Time: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Location: Earth, North America
"You know this is all crap, right?" Verin grumbled as he chewed on the end of an unlit cigar.
"What is, Ver?" Shax dodged a man on a unicycle, caught up in the distractions of the carnival crowd.
"The fucking tarot cards, dumbass. Those damn cards aren't any more mystical than my left nut. We used to use the same damn deck to cheat humans out of their gold."
Shax nudged Verin with an elbow. "And here I thought your left nut was just a little heavier." He ducked the cuff to his head and laughed. "It's not the cards, Ver, or the pictures on them. You could draw cards with flying pigs and baby vampire bunnies on them and it could still work."
"I'd pay to see that."
"Ha. Yes, actually, that would be fun. But it's all in the emotive energy invested, the psychic will of the reader and the subject. The cards themselves don’t matter, as long as you've assigned them meaning."
Verin's sigh carried a double curl of smoke. "If you say so, your all-knowing highness."
Their goal was at the far end of the carnival, beyond the brightest of the lights. Shax pulled Verin out of the way of a stilt walker—Ver would've happily let the man crash into him and topple over—and hurried them along. The tent at the end of the fairway was different from the larger tents, more of a yurt shape and hung with long tassels that gesticulated languidly in the breeze.
Shax stopped in the doorway to appreciate the artistry of the scene—the dark silks, the cinnamon and cardamom scent drifting from within, the soft red-tinged glow that beckoned the curious seeker. Well done, indeed. He pushed through the curtains, Verin's steam laden breath just behind him, a comfort and a distraction since he knew Verin well enough to know his companion wouldn't leave his skepticism at the door.
"Welcome, Highness," a genderless voice said from behind a velvet draped table. Black veils shrouded the figure, giving only an impression of a face, with the only visible physical attributes the elegant hands with their red lacquered nails.
"You know me?" Shax asked as he swaggered in.
"Not by name. Though Hell's courts are known to me. I know royalty when it's in my presence."
"Excellent." He took the chair opposite the tarot reader and set his hands flat on the table. "Then we shouldn't need preliminaries. I'd like a reading, please. Short-term future. The next year or two."
"You should have a more comprehensive one, Highness. It would be in your best interests."
"I'm sure it would, since it would be more expensive," Shax gave them a warm smile to show he didn't at all resent a bit of huckstering. "Just the immediate future, please."
The reader tipped their head in a sideways nod and handed the deck of cards to Shax. "Look them over. Let them know you."
The cards were, as so often with tarot decks, a bit larger than playing cards and a bit clumsy to fan out. Shax's eyebrows went up as he examined this particular deck, which wasn't at all usual. Instead of the normal suits and Major Arcana, all the symbolism on these cards was ornithological. No wands, pentacles, cups and swords here from the Rider deck, nor the discs of the Crowley Thoth. Instead, the suits appeared to be eggs, feathers, claws and…chickens? He might have been able to puzzle out the Major Arcana eventually, but they were all unfamiliar, each one a beautiful bird painting.
"What a lovely deck, Mx." Shax shuffled the cards and handed them back, annoyed at being thrown off balance.
"You will follow their meaning easily, Highness. Never fear." The smile in that soft voice was obvious, rankling Shax further since he wasn't normally so transparent.
They took his hand briefly in a light, cool grip, then laid the first card, the king of feathers, represented by a peacock with his tail spread behind him. "The peacock is you, Highness."
"Because I'm so beautiful?" Shax gave them a wink.
They answered with a throaty chuckle. "You are. But you are vain and proud, as well. These are your greatest challenges."
Shax fought a scowl. "It's a genetic issue."
"Your understanding of perception and your ability to project authority also come from these attributes, so long as you use them wisely."
"Duly noted." So far, the reader hadn't said anything new.
The next cards were the Knight of feathers, represented by a harpy eagle, and the ten of claws. The reader tapped it with their forefinger. "Your allies. The one who stands at your shoulder now, yes. But there will be others."
He wanted to ask why he would need allies, but kept silent. A demon prince could always use them, of course. In the court of Hell, he was such a fringe player, though, not involved in the broiling cauldron of constant intrigue.
Hesitantly, as if they were disturbed by it, the reader played the next card that showed a stooping hawk with red-talons and an ominous red sun behind it. "The Hawk, Highness."
Shax stared at it, threat nearly pulsating from it. "It's like the Tower, isn't it?"
"Very similar." They inclined their head. "Disaster in your near future." She laid out three more cards in quick succession, the Knight of eggs, represented by a partridge, the nine of feathers, a cardinal, and the King of chickens, represented by a Jersey Giant rooster in glossy black with a proud red comb. "Economic. Familial. Political."
The next card played was a vulture with a skull for a head, though it was reversed.
"Death?" Shax asked, his voice a spare murmur to keep is steady.
"The Vulture is Death, yes. Though reversed it can mean great change. A new beginning."
They drew several more cards—a flight of swallows, a great horned owl, a winter ptarmigan, and a mantling eagle. "When the time comes, and you will know the time, you must move swiftly, Highness. Swiftly, silently. Vanish into the landscape to avoid disaster." They stopped the reading suddenly and picked up all the cards. "I'm sorry, Highness. Normally, the readings are for show. To give the customer something hopeful. Sometimes, the cards read true. But I can't continue and I won't charge you."
"You can't?" Verin growled from behind Shax. "Why the fuck not?"
They nodded at Verin. "You will need your knight in the days to come. Take the warning, Highness. The reading is too dark for me, too difficult."
Shax rose slowly, confused and disturbed. Verin had to catch him by the elbow when he stumbled. "Er…thank you? I think? We won't distress you further."
As they made their way back out onto the midway, which now seemed too brassy and loud, the lights too garish, Shax managed to shake off some of the creeping dread he'd felt in the reader's tent. "Ah, well. I guess you're right, Ver. It was a load of crap."
Verin snorted sparks and jammed his cigar between his teeth again. "Told you. And I sure as shit am not some fucking harpy eagle."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Triton Station
"Eyes on the chip, ladies and gentlemen, eyes on the chip," the man with moveable holo boxes exhorted his audience as he shifted the shells around on the light table. Every now and then, he would lift one to show the location of the chip, then begin shifting them again.
Papa Shax had warned him about shell games. He'd also warned Leopold about wandering into this part of the station. It was nice that Papa Shax worried but he was the son of a demon prince, after all. Hives of scum and villainy should be like a second home, shouldn't they? Besides, Leopold had felt contrary that morning and didn't want to hear where he could and couldn't go.
Finally the grinning human stopped. "All right, young man. Where's the chip?"
Leopold pointed to the man's left hand.
The man's smile slipped. "No, no, my spikey friend. You misunderstood. Point to the box you think the chip is under."
From a diplomatic point of view, Leopold knew it was a bad idea, but he persisted, pointing again to the man's left hand.
"That's not how the game's played, son." The man's smile became more a baring of teeth. "How about you run along now?"
A bright pink head with waving antennae popped up over the man's shoulder. Maximillian clambered the rest of the way up the man's back and plopped down onto his left hand. The man screamed and shook his hand violently. Max flew. The game chip fell from his hand and clattered to the floor, uncommonly loud in the sudden silence as Leopold scrambled to let Max land on his head.
The surrounding crowd muttered in anger and derision while the game man hastily packed up his table. But where was Nicodemus? Ah, there. A white whiskered snout peeked from around a table leg. Nic risked a glance up at the furious game man, then scurried to Leopold with the credit chit in his mouth.
"You little shit! Give that back!" The game man lunged but Nic was already wriggling into Leopold's backpack.
Leopold held up a paw. Amazingly the man stopped.
"It was in your hand. Not under the holo shells. You, sir, were cheating." Not that Leopold had anything against cheating. Papa Shax did it all the time and was good at it. Unlike this man.
The man let out an infuriated shriek and made a grab for them. Leopold dropped to all fours and zipped around behind a pair of large disgruntled looking men who were closing the circle around game man. He did wonder how people could still be fooled by such an ancient con but perhaps it wasn't common among spacers. The novelty of it here must have been how game man had gotten away with it. All quite fascinating.
Not quite fascinating enough to ignore that it was time to leave. Leopold ran as fast as his stumpy legs could manage. They wouldn't keep him ahead of his pursuer for long but he only needed a few seconds of distance and game man's erstwhile audience was providing an angry distraction. Papa Shax often said in a tight spot, play to your strengths. One of Leopold's strengths was breaking into things.
Another was ductwork.
He spotted a vent within a few yards of running, and had his tools out and the cover popped off in less than thirty seconds. It wasn't the best solution—foreign matter in the air ducts could lead to criminal charges on a space station—but it was the best he had. If he kept to the corridors and promenades, his bright pinkness would give him away at every step.
In the way of underground creatures, Leopold's sense of direction in tunnels and ducts was unerring. He had them moving toward the ship connectors in a couple of turns. Brimstone wasn't one of the huge ships who had to stand off from the station, but it wasn't small enough to fit into a berth in Triton's docking bays. Those were for shuttles, small corsairs and the more modest private yachts. Mid-sized ships like theirs gathered along the outer station rings, snuggled close and connected with docking tubes. The transparent kind Corny hated so much.
He peeked out through the vent holes when they reached the one nearest the Brimstone. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the station's business day and the corridor was crowded. Not a good idea to be seen crawling out of an air duct by all those people. Leopold backtracked to a spot where three sweeper bot access ports and recharge stations sat in a neat row along the duct's outer wall. These were usually in less-trafficked access corridors and as long as at least one sweeper bot was there for recharge, the accompanying port would be unlocked for techs to scoop up the bot for scheduled maintenance. The ports could be opened from the inside—for maintenance crews working in the ducts—but required a mag tool to be opened from the outside.
Leopold spent quite a bit of time studying duct specs. Everyone needed hobbies.
"All three ports have bots. Hello, little sweeper bots. We won't disturb you." Leopold patted one of the docked sweepers as he pressed his ear to the middle port to listen.
Nic popped his head out of the pack, squeaking urgently.
"I think you are right," Leopold whispered. "There is a human out there. He does not smell washed."
Carefully, he started to push the lift door of the left-hand port up.
"Ha! Knew you'd come out here, you pink freak!"
Leopold slammed the port shut as game man tried to seize him. The metal door caught the human's fingers and Leopold winced since the howl of pain wasn't a good sign that game man would be calming down soon. He raced over to the right-hand port and tried again with the same result. Grabbing hands, slamming door, though game man was faster and didn't get his fingers caught. This went on for a few moments, until game man decided on a different tactic.
The center door creaked and scraped up. Game man had found a way to pry it open.
Leopold scrambled back, desperately trying to think of another nearby inconspicuous way out of the ductwork. With a triumphant cry, game man lunged through the port up to his waist and caught Leopold's back foot. He peeped as he fell on his side, scrabbling for purchase on the polished metal.
Nic and Max swarmed from the pack, trampling over Leopold so Nic could chomp into game man's index finger and Max could spray the irritant he stored in his side spiracles. Some of Max's defensive weapon landed on game man's nose and some in his eye. Again, the human howled in pain. It wasn't really a good sound for him. While game man wiped furiously at his stinging eyes, Leopold jumped on his back, slammed the middle door shut on his waist and herded Max and Nic through the right-hand door. He'd just gathered them into his pack and was making his way to the main corridor when security turned at the nearest cross-corridor at a run.
"What the hell is going on down here?" the larger security human bellowed.
Leopold pointed back to the access corridor. "Back there in the ducts. He was trying to climb in. I think he is stuck."
"Damn it! Not again!" shorter human swore before both security officers raced toward the ports.
It was both amusing and disturbing that apparently this had happened more than once, but Leopold didn't stop to think about it too hard. He ran full out to the docking tubes and stood on tiptoes to put his comm against the door pad by the Brimstone's. The iris lock clicked and cycled open and he only stopped to catch his breath when it had cycled shut again behind him.
Papa Shax was in the kitchen with his coffee, sleepy-eyed like he'd just woken up. "Well hello, my dear. You look as if you had furies after you. What have you been up to today and do I need a bribe for the authorities?"
Leopold pulled himself onto the bench beside his demon father, shaking his head. "Just looking around. No bribes for our walk today." He stole a bit of his father's cinnamon roll. "Shell games are stupid."
Time: Directly before the start of Shax's War
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
"Parallax." The director tapped his papers straight, a nervous tic. "Come in."
"Sir." Julian hesitated in the doorway, thrown off by the sheer number of administrators behind the table. "Am I up for review?"
"No. The committee has some questions. Come in. Sit down." The director indicated the single uncomfortable chair in front of the table. "I must say, this is rather poor form. This is not how I'm accustomed to seeing agents at headquarters."
Bad enough being called in right from an assignment. Julian was filthy, exhausted, and his arm might have been bleeding again. Well, it would serve them right if he dripped on the lovely new conference room tiles. "I was on assignment when the summons came through, sir. It did have a level five priority on it."
Urgent. Come with all possible speed.
He'd expected headquarters to be under siege or something equally exciting. No such luck.
"Yes. Quite." The director did that blustery throat-clearing thing. "For god's sake, Julian. Sit."
Lovely. He'd embarrassed the director. "Yes, sir." He sat carefully, set his hoverbike helmet on the floor and tried not to look like he was cradling his arm.
"Parallax." A woman he couldn't identify spoke up sharply from halfway down the left side of the table. She was iron-haired and hard featured. Ex-marine, Julian guessed. "You consort with demons in your line of work?"
Consort? What an odd way to put it. "I have contact with demons and certain other hell species, yes."
"This demon?" The head of research asked as a holo still image flashed into the air before them.
Julian had to fight a smile. It was Shax, cocky and self-assured as he leaned against a bar somewhere chatting to the bartender. Little alarm bells rang in Julian's head, but he'd certainly mentioned Shax in previous reports. Using him as an informant and occasional operative wasn't a secret he'd kept from the ISE. "Yes."
"Can you verify his name?"
Ye gods, what had Shaxy gotten himself into now? "That's Captain Shax Goldner, of the transport ship, Brimstone."
"You're certain?" a thin-faced man from the opposite end barked out.
Another holographic still popped up. "And this one?"
This was Shax on a dock somewhere, talking to what appeared to be a group of academic types. He was grinning. They were scowling. "That's also Captain Goldner."
"You are a hundred percent certain?" the first woman snapped.
"No, ma'am. That's foolish in my profession. I can't be without doubts from a still image. One I didn't take."
"Reasonably certain, then?" a small man with a high voice piped in.
"Yes, sir. Reasonably certain."
"Were you aware then, Mr. Parallax, that the captain of the Brimstone recently engaged in unauthorized temporal displacement?" This from an older military man, so old he looked like retirement was several centuries late.
Wait…what? Unauthorized? "I had heard rumors, none I've followed up on, that there was a time travel incident. I'd also heard it was disastrously accidental."
"When you heard these rumors, why didn't you detain the demon captain for questioning?" the head of research asked.
Julian blinked, staring. He glanced at the director for some clue as to how he was supposed to handle this. The director tapped on his holo pad, very studiously not looking up. "I…had no orders to do so? None that reached me, in any case."
"We understand that you're a high-level agent," a younger man purred from the far right end of the table. Julian hadn't a clue what role that one might play, which made him supremely uncomfortable. "And have a great deal of autonomy in the field. Why wouldn't you take the initiative to bring this demon in?"
Again, Julian tried and failed to catch the director's eye. What the hell was going on here? "My autonomy is generally mission specific. Yes, I'm authorized to intervene in matters of interstellar security threats but they need to be overt threats without orders." He cleared his throat, knowing he was wandering out onto cracking ice. "Time travel, while outlawed on some space stations specifically, is not prohibited by interstellar law or planetary law. Since no one's done it before, I assume no one felt the need to legislate. It was my understanding that Captain Goldner's temporal accident occurred in Copernicus space? Not on a space station? Am I incorrect?"
"You are correct, Mr. Parallax." The minister of transportation nodded. "But such an unusual occurrence didn't even peak your curiosity?"
"I won't say that, sir. But the Brimstone's time jump accident was safely in the hands of top-notch academics by the time word reached me. I didn't see any need to be involved."
The marine type was by now alarm siren red and her teeth were quite obviously clenched as she said, "Your demon captain friend received a summons from ISE to come in for questioning regarding the incident. This was his response."
The holo projector popped on again, this time showing a full vid. Shax spun idly in the desk chair of what looked to be a private communications suite of the sort found on some space stations. He was playing pirate captain, appearance-wise, in his captain's jacket and silver scale armor shirt, a bit too much eye makeup and probably half the earrings he owned. He came around on the third spin and propped his boots up on the comm console.
"Greetings, lovely ISE people. I realize our relationship has been rather problematic over the years. But your last communique was nothing short of rude, so I will be clear and bluntly to the point and use one of my favorite phrases. You are out of your jurisdiction. So far out of it, I fear you may not find your way back. I'm not unreasonable, as demons go, and I'm perfectly willing to point the way."
He took his feet down and leaned closer to the vid screen. "My time and my information are not free. I've sold both to the nice professors at the university, much to their finance manager's chagrin. If you want the information, you pay me what they paid or you negotiate with them. I am not coming in to headquarters to end up some caged pet demon and you have no right to demand it. Now shoo."
Shax ended the communication by sticking a cigar in his mouth and holding up both middle fingers.
It was impolitic and incredibly stupid but Julian laughed and once started, found it difficult to stop. When he finally took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, the director was drumming his fingers on the table.
"Found that amusing, did you?" the strange man at the end of the table purred.
"It was. Because he's right, I'm afraid." Julian pulled in another deep breath and made a conscious effort at a more sober demeanor. "We have no right to harass him for the information."
The hard-faced woman growled, "You have an obligation here, Parallax—"
Julian held up a hand. "Ladies and gentlemen of whatever committee this happens to be, here's what I see. Somewhere, there is an internal program to develop time travel. To date, this program has not been successful. Then you hear that a disreputable demon has managed to accomplish, by accident, that which you cannot. This annoys certain internal parties and you believe you can make demands. When they are refused, you call me in to make the demands instead because I have prior contact with said disreputable demon."
He shook his head, managing a pleasant enough smile. "My answer is no. I will ask. But this particular demon is valuable in the long run. I will not jeopardize a good working relationship with a vital operative to coerce information that can be obtained by other means."
The director finally sat up straighter and raked a gaze over one side of the table, then the other. "There you are, ladies and gentlemen. I will repeat that I predicted this outcome."
"You're his supervisor! You can—"
The director cleared his throat to cut off the objecting VIP type. "No. There are procedures in place for a reason. No, I can't."
The head of research frowned, though what he said wasn't what Julian was expecting. "Mr. Parallax, your arm is dripping."
Julian leaned over and spotted the ever-growing red puddle on the crisp white tiles. "Ah. So it is."
The director huffed a sigh. "Dismissed, Parallax. And for god's sake, get to medical."
Time: Directly after the end of Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone, in transit
Ness grimaced at his screen and erased the greeting. One didn't begin a letter to an archangel that way. Maybe. He really had no idea since his experience of corresponding with angels was limited to the occasional report to a commanding officer.
To the most holy Archangel Raphael
"That sounds almost sarcastic. Won't do at all." Ness deleted most holy and replaced it with esteemed, cringed and replaced it with honorable, deleted that and finally settled on omitting the extras.
To the Archangel Raphael
It was a shock…
"No, that's terrible."
It was a bit of a surprise to receive your letter and it's very kind of you to ask after Shax. He's doing quite well, thank you. Fully recovered from the horrific damage…
"Oh, dear. No. That sounds so angry."
Fully recovered from the incident that led to my celestial separation.
"Yes. That's more calm and reasonable." Ness nodded in satisfaction at the turn of phrase, then stared at the screen. What in the world was he supposed to say to an Archangel who asked after his welfare? I didn't realize correspondence was an option? I'm sorry your bigoted colleagues destroyed a large part of who I was? I'm more demon than angel now and have this anger living inside me that was never there before and it's all your fault?
Ness shook out his wings and pulled in a slow breath. None of that. Raphael had saved Shax, despite what the other angels said. He'd made certain Ness could stay with Shax as well instead of being dragged off in front of some heavenly board of inquiry.
Life aboard ship is endlessly fascinating. I would never have guessed that there was so much involved in interstellar cargo hauling, especially for a small, independent ship. We've just come from a delivery of scientific equipment and specimens that resulted in our being flung centuries back in time…
"Um. Maybe that's not something I should talk about."
We've just come from a delivery of scientific equipment and specimens that posed some nearly baffling challenges. We all hope that the next cargo run will be for more mundane, ordinary shipments.
A laugh escaped as Ness recalled the faces of the university administrators when Shax had submitted his final bill for the frog run. No common pirate, Shax knew the value of leverage and had kept meticulous track of every minute of time the Brimstone's crew spent in conference with scientists eager to learn about time travel, every scrap of data they insisted they needed from ship's records. The Brimstone and her crew would be well off for some time.
Anger issues aside, he loved the sheer autonomy of his new life. He had responsibilities, yes, but he had a voice as crew and he had choices to make. If he wanted to sleep when no one needed him, he could. If he wanted to cuss, no one reprimanded him. His choice what to eat, how to spend his free time, what to wear, and where to sleep.
His choice to stay with a devious, handsome demon who loved him. Ness smiled at that, letting the warm glow settle around his heart. Perhaps he hadn't had much choice in falling in love but it was his understanding that those sorts of things snuck up on people, regardless of species. The anger and the jealousy he would learn to manage as every other being in love had since the beginning of time.
The sum of it all? He hummed as he concluded his letter.
I am loved and I am happy. I want to be sure that you know, since you are partly the agent of that happiness. No matter what gulfs of perceived morality separate us, I want you to know that I am grateful. Thank you.
My regards to the guardians of the Fourth Hallway,
Ness Angelus, security officer, cargo hauler Brimstone
Speaking of devious demons, it had been far too quiet for the past hour. Ness sent his letter off through channels and left the cabin in search of his Shax. Perhaps he was up to something that would merit a spanking later.
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