“Kozue, did Byron fix the hydro-processor?”
“Yes, he performed his paid task adequately,” Kozue purred as Atom made his way back to the docking slip. “I have run diagnostic scans and am satisfied with his work.”
“Good, where’s my mech now?”
“He is tinkering in the workshop. I believe you may have won him over with your charm.”
Atom barked a laugh, startling Shi. The gunslinger’s hand leaped to the pistol at her hip.
“Why’re you laughin’,” tension crept about her eyes.
“Just talking to my ship,” Atom held up a disarming hand. “She somehow has a sense of humor.”
“An AI with a touch of humor, that’s a might peculiar,” Shi caressed her guns, taking comfort from the cool metal. “This whole set’s just a touch bizarre. I ain’t ever had a job offer from the killer of a prior client.
“The whole of you is off kilt somehow,” she looked over and studied Atom and Margo as they walked. “Not on a bad angle, mind you. Just in a way I ain’t seen before. What’s yer story?”
“It’s mine,” Atom stated.
“You fly with me and you’re crew,” Atom kept his eyes locked on the his ship. “I won’t question your past. Once you step aboard the One Way Ticket it’s behind you and all that matters is the future, only the next job. No need to worry about where anyone comes from.”
“We agreed?” Atom stopped at the entrance to the slip.
“Agreed,” Shi reached out an open palm. “I’ve ‘nough in my past I ain’t proud of.”
Atom slapped her hand. “Welcome aboard then,” he turned back and led the way up the ramp. “Kozue’s our ship’s mind. You’ll get to know her and she’ll look out for you.
“I have some last minute business to attend to back in the cit,” Atom looked over the empty cargo hold. “I’m expecting a shipment of lumber any time now. When it rolls in let the machines load it, just make sure they distribute it evenly. Hopefully I’m back before it arrives, but if my business keeps me, you’re in charge.”
Before Shi could reply Atom turned and strode down the ramp, pushing the pram as he flipped through plans in his mind.
Shi watched him disappear through the slip gate. She cocked an eyebrow at his brusque attitude, but turned with a shrug and surveyed the interior of the ship.
* * *
Atom ducked into the chi-house and tucked the pram just inside the door. He scanned the scattered occupants of the establishment before winding his way to where his client sat. Dropping cross-legged to the floor he poured himself a small cup of iridescent chi and raised it to his host. In one toss he downed the steaming chi.
“I’ve completed my contract,” he studied the intricate detail carved into the tabletop.
“It’s a bittersweet victory,” the middle-aged woman bowed from her kneeling position. “Our lady has lost her child.”
“That’s not my concern, but you have my condolences.”
A sad smile creased her venerable face as she slid a cred-chip across the table. “Thank you.”
Atom bowed his head and rose in silence to gather the pram by the door. He glanced back to the woman and caught a tear on her cheek as she stared into space. Then he swept out the door and lost himself among the swirling throngs in the street.
* * *
“Lift in ten,” Atom instructed Kozue as he pushed the pram up the ramp and observed the neatly stacked lumber lining the hold from floor to ceiling. “We’re prepped, right?”
“Firm, Atom,” Kozue replied as Atom slapped the control for the ramp and sealed the cargo hold. “You must speak with Byron. I know Shi has agreed to your terms, but the boy has yet to commit to your proposal.”
“He doesn’t need to sign anything. I’ll take his word.”
Atom lifted Margo from the pram and carried her down the narrow aisle between the stacked lumber. “Where is the boy anyway?”
“Where you’d expect to find him,” Kozue purred. “He hasn’t wandered from the shop since returning from his parent’s homestead hours ago.”
“Looks like I chose wisely,” Atom smiled at Margo. “You and I will live and die together, but if I can patch the right group together we might not have to worry about that right now.
“Go, you and I have to be ready to join the void every day, but we have to embrace every day as a fresh, delicate flower to be enjoyed. Life and death are two sides to the same blade.”
Margo stared up for a moment before wrapping her arms around her father’s neck and pressing her face against his stubbled cheek.
“I hate hearing you talk like that, but I fear it may be the only way in which my family survives this ordeal,” Kozue’s voice held a tinge of sorrow.
“It is our way,” Atom replied as he stepped from the hold. Behind him the lights dimmed like an artificial twilight. “Koze, get the engines warmed.”
“I initiated the ignition process when you boarded.”
With a smile Atom wandered into the workshop. Byron sat hunched over one of the workbenches, concentrating on a small electronic board. For a moment Atom studied the boy.
“Time’s up,” Atom said, startling Byron.
“What do ya mean, guv?”
“We’re burning in ten,” Atom dropped Margo on the far end of the workbench, allowing the girl to sit and look over the tools. “I hear you took a trip home. How did that go?”
“My parentals touched surprise,” Byron squinted up at Atom. “I en’t sure it were a good surprise, but they sure din expect me face darking their door.”
“Did you make a decision?”
“I’ll go if you’ll have me. I thought they might a made a mistake, sellin’ me off like that, but I saw someffin’ a touch different today. They sold me ‘cause they din want me. They din need me. They’ve a full house without me and they sure din expect me to ever float back.”
“They’re still kin, don’t forget that,” Atom scolded the boy. “But you control your path. You’re a man in this. What’s your decision?”
“I’ll fly with you,” Byron turned away. “Let’s see where your paff leads.”
“Heaven or hell, or somewhere in between,” a dark smile creased Atom’s face. “No telling, but we’ll walk that path to the end.
“Have you met Shi yet?” Atom took a small laser-cutter from Margo and returned the tool to its slot in the workbench without taking his attention from Byron. “Last I saw of her she was wandering through the hold.”
Byron shook his head. “I han’t been back long and I’ve been tied to the workshop. If she’s wandering the ship, she en’t been down to say noffin’ to me.”
“Well, tag along. I should probably intro you if you’re to be shipmates.”
Atom lifted Margo off the workbench and set her on the floor. Knowing all tools sat high enough to be out of her reach, he left her behind and walked back to the hold. Lights flickered on and off as he passed. Taking the steps two at a time he climbed to the upper deck where he strolled into the all purpose rec-room. To conserve space the ship designers combined kitchen, dining, and recreation areas into the biggest single room outside the hold.
Atom wandered into the room and found Shi sitting at the table cleaning her pistols on a square oil cloth.
“Problem, boss?” she asked.
“Nope,” he hooked a thumb in his belt and stepped to the side. “I just wanted to introduce you to Byron.”
From the doorway Byron shuffled in, his head down as he focused on Margo’s toddler steps. Like a shepherd with a lone sheep he shooed the girl before him.
“Byron,” Atom drew the boy’s attention away from his self appointed charge. “This is Shi. I brought her on for security purposes. The black’s not the safest place and most planets aren’t a whole lot safer. I’ll rest a touch easier knowing there’s another set of eyes and a steady hand on a gun to watch over the ship when I’m off working.”
Byron eyed the woman with suspicion. Shi returned the stare with her emerald gaze.
“So, what do you do?”
“Fix what needs fixin’,” Byron narrowed his eyes before relaxing and flashing a cocky, half grin.
“That include my eats?” Shi matched the grin as she leaned back in the booth and interlaced her fingers behind her head.
Leaning against the counter, Atom watched the interaction unfold.
“No’m, I’ve scrapped eats, but I ain’t never cooked for anybean, but meself.”
“Well, I’m not cookin’ for you,” Shi glanced over to Atom. “I reckon it’s every bean for themselves.”
“We’ll see,” Atom interjected, beckoning Margo as he mulled the matter. “Seems only fair that we take turns for the moment. If I bring someone on who has a culinary touch, we might change that, but seeing as none of us can cook, we can poison each other equally.”
“Who said anything about not being able to cook,” Shi demanded.
“Atom, two minutes to burn,” Kozue interrupted the conversation. “I recommend your presence on the bridge.”