Atom stepped from the cargo ramp into a sudden gust of oven dusty air. Squinting against the blown grit he raised a shielding hand and looked about to take stock of his surroundings. The polarized atmosphere shaded everything a reddish-grey, haunting the eyes with ghostly images of absent colors. In the back of his mind Atom tried to adjust to the lack of blues and greens.
“Why don’t you inform the others of your side business?” Kozue asked as Atom retreated up to the hatch door at the top of the ramp.
“I don’t want them involved,” Atom replied as he punched through the hatch.
“But they could help.”
Atom glanced at Margo. Looking up from the pram she beamed a smile.
“Dada dirty,” she clapped her hands gleefully.
With care he wrapped a mesh hood over her head and fixed a filter over her mouth. She reached up to pull the hood off, but Atom took her hand firmly and set them in her lap.
“Leave it,” he commanded and Margo complied. “We’re going outside, Go. It’s messy so let the hood be.”
Margo nodded. She turned her attention to looking through the polarized lenses covering her eyes. With a furtive glance to Atom she reached up and adjusted the hood. Atom raised an eyebrow, but he saw the smile in the lift of her cheeks beneath the light material.
Satisfied with Margo’s elemental protection, Atom punched the hatch open again and pushed the pram out into the gusting wind. As he tromped down the ramp he wrapped a light scarf around his mouth and nose.
“They could help, but they could also prove a liability,” he continued the conversation as he pressed down the street as an easy stroll. “Plus, I work better alone.”
“You take Margo.”
“Truth, but she’s blood. She’s a part of me.”
“She’s a child, Atom.”
“And I trust her more than either of the other two in a fight. “I know what she’s capable of.”
“There’s something frightening in that statement,” concern laced Kozue’s words. “Especially since of your crew is a known gunfighter with a rap as long as my hair.”
“You don’t have hair.”
“I did, and you remember.”
Atom fell silent. His feet pressed forward through the dust laden throngs. He had lined up a buyer on the slow orbital descent, but he always liked meeting face to face, a slowly dying habit from his days as an admiral.
Following Kozue’s directions he wound his way through the thriving spaceport to a well built residence nestled between the slums and the affluent.
At his first knock a young servant woman opened the door with a friendly smile
“Make yourself welcome,” she said as she slammed the door against the wind. “I will let Moncrief know you have arrived. He was pleasantly surprised by your request to meet in person.”
“I aim to surprise,” Atom smiled as he pulled his scarf down. “In a good way of course.”
The servant bobbed her head and disappeared through a door at the rear of the tall entryway. As the door closed on the servant’s heels, Atom unwrapped Margo and surveyed their surroundings. From the outside the building appeared squat and plain, but the interior told a different story. The entrance hall showed modest opulence. Built of solid sandstone bricks, artisans had carved delicate floral scenes of off-world Edens. Towering twenty feet above, a broad tinted skylight slowed a comforting warm glow to enter and offset the cool, misted interior of the building. Underfoot a thick carpet of intricate weave covered the broad sandstone blocks of the floor in an inviting manner.
“Welcome, Mr. Ulvan,” the servant opened the doors to the interior and invited him to follow. Atom picked up Margo and strolled after the serving girl.
The remainder of the building, a hybrid mansion and business, maintained the same level of modest wealth presented with the foyer. Fountains splashed merrily in glass covered courtyards and Margo eyed the water longingly.
“Later,” whispered Atom in his daughter’s ear.
He followed after the scurrying servant as she led them past a bustling office with dozens of clerks whisking about and down a long hallway framed in exotic, dark wood. The further they pressed, the more impressed Atom became with his current business partner.
After a half dozen distinct sections of the mansion, Atom found himself ushered into a final courtyard lacking the hubbub of the previous rooms of the building. This atrium presented a sense of botanical calm. The largest fountain sat in the center of the broad tiled room, but the waters flowed lethargically with a hypnotizing cadence. Bordering the lush chamber, flowers rose and aromatic plants of varying worlds grew beneath a fine lattice of misters.
“Mr. Ulvan,” an accented baritone drew Atom’s attention from the surroundings to the broad-shouldered man seated beside the fountain in a fine rattan lounge. “It’s good to meet you. Too many of my contacts are conducted over the sub-net and I don’t get to show off my home.
“I’m Moncrief,” the man rose to his feet and set a small, steaming cup of frothy black liquid on a small table. “Oraibi Moncrief.”
A wide smile split the man’s sun browned face and revealed bright white teeth offset by solid gold bicuspids. Atom took the man in as he returned the smile with a slight curling at the corner of his mouth. Half a head shorter than Atom, the man radiated power in his stance and confidence.
Moncrief held out a hand, palm up.
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Ulvan,” he stepped forward, not threateningly, but authoritatively.
“The pleasure is mine,” Atom casually met the man and laid his own hand atop Moncrief’s open palm. “I always like to do my business in a more personal manner than my competitors. It avoids outside tampering and allows me to get a feel for the people I’m doing business with.”
“Sage,” Moncrief chuckled deeply.
Atom glanced around the room and as his gaze fell on the fountain he set Margo down and pointed out the fish swimming lazy circles in the crystal clear waters.
“This is my daughter, Margo,” Atom turned back to Moncrief.
“She is a true beauty. This lovely flower must get her radiance from her mother. You are too hard for her nature to come from you,” Moncrief laughed deeply.
A shadow flitted across Atom’s face. Catching the look, Moncrief instantly stopped laughing and raised his brow. He bowed his head apologetically and swept his arms wide.
“I do not aim to offend,” he said softly. “Sometimes my sense of humor turns caustic. Perhaps…”
“No,” the smile returned to Atom’s face as his gaze drifted to his daughter. “We recently… lost her mother. It’s still something we’re dealing with.
“I agree she took her mother’s looks and temperament,” he turned to Moncrief and left Margo to lean on the fountain with childlike innocence.
“I am relieved.”
“I’m probably too attached, but I bring her everywhere with me,” Atom folded his hands behind his back and scowled. “But after her mother’s passing,” he hesitated at the phrase. “I wouldn’t risk losing Margo on some foreign planet.”
“Laudable, but let us leave the pain of your past alone and turn to the future,” Moncrief gestured to the twin rattan chair. “Please seat yourself and let us discuss business.
“I understand you have a hold full of Oligumpian hardwood,” he waited for Atom to take the seat and then followed suit. “You know that on this planet wood of any kind is worth its weight in gold, or whatever you want to trade. I won’t personally be buying them, but I will act as your broker on this and promise you the best prices possible.
“Remember,” Moncrief poured a second cup of the steaming liquid and handed it with care to Atom. “The better price I get you, the better my cut. My usual commission is ten percent.”
“Five,” Atom quickly countered, taking a sip of his steaming black bitter. “Is that a hint of saffron?”
Moncrief raised an eyebrow. “Well trained palate. Eight,” he sipped his own brew.
“Seven,” Moncrief delicately set his small cup down and extended his hand, palm up.
“Seven,” Atom set his own cup down and placed his hand over Moncrief’s.
“Now that we are in agreement, I will have my people start the search for potential buyers here on Rommel. Would you like your payment in chits or trade?”
Moncrief flicked a finger and the servant girl, who had remained beside the door, disappeared like a spectre.
“You’re biggest exports are beef and raw laser gems,” Atom leaned back casually in his seat, steepling his fingers in thought. “I want ten crates of raw gems and the rest of my hold filled with stasis beef. I’ll fly up the Fingers and fetch a good price at the Knuckles.
“The gems will increase in value in that direction as well,” he nodded and flashed a half smile.
“Wise,” Moncrief agreed. “Stasis beef sells well on the more populated worlds. Even with the gems, I would estimate you will only use a quarter of your projected profits on the sale of the lumber.”
“I’ll take a chit to cover the difference.”
“Settled,” Moncrief refilled both shallow cups and flipped a switch dropping a damping field over the fountain and surrounding area. “Now I have one further piece of business I would like to attend to.”
Atom looked around at the shimmering walls of the damping field. Margo glanced up at the field, but returned her attention to the fish with a shrug. Lifting his cup again, Atom took a small sip as he shifted in his seat. As he turned he discretely loosened his pistol in its holster.
“You have my attention,” he replaced the cup and leaned forward conspiratorially.
“One cannot be too safe,” the smile faded from Moncrief’s face. Anger replaced the former good natured attitude displayed by the Rommelian broker. “What do you know of our politics?”
“Not much beyond the cursory trade laws I had my AI scan on the way in.”
“Then you do not know that despite our cursory free trade, my government has its hand in every pot on the planet. Now confidentially, my business is not as lucrative as my abode would lead you to believe. I owe a great deal to the credit guild.”
“What’s this to me,” Atom demanded, leaning closer to Moncrief. “I’ve brought you my business. It won’t solve your problems, but I imagine your cut on my goods can only help.”
“This is a matter outside our normal channels of business,” Moncrief looked abashed at his words. “I have a venture dabbling in land spec to cover my debts.”
“And you found something.”
Moncrief nodded, his eyes wide. “We found a crystal vein that could turn my family’s fortune, but law dictates the mine should revert to the government. The law states that anything below twenty meters belongs to them.”
“And I suppose you’ve passed that mark.”
“Well past it,” Moncrief relaxed and even managed a laugh. “We’re so far past the line I’m afraid the government has the right to dissolve my family holdings and even slap us with exile.”
Atom nodded, a look of puzzlement tightening his features.
“Knowing the dangers of the mine I have kept the information to myself and the two other investors. The mine is completely automated so we don’t have to worry about workers. The mine works around the clock, pulling crystal ore as fast as possible and storing it in warehouse facilities on the moon Cruel to slowly sell off.”
“So where do I play into this story?”
“Our neighbor,” Moncrief began drumming his fingers nervously on the arm of his chair.
“Tell me everything,” Atom gave a wan smile. “There can be no secrets in this line of work. I need to piece everything together and be able to anticipate all contingencies.”
“Our neighbor asked for a cut to keep her mouth shut. She comes from a small family of restaurant owners. I’m sure her request had more to do with the fact that the vein we followed ran under her holdings, than any other reason.
“In fact,” Moncrief scratched at the back of his neck. “She asked. She didn’t demand anything. That’s good, right?”
Atom stared at Moncrief, then he scrunched his face in question. “What are you asking me to do? I see how this could be a problem, but I tend to solve problems by removing them.”
“I think that’s what I need.”
“You want me to remove your neighbor?” Atom cocked an eyebrow.
“She has been taken into custody on some tax related charges, but it’s only a matter of time before my wrongdoings come to light.”
“Ah,” Atom sat back and shook his head. “Do you think she would intentionally involve you in this? Does she have anything against you personally or against any member of your family?”
“We’ve always been on good terms, but I think it will eventually come to light,” Moncrief dropped his gaze and focused on removing an invisible spot of dirt from his pants.
“How do you know?”
“She was overheard talking about coming into money. The government will want to know where it came from and they will trace it back to us.”
“But if she keeps her mouth shut this could all blow over?”
“Hypothetically,” Moncrief looked at Atom with desperate hope.
Atom leaned on his knees, his eyes locked on the bubbling fountain and Margo. His mind raced. Absently he reached out and lifted his cup. As he sipped at the bitter liquid the door burst open and a bloodied man stumbled into the room.
Instantly, the servant girl leaped into action. Without hesitation she threw herself between the intruder and Moncrief. Atom also noted her hand instinctively slip into the folds of her dress. However, before any deadly action occurred recognition lit her face and she pulled her empty hand from its hiding place. She caught the unsteady man as he began to fall forward. Wrapping her arm around his waist she helped the man stumble to Moncrief. There the man dropped to a knee.
“I think this would be a good time for me to excuse myself,” Atom said as Moncrief dropped the damping field.
“Go,” he whispered and without hesitation she left the fountain and ran to her father. He scooped her up and made his way to the door. “I can show myself out Mr. Moncrief.
“I’ll be in touch,” the merchant said absently as he studied the newcomer.
Atom respectfully touched his forehead and ducked through the doors. He retraced his steps through the house, his rapid footfalls muffled by the thick carpets. In the entryway he arranged Margo in her pram. Just as he reached for the door to exit the house he hesitated.
With his hand inches from the latch he looked down to Margo.
“Go, what are your thoughts?” he whispered.
Innocence reflected back at him. She shook her head slightly.
Atom jerked his hand back from the front door and ducked back into the house. Instead of returning to Moncrief he turned aside in the first atrium and followed a clerk along a divergent hallway.
“Is there a servant’s entrance?” he tugged at the man’s shirt.
The clerk jumped at Atom’s touch. With uncertain hesitation he studied Atom a moment before indicating another hallway.
“Door at the end will drop you in the side alley,” he pulled nervously at his collar
“Many thanks,” Atom gave a polite bob of his head. Then, before the man could reply he turned down the indicated hallway. Glancing over his shoulder he found the clerk standing with a confused expression plastered on his face.
Atom smiled down at Margo as he opened the outer door with his hip and pulled the suspensor pram out after him. He peeked around the door to make sure no surprises lurked in the ally. Satisfied, he kicked the door shut with his heel.
“Thanks for the help,” he pulled Margo’s mask and hood back over her face and made for the rear of the expansive house. The narrow alley afforded protection from the sun and wind, and even projected a cool remnant of the house’s misty interior.
“Men. Outside,” she said as she looked up at the bleached grey-blue of the desert sky.
“I figured as much,” Atom cut down a side alley and looped around a smaller side building cut from the same stone as Moncrief’s. “Let’s see if we can get a look at whoever chased that junker in.”
After some calculating and navigating, the pair strolled casually back onto the main street. Traffic had thinned from their inward journey, but enough people bustled along the dusty road for Atom to blend. He sauntered past the front of Moncrief’s home like a man out for some air.
As he pushed the pram he scanned the street in a casual manner. Before reaching Moncrief’s front door he noted two men and a woman who stood out against the constant motion of the street. Their positioning gave them away more than their stationary stances. Atom noted they had perfect vantage points for keeping surveillance on the front of the building. He wondered when they had arrived. Searching his mind he brought to the surface the glance he had taken past the door. Their positions had been vacant when he had entered.
Content in his anonymity, Atom made careful note of their faces and sauntered down the boulevard. As he turned the corner he looked back in time to catch Moncrief leaving with his servant girl a step behind.
The three observers discretely detached from their posts and followed.