Flashing to the present Atom coughed. Novas exploded behind his eyes. Crumpled against the abbey wall he tried to gather his wits as they skated around his pan like twinkling fireflies on a hot summer’s eve. Willing breath back into his body he tried to shift, but darkness threatened to overwhelm him.
His last image before he slipped back beneath the surface superimposed a half-dozen grey frocked sisters gathering around him in concern.
* * *
“So where we floating?” Hither perched cross-legged in the navigator’s seat, chin leaning on her console as her absent stare absorbed the lengthy fingers of the God’s Hand Galaxy.
“Following a hunch,” Atom frowned at the pilot’s screen before him.
“Lot of black out there. How do you know we’re headed true?”
Atom spun away from the full spectrum port. For a moment he studied his long-time friend, taking in the soft curve of her neck as she leaned on her cupped palms. Her eyes continued to gaze out into the black, catching the light of distant stars and twinkling, twin emeralds in an ivory sea.
Atom stretched his neck with a grimace. “Just a hunch,” he flicked his eyebrows, expecting Hither to engage.
She only shrugged.
“Don’t you want to hear what the hunch is?”
“I guess,” she slipped her feet to the floor and blinked herself from her stupor. “I’ve always assumed if you had a hunch, it’s a good follow.
“It’s not like you’ve ever steered us into trouble before,” she rose and stretched her back with feline grace. “So, what’s this master plan of yours?”
“I didn’t say it was a plan,” Atom looked over his shoulder at the black.
“So, this ‘not plan,’ what are we doing?”
“Headed to Gomori Alpha.”
“The space station?” Hither yawned, studying Atom through slitted eyes as she covered her mouth with the back of her hand.
“It’s the closes refueling point.”
“So you’re gambling that Lilly didn’t bother to refuel before she got the drop on you?”
“Would you stop for fuel if you were rushing to see me on my deathbed and didn’t know how much time you had?” Atop hopped up. “And in my defense, it never crossed my mind that she might have a golem under her control. The last time I saw one of them was during the Bastet Insurrection when the emperor sent a death squad into battle.”
He stepped close to Hither and dropped his voice. “They terrified me, and they were on my side.”
“So what about this one?”
“I’m surprised I didn’t void,” Atom chirped a mirthless laugh. “I’ll have to figure out how to take her without that thing tearing our arms off.”
“Public setting?” Hither turned back to the black.
“That might be the best scenario. Do you think she would turn the golem loose?”
“Doubtful,” Hither stepped closer to Atom and with her arms folded across her chest, she leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’ve gone over everything we have on the girl and if I had to build her profile, I would spec that she avoids the eye at all costs. That golem is her last line of defense and she doesn’t show that card unless she has no other choice.”
“Then she expected trouble at the abbey?”
“She expected something. Whether that something was us or maybe Genkohan retainers, you’d have to ask the girl.”
Atom slipped an arm around Hither’s shoulder and squeezed her close.
For a time they stood in silence, admiring the depth of the black, losing them selves in the eternal silence. Atom calculated. He ran contingencies in his mind and trusted that his gamble paid in full. He hoped that love trumped common sense. If love proved true, the odds shifted to his side of the table.
“Kozue,” he said, closing his eyes and leaning a cheek on Hither’s soft hair. “Call a meet in the commons.”
“Will do, cap,” Kozue said in a chipper tone.
After another minute he let go of Hither and turned away from the black. “Come on, girl. Let’s go figure out what we’re going when we get to Gomori Alpha.”
Hitching up his gunbelt, he strode from the bridge with Hither trailing along.
“So, this job just took a turn for the interesting,” he dropped into the seat at the table with a dapper smile.
The rest of the crew sat around in various poses of disinterest. Shi slurped at a bowl of noodles. Daisy read a book on his pad. At the far end of the table, amid a pile of parts, Byron tinkered with a handheld explosion of wires and soldered bits.
“That a bomb?” Atom asked as Hither slipped into the seat next to him.
“Combo alarm-disarm plasma cutter, jib,” Byron said around the tool clenched between his teeth.
“As long as it won’t blow a hole in the side of my ship.”
“So we meetin’ ‘bout how you gotcher hind whooped by a lil’ girl,” Shi grinned and cocked her head with bird-like jerkiness as she slurped another mouthful of noodles from her bowl.
Atom frowned and rubbed at his temple.
“It’s true,” his words crawled out as he rehashed the events of the previous day. “From what we know about Lilly, or Genny as she was known on Soba 4, is that we can’t really expect anything from her.”
“So the rumor that she’s Ghost Tribe is true?” Daisy asked without looking up from his pad.
“Or is that what we have to expect?” Hither looked around the table. “If she’s a ghost then we know she’s capable of anything. I’ve never had any dealing with the Tribe, but I’ve researched them in my old job. The Tribe are masters of all things shadowy: assassination, subterfuge, espionage, theft, to name a few.”
“Don’t forget their focus,” the hulking pilot swiped a new page with a thick finger. “Once they accept a job, only death can stop them.”
“Soundin’ like somekin we know,” Shi finished her noodles and slid the bowl away from her. “If’n I din know better, I’d say our mighty cap hisself was from the Tribe. I seen ‘im bend every rule to comp a job.”
“So what if I was?” Atom grinned behind his fist.
“As long as I en’t yer contract, I’m ok with it,” Shi shrugged.
“He’s never changed how he’s looked,” Byron squinted at his project as wisps of soldering smoke wreathed his head.
“Maybe that’s my disguise,” Atom said.
Byron raised his eyes.
“So, a little girl beat me soundly,” Atom laughed and held up his hands in resignation.
“Do we know for sure that she’s from the Tribe?” Daisy set his pad on the table and turned his attention to the conversation. “Was this knowledge given to us when you took the job? If not, I don’t know that we need to continue down this path.”
“I took their money.”
“Can you return it?”
“On what grounds?”
“They violated your contract through non-disclosure,” Daisy leaned back and folded his arms. “You have the right to know what you’re facing if you choose to take a contract from any client.”
Atom pursed his lips in thought. “They mentioned suspicions, but no hard evidence. I could probably walk away, but at this point my interest has been touched.”
“A girl whooped me.”
“She’s from the Tribe,” Hither interjected.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Atom glanced to her.
“It’s looking that way. You build be a scenario where a girl, somewhere between sixteen and twenty-five, gets her hands on a golem and imprints with it.”
“What’s a golem?” Byron’s eyes danced from person to person.
All heads at the table swiveled to Byron in amazement. For a moment they sat in shocked silence. Then, like a pendulum, the heads swung to Atom.
“You’ve never heard of a golem?” he asked.
“Oi, I’ve ‘eard jibbers of golems, but that don’t rightly mean I know what they are, or ‘it’ is,” his voice rose as he spoke.
Atom nodded and slipped into lecturer mode. “The golem is an unholy melding of man and machine. They considered it a black space project, but that went out the window when the emp unveiled them at the Battle of Tokai.
“Essentially, they are soldiers who have died in battle and then been fused into their battle armor. If their brains survive the process their neural signature and consciousness is tied to the armor. They are no longer limited by the human body. Instead, a golem is as close to synthetic life as we have come to producing.”
Byron pinched his lips together, contorting them into elastic shapes as he turned the information over.
The others waited in silence.
“So, they’re basic bots wit’ brains,” he furrowed his brow. “Fourteen circs and I’m still bein’ learned new tids.
“I ain’t seein’ what makes these metal bokes somefin’ tougher than imp marines or deaf drones,” he picked up his soldering iron again and turned his attention back to his project. “Shouldn’t an EMP handle ‘em tight?”
Atom turned to Hither for help.
“They run on bio-energy and have been modified so that all their internal parts are bio-synthetic,” she said. “They function like an organism, not a machine.”
“That’d be a rough toss,” Byron remained focused on the tiny board inside his project. “All the strength of armor wit’ none a the weakness.
“An’ this biddy’s got ‘er ‘and on one,” he looked up from his soldering.
Atom shrugged. “The bigger question is how she imprinted with the thing.”
“If you say so,” Shi chirped. “I say it all boils to how we’re takin’ her on without that beast catchin’ us unawares.”
“Truth,” Atom nodded.
“So, what’s our next jump?” Daisy asked.
“Headed out to Gomori Alpha,” leaning back in his seat, Atom laced his fingers behind his head. “I’m banking on Lilly making for the nearest refueling station.”
“Don’t ya’ll think she’d anticipate us followin’ ‘er there?” Shi drawled. “Seems only logical-like that she’d be trying to cover ‘er tracks when she knows she just tussled with you back at the abbey.”
“Possible, but do you have a better path to follow?”
Shi thought for a moment. “Naw, I reckon the straight shot is the most likely course. Even if she’s pullin’ a skipper we’ll get a headin’ to follow.”
“Against the Ghost Tribe I’d imagine it’s easy to over think and over analyze actions,” Hither added.
“Agreed,” Daisy grinned. “This is like a cosmic game of pawns. When there are too many strategies in play to predict the opponent’s true intentions, it’s best to resort to the simplest steps. We take the simplest, most conservative steps until we can determine our enemy and their thoughts.”
“So Gomori?” Shi stared at her empty bowl, willing it to refill.
“We split up when we arrive,” Atom crossed his arms in thought. “She’s seen me and Go, but she hasn’t seen the rest of you. My thought is you pair off and we sweep the station.
“If you find her,” Atom paused to look around the table. “We go full back-up. I’ll help whichever group finds her and the other group finds her ship and locks it down. The last thing I want is for her to panic and call in that golem on a space station.”
“Good chance that turns into a death sentence for the entire station,” Hither agreed. “She most likely imprinted that golem like a hound. It’ll stop at nothing to protect her.”
“We have a day and a touch until we reach Gomori. Shi, you’re with Daisy and Hither I want you to pair with By. We’ll go light arms, nothing that will draw attention from authorities or the hans.”
“You up for this, cap?” Shi asked. “I mean with your pan thumped as such.”
“I’ll be fine, the medoc cleared me,” Atom hopped to his feet with a grin as the others followed suit. “Said I just need to rest.”
“Good to hear,” Shi focused on picking at her thumbnail. “Then now’s a good time as any.”
“Good for what?”
“Payback,” she looked up with a wicked grin just as Hither kicked Atom in the thigh with all of her considerable power.
The blow dropped Atom to the deck to writhe in pain, clutching at his leg. “What?” he managed to grunt between short gasping breaths. Fighting through the pain he tried to rise to his feet and only Daisy’s stone grip saved him from collapsing back to the floor.
“She won’t be as purdy as my shined eye,” Shi said with a flippant flick of her eyebrows. “But I’d say we’re squared.”
Centering himself, Atom watched as Shi and Hither strolled from the mess, chatting and laughing about the coming dock at Gomori Alpha. With a growl he shook his head and patted Daisy on the shoulder in thanks.
“Her shiner served a purpose,” he looked to Daisy. “That was just vindictive.”
Daisy shrugged. “Bruise for a bruise…”
“Makes the whole Hand purple,” Byron picked up his project and flipped a short plasma blade from the stock with a smug look of approval.