“Please play out the background for me,” Atom frowned at the middle-aged woman sitting across the low table from him.
“She is beauty,” the woman spoke, fusing awe and revulsion in her words. “She knows she is beauty and uses it to her advantage, spinning the lives of men around her fingers to make them dance to her tune.”
“Isn’t that the way of any beauty, man or woman?”
“No, she’s a different beast. She is more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen.”
“I’ve been to the imperial court… once,” Atom sipped at the steaming, phosphorescent blue chi with a distant look. “I even glimpsed some of the emperor’s harem. I doubt this woman could rival that beauty.”
The woman narrowed her eyes, trying to determine if Atom spoke truth. Without taking her gaze from his face she refilled his shallow chi-cup.
“I’ll not question why someone from the courts would be so far out in the Fingers, but I’ve heard enough of your reputation to ask your help.
“The head of our han is dead,” she placed the chi-pot back in a cozy and lifted her own cup. “He left behind two wives. Emerald, his first wife is with child, carrying his heir. Ariel, the second wife, has her eyes on taking control of the han for herself. She is the beauty I mentions. She knows it and abuses it.”
“Can she do that?”
“Legally, no,” the woman swirled her chi and looked down at the leaves dancing on the azure currents. “But if both Emerald and her child were to die, Ariel would be next in line to control the family.”
“So you think she’ll make a play on Emerald?”
“I don’t think, I know.”
“I’ll take a look. My fee is fifty thousand.”
Without hesitating the woman nodded and filled Atom’s cup once more.
Atom met the woman’s gaze, tossed back his steaming chi, and rose to his feet. After straightening his rumpled brown jacket he called to Margo. The girl trotted over from where she had been studying a large fish tank and took her father’s hand.
“Up,” she said with a smile as Atom lifted her and held her on his hip.
“Consider the job done,” Atom brushed a stray strand of hair from Margo’s face. “It may take a few days, but I’ll finish what I’m starting.”
* * *
Atom stood in a protected alley just off a busy street, watching the traffic flow by. At his feet Margo pranced around, practicing her skipping as she kept a comforting hand on her father’s leg. Focused on the street, he still reached down and patted her head.
At the touch Margo stopped. Gripping his pant leg she scowled at the passing traffic, training her face to match her father’s.
Atom kept his hand on Margo’s head, but he tensed as a low slung suspensor-palanquin, flanked by four squat battle drones, parted the human tide. The drone’s metal carapaces bore the scars of a dozen battles and their experience shone through their positioning. In addition to the four synthetic guards, a fair-haired gunslinger strolled beside the palanquin’s ornate hatch with subtle vigilance.
Buried in the depths of the crowd, Atom studied the group. The gunslinger sauntered with a blend of deadly confidence and brash cockiness. Her hands hovered near the brace of pistols slung low on her hips.
As her eyes wandered the crowd Atom’s gaze snared her attention.
The gunslinger caught his stare, but by the time she snapped her eyes back, Atom had ducked down the alley with Margo close on his heels.
* * *
Margo sat on a treeless hill beyond the outer pads of Oligump watching the occasional traveler making use of the narrow road. With childish innocence she kicked her feet at the long tufts of tough grass crowning the hill like thinning hair on an old man’s head. For a time she continued to eye the road, but after several minutes her interest waned and she turned her attention elsewhere.
She climbed to her feet.
Blowing bubbles with pursed lips, she dropped her eyes to her feet, bare and brown, and wiggled her toes. She laughed as a soft wind blew and the grass tickled at her legs.
“Spacer popped, spacer popped, spacer popped,” she sang as she stooped to retrieve the ornate sword resting beside her prior seat.
Her eyes widened as she pulled the razor-edged rapier free from its sheath and swung it ponderously against an imaginary grass monster.
“Spacer popped,” she grunted as she beheaded a tuft.
At the foot of the hill a familiar palanquin floated from the jungle with the four armored drones wandered in intricate protective patterns. The synthetic fighters each scanned the girl and determined her threat level ranked considerably lower than anything problematic.
The gunslinger hesitated. As the group pressed forward she studied Margo.
Seeing the lean woman’s attention, Margo smiled and waved. Then, taking the sword in both hands, she swung with all her might at a clump of grass.
The gunslinger’s eyes widened as the toddler lost her balance and tumbled to the ground. Without a word she bound up the hill, leaving the palanquin to come to a halt as the four synthetics tracked the gunslinger’s path.
“I know that blade, girl,” the gunslinger growled as she approached Margo. “Where’d you come by it?”
Margo looked up with innocent eyes. The point of the sword drooped, digging into the dirt as she shrugged.
The woman crouched. Reaching out she requested the weapon with a look.
Margo pouted with reluctance as she handed the rapier over to the gunslinger. Instinctively the girl turned the blade and presented the hilt to the woman. The gunslinger hesitated, studying the girl as she reached out and took the offered blade.
Below, the synthetics monitored the interaction.
Only at the last second did their sensors detect motion in a different quadrant. Spinning as one, the bodyguards charged shields and raised their weaponized hands. Energy flared to their palms as they tracked a fleeting target. Before they fired, internal sensors scanned the target. The drones lowered their weapons as a strikestag bound from the tall grass and disappeared around the shoulder of Margo’s hill.
As they dropped their defensive stance, Atom rose from a shallow hide carved in the ditch beside the road with a brace of rail-pistols at the ready.
He fired two shots from each gun in rapid succession.
The guards collapsed to the ground, steam and smoke swirling from neat holes punched through their tough exo-armor.
Atop the hill the gunslinger spun, her attention drawn by the sharp report of Atom’s pistols. She froze, torn between the blade in her hand and the action below. Recovering her bearings, she dropped the rapier and bound down the hill. Directing her feet towards the palanquin, she watched in horror as a mud smeared Atom poked his head from behind the closed vehicle.
Atom judged her distance and returned to his task. A single shot made short work of the locking mechanism and the hatch slid open to reveal a proud woman staring at him with disdain.
“Do you know who I am?” the beauty demanded, refusing to flinch at the sight of her assailant.
“I do,” Atom raised his pistol. A single shot rang out in the valley.
Atom stepped from behind the idling palanquin, holstering one pistol and tucking the other in the back of his gun-belt. “You’re done,” Atom called to the gunslinger as she slid to a halt and drew her own pistols. “You were hired to protect her, but she’s no more. Your contract with her is void.
“Can’t protect the dead,” he rested a hand on his holstered pistol and squinted up at the gunslinger. “And the dead sure won’t pay your kip.”
Without another word he turned and walked away from the still palanquin. With a sharp whistle he drew Margo’s attention and she barreled down the hill to her father’s side.
The gunslinger stood unmoving, her guns trailing Atom’s back.
“You’re welcome to join me if you like,” Atom called over his shoulder.
For a time the gunslinger remained behind, watching as father and daughter walked into the shimmering green of the morning heat. They seemed at peace, stoic, yet peaceable.
With a tender hand Atom reached out and fixed Margo’s disheveled hair. He tucked a loose strand behind her ear. Then as they reached the border of the encroaching forest, Atom disappeared into the greenery only to emerge a moment later with the rugged suspensor-pram. Margo clambered up the side like a monkey and plopped down. Even as she climbed Atom began pushing the pram down the road toward town.
The gunslinger watched the pair disappear around the shoulder of the hill. Something in their interaction tweaked her interest and she made her decision. She ran up to the hill and retrieved the sword and scabbard before carving a new path through the long grass to cut down the far side and catch up with Atom and Margo.
Atom walked on with an easy stride, measuring the gunslinger’s steps as she loped towards them. For a moment he wondered at her intent, but then he turned his thoughts away from the approaching woman.
He contemplated his actions, evaluating and processing each step of the job. With a grunt of contentment he scratched at his scruff before tucking a hand in his gunbelt.
“What’s the work?” the gunslinger called out as she trotted to catch up.
“Odds and ends,” Atom stopped, and let the pram idle in silence.
Margo smiled up at the gunslinger.
“I own my ship and we generally make cargo runs and passenger drops. It’s nothing fancy, but it pays and I have need of an extra gun for security,” Atom caressed his pistol. “Sometimes my cargo runs a high value. Spot’s yours ‘til you tire of it.”
“Reckon my last job’s done, so I’d say I’ve got some time on my hands,” the gunslinger flashed a cocky smile. “Name’s Shi.”
“Nippon?” Atom raised his eyebrows. “Not from these parts, I take it.”
The gunslinger shrugged.
“Four or Death?”
“Somethin’ like that,” Shi squinted down the jungle-shadowed road.
“Works for me,” Atom scratched at his face and scowled before turning back to the road. “I need to get back to the ship and see if we lined up a mech.
“Shi, meet Margo,” his scowl slipped to a fond smile. “I call her Fiver sometimes, seeing as she has two brothers and a pair of sisters somewhere out there.”
“And yer name?” Shi pulled her chin length blond hair back and tied it with a dusty bandana.