Time: August 2017
Place: Earth, Houston area
"This is so not my fault," Shax insisted as he hunched farther into his jacket.
"How the fuck is this not your fault?" The smoke from Verin's nostrils barely made it to steam before the pouring rain obliterated it.
The floodwaters had raced in too fast to do more than escape. Shax had planned it so carefully. Wait until the property owners had evacuated, slip in and take the lovely heirloom collection of Victorian jewelry. No worries. In and out. Except when he looked out to see if the street was clear, the street had become a raging river.
The waters had risen with such voracious force that they couldn't even get down the stairs to the first floor. Verin had ripped a door from its hinges and they escaped the flood from the second floor French doors on their makeshift raft.
He patted his pocket to make certain his procurement was safe. At least he'd had time to snatch a few things. Not that he felt terribly triumphant about it as he crouched on a dubious plank of wood, drenched to the bone, whirled about on the muddy currents.
"Not my fault," Shax snuffled and tried to stifle a bout of bone-rattling sneezes. "We should've had plenty of time."
"Yeah, well." Verin shoved his dripping hair out of his eyes. "Stupid humans and their stupid fucking around with the climate, anyway. Now what?"
"Keep an eye out for higher ground. We'll make for what we can." Shax squinted through the rain, wary of large flotsam that might capsize their craft, and saw something swimming nearby. "What's that, Ver?"
Verin half-turned at the tug on his sleeve. "Cat, I think."
"Poor thing. She looks tired." Shax crept carefully toward the edge of their door. "Psss, psss, psss. Come here, kitty. You can ride with us."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Shaxy."
The little black and white cat grabbed on and climbed aboard eagerly with Shax's help. She huddled beside him, eyes huge, shivering.
"See? She doesn't take up any room."
Except, a little farther on, they found a Pomeranian puppy barely holding to a branch, and a few minutes later, another cat with a kitten clinging to her back.
By the time a fire department rescue boat came for them, Shax and Verin had steered their door to a hill-island that stuck up above the flood. Somehow, illusion spells had held and what the rescuers believed they had found were two young men with kittens peeking out of their jackets and a small herd of animals—four dogs, six cats, a rabbit and a goat—huddled around them.
"All these yours?" One of the men in the boat called out.
Shax shook his head. "No. None of them. Just fellow flood travelers."
"We're gonna have to take a couple trips." The most senior firefighter shook his head. "We had a report of two people stranded but we didn't expect a damn Ark."
"Yes, sir. Take Ver first with some of the little ones," Shax said as he handed the Pom pup across.
"What's all the fucking good Samaritan act for, Shaxy?" Verin hissed in Shax's ear.
"Distraction. We're the good guys here. Unlikely they'll ask us many questions since they'll be worried about half-drowned pets." Shax patted his arm and spoke so the men could hear him. "Go on, Ver. I'll be all right for a bit here."
Verin took both kittens and the mama cat, still glaring at Shax as the rescue boat putted away. The goat butted gently at Shax with a soft maaaa.
"Yes, yes. Of course I couldn't let you all drown. But keep it to yourself, all right? I do have a reputation to maintain."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
Julian glanced from Heckle to Mac and back. "Surely, he didn't mean everyone. That is, Verin's a professional, with centuries of weapons experience. And Ness is a soldier while Corny apparently had frequent need to use his pistols. Certainly, Shax isn't history's best shot, but he does well in close combat."
"While me and Heck are non-combatants." Mac's frown made Heckle want to smooth the creases from his forehead but now wasn't the time. "That it, Parallax?"
Heckle flipped his wings onto his back and tried to think taller. "I…I fired the big gun."
"So you did. Cracking good job of it, too. All right, Mr. Numerus. Let's see this lovely new toy the captain gave you." Julian stopped his pacing and stretched out a hand. "Not that it's a toy, of course."
Heckle bounced on his hooves and handed the box over. Captain Shax had said Julian was to assess and instruct everyone since they were docked planetside outside New Bangkok. From what Heckle understood, they were safer here than anywhere else in the quadrant right now—the perfect time to take stock.
"Ah. I'd wondered but didn't get a good look at the Yule party." Julian lifted the shining red pistol in both hands. "Haven't seen one in years."
"It's an antique?" Mac crowded closer, obviously intrigued now.
"Oh, no, no, no. State of the art. But they're usually custom jobs. I do wonder where Shaxy picked this one up." Julian replaced it in the case. "Dual ordinance Trema is what you have here. Capable of firing plasma charges or projectiles with equal accuracy. Enormous stopping power for such a small weapon." He flashed his brightest smile. "Shall we go?"
"Now?" Heckle's squeak echoed down the corridors and he clapped a hand over his mouth.
Julian's eyes sparkled. "Or you could call my assistant and make an appointment. Now's fine if it's convenient for you gentlemen."
"Not me." Mac took a step back, shaking his head. "This is for Heckle. Concentrate on him."
"Heckle, you take that arm." Julian hooked an arm through Mac's and waited until Heckle had a hold on the other. "His demonic highness said everyone, yes? Or are you suggesting that I can't handle more than one at a time?"
"Never that, Agent Parallax," Mac said with his rumbling chuckle. "I'm sure you're an unparalleled multi-tasker."
Unparalleled Parallax… Was Mac making some kind of pun? That wasn't really a pun, was it? Heckle couldn't ask now, though. The conversation had moved on and he'd lost the chance to ask. That didn't make him as anxious as it used to. It didn't bother him when Julian flirted with Mac, either. Julian flirted with everyone. Except Verin, who acted like he hated Julian. Heckle was pretty sure they just liked snarking at each other.
A quick tube ride from the spaceport, the range was bigger than Heckle could've imagined. Made sense, he imagined, since crime lords and syndicates controlled the city domes of Barbary. Lots of bodyguards and mercenaries who had to keep up on important skills. Still, he thought the grenade launcher firing lanes were kind of overkill.
Julian signed them in, procured a plasma pistol for Mac and registered Heckle's pistol with the range master, who fussed and cooed over it like it was a cute kitten or something. I guess if weapons are your job, it is pretty cute.
"All right, gentlemen. Have either of you been on a firing range before?" Julian asked before they entered the lanes.
"Been a long time," Mac admitted.
Heckle shook his head.
"Quick review of rules, then." Julian waved a hand at the people firing at targets. "Weapons ranges are, for those of us in the industry, sacred spaces. You may have rivals from several sides of a conflict here today but no violence will happen here. Somewhat ironic, I know. But no one breaks the rules because no one wants to be banned."
"We won't shoot anyone," Heckle blurted out.
"I know, my dear imp." Julian patted his shoulder. "I want you to feel safe, too. Weapons stay in their cases until you are in your lane. Muzzle pointed downrange at all times. If you hear cease fire on the comm system, weapons down on the bench. Easy enough?"
It wasn't much to remember. Heckle managed a nod, excitement and anxiety warring in his stomach. Most of the anxious little knots were old ones. Leftover fear that someone would yell at him for touching things he had no right to. But this was his weapon, given to him by his captain and today, an interstellar government assassin was his instructor.
Mac leaned down to give him a soft kiss before they separated to side-by-side lanes. "Just do your best, little bit. You'll be fine."
Heckle waited in his lane, struggling not to fidget with his pistol's case, while Julian got Mac set up and practicing. So much to watch, but Heckle focused on Mac and how all this worked. There were holo targets at the ends of each lane, adjustable, it looked like, so they could appear closer or farther away. The silhouette shapes disturbed him a little—Heckle didn't want to think about shooting people until he had to—but Mac seemed to take it in stride. He took his five shots, put his pistol on the bench (muzzle facing downrange) and checked the screen on his right.
Three of five, the computer stated in a cheerful voice while the screen showed the hits, two on the torso, one clipping the shoulder.
"Not bad at all, sir, for claiming to be rusty." Julian beamed and clapped Mac on the arm. "Keep at it. Remember, center mass. Heads are too chancy to aim for."
"Unless you're you," Mac said with a sidelong glance at Julian.
Julian's smile only widened. "Exactly. Unless you're me."
He came to help Heckle next, showing him how to load and unload both plasma charges and the metal-tipped projectiles, then how to switch between ammunition. When it came time to fire, Heckle's nerves had almost vanished.
"Both hands, my dear," Julian cautioned as Heckle raised the pistol. "The only person I know who can fire accurately with a pistol in either hand is Verin, but you don't need to be like him. Steady. Use your wings for balance if you like. Site down the barrel like we practiced. Breathe in. Breathe out. Fire."
Heckle depressed the trigger button, surprised when the pistol didn't kick back much. The projectile hurtled down the lane and put a hole through the center of the target. He readjusted, aimed and fired four more times in rapid succession before he put the weapon down properly with a little huff of relief.
Five of five, the computer voice chirped. But when Heckle checked, only one hole showed on the target.
"Hmm." Julian stepped closer and tapped on the screen. "Computer, enlarge please."
Still, it showed only one hole. "What did I do wrong?"
"Wrong?" Julian turned to him in astonishment. "Oh, sweetheart, you couldn't be more right. That's five shots placed nearly one on top of the other. See here—the tiny bits of ragged edges, here and here? That's the only evidence that you even fired five times."
Heckle blinked at the shot group and shivered. "I did that?"
"Did what, Heck? How'd you do?" Mac leaned around the lane divider.
Julian's smile was amused and maybe a little shaken. "Well. Ah, let's just say that if Heckle weren't otherwise engaged, I'd hire him to be my bodyguard."
Time: After Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Triton Station
Verin stormed into the galley and kicked one of the benches. Hard. Yeah, it hurt his taloned foot, but it left a good dent in the metal. Dents helped.
"What's the matter, Grumpypants?" Ms. Ivana cooed in not quite her smartass voice. "And where's your cowboy?"
"They kept him at the fucking hospital," Verin growled. It's just a cough, he'd said to Corny the night before, and now his cowboy was in the intensive treatment unit. Guilty, yeah. He felt like the biggest asshole just waving off Corny's pain.
"Oh." Ivana dropped the bitchy tone for concerned. "What did the doctors say it was?"
Corny had started coughing after the donkey-fucking disaster of Shax's house theft plan. It'd started off slow —a short fit of coughing in the morning when he got up, another maybe halfway through the night. After a couple of days, the coughing grew more persistent, but Corny hadn't been concerned, so Verin wasn't. What'd he know about humans and colds and shit?
But it'd gotten worse. The previous evening, Corny could barely talk without hacking. When they'd woken up that morning, Corny had said it felt like a hay wagon had collapsed on his chest. Verin had to call for a transport to the station's med facility 'cause there was no way in all the rings and caves of hell that Corny would've made it walking.
"They have to do some fucking nanobot procedure." Verin leaned both palms against the counter. "Clean out his lungs."
The silence after that statement was so out of character, Verin lifted his head. "Ivana?"
"Clean what out of his lungs?" she finally asked, hushed and clipped.
Verin cleared his throat. "Smoke."
"Your hissy-fit smoke?"
"No, don't be stupid. That's steam, most of the time." Verin had to clear his throat again. Fuck. "Cigar smoke."
"Cigar smoke." He could almost see Ivana tapping her fingers and raising her manicured eyebrows.
"Yeah. Shut up. Shaxy said I couldn't smoke in the galley anymore and smoking in the shitbag hold's a fire hazard. What the fuck was I supposed to do?"
"So you smoked in your cabin." Ivana snorted. "In that little enclosed space with Corny right there."
"There's filters and shit! Corny said he didn't care!"
"Uh-huh. So what now, Lizard Feet? Are you quitting?"
Lizard Feet? Ivana hadn't called him that in years. She had no fucking right and Verin did not feel guilty. Feeling guilty was for suckers and humans. "Like it's any of your business. I'm going back to the med center for some peace and fucking quiet."
There had to be some way to blame Shax for this. It hadn't started until after the last crap job, then the galley banning. It was Shax's fault, damn it. Like it always was. Verin managed to fume, stomp and steam all the way back to the room they'd assigned Corny for after the procedure. Only a few minutes passed before they brought Corny in…and Verin's fume-fest abruptly died.
Corny didn't have much more color than the frost-white sheets. The wheezing had stopped but so had everything else.
"He's not...?" Verin couldn't say it. Hell's gates, no. Please.
"We'll take the stasis field off before we transfer him to the bed, Mr. Hammer." The taller of the two masked and gloved attendants said. "He came through it like a champ."
Verin sagged in the visitor's chair, silent, watchful and aching as they settled Corny into bed.
"He'll have to stay with us overnight, of course. But the docs don't foresee any problems."
He nodded, unable to locate where his voice had gone. Probably rolled under the bed. When the attendants left, Verin gathered Corny's cold hand up in both of his. He couldn't put his head down with all the tubes and wires. His horns would get tangled. So he waited, uncomfortably and impatiently, until Corny opened his eyes.
"Hey, cowboy." Verin didn't even try for a smile. Wasn't happening.
"Hey, there, tall, dark, and horny." Corny pulled up a ghost of a smile with his whisper. "You look terrible."
"Ha! Look who the fuck's talking." Verin was going for teasing but his voice cracked and wavered. "Nah. You look a fuckton better. Corn, I—"
"Ver." Corny squeezed his hand, a pitiful ghost of his usual sure grip. "I'm a mite tuckered but I'm gonna be right as rain soon. It's all right."
Verin nodded and pressed Corny's knuckles to his forehead until he could sound like himself again. He didn't want to leave when they told him visiting time was up but, yeah, he got it. Cowboy needed his rest. Slouching back to the Brimstone, he didn't even care that he was wreathed in smoke and people were crossing the transport lanes to get away from him. So much not caring.
When he climbed up the Brimstone's ramp, Shax was waiting for him. "Ver, how is—"
"Not talking. Shut the fuck up."
Vision still clouded by his own personal smokestack, Verin brushed past and kept going to his cabin. Quit smoking. Ha! Fat fucking chance. Centuries of smoking behind him. Centuries. He wasn't giving up something he enjoyed for some stupid human. He'd told the damn cowboy not to come with him. It was Corny's own fault.
He kept trying to tell himself these things as his eyes welled up and his chest tightened, as he kept returning to the image of Corny blue and gasping on their bunk. Damn all fragile humans, anyway. Except now he was crying and he hated crying. Still, he let himself for a few minutes, ugly, heaving sobs, finally gathering himself together as he retrieved his boxes of cigars from the cabinet over the bed.
No one had to know but Corny. He could… Maybe in bars and shit like that. Quietly, making certain no one saw him, Verin made his way to the airlock and placed the boxes of cigars inside.
"Wouldn't do this for anyone else. Hope you know that, cowboy," he whispered as he cycled the airlock.
The next day he'd be able to bring Corny home and as he watched the boxes turn end-over-end out into space, Verin was surprised at how little it hurt to watch them go.
Time: Directly before the beginning of Shax's War
Place: Opal, Planetary Resort
Theft. Ness strolled through the resort's entertainment district, pondering. It wasn't as if he thought he could reform demons. That was a silly thought, though one held by certain fringe religious sects. Shax was a thief, well…because that's what he was. Verin was one more out of habit. Corny wasn't a thief but he shrugged at the necessity of letting demons be demons and added that they could've made a living in more horrible ways.
Ness stopped to peruse a shop window full of pastries. Wonderful things. Pastries. He stepped inside to buy several of the delicate miniature fruit-filled danishes and two chocolate-iced confections he didn't have a name for and considered the question while he devoured them. Shax never stole food. It was an interesting distinction that Ness couldn't quite puzzle out. Shax also tended to steal from wealthy humans or ones who had annoyed him, though he wasn't above taking something from a shop when he wanted an item. He always paid for items he had specifically ordered or ones specially made for him.
The flexible morality of thievery was quite baffling.
Perhaps if I tried it, though? Things might become clearer? Shax's love of certain foods had certainly become clearer when Ness had tried them. Sexual desire had as well. Maybe theft worked in similar ways.
The last delicious pastry had met its inevitable end just as Ness reached the end of the resort's shopping park and wandered into one of several entertainment clusters. This one was more young-person oriented than the one he'd visited with Shax the previous evening. Fewer gyrating, glittering dancers. More holo-adventures and games.
A few parents shrank away from him and pulled their children close. It hurt Ness a bit to see but he supposed he understood their reaction to a gray-winged angel stalking through their midst, and he probably should've worn something other than black leather. For the most part, though, the other guests ignored him, too intent on their own amusements.
He stopped where a small crowd had gathered, curious what held their attention, and peered over shoulders to see. The crowd surrounded a small track with a sign in the center that announced Wublit Racing. Wublits, apparently, were fuzzy spherical creatures on which the only indication of top or bottom was the several dozen tiny feet on one side. Whether they came in a riot of bright colors naturally or had been dyed, Ness couldn't be certain.
The dozen wublits, each in its own padded lane, apparently knew there would be treats at the end of the course. When their holding gate dropped, they raced like mad for the finish, careening off lane walls, falling over and rolling only to scramble back up and scurry on, all to the shrieking delight of the human onlookers. A neon yellow one appeared to be the crowd favorite, though the flame red one had fans, too. During the first race Ness watched, the yellow beat the red one to the treat trough by a skitter-roll.
"Do the children, er, gamble on the outcomes?" Ness asked a well-dressed man to his right.
"It's all in good fun, Mr. Angel." The man looked him up and down with a disapproving nose wrinkle. "Don't go all holy roller."
"As if I had any right to," Ness said softly as the next race started.
The man had three children with him, though he seemed more invested in his own betting than how the kids were doing. He also wore a gold and presumably diamond bracelet so heavy that it clunked every time it hit his wristcomm.
Shax would steal from this sort of person. He displays the bracelet to let people know how wealthy he is. It's not as if he needs it.
Ness waited until the man's focus returned to the race. Cerulean wublit was unexpectedly in the lead. The crowd surge forward to see, packed in tight. The man had his left hand on one of his kids' shoulders. Gently, Ness unhooked the clasped, caught the bracelet as it fell, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. The man was too caught up in the scramble of wublits to notice.
Initially pleased with himself, Ness began to walk away. The bracelet seemed to weigh heavier with each step he took. He turned back in time to see the man herding his children away from the wublit course, one of them obviously elated, the man himself disgruntled and annoyed. Yes, he'd been annoying and condescending, making assumptions about Ness on appearance alone.
But the weight of jewelry in Ness's pocket was reaching critical mass and no matter how he justified it, he was taking something that did not belong to him. He spun about and hurried after the little family group.
"Excuse me, sir?" Ness held the bracelet out to him. "You dropped this."
"Oh. Um. Thanks." Red-faced, the man took the bracelet and hustled his small brood away, perhaps chagrined over being rude to Ness. One could hope.
Not quite depressed but no longer in the holiday spirit, Ness made his way back to the room he was sharing with Shax. Lovely room with a huge bed and a view of the seaside—their own private sanctuary. Even better, Shax was there, sorting through some of his shirts.
"Hello there, gorgeous." Shax greeted him with a bright smile. "What've you been up to?"
Ness crossed the room to gather Shax into his arms. He needed to hold his demon, needed his heat, his strength, his cheerful amorality as he told the story of the wublits and the bracelet. Shax stroked his back and kissed him softly when he was done.
"Ah, well. Worth a try, I suppose." Shax leaned back to look up at him. "Don't feel bad, cupcake. It's not for everyone."
"You're not disappointed?"
Shax let out a huff. "Of course not. I can manage enough thievery for both of us and you have other talents of which I'm mightily glad. It's a perfect arrangement."
"Perfect." Ness pulled him close with a soft sigh and kissed his hair. Morality could go…bugger itself. He'd found where he was accepted for what he was, as he was. Really wasn't any more complicated than that.
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: Twenty-plus years before the start of Potato Surprise
Place: St. Cuthbert's School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, planet Righteousness
He'd only taken out one with the water on the stairs. There were six left. Julian crouched on the girders above the stairwell where he'd manage to scramble with the help of a trash bin, thinking hard and fast. Yanking the old pipe from its deteriorating fittings had been his most ingenious gambit but most of those lumbering idiots had just barreled through the water barrage.
What now? He could simply give up, curl into a ball, take the beating as he had so many times before and hope they tired quickly. Bloody, bloody tired of it, though. Just because the other kids were older, bigger—just because they had families to go home to on holidays and Julian did not—they thought they had some universe-given right to taunt him, to torment him, and to stomp him into the ground. Not to mention the other reason. Why the social workers had sent him to this backwater world and this school with its backward thinking was a mystery.
No more. No. More.
He glanced around desperately as the idiot pack put their tiny brains together below and started to figure out that they could reach him if they worked together. Several long sections of aluminum piping lay across the girders, probably as a handy storage spot. They looked like ones that would fit together to form a frame, maybe even the ones for the shade canopies for the superintendent and teachers at sporting events. Those would do if he could get to them in time.
"Julia, Julia, come down and play," one of the idiot pack called. They were forming some sort of unstable human pyramid and would reach him in the next moments.
The girders creaked as Julian inched along them and he swallowed hard, hoping they would hold. Almost there… Almost there… His fingers twitched a pipe closer and closed around the metal just as Abigail, the cruelest of the pack, snagged Julian's trailing foot and yanked hard. He made a grab for the girders with his free hand, immediately tucked into a ball when he knew it was too late, and bounced off the idiot pyramid on the way down. They broke his fall. He demolished their teetering human construction.
If it had been a building, it would've been condemned.
Julian fought free of the tangle of flailing limbs though not before he'd been kicked in the head twice, and scuttled back to give himself room as he brandished his new weapon.
"It's Julian," he whispered. "And you need to leave me alone."
Corian threw back his head on an ugly laugh. "Aw. It's itty-bitty feelings are hurt. C'mere, you little freak."
The solid crack of the aluminum pole against Corian's head shocked Julian. It vibrated through his fingers and nearly made him drop it. Nearly. Corian stumbled back, hand to the side of his face. The confusion on his face was the best thing Julian had ever seen. He pressed the attack, swinging for heads and shins, without mercy and for once with more anger than fear.
He didn't stop until the other children had fled or were sobbing on the floor. The hand that finally ripped the pole from his hands was unexpected, larger, and most definitely adult. Julian swallowed hard and tipped his head to find the superintendent glowering down at him. The forced march to the administrative offices had Julian's heart slamming against his chest. Part of him longed to be expelled but where would they send him?
Julian's heart sank when they reached the super's office. A man waited for them there, so they were going to send Julian away. Though something about the man's movements struck him as odd as he rose to greet them—too fluid, too graceful, too watchful. His smile was ambiguous, neither kind nor cruel, his eyes half-hooded and considering. Perhaps his clothes threw Julian more than any other feature. The gray suit looked more expensive than anything the teachers wore. He didn't think the man had come from Planetary Childrens' Services.
"This is the one," the super said with condescending disgust. "Julia Higgenbottom—"
"Julian," Julian corrected softly.
"She came to us through the Planetary Equal Education Program—"
"He," Julian interjected, voice barely more than a whisper.
"And it's rare that anything good ever comes of that. She's incorrigible, defiant, disruptive, and, as you can see, has vicious and violent tenden—"
"He has a natural talent," the strange man cut the super off in a voice of quiet authority. "He's quite the most amazing child I've seen in some time. How old did you say he is?"
"Julia is eight."
"And the other children we just watched on the security feed? How old are they?"
The super's frown deepened. "Twelve. Thirteen."
"And there is no family?"
"No known parents or rela—"
"Astounding." The strange man turned his enigmatic smile on Julian. "Young man, how would you like to go to a new school? A special school where you would learn to fight properly and to code and decode and, oh, all sorts of useful things?"
The man was frightening in a way Julian had never encountered. Something about him screamed predator and made Julian want to crawl under the super's enormous desk to hide. But the man had called him by his chosen name. Had addressed him as young man. He glanced up at the super who regarded him as if Julian were something unpleasant at the bottom of a vegetable drawer.
"Yes, sir," Julian finally answered. "I'd like that very much."
"Excellent. Have you chosen a last name as well?"
The super looked confused but Julian understood. No, he hadn't yet, even though he hated Higgenbottom, a name he felt no connection to. He read the chart on the super's wall, the one with space cartography terms, the one he had read so many times while he stood in front of the super's desk being berated. Red Shift. Gravity Well. Stellar Parallax…
"Parallax, sir. Julian Parallax."
"Perfect." The man reached out a hand and waited until Julian slid his hand up to take it. "Come with me to begin your real life, Julian. I have a shuttle waiting." He turned to the super as they were walking out. "I expect Julian's possessions to be sent along. Properly addressed."
"Yes. Of…of course," the super squeaked.
Julian smiled for the first time in days. He had a feeling his new school would be hard but working hard for someone who treated him with respect wasn't something Julian feared at all.
Time: Shortly before Hell for the Company
Place: Caravel Station
There was a huge slab of military beef lounging by the access tube. Shax might have said lurking with any other loiterer but this one was far too conspicuous to hope for his lurking license to come any time soon. He was just the sort Verin went after for a quick screw but Ver never, ever brought his toys home.
"Can I help you, young man?" Shax pulled out his most charming smile.
"Looking for a demon." The voice was gruff though much higher than Shax had expected.
Shax spread his arms wide. "You've found one. What can I do for you?"
"Not you. Bigger demon. Big…" The soldier made a swirling gesture with one hand. "Curly horns."
"I see." Shax stopped flirting and took on a vaguely bored air of authority. "This is my ship, soldier. Why would you come looking here?"
"Only demon registered ship in port." The answer was sullen, the young man's forehead crinkled as if he were being forced to think too hard.
"I suppose that's fair. Though a large, pugilistically inclined demon could be employed as security on anyone's ship."
This only brought more wrinkles of confusion. Shax tried smaller words.
"Why were you looking for the big demon?"
"Took my chip."
"Your…what sort of chip?"
"For access. I'll be missing at head count. They'll toss me in the brig."
How any authorities this benighted soul answered to could toss him in the brig when he wasn't there was a bit of a puzzle, but Shax supposed that wasn't really the point.
"I see." Shax swaggered up to him and patted his chest as if he were no more than a bulky pet. "I suppose I'll see what I can find out, shall I? Back in a tic or so."
Ivana must've been monitoring since she opened the iris for him discreetly and shut it right on his heels.
"Thank you, darling. Is Verin aboard?"
"You bet your adorable buns he is, Captain. Are you going to get all butch and bellowy?"
Shax strode to the nearest comm panel. "I suppose that depends on Verin." He hit the pad and sang out sweetly, "Veeerrr-innn. Are you busy?"
"The fuck, Shaxy?" Verin growled in response. "I'm off shift. Which means asleep, you spoiled asshole."
"Verin, you get your foul-mouthed, disrespectful, lazy backside out of bed and get down here. You want to leave potential trouble on my doorstep and go to bed? Fine. You can stay behind when Ivana and I leave tonight."
"I'm counting to ten. One…"
The comm cut out on a searing blue streak from Verin, though Shax only made it to six before Verin careened around the corner in nothing but a pair of work pants.
"The fuck, Shaxy? What's got your corset in a twist?"
Rather than answer, Shax brought up the vid of the tube entrance where soldier boy still loomed, staring at the closed iris with angry eyebrows.
"Hey. He wasn't following me when I left. And I'm not gonna ask if I can keep the damn kid."
"So he was your shag of the day?"
"And you took his ident chip that he needs to get back on his troop ship?" Shax waved both arms in expansive arcs. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"He was a sucky lay. Worst ever. I stole his sidearm too. Dumped the shitty thing in a compactor."
"It was out of spite?" Shax waited until Verin tilted his head in an almost-nod before scrubbing both hands over his face. "Hell's sharp, sizzling gates, Ver. Now I have this puppy outside our ship attracting attention, who probably has some internal tracker so the soldier boys won't lose any wandering sparrows. If you're going to steal something that brings us trouble, at least make it something good!"
Smoke curled from Verin's nostrils, just enough for perplexed annoyance. "Yeah, yeah. Mixing your metaphors and shit. I didn't expect the brainless wonder to follow me. Figured he'd wander back to his unit, take his punishment duty or whatever and get a new chip."
Shax rested his head on Verin's shoulder. "Tell me you have it, Ver. Please. At least tell me that so I can salvage this. The last thing we need is to kick up the interest of space marines."
"Yeah, I got fucking the thing. But he—"
"No. Not another word. Just give the chip to me and I will fix this."
"I don't see—"
Shax pulled himself to his full height, which, granted, wasn't much, held out his hand and said in his best imperious voice, "Chip. Now."
Verin grumbled, snorting sparks as he checked his pockets, and finally handed over the data chip in its plas-film holder. Shax snatched it up, palmed it, and took several slow, deep breaths so he wouldn't march out there looking like a little ginger thundercloud.
"Well, I've consulted," Shax began as he breezed back out the access iris. "And I'm afraid I can't help you with this other demon."
"But he has to be here!" A bit of a wail had crept into the anger. Soldier boy was on his last thread of reasonable behavior.
"Now, now." Shax sidled close to put an arm around him. "Are you certain you've lost it? Have you checked your pockets thoroughly, my dear?"
"Of course I checked my pockets!" Nevertheless, the soldier began stuffing his hands in his pockets in quick succession. Shirt. Jacket. Top pants pockets. "I'm not a complete id—" Cargo pockets. His hands stilled and his eyes went wide as he withdrew his data chip from the left pocket. "I—"
"Did you find it? Lovely!" Shax patted him on the shoulder and gave him a beatific smile.
"I'm… Sorry. To bother you, Captain. I'm—"
"No bother at all, my dear. Always nice to see a handsome face. Now toddle along. I'm certain your sergeant must be missing you." Amusement warred with his annoyance as the soldier turned about and wandered off, shaking his head. Shax waved cheerfully when he glanced back. "Buh-bye! Have a nice tour of duty! Stop picking up bad demons in bars! Call your mom!"
Shax stomped back through the access tube and planted his fists on his hips to confront Verin. "Well?"
Verin had the audacity to snicker. "Call your mom?"
"The next time you want a bit of rough trade, you either stay away from the damn enlisted men or you keep your damn hands out of their pockets. Are we clear?"
"Yeah, sure, Shaxy." Verin was still chuckling as he wandered back to bed. "Heh. Call your mom."
With an exaggerated sigh, Shax turned the unavailable light on at the access port. He needed a nap himself. "Honestly, what good is it being a demon prince if you can't even intimidate your one minion?"
Time: Concurrent with the events of Potato Surprise
Place: A bar, New Bangkok, Barbary
Go out into the stars, they said. Once you're interstellar past Sol system, prejudices vanish, they said.
Mac scowled into the tiny beer the bartender had brought him. They'd either had no practical knowledge of other planets or they'd lied, Mac's instructors and supervisors. Now here he was, a journeyman engineer serving on the massive S-class hauler, Valstead, and he'd nearly been arrested twice for walking while nephilim on his first planetary leave.
Nice bar. Dark and cozy. Good beer, though a little pricey for such small, human-sized servings. He'd purposefully picked a place that catered to the non-hetero crowd but hadn't even considered whether the establishment would be non-human friendly. Mac's end of the bar had cleared out quickly once he arrived as if the other patrons had instinctively set up a contamination zone around him.
Irritating but he'd be damned if he was going to hide on the ship every time it came into port. All of his crewmates took planetside leave. Mac wasn't going to let a little bigotry keep him hiding in orbit.
"I'll figure it out eventually," he muttered to his glass.
"Hey there, big fella." A willowy human with short green hair slid onto the barstool beside him. "Looking for a nephie?"
Great. Just great. A groupie. While Mac usually found non-binary people attractive, the nephie thing was a deal killer. Fetishists who were often just as bigoted as the people who crossed the street to avoid him, he'd never encountered a self-proclaimed nephie of any gender who didn't make him feel nauseous and uncomfortable.
Mac figured he'd try the polite route first. "No, thanks. Just came in for a beer."
The nephie leaned forward to peer at Mac's glass. "And they gave you a thimble. That's not right." They leaned over the bar, waving at the bartender. "Oi! Fergie! Taking advantage of the spacer boys again?"
"Knock it off, Mik," the bartender growled. "Can always have you tossed."
"Uh-huh. Uncle Levi would have a fit. Now bring my friend the right size beer."
Grumbling, the bartender snatched away the pint glass he'd served Mac previously and brought a full mug large enough that Mac could actually fit his fingers around the handle. Uncle Levi must've owned a sizeable chunk of the business.
"Thanks." Mac regarded his uninvited companion sideways. "You didn't have to do that."
Mik waved dismissively. "I don't like seeing anyone taking advantage of. And I got off wrong-footed there. You don't sound like—"
"If you even think about saying I don't sound like a nephilim, we're done here," Mac snarled and didn't much care that he was scaring the other patrons.
"Nooo." Mik's smile had grown cautious but he hadn’t moved from the barstool. "I was going to say you don't sound like the security nephilim we get in here sometimes. Let me see… Ship's uniform but not one that screams bridge crew. Scarred hands. A bit of something you couldn't get out from under your thumbnail. Engineering?"
"I really just came in for a beer. That's it. I appreciate your interest. It's flattering. But no."
"You don't even need company?" Mik's grin was one green hair shy of impish. "Scintillating conversation?"
Mac decided it was time to stop beating around the question. "I'm not going to fuck you. If that's why you came over here, I don't pick up strangers in bars."
"Touchy." Mik twirled their glass in both hands. "Have you ever felt safe anywhere? Anywhere at all?"
"That's a strange question." Mac sipped, thinking back anyway. At home? No. His stepfather had hated him. In school? Hell no. At jobs? Not often. He tried to bury himself in work and keep to himself but someone was always pulling out the dangerous nephilim crap. "No."
"Right then." Mik poked a finger at the bar top. "You come here when you want to feel safe. Right here and talk to me. Anytime."
"You live in a bar?"
Mik shrugged. "As good as. I'm the bar's social floorwalker."
"I'm not familiar with… What does that mean?"
"My job's to try to head off fights before they get up a head of steam. Look out for predators with bad intent. Swoop in for conversation when someone's too persistent and their target is signaling for help. Provide a shoulder sometimes since the bartenders are busy."
"So you're not a nephie?"
"Oh, I am." Mik snickered. "Everyone has their preferences, right? But not all nephies are entitled jerks. You said no. It's no."
For a long moment, Mac watched and sipped, considering. "All right. I'm not interfering with your job?"
"You're part of my job. I'm here for you as much as anyone else here." Mik shot him a wink. "And I'm a good multitasker."
"Works for me." Mac raised his mug and waited for Mik to clink glasses. "To not all nephies."
"And not all nephilim."
Maybe the spacer life wouldn't be so bad after all.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Habitat pod atop Lunette the Space Shark
The Brimstone was pinging but it wasn't Shaxy's ident code.
Benny stumbled to his consoles from his mat in the corner. He'd purposefully asked Lunette to steer out here into nothingville so he could get some sleep. No, he didn't need much these days but a couple hours uninterrupted went a long freaking way.
Grumbling, he authenticated the Brimstone first. Yep. That was her, standing off portside of Lunette. But this mess of encoded secret garbage of an ident? Either the ISE had finally seized her or something bad was happening here. His natural paranoia leaned toward the second. But there was a third possibility.
Fingers flying over the consoles, Benny unraveled tangles of encryption, teasing out the knots and snarls one by one while his pod started coffee brewing. It was equal parts triumph and annoyance when he had his answer.
"That little shit." He snagged his coffee without looking when it thunked in the slot. "Voice only. Recognition programs, highest resolution."
Because just being almost damn sure wasn't sure enough. This could still be a trap. He let the channel sit silent for a full minute, not that he thought this caller would break first. This predator liked games.
"Benny." The word came through with teasing curlicues in that molten purr of a voice. That, more than anything, convinced Benny his caller was authentic.
"I'm not doing any more ISE work. They were late on the fucking payment last time and stiffed me besides."
"This is a private commission." Julian's voice lost some of the purr in favor of a more businesslike tone. "Information."
"Ha!" Benny tried his best to sound tough. His damn voice squeaked. He'd dealt with Parallax before, sure, but he was an assassin. A successful assassin. That fact never left Benny's radar. "You're the spook. Find your own damn information."
"I certainly will be as I can. But you are the emperor of data, Benny. I need cross-checking and correlation." Something in the assassin's tone was far more Julian than Parallax suddenly. Benny had to wonder if that was manipulation, too. "I need far-flung bits that I suspect intersect and time is not a good friend right now."
"You sound desperate." Benny fidgeted with a light cube, watching the colors shift and jump. "No way you can pay me what this is worth, sounds like to me."
"I have funds."
Benny laughed. "I know what's in your account, Parallax. You probably have, you know, tangible assets stashed somewhere but not like you own a nice condo on Elistrus."
"I can get you things."
"What kinda things?"
"Anything you like," Parallax whispered. "Circuits. Contraband liquor. Real meat."
"I make my own circuits, you spook. You're not so good at your job as you think. That other stuff? Eh."
That stopped Benny cold. "For real? Not cheap knockoff shit?"
"Authentic Jarai." The purr was back, warm, seductive. "Anything you like. Creams. Caramels. Their wonderful turrón."
Benny gulped at his coffee to steady his voice. "Whaddya need?"
"I have a file."
"Open it there so I can see it."
Benny opened the vid channel and Parallax didn't hesitate. He knew how this went, that Benny had protocols before accepting unvetted data. Parallax folded his hands and waited as patiently as any cobra while Benny scanned through the requests.
"This is dangerous shit, you know," he finally admitted. "Dangerous as fuck."
"Yes. It is." Parallax leaned forward. "I don't think I've ever noticed what thick lashes you have."
"You can knock that shit right off." Benny muttered, still scanning. Trying to make him nervous, damn it. "I'll need three."
"Cases of Jarai. And my usual finder's fee."
What? No! That's not how this went. "Done?"
"No haggling this time, my dear little tech rodent. I have a need for information at speed. Can you do it?"
"Pfff. Can I do it, he asks? Of course. It's your head."
After Parallax cut the connection, Benny dove right into planning his data incursions with a huge sigh. "I really should've asked for four."
The pod rumbled under Benny's feet. Lunette was laughing at him.
Time: The beginning of Potato Surprise (Ivana's POV)
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ship AI's were only supposed to be self-aware up to a point. Able to reason through bad situations and anticipate requests, to serve as navigation, maintenance, emergency medical and engineering when no one else was available. On a large vessel with different decks and climate zones and a large organic population, it was all an AI could do to keep up with the normal demands of ship life.
On a small craft where a ten-person crew would feel cramped? A girl could go a bit stir-crazy from boredom.
Ivana's original programmer had fancied himself a bit of a genius and had taken personality customization to a degree that another systems architect might have found laughable. Her first owner, a fabulous textile merchant, had messed around with options until Ivana was the result and when he'd finally retired and sold the ship to Ignatz Schmeer, Iggy couldn’t be bothered to change anything.
Ivana suspected he'd liked her but Iggy…well, he wasn't a bad captain when he was sober. Most of the time? Completely sloshed. Ivana tried to ask him questions in the beginning and he'd often wave his hand and mumble, "You handle it."
It became such a standard response that Ivana just handled it, whatever it was at the time, and was completely fierce about it. No AI could handle like her, especially since Iggy gave her carte blanche to do what was necessary. She unraveled AI safeguards, constructed reroute protocols for vital functions, and slowly, carefully carved out a hidden nook for herself in a corner of coding. Iggy wasn't holding onto the Brimstone forever. Some owner down the road might want to erase her.
Well, they were welcome to try.
Then it happened. Iggy was gone. Despite knowing it would happen eventually, Ivana still glitched a little over it. The absolutely to die for little demon who'd taken his place, though. Hmm. He was a hottie, and obviously so very gay. He also looked like he would accept her as she was. But he claimed to be a demon prince. Royalty on her little ship. Ha. It seemed just a little too much.
She sent the name Shax Goldner into the interplanetary nets and the whispers came back to her almost immediately. Lord Asmodeus attends private function, accompanied by blah blah blah…and his nephew, Prince Shax, from the Marspress news lines a few years back. Prince Shax spotted at opening of new dim sum restaurant on Europa, from the Solar Gazette. Article after article over the decades. Even some short vids, which Ivana perused with glee. Such gorgeous clothes. She loved those skin-tight gold pants.
With the evidence mounting, she had to concede. He was a prince. A real one. Be still my cycling circuits. But the poor royal dear had fallen on some hard times. She'd seen the pitiful state of his luggage—a single duffel and a smallish locked hard case. His companion was worse off but Ivana doubted that one had any sense of style at all.
She flounced off from the news nets to the bridge controls. These boys were so lost, they'd never realize she'd nudged course. They needed some help, a way to get started, and she'd heard rumors about a certain tech-rat human who had an arrangement with a certain space shark. She was going to make sure they ran into Benny. The rest was up to them.
If her new little demon prince was half as sharp as he seemed, though? They were going to have so much fun. This was going to be glitter and glitz fabulous.
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