As Atom approached the port-side bar he looked up at the name. Despite several burned out letters he read After-Burn by the soft glow of the city lights. The dozen loitering men fell silent and parted as Atom guided the pram toward the open door.
“Ever seem like every planet’s the same?” Kozue asked as Atom walked into the neon glare of the interior.
“How so?” he stopped and surveyed the scene before selecting a corner table.
“Seedy bars, loose women, flat beer?”
“There are loose men too,” Atom sensed a shrug from his AI. “And how do you know the beer’s flat?”
“Atom,” Kozue chided. “I’m part of you.”
A long-toothed waitress with too much lipstick sauntered over and flashed a weary smile. “What’ll it be, sweets?”
“This Gims’ place?” Atom leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head.
The waitress glanced to the bar, a newfound wariness in her eyes. “Who’s asking?”
“I’ve no problem with Gims. I just ran into a mutual acquaintance,” Atom stifled a yawn. “I just thought I might have a quick word with Gims what would settle a bet between me and my Eye.
“I’m not aiming for trouble.”
“That a fact?” the woman brushed her dyed hair from her eyes and locked Atom with a conflicted gaze.
“Well, if things turn the way I’m hoping, there might be some trouble for some folks, but not on you or your lovely establishment. I’m professional enough to see to that.
“So,” Atom sat up and leaned on the table. “I’d like that word with Gims and tea.”
“Hot or cold?” the waiting instincts kicked in.
“Hot, one drip,” Atom pulled a chit from his pocket, punched the amount with a hefty tip, and slid it across the table.
“Hot with a drip of sweet,” the waitress plucked the metal chit from the table and turned to walk away. Her eyes widened as she registered the amount and she glanced back to a smiling Atom. “I’ll see if Gims is still here,” she called over her shoulder as she made her way to another table sprouting five new freighters.
Atom sat for a minute before the waitress whirled back with a tray full of drinks. She plucked Atom’s heavy mug of tea from the forest of tall glasses and set it before him.
Without another word she disappeared into the neon aura of the bar.
After watching her bustle away, Atom turned the pram so Margo could look out over the bar. “See what you have to look forward to,” weariness began to set in as he picked up his mug and savored the bitter-sweet scent.
Margo pouted and leaned forward to rest her chin on the lip of the pram.
“Dregs,” he shook his head. “Scum of the black that give the rest of us a bad name.”
The scattered patrons sat at three tables, two groups on the far side of the bar and a solitary drinker tucked in a booth to Atom’s left. The two tables on the far side held the most disparate groups in Atom’s mind. Tucked up beside the bar, three hard looking spacers sat with a harder looking woman who the men obviously deferred to.
The other table drew Atom’s attention.
Six men surrounded a small table laden with half empty glasses and three pitchers of an earthy blue brew. Unlike the other tables, theirs remained boisterous to the point of disturbing. They laughed and cursed and acted like they owned the bar.
As Atom sipped his tea, the men from outside the door returned and squeezed in around the table.
Atom scowled at the table, his mood foul.
Turning back, he rolled his shoulders and settled his mind. After closing his eyes for a moment he opened them to Margo’s stern glare. The look caught him by surprise and a chuckle eased more tension from his shoulders.
“Ease up, girl,” he sipped at his tea.
Setting the mug down, he knuckled her jaw. As he leaned back in his seat the waitress appeared at the end of the bar with an older man. Paunched and saggy, the man studied Atom before tossing a bar-rag over his shoulder and wading through the empty chairs like a swimmer through the shorebreak.
“I heard you’re looking for me,” the man gruffed as he whipped the rag from his shoulder and polished the spotless table behind Atom.
“Aye,” the man replied without looing up.
“You got a young girl that waits for you?”
“Anything odd happen when she got off her shift tonight?”
The man stopped cleaning the table and turned to look at the back of Atom’s head. Atom sipped his tea. He followed the man’s movements in Margo’s gaze. Without looking he nudged out the chair beside him.
The man drifted into the seat, a conspirator’s look in his eye as he leaned forward. “What do you mean?” concern laced his face.
“Did anything happen that stuck out in your mind?”
The man studied the table. His eyes darted back and forth as if he searched through a series of images in his mind. Of its own accord the man’s hand drifted to the table and he wiped at a ring left by Atom’s mug.
“Genny,” Margo tried the name out as she rocked back in her pram.
The soft voice jolted the man from his ponderings.
“What was it?” Atom set his mug down and leaned toward the man.
“Table with all the bokes,” Gims gave a slight nod. “Ever last one of them up and out for a smoke about the time Genny offed her shift.
“Least I ‘ssumed that’s where they headed,” panic filled the man’s eyes. “Is Genny a’right? Those ‘stards did’n do nothing to my Genny. If they did a’swear I’ll tear them…”
Atom laid a calming hand on the man’s arm. “But that’s them? All of them?”
Gims rose to his feet. His breath came in ragged bursts.
“Are any missing?”
Casting a glance over his shoulder, Gims leaned with a heavy hand on the back of his seat. “That’s all,” he sputtered.
Sipping his drink, Atom studied the boisterous crew.
“Go about your business, old man,” Atom set his mug on the table and rose to his feet. “Don’t worry about those bokes, you won’t be seeing them or me again. Look to Genny. Love on her.”
Rolling his shoulders, Atom grabbed the pram and maneuvered it from the corner. Like a cautious driver he hovered the pram down the narrow alleys left between the chairs and tables. Instead of heading directly for the door he detoured near the rowdy table.
“Gentlekin,” he called out over their raucous laughter. One by one they fell silent and turned their stony stares on the interloper. “I don’t suppose I could bother a couple of you to help me with my skiff outside. I’m having trouble raising my crew and need to get it running to get my goods back aboard. If you’d be so kind I’d be happy to buy the next round.”
Promise of payment shifted the mood and a pair of the men rose on unsteady feet. “Lead the way, guv,” the taller of the two slurred as he tried to smile.
“Obliged,” Atom knuckled his forehead with a meek bow and shuffled his way through the maze of chairs to the front door.
The men followed.
On the street outside the cool of the eve hit Atom with a refreshing wave of energy. He stepped to the side and let the men exit the bar.
They looked about in confusion.
“Where’s your skiff, gramps?”
Atom turned halfway back, addressing them without the dignity of looking on them. “What can you tell me about Genny?”
An unbidden smirk broke the tall man’s face a moment before Atom’s rail-pistol smashed into his cheekbone. Before the other man could react Atom snapped the pistol sideways and put a pair of rounds through his chest.
“Bleedin’ hell,” the freighter’s words whistled through his crushed face as he stumbled back toward the bar. “What’s wrong with your bleedin’ brainpan?”
Atom stood in silence, tracking the man with his pistol.
“Brovers,” the broken man whimpered through the door as he steadied himself against the frame. “That boke out there just…” he turned to point to Atom and a round slipped through his good eye.
A moment of silence followed before the crowd of rowdy freighters poured from the bar, weapons raised and ready.
Atom stood in placid contemplation of his pistol.
“What’s your malfunction,” the shift leader roared as he trained an auto-shotgun at Atom’s chest. The other dozen men held a ragged arsenal of cobbled, merchant ship weapons.
Atom stared them down.
As the freighters stood, shaking with adrenaline, their eyes filled with the blood of their companion pooling at their feet, the pram began drifting toward them.
“The name Genny mean anything to you?” Atom growled.
“Don’t mean nothing to me,” the leader shrugged. “Anything to the rest of you?”
A scattered shaking of heads and muttered negatives answered the query. Their weapons wavered as Atom glared through the men.
“Any of you remember a waitress you followed out? Short, slight, dark hair, she wore a black dress with gold flowers,” Atom paused as recognition lit on several of the men’s faces.
The leader, however, grew darker as Atom spoke. “What’s a servy to us?” he demanded.
“Obviously, nothing,” Atom spat in the dust of the empty street.
“You mean you killed two of my men over a bar-slut?” rage grew in the shift leader and he advanced a step. His shotgun shifted from Atom’s chest to his face. “There are a billion willing wendies all over the black and you decide to drop over this one?
“I’ll kill you personal-like,” spittle flew from the man’s lips.
“I wasn’t the doing, so much as how it was done. You didn’t give her much choice.”
“Why this one?” the freighter’s voice dropped to a hoarse growl.
“She reminded me of my daughter, Margo,” Atom nodded to the pram.
The freighters took a moment to register how close the pram had drifted during the conversation. A look of universal surprise mirrored on every face as the pram began to spin like a top. Before any could react, energy blades extended from the suspensors and began carving through the lower extremities of the panicking men.
Men dropped as their severed legs refused to support them.
Not a shot sounded from the merchantmen as they writhed on the ground, but Atom stalked among them, a grim-faced death affording the coup de grace even as the suspensor pram slowed in the midst of the bloody carnage.
As it resumed its previous hover, Margo looked up at Atom and giggled. Her hands clutched at the pram’s sides with white-knuckled tension, but joy lit her face.
Atom stood above the shift leader last. The man, in mild shock from the loss of his left leg, held up a hand to shield himself from Atom’s wrath.
“For innocence lost,” Atom whispered as the single shot echoed along the empty street. Without a backward glance, he holstered his rail-pistol, tucked his gun hand inside his coat and continued down the street. He pushed the pram along at a same strolling pace that had carried him to the bar.
Just before rounding a distant corner, he looked back to catch Gims creep from the bar to survey the damage.