A Taste of the Morpheus’ Comet

            The crew wandered.

            Atom wanted a feel for the land, but with almost seven hundred miles of ship to get lost in, they soon forgot they had landed on a man-made behemoth. From the moment their boots stepped off the cargo ramp and thudded on the landing pad, they stepped into a swirl of humanity that pulsed and throbbed with an intensity threatening to overwhelm their senses. The cityscape stood locked in perpetual celebration.

            From the gates of the dock the carnival atmosphere swept them into a surging tide that ripped them along.

            Soft lights and high ceilings festooned with streamers framed hovering globes of pulsing neon, like spirit orbs dancing to the thrum of music that spilled from every doorway. Wide streets swept from the docks like bejeweled fingers.

            The deluge deafened Atom. As he led the crew he cast a worried glance their way, lingering especially on Daisy.

            Bars, casinos, and entertainment of every description lined the road they walked. Hawkers yelled over the cacophony, promising earthly delights like Scylla and Charybdis vying for their souls.

            Atom guided the pram through the Straights of Messina, his feet wending a wandering a circuitous route through the outer fringes of the interstellar playground.

            Hovering banners flickered and flashed across their path, displaying words catering to the reader’s homeworld and images impossible to misinterpret. The banners paced the foot traffic, hovering just out of reach. The buildings rose several stories to scrape against the ruddy, synthetic skies. Somehow they projected the image of open space even when Atom’s mind told him otherwise. Each building captured the spirit of different worlds and wants.

            The foot traffic pressed in on them from all sides, forcing the group to walk in a tight bundle behind Atom and the pram.

            After a few minutes the press and noise faded in Atom’s mind.

            “This is quite the spectacle,” Kozue said in Atom’s ear.

            “No different than any other port city,” Atom replied in a hushed sub-vocal as his eyes surveyed and saw through the acting of the people there. “It’s quiet desperation looking to replace depth with quick pleasure. There’s a place for it, but it really doesn’t appeal to me.”

            “That a fact?” Kozue continued.

            “To easy to lose what’s real and important. It’s a good place to drown, but it’s only a quick escape.”

            “I think I want to get lost here,” Daisy called out over the hubbub as he ogled a variety of bars lining both sides of the street, intermingled with dancing emporia, gambling dens, and spas.

            “I’m assuming that the point of all this,” Hither replied. Her eyes scanned for danger.

            Margo sat in the pram, peaceful, but observant. The press of the street did little to affect her, but she weathered the jostling like a veteran sea captain.

            “Da, I’m hungry,” she called out, looking back at him.

            “Second,” Shi said with a grin.

            “You two are always hungry,” Hither snapped before Atom could get in a word. “It’s like we’re saddled with two teens instead of none.”

            “I’m growing,” Margo patted her stomach. “Da says.”

            “I’m almost teened,” Byron protested from where he walked beside Daisy.

            “And your diet backs that,” Hither replied with a motherly chuff as she turned sideways to slip past a group of drunken revelers singing their way through the crowded center of the street. “You live on rehydrated noodles and liquid energy.”

            Byron scowled. Shi just grinned.

            Atom shrugged. “My experience is three-year-olds eat or they don’t. Teens are too busy to eat until they eat everything in the cupboard and complain about there not being anything to eat. Ex-marines eat whatever’s handy. There’s not a whole lot of in-between.

            “We’re going to need to stop trading goods and just carry a hold full of grade- A foodstuff for these two. And for Byron if he ever decides to grow.” Daisy reached over and tousled Margo’s hair. He tried for Shi, but she swatted his mitt away.

            “I poisoned my spikes this morn,” she snarled in mock anger. “Ain’t no soul touchin’ ‘em and livin’.”

            Daisy gave a deep rolling laugh from deep in his belly.

            They wandered the street, bantering, their moods rising as they unconsciously fed off the festive spirit swirling about them. Eventually they reached a crossroad where the scene settled. The bars and brothels gave way to restaurants and shops at a hard, invisible border. While the area ahead lacked a residential feel, the boisterousness of the portside casinos seemed worlds away.

            The traffic thinned, but remained steady.

            Atom pulled the group to the side of the road.

            “I’m taking Margo for a snack,” he said as he looked around at the crew. “Kozue, find us a good place to stay and lock down rooms for all of us.”

            “Firm,” said the AI.

            “I haven’t told the client of our arrival yet, but they knew we were inbound. I’m assuming they’ll know we made planetfall … shipfall?” He cocked his head in puzzlement, then shrugged with indifference. “Either way, they probably know we’re here. They didn’t indicate any hurry to the job, so I’m assuming we have the first night free. Go see what there is to be seen, but try and stay out of too much trouble. I’m guessing we’re going to need all hands on this job. We’ll meet back up at whatever hole Kozue decides to dump us in.”

            “I always choose fine establishments,” Kozue said with a roll of her digital eyes.

            “Any which way,” Atom continued with a smile on his lean face. “Shi, you want to stroll with us and find a noodle shop or some other fine eatery?” He craned his neck to survey their surroundings.

            “Think it’s safe to split and wander?” the gunslinger asked as she glanced back down the way they had come, taking in the chaos of the revelry just down the road. “I ain’t got no desire fer what we strolled through, jist ain’t in the mood, but I could do with some vits. Don’t reckin y’all would do to well back there anyhow. Probably get nicked or rolled. Any way about it, you’d come out sans your ko.”

            “Why do you assume we would lose our money?” Daisy demanded.

            Atom grinned. “You’re too smart to need an answer to that question, Daze,” Atom said with a shake of his head. “Let’s try to keep the trouble to a minimum. No flying off. The kuza always run a tight business. I don’t imagine this would be different.

            “Stick to the well lit.” His grin faded to a scowl as he measured the trouble behind them. “If the three of you float together, you should be solid. Don’t forget we have ourselves a reputation the kuza might not be able to shield us from.”

            “Reputation?” Byron scrunched his face in confusion. “I t’ought it were just you, cap.”

            “Once upon a time. The Ticket’s getting a reputation. I’m not going to get my head inflated and expect the entire Hand is gunning for us, but I know for a fact the Walkers are too big a han to not have a bounty on my corpse. That rain of trouble trickles down on you.

            “And if you stick together, there’s a better chance you walk out of whatever flashy dive you choose, with your coats on your back.”

            “Fair,” Daisy grumbled and looked at Hither and Byron with wide eyed expectation.

            Hither’s shoulders drooped. “I’ll play big sister,” she said and glanced at Atom. “But you owe me. Next time we drop like this, I get private time to visit a spa and get pampered.”

            “Consider it done,” Atom replied.

            The group split. Daisy led Hither and Byron back into the maelstrom. Atom stood with Shi and Margo, watching the rest of his crew vanish into the wilds of humanity. They parted with the promise of meeting up for a nightcap at whatever inn Kozue pinged for them.

            “Keep eyes on them, Koze,” Atom said when he lost sight.

            “Firm, Cap,” Kozue replied. “I don’t imagine they’ll get into too much trouble with Hither along. Just the two boys would be another tale.”

            “I know,” he replied as he turned back to the quieter street. “Where to, Go?”

            “Noodles,” the toddler demanded, thumping her tiny fist on the lip of the pram.

            “There’s got to be a quiet haunt ‘round here,” Shi scanned up and down the four avenues at their intersection, looking beyond the inviting restaurants for something a touch homier. “Right or left, ain’t makin’ much difference to me.”

            “Left,” Atom said without hesitation.

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