“Fifty-thousand is quite a sum,” Kozue said as Atom dropped onto the metal stairs leading down to the hold and watched Margo run around the empty area.
“It’s enough,” Atom scowled. “It should buy us a full tank to fly on and a full hold to be traded away. I’m sure there’s something needed out here in the Fingers.”
“We could always jump to one of the other Fingers or even return to the Palm.”
“In time. For now, though, we’re safer out here.”
Kozue remained silent for a time, allowing Atom to watch Margo dance around the hold with her doll. He drifted to happier times and envisioned his family together once again, ghosts of his past.
“What was the purpose of your assassination of Ronald Cheeber?” Kozue’s silky tone broke the trance. “Had he crossed you prior to my programming?”
“Nothing that meaningful,” Atom blinked away the specters. “He was just a job.”
Atom smiled as he pictured Kozue cocking her head in question. “A job?”
“He was trying to indirectly take over the Zhenhan. A group of han elders contracted me to remove him from play.”
“And who was Cheeber?”
“Just a councilor to the family heir,” Atom rose to his feet without taking his eyes from his daughter. “The heir’s just a kid though. Cheeber thought he could rule through him if he removed the father. It’s never a good idea to come between a dad and his cub.
“Come on, Fiver,” he called down to Margo. “It’s time we scratch up something to eat on this crate.”
“Fiver?” Kozue asked as the little girl obediently began climbing the stairs.
“She was my fifth child,” Atom grunted as he swept Margo up in his arms. “I can’t forget the other four.”
* * *
Atom planted himself atop the lowered ramp to the cargo hold, arms crossed as he glowered out at the teeming masses of the Oligump spaceport. Sweat stood out on his forehead and matted his hair in damp ringlets.
Oligump, freckle on the big knuckle of the middle finger of the hand-shaped Heinlein galaxy, rose like a steaming pile of space vomit that threatened to be swallowed by the surrounding jungles. The city, little more than a spaceport in constant motion, provided the empire a tenuous hold on the longest finger of space strung systems this side of the galaxy.
Shimmering heat rose off the black plasteel mats thrown down to combat the industrious growth of the jungle world. Atom hated Oligump. It either rained or steamed. Moisture existed in a constant state of motion.
Parked on the outskirts of the poorer landing pads, the One Way Ticket glistened in the morning light.
“Hellhole,” Atom muttered.
“If you detest this planet so much, why insist on stopping here?” Kozue asked.
“Trade,” Atom shrugged. “For now.”
“That I can understand,” Kozue sounded relieved. “Oligump is the leading exporter of deiton lumber. I calculate we could load eighty-thousand board feet at half chit per foot, leaving us five thousand for fuel, repair, and resupply.”
Atom calculated in his head. “And the other five?”
“Kozue always tucked a tenth away for emergency.”
Atom nodded, clenching his jaw at the painful memory.
“What can we sell for and where?” he asked around the lump in his throat
“I would recommend either Masai at a quarter profit or Rommel at a half.”
“Good, find me a dealer looking to move merch at half,” Atom looked over the crowded streets once more. “I’ll do the rest.”
He turned and stalked back into the bowels of his vessel. Behind him the cargo ramp closed under Kozue’s order, sealing out the humidity. Atom shivered as a blast of cool recycled air hit him.
“Go,” he called out as he mounted the stairs.
Margo appeared, holding onto the doorway above.
“We’re going out. You ready?”
In reply the little girl launched herself down the stairs, trusting her father to catch her. Laughter rang out as Atom caught and swung her around to settle on his back.
“Careful girl,” he smiled over his shoulder. “Soon you’ll be too big for that.”
He set about preparing for their excursion, double checking the rail pistol at his hip and tightening his old leather boots. Lastly, he clipped Margo into a modified harness, high up on his back where she peeked over his shoulders as he moved around the cockpit to check their surroundings and security clearances.
“Koze, did you track down a dealer?”
“Yes, Atom. I have scheduled a meeting with a trader known as Big Jub who operates out of Wood Bottom 3.26 kilometers from our landing pad.”
“Couldn’t you find one closer?”
“Yes, but not at a comparable price,” Kozue sounded distracted for an AI, but Atom trusted her programming. “His shop is slightly outside the city center, but the closer to the center, the higher the price per foot.”
“Fair enough, load his position in my tab and I’ll find it,” Atom paused at the door to the bridge and looked back. “I may take a detour. Did you line up a specific time?”
“No, I informed him you had business in town and would arrive prior to noon.”
“Thanks, I’ll stick to that.”
* * *
Atom wandered the alleys of the shantytown sprawling over the land between the mansions of the wealthy merchants at the city center and the square miles of landing pads that fought the jungle at the city borders. His mind trailed along. Distantly he pondered and wandered over his situation, his position in life and the universe
A laugh from Margo brought him back.
Atom stopped and looked back at her. She perched in her harness, staring at a boy of ten or eleven sitting in a high, barred window making faces at her. The boy crossed his eyes and blew out his cheeks, inciting a howl of toddler belly laughter.
The giggles contrapuntal to each laugh proved infective enough to bring a smile to Atom’s usually stern face.
“Boy, I’m looking for two things: a mech to fix a faulty hydro-converter and a haunt to get some food that isn’t shipbound.”
“Byron,” the boy’s hard stare froze Atom.
“Name’s Byron, not boy.”
“Byron then,” Atom nodded. “Could you direct me to either or both of my needs?”
Byron looked down from his window perch with interest. “Come again?”
“It’s my name,” Atom replied. “I’m no man’s boss.”
“Well, Atom,” a wide grin split Byron’s walnut colored face. “I aim to sell you both. Jog ‘round front.”
Atom looked up and down the narrow alley until he found an even tighter gap plunging between the buildings. Unclipping Margo and tucking his shoulders, he managed to squeeze through the crack and popped out onto what passed for a major thoroughfare in the shantytown.
The front of the building turned out to be completely open to a wide machine shop and Byron stood waiting. When he caught sight of them he waved them over with a smile.
“This ‘ere’s the best mecher in East Gump,” he said with the flair of a born salesman. “An’ By’s the best a the best. I guarantee I’ll fix your prob in under an hour.”
“That a fact?” Atom raised an eyebrow.
“Work’s free if’n I ain’t got it fixed in time. All you need is signin’ me out at the deck and pay me fee.”
“Shop own you?”
“Yup,” Byron grinned. “Only ‘til I turn eighteen though. Five spins ‘til I be free, darl.
“Sign me out an’ I’ll grab me kit,” he yelled as he disappeared back into the shop.
Atom sauntered over to the desk at the front of the open shop. Plopping Margo down to sit on the edge, he leaned on the pitted metal and waited, annoyed at the sweat trickling down his back and the absence of the shopkeep. But with stoic resilience he forced the discomfort to the back of his mind. The vacant chair proved a different story, and Atom tapped at a red button, igniting a calliope of electronic chimes in the back of the office.
Looking around the shop, Atom noted a dozen children of various ages toiling at a series of mechanic-based jobs, from repairing an engine detached from a small freighter to operating a series of industrial presses.
“You can take yer finger off the bell,” a stout man yelled as he waddled from the air conditioned office at the back of the shop.
Atom stared at him for a moment longer than necessary before allowing the off-key music to die away. As the man approached, Atom stood up straight.
“What can I do for you?” the man huffed as he looked up at Atom.
“Byron tells me he can fix a faulty hydro-converter.”
“That he can,” the man scowled. “That boy’s my best mech. I hate sending him out. One of these days I know he ain’t coming back.”
“What’s to stop him?”
“I bought his family’s debt,” the man shrugged as he pulled up contracts on the screen built into the countertop. “Five thou they owed. It was either indenture Byron or lose their land.”
“And they sold their child?”
“Youngest of seven,” the man scratched at his unshaven jowls with a grimace. “They planned on paying off their debt with the next harvest, but they couldn’t quite make it. I’d guess they’ll be fine eventually, but it was better to sell him off than starve and turn to day laboring.”
“Is he really your best,” Atom gauged the man’s reply.
Without hesitation the shopkeep replied. “Quickest learner I’ve ever had. I’ve some indentures who barely have the smarts to toss scrap in the smelter. But Byron’s got the touch. He has the mech intuition.”
“I’ll buy his remaining years from you,” Atom rapped his knuckles on the counter. “Chit. Today.”
The man’s jaw dropped. “But you ain’t even seen him work.”
“Then you’re lying about his skill?”
“No, no, no,” the man stammered. “But you’d be buying on spec.”
“What do you think, Go?”
Margo smiled and pulled at her father’s ear.
“Do we have a deal?”
“Five thou,” the man spat out.
“Three-five and today’s parts,” Atom slapped the counter.
“Done,” the shopkeep matched Atom’s slap. He pulled up Byron’s sale contract on the countertop holo-board and touched his thumb to the corner. Spinning the digital contract, he let Atom scan the contents. As he read, Atom pulled a metal chit from his pocket. Keying in the amount he locked it with his DNA print and slid it across the countertop. Then he applied his thumb to the corner beside the shopkeep’s.
“We good?” Atom asked.
“Firm,” the shopkeep slid the coin into his till and nodded as the amount showed up in his account.
As they each slapped the contract once more to seal the deal, Byron appeared from the depths of the shop with his pack.
“Ay, boy, that pack ain’t yours no more,” the shopkeep said as he closed down the countertop.
Startled, Byron looked back and forth between the pair of adults like a rabbit.
“Say again?” he asked.
“This boke just bought out your contract. You don’t belong to me no more.”
“Byron, I still need that hydro-processor fixed,” Atom nodded as he turned away from the desk. “We can discuss the details over some food. I haven’t eaten yet today and you promised me a none to flossy haunt.”