Byron packed food into his face without time for a word. Atom, on the other hand, picked at his plate with a reserved air. Saving conversation for the conclusion of the meal, they ate in silence.
“So what’s the line, darl?” Byron asked as he pushed his empty plate away and settled back into his seat.
Atom took his time answering. He plucked a local grape from a small bunch on his plate and rolled it between his fingers as he looked out over the broad, sluggish river bisecting the seething city.
“Came into possession of my ship recently and I aim to hire a mech,” Atom scanned the crowded café, his eyes never resting. “Whether that’s you or not is really up to you.”
“So this is a job offer? How ya know I’m any good?” he asked in a lilted accent.
“You said so yourself,” Atom smiled and handed the grape to Margo. With a delighted grin she sucked it into her mouth and popped it.
“I coulda been spinnin’ you,” Byron looked nervous. “You know, sales pitch.”
“Did you?” Atom leaned back in his chair and folded his hands beneath his chin.
“Did I spin a tale?”
Byron hesitated. “No, I’m the top a me shop. Or I was ‘til you bought me out.”
“I know,” Atom rolled a thin pancake with an assortment of fruit and dipped it in a light frothy cream. “I do my research. No sense in jumping into anything without knowing what it is.”
He arched his eyebrows and stared at Byron a moment before taking a bite.
“Come on,” Atom abandoned the pancake and tossed a chit down to cover the meal. Snapping Margo into her harness he threaded his way from the crowded restaurant with Byron on his heels.
“Where we headed?” Byron asked.
“I’ll show you what needs doing and leave you to it.”
Atom plunged into the heavy traffic on the street, trusting Byron to keep up as he plowed ahead. Without a word he strode, street by street, through the masses and back to the lonely pad where the One Way Ticket waited.
As they walked through the gate to the landing pad Byron whistled. “She ain’t no looker, but I know rights up she’s got the guts,” he walked to the side to take a look lengthwise at the ship’s flank. “Condor class transport.”
“Tri-burn Vulcan full spectrum engines, not a fancy, but durable. She ain’t nothin’ special, but she won’t let you down. What’s her crew outfit?”
“Four to six, but I can solo her,” Atom turned back at the foot of the cargo ramp. “She fits my need. The Ticket won’t draw eyes, but she’ll carry what I need from here to there and back again without giving me grief.”
“So what do you need me for?”
“Even the toughest ship in the black needs love to keep her floating,” Atom started up the ramp. “I’ll give you a quick tour and show you what I need done. After you look her over I’ll give you some time to think on an answer. I need a full-time mech and you’re top ten in Oligump. You’ve got nothing tying you down.”
“Oi, I’ve got family,” Byron snapped.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have seen them for years anyhow. How’s this, you fix the hydro-processor and then you go talk it over with them. I’ve a couple pieces of business in the city, but I should have them tied up before dawn tomorrow. If you’re on the ship before we burn, the job is yours.”
“Deal,” Byron frowned. “Now, let’s take a looksee.”
“Well, here’s the hold,” Atom spread his arms wide. “Twenty thousand yards.
“Not much to see, but back this way will be your territory,” he stepped through a side hatch and headed towards the rear of the ship. “First we’ve got six passenger suites on each side, really just narrow bunk rooms with a closet and a pot.
“And then back here is the workshop,” Atom rounded a corner and the lights flickered on as he stepped through the hatch. “It’s right behind the hold and you’ll have access through the double blast doors, but I keep them closed most often so you don’t get wind blowing drift around.”
Byron’s mouth dropped open as he looked over the fully stocked workshop.
“I guess the last mech this ship had really knew his stuff,” Atom laughed as he leaned against one of the work tables. “Or he just liked collecting tools. Any way about it, I think there’s enough here to keep this ship flying the black ‘til we die.”
“You’re spot, darl,” Byron mumbled. With wide eyes he surveyed the workshop, running his hands over the polished tables, three metal and one wooden. “This is what heaven must look like.”
“Back here’s the power plant,” Atom wandered, allowing Byron time to run a quick inventory of the tools hanging from brackets on every wall and ceiling joist.
“Blemoth 300-Pellet,” Byron nodded. “Not the flossiest plant, but she’s durable. I could play and mod it some. She’ll run long past you and I. Or I could grade ‘er up sometime if you ever have the chit.”
Atom stood with arms crossed, knowing the siren song the ship sang to Byron. He watched the slow rotation of the core as it cycled in a manner reminiscent of an old steam engine. Despite the similarities the power plant spun silently in its vertical well without any of the dingy dirt of her predecessors.
“Hydro processor is…”
“Back here,” Byron finished Atom’s sentence as he ducked behind the gyrating engine to look over the finicky equipment. “Give me a tick.
“Yer, she’s mucked her filter right about. It’s causing pressure flux,” Byron poked his head out with a scowl. “That roughin’ can toss yer whole system for a flutter.
“Easy fix, though,’ he grinned up at Atom as he climbed out of the narrow hole.
“Well, take your time. I told you I have business back in town,” Atom turned to leave. “I’ll pay you to fix the hydro-processor regardless of what you choose. Go home. Say hello to your family. Decide if you want to sail with me. Job’s yours if you want it.”
Byron kept his eyes on the hypnotic spinning of the ship’s engine. Atom wondered which path the young mech would choose.
He dropped a chit on one of the work tables. “You have the run of the workshop.”
* * *
Atom walked back down the dusty, crowded road with Margo back in her familiar, batter suspensor-pram. A job had slipped through the cracks of the net and he had pondered on it for the entirety of their approach to Oligump. Kozue had voted against the job as too reckless, but Atom felt an obligation in his gut.
Retracing his steps he wandered towards the river. As he drifted to the outskirts of the city, he turned scenarios over in his mind.
“What’s your plan?” Kozue whispered in his ear, startling Atom from his reverie.
Atom looked around with a startled expression.
“Kozue?” he asked in a low voice, trying to avoid drawing attention from the thinned and scattered foot traffic. Margo perked up at her mother’s name.
“I took the liberty of injecting a series of self replicating nano-processors in the bone surrounding your ears while you slept last night,” Kozue stated. “You can hear me and speak directly to me all with the same technology, even when you are not aboard the ship.
“I did the same for Margo,” Kozue’s playful laugh filled Atom’s heart with longing. “She will always be able to hear the sound of her mother’s voice.
“So what is your plan?”
“I’m working on that,” Atom replied. “I know the target, but I need a logical point of attack.”
“Why do you direct your steps to the river?”
Atom continued to walk with the dwindling pedestrians, but he rubbed at his stubbled face with a grumble.
“First I need to find this boke, then the river might just come in play.”
* * *
Margo splashed in the shallows. With giddy joy she pranced around, kicking up water and laughing as she skipped and galloped, pretending to be an Alyssian water horse.
“No,” snapped Atom. “This is not a game. You must go deeper.”
Margo froze. Her face grew stern. Then with a determined set to her childish jaw she stepped out into the deeper waters. Parting thick, sluggish algae-fields with her hands she waded into the water until it lapped at her chin. With a final glance back to her father she took the final step and slipped beneath the surface.
* * *
A short time later a well dressed man walked along the narrow river road with scented oil adorning his curls and fine silks defying the sticky humidity. He strolled alone, confident in his name and the razor edged rapier at his waist.
In an age of space travel, energy blasters, and AI the man proved an anomaly.
The age of blades lay eons in the past on the planet of humanity’s birth, but for some reason the tradition carried on with this man.
Jauntily he pranced along on the toes of his heeled boots with one hand on the hilt of his ornate sword and the other cocked just below his chin with a crumpled hanky sporting the scent of a woman. Relishing the moment, he sniffed at the handkerchief.
“Help me, sir,” Atom cried as the man approached. “Me dot, she were playin’ in them shallows and fell in tops her crown.”
“Why do you not wade after her?” disdain laced the words.
“I’s canna swim, master,” Atom kowtowed, throwing himself at the mercy of the gentleman. “I canna lose ‘er too. ‘er ma’s only a few turns passed ‘erself. Go’s the only kin I got left this side a the black.”
For a moment the man hesitated, looking out at the girl as she thrashed in hysteria, just managing to keep her head above water.
“I do this for the sake of the child,” said the man as he shed his heavy outer garments and sword belt. “Keep these free of the mud, porter.”
Kicking off his shoes he dove into the water and with a flurry of powerful strokes drove himself through the turgid current toward the foundering child. Margo continued to splash and sputter in a frenzied panic.
“Hold, dear child,” the man lifted his head to locate Margo.
At that moment the water surged and a ponderous reptilian head broke the surface. The man’s shriek cut short as the jaws closed over his leg and dragged him down into the murky depths of the river.
Atom stood staring at the swirling spot.
“You can come out now, Fiver,” he called out as he tossed the gaudy garments into the shallows.
The girl peeked from the rushes behind her father.
“Dada,” she grinned up at him.
With a smile he picked her up in one arm. He handed her the sheathed blade as he pulled a holo-projector from the forked branch of a low hanging tree.
“One obstacle removed,” he tucked the projector beneath the suspensor-pram and slung Margo up onto his shoulders. “Now we have some time before the next phase comes into play.”
“That was interestingly done,” Kozue said.
A slight smile touched the side of Atom’s face. “It’s only the beginning.”