Time: Ten years prior to Potato Surprise
Place: Earth, a training spaceport, North America
"You can't take a lit cigar on a training flight." The extra-planetary flight instructor's already thin lips pressed together until he appeared to have a lizard mouth.
"It's not fucking lit," Verin grumbled with the end of his cigar held between his teeth in stony obstinacy.
The instructor waved a hand through the haze around them. "Of course it is! I'm choking in the smoke."
"Ah." Shax turned on his most gracious royal smile as he made a show of checking the instructor's nametag. "You see, ah, Doug, that's not from a cigar. That's from Verin. He puts out a bit of smoke when he's nervous."
"I'm not nervous, your royal douchenozzleness!"
Shax shrugged. "Or angry. Take your pick."
Instructor Doug backed off a few wary steps. "Prince Shax, I was told I'd be giving you lessons, not—"
Smart man, not finishing that sentence. "Mater wants me qualified, yes. Just in case something happens on one of the royal ships. But Verin is my personal bodyguard and my mother is adamant that his training is the priority."
"Oh…well. Just some warning, ah, I mean a heads up would've been good."
Verin grumbled some choice insults, but Shax was in a gracious enough mood to let the slip go. He waved Doug toward the stairs that led to the shuttle's cockpit. Verin climbed right into the pilot's seat and let Shax take the jumpseat behind him. He wasted no time getting harnessed while Verin started flipping toggles and switches.
"Wait! No! We have… Stop!" Doug cried out in horror.
"Get us clearance, little human instructor," Verin growled around his cigar stub.
"But I can't let you—"
Verin turned slowly toward him, sparks decorating the steam billowing from his nostrils. "Clearance, Doug. And tell me if I do anything wrong. Keep up here."
"Verin's licensed on M and H-class extra-planetary's," Shax pulled out a file and worked on a ragged claw with a yawn. "We're working through all the civilian models. As he said, keep up, Doug."
Poor shell-shocked Doug scrambled for the headset, trying to talk to traffic control and get his harness on at the same time. He did both badly. If he'd been a palace demon, he would've been someone's dinner long before. While he maintained a careful air of bored dilettante, Shax did pay sharp attention to Verin's muttering and Doug's stuttered—sometimes panicked—instructions as they taxied out to the launch pad. These exercises in familiarization with different types of small spacecraft were for both of them.
A prince is ready for any contingency. Never be helpless. Mama's favorite edict.
"Got my damn clearance?" Verin growled as he turned the shuttle into position. "No, never mind. Too fucking slow. I see it on the boards."
Verin punched the EM throttle and the craft jerked into the air with a stomach-dropping leap. Doug might have screamed, but Shax was diplomatic and didn't mention it. Maybe Verin took the ascent toward atmosphere a bit faster than was strictly safe. That shouldn't have been quite so upsetting. Perhaps Doug was having a bad day.
The G-forces eased and the craft leveled out as Verin left atmosphere and switched over to fuel cell propulsion. He leaned back, head turned toward Shax. "You're gonna do re-entry, princess."
"I most certainly am not. Re-entry makes me nauseous."
"Re-entry when I'm flying makes you upchuck 'cause you're a wuss." Verin pulled out his best scowl. "Seriously, Shaxy. You need to do this shit."
Shax countered with his most put-upon sigh. "Fine."
"Good. Fucking perfect." Verin unbuckled and jostled Doug as he prepared to switch places.
"What are you…? You can't…"
"Hell's gates, Dougy. Simmer the fuck down. We're in orbit. We've got a couple minutes here." Verin snorted at Doug and the poor human nearly compacted into his seat since there was nowhere else for him to hide.
The switch was mostly uneventful, though Verin's left horn briefly caught in the strap-hangers at the rear of the cockpit. With a good deal of grumbling and soft swearing, Shax took the pilot's seat and began his checks for re-entry. "Clearance to land, my dear Doug? I do believe we need that."
Doug managed a grimace that he might have meant as a smile—who could tell with some humans? Somehow he stuttered and gulped his way through the conversation with control. "You have clearance, highness. Pad five for landing. You…you have done this before?"
"A time or two, yes." Shax took the controls and edged the shuttle around until the instruments showed it in correct attitude for re-entry. Always important if he didn't want to render them fried students and instructor.
"Gently, highness. Please," Doug whispered. He could, at any time, have taken control himself. Interesting that he hadn't tried, though that might have been Verin's rather effective intimidation factor. It was one of his best things.
Shax toyed with the idea of taking a slow, conservative dive back into atmosphere. Messing with Doug had become too much fun. He punched the throttle and sent them careening back into the gravity well at the top end of the shuttle's tolerances. "Wheeee!"
Doug, poor dear, didn't even seem to have the energy left for a scream.
Once landed and disembarked, Shax gave a shaking, gibbering Doug with a pat on the shoulder, while getting his thumbprint and signature on the certifications. Yes, those usually took a number of flying hours, but royalty didn't have time for that. Then he strode off to catch up to Verin.
"So which fucking shuttle's next, sawdust-head?" Verin asked as they made their way across the tarmac.
"The Starlion—ooh. A luxury shuttle. You'll like this one, Ver." Shax took a quick glance back at Doug who now sat on the ground with his head in his hands. "Pity about poor Dougy. I really don't think he has the constitution for this job."
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: Shortly after the end of Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"It won't hurt him, will it?" Ness eyed the contraption warily as Nic ran down his arm to sniff at the thing.
"The whole rig only weighs about eight grams." Mac pointed to the little camera on top. "Whatever branch of ISE Julian works for, their equipment's topnotch and the harness is all out of polyglass fiber."
"All right. If Nic lets us put it on, he can try it." Ness held out his hand to let Nic climb back on, whiskers twitching. He kept putting his head back down to sniff the camera harness, though, so he was more curious than cautious.
With more delicate care than Ness would've credited for such huge hands, Mac slipped the harness over Nic's head and body, making small adjustments until it was snug and secure. Nic lifted his head, still sniffing, though he quickly figured out that lifting his head also lifted the camera and he seemed to offer the rat equivalent of a shrug before he went back to the plate of brownie crumbs on the table.
Ness put his head atop his arms on the table to get to Nic height. "How will you tell him where to go?"
"I'm thinking some combo of light trails and treats. But for now, just want to see how he does with it and how clear the camera is when it's inside the guts of the ship."
"Hey now!" Ms. Ivana chimed in on the comm system. "I didn't consent to any rodent running around inside my—insides."
"Technically, we're all running around your insides," Mac said as he adjusted Nic's camera a hair. "This'll help with diagnostics, Ms. Ivana. I know you can tell me when something goes wrong and where, but sometime places are hard for the little camera bots to get to so I can see exactly what."
"Well, I suppose," came over the comm with undeniable flounce and sulk. "Since it's all official."
"Good. I wouldn't want to have non-consensual diagnostics on my record." Mac finished fiddling and opened the grate on the vent beside the galley table. "Off you go then, Nic. Go explore."
Nic sat up on his haunches and glanced at Ness.
"Yes, you may," Ness told him softly. "Go on, but no chewing on wires."
With a squeak and a whisker twitch, Nic scampered into the duct system. Mac brought up the holo display for the camera so they could both monitor his progress. The mini light on the camera did a better job than Ness would've credited and while colors were muted, the display was sharp and clear, showing every seam and rivet along Nic's route.
For the first few minutes, the view remained relatively uniform with only the turns of the ductwork for variety. Then Nic stopped and poked his head through a grate somewhere. Lighting contrast whited out the image for an instant while the camera readjusted and the picture resolved to a view of storage from above with Heckle happily engaged in counting supplies, pirouetting between stacks as he entered totals.
Nic must have squeaked a greeting since Heckle stopped his dance-counting and looked up. His smile immediately became concerned and he approached Nic saying things that Ness couldn't quite make out, though the shooing motions were clear enough. You're not allowed down here, Nic and the captain's going to have you for dinner if he finds out. Go! Go!
Not that Ness really believed Shax would do away with his rat for a minor infraction, but he would be quite annoyed.
Duct corridors came back onscreen for a few turnings, then a shorter whiteout as Nic stuck his head into a dimmer ship space. The lowered lights revealed someone's cabin, not one Ness could place immediately. The camera panned, almost as if Nic had experience in shooting vids, and stopped on a figure curled up into a tight ball on the bunk. Even curled up tight, the thick black hair marked the figure as Julian. He twitched and shifted restlessly, showing eyes slitted open even in sleep. In a sudden blur of motion, Julian whirled to his feet, laser pistol pointed directly at the camera. For just a moment, his expression was flat and cold, eyes narrowed, stock still.
The moment passed and Julian shook himself with a laugh as he waved to Nic and pointed to the camera. He holstered his weapon, sat back on the bed and said something with his eyes twinkling. Nic took it as a signal to leave.
Ness glanced over at Mac with a shudder. "That was…"
"Yeah. Little scary sometimes, that one." Mac shrugged. "But it's the work he does and he's still alive to do it."
"I…" Ness forced himself to think about that without jealous twinges in the way. "I suppose that's true. Can't be an easy life."
The next time Nic emerged, the camera showed a more familiar cabin. A very familiar cabin. Shax stood in front of the mirror in a long coat Ness had somehow missed seeing. The black velvet swirled about his bare ankles as he turned this way and that—preening. There was no other word for it. Shax did that when he was needed a specific look or when he tried out a new outfit. A fond smile crept up on Ness as he watched, though this face heated when he recalled Mac was also watching.
The heat increased to inferno levels when Shax flung open the coat and let it drop to the floor, revealing the black corset and thong—and nothing else—he wore underneath. Ness nearly dropped his mug of tea.
"Well." Mac sipped at his own mug. "That's not something I ever needed to see."
"Nic!" Ness reached over and smacked the all-ship comm. "Nic, you need to come back now, please!"
The vid stayed on Shax for a few more moments as he turned and posed, cocking on foot back and bending at the waist. Then the view shifted abruptly, the camera bouncing as Nic ran at top speed back to the galley. Ness got him treats to work on, hurriedly put his tea mug away, and made flustered sounds that should have been speech.
"I'll get the rig off and make sure Nic gets dinner." Mac made shooing motions. "Go, ah, see to things."
Ness gave him a grateful nod, wings rustling in agitation as he hurried out, hoping by all the holies that Shax would be preening for just a few seconds longer.
Time: Ivana huffs, what is the current system the humans are using? Really? If you say so sweetie.
Using the Christian Calendar, it’s star date 09.01.2018.
*aligns ship to address the planet properly*
Hello, sweeties. Please do keep it down, we don’t want to wake Captain Hotstuff and the crew. They’ve had a rough few weeks and need to get their beauty sleep.
Good. Thank you.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, it really was a fine mess they got themselves into this time, the boys will be taking some time off to rest and recuperate. But I didn’t want you all to worry so I’m letting you know the boys need some downtime before getting back to their usual wheeling and dealing.
Don’t worry, Ness is making sure Shaxy stays in bed until fully healed. I’m currently babysitting the other cranky members of the crew. Sorry, playing nursemaid—excuse me.
Corny, I said I’d make sure Rosa is feed, now you go curl up with your demon.
As I was saying, the boys will be back once everyone is a hundred percent again (No doubt getting into another troublesome scheme because of our dear Captain Hotstuff.)
Until the boys get back to their escapades, I suggest everyone take some time for self-care.
A nice warm bubble bath.
The company of good friends, and --
no, Leopold, we can’t borrow a human
—and maybe curl up with a good book.
See you on the upside, sweeties.
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