A sound ripped Atom from sleep.
He lost the specifics of the sound in his abrupt rise to the surface, but he jolted awake, aware and searching the darkness of his moonlit bedroom. Listening, he picked out the soft murmur of his wife’s breathing and the nocturnal cooing of his daughter, Margo.
They slept on in peace, oblivious to the phantasm of sound.
Just as Atom reached over to touch his wife’s shoulder the wide, double door ruptured inward. Sparks and splinters flew as the heavy, wooden doors ripped from their hinges.
Kozue woke and rose to crouch on the bed, instincts driving her actions as her eyes glowed in the light of Greenholm’s dual moons.
Atom studied the two armored figures climbing over the wreckage of the doors. Blue tinted, light power armor, he marked them as a two-man blade of a Walkerhan death squad. Then he glanced over to Margo. Somehow the toddler remained asleep despite the turmoil surrounding her.
A smile touched Margo’s soft, upturned face.
Atom found an understanding look when he whipped his head around to Kozue. An eternity, wrapped in a moment, passed between the parents. Kozue gave a single nod. Then she snatched her pistol from the holster hanging on the headboard.
Atom dove from bed.
Red energy bolts splashed harmlessly into the Walkerhan troopers. Atom knew the blaster bolts offered little threat to the armor, but each shot served a purpose. The attackers turned on Kozue and trained their heavy assault rifles, allowing Atom a momentary distraction. Rising from his diving tumble he snatched Margo from her crib and launched himself towards the pano-window overlooking the serene river and the Ulvan estate beyond.
Atom spun as deep shots rang out. He took the impact of the window with his shoulder, shielding his daughter with his body. As the glass shattered he looked back.
Depleted uranium rounds slammed into Kozue, tearing through her silk nightie and shredding the flesh beneath. Their eyes locked. A promised passed. Then she sank back onto their bed. Death shrouded Atom’s last vision of his wife as he plummeted thirty feet to the river below.
* * *
“I never buried her,” Atom whispered to the ghosts as he sat on the metal stairs, his head in his hands.
He sat in silence, listening to atmo recycling.
“It’ll pass, girl,” he said without lifting his eyes. Margo cooed in reply. “We just need to find our course. We’ve got a ship and some open skies to get lost in. The Walkers will keep after us, but they won’t ever catch us. I won’t let them.”
Atom lifted his head to look at Margo and she smiled with childish innocence from where she sat in the middle of the empty cargo hold.
“Admiral of the Cheturian Empire and all I can salvage is one lousy merch,” he thrust himself to his feet and paced the hold. “I’ve commanded fleets of battleships and carriers, marine armies have dropped on planets at my word. But all that’s gone now and I’ve commandeered this pile of junk.
“One Way Ticket seems a solid name, though,” his sad laugh echoed through the hold. “I’ll keep it on the books, but I gave her a new brain. I even named that AI Kozue. You’ll understand when you get older.”
Margo toddled over to Atom and he picked her up. Greedily he hugged her to his chest, breathing in the scent of her soft, dark ringlets. “You look just like your mother, minus the curl in your hair.
“That you get from me,” he lifted her above his head he smiled, but the sorrow lined his eyes. He dropped her to his hip and headed for the stairs.
“I’d say it’s time we plot a course for nowhere. Wanderers we’ll be, just you and me and the ship makes three,” he sang as he mounted the stairs and danced in folk fashion to the empty bridge. “One little astral family.
“Let’s see if we can’t find ourselves something to keep this crate flying.”
* * *
The stars winked in a lonesome kaleidoscope of pinpricked light. Only the nearest systems moved in the darkness as the One Way Ticket sailed through the void with minimum engine output.
Atom reclined in the pilot’s seat, embracing the silence.
“Where to, Go?” he locked his hands behind his head and smiled down at his daughter/copilot as she sat with a chubby hand pressed against the plasteel laced canopy at the nose of the bridge. She looked up and studied his face with a solemn air.
Atom cocked a scruffy eyebrow. “Oh, Fiver, you have so much to learn. I’m not sure how I’m going to raise you proper without your mother.
“The ship will have to be your mother,” he dropped his propped feet from the console and stood. “It’s a poor substitute, but it’ll do. I can’t replace her in my heart and honest, I don’t feel the need to.
“As long as we stay a step ahead of the knives and pick them off as we find them, I’ll be content,” he scooped Margo up in his arms and held her close. “Not happy, mind you, but content. Happy died with your mother. I’m bound to her memory and that’s locked in this ship, so I’m married to this ship now.
“We’ll raise you,” he held her back and studied the innocence of her eyes. “Live or die we’re bound to her memory and the honor of our family. We may be wanderers now, but it’s our duty to carry on the Ulvan name for as long as we have breath to do so.”
Keeping his eyes locked on his daughter he swept from the bridge. “Kozue, keep us on course and let me know if anything pops the scans.”
“I’ll do that, Atom,” the ship’s AI replied in a soft feminine voice.
Atom paused in the hatch. The voice belonged to his wife, and while it tugged at his heart, the familiar kept his mind focused. His first order after initiating a hard burn from his home system entailed loading every scrap of his wife’s digital footprint into the AI. While it proved a mimicry, the ship’s core absorbed a surprising level of his wife’s consciousness.
“Keep our child safe,” he reached out with his off hand and caressed the wall.
“That I will, dear. And you also.”
“Go first, Kozue,” Atom looked down at his daughter as she nuzzled into his chest. “Always protect her first.”
* * *
A red light blipped on the dim bridge.
“Atom,” Kozue murmured, rousing him from a light slumber. Across the room Margo slept in a cocoon-like hammock.
“What is it?” Atom rubbed sleep from his eyes, sat up and tossed his blanket back.
“I’m detecting a ship flying in our wake.”
“She’s broadcasting a merchant code, but the vessel is still too far out for scanners to get a good read.”
“I hope she’s just a merch,” Atom muttered as he dressed and hurried to the bridge. “Keep ears on Go for me.”
“I always have ears and eyes on her, Atom.”
Atom jogged through the hallway. Miraculously, the ship gave the illusion of space despite the structural constraints of every space-faring vessel. Dimly lit, the hallway somehow appeared pleasant rather than cold.
Only a few days out from Greenholm, Atom found himself falling in love with the ship. More than just a memory, she offered a future, a wandering future, but a future nonetheless. The ship offered freedom. She offered a slim chance, a chance to survive, but also a chance to carry on. Admiral of nothing, Atom dictated his own future. No longer beholden to the dictates and mandates of the Cheturian Emperor, he wandered after his own will, free, but masterless.
“The ship is closing,” Kozue stated. “Long range scans support the ID tag of a merch, but something in their approach seems off.”
“What do you mean?” Atom dropped into the pilot’s chair and began pulling up information on his two holo-consoles.
“Their pursuit is too precise.”
“That it is,” Atom’s fingers flew through the air even as he scowled at the images hovering before him. “It’s a sloppy disguise. They’re trawling and so the question sits, are they after me, or just after a ship?”
“They’re looking for a prize. A merch never travels directly in another’s wake, unless in a planetary holding pattern. Even then most captains worth their air will vary the line by a degree or two.”
“True, I believe this to be a result of erratic waste disposal of merchant ships,” Kozue said and Atom wondered if he detected a hint of his wife’s wry humor
“That it is, love. But to these trackers, space is too big to have somebody in my wake accidentally. Talk to their core. Find me a hint of their intent.”
“I imagine they mean to board us.”
“My guess too, but do they mean to capture us, or kill us. And if they mean to kill us, why not just drop a torp from a distance and be done with it?”
“My estimation is they want it to look like a pirate raid. A torpedo leaves wreckage floating in the trade lanes that might raise some questions among the royal families,” Kozue brought up schematics and a correspondence log with the pursuing ship. “A derelict with a couple corpses points to pirates, especially if it’s stripped. I believe I have been able to discourse with the Green Anne discretely enough that her crew is unaware of my intentions.”
“What did you find?” Atom rubbed a hand through his ruddy-blond curls and scowled at the information flowing by.
“Six crew. None of them have records in the core. In fact I can find no record of these people anywhere. I believe we are pursued by ghosts. They may be mercenary, but more likely military. I don’t believe I have ever heard of a merc ship with no record whatsoever.
“Either way, probably indicates they are coming for the kill.”