A few weeks earlier, when the ship had set down on Nahant, Atom had wandered. No work, no buyer for his cargo hold full of vaccines, he found himself with nothing more than time on his hands.
Atom sauntered along the street, a hand tucked in his coat pocket and the other tapping out a light rhythm on the handle of the suspensor-pram.
“Love ship time,” he smiled down at Margo.
The toddler craned her neck around to look at her father upside down and scrunched her face in a juvenile grin. “Uh-huh, ship time,” she cocked her eyebrows expressively.
“Koze, what time is it here?”
“Three forty-two,” Kozue intoned in his ear. “You still have almost four hours until sunrise.”
Atom sighed. “I wish we had synched the time up on the inbound.”
“You wanted to get here at the earliest moment.”
“And I got what I asked for,” a yawn split his face, more from the circadian disrupting light of the planet’s twin moons than from actual fatigue.
He continued to wander with Margo. Devoid of traffic, the center of the street allowed Atom the smoothest path.
Every city looked the same. People made the difference. Atom dwelled on the thought as he swiveled his head back and forth to take in the low-rise buildings surrounding him. Nothing stood more than two or three stories, but the brick and metal structures gave the impression of a humanoid canyon.
People made the difference with fashion and custom. They all appeared different, unique, from one planet to the next. And sometimes the smells varied, but oftentimes, Atom picked out familiar scents in each port of call.
“What do you think, Fiver?” Atom asked, bouncing the pram to pop the front up a touch. “Is this place just like all the others?”
Margo wore a studious expression. “Same, papa,” she broke in a laugh.
Atom shook his head, and as he made to reply a soft whimper caught his attention. He stopped, his hand drifting to the rail-pistol at his hip.
“Easy, Go,” he surveyed the street. “Something’s touched.”
He twitched his head from side to side, sniffing as he did so, like a hound scenting his quarry. With eyes alert and searching, Atom searched out the source of the sound.
Soft sobs wafted through the empty street.
Scanning the storefronts that lined both sides of the street, Atom scowled. Most ocular windows slumbered, but a few patrons clustered in the soft pool of street glow outside a dockside tavern and across the street light streamed forth from an all-hours store.
The folks outside the tavern spoke, but the distance muted their words and Atom turned his attention from the group.
Atom pulled the pram closer. “Hush now, Go. We’ll find the touch.”
Sensing the tension in her father, Margo dropped down on her stomach, leaving just her eyes poking above the rim of the suspensor pram.
The sob echoed again.
Behind and to the left an ajar door leaked harsh light, revealing stairs beyond.
Drifting back along the road, Atom pulled the pram along until he could see. From the glassed-in foyer slate steps curved towards living quarters above. Atom scanned the stairs, his eyes dancing between the light and shadows of the widely spaced lamps.
He flipped his coat back and slipped to the door, eyeing the street with suspicion.
“Ho there,” he called out, easing the pram out of the direct line of the stairs. “Everything alright?”
The sobs cut short.
Atom stared into the silence. Trying to see around the curve of the stairs he eased to the left.
A foot scuffed on the slate, drawing into the shadows.
“Go, hop to,” Atom said in a low voice.
The girl slipped from the pram and like a monkey, clambered to Atom’s back. With his eyes locked on the stairwell he settled her into place and hooked her toddler frame to the straps built into his jacket.
Keeping his hand on his pistol he stole to the foot of the stairs. One cautious step at a time he moved, maintaining his focus on the curve of the stairs that shielded the source of the sobbing from view. Atom strained his ears and thought he could make out the low, ragged breaths of someone fighting to remain silent.
He rounded the curve and a leg slipped into view.
Atom stopped. For several heartbeats he studied the leg and foot: lean, curved, muscular, youthful.
“Miss,” he soothed. “Can I help you with anything?”
“Get gone,” a sniffle punctuated the words. “Leave me be.”
Atom heard defiance, but scented fear and pain lurking just beneath the surface. He flipped his coat back down over his pistol and stepped into full view with his hands held out, palm up, peaceable.
“Ain’t looking to cause trouble,” he said. “I just heard you crying and I don’t like to leave innocent folks hurting if I can help.”
A female, the curled figure walked the line between woman and girl. She clutched a flowered sundress protectively to her chest. The dress, torn from her shoulders, refused to stay up and what had once been knee length had been shredded to the point of scant decency.
With futile persistence she tried to keep the dress covering her.
“What do you want?” the young woman demanded, glaring through tear-stained eyes. “You want what they left?”
Atom gazed into the dark eyes for a moment, then gave a slow shake of his head.
“Aiming for no disrespect, miss,” Atom dropped his eyes. He took in the bruised thighs, skinned knees and toes, and the damaged sandals that threatened to fall apart on her feet as she curled into herself. “I was just looking to help.
“Just hold a second,” he stepped back down a few steps and unhooked Margo, his eyes scanning for threat just the same.
The girl stared at Margo with haunting sadness, a longing for innocence returned.
Atom slipped out of his coat and with a gentle flourish that still brought a flinch from the woman, he dropped it around her shoulders. Turning away in shame, she clutched it tight to cover her.
“Are you hurt?” Atom asked.
Margo climbed up close to the girl and leaned over to peer up into her face. “Don’t cry,” Margo placed a gentling hand on the girl’s knee.
A wan smile crept across the young woman’s face. She tentatively reached up and brushed back her dark hair, revealing hollow eyes rimmed red as she met Atom’s gaze for a brief moment.
Atom started at the flash of calculating hardness, but the look retreated beneath the damaged façade like an elusive fish.
“Do you live far from here?” Atom reached out and tousled Margo’s hair. He measured the girl as he dropped to a seat a few steps below his daughter. Something tickled in the back of his mind, but the pain she radiated overshadowed any inkling of a ruse.
“Upstairs,” she whispered in a hollow voice.
“Is someone waiting for you?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’ve a flat with two others, girls, but they’ll be sleeping.
“I’m not usually out this late,” she dropped her eyes and a pair of crystal tears dotted Atom’s dusty brown coat. Then, like the tears, the words began to drip between fresh sobs. “Gims asked me. Work late. We had a handful of late docking freighters. Hungry crews mean great tips. If I fly.
“Gims knew that,” she lifted her doe-like eyes to Atom. “He weren’t aiming to pop me in trouble. Just trying to help a girl out.”
“I understand,” Atom pulled Margo into his lap.
“I didn’t expect nothing. Didn’t expect what happened,” she sobbed.
“What now do I do?”
Atom sat in silence for a moment, listening to the girl’s ragged breathing. Then he rose to his feet and shifted Margo to his hip.
“First off,” he began to sway with a gentle rhythm. “You’re going to go upstairs and take a shower. Then you’re going to sleep. Take something to help with that if you need it.”
“Don’t know if I can.”
“You will,” Atom’s fatherly tone comforted the girl. “And you’re going to put tonight from your mind. You are bruised and beaten, both physically and mentally. Some will say you have to embrace the pain and others to bear it in silence.
“But I say,” he dropped his voice, leaning in with intimate vengeance. “It’s part of you, but it doesn’t define you. You can’t pity yourself, but you know it’s a part of your life now. Grow, embrace, move forward. If you dwell, it’ll consume you.”
“I don’t know…”
“Live in the moment and be a new creation with each breath, girl,” Atom commanded.
Despite her eyes remaining downcast, the girl seemed to gather a resolve.
“I wouldn’t wish your night on anyone,” Atom turned and started back down the stairs with Margo smiling up at the young woman. “There are a couple things I need of you.”
“Yeah,” the girl fiddled with her broken sandal as she watched them depart from beneath her veil of dark hair. “I want you to bring my coat back tomorrow. Look up the One Way Ticket. That’s my ship”
“And the other?” The girl dragged herself to her feet and wiped at her nose.
“In the pocket of my coat you’ll find a plasma punch. I want you to keep it and if you ever find yourself in a situation that could lead down tonight’s path I want you to hide it in your palm. When they get close you tuck it up against their knee and press the trigger.
“I guarantee they’ll leave you be,” he waved a farewell without a backward glance.
“What if I see them again?” she called after him.
“Don’t worry,” Atom paused at the door and looked up to the girl huddled deep inside the folds of his coat. “They’re freighters. I don’t think you’ll ever cross paths again.”
“But what if…”
“You have your heart, it’s strong enough to overcome,” he flashed a lopsided grin. “And now you have a plasma punch to back up your heart.”
Atom nodded and left the girl standing alone, clutching the railing as she watched them disappear. He swung Margo around with one arm and dropped her into the pram. Accustomed to the sway of the suspensor-pram she reached out and steadied herself as Atom stalked down the street.
“What do you plan to do?” Kozue asked.
“You don’t harm innocence,” Atom’s jaw clenched. “If they were my crew, I’d wait until we were aloft and walk them out the airlock with a polite wave goodbye.”
“Well, they’re not your crew. Plus, you don’t know who they are.”
“She’s just a girl, Koze,” Atom headed for the garish light of the nearby pub. “It’s one thing were she older and willing. Happens she don’t fit either category.”
Kozue refrained from further comment.