were over the edge of the hatchway. A buzzer sounded. He looked up. When the red light turned green, he stepped from the aircraft.

With virtually no atmosphere to provide any resistance he accelerated incredibly quickly, reaching several hundred kilometres an hour in just a few seconds. His suit warmed due to the friction of the atmosphere flowing around him. The layer of cloud so far below remained distant and unchanged. He seemed to be floating, static. To his right he glimpsed the Buccaneer descending rapidly, its polished hull reflecting sunlight.

Saskov entered the slightly dreamlike state that tended to come over him when making a very high-altitude jump. It was the sound of rushing air, the rhythm of the vibrations running through him as he fell. Part of his mind roamed free; his body relaxed as he enjoyed this ultimate escape. Yet another part of his brain continued to check altitude, speed, and drift.

A minute after stepping from the Buccaneer, Saskov refreshed the weather information. This had in fact been fed to him moments before he thought about it, the nobics having preempted his request based on their previous experience of their host. In many ways, and despite what he might like to think, Saskov was a creature of habit.

Just moments before feeding the information into the Colonel’s consciousness the nobics analysed the data, and acted upon what they considered his reaction would be to the less than ideal situation: he was going too fast, the crosswind at ground level had increased, and he was slightly off course.

Without careful treatment the nobics knew that their host could react badly to the possibility of dropping into the dense forest to the east of the target zone—a potentially lethal situation. The host was one of the more efficient of the inefficient organic machines that were home to all nobics, but the nobics did not want to risk this being the one time he had a bad reaction to information they fed him. For this reason they would ensure Colonel Saskov reacted well by altering his physiology slightly just a fraction of a second before feeding him the data.

The nobics informed Saskov of his errant trajectory so discreetly that if asked he would have said he had simply realised he was off course—such skill came from extensive jumping experience.

He reacted calmly and instructed his suit to extend thin sheets of membrane to increase drag and slow him down: the increased ability to direct airflow would enable him to correct his course. He remained ignorant of the fact that the nobics had acted merely to protect themselves.

They had been such an integral part of him for so long that he frequently forgot they were there, in his blood, in his brain, in the breath in his lungs and the pores of his skin. So deep was their integration that—even if they would allow anyone to attempt to do so—it would no longer be possible to extricate them from him. So unconsciously reliant on them was he, that in all probability Colonel Viktor Saskov would not be able to function properly without them.

Indeed, the nobics had such an effect upon his personality and his decisions and reactions to situations and events, sometimes even before they occurred, that without their influence he would be unrecognisable to many who knew him.

Likewise, the nobics were reliant on Saskov’s health, and it was therefore in their best interests to ensure his safety. So although Saskov believed he had suppressed his nobics sufficiently to enjoy his skydiving experience to the full, he only believed this because the nobics allowed him to believe it.

Saskov passed through the highest layer of cloud at just over twelve thousand metres. Not long left before he had to open the canopy. Better make the most of it.

Saskov was unaware of a sudden rash of activity in his brain, as his higher nobics tried to persuade a particularly snooty hypercom system that it most definitely did not have the authority to override them. Despite their Truly Independent Cognition status, their host’s well-being was their top priority—largely because this was essential to their own survival—and an incoming message at this crucial moment would be far from welcome. Indeed, it would be highly dangerous to all concerned.

The hypercom wasn’t interested in the nobics’ TIC status. The message was Priority One, direct from the Commander Supreme. Failure to open a direct channel could result in their being decommissioned. Or worse, being downgraded to Host Operator Defined—the outdated architecture that limited all pre-TIC evolutions to simply obeying host commands.

Downgrading from TIC to HOD was the ultimate humiliation; Saskov’s nobics realised they had little choice but to allow the message through.

So, at an altitude of just over seven thousand six hundred metres, a visual appeared in Saskov’s mind. He swore and closed it immediately without allowing its content to open.

His nobics would have enjoyed this rebuke to the hypercom system had they been unaware of its determination, and the ultimate authority it carried. Instead of communicating the message to Saskov via the Mindz-I software, which automatically imbued him with awareness of the message’s content, the hypercom system realised that it would have to employ slightly less subtle methods of interfacing with the human.

It assessed Saskov’s suit drivers and ascertained that they would easily yield to its advances despite the efforts of the stubborn software flux entity to prevent it doing so. It almost admired the SFE’s determination, but TIC entities could be so frustrating.

The hypercom forced its way into the suit and, despite the continued protestations of Saskov’s nobics, conveyed its message directly.

Saskov blinked, momentarily startled as three blocks of text informing him of a high-priority message were transposed onto the inside of his visor. Saskov attempted to disable his suit’s comms devices while trying to maintain his focus on the ground below. The landing zone was on a ragged strip of land glimpsed between cloud layers. Ineffective control at this crucial stage could cause him to miss it completely.

But his suit was unresponsive. He tried to summon help from nobics, but they also seemed dead; no visuals would open up to advise him of their status.

The flag text cleared and was replaced by an originator code. Only then did Saskov appreciate who the message could be from. Although focussing on the landing zone remained imperative, he allowed the message through.






The text faded, and Saskov’s view of the ground was suddenly unobscured. But he was no longer focussed on the jump. Indeed, he could no longer enjoy it. At a little under five thousand five hundred metres he opened his first braking canopy. He shed speed quickly and opened the second canopy a minute or so later.

But as he drifted towards the ground he experienced a mixture of ­trepidation and excitement that was easily as intoxicating as that stimulated by a jump: a summons direct from General Myson was rare, and its possibilities and implications impossible to gauge.


March 3, 2379

The gatkurd lapped at the water in the wooden trough, scooping the tepid liquid into its mouth with its wide, pink tongue. Blades of sunlight sliced through the cracks between the planks from which the barn was constructed. They dissected the interior into portions of gloom, and highlighted dust motes that hung in the air.

Nearby, other gatkurd lay on beds of straw or stood dozing in the heat. Occasionally an ear would twitch or a tail flick to dismiss a small insect, but otherwise the creatures were still.

The animal at the trough raised its head suddenly, its thirst only half-slaked. Water dripped from its thick lips as it dragged its tongue across its broad, black nose. It stared blankly at the side of the barn, its stupid expression unchanged. It then looked to its right—in the direction of the frame upon which hung bridles, reins, and saddles—and sniffed the air as if it had detected the approach of a fertile and unattached male.

Other gatkurd looked in the same direction. One of those that had been lying down struggled to its feet. Another snorted and stamped one cloven hoof.

A faint, deep sound gradually became audible, a dissonant throb that further unsettled the already-nervous creatures. As the noise increased in volume they became agitated, and more of them clambered to their feet. Some of them began pawing at the straw-covered floor and shaking their heads in an effort to rid themselves of the discomfort the sound caused.

With a loud pop, a small orange vortex suddenly appeared near one of the barn’s walls, a swirling mass of luminescent cloud just a few centimetres in diameter that rotated and folded onto itself. After a few moments the disturbance brightened and swelled until it was half the size of a gatkurd.

The animals blinked as the barn was filled with golden light so bright it erased the beams of sunlight. Brilliant amber tendrils arced from the edge of the cloud like miniature bolts of forked lightning. They singed wood and straw at points of contact before snapping back to the main surging mass, filling the barn with the smell of ozone.

One of these charged limbs danced across a gatkurd’s flank; it cut through the creature’s skin, and a slippery length of smoking guts slipped from the animal’s belly. The gatkurd’s legs gave way, and it collapsed onto its own innards, wailing and writhing.

The vortex swelled further until it almost completely obscured one of the barn walls. The swirling of the cloud became more turbulent. As the resonance increased in volume, drowning out the cries of the petrified gatkurd, a warm breeze created ripples on the dusty surface of the water in the trough.

As the gatkurd stomped and bayed, two humanoid figures began to appear in the glowing mist.

Although initially indistinct, they gained definition with each passing moment. They were hand in hand, and appeared to be leaning forward slightly, as if walking into a strong wind. As they approached, the deep, tremulous pulse increased in frequency and volume to such an extent that the wooden beams supporting the barn roof began to vibrate, dislodging dust and grit.

The vibration increased in intensity, and was penetrated by an eerie howl as the two figures burst from the chaos of the cloud and fell to the barn floor.

The loud pulsing sound diminished rapidly, and as the cloud shrank again, its glow fading, the bewildered gatkurd returned to their docile state once more.

Delgado lifted his head from the damp, stinking straw and looked at Ashala, who was lying next to him. He pushed himself up, leaned over her, and touched her left shoulder. She moaned and touched her forehead with one hand.

“Like I’ve said before, Delgado,” she whispered, “you sure know how to show a girl a good time.”

Delgado smiled: she was still Ash, all right. “Well, I do my best. Let’s just hope this place turns out to be safer than the one we just came from.”

He looked around. The gatkurd were peering down at the two new arrivals. As Ash began to push herself into a sitting position, some of them took a few steps backwards and snorted.

“You okay?” he asked.

She wrinkled her nose. “I feel sick as hell. Guess I’d be a whole lot better if this place didn’t stink so much. Jeez. It smells like a ban trader’s crotch in here.”

Delgado stood and offered a hand to help her up. “Don’t worry, Ash,” he said, “we won’t be in here long.” He looked at her. “When did you ever sniff a ban trader’s crotch?”

“There’s a lot of things you still don’t know about me, Delgado. And anyway, maybe it’s me who should be asking how you feel.”

She felt his immediate tension, his change in mood.

“What do you mean?”

“What happened back there, back in the arena. One of your sons killed the other, Delgado. That’s some big deal. You sure you’re okay?”

Delgado looked around the barn as if reluctant to confront the truth of events. He had been so desperate to get Cascari to Seriatt that he had put everything at risk, virtually abandoning Bucky and the others on the Lex Talionis, the submarine base from which they had conducted their campaign against Structure, determined, assured . . . ignorant.

All to get his son into his rightful place as Seriatt’s Monosiell before Michael.

Delgado had been so convinced he would succeed: Cascari was the offspring of Vourniass Lycern, assigned bearer to the Seriattic Royal Household. Although he was Delgado’s son, and thus half human, Cascari even looked like a proud Seriattic mourst—somehow, whether through physiological changes in Lycern, or some unknown ancient history shared by humans and Seriatts, Lycern’s relationship with Delgado had resulted in Lycern’s pregnancy. Cascari’s royal bloodline could not be questioned.

Michael, however, raised by General William Myson within Structure, looked entirely human. But unknown to Delgado at that time, he was not some unfortunate, anonymous infant used by Myson in the hope of levering his way into power on Seriatt surreptitiously, but was indeed, also born of Lycern—from Delgado, taken from her by Myson just moments before she delivered Cascari. And thus Cascari and Michael were not only twins, but had equal claim to become Seriatt’s new figurehead.

With the terrible, undeniable truth of their relationship revealed by Oracle Entuzo, the Seriatts had seen only one course of action open to them in their desperate search for a new Monosiell: ritual combat.

And so, the price for Delgado’s desperation to outmanoeuvre Myson was Cascari’s life.

It seemed that Delgado was even instrumental in the deaths of those he loved. This realisation only served to compound the guilt that coursed through him regarding Lycern, and underpinned his determination to put something right. Somehow.

“Don’t worry about me, Ash,” he said. “You’ve just got to let me deal with it in my own way.”

“And what might that involve?”

He didn’t reply, but looked at the temporal gate. It had stabilised as a long, vertical golden thread, the centre of which bulged out into a small orange bulb that shimmered and surged. The gate’s relatively calm state was a contrast to the violence of their arrival. “Some trip, huh?” he said.

“Yeah, great.” Ash massaged her temples with her fingertips. “Can we do it again?” She paused, leaned forwards, and retched a few times, but produced nothing.

“Who knows?” he replied. “We might have to. We escaped the Sinz invasion of Seriatt, but as far as we know we might be in an even worse situation now. Come on. Let’s see if we can find out exactly what we’ve got ourselves into here.”

They walked to the side of the barn and pressed their faces against gaps between the planks. Outside they could see a fence a short distance away. It appeared to enclose a compound, within which the barn was situated. Beyond lay an area of ruddy, flat scrub several kilometres wide, flanked by mountains. On the horizon, slender towers rose high into the air like sticks. They seemed to be enveloped in thick brown fog that smudged away their definition.

“Hardly a sprawling metropolis out there, is it?” Ash observed.

“At least there don’t seem to be any immediate threats. Not on this side anyway.” He opened a batch of nobics to supply enhanced perception data, but none seemed to be available. Either there were no threats or he simply wasn’t picking them up.

But what he did notice was the strength his nobics seemed to have: they were more responsive than at any time he could remember.

Delgado and Ash both turned as the disembowelled gatkurd moaned deeply behind them, licking the entrails that had slipped from its body. It was trembling violently, eyes wide with fear.

Delgado walked towards it. The animal looked up at him with a pitiful expression, then continued to lick its wound as if this would somehow return the length of intestine to its rightful place.

Delgado produced his small knife as he crossed the barn. It glinted brightly in a shaft of sunlight. His skin tingled. The creature turned its head, watching Delgado as he walked around behind it; the animal seemed to know what he was about to do.

Delgado stood with one foot on either side of the gatkurd’s neck, then leaned down, raised its chin, and slit the creature’s throat.

The animal squealed once, but did nothing to resist him. It coughed briefly, then fell on to one side, its bony legs kicking. As its dark blood was absorbed by the straw beneath it, the other animals became agitated once more, baying and stamping and jostling each other.

Delgado walked back towards Ash once the gatkurd was relieved of its suffering, the other animals crying in distress. “We better get out of here before somebody comes to see what’s spooked their livestock,” he said.

They walked to the nearby door. As they began to open it, the noise emitted by the glowing orange cloud suddenly increased in volume again.

They both turned. The field was swelling and shrinking rapidly as if trying to escape, stretching the golden skin that surrounded it. The sound became louder still, the throbbing irregular and dissonant. A certain fracture was evident in its tone.

Suddenly part of the field broke free, the wild, unleashed energy destroy­ing the trough and turning much of the water to steam, the rest spilling across the barn floor. The loose band of energy jumped erratically around the interior of the barn and ignited a small patch of dry straw. As Delgado quickly stamped on the rising flames, the field’s wayward limb shrank back onto itself, pulling with it part of the broken trough, and the rear end of the dead gatkurd lying nearby.

As its hind legs were drawn into the field, the creature’s intestines slid across the ground like some kind of mutated serpent. Then, with a deep vibration that made the entire barn tremble, the field collapsed, and disappeared completely.

The temporal gate, their route back to the Seriatt they had left behind, was gone.

“Well, there’s no going back now,” said Delgado. “Looks like we’re stuck here. Wherever here might be.”

“Or when.”


He opened the barn door very slightly and peered out. His nobics remained relatively dormant. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone around,” he said. “Come on, let’s go take a look.”

Delgado opened the door a little farther and they edged out, wary of the possibility of attack. They closed the door gently behind them and looked around, their backs against the wooden building. Around twenty metres away was the fence that enclosed the compound. Although the desert stretched away before them, a kilometre or so to either side walls of rust-coloured rock a hundred metres high rose from the ground. Wide fissures ran their full height, forming deep gullies through the rock. It was impossible to tell how far these penetrated or what, if anything, might lie within.

The drab grey of the mountains that lay some kilometres beyond the rock walls was a contrast to the bright blue sky. And now that the gatkurd within the barn behind them had quietened, the silence of their surroundings was also striking.

Although Delgado felt only marginal nobic activity, something made him uneasy.

“Where the hell are we, Delgado?” Ash whispered as she surveyed the barren landscape. “I don’t like it here.”

“I don’t know, Ash. But at least the gate got us out of the situation we were in. I just hope somehow I can put things right.”

She looked at him. “How d’you mean?”

“I’m not sure yet. What we have to do for now is work out our location. If we’re still on Seriatt—and I think we are—then we’ve got to ascertain when. That’s what’s going to dictate what we do. If we’re within a reasonable time of the Sinz invasion, then that will mean one thing. But if we’ve been catapulted far into the future, then that’s quite another. The Seriatts might have been wiped out. Or the Sinz. Who knows? Apart from our friends here”—he jerked a thumb over one shoulder to indicate the gatkurd in the barn—“we might be the only living things on the planet.”

“Gee, you’re really selling this to me, Delgado.”

“I don’t think that’s the case, though. Someone filled the water trough. Someone polished the harnesses and laid the straw.”

“You really think the gate sent us through time?”

“Look around you, Ash. This sure doesn’t look like the Seriatt we left behind, does it? Something’s happened here.”

“How far do you think we’ve gone? And have we gone forward, or back?”

“I don’t know. We just have to find out as much as we can, work out what we’re up against, and decide how we’re going to get out of here. If that’s what we’re going to do. What do you make of those towers on the horizon?”

She looked at the tall structures. The upper levels were enveloped in smog, the bases out of sight beyond the horizon. There was a certain irregularity to their form that made it unclear whether they had been constructed or were natural, some form of vegetation or rock formation. “I don’t know. I can’t tell what they are. They must be a thousand metres tall.”

Delgado walked towards the end of the barn, then paused and leaned forward to peer around the corner. He stood upright again and turned to face her. “There’s a building,” he said. “Looks like some kind of residential place.”

Ash moved past him and also looked around the corner of the barn. She appraised the building’s clean lines and uncluttered style. Its footprint was square, but its height was accentuated by rows of tall, slender windows. Along the front of the building was a porch area around five metres deep. “Sure looks Seriattic to me,” she said. “You see anyone around?”

“No. It looks like some kind of farm or ranch house.”

“Well, yeah. Only there sure doesn’t seem to be much around here worth ranching, Delgado.”

“Let’s go take a look-see. Maybe we’ll get some answers inside.”

They stepped into the open and walked cautiously towards the building, continuously looking for signs of life. The dry ground crunched underfoot.

Delgado suddenly stopped dead and held out one arm in front of Ash. “Hold it.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Thought I saw something inside the house. A figure. By that window.” He pointed.

“You sure?” She peered towards the building. “I didn’t see anything.”

“It was just a glimpse, as if whoever it was saw us coming and moved away from the window.”

They both looked at the building for a moment, as if expecting something to happen.

“Well, look, Delgado,” she said, “there’s not much point standing out here in the open, now is there?” She began to walk towards the house again. “Come on. If they meant us that much harm, we’d know about it by now. Who knows? They might even be friendly.”

They stepped onto the porch and walked quietly to the door. Delgado stopped, listened, then turned the handle and pushed.

The room beyond was simply furnished: a wooden table and chairs, a kitchen to the right. There was also some kind of terminal set into a bureau-like desk near one wall. It had minimal controls, and was constructed from a material similar in appearance to brushed aluminium.

Directly opposite the door a broad staircase led to upper floors. It was all distinctly Seriattic: sturdy construction married to simple yet stylish design, with a certain understated strength.

Yet there was also something different about the feel of the place, but Delgado was unable to isolate what. There was just something strange and unfamiliar.

There were maps on the wall to his left, in front of which hastily discarded seats were scattered. Lines and writing on the map indicated that some kind of briefing had recently taken place. But from what he could see the writing was not the elegant curling characters of the written Seriattic language, but geometric shapes and lines.

They entered the room. Delgado walked across to the terminal, Ash towards the stairs. Their footfalls sounded like thunder on the wooden floor despite their attempts to move quietly. Ash paused at the bottom of the stairs and listened for a moment, then turned and walked over to Delgado.

“There’s no one here,” she said. “You must’ve been seeing things.”

“Yeah? Well what do you make of this?” He indicated a small table next to the terminal; upon it was a half-eaten meal—a sandwich of some kind, although it was old, with a hint of decay. Next to it a glass lay on its side; the last of its contents was still spilling onto the floor. “That’s just happened,” he said. He glanced around, although there was no indication of any other presence in his nobics. “Keep a lookout while I see if I can get any information from this terminal.”

Ash stalked around the room as Delgado attempted to gain access to the machine’s secrets. All was quiet. She walked back over to him. “Maybe it was some kind of animal you saw. Something like a cat, perhaps?”

“If you’re so sure there’s no one here, why are you still whispering?”

“I think I’ll take a look upstairs,” she said.

“Okay. Be careful, though, Ash. It’s a big cat. It might have a gun.”

Ash walked across the room and began to edge up the stairs sideways, her back to the banister. When she was on the third step, she felt a breath of wind that rapidly increased in strength. She looked back down into the room behind her and saw grains of sand blowing in circles across the floor behind Delgado, although neither the door nor any of the windows were open.

She turned her head sharply at a snapping sound at the top of the stairs. It was followed by a deep almost subsonic vibration that she felt through the soles of her feet and the banister in the small of her back. She saw a bright golden glow, and what appeared to be a distorted humanoid silhouette cast across the wall on the far side of the landing at the top of the stairs. Both wind and noise died with equal abruptness, and the light was gone.

She waited for a few moments, her heart thumping. There were no further signs of movement, so she continued slowly up the stairs. She looked in either direction along the corridor; it was empty, but there was a distinct smell of singed wood and ozone reminiscent of the barn.

She stood and listened, and considered exploring the rooms leading off the landing, but decided against it and went back down the stairs to ­Delgado.

“Find anything upstairs?” he asked.

“No, nothing. Did you feel that breeze?”

“What breeze?”

“Did you feel anything at all? Any presence in your nobics, perhaps?”

He looked at her. “No. Why?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. You having any luck?”

“No.” He continued to experiment with the terminal’s controls. “But then this thing’s not much help. Either I’m doing something wrong or it’s locked. It must be menu-driven given the limited controls, but I can’t work out how to access them. Here, you have a go. It might prefer your tender touch.”

As Ash took over, Delgado walked across the room to one of the windows, and gazed in the direction of the tall structures on the horizon. “What the hell are those things?” he asked. “There was nothing like that on Seriatt when we entered the time gate.” He turned and looked at Ash again. “Getting anywhere?”

“No. This system’s not like anything Seriattic I’ve ever come across before.”

“What’s different about it?”

“Everything. But I’m not sure in what way. It’s just, you know, different. I mean, the hardware’s Seriattic enough, sure, but everything else . . . Maybe we came forward in time and everything’s just progressed. It’s as if the software’s totally alien. “

“Maybe that’s exactly what it is.”

She looked at him. “The Sinz?”

“Why not? We saw them invading Seriatt when we escaped. It’s quite possible that they were successful in their conquest and have taken over the planet. We don’t know how much time has elapsed. I don’t think we can do anything here, though.” He turned and looked towards the distant towers again. “I reckon that’s where our answers lie.”

Ash stood and joined him. “That’s a long way to go on foot, Delgado.”

“We’ll take a couple of those animals in the barn.”

“Are you sure? Do you have any experience of riding creatures like that? Because I sure as hell don’t.”

Delgado thought for a moment. The last time he had had contact with creatures remotely like those in the barn, he had been heading towards the Affinity Group complex on Veshc, tailing Vourniass Lycern. It was a long time ago—even without their apparent leap into the future. But the memories stirred raw emotions in him that he had neither the energy nor the will to face. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “Trust me.”

Ash pulled a face. “Shit, Delgado. Can’t you give me something better to go on than that?”

First chronological displacement

Earth, September 18, 2350

He still felt slightly sick as he took the final few stairs, the dizziness subsiding only slightly as he crouched near the top.

Slowly he eased his head around the corner to look along the corridor. The cyborgs were motionless. The vee-cams bobbed slightly in the air. This wasn’t ideal. It was far from the position he’d hoped for.

“You ready to go, old-timer?” murmured the younger man next to him.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” He found it frustrating that he could not re­mem­ber the youth’s name, nor that of the young woman standing behind him.

“Hey, who the hell’s that?” she whispered into his ear as she peered over his shoulder.

At the opposite end of the corridor someone was lying on the other flight of steps, their head just visible. It looked like a man, but the facial features were in silhouette so it was impossible to tell. He seemed to look directly at them for several moments before moving out of sight again.

Easing slowly back from the corner and leaning against the wall, he could just make out his reflection in the glass on the opposite side of the corridor: he looked just as he remembered—for all that was worth.

The Oracle had been right.

He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, accessing his hyperconsciousness. There was a flood of information, but most important of all he could tell that his Seriattic quarry was near. Very near. He took a few deep breaths to quell rising excitement and fear as he glimpsed all there was the potential to be, and the infinite variations, then looked at the young woman next to him.

Despite the ravages of the environment in which she had spent most of her adult life to this point, she looked so young, so fresh. So young that, given his new perspective, the man felt a certain sense of guilt.

A recollection suddenly came to him. He looked at the woman and smiled at her. “Okay, Ash?” he said.

“What? Who the hell’s Ash?” The woman frowned. “Are you okay? You look kinda weird.”

How could that be wrong? The man looked away and shook his head. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m fine.” He looked from one to the other of them. “But once we step into that corridor, we’ll have just a few minutes to deal with the cyborgs and vee-cams and get into the suite, so we’re going to have to be quick. Those cyborgs are tough. Tougher than anything you’ve seen before. The systems used by Hostility Class are tremendously advanced, and their nobic evolution can work very quickly. They’re not easy to kill unless you can maintain a high volume of well-placed hits. If you don’t do that, they get rebuilt and repaired right before your eyes. It’s impressive, but not something you want to have to face in combat if you can help it.

“The vee-cams will be armed, too, but they only usually have ­limited-capacity blasters or projectile units. They’ve got a pretty intense sting for their size, though, so watch out. Activate the shields on your guns. It’ll sap some power, but there’s no cover out there and we’ll need to buy some time. They’ll take a few hits before they give out.”

“You’ve told us all this already,” the youth said.

The man blinked. “I have? Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. Why’d you come back round here anyway? It would’ve been better if you’d stayed at the other end.” The youth slapped him on one arm. “Whatever. Don’t worry about it, man. They won’t know what’s hit ’em.”

“Famous last words if ever I heard any,” he replied. He looked cautiously along the corridor again. The figure at the far end had gone. He thought about the possibilities and wondered at the implications for a moment, then stepped back and turned to his two young companions. “We’ll attack from both sides,” he said. “A pincer movement. You two stay here; I’ll go round to the other end of the corridor and attack from that side. Okay?”

“That was what you said you were going to do a few minutes ago,” the youth said. “Then you came back.” He looked concerned. “She’s right, man: you don’t look so good. You sure you’re going to be all right?”

He nodded, hoping it conveyed more confidence than he felt. “Positive. Let me get round there and we’ll go for it. See you in five. Good luck.”

He ran from the steps and through the corridors back towards the stairway on the other side of the chamber. He glanced towards the elevators as he passed near to them; his route back was not yet open. Although the timing was still out, maybe he would still be able to do something at this point. Yet he was unsure what he would do when he confronted the person they had seen at the other end of the corridor: his identity was clear, the possibilities frightening.

But by the time he arrived at the other flight of stairs, the battle had already begun. Shrill alarms were punctuated by explosions, blaster fire. He swore bitterly to himself: he could do nothing now—he’d missed his chance. He glanced back towards the elevators: still nothing.

Although he knew it was risky, and despite the Oracle’s warnings, he took the final few steps and looked into the corridor.

The vee-cams’ tiny frames trembled, pushed backwards through the air each time they fired their weapons. The cyborgs seemed to be blasting indiscriminately, as if actual combat was something for which they were unprepared. The male they had seen from the other end of the corridor was now directly in front of him, shooting at cyborgs and vee-cams. His presence was frustrating, but inevitable. He reached out with his nobics in an attempt to gauge the other man’s thoughts and perceptions, but could not detect even the faintest trace of him; it was as if he did not exist at all.

The others were visible at the far end of the corridor, but they clearly had their work cut out: the female was crouching against the wall opposite the door to the chamber, firing rapidly; the young man was fighting several cyborgs at once. They were both taking hits, but were standing their ground as the fields generated by their guns remained intact. He felt impelled to step forward and help them; but the presence of the other man in front of him made this impossible.

One of the cyborgs fell to the ground, its head and upper body suffering massive trauma—yet he knew that it would soon be back on its feet.

There was a sudden explosion as one of the vee-cams was destroyed; the second followed, components scattering. He saw the girl standing up at the other end of the corridor; she was limping slightly, and her left hand was clutched to her right arm.

The man just in front of him had hit the nearest of the cyborgs several more times. Its head had been almost completely destroyed by some of the first shots, and the left side of its body was a bloody mess. It lacked coordination, indiscriminately releasing shots that were way off target.

At the other end of the corridor his two counterparts fired at one cyborg in unison. It lurched repeatedly as their shots hit home, its body jarring with each impact. Large chunks flew from the torso and head. Pieces of armour exploded from it and slid across the floor. It could not survive for much longer.

The corridor was suddenly plunged into darkness, followed immediately by a rapid series of white flashes, a strobelike effect that was painful to the eyes.

Through the slices of dark and light he thought he could see two more vee-cams in the corridor. When he glanced at the ground, there were no remnants of those that had just been destroyed.

The flashes of light briefly increased in intensity and frequency. He shielded his eyes and glimpsed the young woman crouching next to the wall at the other end of the corridor; the young man’s steadfast figure was in silhouette.

One of the vee-cams exploded just in front of him, its components scattering across the floor; the second followed a few moments later. The female stood, but one leg was clearly injured, and her left hand was clutched to her right arm.

One of the cyborgs fell to the ground, but the wounds to its head and upper body were already being repaired. There were more flashes of light. One of the vee-cams was destroyed, followed swiftly by the second. The young man was crouching opposite the door to the chamber. The female was fighting several cyborgs at once. Large chunks flew from the torso and head of one. Pieces of armour exploded from it and slid across the floor.

He looked towards the elevators again; the golden, shimmering shape had returned. He ran towards it without hesitation.

He would simply have to try again.


March 3, 2379 (Earth equivalent)

When they had released the gatkurd into the enclosure outside, Delgado scooped a handful of harnesses and a couple of saddles from the wooden stand at the centre of the barn; they stank of burned meat and wood.

He strode back outside and threw one of the harnesses to Ash. “Here.” He motioned towards the creatures now standing docilely around; they eyed the two people with subdued suspicion. “Get hold of one of these things and see if you can work out how that fits.”

Ash stooped and picked up the bridle. She held it out in front of her and assessed the seemingly random collection of straps and buckles. She turned it upside down and looked at one of the animals nearby, but it was no clearer how the apparatus might fit. “You’re kidding me, right, Delgado?”

“The alternative is to walk,” he said, trying to make sense of the arrangement of leather in his own hands. “But it’s a long way,” he continued, “and we don’t really . . .” He stopped talking and listened. His nobics tingled at the back of his skull. He beckoned to her. “Quick. Over here.”

The two of them ran back into the barn, and Delgado pulled the door shut behind them. He peered through the gaps into the brightness outside.

“Someone coming?” she whispered over his shoulder.

He held up a hand. “Shush. Listen.”

At first she heard nothing. Then voices. But they were unlike any of the three Seriattic sexes: midrange in timbre, with a slightly warm, hollow tone. The language was also unfamiliar, neither Seriattic nor Counian. Several of the gatkurd looked in the direction of the voices. A change in the tone of the speaker was evident.

“Someone’s not too pleased that their animals have escaped,” said Delgado. He leaned to the right, trying to see along the side of the barn. “Wow.”

“What is it?” asked Ash, leaning forward.

Then she saw them: two Sinz, riding animals the same as those Ash and Delgado had released from the barn.

The Sinz were sinewy creatures. Their dull grey skin looked wrinkled and loose, as if there was too much of it. Their faces were small, with pinched features. Long proboscis-like tongues occasionally flicked from small mouths.

They brought their animals to a stop and dismounted; their limbs and digits flexed smoothly, as if completely devoid of bones. They wore dusty singlets and short skirts adorned with metal studs, and calf-high lace-up boots, all of which appeared to be made from leather.

“Handsome devils, aren’t they?” Ash commented. “They look like they’ve been in the wilderness for six months.”

“They remind me of Structure imps,” said Delgado as the two Sinz climbed over the fence into the enclosure. “Mean-looking bastards. They seem to be arguing. Maybe the taller one’s blaming the other for leaving the barn unlocked.”

Ash sniggered.

As the two Sinz began to round up the stray animals in the enclosure Delgado turned his head slightly and whispered to her. “You realise we could face something of a problem here, don’t you?”

“What? The fact that we’re hiding in their barn? The barn they’re going to try to get those animals back into?”

“That’s the one. I can’t see any weapons, though. Oh, hang on. I spoke too soon.”

Ash leaned forward to look through the gap when Delgado pointed: many more Sinz had arrived and were joining their counterparts in the enclosure to help them gather up the loose gatkurd. “Two of them we could have overcome easily,” he said. “But a dozen or more is a different matter. They have guns, too.”


“In holsters on the flanks of their animals. See?”

“Yeah. They look like rifles for long-range sniping or hunting rather than close-range combat, though.”

“I can’t see any sidearms, can you?”

“They have blades at their waists, but no guns.”

Delgado looked around the interior of the barn. “We’ll have to hide,” he said. He glanced outside, then strode to one of the barn’s dark corners. He loosened the top layer of a pile of piss-stinking straw with one foot, then pushed it to one side to reveal pale, dry straw beneath. “Come on. We can hide under here until they’ve gone, then lie low until nightfall.”

Ash looked from Delgado to the pile of straw. “Great. And then what, Delgado?”

“We slip away into the night, my dear Ashala. Now get your ass under cover before our wiry little buddies out there come in here and try to kick it for you.”

Ash walked towards him, returning his gaze with a steady eye. “I reckon it’s you who needs an ass-kicking. You want me to do it?”

“Well I tell you what—”

There were shouts from outside. Delgado and Ash looked at the closed barn door expecting the Sinz to burst through. But the Sinz continued to shout, an urgency in their tone. Shots were fired. Then they heard what sounded like copter engines.

Delgado and Ash looked at each other. As they moved back towards the barn wall to peer outside they both ducked reflexively as a nearby explosion shook the wooden building. Dust and grit fell from the rafters; they heard dry earth hitting the roof as they scurried towards the door.

“What the hell’s going on?” Ash called above the noise.

“Beats me, Ash. But while our friends are otherwise engaged, we might be able to get out of here.”

There were several more explosions in rapid succession. Gatkurd could be heard wailing.

They crouched and peered outside. Sinz were kneeling by the enclosure fence. They had pulled the rifles from their mounts’ holsters and were aiming skywards at whatever machine was above the barn. The sound of its engine changed in pitch occasionally as it manoeuvred, rattling the wooden planks and dislodging more dust. The riflemen kept their weapons trained on the machine, repeating the laborious routine of firing and reloading. Shadows swelled across the enclosure in front of the barn, and the sound of the aircraft engines increased in volume as the machines swooped into view.

The aircraft were two-person machines like gyrocopters, with open-sided cockpits and small tinted windshields. Their thin rotors flexed upwards as the small aircraft lunged towards the ground. When they were just metres from the enclosure fence, clouds of dry earth billowing in the downdraft and frightened gatkurd scattering, the aircraft’s passengers threw small handheld bombs or fired chain guns mounted on one side of the rear compartment. After a brief attack, the copters climbed steeply for a few moments before tipping to ninety degrees, turning hard, and diving towards the Sinz once more.

Delgado marvelled at the pilots’ skill in manoeuvring the aging aircraft, which they threw around the sky with great confidence. The bombs that were thrown either exploded on impact with the ground or while around two metres above it, scattering shrapnel with devastating effect. The sound of metal fragments hitting the side of the barn was like some kind of bizarre alien percussion. Sinz and gatkurd dropped to the ground, those who were not killed instantaneously grievously wounded by hot metal shards.

When their supply of bombs was apparently spent, the aircraft climbed and circled, the gunners bringing their weapons to bear on the few who were still alive. The chain guns clattered thinly high above as the survivors were picked off.

Eventually only the few gatkurd that had hidden at one side of the barn remained alive. There was no more shooting; no more bombs were dropped. The copters hovered overhead, holding station above the enclosure.

Having apparently decided there was no further threat, the machines circled, swooped low over the enclosure, then turned away, heading across the desert towards the mountains in the east.

“You think that’s it?” asked Ash as they watched the copters depart. “All over?”

“Yeah, I reckon so. It looked like a hit-and-run attack. Might even have been purely opportunistic.” He pushed the barn door open slightly and leaned forward so he could see to either side. He looked around the enclosure. He could sense no threat in his nobics. “All dead,” he said. “Apart from a few of these animals.” He stood and offered her a hand. “Come on, Ash. One or two of them are still alive and saddled up. Let’s get out of here.”

They looked at the Sinz bodies to see if they could glean any information from them, but most were unrecognisable, broken and torn by shrapnel or burned by explosives. Even many of the weapons were damaged beyond use. The dry earth quickly absorbed the blood the Sinz bodies spilled, stains forming like continental maps on the red soil.

“You see any survivors, Ash?” Delgado asked.

“No. All dead. They must’ve really been caught off guard.”

Delgado knelt next to a corpse; several pieces of shrapnel had punctured its puckered skin, leaving wounds that looked like additional mouths. “Pity,” he murmured as he examined the body. “Just one survivor could have told us pretty much all we need to know.”

Ash walked over to join him. “What do you think it was all about?

“Well, assuming we’re still on Seriatt, which I’d say we must be, my guess is that these Sinz were attacked by a Seriattic resistance force of some kind. When we left—”

“If we’re still on Seriatt, then we didn’t leave.”

“You know what I mean, Ash.” He opened one of the pockets on the corpse’s tunic and removed a piece of folded paper. He opened it up; it seemed to be a map. “When we left, which I reckon is in Seriatt’s past,” he continued, “the Sinz were invading. The Seriatts won’t have taken that lying down; they’ll have put up a fight.” He tucked the map into his own pocket and began searching the corpse again. “And even if they couldn’t prevent the invasion, there will still be underground movements, Seriatts still alive who want to be as much of a pain in the ass as possible to the occupying force.”

“So you reckon those are Sinz habitats?” She looked towards the towers on the horizon.

Delgado stood and shielded his eyes from the sun. “Makes sense. There was nothing like that on Seriatt before. Not that we saw anyway, right?”


“So it stands to reason that they were constructed after the Sinz invaded. Habitats seems most probable. I think . . .” Something tingled in the back of his head, a slight shift in his nobics. They seemed to be trying to analyse something, but he was unable to establish what. He looked around and gently sniffed the air.

“What’s up?” asked Ash.

“I don’t know, but I reckon it’s time we got out of here. Let’s get some water and move out before anyone else comes to join us. I saw something like aquasacs in the barn. Lets fill a couple in the house and get on our way.”

The animals remained docile enough as Ash and Delgado attached the filled pouches to their flanks. The creatures simply stared at their dead counterparts with an unreadable expression, as if stunned into placidity. But when the two humans attempted to mount them, they became feisty, kicking and snorting and tossing their heads, apparently unwilling to be ridden by these strangers.

There was much cursing and frustration as Ash and Delgado tried repeatedly to get into their saddles. This was made difficult by the fact that there were no stirrups. Furthermore, as Delgado had opened the enclosure gate, the creatures were keen to join the rest of their kind that had survived, which had already wandered outside the enclosure’s perimeter.

By the time Ash and Delgado had managed to clamber onto the animals’ backs they were both sweating heavily, itchy where they had come into contact with the creatures’ coarse fur, their noses thick with the animals’ warm scent. Once mounted, however, the gatkurd seemed more willing to cooperate. They became far more docile, and even made a soft, purring-like noise.

Delgado looked across at Ash. “You okay?” he asked.

“Sure, Delgado,” she replied as her mount turned itself through one hundred and eighty degrees. “My ass is itchin’ and my nose is full of snot. I’m havin’ a whale of a time.”

Delgado steered his animal out of the compound, and Ash’s followed.

“So tell me, Delgado,” said Ash as their mounts plodded through the desert away from the buildings, “if you’re so positive those structures are Sinz habitats, why are we heading straight towards them?”

“We need to know what’s going on here,” he said. “If that’s a population centre, then that’s where we’ll get our information. Before we can decide on a plan of action, we need to know what the score is, what we’re up against. We’ll go take a look-see what our Sinz friends have been up to since their invasion. Then I need to try to find a way to . . .” His words tailed off.


He considered. “Put things right,” he said eventually.

“What do you mean, Delgado? Put what right?”

He took a few more moments before answering. When he did reply his voice was filled with a level of emotion Ash had rarely perceived in him; emotion he was clearly struggling to control. “Cascari’s death wasn’t right,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

“But it did, Delgado. What are you planning to do? Go back in time and stop him being killed? Stop the Sinz invasion of Seriatt? Save the goddamn universe?”

Delgado continued to look ahead. He said nothing, his jaw set.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Delgado, you can’t do that.”

“I know. I’m not an Oracle or a scientist, but I know that if you go back and change something in the past it’ll have some kind of effect on what comes after. But how do you measure the present? Second by second? If the time gate’s still in existence, then maybe it can be made to work, and maybe there’ll be a chance I can get back to . . .” He held up one hand. “Listen.” He turned in his saddle, looking back past the house that was now some distance behind them.

Three large birds were flying away from the mountains to their right, heading towards the giant towers ahead. They were at a high altitude, their long, pointed wings beating only occasionally to push them through the thin air. Long tails trailed behind them like decorative streamers.

Behind the birds was a cluster of dark specks. Delgado brought his mount to a halt and squinted, trying to identify the objects. A fragment of sunlight reflected off a polished surface. Rotor blades shimmered.

His nobics tingled in recognition.

“Looks like our Sinz slayers again. See them? About half a klick behind those birds.”

“Sure, I see ’em. Maybe they’re hunting for food.”

The birds became aware of the copters chasing them, and with great beats of their gigantic wings climbed and turned hard. A dogfight ensued, birds and copters twisting and swooping.

Delgado saw one of the copters launch a thin, silvery missile; it hit one of the birds, and the creature plummeted towards the ground. It hit around a kilometre away, raising a cloud of brown dust.

With the two remaining birds now outnumbered, a second was soon killed, quickly followed by the third. The copters began to spiral down towards the carcasses.

Delgado dug his heels into his animal’s ribs and turned the creature. “Come on. Let’s get behind that rock formation over there,” he said. “We’ll keep out of sight until they’ve gone.”

“I think it might be too late for that, Delgado,” Ash replied.

Delgado looked back once more; three of the copters had broken away from the others and were heading directly towards them at speed, their rotors raising plumes of dust as they skimmed the desert.

Delgado cursed bitterly and kicked his gatkurd hard. The animal reared and growled, surging forward. “Let’s get over to those rocks anyway,” he called to her as she also stirred her animal into life. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”

Their eyes streamed in the wind as their animals raced towards the cluster of boulders around a kilometre away that sprouted from the desert like fungus. Delgado glanced back over his shoulder as his gatkurd’s feet pounded the coarse earth. The copters were gaining on them; as fast as these animals were he was unsure whether they would make it to the limited cover offered by the boulders before being caught. The machines had climbed and were now descending rapidly again, increasing speed as they shed height.

Glancing over his shoulder Delgado saw one of the pilots reach up to something above his head—one of the missiles they had used to bring down the birds. But it was not the technological weapon Delgado had imagined, merely a simple javelin. The pilot of one of the other copters was preparing a lasso.

Ash and Delgado were still a considerable distance from the rocks when the copters caught up with them. The machines’ rotors raised billowing clouds of the gritty brown earth as their pilots skilfully manoeuvred them, swarming all around the two humans.

Ash and Delgado both pulled the rifles from their holsters and tried to bring them to bear upon the aircraft, but the weapons were too long and unwieldy, and almost impossible to aim with one hand. The difficulty was compounded by the gatkurd’s terror, as the animals desperately tried to escape the thunder of the copters and the abrasive storm they created.

Delgado pulled hard on the reins and turned his animal to face the copters as they bobbed and turned in the air. Blinking grit from his eyes, he tried to brace his rifle against his right thigh to aim at the machine just a few metres above the ground, but the thrashing of the terrified creature beneath him made it impossible.

Delgado heard a report somewhere behind him; apparently Ash had fired a shot, but there was no sign of it having hit anything.

The nose of the machine directly in front of him tipped forward as it began to move towards him, its shadow dancing across the desert. As it approached, rising and sinking slightly, Delgado could see its pilot clearly. He reached out with his nobics, trying to gain some measure of the pilot’s intentions. He established with certainty that the pilot was a vilume, the most mysterious of the three Seriattic sexes.

The Seriatt wore a mask or veil of some kind that covered the lower half of his face, with dark goggles above; Delgado’s nobics enhanced the image, and he saw the prancing animals he and Ash were riding reflected in the goggles’ glossy surface.

He kicked his animal’s flanks with his heels, and the creature lurched towards the rapidly approaching copter. As the animal reached a gallop, ­Delgado raised the rifle, pressed its butt firmly against his shoulder, and tried to aim along its barrel.

Although the combination of the gatkurd’s movement and the motion of the aircraft made an accurate shot impossible, he fired anyway. He missed and cursed the situation, the rifle, the Seriatts in the copters, and the stupid animal between his thighs.

The pilots manoeuvred the copters so that there was one on either side of him. As the copter to his left rose slightly, he caught a glimpse of Ash; she was matching his speed, but had also been boxed in by aircraft. Unable to reload her rifle, when one of the machines veered towards her she threw it at the pilot in frustration.

Delgado felt his animal lurch suddenly and looked down; a silver javelin was embedded deep in its neck, dark blood seeping quickly from the wound. The creature continued to stagger on, shaking its head and becoming increasingly unsteady. Within a few moments the rhythm of its movement became irregular, and it started to slow.

Delgado looked to his right again just as the copter pilot threw another spear; it entered the animal’s neck a little higher than the first, just behind the ear. Delgado felt the creature shudder, and heard its thin cry. As it collapsed beneath him the earth rushed up, and he skidded along its coarse surface in a cloud of ruddy dust.

Delgado leaped to his feet and looked for Ash, spitting grit as the copters swarmed around him. Through the billowing clouds raised by the copters’ blades he saw that she had also been brought to the ground. But one of her legs was trapped beneath her animal’s body, and she was unable to move. One of the copters was preparing to land nearby.

Delgado called her name and started running towards her. As he ran, another copter swooped down next to him, and she was lost from sight as he was again shrouded in dust.

He looked towards the machine next to him and saw its pilot readying a lasso. He was aware of another copter closing behind him. As he turned, the two pilots lassoed him simultaneously, one noose slipping quickly down his body and around his legs, the second wrapping around his body and upper arms.

Then the pilots pulled their ropes tight.


Planetary Guidance Headquarters, Earth

February 23, 2379

Heavy robes brushed against soft, studded seats as the members of the Planetary Council made their way to their designated places within the padded opulence of the conference chamber.

They sat and murmured, breathless and flatulent, mumbling to each other and questioning what it was General Myson wanted of them this time. Some had ideas; but they remained ignorant of the fact that their deductions were based on information spilled at carefully chosen moments from the lips of those secretly in Myson’s employ.

And while some of the Councillors expressed their discontent to those they distrusted least, others continued to simply watch and wait, biding their time until Myson’s life could no longer be extended by his biotechs. Then their opportunity would come, as the rumour and the backbiting finally became redundant.

The Council waited, gradually dehydrating in the stiflingly hot chamber, the temperature of which was maintained at the level specified by Myson to ensure the Councillors’ discomfort. They complained about their empty glasses, and the lack of nymphs to fill them, fidgeting and farting and ­planning feasts and frolics with compliant tarts who were waiting in their suites—and no doubt rummaging through their belongings in their absence.

Then the door to the chamber started to open, and all fell silent.

Councillors sat more upright, even those who just a few moments earlier had gossiped and plotted behind their hands. Even Councillor Matheson, who was usually less able to hide his discontent than most. And even the aloof and intimidating figure of the Judgemaster, who sat apart from the Councillors, his fat, ringed fingers rapping slowly on the brass studs in his red leather chair.

As the door opened a swarm of angels drifted through the gap, brilliant motes of dust buoyant on the chamber’s thick air. They spread quickly through the room, scanning for threats and checking the pheromones and DNA of all those present with the information stored in the biocomputer, the huge organic brain of which throbbed gently a hundred storeys beneath them. When it was satisfied that the environment was safe, the primary angel sent a brief signal to the guards outside.

Two Devastation-class cyborgs stepped into the chamber and stood just inside the room, gigantic graphite sentinels clad in armour and weapons.

Then came General William Myson.

The wooden floor creaked gently as tiny but powerful containment fields propelled the armoured chair that encased the general’s body into the room. Only his fat, pale head was visible above the gunmetal shell, supported by a rigid collar around his neck.

Myson’s expression was pained, his eyes somehow inhuman. Some said that most of his original body was gone, and even that his consciousness was no longer held within the physical form now in the chamber, but stored within some impenetrable vault deep within the bowels of Planetary Guidance Headquarters, backed up, copied, synced between traditional hardware located offworld and a cluster of biocomputer cells.

A clutch of nymphs followed Myson into the room, their sex indeterminate despite the diaphanous nature of their garments. They giggled and chattered to each other in their strange and delicate language, oblivious to the lascivious gazes of some of the elderly men and women already within the chamber. While once subject to whatever attention Myson wished to give them, his largely incapacitated state meant that they had become mere confections, adorning trinkets.

Following them all was Marshall Greer, his face as weathered and brown as the leather uniform he wore. Feared and respected in equal measure, Greer was Myson’s only true confidant, and thus considered by many to be as powerful as Myson himself. Having made sure that the door was sealed behind him, Greer stood between the two cyborgs, his eyes scanning the assembled Councillors through the blizzard of angels.

Myson manoeuvred his chair behind the large semicircular desk positioned at the centre of the room. The containment-field generators fell quiet as it settled upon the floor.

Myson looked at the Councillors seated before him. When he spoke his lips did not move, his voice instead issuing from a speaker in the chair. There was none of the physical difficulty he had previously suffered, as the chair broadcast the words on his behalf, their inflection changing automatically to reflect his mood. It was an incredibly accurate representation of Myson’s real voice.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I need Council approval to utilise Structure funds. We have reached an impasse as far as Seriatt is concerned. The time for action has come. For almost two years we have wrestled with the Andamour Council’s bureaucracies, seeking its approval for an assault on Seriatt to neutralise the Sinz threat. But while they acknowledge that the presence of the Sinz there is—to use their quaint phrases—‘unfortunate’ and ‘frustrating’—they refuse to sanction what they consider to be a confrontational approach, and continue to insist that we wander aimlessly down the diplomatic route. As a result the time has come for us to consider alternatives.”

The voice of Councillor Rush projected from the rear of the chamber. “But what alternatives are there, Sire? Access to Seriatt remains blocked by the shield put in place by the Sinz around the planet. Outside that shield their automated drones attack any craft entering an exclusion zone of eight light-minutes. We have already lost three of our ships, and even if we did manage to penetrate this blockade with a sizeable force, they are sufficiently established to repel any attack. We are fortunate that the wormhole has been unstable for so long and prevented them from bringing more forces through. If the situation changes and they are able to make use of the wormhole once more, we may find ourselves having to overcome a far greater problem.”

“Are the Sinz not open to negotiation?” asked Councillor Simenon. “You once had a particular relationship with them, did you not, Sire?”

Myson looked at Simenon. The wiry, white-haired man was as stubborn and determined as he had been forty years before, when he had supervised the quelling of the Buhatt Rebellion. Back then Myson had found his character useful, his doggedness an asset. But Simenon’s ability to irritate seemed to have increased with the passing years, and this was a particularly touchy subject. He was obviously driving at the supposedly secret and highly lucrative arms deals Myson had conducted with the Sinz prior to their invasion of Seriatt—something that had put Myson in a particularly awkward situation at the time, and brought many worlds to the brink of attacking Earth. That he had been forced to end these deals, coupled with the fact that they were not as secret as they were supposed to be, was extremely frustrating.

“I believe,” replied Myson, “that our focus has been wrong. We must ask ourselves not how we may attack Seriatt and defeat the Sinz successfully, but what it is we want from that world.”

“And just what do we want, Sire?” asked Matheson, dabbing at his brow with a handkerchief.

“Two things. First, the Seriatts’ time travel device. However it works, whatever its form, we must have it. I had expected to see some evidence of the Sinz making use of it, but this has not been the case. I can only assume that they have failed to appreciate its purpose.”

“What if it has been destroyed?”

“If this is the case, then we must seek out whatever records the Seriatts may have kept regarding its construction and method of operation. Then perhaps we may attempt to construct one ourselves.”

“What is the other?” called another Councillor from the rear of the chamber.

“Michael. We must get Michael back. I cannot imagine what has happened to him on Seriatt since the Sinz invasion. One of the reasons I have not acted against the Andamour Council’s wishes before now is my fear that his life could be put in jeopardy. But this cannot continue. He must be brought home.”

“What if he is dead, Sire?”

“He is not dead,” said Myson. “I feel it.”

“It seems to me that these two objectives each require careful execution,” observed Councillor Reid—a stern-faced female whose bluntness Myson had always admired. “What if our resources are insufficient, or circumstances make it impossible for both to be achieved? Which of the two goals would you prioritise, Sire?”

Marshall Greer leaned forward and whispered to Myson, who seemed to pause and consider before replying. “Both objectives are achievable, Councillor,” he stated eventually.

“But what if the—”

“Both objectives are achievable.”

Councillor Reid made no further comment.

“So we are in agreement?” Myson’s eyes darted around the chamber looking for dissenters. There were none. “Very good. Are we also in agreement, then, that acquisition of the Seriatts’ time device is in our best interests, and of the utmost importance?” There was a low rumble of confirmation. “Excellent, excellent.”

“Do you have a plan of action in mind, Sire?” asked Matheson.

“Of course. We will marshal a battle fleet the size of which has never before been assembled. We will then neutralise the shield the Sinz have in place around Seriatt, and when they are defenceless we will attack. We will overrun them. We will destroy them.”

“But how can the shield be disengaged, Sire?” asked one of the younger Councillors.

“As I understand it a particular organism is key to the Sinz existence, and also generates the shield that protects the planet. If we can destroy it or even weaken it sufficiently, then we will be able to proceed.”

“And are you confident this can be achieved, Sire?” asked Councillor Matheson. “It sounds a simple task. I am therefore confident that it is likely to be quite the opposite.”

“I will assign the task to one of Stealth’s finest operatives to ensure success.”

“Who, Sire?”

“I have no one specific in mind at this time, Councillor. Marshall Greer will advise me. But the right person will be chosen.”

“Assuming we successfully locate and acquire this time machine, Sire,” said Councillor Conway, “what is to happen to it when it is in our hands? Surely such a device is too powerful to be in the custody of . . . a single man.”

Councillors fidgeted and coughed and glanced at one another, made uneasy by the clear implication—and challenge—in Conway’s question. Most of them admired his courage, and also marvelled at his nerve.

“I am of the belief,” replied Myson, “that it would be a tool so powerful and dangerous that it must be destroyed.”

There was more fidgeting, a few raised eyebrows.

“This would seem wise,” said Conway slowly, as if reluctantly agreeing to some kind of hard-struck bargain. But the tone of his voice betrayed his doubt.

“So the Council will agree to release the necessary funds?” said Myson.

The Councillors looked at the Judgemaster. He consulted briefly with the Senior Councillors on the highest row of benches, then looked at Myson and nodded once.

“Excellent,” said Myson. “We will begin the preparations.”

Sinz Domestic Affairs Forum, Hascaaza

January 8, 2379 (Earth equivalent)

The drab brown wall flexed a little with a moist sucking sound as Mediator Latzinor pushed his way through the thin sheets of skin sealing the conference pod’s entrance. They folded softly together again behind him as he began to descend the steps leading down to the centre of the pod.

The atmosphere was humid, the warmth demanded by his thin-skinned mammal counterparts combining with the fine mist sprayed by the amphibians’ diffusers to create a sultry environment.

Directly ahead of him as he walked down the steps were the avians. Noble and upright, their long, membranous wings were wrapped around them like fine leather cloaks.

The room was filled with the thin clicks and glottal sounds of the gathered politicians and military figures chattering. There was much excitement, and some impatience. Mediator Latzinor knew that they were all anxious to hear the latest developments, and news of the preparations that were being made. Patience had been forced upon them for a hundred long seasons, but this was rapidly waning. The avians were especially keen for war, having starved themselves long and determinedly many times before in preparation, only to be disappointed. But their talons were always sharp.

He would keep them waiting no longer.

Latzinor made his way to the pedestal that sprouted like a sticky fungus from the pod floor. When he stepped onto the plinth, the creamy light from the six glowing orbs that protruded from the ceiling faded, replaced by the glow of a single, smaller orb focussed onto Latzinor’s face.

The assembled Sinz fell into shadow, and silence.

Latzinor glanced at his notes, small angular Sinz letters suspended in the lectern’s thin film. His fragile chest swelled and shrank as he took a few deep breaths. When he began to speak, the amplified clicks of his mellifluous voice echoed a little despite the soft consistency of the pod’s walls.

“My valued associates,” he said. “I bring a report of progress from Fabricator Cursoss. She informs me that growth of the fleet is almost complete. The final batch of carriers will be ripe before the end of the current season, and the birthships we have been preparing in case the channel fails to stabilise are full at last, and in gestation.”

There were clicks and squawks of approval and relief from the gathered Associates. Despite the restricted space, some of the younger avians unfurled their long wings at the prospect of battle, much to the consternation of their older and more restrained counterparts.

Latzinor continued when the hubbub receded.

“I also have information from Secretary Controller Hargoth, who states that our military capacity will soon be reached. With the strength of the fleet and our forces married, we can finally begin to act.”

There was more excitement. Even the usually docile amphibians writhed and squirmed in their shallow tanks, grimy water slopping onto the pod floor.

“What of the channel?” called a stern-faced avian. “What is its current state?”

The mediator turned to face his avian associate. “It is less volatile than in recent times, Associate Riffolesh,” he said. “But it is impossible to tell whether this will continue, or if it will become unstable once more. We can only be prepared for whatever circumstance presents itself. I can say, however, that the Supreme Associates believe we have waited long enough for the channel to stabilise. Speculator Thritt is of the opinion that the time has come to act. The birthships should depart as soon as they are ready, just in case the channel does not stabilise for a length of time sufficient for us to traverse it.”

There were uncertain murmurs. Latzinor was aware that many were unconvinced that the birthships was a wise option. There were too many variables, they said. Too great a chance of error. No one could guarantee the immense distance to Seriatt would be covered successfully without the embryos coming to harm, suffering a fatal dose of radiation, or simply being affected by the passage of time in the depths of space.

“Have we successfully communicated with our associates on Seriatt?”

“Unfortunately not,” replied Latzinor. “The first they will know of our plans will be upon our arrival.”

Associate Riffolesh made a brief whistling sound through the openings on his beak. “I expressed my doubts to you all about the wisdom of attempting to expand our presence over such a great distance long ago,” the avian said. “But my words would not be heeded. Our greed was too great. Associate Themiass tempted you with promises of great riches, the acquisition of materials that would help us defeat the Karallax. Trading with the humans did not satisfy him. He wanted to conquer them and their neighbours despite the huge distance from our own world, dazzling you with promises of great achievement. Now Themiass is dead; the human has betrayed us, and we are spread too thin. We should never have trusted him. Meanwhile, with the channel unstable many of our associates are stranded far from home in a place from which we may not be able to rescue them, we struggle to implement even the most basic of defences as the Karallax hammer at our door, and the basillia are kept busy churning out associates for the military, while our civilian population dwindles.”

There was much noise and discussion. Mediator Latzinor clasped his hands and waited for silence.

When quiet returned, Latzinor spoke again. “There may be a time when such declarations are appropriate, Most Exalted Avian Associate Themiass,” he said, bowing his head in a sign of respect, “but I fear this is not it.”

There were a few moments of silence during which Councillor Themiass and Mediator Latzinor simply looked at each other, but then other Sinz began to make noises of support for the Mediator. Eventually, given the clear opinion of his peers, Themiass was forced to shield his face with one wing in deference to Latzinor.

“All is well,” said Latzinor, in recognition of Themiass’s gesture. “But now we must decide whether the birthships should be sent on their long journey, or whether we should wait to see if the channel stabilises completely.” Mediator Latzinor looked at each of the twelve Race Representatives, who would express the opinions of their respective peer groups. They conferred with those in the tiers beside them, then indicated to Latzinor when the opinions were gathered.

“I ask you now to express your will,” Latzinor said. “If it is your wish that the birthships should depart, make it known.”

One by one those Representatives who agreed with the motion signalled to Latzinor. The avians raised their wings, the amphibians splayed fins, and the mammalian Sinz raised thin arms.

Dissenters were few.

“Very well,” said the Mediator. “The action is passed.”

“But what if we should send the birthships on their way and the channel then stabilises?”

“In that instance,” said Latzinor, “we will continue with the original plan and approach Seriatt directly.”

“And the embryos will be brought back to Sinz, to join the populace?”

“I am afraid that would not be possible. Once the embryos are in stasis they cannot be roused until the preset time, when they reach their destination.” Mediator Latzinor turned to face another Sinz to his left. “Associate Tilliger, the Prime Associates wish to inspect your crop before the final preparations are made. Is this possible?”

“It is. They are ready now. Please inform me when they wish to make their inspection and I will arrange the necessary transportation.”

“Very good. Fabricator Clintoc, the Prime Associates also wish to visit a basillia to witness the emergence of the final embryos and our fighting forces. Is this progressing as planned?”

“The basillia is in the final stages of delivery. Within half a season we will have sufficient numbers to conquer any opposing force.”


March 3, 2379 (Earth equivalent)

Two 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.

Delgado 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.

Command Suite,

Planetary Guidance Headquarters, Earth

February 23, 2379

Myson’s personal suite was deep in the heart of Planetary Guidance Headquarters, a windowless cell he left only when absolutely necessary. Although his former suite at the top of the huge mushroom-shaped building had been reconstructed after having been demolished by terrorists so many years before, with its vulnerability exposed the General had decided not to return to it.

Marshall Greer sat on the sofa opposite Myson. “Do you really think our objectives are achievable?” he asked.

“I do. As long as we send the right person. I want no failures, defections, or betrayals, Greer. Such problems have made me appear foolish in the past, and I do not want a repetition. Do you know someone reliable who is capable of performing the task we require?”

“I have already taken it upon myself to contact the person I consider ideal, Sire,” he said. “A man with much experience. I am certain he will perform well.”

“Very good. Bring him to me as soon as he arrives.”

“Of course. But may I ask a question, Sire? This time machine of the Seriatts’—I assume we’re not really going to destroy it. That would be rash.”

“We will arrange for something to be destroyed,” said Myson. “For the benefit of the Planetary Council.”


March 3, 2379 (Earth equivalent)

The Seriatts bound Ash’s hands more tightly than before, then bundled her back into the rear seat of Keth’s copter and resumed their butchery of the Sinz corpse. They placed the best cuts of meat into the copters’ panniers.

Cowell pulled a headset from behind Delgado’s seat. “Wear this,” she said. “We will be able to communicate more easily when we are airborne.” She placed the headphones onto his head, then climbed into the front seat of their copter and put on her own headset. When she spoke again, her voice was warm and close. “Your friend, Ashala. She is headstrong.”

“Really?” he said. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“She should be careful, however. Keth will not tolerate repeated problems. He is mourst. He would gladly consume her given an excuse.”

“How about me?” Delgado asked. “My meat too tough for him?”

“No. He would consume you also.” Cowell began to power up the copter. “But he would want to fight you first. Despite being human you would still represent a threat to him. Simple slaughter he would not consider honourable.”

“You should give him the opportunity,” said Delgado. “To fight me, I mean.”

“What makes you think I will not? We must leave now. The weather is turning.”

The sound of the turbines increased in volume, and the copter began to move forward. As Cowell turned the aircraft in preparation for takeoff, ­Delgado looked across at Keth; the mourst was fastening the brass buckles on the panniers attached to his own machine. He was shorter than the average mourst, thickset but not overweight, clearly strong and fit. Delgado wondered if he had seen any real combat. He would keep an eye on him, assess potential weaknesses.

The copters took to the air once more. Those that were now laden with Sinz meat gained height less quickly, flying at a lower altitude than the other machines. Delgado searched the sky, instinctively looking for signs of enemy aircraft or Sinz approaching. He saw the pilots of the other copters moving as they did the same. He recognised the feeling of constant threat only too well: despite passing through the time gate, it did not seem long ago that he had been flying Hornets on Earth, mixing it up with Structure Firedrakes.

Like a small swarm of ungainly insects, the copters headed steadily towards the great spirelike structures, their delicate wings shimmering above them. The buildings ahead—if that was what they were—were striking, like huge stacks of precariously balanced and irregularly shaped discs. They towered above the ground, reaching far higher than the copters would be able to climb, penetrating the thin clouds.

“Look out for Sinz,” said Cowell when they had been flying for around twenty minutes. “There are likely to be more of them in this area, now we are closer to the city.” She adjusted the trim of the aircraft slightly and glanced around at the other copters. “Despite their size the avians are agile and speedy.” She indicated the javelins suspended above the cockpit. “We have only a few ecliptz, and a limited amount of ammunition for the gun. If we are attacked, each shot must count.”

“Why don’t you take a different route?” Delgado asked. “Go around the city?”

“We cannot. With the extra weight of yourself and Ashala, plus the meat we have collected, we do not have sufficient fuel for an extended flight. We have to take the shortest route.”

As the ragged formation of copters got closer to the city, bobbing up and down in the air, a cold, brown mist began to appear. It seemed to seep from the Sinz buildings like poison, diffusing light and sucking away definition. The sun became nothing more than a dull smudge in the sky. Drops of moisture began to appear on Delgado’s clothing, and the temperature dropped rapidly.

But he was too distracted to notice, drawn to the towering buildings ahead of them. Even at this close range, with the nearest of the structures less than a kilometre away, he could not decide whether they had been constructed or were elaborate organisms.

He opened perception nobics and focussed more closely on the towers. The underside of each segment was ridged, like the bottom of a mushroom cap—possibly some kind of ventilation system, he considered—but the upper surfaces were smooth, with a slight sheen like frosted glass. Around the edge of each segment were what looked like long, narrow windows, but even with nobic enhancement he was uncertain whether he could see figures moving within the disc-shaped constructions.

He looked up, searching for the tops of the towers. Although uncertain due to the grimy haze, he thought he could see a fine network of wires linking the buildings high above. Almost simultaneously something caught his eye. His nobics tingled and surged. On the side of one of the towers he saw movement, then slender figures diving gracefully from a high platform. After launching themselves into the grimy air, the avians folded their long, pointed wings back alongside their bodies and plunged towards the copters. Delgado’s nobics told him that they had small weapons clutched between their talons.

“Cowell,” he called. “Sinz birds, five o’clock high.”

“Repeat please.”

“Look over your right shoulder, up.”

The pilot looked and immediately transmitted a warning to the other Seriatts; but they were already clutching spears or swinging their chain guns around towards the approaching birds.

Despite his hands being tied, Delgado was able to grip the wooden stocks of the chain gun in front of him, and brought it to bear on the diving Sinz.

The mist thickened quite abruptly, and they were suddenly passing through billowing clouds of the stuff. They became momentarily isolated, the other copters and the ominous towers briefly obscured from view.

Several seconds passed. The swirling soup through which they were flying became even more oppressive. Then one of the Sinz avians flashed past the copter’s nose at immense speed, a blur of skin and beak and talon. Delgado fired a brief burst. The chain gun wheezed and clattered, its thin, rapid sound a contrast to the deep thub-thub-thub of the copter’s rotors slicing through the air. But the Sinz was going too fast, and had descended into the murk within a moment.

Delgado leaned to the left and looked over the side of the cockpit. He watched as the creature pulled out of its dive in the thinner layers of fog below. It spread its wings wide, the sheets of skin rippling gently as it decelerated, and turned sharply to climb back up towards the copter.

Delgado could see the creature more clearly as it gained altitude, climbing straight towards them. It was like a combination of a pterodactyl and an imp: despite the size of its body, its face was small, its features pinched and sour, with narrow eyes and a pointed nose. Instead of the small, almost circular mouth of the humanoid Sinz they had encountered, this creature had a fearsome curved, sharp-edged beak. Its large, taloned feet were tucked beneath the broad base of its long, pointed tail.

Delgado swung the gun around, raising the barrel over Cowell’s head, then pointed the breech down as far as it would go. He judged time and distance carefully as the grotesque animal continued to approach. He waited until it was virtually upon them, then fired again.

The barrel rotated rapidly, sounding like some kind of heavy, metallic percussion as spent shells were ejected from the weapon in a cloud of muddy smoke; its odour was thick in his nostrils and at the back of his throat.

Delgado saw the creature flinch and heard its shrill cries as bloody chunks exploded from its face and wings. Yet still it came.

Then the gun jammed. The weapon wheezed and retched but would fire no more.

The avian seemed to accelerate, as if it sensed their sudden vulnerability. Cowell tried to take evasive action—but too late.

The machine rocked dramatically as the creature grasped one side of the fuselage with its gigantic feet. Delgado yelled out as one of the talons that pierced the thin metal hull penetrated his left thigh.

Cowell fought the heavily rolling and pitching copter as the Sinz rocked from side to side, trying to tear the aircraft to pieces with its sharp, serrated beak. As the Sinz lunged repeatedly at the cockpit, Delgado reached up and pulled one of the javelins from the rack above him. It was a slender, lightweight weapon; almost too light, it seemed.

As the creature grasped part of the cockpit frame in its beak and yanked at it, tearing a ragged gash in the metal and causing the copter to roll heavily to one side, Delgado thrust the spear deep into the animal’s grey chest.

The Sinz shrieked, its head thrashing wildly, then threw back its head and howled long and hard as it died. Cowell fought hard, but due to the weight of the dead Sinz now hanging off one side of it, the copter began tumbling, its two occupants thrown around in the cockpit despite their harnesses.

With the machine falling quickly through the murky air, Delgado pulled his knife from his pocket and began to hack at the Sinz’ bony ankles. Thick, dark blood sprayed onto him as he chopped through the creature’s scaly flesh, slicing at the ankle joint and twisting the blade in an attempt to cut the bird loose.

With one of its long, muscular legs severed, the Sinz fell back then forward, banging against the side of the machine as the copter rolled. As they lost height rapidly Delgado hacked furiously at the other leg until it, too, was severed, and the Sinz avian finally fell away.

Cowell quickly brought the machine back under control. “You did well,” the vilume said. “We would soon have hit the ground.”

“Yeah, well I wasn’t about to let that thing pull us out of the sky without a fight. Shit.” He winced as he moved: the avian’s talon had penetrated deep into his leg. It remained lodged there, pulled from the creature’s foot as it fell away from the copter. Fortunately the thornlike talon tapered to a sharp point, and although deep, the wound was not serious.

The creature’s blood had congealed on his trousers to form a dark, scablike patch. He gripped the talon and quickly pulled it from his leg. He assigned nobics to treatment of the wound, and felt them go to work immediately, knitting the muscle.

“Are you all right?” asked Cowell.

“Sure. Never better. Just a little remnant from our friend.” Delgado threw the talon out of the aircraft and looked over the side of the cockpit. Cowell was right: they had been just moments from hitting the ground.

Through the mist he recognised the Seriattic architecture, but the buildings looked cold, deserted, dead. He saw a disturbance around the point where the Sinz avian had hit the ground, indistinct creatures scurrying from the shadows of the buildings towards the body. They swarmed over the corpse, pulling it to pieces, fighting among themselves for the meat it offered. He could not tell what kind of animals they were, but he hoped they were not Seriatts.

Delgado sat back as Cowell turned the copter and tried to regain the lost altitude. He saw that the vilume was looking up towards the other copters. As one Sinz dived between some of the aircraft, they caught the avian in crossfire from the chain guns, shredding the animal with a torrent of bullets.

Another avian was circling immediately above one copter’s rotors, thus out of reach of its gun, while another clung to the side of the cockpit and tore at the machine with its beak. The weight of the Sinz was dragging the aircraft down despite the pilot’s valiant efforts to keep it aloft and the engine being at full power.

As the Sinz adjusted its grip, one of its talons punctured the fuel tank just behind the cockpit. A fine spray squirted from the tank, dousing the creature. As the fuel came into contact with the hot engine, it ignited.

The resultant fireball engulfed the fragile copter, its occupants, and both Sinz. The remains tumbled towards the ground shedding dark detritus and trailing a thick plume of black smoke.

Delgado looked at the other copters as more avians launched themselves from platforms high above. The sound of the aircrafts’ engines was deadened by the fog, but the thin clatter of the chain guns was brittle and stark. He could see several vague shapes of copters through the swirling mist, but was unable to tell which one might contain Ash.

Assuming she was still alive.

“Those who survive will be lucky,” said Cowell. “The avians are determined as well as fearsome. They are also merciless and ferocious. The least civilised of the Sinz. I have seen living Seriatts pulled apart by them for sport. Defenceless vilume, pregnant conosq. Some they even carried to a great height and dropped to their death. They are hated. Even the other Sinz hate them.” Cowell levelled the aircraft and turned again.

“What are you doing?” Delgado asked. “We’ve got to get up there and help them. They’ll be slaughtered.”

“There is no point,” said Cowell, in the calm, pragmatic nature of all vilume. “This machine would take too long to reach that altitude now. It is too heavily laden, its engine too weak.”

“So throw out the goddamn meat!”

“No. We must concentrate on saving ourselves. Besides, the meat is a valuable source of protein. We will descend.” Cowell pushed the stick forward, and the copter’s nose dropped. “Visibility is poor at the lower altitudes, and although we are at greater risk of collision, the avians are less likely to find us.”

Delgado looked back up towards the other copters, which had now been absorbed by the fog. He knew Cowell was right. They would not be able to reach the same height as the other copters even if they jettisoned their load of meat.

But that didn’t make the situation easy to accept. Ash was up there somewhere, her life in the hands of a Seriattic pilot.

The copter flew low over the Seriattic city for around half an hour, stirring the silver mist. Occasionally the machine was swamped in fog so dense it was impossible to see anything beyond the cockpit. It was easy to become disoriented in such conditions. There were moments when Delgado’s brain told him they were climbing, descending, or even flying inverted, despite their steady course. Cowell was steadfast, the vilume seemingly unfazed by the conditions.

Delgado shivered in the cold damp air. His injured leg ached as his nobics repaired the damage. His head ached. He was hungry and thirsty and desperately tired—a fatigue the nobics could not completely counter, the sustenance they offered thin and artificial.

He looked into the murk and thought about Ash, wondering whether she was safe with the mourst called Keth, or had fallen prey to the Sinz birds. The odds were stacked heavily against her. But she had always been a fighter. If half a chance came her way, she grabbed it with both hands and refused to let go.

He briefly diverted nobic resources from repairing his leg to perception, but could not detect any trace of her. All he could do was hope.

The fog appeared to be thinning. He caught glimpses of the Seriattic streets that briefly escaped from the mist. The majority of the buildings looked relatively intact, suffering only from the passage of time. Once or twice he saw a figure move in a doorway or scamper across an empty street, but otherwise the city appeared deserted.

“Where is everybody?” he asked. “What happened to the Seriatts?”

“Many were killed during the Sinz invasion,” replied Cowell. “They defended our planet honourably, but although they took many Sinz lives they were unable to repel the hordes that came. The survivors hide. Some of them take their chances and remain in the city, but the majority have fled to the country­side.”

“And the Sinz can’t find them?”

“We live in small groups and move frequently. Sometimes the Sinz send out parties in search of us, but they are rarely successful.”

“What about the Oracles and the Administrators?”

“We are not certain. We think that the Administrators were killed soon after the Sinz took control of our world. The Sinz probably recognised their potential to rouse the population and murdered them, believing that this would crush the spirit of the Seriattic race. No one knows what happened to the Oracles. They simply disappeared. There were rumours, but nothing more. The most likely scenario is that the Sinz realised their powers and put them to some use of their own.”

The fog gained a faint luminescence as it started to thin. Directly below the copter Delgado could now see countryside, the patchwork of small fields that had once represented Seriatt’s farming techniques: low-scale production of high-quality produce for local sale. But the fields were barren and brown, the hedges that separated them wild and untended, the ground unturned. There were no crops to harvest, no livestock to feed.

Ahead a coastline became visible: a yellow, crescent-shaped beach with large rocky outcrops to either side and tall palms along the shore. And out to sea there were more of the tall Sinz structures, rising from the waves like the masts of gigantic, sunken vessels. Silvery aerostats drifted between them, bloated and cumbersome.

Almost completely free of the fog now, Cowell tipped the copter onto one side, pushing the machine into a hard turn, then straightened the aircraft and began to descend. Delgado looked back towards the mist-shrouded city. There was no sign of the other aircraft, or of Ash.

Second chronological displacement

Earth, September 18, 2350

Delgado’s head spun as he took the final few stairs and crouched near the top. The feeling of sickness was unpleasant, but nothing he couldn’t deal with.

Slowly he eased his head around the corner to look along the corridor. The cyborgs were motionless. The vee-cams bobbed slightly in the air.

“You ready to go, old-timer?” Bucky murmured.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Hey, who the hell’s that?” whispered Girl as she peered over his shoulder. At the opposite end of the corridor someone was lying on the other flight of steps, the side of their head just visible. It looked like a man, but the facial features were hidden in shadow. He seemed to look directly at them for several moments before backing down the stairs and out of sight.

Delgado eased slowly back from the corner and leaned against the wall. He could just make out his reflection in the glass on the opposite side of the corridor. He looked somehow different.

He closed his eyes and concentrated hard, trying to access his hyperconsciousness. He could feel that Lycern was near. He took deep breaths, tried to stay calm. But he certainly seemed more aware than he had the last time round.

He looked at Girl. “Okay, Ash?” he asked.

“What? Who the hell’s Ash?” She frowned. “Are you okay, Delgado? You look kinda strange.”

Still things were different. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m ready, all right. Once we step into that corridor we’ll have just a few minutes to deal with the cyborgs and vee-cams and get into Myson’s suite, so we’re going to have to be quick. Those cyborgs are tough. Tougher than anything you’ve seen before.” He glanced from one to the other of them. “I’ve told you this already, right?”

“Yeah,” said Bucky. “I think we’ve got the message.”

“Sorry. Guess I’m just a little . . .”

“Jittery?” suggested Girl.

“Yeah. Jittery would cover it.”

“Don’t worry, man,” said Bucky. “They won’t know what’s hit ’em.”

Delgado moved up the steps and looked along the corridor again. The figure at the far end was not to be seen. He wasn’t sure what this meant. He stepped back and turned to Bucky and Girl. “We’ll attack from both sides,” he said. “You two stay here; I’ll go around to the other end of the corridor and attack from that side. Okay?”

“Seems like a good idea to me,” said Bucky.

“Okay. Let me get around there; then we’ll go for it. See you in five. Good luck.”

Delgado turned and sprinted through the corridors towards the stairway on the other side of Myson’s chamber. But still he wasn’t quick enough. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs he heard the sound of gunfire and explosions. He caught a glimpse of the other man stepping into the corridor.

Delgado cursed, took the stairs two at a time, then stopped at the top and looked cautiously along the corridor.

The vee-cams’ tiny frames trembled, pushed backwards through the air each time they fired their weapons. The cyborgs were working incredibly efficiently, almost as if they had known the attack was coming.

Bucky and Girl were at the other end of the corridor: Girl was crouching against the wall opposite the door to the chamber. She was fumbling with her weapon, clearly having some kind of problem with it. Bucky was struggling to fight off several approaching cyborgs in an effort to buy her more time, but she was extremely vulnerable. They were both taking hits. Bucky was struggling to stay on his feet as his gun’s shield weakened.

Delgado looked back to the man just in front of him. Two cyborgs were walking steadily towards him. One of them fell, but although seriously wounded he knew it would soon recover.

The corridor was plunged into darkness, followed by a rapid series of brilliant flashes. One of the vee-cams exploded, followed by a second, their components scattering across the floor. Delgado saw Girl struggling to get to her feet at the other end of the corridor; she limped as she began to walk, and her left hand was clutched to her right shoulder.

Bucky continued to fire at the cyborg immediately in front of him and Girl. It paused as the shots hit home, but despite his efforts it would not fall. The flashes of light increased in intensity and frequency. In the brief moments of brilliance Delgado saw a man who appeared at the top of the stairs to their left. He appeared to shout something at Bucky and Girl before firing at the cyborgs.

Their moment of hesitation was all the cyborg needed.

Delgado called out as Girl’s shield finally failed and she was thrown backwards through the air by the stream of shots that hit her. She came to rest against the wall, a dark pool gradually emerging from beneath her shattered body.

Delgado and the man just in front of him began to run forwards. Simultaneously they shouted at Bucky to keep firing, but the young man could not withstand the onslaught of another re-formed cyborg, and under a torrent of blaster fire, he also fell.

Delgado roared. They both began firing at the cyborgs at the other end of the corridor, which had now turned. They were unaware that other damaged cyborgs were rapidly re-forming behind them.

As Delgado strode forward his double stopped and watched. He didn’t know what was happening. He stepped back towards the stairs and saw the sparkling gate near the elevators. He had no choice: he would simply have to try again.

The Liberty Gun © Martin Sketchley


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