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Lando looked up from his bowl of stew and swore softly. A cylindrical robo-laser had appeared over his table. Its antigrav unit hummed ominously while a ruby-red eye regarded him with mechanical malevolence. Lando resisted the impulse to run. That was the robo-laser's purpose, to pin him down, to keep him in place. If he moved more than a foot in any direction, the tubular device would send a spear of bright blue energy straight through his brain.
Using slow, deliberate movements Lando spooned more stew into his mouth. Which one of them was after him? The spacer in black leather? The overdressed pimp? The mercenary with the burned face?
The Roid Miner's Rest was packed with people. They filled the place to overflowing, talking, laughing, smoking, enjoying a brief moment of relaxation in otherwise dangerous lives. They were dressed like what they were, spacers on a half-rotation shore leave, miners just in from the asteroid belt, prostitutes both male and female, looking for tricks.
But somewhere among them was a bounty hunter, one of the countless thousands who made a living picking the empire's lice from its ratty fur, men and women often no better than the vermin they sought.
The empire's taxpayers viewed bounty hunters as a low-cost alternative to an interstellar police force, but like all the rest of the criminals they hunted, Lando saw them as human vultures feeding off the less fortunate.
As Lando looked at the crowd they looked back. The robo-laser meant trouble, his trouble, and they were curious.
What they saw was a slim young man in his late twenties.
Lando wore a good quality one-piece ship-suit with lots of pockets and zippers. His shiny black hair was pulled into a short ponytail in back. He had quick brown eyes, a hooked nose, and a thin-lipped mouth that smiled as the crowd grew silent.
"Which one of you belongs to this worthless piece of junk?" Lando asked, gesturing up toward the robo-laser.
The crowd stirred as a man stepped forward. He was small, almost tiny, and extremely dapper. His clothes were fancy, the kind gamblers wear, and his boots had a ten-credit shine. He brought his nerve lash up in a casual salute.
"The device in question belongs to me, sir ... and I'll thank you to show a little more respect. It's worth more than the price on your head."
Lando shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry to hear that. Allow me to offer my condolences regarding its loss."
The movement of Lando's wrist was almost too quick to follow but the results were impossible to miss. The tiny heat-seeking micro-missile barely had time to arm itself before it struck the robo-laser and blew up.
The crowd scattered as pieces of red-hot metal and plastic fell on their heads. Lando stood, hoping to escape during the confusion, but found himself looking down the barrel of a huge slug gun. Where the hell did that come from? Lando dived for the floor.
The bounty hunter's gun made a loud booming noise as a high-velocity slug whipped through the space that Lando's head had occupied only moments before.
Lando rolled as he hit the floor and scrabbled for his slug thrower. It took what seemed like an eternity to pull the pistol free, line it up with the bounty hunter's chest, and squeeze the trigger. The sharp cracking sound seemed like an afterthought.
The slug hit the bounty hunter in the center of his chest and threw him backward into a post. But rather than slide toward the floor as he should, the bounty hunter staggered and recovered his balance.
Armor! The miserable bastard wore body armor!
Lando rolled left as two more slugs thumped into the floor where he'd been. Damn! This was getting serious.
Some chairs got in his way and Lando did the only thing he could. His right arm jerked as another micro-missile raced away, this one hitting the ceiling with a sharp crack and filling the room with smoke.
So much for the missile launcher. Now Lando was down to the slug gun and a small blaster in his right boot.
Coughing and hacking on the noxious smoke, Lando was halfway to the rear exit when the nerve lash came down across the top of his shoulders. The little bastard wouldn't give up!
Incredible pain lanced down through Lando's muscles causing him to stagger and fall. He hit hard, rolled, and fired up through the smoke.
The bounty hunter dropped the nerve lash in order to grab his right thigh. It pumped bright red blood and collapsed under his weight.
Lando struggled to his feet. He aimed the slug gun at the bounty hunter's head. By all rights he should kill the bastard. He couldn't do it ... not in cold blood anyway. Lando backed up until he felt the wall. He slid along it toward the door. The crowd. He had to watch the crowd. Maybe the bounty hunter had a partner, a friend, or another robo-laser. The bounty hunter moaned and rolled back and forth.
Nobody tried to help him. Lando felt the door and backed through it.
It took him two minutes to run up a narrow flight of metal stairs and go out through the saloon's emergency air lock. Lando found himself in a narrow access way with nothing but a maze of pipes and ducts overhead and metal walls to either side. There was a slice of light at the far end of the passage. He headed that way.
Seconds later Lando stepped out into a filthy tube way and heard the whoop of distant sirens. Time to get a move on.
The local police would ignore whatever crimes he'd committed elsewhere but they'd see him as a troublemaker and throw him in jail for disturbing the peace. Lando would prove self-defense, but that would take days, and he was in a hurry. Besides, Lando's motto was "go with the flow," and how can you "go with the flow" if you're in jail?
Forcing himself to ignore the pain, Lando became someone else. A power tech just off his ship out to see the sights. Both sides of the tube way were packed with stores, saloons, and brothels.
Lights flashed, music blared, and robo-hawkers dashed here and there vying for customers.
Lando waved at the police car when it rolled by and grinned when the cops ignored him. It brought back memories of his father.
"Never run, boy, always walk. Guilty people run. Smile, wave at people you don't know, try to fit in. That's the way to keep your ass outta the slammer, son."
And like most of his father's advice it worked. Ten minutes after leaving the Roid Miner's Rest, Lando was six grids down the tube way, and in the midst of the cheaper flophouses. His was one of the worst.
Styling itself as the "Economy Hotel," it was nothing more than a pile of fifty 8-by-4 shipping modules, stacked five high, and open at one end. About ten years ago someone had thrown a pallet into each module. That, plus a ragged curtain, comprised each room's decor.
The lobby was nothing more than the section of tube way that happened to be adjacent to the owner's beat-up metal desk. The owner's name was Mabe, not for "Mabel," but for "maybe." She more than filled the standard shuttle seat behind the desk. As usual, Mabe was busy chewing someone out for an offense fancied or real. The culprit, or victim as the case may be, was a wimpy little guy. He stood with head hung low.
Lando paused a few doors down and scanned the area for signs of trouble.
Had the bounty hunter followed him to the Roid Miner's Rest? Or spotted him and acted on impulse? What if the bounty hunter had a partner? If so the hotel could be a trap waiting to be sprung.
Lando spent the next fifteen minutes looking for a trap but didn't see one. Putting a spring in his step and a smile on his face, Lando approached Mabe's desk.
Mabe scowled. She had gimlet eyes set in a doughy face and surrounded by a halo of short, greasy hair.
"So what's this? Back a bit early ain't ya? Don't tell me ya ran outta credits. Well, no problem. I'll sell your duffel, and bingo, we're even."
"Thanks for the generous offer," Lando said dryly, "but if it's all the same to you I'll pay my bill in the usual way."
Mabe shrugged massive shoulders. "Jus tryin' ta help, darlin', jus tryin' ta help. Two cycles plus storage comes ta a hundred even."
The price was outrageous, but so was everything else, and Lando had no choice but to pay. An altercation with Mabe, a call to the police, and they'd take him away. His description was all over moon base by now.
Smiling, Lando pulled two fifties out of a breast pocket, and threw them on Mabe's desk. He knew without looking that he had about twenty left. "I'll take my bag now."
After checking the currency under a beat-up scanner, Mabe got to her feet and waddled over to a large metal trunk. Lando heard a distinct click as the woman placed a pudgy thumb against the print-lock and the squeal of unoiled hinges as she lifted the lid.
At that point Lando was treated to the sight of Mabe's enormous bottom as she bent over and reached inside the trunk. He feared it would give him nightmares for days to come.
Mabe straightened, wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and turned around. Lando's black duffel bag made a soft thump as it hit the top of her desk.
It was an expensive bag, with a pick-proof lock, and a rather ingenious secret compartment. A compartment equipped with some very expensive electronics, electronics designed to make it seem as though the compartment wasn't there.
Just part of a smuggler's kit and all that Lando had left. The nice clothes, fat bank account, and fast ship were all things of the past. Left behind when he fled Ithro.
"Thanks, Mabe," Lando said lightly. "You run a class act. Keep up the good work."
Mabe watched Lando's suitcase until it faded into the crowd. Then she sighed and turned back to her desk. It was too bad. The suitcase had caught her fancy. Ah, well. According to Mabe's most recent calculations, she could retire in another five years, seven months, and three days. Then she'd buy whatever kind of suitcase she wanted, load it with cash, and blast off this godforsaken pus ball. Mabe sighed, and looked around for someone to abuse.
The pain in Lando's back had died down to a dull aching throb. He needed some painkiller, food to replace the stew he didn't get to eat, and a job. Seeing a public terminal up ahead, Lando decided he'd tackle the last problem first.
After waiting while a miner checked the latest price for aluminum, Lando stepped up to the terminal and scanned the main menu.
There it was in alphabetical order, the word "Employment," followed by "Encyclopedia." He chose "Employment."
As Lando touched the screen a new menu rolled up. It offered hundreds of possibilities, starting with "Accountant," and going on from there. Lando watched the job titles roll by until the word "Pilot" appeared on the screen. He speared it with a finger. It stopped and disappeared as data flooded the screen.
Like most smugglers, Lando could fly damned near anything, and had. Up till now he'd seen the skill as a means to an end, a useful adjunct to moving large amounts of tax-free merchandise from one place to another, but not as a job.
But what the hell, flying beat the hell out of scrubbing hydroponics tanks, and would help Lando put a few more lights between himself and the police on Ithro.
Enthusiasm quickly gave way to depression as Lando ran his eye down a short list of rather dismal possibilities. The good stuff never made it to the public terms. Nine times out of ten people hire people they already know.
Lando saw that he could fly a mail run into the asteroids, ride shotgun aboard a high G med-ship, or sign as third officer on a tramp freighter.
None of them looked very attractive. The mail run was a good way to get killed, the high G med-ship would probably take ten years off his life, and the tramp freighter was headed toward Ithro.
Lando was about to clear the screen and walk when a new entry appeared: "Pilot sought for deep-space tug. Competitive salary, plus a percentage of salvage, spacious cabin, and friendly crew. Humanoids preferred but not necessary. Dopers, missionaries, politicians, and space lawyers need not apply."
A time and place for interviews followed.
Seeing no specific prohibition against smugglers, Lando stabbed the button labeled "Print," and waited while a sheet of plastic fax whirred from the side of the terminal.
A tug wasn't Lando's idea of heaven, but it beat the heck out of the other three possibilities.
As Lando turned away a birdlike Finthian stepped in to take his place.
A close reading of the printout revealed that Lando had two hours to kill prior to the first scheduled interview. He used it to obtain a blister pak full of pain tabs, a sandwich filled with tasty vegetables, and a quick shower. It took five of his remaining credits but was worth it.
Showered, shaved, and dressed in his second ship-suit Lando felt and looked much better. "Show people what they want to see, son," his father had always said, "and they'll hear what you have to say."
It took a half hour to make the trip from the public showers to a middle-of-the-road hotel called the Starman's Inn, identify himself at the front desk, and drop to level four. According to the desk clerk Captain Sorenson occupied Suite 437.
Eyeing the doors, Lando watched the numbers get larger, 433, 435, and, yes, 437. As Lando approached, the door opened and a man stepped out.
He was tall, thin, and stooped over, as if years in small ships had somehow compressed him. There were no eyebrows over his bright blue eyes.
The man shook his head. "Don't waste your time, lad. You'd do better humping cargo or swabbing decks."
Lando had questions, lots of them, but by the time he had them ready the man was already halfway down the corridor and headed for the lift tubes.
Lando shrugged. Chances were the man was right, but what the heck, he could always say no.
Lando touched the door and heard a distant chime. "Come in!" The voice was faint and surprisingly childlike.
Lando pushed the door open and stepped inside. The suite was comfortable but not plush. The sort of quarters favored by traveling salesmen and tourists on a budget.
The walls were tuned to a pattern of rather amorphous blue bubbles that appeared from under the floor and floated slowly upward to disappear beyond the ceiling.
A thousand feet had worn a path toward a low arch and the bedroom beyond. The sitting room boasted a beat-up power lounge, a stained couch, and a small desk.
A little girl sat behind the desk and watched Lando with big solemn eyes.
He didn't know much about children, but Lando guessed the girl was nine or ten years old. She had brown-blond hair, an upturned nose, and a round face. She spoke with great care, like an actress reciting lines.
"Welcome. My name is Melissa Sorenson. Are you here to apply for the position of pilot?"
Lando nodded. "Yes. Is Captain Sorenson in?"
Melissa Sorenson bit her lip, seemed to realize it, and stopped.
"No, I'm afraid my father is sick right now, but I'd be happy to take your application. Would you care to sit down?"
Lando was starting to have real misgivings, but the little girl Was so earnest, so serious, that he couldn't bring himself to walk out. It might hurt her feelings.
He sat on the power lounge. It groaned, creaked, and whined into an upright position.
"Now," the little girl said, consulting the portacomp in front of her, "I'd like to ask you some questions."
"Shoot," Lando replied, and mentally prepared himself for a play-pretend interview. No wonder the man left. This was absurd.
"Imagine that you are the pilot of a Hexon Class IV gas transport. You've just dropped out of hyperspace in the vicinity of a white dwarf. The NAVCOMP activates your standard drives but both drop off-line. Your board is green, the NAVCOMP claims everything's Aokay, and the chief engineer is completely mystified. What do you do?"
Lando was only a few words into his answer when he began to sweat. The question seemed simple enough, but in order to answer it, he'd have to demonstrate a working knowledge of that particular make of ship, the drives it had, and the standard diagnostic procedures for a green-board power failure.
Since the board was green, and the chief engineer was mystified, chances were that the NAVCOMP had malfunctioned and the drives were okay. But there were other possibilities too, and in order to provide the little girl with a complete answer, Lando would be forced to deal with those as well.
Excerpted from Drifter's Run by William C. Dietz. Copyright © 1992 William C. Dietz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 25, 2012
Posted July 23, 2011
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