…pushing so hard he could barely maintain balance. He fully expected to feel the thud of a slug in his back, the sear of an energy beam cutting him off at the knees, or the jolt of a plasma burst to reach out and slap him from his churning feet, but it didn’t happen. No shouts of pursuit followed him, no thrum of a circling airship thundered in his ears. Ahead, shelter beckoned: a modest out-building. Fifty meters, forty meters…he cursed the owner who kept three acres of land mowed low and clean—open land that just lay there, unused.
Is this where my mind should be as I run for my life? Ridiculous!
Yet here was the shed. Qualm threw himself against the door—it wasn’t locked.
He tumbled across the threshold—the phrase “ass over teacups blazed across his consciousness—and tried to roll over his right shoulder in an effort to spring back to his feet, knocking down a half-dozen rakes and shovels with a tremendous clatter. The move, new for him, proved much more difficult in person than it appeared at the cinema.
He was still on his seat when Kolesar stepped into doorway, the short-barreled 4-bore ballthrower leveled at his belly.
“Hey, Mike.” He said, as if they’d met on a street mid-day.
“I’m real sorry about this, you know. Real sorry. I tried to warn you.”
“You did.” Qualm kept nodding. “McCauley knew you were there?”
“Maybe.” Kolesar shrugged, then conceded. “Probably. He must have.”
“Sure he did.”
“I’m supposed to take you in the woods and hit you there.”
“I’m not helping,” Qualm said, his nod changing to a willful shake. “He wants to put the blame somewhere else and validate what you’re doing here today.”
“He’ll do me if I let you go.”
“Like he did Carole.” Qualm reminded him. “Like he’s pushing you to do to me. Like he’ll do to you anyway, once you hit me, so it’s all wrapped up with a bow.”
“I just want a future, Mike. I want a woman, a kid, a home. Carole tried to take all that.”
“Was it you? With her?”
“Good.” Qualm said.
“Not if you’re still going to shoot me.” Qualm replied.
“Oh, yeh,” Kolesar smiled sheepishly, rocking gently from side to side. “I really am sorry about that.”
“I’d do the same for you, if I could.” Qualm chuckled.
“Uh—“ Kolesar frowned. “Um, thanks? I think.”
Qualm had been shifting his hands, trying to find some measure of leverage for a last-ditch effort to save himself, but he didn’t hold much hope. Kolesar might have been three shakes short of an idiot, but he was an extensively trained infantryman and—shockingly enough—an apparently reliable henchman. Qualm’s move, if he made it, would be a hybrid lunge/roll/crawl/flail. Worse options might present themselves in equally hopeless crises, but the traditional counter from an armed adversary would be to step back half a meter and riddle the attacker with flechettes. At present range, the ballthrower slug weighed about 113 grams and was likely to cut him in half.
“We need to get finished,” Kolesar said.
“Give me some dignity,” Qualm asked. “Let me stand.”
“Sorry, Mike. Safer for me if you stay down. In a minute, it won’t matter.”
The other man shook his head.
“You’re a bastard,” Qualm hissed. “You’ll remember this. The rest of your life, you’ll remember.”
Kolesar raised the weapon so that Qualm got his first good look at it—new tech weapons like the standard issue multi-load, needle rifle, or energy weapons were harsh, angular, practical things but the smooth, softly rounded shape of an archaic chemical projectile weapon held a grim beauty. He guessed that it wasn’t the antique upon which it was modeled, elegant in design as well as function. McCauley was clever to arm his lackeys with the cheap, durable weapons favored by small time criminals across the Union.
Qualm fixed his eyes on the other man, determined to make it as difficult as possible, and it seemed to work. Kolesar trembled. He was flushed; perspiration glazed his forehead and upper lip. For a brief moment Qualm thought he might actually not go through with it, but Kolesar leveled the weapon, steadied his hand, and squinted.
He never heard, much less saw the old-fashioned weapon fire. Even as Qualm stared into the other man’s eyes, Kolesar’s neck disintegrated, a stream of high-v flechettes chewing through skin and muscle and bone. His lower jaw blew into fragments, his head lolled to one side, tenuously connected to his trunk by a few sinews. The body stood like that for almost a second, blood pouring over his shredded collar as if from a cup forgotten beneath a running faucet, then crumpled.
Qualm scrambled backwards on hands and feet, like a crab, spitting fragments of bone and flesh. Beyond the corpse, an unfamiliar woman stepped into the shed. She wore light combat armor tinted spring green, black boots and camo boonie cap; she carried a very serious Jenny-gun in her hands, low slung in the manner of of an experienced soldier, with a pair of elastic bandoliers with matching k-bars crisscrossing her chest, loaded with cartridge packs. Her long, brown hair was pulled back into a tight braid, her eyes obscured by sunglasses.
“Now you owe me,” she said. “So get your ass moving.”
Qualm struggled to his feet, wiping more blood and gods-knew-what away with his sleeve. “Who are you?”
“Enemy of your enemy,” she smiled harshly, though it was still a good smile: straight, white teeth set in a wide, if a bit thin-lipped, smile. He didn’t fancy himself a great judge of character, but she scared him—despite, or perhaps because of, the bloody way she had just saved his life. And why had she done that? Was this one of those ploys where a captor allows a prisoner to think escape is possible, only to reel the victim back in the end, to more fully break his spirit? If so, it was awfully hard on Kolesar—but McCauley was certainly capable of wasting a loyal man.
“Follow me, now.” She interrupted, lifting the jenny half-heartedly. “I can’t leave you here alive.”
“Wait.” He struggled to his feet.
She didn’t wait, turning her back on his instead, and taking off towards the forest in a trot. Qualm nodded and sighed, following, across another few hundred meters of open ground before reaching the forest’s edge. He never looked back, nor did she, loping into the brush with speed made doubly impressive for the quietness with which she passed through the underbrush. He struggled, again falling forward as much as he ran, stumbling and tripping with every other step.
Will she shoot me for not keeping up? He wondered. For making more noise than a platoon of dismounted cavalry? The answer worried him, but it was certain that McCauley’s thugs would kill him, or worse, if they found him….