Silently, the pulsing spheres of blue light drifted towards Lyon and Mrs. Archard from the four corners of the room.
"Th-those aren't Josh!" Mrs. Archard gasped, clinging to Lyon in her fright. "What are they?"
"Ryland calls them 'hungry ghosts,'" Lyon said, even as she drew her railgun. She had no idea if it would be effective, a Photon weapon tuned to damage physical objects, but it was the only option she had. "The unusual Photon atmosphere created by the apparition's presence seems to have attracted them."
There were eleven of them in the room, which given their speed and the size of the residence suite was too many to avoid for long. Lyon fired at the nearest one; the shot connected with a small flash but she couldn't tell if it had had any effect. She snapped off two more shots and was gratified that the hungry ghost's movement slowed.
The problem was that the other ghosts' speed seemed to increase.
Lyon grabbed Mrs. Archard and half-dragged the woman with her as she dodged around the slowed spirit, launching a damage trap in her wake. The trap burst in a fiery wave that engulfed several of the pursuing orbs, and almost at once Lyon felt that terrible, dreadful sensation of need wash over her. Mrs. Archard whimpered in fear. Lyon shook the feeling off and fired twice more, stopping one of the ghosts that had dived at her just inches short of contact.
That's it, she thought, beginning to make sense of the ghosts' behavior. The shots from her railgun, the energy of her trap, these were both Photon energy. They were a different kind of Photon than that of her life or Mrs. Archard's, but still Photon energy nonetheless and that was what the ghosts hungered after. Being struck by Lyon's attacks helped to give them what they craved, gave them a bit of satiation, and so slowed their pursuit. The other ghosts could sense this somehow—who knew through what process?—and so came after them all the harder.
Escape was therefore possible, Lyon considered. They could make it to the residence door. The question of how far the hungry ghosts could pursue them out of the Photon-saturated atmosphere was a different question. Could they spread throughout the ship, endangering everyone on board Pioneer 2, or would they fade away?
It would have been convenient for Ryland to be there offering answers (and area-effect techniques), but he was not. Without information about the ghosts' abilities, self-preservation and protecting Mrs. Archard took priority. Lyon launched traps to her flanks to provide cover, and fired straight ahead to hopefully open a path. Still pulling Mrs. Archard along, Lyon ducked low and crawled under the slowed orbs in front of her. The door was there and she opened it, but just then two of the spheres dove at her, too fast to avoid. One engulfed the railgun and she released it at once; the weapon hung in the air in the heart of the spirit for several long seconds, then fell to the floor inert, the red light of its sighting bar gone.
The second spirit crashed into Lyon herself and rebounded away as a flash of light surrounded her. The symbols again glowed on her chest, then flickered and died; that protection was finished now. Lyon managed to pull Mrs. Archard out of the way of a third orb but now the others were approaching and she'd had to take a step away from the door.
She twisted away in time to barely avoid yet another attack, but this time it brushed against her and the effect was immediate and terrifying for the android. Her internal sensors registered not only the Photon drain from her energy reserves but also the hardware damage as certain Photon-dependent circuits were forcibly shut down by contact with the hungry ghost. A human might have screamed or winced in pain, but she did not feel any—what was the use, after all, of programming a damage response that further incapacitated the injured over and beyond the actual injury?—but there was no stopping the fear for her life. There would be no Reverser, no Moon Atomizer if these things swarmed her; they would snuff her out entirely beyond hope of repair.
Mrs. Archard, on the other hand, did scream when one struck her, and dropped to her knees. Lyon was still holding on to her, and the sudden force of her body falling tugged her off-balance. It was only a second before she compensated, but she wasn't a RAcast, its massive body near-impervious to ordinary blows, and it did take her that second.
It was enough.
One ghost just grazed the hem of her "skirt" while another took her in the back of the shoulder. The draining jolts were sudden and, combined with the aftereffects of the encounter with the Archard apparition, nearly fatal. She crashed to the carpet, "alive"—for the moment—but inert. The ghosts arrowed in towards them, wasting no time.
Then he was there, the apparition of Joshua Archard, hovering above the prostrate figure of his wife. For a moment Lyon thought that Ryland had failed after all and the situation had gone from bad to worse. Then she observed that the twisted expression of rage was gone from its face, replaced by worry. It thrust its hand forward, lashing out with more of the crackling bolts of violet energy. They surrounded the floating orbs like nets entrapping fish or a spiderweb being spun about prey. Then, one by one, the glow of each hungry ghost was snuffed out as if it were a candle flame and not a deadly spirit. At last they were all gone, and only Archard himself was there, hovering above the two women. He looked down at his wife, who met his gaze with wild eyes.
Then he, too, was gone. Mrs. Archard buried her face in her hands and began to weep.
~X X X~
"It must be a deliberate tweak," Lyon complained. "One of the pseudo-human behaviors in my personality program. There's no possible way the replacement circuitry in my shoulder is any different than the rest of my construction, and yet I can feel a twitch in it every now and then. It must be to simulate convalescence."
"After seventeen thousand meseta's worth of repairs, I'd think that a few twitches were a small price. This wasn't just damage to be healed by Trimate; your hardware was permanently compromised! It's lucky that Weinstine Co. settled the expenses on account of Mrs. Archard's claims."
"Well, Melissa Vair did engage in unauthorized Photon research on company time which resulted in injury to a government official." Lyon shrugged. Both shoulders moved perfectly. "That could have snowballed."
Above them, workmen slowly lowered one of the holoprojectors to the Guild deck. Only two pumpkins remained, and they'd be gone in an hour. Another Halloween come and gone.
"Maybe, although it would be hard to prove. I mean, essentially you'd have to establish that occultism and magic really have some basis in fact, then start drawing casual connections. Dr. Montague could possibly prove a basis for charges, but he's busy enough as it is dealing with life-or-death problems."
"Politics isn't about proof, Ryland. You know that."
"And at least Miss Vair was committed to psychiatric care, which she probably needs more than punishment."
"Probably," he agreed.
"And Mrs. Archard has had some kind of closure to the tragedy of her marriage's failure and her husband's death, since Archard came back to save her."
"It would have made a better story if Miss Vair had realized her wrongdoing and sent Archard's spirit to rescue his wife."
"You're sympathetic to her and wanted a happy ending on her behalf?" Lyon realized. "Why?"
"Well, Archard was the real 'bad guy' in all this. Mrs. Archard might not have been the best wife, and Vair slept with a married man, but it was Archard who cheated, who seduced a younger, obviously emotional co-worker. Why should he get to play hero?"
Lyon tipped her head to one side, simulating "looking at a person from a new perspective."
"I did not realize you were so sentimental about marriage, Ryland."
He blushed a faint pink.
"Well, I haven't really had many discussions with you on the subject."
"True. You should consider it, though. After all, you trust me with your life on a near-daily basis. It should not be much more difficult to trust me with emotional revelations." Even as she said it, a memory flag popped and she observed that this was actually one of the cultural differences between genders; customarily though not exclusively males found emotional trust more difficult than physical or ethical trust. How odd.
Ryland chuckled and unknowingly echoed her database's sentiments.
"Saying that definitely proves you're a woman, Lyon."
"Of course." She changed the subject. "With respect to the Archards and Vair, it's probably best if you don't try to assign any one the role of villain. As you organics so often do, they all made mistakes in their personal lives and have suffered for them, but there was no ill intent at the heart of it."
"At least it was an honest, human tragedy, not something spawned by Ragol. We don't see a lot of that."
"And you survived Halloween. Of course, you did spend prime trick-or-treating hours in the Weinstine Co. technical laboratory."
"I'd have probably just ended up with a bag full of Dimates."
"Lyon, you're an android. You don't eat sweets. For that matter, you don't eat."
"It's the principle of the thing," she said archly.
"Aha!" Ryland exclaimed.
"That's why you don't like Halloween! You're jealous because you're an android and you can't have any trick-or-treat candy!"
"I am not!"
"You are!" he laughed.
There was only one proper response to that. Lyon flipped his ponytail into his nose. He still got the last word, though.