Atom stumbled through the gate behind the captain. Two armored figures flanked him close enough to make his restraints redundant. Behind them the fourth guard pushed the suspensor-pram like an adult pushing a child’s toy with reluctance.
Glancing over his shoulder, Atom tried to judge the guard’s expression behind the heavy faceplate. Atom guessed at distracted. Something in the set of the shoulders and long, loping gait indicated her mind wandered. Shaking his head at the lack of discipline, Atom dropped his gaze to Margo, who sat in her pram, taking in their surroundings with unnatural aplomb.
A broad lawn, a luxury in the sun-parched landscape, stretched away to a fairytale chateau. Up a long drive of crushed white stone the group ambled. Atom blinked away the sweat pouring into his eyes, wishing he could free a hand long enough to wipe his sodden forehead. In vain he tried to wipe his face on his dark jacket, but succeeded only in smearing his cheek and mouth with the dust swirled mud his sweat created.
Atom grunted. He scowled into the glare of the setting sun. The mansion seemed an eternity away, but he knew his planning time waned.
Casting another glance to Margo, he flexed against the restraints, only to have them constrict. Looking ahead, Atom calculated steps, anticipating the scene set before him.
Before he would have liked they reached the manse and rounded the corner to a sun-drenched patio where a portly man sat sipping any icy drink and talking to a young boy. The man raised his eyebrows as he looked over the approaching group. Then he waved the boy inside with a pudgy hand. Four soldiers in crimson power armor stood in strategic readiness, eyeing Atom warily.
Stepping aside, the captain of the guard halted the group.
The seated man dabbed sweat from his brow with a silk handkerchief and took a sip from his drink. He swirled the ice cubes as he examined Atom with critical disdain.
“So you’re the assassin? I am Ronald Cheeber, the man you were to kill,” he rose ponderously and paced toward Atom. “Tell me who hired you and I’m sure we can work a deal.
“You do work for money?” Cheeber fingered the collar of Atom’s worn, brown jacket with distaste. “I can double your fee.”
Atom eyed the well groomed man in steely silence. Cheeber stood a head taller, but Atom seemed unfazed. Instinctively, however, he shifted to place himself between Cheeber and Margo.
“What I offer could set you and your daughter up nicely,” Cheeber sipped at his drink again and leaned in close. “I could give you an estate to call your own.”
Atom stared past Cheeber.
“Tell me it’s not tempting,” Cheeber cocked his head like a fat bird of prey. “Just give me a name and you walk away a free man with more money than you can imagine. You could buy a new ship, or a pair.”
Both men turned to her, distracted by her interruption.
“What does she need?” Cheeber asked.
“A fresh diaper.”
“Doesn’t you pram do that for you?” Cheeber sneered.
“Couldn’t afford it,” Atom turned his back to Cheeber and stepped toward Margo. “Plus, she only lets me change her. Otherwise she throws a fit.”
Margo began to sob.
“Tell me what I want to know and I’ll throw in a top-line pram for you,” Cheeber placed a well manicured hand on Atom’s shoulder. “Ashland, take care of the child.”
One of the armored soldiers stepped forward and picked Margo up. Like an alarm she immediately let rip a long wailing siren cry. For a moment the soldier held the squirming child at arms length and Atom watched the armored fingers closer tighter around his daughter.
“Please let me change her,” panic tinged Atom’s plea. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know when I’m done.”
“Do it quickly,” he gave Atom a shove toward the pram.
At a gesture from Cheeber the captain released Atom’s bonds. The guards loomed closer, but Atom held up his hands in innocence. His eyes spoke calm as he walked back to the suspensor-pram and gathered Margo from the uncomfortable soldier.
At his touch, she soothed.
With the efficiency of a well practiced father he laid her in the pram and began changing the offensive diaper. Focused on his daughter, Atom relaxed and grinned down into her joyous face. In that moment their surroundings faded. Atom filled with love. Finishing up he snapped her jumper and lifted the infant to give her a hug.
Bouncing the little girl in his arms, he turned his attention back to Cheeber.
“So how did you find me?” he asked, changing tack.
“We have spies in all the major systems,” Cheeber returned to the table and refilled his glass from a sweating pitcher. “Information is passed any time it concerns the Zhenhan. A message caught in our filters alerting us to an assassination attempt in play, an attempt originating inside the han.
“Now tell me,” the portly man snapped around, pointing with his glass. “Who sent you? Give me this information so I can remove the cancer from my family.”
“A message wouldn’t have happened to fall into your hands?” Atom asked thoughtfully. “A message that read — assassin traveling with small child will make attempt on Cheeber — timetable unknown.”
Cheeber’s face dropped.
“How did you know?” he whispered.
Atom remained silent, lost in thought. As he pondered, Margo clambered around to perch on his back. And like an accustomed father he reached with one hand to clip her into a harness sewn into his jacket and the other he leaned on the suspensor-pram.
“I sent it,” Atom shrugged as he trigged a hidden switch and a single rail-pistol dropped from a slot into his waiting palm.
In a quick motion he raised the pistol and fired. A single shot slammed into Cheeber’s face, blowing out the back of his skull and driving the heavy body across the patio.
For a stunned second none of the guards moved. In that frozen moment Atom turned on the captain and placed two shots into his armor, one in the shoulder joint and the other in the side of the knee. The rail slugs punched through the weak areas of armor, sheering off limbs in a pinwheel of metal and blood.
The scream from the captain drove the other soldiers to action.
Atom, however, moved one step ahead. Like a tomahawk he threw the pistol at the nearest soldier and grabbed a second rail-pistol from the pram, even as the missile cut into the armor with the help of a laser driver cunningly fused into the pistol’s grip.
Spinning he fired a pair of shots at a third guard as she raised her auto-rifle to take aim. The shots slammed home in rapid succession. One shot deflected off the crown of her helmet, gouging a chunk of tempered plasteel in the process. The second shot drove through her throat, nearly severing her head.
Blood pumped and blended with the crimson armor as the guard sank to the ground.
Atom glanced around, assessing the situation before vaulting over a decorative stone wall. The thrown pistol, now embedded in the chest of the unfortunate soldier, melted a hole through the armor and detonated with a wash of lightening blue flame that knocked the remaining soldiers from their feet and tore into the façade of the chateau.
Before the blast subsided, Atom leaped to his feet and sprinted around the corner of the house with Margo bouncing gleefully on his back.
The five remaining guards regained their feet and gave chase with assault blasters at the ready.
As their pounding, metal-shod feet announced their arrival, Atom holstered his pistol and like a monkey scaled a trellis to a second story balcony. There he crouched and scuttled along a low wall to shadow the guards. Peeking over the edge he watched them trundle past.
Not waiting for the soldiers to discover their mistake, he dropped to the ground and brought down the two rearmost.
Slapping the grip against his thigh, he slid his pistol along the ground after the remaining guards, and before they could return fire it detonated, bringing the entire stone wall crashing down on top of them.
Atom sprinted back to the pram and retrieved his final rail-pistol.
With callous disregard he stalked back to the collapsed wall and dispatched the three guards as they struggled to disengage their power armor from the stone avalanche.
A new contingent of unarmored guards rushed around the end of the building as Atom stood triumphant atop the crumpling stone heap. They came up short, startled by the devastation. Training soon overrode their shock and they moved to surround Atom and Margo.
Atom flashed a malicious grin, a wolf at bay.
“All in a day,” he raised his pistol, letting it drift from figure to figure. “You can’t be tougher than the bokes Cheeber kept closest.”
Before a reply came, a dropship roared in over the chateau. The wash drowned out all sound and drove everyone back a step. Atom squinted up at the ship and did his best to shield Margo from the dust and grit thrown up in the air.
The ship settled on the lawn beyond the patio and an elderly gentleman disembarked. Holding his hat on his head he scurried over to where Atom stood.
“Stand down,” he shouted as the thrusters died enough to be heard. “This man is not to be harmed. He is under han protection.”
“But, sir,” one of the new guards stepped up beside the gentleman.
“No questions,” the elderly man brushed off his finely tailored suit as the dropship powered down, leaving the area in an eerie silence. “Return to your posts. This is an internal affair.”
The guard scowled, but following orders he waved the surrounding men away.
“The House of Zhen thanks you,” the gentleman bowed deeply to Atom.
Atom nodded in reply and walked back to the battered suspensor-pram. As he made his way toward the drive Margo waved innocently to the man. With grandfatherly sincerity the elder returned the gesture.