Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Corny pushed back his hat to rub at his forehead. "We're transporting what now?"
"Rats!" Eyes gleaming in unholy excitement, Shax tugged on his sleeve. "Come on. Help me get them up the ramp."
Some people were scared silly of rats. Corny had never been one of them, but in his past life, they'd been vermin, critters to keep out of feed for the cattle and the horses. Nicodemus was different, of course. Spacer rats weren't the same critters at all. Most times. Nic still got into the grain when nobody was watching him, the little varmint.
"Are they rats for science types, Cap?" Corny slowed as they neared the end of the Brimstone's loading ramp. "I might not cotton to the little troublemakers myself, but I'm not sure as I want to send them off for torture."
Shax blinked at him. Bless him, their captain looked honestly shocked. "Hell's gates, no. Oh, no, my dear DeGroot. These are special rats. Expensive rats. For pets."
"That's a horse of a different color, I reckon."
"To be precise…" Shax waved at the animal carriers waiting for them dockside, his grin just about taking over his face. "These are rats of a different color."
All right. Sometimes domestics take on different colors, like black and white rabbits, sure. Or like… "Holy moly," Carny whispered as he bent down to peer at the little screen on the carrier that let him see inside.
Rats scurried about, busy doing rat things and they looked like any dagblamed rats he'd ever seen except for the dang colors. Some were white, but with orange and blue polka dots or striped in green or purple like tigers drawn by three-year-olds. Some were ebony with red-tipped ears, feet and tails. Some were patterned in bright rainbow calico or brindled in eye-watering combinations.
"Pretty for sure you're gonna tell me those aren't dye jobs." Corny glanced over at Shax, who looked like he was trying hard not to laugh, damn him.
"No dye. Some genetic funny business and some breeding." Shax turned more serious. "Painted rats, they're called. These are expensive designer commodities, when it's all said and done. It's an easy haul for us for an obscene payoff, relatively speaking."
Corny didn't ask how much relatively speaking was. That was Cap's business and none of his own. His was getting the carriers loaded and secured for flight and making sure the critters got their feed on their big adventure in space. That first night out, he thought he was getting accustomed to them. Some of them were eye popping, sure, but they were kinda cute with their multi-colored whiskers. The second evening, though, he moseyed down to the hold to see to the cargo and got hit in the gut by a Very Bad Feeling.
The hold wasn't always empty. It was the only big space on the ship, so the crew played games and Ness held dance lessons there. Any of that would've been just fine. Not fine was Ness standing in the middle of the floor with his wings drooping and his hands wringing in distress.
Making certain his boots clomped on the hold steps, Corny called out, "Ness? You all right there?"
Ness still twitched despite the warnings Corny tried to give. "I'm…no. Not really. That is I'm fine, but…oh dear."
"What's happened? Anything I might can help with?"
"Shax will be, ah, upset." Ness pointed to the carriers—the open empty carriers.
"Well, shit," Corny grumbled. "How in all horny toads did that happen?"
Another twitch. "I don't believe toads were involved. I checked the security feed. It was Nic. He let them out."
That took a minute to sink in. "Nic. Our Nic? How do you reckon?"
"I'm not entirely certain how, but he puzzled out how to open the carriers. He did that, then appeared to be squeaking at the painted rats." Ness cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Then they followed him out."
Corny gave that a good ponder, too. He didn't stop to tell Ness it was impossible or any other such nonsense. If their security officer said a thing was, well, it was a thing. "Have you tried calling Nic? Doesn't he usually come to you?"
"He does. Though he might be where he can't here me." Ness checked his wrist comm. "So I've sent for Leopold."
"Huh. What's Leo gonna—"
Scrabbling claws interrupted him as Leopold came careening through the hold door and down the steps with his backpack on. Speak and the demon princeling appears.
"Papa Ness, I'm here!" Leopold huffed trying to catch his breath as he slid his backpack off. "Maximillian has come too. What has happened there?"
Ness cleared his throat again as Max swarmed out of the pack and climbed to his shoulder. "Our Nic has stolen the cargo."
"Nicodemus has? Maybe he just borrowed them? Always curious."
"He may have meant to borrow them." Ness stroked the millipede with one finger. "But these aren't spacer rats. They're not safe outside their carriers while we're in flight. Could you and Max try to call him, please? I think he may hear your frequencies where he can't hear my voice. I hope."
Leopold nodded and pulled his flute from his pack. While he settled himself, Max hurried back down to climb atop Leopold's spiny head. They exchanged a few notes, tuning Corny figured, before Leopold started playing a four-note refrain and Max began singing in his high-frequency voice, Ni-co-deeeeee-muuus!
This went on for seven or eight rounds until Corny caught movement in the far corner of the hold. Nic popped his head out from around the auto-loader and squeaked what sounded like a whole rat sentence before he came running to Ness. He tugged at Ness's pant leg, chittering like he had serious things to say.
"Could you bring them back, please?" Ness crouched down, speaking softly. "They can't do the things you do, Nic. They're not safe if we have to make any sudden maneuvers."
After one more squeak, Nic raced back to the corner and started squeaking again. This time a whole passel of rats followed him and dang if they didn't look like they were running in some kind of…formation? Damndest thing Corny had ever seen—rats in straight lines.
Nic raced ahead and climbed atop one of the carriers, squeaking in short bursts. The rats circled the carrier, still looking like troops on parade, and with each of Nic's squeak sessions, they reordered themselves. One bunch of squeaks had them sorted by color. The next one saw them sorted by pattern. The next had them in some fancy alternating thing that maybe only Nic understood.
Finally, Nic stood on his hind legs and squeaked loudly. All the rats broke formation and scurried back to their carriers. It took one shocked moment for Corny to react, then he hustled over to each one and closed the doors.
"All there?" Ness asked in an anxious whisper.
"Hold up. Gettin' a count," Corny said as he checked each carrier. Not only all there, but all back in the right container. "Yep. Got all the little scallywags."
Nic looked positively smug as he leaped to Ness's offered arm and climbed to his shoulder. "Please don't do that again, Nic. Not without someone with you. We want your little friends safe."
Ness sighed and reached up to pet Nic's head. "Yes, yes. Fine. You can be called the rat king."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
One hoof hop. One hoof leap over the square with the bolt in it. Two hoof hop. One hoof hop. Two. One. Turn. Come back the same way. Stop and bend to pick up the bolt. Try not to fall over.
"There you go, Heck. You're gettin' it." Corny laughed as Heckle returned through the squares grinning to hand the bolt off to Corny.
Corny took his turn more slowly than Heckle and without all the twitching of wings for balance. The long ship days of traveling between systems could get really boring, and Corny had suggested this game as a break from reading lessons. Before ballet with Ness, this probably wouldn't have worked. Actually, Heckle was sure all the one-hoof hopping would've been a disaster.
"What is this drawing?"
The voice behind Heckle made him jump and whirl. He hadn't heard Leopold come down the hold stairs.
"Is it some sort of floor plan? Layout for a job?"
"Nothing so serious." Corny completed his turn with a last hop. "It's just a game. Wanna try your hand, er, paw?"
Once the game was explained, Leopold gave it a try, doing his best to balance on one back paw and hop. He landed, wobbled, and plopped over onto his back with an exasperated peep.
"Well, now." Corny helped the hedgehog prince up. "I'm thinkin' since you got four feet and the game calls for a person to use half their feet, you should try two."
Heckle considered that a moment. "That sounds right. No one would ask Rosa to try on one hoof. Or Max on one foot."
"Don't think Rosa'd be keen on hopping more'n the once, anyhow." Corny pushed his hat back. "Give it a try, Leo."
Two paws worked infinitely better. There were still wobbles since the squares were spaced almost too far apart, and Leopold had to hit each of the double hop squares one at a time because of the spacing of his feet, but he came back with the bolt. Hedgehog triumphant.
They played through a round and at the end, Leopold held onto their marker bolt, tapping it against his paw in a thinky way. "It is a good game. Could we add more things to it? Make new obstacles?"
"I don't—" Corny tried to object, but Heckle had already picked up the chalk they'd used to draw the squares.
Leopold crouched beside him and between them they made snakes of squareish shapes and diamond patterns to work through. Soon Ness joined them, more than happy to kneel on the floor and help. The black holes were Ness's idea—filled in squares to jump over and if a player dropped the bolt in one, they had to start over. Wasn't too long before Captain Shax joined them, probably wondering where Ness had gone, and he added the innovation of circle squares, where the player had to hop on one foot in a complete circle within the lines before continuing.
Play started up again soon after with a lot of wobbling and hands slapped against the deck plates to prevent a fall—and some falling. Leopold played with intense concentration, though he finally decided that he couldn't manage the black hole obstacle. He jumped into the center of one and declared himself eaten. Captain Shax turned out to be ridiculously good at the game, which surprised no one, while Ness found his huge wings were sometimes more in the way than not. Verin strolled down to see what everyone was going, but declined to play.
He put a clawed foot in one of the squares, completely obliterating it. "Nah, too fucking dainty for me." Though he seemed happy to sit up on the landing and laugh at everyone's expense.
There was a lot of laughter and snickered cussing. The only casualty was when Corny's leg decided to cramp, which he called a charley horse. That made less sense than some of Corny's phrases did, but Heckle decided not to ask then in case everyone else understood it.
When they'd all conceded to Captain Shax and sat gasping and snickering on various crates and steps, Verin called down from his perch, "So what're you gonna call it?"
"I thought we should call it Hecklescotch," the captain called up from his spot leaning against Ness.
"Yeah? Why's that, genius?"
"Because the finished game is largely due to Heckle." Captain Shax stopped, his forehead crinkling. "And honestly? Shaxscotch just sounds ridiculous."
"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
Time: Just after Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone cargo hold, Carolus Spaceport on route to Opal
"I thought we agreed no more unverified fucking eggs, sawdust for brains!" Sparks flew from Verin's nostrils as he gestured toward the aforementioned alleged egg on the floor of the hold.
It was an odd one, if it was an egg at all. More of a rounded cube than an ovoid, striated as if it were made of granite, it had been lurking, er, sitting outside the Brimstone's hatch access. In the most logical, reasonable, self-preservation parts of Shax’s brain, he knew he shouldn't have brought it inside.
But he was curious.
"Don't look like no egg I ever laid eyes on," Corny drawled at his shoulder. "But then, I ain't exactly home no more, am I?"
Shaking his head, Corny turned on one of the adjustable spot lamps, turned it so it faced the ceiling, and ambled over to the egg.
"Uh, what're you doing, Corn?" Verin asked in a much softer voice than he'd used to address Shax. Typical.
"City demons." Corny shook his head as he picked up the egg and placed it atop the spotlight. The bright light rendered the shell partially translucent.
Shax leaned in with undisguised fascination. "There's someone in there, I take it?"
"I reckon so, Cap. Not sure what, but you've got yourself an egg that's fixin' to hatch, well, somethin'."
"Do you suppose we should keep it warm?" Ness cupped the egg in his hands, frowning at it.
Verin snickered. "You gonna sit on it, wingboy?"
"I may have feathers, but I'm not shaped quite right for that," Ness said in a too-even tone Shax couldn't quite parse as serious or not. Probably not, but Ness's sense of humor could evaporate when he was distracted. His wings flipped and fluttered as he gathered some hay from Rosa's feed bin and constructed a serviceable nest. This he set on the floor of the hold and turned the spotlight on it. "Should be warm enough, don't you think?"
"Probably won't need it long." Corny pointed to a crack started on the top surface of the egg cube.
All sorts of possibilities swarmed in Shax's brain and he knelt beside the nest to watch as the unknown eggling pecked its way toward freedom. Some little alien dragon, perhaps? Or an exotic reptile? A recognizable beak showed through the gray and white shell now, yellow and thick. With a heave, the eggling broke the shell in half and sat in the midst of the shards, breathing hard. It was just a ball of egg muck at first, but it shook itself…
Its covering—feathers, fur, hair—fluffed out all at once. Now it was a ball of purple fluff with a beak and, possibly eyes in there somewhere. Tiny talons peeked out at the bottom of the fluff ball, so there were at least feet if not legs.
"Aww." Corny tipped his hat back and crouched beside Shax. "The little feller's so dang cu—"
The force of the chirp soundwave knocked Shax and Corny on their butts and sent Ness staggering back a step. Verin, too sturdy to be knocked about by a mere bit of auditory shockwave, had still squeezed his eyes shut.
"Well." Shax decided sitting was a good idea and stayed right where he was on the floor. "That was unexpec—"
At least they were more prepared this time, though Shax was quite certain the sound could stop someone's heart. "Perhaps we should move ba—"
"Hell's motherfucking pointy gates!" Verin bellowed, hands clapped over his ears. "Get rid of that thing or I'm dropkicking its ass into the next century!"
"It's just a baby," Ness grabbed his arm to keep him from charging. "Don't hurt the poor thing."
"I don't care of it's a stinking cherub made of gold! Shax, don't just fucking sit there!"
Carefully, to make certain he didn't startle the potentially dangerous fluff ball, Shax reached for Rosa's empty feed bucket and popped it over the newborn whatever-it-was.
The mighty soundwave nearly knocked the bucket off again but Shax held tight. Contained, the sound was nearly bearable, though probably not good for the hatchling. What now, what now… Call spaceport security? Find a soundproof box? Before he could make any decision, a beautiful trilling song drifted into the cargo hold followed by one of the most gorgeous creatures Shax had ever seen. Not quite the length of his forearm, the creature flew on shining appendages that were more delicate fins than wings, trailing lustrous, decorative tails. Color was difficult to assign since it changed from blue to green to brilliant orange as it progressed through different bits of light. The closest analog he had were old Earth sea dragons, but that didn't give the creature justice.
It flew right to Shax as he sat entranced at its approach, then it turned and smacked him across his face with its several shining tails.
"Ow!" Shax sat hard, hand on his stinging cheek.
The creature trilled again and Shax nearly forgave it for striking him. Then it pushed over the bucket and fluttered around the hatchling.
"That can't be the parent?" Ness asked in an awed whisper. "Can it?"
The hatchling answered for them, bouncing on its stubby feet and calling pitiably in a tiny voice to the flying creature, cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, as if it had never produced sounds capable of endangering ships. The shimmering creature hovered close, gathered the peeping hatchling into several of its appendages and flew off out of the hold, leaving Shax on the floor gaping after it.
"Shaxy," Verin's growl was soft, all the more threatening for its lack of volume.
"No more unverified eggs or I snap your horns off and give them to a pack of stray dogs."
Shax accepted Ness's hand up and dusted off the seat of his work pants as he huffed at Verin. "Fine. No sense of adventure."
"Your sense of adventure might well get us all killed someday," Ness murmured. "And I agree with Verin. No more strange eggs. They don't seem to be good for you at all."
Time: Between Shax's War and Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok spaceport, planet Barbary
"Well." Shax sat back, drumming his fingers on the boards in the pilot's pod. "This is potentially disastrous."
"What is, sawdust for brains?" Verin muttered from the pilot's chair as he worked through their launch forms.
"Did you visit any demon bars in port, Ver? And if so, which ones?"
"None of your fucking business." Steam curled from Verin's nostrils at an accelerated rate.
"Hmm, yes. Normally I'd agree with you." Shax waved a hand at his view screen. "But we just had a health bulletin come in from city L&I. They've tracked an outbreak of volcanitis back to Tartarus, and I know you go there sometimes."
"Are you shitting me?" Verin surged up from his chair to lean over Shax and read the bulletin. "Aw, fuck. The bastards couldn't have sent this out before we were all boarded?"
"Apparently not. Are we screwed, Ver?"
"We are screwed to the wall with giant screws." Verin sank back into his chair. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
Shax hit the all ship comm. "My dear crew, we have a bit of an issue with takeoff. No panicking, please. Meet me in the cargo bay immediately."
"Really? You went there?" Verin snarled. "Now everyone's gonna fucking panic."
"Then we'll unpanic them." Shax flapped a hand at him. "Go, go. I just need to peruse details and I'll be right there."
By the time Shax reached the cargo bay, there were indeed signs of panic, raised voices chief among them.
Mac strode to the foot of the steps before Shax had a chance to descend and demanded, "What's this about an epidemic, Captain?"
That escalated quickly. "Nothing quite so dire." He decided to address his crew from the landing and set his hands on the railing. "We received a health bulletin regarding an outbreak of volcanitis this week. They've traced it back to Club Tartarus. How many of you have been there in the past five days?"
Nearly every ship denizen in the bay raised a hand, with the exceptions of Leopold and Rosa.
Shax pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Wonderful."
"What does this mean, love?" Ness took a step toward him, the trembling in his wings barely discernible.
"It means we're docked and confined to the ship until we've passed the incubation period. Corny, you're exempt. Humans can neither catch not carry this."
"What about Mac?" Heckle's voice shook worse than Ness's wings.
"I'm…not sure." Shax turned to address his engineer. "Mac? Any idea if nephilim are susceptible?"
Mac shook his head. "Don't know, Cap. Never came across an outbreak before."
"All right. So everyone except Corny is confined to the ship. Leopold my dear, that means you too. We have no idea if you'll be affected." Shax heaved a put upon sigh. "This mean three more days in port. Not a terrible hardship, but I was hoping to leave this afternoon. Anyone who comes down with symptoms needs to bunk here in the hold. We can't have—"
Verin made a distressed choking sound, turned away from his shipmates and spewed flame at the metal deck plates.
"Cabin fires," Shax concluded wearily. "Well, damn it, Ver."
"Not my fault." Verin sat hard on the deck, clutching his head. "Oh, fuck."
Everyone backed up as Verin let loose with another gout of fire. Corny held a hand out toward him, clearly uncertain whether it was safe to approach.
"Can we do anything, Cap?" Corny asked from his relatively safe distance.
"I don't suppose anyone has ideas about fire-retardant bedding?"
By the time Mac had found some insulation material that wouldn't burn and had set up a few makeshift pallets in the hold as far away from Rosa as possible, Heckle had collapsed to his hands and knees spewing small spurts of flame and Shax wasn't feeling terribly well himself.
"I'll, ah, sleep in the hold tonight, cupcake." He leaned his aching head against Ness's chest.
Ness stroked his hair and kissed the base of one horn. "I should stay with you, don't you think?"
"Only if you're starting to feel poorly, too." Shax glanced up at him. "You're not, are you?"
"Not at all. Maybe the virus doesn't infect the fallen?"
"I don't—" A sudden wave of heat and nausea warned Shax. He whispered excuse me, and managed to turn before flame erupted up his esophagus and onto the corridor's deck plates. "Pits. I'll just, ah, crawl to the hold. Ms. Ivana could you—"
Another column of flame escaped. Fire suppression alarms sounded. The system doused Shax in foam fire retardant.
"—hold the fire suppression," Shax gasped out, spitting foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Captain Hot Stuff. Didn't catch it in time." Ivana did sound sorry. She also sounded like she was trying not to snicker. "Didn't realize you'd gone literally hot stuff already."
"Do you need help?" Ness called after Shax as he crawled down the now slippery corridor.
"Stay there," Shax got out in a desperate plea as he tried to suppress the next fountain of flame. It didn't work. "Don't want to hurt you."
"All right." Ness agreed, then followed him at a safe distance anyway.
Damn Verin and his clubbing. Though they all went. Damn them all. And no one invited me. What the deuces am I saying?
Shax made it to the hold without setting his ship alight. He curled up on one of the empty pallets by the wall, fevered, miserable, and from time to time vomiting flame, which, frankly, wasn't much fun at all. Verin shivered and moaned through his own fever. Heckle's didn't seem quite as bad as he only hiccupped a few candle's worth of fire here and there.
While demon innards were relatively fireproof, it was still a miserable two days before symptoms and fever dreams subsided. Mac never caught it and neither did Leopold. On the afternoon of the second day, Ness joined them, though.
"You too, hon?" Shax whispered from the pallet that he had partially shredded to make himself a nest.
"I just don't feel terribly well." Ness let out an un-angelic belch. "Thought I should come down as a precaution."
"Sorry, sweetheart. I hope it's not too bad for you."
"I—" Ness hiccupped and belched again. Instead of the expected geyser of flame, pearlescent bubbles escaped his mouth and drifted peacefully toward the ceiling where they popped with little musical pings.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Verin grumbled from his pallet.
Heckle watched the bubbles with fascinated longing. "That's just not fair."
"It's not as if I'm trying to do it," Ness said with an exasperated sigh.
Shax watched another round of bubbles pop against the ceiling girders. Maybe it was leftover fever hallucinations, but he thought he saw sparks.
"Cupcake, if you don't mind aiming those at the floor, please?"
Ness shrugged but repositioned so his bubbles would hit the floor directly in front of him. Sure enough, the next ones hit the decking in showers of miniature lightning storms.
"Oh…oh, dear," Ness whispered as he lay down with his head hanging off the insulation. "There's two days of this?"
The tiny lightning strikes had become miniature thunderstorms with the next bout of bubbles, complete with about three seconds of rain. Shax rolled father into his nest, pulling the insulation up around him to protect against tiny lightning strikes. Living with a newly fallen was mostly wonderful, incredibly instructive, and never, ever boring.
Time: After Shax's War
Place: Planet Barbary, New Bangkok city dome
Heckle swung his hooves as he waited for Corny to come back from the counter. They'd come into the shopping district for, surprisingly, shopping. Things they couldn't just order from the dockmaster at the spaceport. Captain Shax had asked for a list of things for Ness's unbirthday—in place of a birthday since Ness had no idea when his creation day was—and Corny had needed a substitute for leather for tack repair.
By the time they were finished, they were both starving so Corny had found a place serving a meatless pulled pork that smelled wonderful. Heckle snagged a table for them while Corny ordered since the counter wasn't even close to imp-sized. The food stand was doing a brisk business and customers far outnumbered tables, which worked well since so many of the customers, probably locals, wanted takeaway. Unfortunately, not everyone.
"Oy! Mini-demon! Move along. You don't need that whole table." A large bald human—Heckle was sure he was a human by the scent, though his much bent and crinkled nose could've been a pit demon's—loomed over him, blocking the day-cycle lights of the dome.
Heckle didn't dare look the rude human in the face, but he did manage to stammer out, "I'm—I'm waiting for a friend."
"Then both you mini-demons can go sit your asses on the curb where you belong." The human's smaller, mean-eyed friend guffawed.
Even though he knew he risked being tossed, Heckle swallowed hard and stood his ground. "It's not—"
"Move along, gentlemen," Corny's softest, most dangerous tone came from behind them. "The little hombre got there first."
"Who the fuck are you?" Crinkle Nose turned on Corny.
"The friend he's waiting for."
The threat in Corny's eyes was hard and unmistakable. Both humans moved off muttering about the benches in the park being cleaner anyway. Corny shook his head and handed Heckle his share of lunch as he sat down.
"You all right, little bit?"
The confrontation had shaken Heckle down to his hooves. He pulled in a slow breath before answering, "They didn't hurt me."
"Not what I asked but good to hear."
Heckle dug into his lunch, which was spicy and warm. The food in his stomach steadied him, as it often did and he started to wonder about things. "Are humans or demons worse, do you think?"
It took three bites for Corny to answer. "Well, I reckon there's worse and there's worse."
"I don't know what that means," Heckle said as he shoveled up another forkful.
Corny waved his own fork around to include the other patrons. "Some people used to say that humans are half demon and half angel. That we have to fight all our lives against the bad parts of who we are if we wanna be good people. I dunno much about that. I do know that demons come in lots of types and some are bone-deep bad and heartless. Others are just, what does Cap say? Morally dubious."
"So humans come in different kinds, too?"
"Nah. We're all the same. Not like pit demons and imps and other hell critters. But lots of humans… Well, something goes wrong in their rearing. Or just in their insides. They grow up heartless. Still human. Just can't think beyond their own selves." Corny shrugged. "Demons just are what they are. Come to think of it, some of the things I've heard tell about angels have been pretty heartless, too."
Heckle nodded at that. Taking Ness's beautiful golden wings because he was in love? That had been shockingly cruel even from a demonic view of things.
"I'll cotton to not thinking everything Cap'n Shax does it right, but he's still got a heart. And Ver will tear you to pieces if he thinks you done him wrong. But his heart's still in there. That's what matters, I reckon."
The proprietor of the food stand bustled up then with a thundercloud frown. Heckle was sure she was going to tell them to leave. No imps allowed or something.
She plunked a takeaway container on the table. "Here, sweetie. You take that with you. I don't like seeing my customers bullied."
"Oh." Heckle blinked at the container. "Thank you."
But she'd already hurried off again and probably hadn't heard. He gathered the container close as they left the table. Heart. Heart was good. A full stomach was sometimes just as wonderful.
Time: 19th century
Place: Earth, United States, Oklahoma
"Gimme your pie, piggy." Randall sidled up to Corny like he was being all friendly-like. Corny wasn't buying that rotten barrel of fish.
He backed up a step and took a hasty bite of beef pie. Might be the only one he got. "Don't call me that."
"Talkin' with your mouth full. You are a piggy." Randall shoved his shoulder, not too hard yet.
"Leave me alone. You had yours." Corny tried to turn away for a second hurried bite but a hand snatched his pie away. He blinked up at Daniel who'd snuck up behind him. "Give it back!"
Daniel held him off easily with a straight arm to the forehead, laughing at Corny's flailing. He was quieter than Randall but meaner than a stepped-on rattler. Daniel took a slow bite, chewing even slower like he was savoring.
"Give it back! I'm hungry!"
Now the heavy shove came and Corny fetched up hard against the planks in front of the baker's where Mrs. Cathcart had bought each of the orphans one of the little meat pies from the new fancy glass case. Sister Catherine didn't approve, said it was spoiling them, but she allowed it since Mrs. Cathcart insisted and Corny guessed you didn't nay-say the mayor's wife if you were just a teacher at the orphanage.
He pulled himself over using the railing and sat on the stairs trying not to cry. There was never enough to eat. His stomach felt like a big old sinkhole and the pie had tasted so good. The older kids always took more'n their fair share, leaving the littles to scrape up what they could. The sisters never noticed or maybe they didn't care. Corny's ears had been boxed once already for trying to tell them. If he'd been smarter, he would've realized he'd only called attention, the orphanage bullies circling like buzzards since that day.
"Here." A tanned, dust-seamed hand moved into view, holding out a meat pie.
Corny braved a glance down at spurs and well-worn boots, then up to a weathered face topped by a broad-brimmed hat. He took the pie carefully, scared it was a joke and the man would yank it back. The cowboy was patient though, and waited until Corny had it secure before he turned and sat down with him on the steps.
"Y'gotta learn to be tougher, little hombre." The cowboy's voice was deep and growly. For some reason it gave Corny shivers, not like scared ones though. "Not gonna make it to bein' grown if you don't."
"They're too big." Corny stopped wolfing down the pie for a half-guilty, "Thanks, mister."
The cowboy shrugged. "I ain't so big neither. Never was. Weren't so long ago that boys were pushing me down. If you're smaller, you gotta be meaner sometimes. Lookin' at your feet, though, you ain't gonna be a small fry long."
Corny slowed down to eat like a human and the cowboy stayed until he was done. Then the cowboy patted Corny's knee, got up with a jingle of spurs, leaped onto his horse and rode off. Corny knew he looked like a stupid mooncalf staring after him but he didn't care.
"I'm gonna be a cowboy someday," Corny said to the now empty street.
"You can't be a cowboy, Cornelius," Sister Catherine said with a sniff as she bustled down the stairs, gathering her charges. "You don't even know how to ride. It's a dirty, disreputable job, in any case, where you'll meet nothing but dirty, foul-mouthed sinners. Nothing good ever comes from being a cowboy."
Corny nodded but he knew better. Boys ran away from the orphanage all the time. Maybe they didn't all get to be cowboys but he'd find a way.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
This bar is powerful blue. Corny figured it probably wasn't all blue, but all the glass and chrome with soft blue lighting along the floors and walls certainly created the illusion. Peaceful. Like being one of them mer people in stories, living under the sea and breathing just fine. It wasn't a fancy place, not like one Cap'n might take them to where he'd have to get all gussied up and strangle himself with a stiff shirt collar. But it was a heaping helping fancier than the bars they usually went to in New Bangkok.
Verin glanced at his face and snorted. "They won't toss us out, cowboy. Don't say I never take you anywhere nice."
"It is nice. Was just taking a gander. Pretty place." Corny bumped shoulders with him before weaving through the patrons to a raised table at the far end of the blue glass bar top. He waited until they were settled before he asked, "What's the occasion? Did I misrecollect a date?"
"Just thought a change of scenery…" Verin shrugged. Clearly, he was chewing on something but Corny wasn't about to prod at him. If he wanted to say it, he would in his own good time.
They ordered the usual—something toxic for Ver, a whiskey for Corny—and settled back to watch the patrons and talk about little things. They needed to get a new file for Verin's claws. Corny kinda liked doing the foot claws since it wasn't too far a throw from taking care of hooves and it was… Well, it was intimate. Taking care of your lover's feet. Not something he'd been able to do before Ver.
Ver swirled whatever nasty rotgut he had in his glass, watching the gray-green whirlpool with a frown. "You ever regret it, Corn?"
That set Corny back. "Regret filing your claws?"
"No, dumbass." Ver blew out a slow breath, smoke spiraling from his nostrils. "Coming with me. Leaving your own time."
A quick answer would sound like he wasn't willing to think about it, so Corny tipped back his chair and thought a spell. "I miss some things, sure. Riding out under the sky most every day. The smell of a cookfire. Waving grass that…looks like grass should. Guess that's true of anybody who leaves home. You miss little things."
Verin stared off across the bar, silent, sipping his drink.
Corny let his chair down, reached across the table and seized Verin's hand. "But I don't regret it, Hammer. Not for one second. I don't regret bein' here with you. I don't regret traveling to a time where I can hold your hand and no one's got a word to say contrariwise. Where I can—"
He broke off and leaned across the table to plant a kiss at the base of Ver's right horn. While he would've loved to get a real kiss, probably best not while Ver was drinking poison. Corny smiled as he smoothed the dark hair between Ver's curled horns.
Raised voices came from the other end of the bar, two people arguing in a language Corny couldn't understand. One had multiple braids of different colors, though the blue light made it hard to tell what colors. The other was covered either in green scales or in tattoos of green scales. Corny had learned not to assume about things like that. Braids shoved Scales. The bartender tried to calm things down but it looked like these boys were fixin' to fight like Kilkenny cats.
Corny glanced between the brewing fight and his demon lover, still sipping his drink. Ver was interested but he was slouched back in his chair, relaxed. Wouldn't be the first bar fight, and sure as shooting wouldn't be the last they saw, but so long as Ver wasn't reaching for his weapons, Corny wouldn't start worrying.
Scales had Braids by the throat now. The bartender was signaling frantically for one of the security demons at the door.
"Bets on the door goons getting there in time?" Ver asked with an evil grin.
"Five says the big demon gets there afore a punch gets thrown," Corny said, eyeing the action with more interest now.
Security waded through the crowd, hampered by their size. Braids kneed Scales in the balls, or tried to. Didn't quite connect since it just made Scales madder. He picked Braids up and tossed him down the length of the bar where he skidded to a stop just shy of Corny and Verin's table. Ver turned to Corny to say something but one of the patrons whose drinks had been bulldozed grabbed Braids off the bar and tossed him at the table. The poor table broke. Ver rose slowly from his chair, sparks shooting out with each breath.
"Just your fists, Ver," Corny murmured as Verin got up a head of steam.
Verin charged into the growing melee, going after the patron who had spilled his drink. She was a tough old bird and got in some painful licks before Ver flattened her. Not that it mattered. It was an out and out brawl now, fists flying without rhyme or reason. Corny sighed and waded in after his demon, keeping combatants off his back best he could. Wasn't too hard. When Ver got going, he was a one-demon wrecking ball. Best Corny could do was keep up and try to steer them toward the door.
He was so intent on his goal that he had to stop a second and reorient when they stumbled out onto the street. Sirens wailed in the distance. The riot raged on inside.
"Shame. Nice place like that. Best make ourselves scarce," Corny insisted as he steered Ver down the street. "All right there?"
"Yeah. That was great," Ver grinned and stuck a cigar stump between his teeth. "And you owe me five, cowboy."
Corny snorted. "I reckon I don't." He stopped in front of Verin and plucked the cigar out. "We said the first punch afore security got there. Weren't no punch till you threw one."
"Aw, c'mon. Technicalities."
"Nope. That was the bet. Fair and square, Hammer." He seized Ver's head between both hands and kissed him hard, right there in the street, which he could've never done in his old life if he wanted to keep breathing. "You remember what you asked me?"
Ver blinked a few times before he got out in a husky murmur, "Yeah?"
"I got some small wistfuls, Ver. But I ain't got no regrets." Corny dove in for another kiss, pulling Ver close with a hand on his ass for good measure. "Nary a one."
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked at Triton Station
Being in dock was positively restful sometimes, especially during night cycle. Ivana had time to defrag systems and maximize efficiencies when the ship was still. Sure, she had to talk to the station about certain things, but none of that took up much of her capacity.
She checked on her boys—and they were her boys, every one of them, and Rosa, of course, was hers too. Captain Hot Stuff lay asleep in his security officer's arms and wings. Shax looked so angelic when he finally slept deeply, never mind the horns, and it warmed Ivana's processors the way Ness curled around him so protectively. Her little demon pirate hadn't changed much since the first time her optics had fastened on him. Still the schemer, still the compact package of sex appeal and swagger, but a piece of him had changed. He was, what? More responsible now? In his own way, she supposed. He'd become a lot more captain than brigand in the past couple of years.
Verin slept on his back, snoring loud enough to rattle the deck plates. Somehow, his cowboy slept with his head on that broad chest, not bothered by the racket one bit. Maybe it reminded Corny of an old steam train. They'd had a rocky start, her and Verin. She was used to him now. Depended on him for many things, the grump. While Shax was the unstoppable force that impelled them, Verin was the gravitational force that steadied them.
Station: seals check
Brimstone: confirmed, within standard limits
Leopold slept curled in a tight ball in his fabulous nest of many colors, with Nicodemus burrowed in nearby. Nic officially belonged to Ness but he'd taken to sleeping with Leopold since it tended to be less active in Leo's cabin at bedtime. Maximillian slept nearby in one of the padded compartments of his play maze. Safer for him if anyone rolled over. Leo's posse—they had become that, and if anyone ever doubted that the hedgehog was a demon prince's son, they just had to look at his talent for gathering minions and his huge obstinate streak. Leo often did as Leo pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Brimstone: CO2 up .002%
In Mac's cabin, Heckle slept atop his giant lover, probably the warmest bed on the ship. The slow ride up and down with each of Mac's breaths seemed to soothe him, too, the little cutie. He smiled in his sleep as he did sort of a wriggle-snuggle. Heck had been another surprise, one Ivana would've gladly tossed out the airlock those first days, but her imp had hidden depths and he was lightning quick when you explained something new without yelling at him. Mac, for his part, could do no wrong in Ivana's eyes. She wouldn't have cared if he was a serial killer. Having a skilled engineer on board was just too lovely.
Brimstone: Delivery query 58674192
Station: 0600 confirmed, signature required
And her Julian, oh, her handsome Julian. She was glad to have him back for a while. He never stayed long anymore. Pity. Though this time, he seemed to have settled in for a stay. He whimpered and snuffled in his sleep, shifting until he had his back to the wall. Ivana wished she had hands to soothe him. Poor sweetie needed someone to sleep with.
Ivana hummed as she checked through station data. She wasn't supposed to be able to sift through the things behind firewalls, but Captain Cute Buns had set up some programming that helped her get around those nasty things.
Outstanding warrant: Verin Hammer. Civil disturbance. Simple assault. Assault with blunt object (chair.) Assault with blunt object (bar top.) Bartender tossing.
Really? That was a specific offense now? The warrant's date corresponded with their last visit. Oops. Surprising that station security hadn't pinged them on docking. Lazy ninnies. Ivana asked the system nicely to delete the warrant. The security system refused. She threatened selective data erasure. The warrant vanished without a trace.
Ivana gave a prim sniff. Nobody better mess with her boys.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Most nights, Heckle loved sleeping with Mac. Sleeping alone for imps wasn't natural. They grew up in communal nests and slept in imp piles even after reaching full growth. Sleeping with Mac was better than any overcrowded imp pile, though. The ship's engineer tended to sleep on his back with Heckle draped over him like an extra blanket, most often with a hand on Heckle somewhere and Heckle's tail wrapped protectively around that wrist.
Most nights? It was perfect. The heat, the closeness, the steady drum of Mac's heart under Heckle's ear. Except on those few nights when Mac had nightmares.
The previous night, Heckle had snapped awake to the sickening feeling of falling just before he landed with a thud on the floor. Thrashing and flailing, Mac had become a hazard and had unknowingly tossed Heckle out of bed. With a sigh, Heckle had crawled into Mac's footlocker and slept on the clothes and extra blankets there, which was fine. It just wasn't Mac.
He gave up on sleep in the early hours of the ship's day cycle and wandered to the galley for breakfast without waking Mac. His poor nephilim had spent a terrible night with his dreams and was finally sleeping quietly. Oddly, Corny and Verin were already there having breakfast, which probably meant they hadn't been to bed yet. Ship hours for a pilot could get weird sometimes, especially when the ship had to drop out of Copernicus space at off hours.
"Hey, Heck." Corny glanced up from his oatmeal. "All right there? You look a mite put out."
"I'm all right." Heckle climbed onto the opposite bench. "Ms. Ivana? Could I have a sausage, please? And some chilies?"
"Of course, sweetie. Be just a second." The AI chirped from the galley speaker. "You do look down in the dumps, sugar."
"I guess a little. I don't know what to do about Mac's nightmares."
Verin growled into his coffee before he set the mug down with a thump. "Everybody has nightmares, short stuff. You can't stop the fucking things."
Heckle nodded. "Right. Of course. It's just...I get dumped out of bed or kinda seasick when he has them."
"So wake him up," Corny said with a raised eyebrow.
Heckle shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "I, um, can't. I've tried. I shake his arm when it's safe to. I call to him. Nothing wakes him up when he's having a bad dream."
"So bite him." Verin waved a spoon at him. "You've got sharp teeth. Use the damn things."
"But…" Heckled stared at him. "I can't do that."
"You chomp on me to get me woke and you'll pull back a few less teeth, Hammer." Corny gave his demon lover a playful shove.
"Big talk, cowboy. Besides, you don't sleep through a fucking pin dropping."
"True enough." Corny shrugged. "Old habits. You reckon you know why he's got such bad dreams, Heck?"
"I don't know. He won't talk about it. I'd guess it's mostly stuff from when he was a kid."
A throat cleared from the doorway. Julian, far too awake and perfectly put together. Didn't he ever sleep? Didn't he need to? Heckle still wasn't sure how he felt about Julian. He was a killer, fine, but Heckle didn't hold that against him. It was his job. He was polite, quite, neat, could be kind, but there was something always…watchful about him as if he didn't trust any person or any given situation for more than a few moments.
Heckle didn't dislike him? He just wasn't comfortable to be around.
"I have a suggestion, Mr. Quartermaster, if you don't mind coming with me," Julian said with a soft smile.
Startled, Heckle shot a glance Verin's way.
"Go on, mini-minion," Verin grumbled with a jerk of his head toward Julian. "Parallax is an asshole but he won't hurt you."
Julian's laugh was somehow both bright and brittle as he took Heckle's hand and led him back toward the cabins. "I have a device that helps me sometimes."
"You have nightmares?" Heckle cringed as his voice squeaked.
"The nightmare having nightmares, right?" Julian gave him a conspiratorial grin before he sobered abruptly. "Oh, yes. I have them. About mistakes. About failure."
Heckle stayed outside Julian's cabin, shifting from hoof to hoof as the assassin retrieved something. When Julian reemerged, he put a curious object in Heckle's palm, a twisted shape of metal and electronics that reminded Heckle of a dragon.
"What is it?" Heckle blinked first at the device, then at Julian. "And don't you need it?"
"It's called an Ear Wyrm, my dear." Julian closed Heckle's fingers around it. "I can get another one. It goes around the outside of the ear like a cuff or a mini-comm. Certain repeated frequencies keep the nightmares at bay. It does have, ah, certain side effects, but nothing harmful."
"Oh. All right."
"Just have him try it. If he doesn't want it, just bring it back to me. I won't be offended."
"Thank you." Heckle stared at for a bit more, gathering his courage. "But the side effects?"
"It varies according to the individual." Julian crossed his heart in the ancient gesture of promise. "Nothing that will hurt him, I swear."
Heckle thanked him again and trotted off to the cabin he shared with Mac to see if his giant lover was awake yet.
The next sleep cycle, Mac fitted the golden ear wyrm around his right ear, took Heckle in his arms, and had one of the quietest nights of sleep he'd experienced in years, so he said. Heckle smiled as he trotted about his day. It had worked, they were both rested, and Heckle didn't have any butt bruises from smacking into the floor.
The only strange thing? Mac kept singing, Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do, all day long. Over and over and over…
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
About the Author