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Pik Lando lay spread-eagled on the beach. The sun was a warm red presence just beyond his eyelids. A gentle breeze cooled his skin. The surf swished in the background. Something splashed and Melissa laughed.
Lando smiled. This was a rare treat for a little girl who'd spent most of her eleven years in spaceships. And for him too. He felt safe for the first time in months. Safe from asteroids, safe from pirates, and safe from the bounty hunters who wanted his head.
The Rothmonian Lodge was not only isolated, located as it was in a rather remote area of Pylax, but was famous for protecting the privacy of its guests.
First came the individual villas, widely spaced, each equipped with a state-of-the-art security system. Then there were the security guards, the network of automatic weapons emplacements, and the squad of heavily armed robo-sentries. They stalked the island like huge insects, their podlike feet leaving circular depressions in the white sand, ready to destroy anything that came close. Yes, the Rothmonian was expensive, but worth it. Or so Lando had assumed.
"Hey, Pik! Look!" Melissa's voice was full of girlish enthusiasm.
Lando heard a splashing noise and debated whether to look or simply wave. He'd seen innumerable pieces of flotsam during the last hour or so, including countless seashells, one small cut, curious bits of vegetation, and a sandal that someone had left on the beach.
To sit up and look at Melissa's latest discovery would disturb the perfection of the moment but to do otherwise might ruin her fun.
Lando heard the whine of hydraulics. A man yelled something incoherent and a little girl started tocry.
Lando sat up and opened his eyes. The metal thing had no meaning at first, rising from the surf to spear his eyes with reflected light, water cascading off its metallic skin. Pieces of seaweed hung here and there like rags from a beggar.
Lando scrambled to his feet. His hand stabbed for a gun that wasn't there. The smuggler was naked except for a pair of blue swim trunks. "Melissa! Run! Run for the villa!"
The smuggler saw the flash of gangly legs off to the right and knew that she would obey. Children who grow up on spaceships learn to follow orders.
The machine was huge. It stood thirty feet high, was about sixty feet long, and looked like a high-tech water beetle. It had four articulated legs. The surf foamed white where it raced around them.
The machine stopped. Its head moved slightly. A hatch whirred open. Lando backed away, waiting for the gun muzzle to emerge, waiting to die.
Memories flickered through Lando's mind. He saw the customs official shoot his father in the back, then fall, as he pulled a trigger of his own. He remembered how it felt to drop through the hatch and hit the sand twelve feet below. He heard the explosion as his father's ship blew up. He ran knowing that the bounty hunters would follow, eventually seeking refuge on a deep-space tug, and finding the alien drifter. An artifact so old, so valuable, that it would end all of his problems. Should have, but hadn't.
Lando flinched as a box-shaped thing exited the hatch and flew straight at him. A robo-cam! Not a weapon but potentially just as bad. He wanted to run but knew it was hopeless. A second camera followed the first and they swooped around his head like mechanical birds. A voice came from both devices at once. It was unnaturally loud.
"And there he is! Just as News-Pylax promised! The notorious killer Pik Lando!"
Lando opened his mouth, and was just about to tell News-Pylax where to shove it, when another voice boomed across the beach. "Hold it right there!"
Lando turned. The other guests had fled. Abandoned towels, toys, and lounge chairs lay everywhere. The robo-sentry had a long mincing gate. A plastic pail disappeared under one of its pods. It crossed the beach in three steps. Weapons turrets whined as they aligned themselves with the intruder.
"This is private property. You are trespassing. This is private property. You are trespassing. Leave or be fired on. Leave or be fired on."
The beetle-machine backed into the surf. Waves broke against its hind legs. The robo-cams hovered to either side of its bulbous head. The voice was incredulous.
"Hard to believe, isn't it, folks? But you saw it with your own eyes. An interstellar criminal living off his ill-gotten gains at one of our finest resorts! Fantastic you say? Well, wait. There's more. Confidential sources tell us that Pik Lando and his accomplices have located a drifter, and not just any drifter, but an alien drifter so old that it predates human civilization. Such a vessel would be worth millions of credits!
"So stay tuned. Bounty hunters are on the way, and when they arrive, we'll be there! This is Lux Luther, for News-Pylax."
The news-machine paused, swallowed both of its robo-cams in a single gulp, and backed into deeper water. A wave hit, exploded in a welter of white spray, and fell like droplets of rain. The surf swirled and the machine was gone.
The robo-sentry looked this way and that, assured itself that the intruders had left, and retraced its steps into the foliage that lined the beach. There was still no sign of the other guests.
Lando shook his head, swore softly, and headed for the villa. Bounty hunters were on the way and Melissa would be scared. They would have to leave and leave fast. He walked a little faster. The sand was warm and gave under his feet.
Damn! How had they found him anyway? With Cy aboard the drifter, and Della somewhere in Brisco City, that left Cap ... Cap! Of course. In spite of his promises to the contrary, and weeks of sobriety, Cap was drunk. Rip-roaring, gut-spilling drunk. Sitting in some bar, bragging about the drifter, and destroying himself all over again.
The first time had come years before when a billion-to-one accident had dumped his liner into the middle of an asteroid belt. The same belt where Lando, Cap, Melissa, Della Dee, and Cy Borg had stumbled across the alien drifter a few weeks earlier.
The liner, a huge vessel named the Star of Empire, had crashed into a roid and broken up. Most of the passengers and crew were killed.
Though the accident itself wasn't Cap's fault, he was drunk at the time of the incident, and many felt that he was responsible for the subsequent loss of life. An unconscious captain isn't worth much in the middle of an emergency.
And history had repeated itself. Or so it seemed.
Lando ran up the steps. A maintenance bot scuttled out of his way. Lando's feet slapped against stone slabs as his mind raced ahead.
How close were the bounty hunters? How long until they arrived? How many were there? These questions and more jostled for position and got in each other's way.
The villa was a low rambling affair. It was nearly invisible behind green foliage and a whitewashed wall.
Melissa met him at the gate. She had shoulder-length brown-blond hair, an upturned nose, and a rounded face. Her eyes were big and filled with concern. "Is it true? Are bounty hunters on the way?"
Melissa had been through a lot. Her mother had died in a salvage accident, her father was an alcoholic, and her childhood was a sometimes thing. Melissa handled Cap's affairs whenever he was too drunk to do it himself, and that, plus the pressures of the last few months, had been hard on the little girl. Lando forced a smile.
"I'm afraid so. Throw your things in a bag. It's time to leave."
Melissa nodded, stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and ran toward her bedroom.
Lando followed her down the hall, entered his room, and slipped out of his trunks. There was a comset located next to his bed. It started to chirp.
There were various possibilities. Bounty hunters checking to see if he was there? Reporters looking for an interview? Hotel management asking him to leave? The last seemed most likely. The comset continued to chirp and Lando ignored it.
It took the smuggler four minutes to pull on a pair of white slacks and a loose-fitting, long-sleeved pullover. The mini-launcher went up his right sleeve but the slug gun was something of a problem. The Rothmonian had rules about side arms. Lando decided to stick the weapon down the back of his pants and pull his shirt over it. A pair of slip-on shoes completed the outfit.
After that it was a simple matter to throw the rest of his clothes into a small duffel bag, yell for Melissa, and make his way toward the back door. There were comsets all over the villa. They trilled, chirped, and buzzed like so many exotic birds.
Melissa arrived. Her satchel was full of something but who knew what. Seashells probably. Chances were that her clothes lay scattered all over the villa. Still, there was precious little time for a round up, so whatever was lost would have to stay that way.
Lando nodded approvingly and motioned for Melissa to wait. The villa had three security stations, one of which was located next to the back door. The smuggler scanned the monitors, saw nothing more threatening than a two-headed fruit snake that was sunning itself on top of the garden wall, and eased the door open.
He looked right and left. Everything appeared to be normal. Birds sang, insects buzzed, and laughter could be heard from the nearest villa. The air felt warm and thick. In an hour, two at the most, it would start to rain.
Lando gestured for Melissa to follow. She obeyed, her eyes big and trusting, her hand seeking his.
The smuggler smiled reassuringly and wondered if this was the right thing to do. What if the bounty hunters found him? Melissa could get hurt or, worse than that, killed. But he couldn't bring himself to leave her, not without some assurance that she'd be okay, so he'd play it by ear instead. Keep her with him as long as possible and surrender if it became necessary. Better that than to risk her life in a gun battle.
"Come on." Lando led Melissa through the gate and out onto one of the many footpaths that crisscrossed the island. There was undergrowth to either side, and beyond that, the whitewashed duracrete walls that backed each villa. By sticking to the trails and avoiding the main road, the smuggler could avoid notice. Or so he hoped.
He set a fast pace. Melissa walked double time to keep up. "Where are we going?"
"Well," Lando responded thoughtfully, "we need some transportation. I'd like to hire a ground car or, even better, an air car. Failing that, we'll steal one."
"I thought stealing was wrong."
"Well, it is, most of the time, but this is different."
"What makes it different?"
"Look, let's talk about stealing some other time. Right now we need to get off this island without getting caught. If we see anybody just smile and act natural."
Melissa was silent for a moment. "Okay ... but how can I look natural sneaking down a footpath with a suitcase in my hand?"
Lando came to a sudden stop, looked at her satchel, and then at his own. Melissa was right. The people who stayed at the Rothmonian Lodge never carried their own luggage. Not with an army of robots to do it for them.
"Good point. We'll ditch the bags."
"Wait a second." Melissa put her satchel down and burrowed into the contents.
Lando bit his lip in frustration. He looked up and down the path. "Melissa ... we don't have time for this. We'll buy more stuff later on."
"There's only one Ralph," Melissa said stubbornly, "and he's coming with me."
Lando sighed. Ralph was the stuffed Pyla Bear that he'd given Melissa for her birthday. He was just about to object when Melissa found Ralph, tucked him under her right arm, and smiled victoriously. Melissa one, Lando zero.
The smuggler fished around inside his bag, found two magazines for the slug thrower and a backup clip for the missile launcher. They went in his pockets. He tossed the bags into the bushes.
Lando turned, saw three robo-sentries converge on the villa, and knew that management had decided to kick him out. The machines were for show. The security types would be along any second now.
"Come on, honey ... it's time to leave."
They made good time up the path, encountering little more than a robo-sweeper and a tired-looking jogger.
They arrived at the lodge a few minutes later. It was a large sprawling affair, all logs and pseudo-thatch, and much more substantial than it looked. There was a lot of carefully tended lawn, some artfully placed fish ponds, and paths covered with white gravel.
There were plenty of people about, guests mostly, with a scattering of staff. None looked like bounty hunters, but it pays to be careful, so Lando stayed out of sight. He pulled on Melissa's hand.
"Let's circle around to the causeway. That's where the vehicles are."
In an attempt to preserve the property's unspoiled beauty, both guest and commercial vehicles alike had been banned from the island, and restricted to a mainland parking lot. A single causeway linked the two.
They followed the pathway around the perimeter of the lodge to the point where it joined a much wider walkway out onto the wooden bridge.
As was usual for that time of day there were a number of guests leaving the lodge, heavily laden robo-carts trundling along behind them, their vacations complete. An equal number of people had just arrived. Lando gave thanks for the crowd.
Many of them smiled at the cute little girl, nodded at the man they assumed was her father, and continued on their way.
Lando gave a sigh of relief. The Pik Lando story hadn't received much play yet.
The causeway was slightly arched in the middle and Lando used the additional height to look at the other side. What he saw didn't look good and must have shown on his face.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Lando produced what he hoped was a smile. "We've got company. The bad kind. Enjoy the view while I take another look around."
The smuggler looked again. His second glance confirmed the first. A group of men and women were gathered at the far end of the bridge. A lively discussion was under way. There was plenty of arm waving, foot stomping, and faintly heard invective.
Half the people wore Rothmonian uniforms, while the rest were dressed in a wild assortment of armor, leather, and weaponry. Bounty hunters. Trying to gain entry but running afoul of the resort's security forces.
Bounty hunters were a strange breed, part cop and part parasite; they clung to the empire like remoras to a shark, eating scraps too small for their host to bother with.
Rather than pay for an interstellar police force, and tax his citizens accordingly, the first Emperor had decided to rely on bounty hunters instead.
It was an easy business to get into. All the perspective bounty hunter needed was a gun, a certain amount of luck, and access to a public terminal. The list was miles long. Names, crimes, histories, weapons, known associates, all of it was all there.
It was a simple matter to scroll through the names, choose a fugitive, buy a license, and go after them. Simple, and more often than not extremely dangerous. Which accounted for the fact that very few bounty hunters lived long enough to retire.
Lando swore silently and turned in the other direction. Something hard and heavy rode the pit of his stomach. Why so many? The bounty on his head was relatively small compared to many others.
Lando knew the answer, or thought he did. The bounty hunters were after him all right, but they were after something else as well, the drifter itself. The artifact was worth millions of credits, and he knew where it was.
And that implied something more: Wherever Cap was, and whatever he'd said, the location of the ship was still a secret.
Melissa looked up at Lando. "Where are we going now?"
"The boat dock," Lando replied, sounding a lot more confident than he felt.
"Does that mean we're going to steal a boat?"
"Only if we aren't able to charter or rent one."
It took them about five minutes to reach the marina. It sat huddled within the embrace of a man-made breakwater. The water was aqua-blue, crystal-clear, and extremely calm. Jet skis zipped this way and that, poorly piloted sailing dinghies drifted aimlessly along the breakwater, and an airboat made its way out through the harbor's entrance.
When it was clear of the harbor the boat fired its repellors, vanished inside a cloud of steam, and reappeared moments later. Drives howled as it blasted upward.
There were two docks, one for the boating crowd who owned their own yachts, and one for the guests who wished to rent. A section of pseudo-thatched roof sat on some posts about halfway out. There was a sign that said "Rentals," and an attendant sitting on a stool.
Lando's heart sank. The rental dock was nearly empty. It was late afternoon, and most of the hovercraft, sea sleds, and water walkers were already in use.
But there, way out toward the end of the dock, sat a sleek-looking craft that mounted an aerodynamically shaped mast and what looked like an aircraft wing. A skimmer. Not his first choice, but better than nothing at all.
Lando sauntered out onto the dock and Melissa followed along behind. She looked over the edge, watched her reflection in the water, and waved to see herself wave back.
The rental shack didn't have any walls, but the roof provided some protection from the sun, and the attendant had centered himself in the middle of the shade.
What hair he had was white and cut so short that it fuzzed the sides of his head. He wore a grease-stained yachting hat, a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, and a perpetual frown. When Lando smiled the frown became even more pronounced.
"I'm interested in renting a boat."
"Don't have any. Come back tomorrow."
Lando raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the end of the dock. "What about that one?"
"It ain't for rent. Belongs to the manager, Mr. Izzo. Come back tomorrow."
Lando started to say something in reply but felt Melissa tug on his sleeve. She pulled him away. He frowned. "What?"
Melissa pulled him down so she could whisper in his ear. "Are we going to steal it?"
Lando glanced at the attendant. He pretended they weren't there.
"Yeah, I think so."
Melissa nodded in agreement. "Right. I'll distract him while you take the boat."
Lando thought about it. There was a comset about four inches away from the attendant's right elbow. A call would bring security on the run. Some sort of diversion would be a good idea.
"Okay, but come when I yell."
Melissa smiled mischievously. "Don't worry about me."
This was the adult Melissa. The same one who could run her father's business affairs, and, if push came to shove, fly a shuttle to boot.
Lando nodded, smiled at the old man, and strolled out toward the end of the dock.
The skimmer looked strange. It had a long pencil-thin hull. The winglike structure crossed the top of the mast like a giant T, slanted down to touch the water off the boat's port side, and bobbed up and down with the waves.
The canopy-covered cockpit was located just forward of the mast and looked large enough to accommodate four people.
As the smuggler came closer he saw that foils had been mounted on each end of the wing, one of which rested in the water, while the other hung suspended in the air. The leading edge of the wing had slats while the trailing edge was equipped with flaps.
The wing design gave Lando a pretty good idea of how the skimmer worked. The wing acted as a sail, providing a surface for the wind to push against, but adding something more as well. Air would pass over the down-slanting wing to create forward suction and provide lift at the same time. The result was a wind-powered craft that could achieve speeds of sixty or seventy miles an hour.
Though not a fan, Lando had seen skimmer races on the vid nets, and knew the ships could really move. Just the thing for an ocean-going getaway. If they could get the skimmer out to sea. If they could lose the pursuit. And if he could keep the damned thing under control.
Those were a lot of ifs but the smuggler had very little choice. He started to step aboard, thought better of it, and turned toward Melissa.
She made a sound designed to attract the old man's attention, teetered on the edge of the dock, and fell into the water with a big splash.
Lando was concerned at first. Melissa's swimming skills were little more than so-so and she was screaming her head off.
Then Lando noticed that Ralph was propped up against a post, dry as could be, and well out of harm's way. Melissa knew exactly what she was doing.
The attendant moved with surprising speed. Within seconds he had a long boat hook and had extended it toward Melissa.
Lando stepped aboard, touched a button, and smiled as the canopy whirred open. He stepped down into an oval-shaped observation-control area. The control position was toward the rear. It had airplane-type controls with a stick instead of a wheel.
Lando dropped into the captain's chair and watched the U-shaped screen light up. There were no security codes or anything. After all, why bother with an attendant looking on?
Words appeared. "Welcome aboard the Nadia. Keyboard or voice?"
Lando thought about that one. He had a general preference for keyboards, but that was aboard spaceships, where he knew what he was doing. In this case voice would be faster and therefore safer.
He said it aloud. "Voice please."
"Aye, aye, sir," a salty-sounding voice replied. "And where are we bound?"
Lando thought for a moment. He knew very little about the planet's geography, but remembered that a seaport called Norton was relatively close to Brisco City. And Brisco City was where they had left Cap and Della Dee.
"Our destination is Norton."
"And Norton it is, sir," the computer replied cheerfully. "The course is loaded and ready ta go. Begging your pardon, sir, and not wishing ta speak out of turn, but should we load more supplies? Our supply of wine is running low, especially the Cathcart '75, and we're almost out of goose liver pâté."
Lando smiled. Mr. Izzo had expensive tastes. "No, that won't be necessary. We have enough food and water for two?"
"Excellent. I will bring my companion aboard and cast off."
"Aye, aye, sir. Auxiliary power, sir?"
Lando imagined trying to maneuver the skimmer out on wind power alone. Talk about disasters. "Yes, please."
Lando stepped up and out of the cockpit. The sun had disappeared. Some raindrops hit his face. They felt warm.
Melissa was still thrashing around in the water. The attendant yelled for her to grab his boat hook. She ignored him. Lando waved his arms.
Melissa saw him, waved in response, and grabbed the boat hook with both hands. She gave it a vigorous jerk. The attendant tumbled in headfirst. There was a tremendous splash.
Lando watched to make sure that the man could swim, saw Melissa pull herself up and out of the water, and laughed as she retrieved Ralph from his resting place.
The rain had just started to make dark circles on the sun-bleached wood as Melissa scampered down the dock. Her eyes danced with excitement as she ran toward the skimmer. She jumped and Lando caught her.
"How did I do?"
Lando had to shout against the rush of the rain. It splattered around him and drummed against the skimmer's composite hull. "You were great! Now get below and find a towel!"
Lando cast off the bowline first, gave the dock a healthy shove with his foot, and ran toward the stern. The stern line splashed as it hit the water.
Then the smuggler realized that it was supposed to work the other way around, that the lines should stay aboard the skimmer, but by then it was too late. The gap between the dock and the boat had widened and the on-board computer had activated the auxiliary power unit. The wake foamed white as the Nadia headed away from the dock.
The rain fell even harder now, drenching Lando to the skin and churning the surface of the bay. The attendant was out of water now, comset in hand, pointing toward Lando and talking in an animated fashion.
The rain fell in sheets. The robo-sentries were skeletal figures only dimly seen. They stalked down across manicured lawns, ignored the dock, and headed out along the top of the breakwater.
Lando looked out toward the ocean. The entranceway was half a mile ahead. If the robo-sentries got there first they could grab the skimmer or, failing that, blow it out of the water. He dropped into the cockpit.
"I want full speed ahead."
"Aye, aye, sir," the computer replied. "Full speed it is." The skimmer surged forward. Lando bit the inside of his cheek. The race was on, and the outcome would be extremely close.