Even as I rolled off the stool and hit the floor I felt the sting of the laser pulse as it seared the side of my face. I didn’t stop to question it. I was already moving. Fortunately it did not come into my mind to indignantly stand up and point out that somebody was making a big mistake; that they had got the wrong man. It had been close, too damn close.
I broke left, anticipating the next shot, my brain still buzzed with the hiss of the laser bolt coupled with that blinding flash and stinging electric burn. I couldn’t afford to let the pain and dazzle slow me down. Someone wanted to turn highly valued parts of myself into severely scorched meat. Fortunately my endocrine and autonomic nervous systems appeared to be operating in complete harmony and had hi-jacked my consciousness to take over my thought process and body functions. It is quite astounding how fast one can move and how quickly your brain can operate when someone is aiming lethal force in your direction. You moved without even thinking. Some call that reflex. It’s not really. It’s merely fast response. I am lucky in having a gene combination that seems to enable me to react spontaneously when, among other things, someone wants to fry my brain tissue. That’s because I have grown quite attached to that particular organ. In fact, on reflection, I prefer to keep all my organs at an even temperature. That’s why I was tended to move first and think later.
Instantly my heart went into racing mode. My blood system shunted extra resources to my brain and senses. Amazingly some distant, analytical part of my neuronal cortex took control and directed my cerebellum to organise the necessary muscle groups to carry out its wishes without reference to the higher thought processes. They’d only slow things down. In my experience the analytical bits always decided to question their own decisions and this was no time for an internal debate. Glucose flooded through me and I could feel the burst of energy it provided. My senses were responding by searching for cover and the subconscious controller inside my head directed my body through a staccato flow of rolls, falls and jumps that it had somehow devised to throw off any potential assassin’s aim. I was impressed.
Throughout this complex set of manoeuvres this superior part of my consciousness remained aloof, as if standing back coolly calculating, assessing, collating and deciding as it weighed up the information and worked out the percentages. It was so much better at it than me. I was eternally grateful.
Throughout it all my mind was active. The size of the flash and hiss indicated the weapon had been on full beam. That meant someone was actually aiming to kill me. That was very disconcerting. The fact that I had not noticed them at all meant that they were good – too bloody good for comfort! If it had not been for that old seventh sense of mine I would now be a frizzled smoking mess slumped across the bar and that was something I had an inbuilt wish to avoid. I was lucky. Experience had demonstrated the correct response. When my skin prickled like that I did not stop to question or check – I moved! That’s what had at least temporarily saved me. That old seventh sense had got me through to this age and I had learnt to respect it. It took some exceptional person to get that close to get a shot off like that but the tightness across my cheek told me that I had just met such a person.
I slammed through another table deliberately knocking chair and occupants flying in all directions. Survival often hung on the creation of maximum disorder. Within that chaos it was hard for an attacker to discern the pattern and latch on to a clean shot. I had a reputation for being an expert at creating chaos. Many women had told me that.
I crashed up against the wall in the darkened alcove with my pocket needle gun magically appearing in my hand. Everything went unnaturally still as the echoes of the crashing furniture died away. There had been no second shot.
I risked a glance round the wall of the alcove to survey the dimly lit room. It was a typical Astrobar, or at least it had been a few moments before. There was the classic large open section of tables surrounded with a series of peripheral alcoves, many with drawn curtains, for those who preferred privacy.
There was a trail of wreckage leading in a zigzag from the bar to where I now was. Nothing seemed to be moving. The scattered occupants were lying stunned amongst the wreckage or were frozen in a tableaux with eyes directed towards me and open mouths still formulating questions. My quick scan had not revealed anybody who might be my likely assailant.
I ducked back behind the wall. This did not make sense. The bars denizens had recovered and had obviously formed the opinion that the danger was over. There was the sound of people picking themselves up out of the overturned furniture and a murmur of voices.
Ruefully I touched the slash of burning skin on my cheek. This made no sense at all. I had not offended anyone. How could I? I had only shipped in today! I’d only just returned from mining out in the asteroids. It’d only been an hour or so since I touched down. Besides I hadn’t even talked to anyone apart from the bartender. There was no way I could have upset anyone.
I sighed and my brow furrowed up with the effort.
I’d been away for a bit, surely too long for someone to still feel that mean, however much I’d annoyed them. I mulled it over as my eyes scanned round the ceiling and opposite wall. It couldn’t have been anybody out there in the asteroids; as usual I hadn’t seen a soul. Surely nobody would hold a long term grudge! Not that long! I mean, I had done my share of hell-raising but I’d taken care even when blind drunk. This was the asteroid belt. It was the frontier; the new Wild West. You took care not to offend and if you did you made damn sure you put it right! You tended not to live too long if you didn’t. But miners out here would be sure to let you know. There was a code of honour. They didn’t hold grudges – and certainly not for any length of time! The locals out here called it the Rim. Like any frontier town where the law was just a notion there were customs. You always knew where you were with Outworlders. They were the roughest, toughest, meanest sons of bitches but they had their rules. If you crossed them they let you know it in no uncertain terms. That might be a fist in the mouth or even a knee in the balls but it was rarely a Laser beam and certainly not one in the back! Whatever you liked to call them coward was not a word that resonated. A Rimmer had pride! Out here on the Rim an Outworlders reputation was worth much more than money or blood! It was not their style.
It sounded quiet out there now. I risked another peek round the edge of the wall. Not a thing was stirring. It was as if all the erstwhile occupants of the bar had dissolved into the walls. The place was deserted. Clearly they had decided it might be safer to drink elsewhere tonight and quietly melted away or more likely decided to stand in the wings to see what was going down. That’s typical of Rimmers. I glanced round at all the possible hiding places where a gunman might still be lurking. There was no sign of my would-be assassin anywhere that I could see. It looked as if he might have fled too.
I stayed where I was. It was too early to make assumptions. As sure as my name was Hansim I knew better than to take needless risks. You never knew. There was nothing to be gained by moving. Perhaps he was out there behind one of those curtains waiting for me to get careless and stand up. Why take the chance? I quite liked this thirty seven year old body of mine. I’d put a lot of effort into keeping it in shape. It would be a shame to throw all that sweat away, as if it counted for nothing.
I stayed crouched behind my wall and waited. Patience was the first rule of survival. Besides I had a lot to ponder on. First I had to work out what was going on here. I’m a nice guy. Why would someone want to be taking pot-shots at me? I’ve lived with Out-Worlders all my life, even Aliens. We get along. In the course of this long life out in the Rim I’ve partnered a rich variety of races and species and never managed to seriously cross any of them. Well, we had our ups and downs but nothing serious.
That took some doing! I can tell you! We live out here as outcasts among these barren hunks of frozen rock. Many of the Aliens were light years away from home isolated by a thick mantle of space. They could get crusty. We had all brushed with pain and death so often that we’d lost our fear of it. We all knew the score. As long as that didn’t turn you into a risk taker you were OK. But I knew the where to draw the line. It was potentially lethal out here on the Rim. I treated it all with respect. I never took anything for granted, double checked all my equipment and always had a back-up. If things went wrong out here there was no going back and no back-up. You were on your own and you had to deal with it. It made you thorough and independent. It was evolution in action. The careless got weeded out quick. The same went for people. You treated them with respect and you’d get by. If you were ignorant or rude you didn’t last long. I’d learnt that long ago.
I would have known if I’d trodden on anybody’s toes even by accident. A Rimmer didn’t keep quiet about it. Out on the Rim a misplaced word could end up giving you a thick lip and one mother of a headache. I was careful. I knew I hadn’t upset anyone. After surviving fifteen years in deep space you developed a sense for that. You learnt to get along with all types of people. I hardly ever got in fights anymore. Besides, your life depended on supporting each other; alien or human they could be your life-line. You learnt quickly – or you did not learn at all.
I frowned more deeply and puckered my lips as I crouched behind my wall with my senses probing around the room the other side. I knew I hadn’t offended anyone, not today, not yesterday and not back three months ago. I was certain. That meant that it had to be a case of mistaken identity. But then……..
It seemed that everyone else had figured that it was safe. I could hear people returning and starting to right the furniture. I risked another peek. Yep. People were emerging from the darkened recesses and were cautiously looking around them. They were all glancing in my direction and wondering what I’d done to evoke such a response. I guess they decided it had to be a woman or backsliding on a deal. Whatever, in the circumstances they’d decided it was none of their business. I stayed where I was. That wall between me and that laser-gun felt reassuring. The standing figures were making me more confident but it was still not yet the right time to make my move. I had to work this out first! Somebody had tried to turn me into roasted chilli con carne without the chilli and I could not work out why.
I sat there safe behind my wall thinking back through this evening. Had I missed something?
I’d arrived at the spaceport late at night. I was tired and the place was pretty much shut down so I’d headed straight for my apartment. I always kept my rent up to date even though I hardly ever got to use the place. It was reassuring having it there. As soon as I’d got in I’d hit the sack and grabbed a couple of hour’s kip to clear my head. In truth I’d been sampling the Ghang juice while the auto brought the ship in. As soon as the homing beam latched on you could relax and I’d taken full advantage. You had to have your wits about you all the time when you were out among the rocks. Any mistake could be your last. When the traction beam grabbed you the weight lifted off like you were thrown into zero G.
When I’d come round I remember grabbing a bite to eat and turning the Holo on. Being home made no difference there was the same old trash that I’d been sampling out there in the rocks – 4 million channels and nothing worth wasting a neuron on. I’d flicked it off in disgust. After time away on my own I’d figured that I could do with a slice of real humanity. There was always something bouncing in this frontiers town.
This particular bar had seemed popular and I’d ducked in. I’d eased my way to a seat at the bar and taken great care to keep myself to myself. For the moment I was the stranger round here and that meant not doing anything that would irritate the locals. You did that automatically. You kept your eyes firmly fixed on some distant point and concentrated on your drink while they sized you up. Nobody liked an arrogant smart-arse or big-time show-off and Old-Worlders were not popular round these parts. They usually stuck to their plush hotels and gave the back-street bars a wide berth unless they were out goggled-eyed for a touch of authentic colour; in which case they’d usually got more than they bargained for. Equally unpopular were the rich kids who were there because it looked cool and hip and they wanted to show off to their friends that they’d been to a real Rim bar. It usually didn’t take long for people to put a tag on you. The UV blasted skin told them all they needed to know and once they’d figured out that you belonged they only needed some evidence that you knew your place. As soon as they’d got a glimpse of that unique dark brown spacer tan on your face and you didn’t mouth off they knew you were OK, somebody’d sidle over and buy you a drink. Even Tarquoks would relax and open up to you as long as you played the game.
Rimmers had a hundred and fifty years of alternating isolation and forced cohabitation with every possible type to foster their unique personalities. It had resulted in a large degree of tolerance and adaptation. As long as you didn’t bother a Rimmer they wouldn’t bother you. Yet even if you were outright offensive they’d call you to your face. Hell – even a Tarquok would not sink so low as to shoot you in the back; even if you were stupid enough to discuss their nest habits! Fuck – even if you brought up their fondness for group mating! Sure, they’d call you out and then proceed to shred you into a thousand tiny shreds with their sheathed, razor-sharp talons! But to pull a cheap shot like that? Never!’
Dammit!! It had made me cross. The Rim had a code. If you fell out with each other you sorted it face to face. When you were out in the Rim you were all brothers and you looked out for each other. The tales from the Out-Worlds were littered with stories of different races risking their lives to save members of other species who had got in bother. We were brothers! When it boiled down to it the brotherhood of the rim was a stronger bond than blood! It surpassed DNA!! Didn’t that fool who’d blasted at me know that??
Somebody had tried to nurdle my neurones and they had not cared a shit about any code of honour! That meant they were probably Old-Worlders! But what the fuck were they doing in our bars? And why were they out to get me?
I risked another longer peep round the room. Two Tarquoks were pulling themselves up to their full height and dusting themselves down. They were holstering their weapons and sheathing their talons. I watched them as they righted a table and two chairs. They both gave me a look and then proceeded to sit themselves down and pick up the conversation that had been so rudely interrupted. That told me two important things: firstly the killer was no longer around and secondly that they did not put any blame on me. If they had I’d be severely slashed by now. They had seen what had happened and had not taken offence.
It also illustrated to me the risk the killer had taken. If they had caught the guy in the act he would have been dealt with. Tarquoks did not like lasers being used around them and had a way of showing it. Somebody had risked a nasty end in order to get off that pot-shot at me. He could expect no fair trial out here. Justice was summary and instant.
I sheathed my needle gun. It didn’t look as if I’d need it right now.
Magically the tables and chairs righted themselves; people came out of the woodwork and an air of normality descended over the room – except it wasn’t normal. There was the buzz of conversation but you could taste the underlying tension. They were all keeping one eye on the door and the other on me while studiously ignoring the fact that I existed at all.
That was fine with me. Thirty eyes were better than two. I decided to remain flattened against the wall for a few minutes more and they generously decided to allow me. They were as bemused as I was.
I slumped back against the wall in a slightly calmer frame of mind and turned over the facts again. It did not equate. The last time I’d been out on the town was months ago with my buddy Miken. He was a nice guy; not the sort you’d want to try to drill holes through with a laser. As far as I knew Miken was not into any shady deals. We were old friends from long ago and all we’d got up to was to swap old tales and laugh a lot. We’d ended up at Molly’s Dive, a nice place with an interesting clientele. As far as I can remember, and there are a few hazy gaps I admit, the Ghang juice in Molly’s is not the usual diluted shit, we had got so caught up in all those memories of the good old days that we barely registered anyone else. We certainly had not caused any offence to any of the droogs in there; they would have not been reticent in letting us know. Even later with the girls we had been having a ball. Jayne and Dweela were long time friends. Even if someone was jealous it would not be so extreme as to want to try to emulsify my grey matter with a high energy bolt. The idea of that was absurd. There was nothing, absolutely nothing I could think of that might elicit this level of response. It was a mystery.
The only thing that it could be was something to do with Miken. There was nothing else. What else could it be?
I casually took a long look round the edge of the wall. The room was back to the way it was before. Spilled drinks had been robotically mopped and magically replaced gratis. That was how management in this neck of the solar system kept a happy bar. Everyone, while not being happy, was suitably content and willing to let by-gones be by-gones and nobody, in typical Rimmer fashion, was looking to find out more. I noticed that the bartender was the only one overtly looking my way. At some point I was going to have to settle up that bill – when I was satisfied that there was no more risk of a bolt heading my way.
If it had not been for the blue streak imprinted on my retina and the burn across my cheek I could have sworn that it hadn’t happened.
I ran a hand across my face and gingerly prodded the tight, stinging wound. It was only a surface graze but it hurt like hell. In many ways they were more painful that the deeper ones, probably because they left more nerve endings intact. I grimaced and slowly got to my feet. It was going to be sore for days.
Nobody appeared to pay me any mind but I knew everyone in the room was studying my every move. I tried my best nonchalant pose and stretched to loosen myself up. That wasn’t easy when someone has just tried to kill you and your heart still seemed to have been displaced to your head from the sound of the thunder going on in my ears.
The strange thing was that I had not got the slightest glimpse of my attacker. That was not good news. I am particularly observant. It goes with the trade. That meant someone that good had to be a professional. If I’d worked that out then probably everyone else in the room had too. They must have been wondering who the hell I was and what the hell had I been doing. They were hiding their curiosity well though.
I lined up the direction the shot had come from. There were no alcoves on that wall. In fact there was no cover at all; nowhere to hide. That meant that someone, in a crowded bar with a smattering of Tarquoks, had managed to pull a gun, fire and extricate themselves without being seen.
I thought about that as I coolly picked my way across to the bar and the waiting bartender.
It had to be a Shaddock. Nobody else was that good.
If that was the case, seventh sense or not I was lucky to be alive. Shaddocks were bad news. They did not come cheap and they were the ultimate professionals. That confirmed that this was not a simple case of jealousy or somebody taking offence over a drunken remark. If a Shaddock was involved it had to be a lot bigger than that.
I indicated to the bartender with a gesture that I’d pay for the spilt drink. He seemed to take it all in his stride and asked no questions, offering the pad. I applied my DNA and settled back at the bar with a new drink; though this time I remained with my back to the wall on full alert.
If a Shaddock was hired then it was bigger than I was worth – a lot bigger. It did not make sense. It also meant that someone had put out a serious contract on me. That meant that it was not going to end here. With Shaddocks that was a matter of pride.
Strange how Ghang-juice always tastes so much better when you’ve nearly had your sensory and motor connections permanently separated. At least, for the moment, I was still alive. I quickly finished my drink. I figured it was time to split and head for somewhere a little safer.
I indicated to the bartender to refill everyone’s’ glasses and pressed the pad again. I reasoned that it was best to keep sweet with the crew in the bar. Having a Shaddock on your tail was bad enough without complicating the matter by causing unnecessary annoyance.
Nobody acknowledged the fact that a fresh brew appeared at their elbows but I knew it couldn’t do any harm.
I waved to the bartender nonchalantly and sauntered to the door. I was scared shitless but I didn’t want anybody to know that. Nobody looked round but I could feel their senses crawling over me as I made my way out.
I paused in the doorway for a full minute and kept in the shadow so that I could take in the whole terminus. It appeared to be clear. There was a walk of about twenty paces between the door and the transmitters though with a Shaddock looming large in my mind that looked a damn sight further. I took another look and a deep breath. There was no one in sight but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Why the fuck didn’t the bar have its own public transmitter? I cursed at my luck.
Deciding it was now or never I doubled over and launched myself out of the doorway and zigzagged over the open terminus and flung myself into the nearest booth. I stabbed the numbers in and stepped out into my own apartment.
Phew. I was still in one piece. I looked around the place. It seemed exactly as I’d left it.
I felt a lot better to be standing in familiar surroundings though I knew that nowhere was safe and probably least of all here. That Shaddock had to know where I was staying. I had to grab my stuff and get out of here.
I rushed out of the booth and set to.
Jeeedddzzzz!!! I cursed again silently under my breath. What the hell could Miken be mixed up in that would cause all this? I was merely an old friend who’d happened to bump into him. We hadn’t even talked business! But it had to be connected with Miken!
I quickly scooted round and gathered a few essentials. It wasn’t worth the risk of taking too long. I crammed them in a bag and headed for the transmitter booth. I just got the last number punched in when the door blew in.
They’d just missed me! I was no longer at home!
If you are tempted to have a read of one of my Sci-fi books in either paperback or digital I have provided some links below:
My best Sci-fi books in the USA:
Ebola in the Garden of Eden
Starturn – Intergalactic Rockstar
Sorting The Future
My best Sci-fi books in the UK:
Ebola In The Garden Of Eden.
Sorting The Future
Starturn – Intergalactic Rockstar