Brenna R. Singman
One would not immediately suppose one could feel crowded aboard the deck of a gallant air ship such as the Naval Diametria whose attendance was limited to those with hard coin. The air whipped around the port side sails and sent Diametria gently listing towards a foggy mountain range that marked the edge of glorious New Victoria. Dozens of finely attired passengers pointed and chirped at the view from the observation deck. Women fanned themselves beneath ostentatious floral bonnets while men puffed haughtily on perfumed pipes and spoke of the brash laws only justifiable by the beasts beyond the Gharali Mountains.
A woman with her knees tucked to her chin wished she were out on the air again in a solo sky rider instead of traveling the mundane way with the Imperials. All of their empty-headed squawking and bristling was louder than the wind jets. At least they knew well enough to ignore the three women dressed in an unseemly amount of leather strapped holsters around their tucked objectives were plain, and royals need not dirty their hands.
Talina lifted her head to say as much, but received a stern look from her elder sister.
"I told you, girl. Folks don't cause no commotion on Imperial vessels," Botty answered the unspoken question as she tipped her hat to shield her eyes from the midday sun. She patted the large crate on the ground next to their bench with a delicate gloved hand. "The good doc ain't goin' nowhere."
"Or ain't he," their third grumbled and nodded towards Diametria's aft where two large gentlemen's approach blocked a glittering sea panorama. Not one of the three sisters would have thought twice about the men except for their keen eyes that witnessed the extra bulk and their twitching ears that heard a metallic twang with each footfall.
"Tommys!" Talina squealed with glee and leapt to her feet, the monotony of an easy bounty quickly subsiding. She slapped the train of her leather coat aside and snatched the pistol from her holster.
"Cut the steam trail, Tal," Botty said as she cracked her knuckles and lowered her goggles over her eyes. A gentle dent remained in her cropped hair. "We can subdue."
"Or chuck'em," Varshay added as she fitted a set of linked brass rings over her scarred knuckles. "Here they come."
As the bounty hunters assumed their stances around their prize, an explosion rocked the starboard quarter of the ship, decidedly too close to a propeller shaft for any of the ladies' liking. The ship rocked. It pitched the bounty hunters forward. Varshay kept her fists clenched as her bulk collided with the stomach of one of the automatons. Her shoulder stung as the two toppled into a warring heap. Talina and Botty leaned against the tilt, the first firing deftly with her drawn pistol while the latter shouldered a lean metal barrel previously strapped to her back.
The bullets charred the overcoats of the automaton as it strangely shielded its face. They had not known machines to care for such things as safety.
"I got it, sis!" Talina ran forward to the moving machine.
Botty rolled her eyes but sat on the crate. It thumped beneath her as she kept her gun trained on her target.
Talina jumped just as the automaton lowered its arm. She expected the sensation of her heel, now projecting a thin, electrified spike, grinding into a metallic cheek plate. Instead, her knee buckled. The spike sank smoothly as if through clay-or flesh. Talina crashed to the floor and held her ankle as the automaton withdrew a dripping hand from its face. Thick red blood dribbled down the brown skin.
Botty released two shots from her rifle in quick succession, releshing in their echo across the emptied ship deck. Each bullet tore through the jacket, but Botty gasped as neither shot stopped the creature's lurch forward. It barreled at her, and she dove out of the way before she careened overboard along with it.
"The bounty!" Varshay and Talina cried. Botty only saw the slicked leather boots disappear over the edge. All that remained of their crate was a set of scratches sliding up and over the railing.
A guttural, jolting laugh like a thousand bullets hitting a steam pipe churned in the air. The second automaton lowered its hood. It held no resemblance to any mechanical man they had seen, and their quarries could take them well past the Lisbenan Sea where most ore was mined. It bore the face of a man, but through its torn waistcoat there was an obscene amalgamation of man and metal.
In a bold stance, it too leaped over the side. A sound THUD told the hunters that it found its mark. A small metal sky rider rose up over the edge of the ship. Its tail gyrated, and the vessel sped out of sight towards the Gharali Mountains.
"What in tarnation…" Botty whispered.
Talina limped beside her, and Varshay after her. "Was that a Tommy or...Thomas?"
"Ain't human," Varshay said. "Ain't Tommies neither."
Botty clenched her fist, but smirked all the same. "Whatever they are, they've got our wanted doctor. In fact, they might be wanted themselves. Our bounty might've just tripled."
"Hey now Botty," Varshay interrupted. "I ain't in the business of making extra trouble for myself. Those things are bad news callin'."
Botty patted her sisters' shoulders as the ship shuddered and started a descent to the nearest port. "Any news for us is good news, little sisters."