Margo sat in the center of the empty hold, alone and playing with a rough metal doll Atom had cobbled together. With concentration she banged the doll on the rubber flooring and made the doll take impressive leaps into the silence of the hold.
A hiss of equalizing pressure escaped as the outer hold door slid open. Muffled by the inner door, the thumping of the intruders sounded distant. With military proficiency they overrode the locking mechanism and popped the seal on the inner door. A waft of foreign ship, sweat, and oil slid into the hold as the first pair of invaders crouched just inside the cover of the blast doors with their blaster rifles covering the room.
Margo looked up at the intrusion, curiosity lined her eyes.
Another pair, male and female, stepped beyond the first line in a low crouch. Their weapons swept the empty hold. All four paused to study the lone child sitting in the center of the hold, clutching her makeshift doll protectively.
“This is creepy, Cap,” the first soldier flipped on the personal shield hanging from his belt. “Somethin’ ain’t right.”
“I smell you,” the leader motioned for his soldiers to activate shields as he slid over to Margo. His eyes and rifle scanned the room in a constant state of motion. As he knelt beside the girl he counted the five hatches, including their point of access, two side hatches, a sealed blast door at the rear, and a final door at the top of a set of metal stairs above the blast door. “Venson, Crede cover the flank hatches.”
Without a word the second pair of soldiers drifted over to inspect the floor-level doorways.
The captain scowled at the shadowy, upper door even as he knelt beside the girl. His rifle never wavered from the dim recesses beyond, but his eyes flicked to the child.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he scanned the girl and determined no threat. He reached for the girl.
A shot rang out.
Archaic and loud, the gun drew a squeak from Margo as she turned to locate the source. Surprise lit the captain’s face as blood seeped from a hole in his chest. With a grunt he collapsed to the floor, staring in wonder at Margo as his eyes lost focus.
Blaster fire erupted from the five soldiers, focusing on the hatch above. Disregarding the colorful display of death, Atom stepped through the door with a long-barreled pistol in each hand. The energy from the attacking rifle bolts slammed into his shield, swirling with light before absorbing into the shield batteries. Atom squeezed off a careful shot and another attacker fell before the four remaining soldiers took cover in their doorways.
“You’re bleedin’ nutso, mate,” one of the cringing soldiers yelled from a side hatch. “If you miss, you punch a hole and then we’re all space dust.”
As the man spoke Atom made his way down the stairs, pistols at the ready.
“Then I shouldn’t miss,” Atom replied as he fired another shot, and the third soldier dropped.
Breaking into a sprint, he dove through the airlock hatch and before the soldiers could react he put a bullet in each of them. The first died with the side of his head painting the airlock wall, but the second lingered a moment with a sucking chest wound. Atom stood over his fallen foe and administered a merciful end before stepping back into the hold.
“Another step and she dies,” the last soldier yelled as he clutched Margo to his chest with his short assault blaster jammed to her side. Sweat beaded at his forehead. “We’re here for you. I can drop her at the nearest planet and let her live or I can drop her right here. Your choice.”
Atom eyed the man with disdain.
“She’s ready,” Atom growled. “As am I.”
Fusing childlike innocence and guile beyond her years, Margo reached down and tugged at the rifle muzzle. For an instant the man’s eyes dropped to the girl. Atom took the opening with a sweeping shot and the soldier lost his eye.
As graceful as a dancer, Atom stepped forward and lifted Margo from the man’s arms. Then the soldier sank to the ground.
“That proved impressive.” Kozue said.
“I trained my whole life as the Lord High Admiral,” Atom replied, looking over the corpses littering his hold. “It was my place to protect the emperor and take his head if the time ever came. I never failed.”
“I know this, but that doesn’t alter the impressiveness of what I witnessed firsthand.”
Atom grunted in thanks.
* * *
Atom trudged down the dusty road. The scent of the border world rubbed at his nose with a strange, dry rawness. Before him the struts of the second-hand suspensor-pram creaked as he pushed Margo over the rough stones of the packed dirt highway. The sound, consistent as a steam engine, lulled the infant to sleep and left Atom to walk in wind-framed silence.
Few other travelers moved in either direction, leaving the drifting warrior to his own thoughts.
The high-noon sun ticked across the sky, chasing shadows and casting a squinting glare across the hard baked soil. The air danced in the heat. It wafted in lazy swirls that kicked up more dust than relieve the heat.
As the heat intensified, Atom kicked up the power on the pram’s solar shield to keep Margo cool. Sweat trickled from his temple, but he ignored the temperature with stoic resolve. One step at a time, in steady rhythm, he pressed the pram up the slight incline cut in the desert hills.
A low rumble cut through the stillness and drew Atom’s attention. As he walked he glanced over his shoulder to find a heavily laden hauler rounding the foot of the last hill. Marking their progress he continued on his way.
When the heavy man-sized wheels drew even with the pram, the driver slowed the vehicle with a grinding of gears.
“Heyo, stranger,” a broad chested teamster gave Atom a friendly grin. Sun browned and dust caked, the man lifted a pair of goggles and squinted even as a hard looking woman craned her neck to see over her companion’s bulk. “Long way to the next steadholm, you plan on walking it?”
“If that’s what’s called for,” Atom shielded his eyes against the sun, but kept his long, even strides.
“Hold then,” the man braked the hauler with a quick screech that stirred Margo’s slumber. “We can squeeze in to give you a ride. No sense in keeping the little one out in this blazin’ sun longer than you have to.”
Atom stopped, but kept the suspensor-pram in motion, rocking it back and forth to keep Margo asleep. For a moment the tactic worked, but as the man opened his door with a hiss she sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes and staring at the newcomers.
“I have a few yelpers running around at home,” the teamster said as he dropped from the cab and stretched his back. The skinny woman shifted over to the driver’s seat. “How old’s yours?”
“Two,” Atom displaced the solar shield as he placed a protective hand atop Margo’s head and looked down into her eyes. “She says she doesn’t like you.”
“What?” the man cocked his head to look at Margo’s face.
“She says you stink of death,” Atom spoke without taking his eyes from his daughter. “Wrongful death.
“Children are pure,” Atom locked the man with a dark glare. “They see the spirit and sense what we have lost.
The man took offense and stepped back.
“It’s him, firmed,” the woman spoke for the first time, her voice harsh and low.
“Then it’s a good thing we happened across you,” a menacing smile creased the teamster’s face.
Atom remained still, one hand on Margo’s head and the other resting on the handlebar of the suspensor-pram.
“Hands where we can see them,” the man growled, his blaster staring a hole through Atom’s chest. “Move easy. The bounty’s too good to risk you.”
“For the assassin after Ronald Cheeber.”
“Cheeber? Who’s that?” Atom raised his hands as he cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
“High Elder of the Zhenhan,” irritation crept into the man’s voice.
“The name’s still unknown to me,” Atom shrugged. As he spoke he opened his hand to reveal a small disc. Without hesitation he thumbed the disc, sending out a blue tinted pulse in a tight cove that enveloped the two aggressors and their hauler.
Both teamsters pulled their triggers only to have their blasters remain silent.
Atom flashed a cocky grin as he drew his rail-pistol and punched a hole in the man’s chest. He fired two more shots in the woman’s direction even as the bulky teamster dropped in the dust, but the woman ducked back into the hauler. Tossing the spent EMP cartridge beside the body, Atom hopped on a skid trailing behind the suspensor-pram and hit a booster to shoot back down the hill.
The woman growled a curse and clambered from the cab to watch Atom’s receding form. Throwing her blaster to the ground she reached into the hauler and pulled out an archaic grenade launcher.
“Draw on me,” she muttered as she loaded a concussion grenade into the chamber and snapped the breech shut.
Below, Atom scooted away on the back of the suspensor-pram. Margo giggled giddily as he deftly guided the careening cart of the rough road. Looking back, he noted the gangly woman sighting down the barrel of the wood-stocked grenade launcher. Without hesitation, Atom reached into his jacket pocket and slapped a small, coin-sized disc onto Margo’s head. From the disc a foam bubble sprang, encompassing the girl in a dark foamy material.
The grenade landed to the left and the concussion knocked Atom from the skids. Without a driver the pram’s core sprang to life and guided the baby cart to a slow and safe halt.
Atom defied natural tendencies and struggled to his feet, trying to shake the effects of the concussion grenade. His eyes swam. His ears rang. Equilibrium squirmed away like tiny black snakes as he blinked to clear his head. Somehow he managed to stagger back to the suspensor-pram and using the handle to steady himself he drew his pistol and fired a few miscalculated shots in the rough direction of his assailant.
Above, the hard woman stood with arms crossed, watching as Atom regained control of the pram and began moving back down the decline.
The effects of the explosion faded as Atom once again picked up speed. He scowled up at the woman. For a moment he kept his gun trained up the slope, debating whether to waste another round. As he deliberated an instinct twitched in the back of his mind.
The woman remained motionless, watching.
Atom spun, his pistol tracking.
A neuro-stim net slammed into him from the side. With three-g violence he flew from behind the pram, pinned to the ground. There he writhed in pain as the net fired disruptive jolts through his body.
He lost control of his voluntary nervous system.
Gasping, Atom lay against the rocky soil, his fingers spasmed, digging into the sun baked clay as his back arched and he fought against the bonds of the restraining netting. Focus drifted as his eyes rolled. In snapshots of consciousness Atom watched four hulking figures emerge from the concealment of a rocky berm and approach.
Sky above, purplish blue. Copper-oxide clouds fell to his feet.
Puffed dust of metal footfalls.
Pebbles of shattered land.
Pain brought him back.
The armored soldiers bent over him, weapons trained. Atom watched with helpless frustration as they deactivated the net and tossed it to the side. Brusquely they flipped him over. Wrenching his shoulders they bound his arms to his side with self constricting ties.
“Why did you attack us?” Atom demanded, his speech slurred.
“You know, assassin,” the leader of the small troop spoke without emotion. “You will be judged.”
Atom regained enough feeling in his legs to launch himself feebly toward the speaker. The effects of the neuro-stim net lingered and the captain slapped him to the ground.
“Desist,” the captain sounded bored.
Atom eyed the make of the power armor, thankful the man had eased up enough not to kill him with a servo augmented hand.