Place: Triton Station
Time: About a month after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Lost. Where had the pink spiny gone? Max reared up in the shadow of the display cabinet, testing the air. He wasn’t picking up particle traces of any of his large people. Other large people would scream and pick up large things to hit him with when they saw him. He wasn’t safe without his own large people. Maybe he could call to them if he needed to. He did know all of their calling names even if he called them something else in his head.
He scurried under the display cabinet to hide.
Big feet went back and forth in front of his hiding place, but none he knew. It had been such an exciting morning, riding in the cloth cave that the pink spiny carried on his back sometimes. They had gone in and out of many large people caves, each one filled with different scents and wonders. In the cave of food scents, both the pink spiny and the very large bird-wing person had given him sweet food bits. Delicious.
Intriguing shiny things of metal and wire filled this cave, much of it behind glass. Max liked to touch, to scent things up close when exploring. Things in glass cages were no fun. His antennae waved and shivered, picking up an attractive vibration. There it was again. A short burst at a specific frequency. Curiosity overcame fear and Max scurried under the cabinet toward the source of the vibrations.
When he peeked out at the other end, he spotted another millipede standing on top of another glass cage nearby. It looked like a millipede at least with its long, segmented body and many legs. Quickly, when the space between was empty of large people feet, Max hurried across to the next case and scrambled up the side. The other millipede didn’t move as he approached, no waving of legs or antennae. Max touched it carefully and understood why. It was metal and wire, too.
The short burst of vibration came again, meaningless in its regular repetition. Max sang a different frequency for the millipede, just to see if it could hear him. In the time it took to wave his antennae twice, it answered him, echoing his note back to him. Max reared up, waving his legs in excitement.
He tried two different frequencies for different durations. The metal millipede gave them back to him. So exciting! Max began to sing short phrases and his new metal friend never faltered. He clambered over the metal back, and rubbed against the metal abdomen, stroking with feet and antennae in his delight.
The sequences became more complex, complete strings of communication Max had learned from his pink spiny person. While the metal millipede couldn’t imitate all of the sounds, it echoed all of the frequencies and pitches perfectly without even a waver. It was so wonderful, Max forgot entirely about the large people in the shop who were not his.
“Holy mother of transistors! What is that?”
The voice wasn’t familiar and it was too close, followed quickly by a high-speed blast of air from some device. Max held on tight to his metal friend, but the second blast knocked him sideways. He scurried away as something heavy cracked down against the glass cage. Panicking, he shrieked, “Leeeeeoooopoooollll!”
Screaming all the way, he managed to scurry under a complicated metal thing as the large person tried to whack him. Soon, to his relief, he heard peeping that he recognized and a familiar large person voice.
“Please don’t do that, sir. He’s with us.”
His bird-wing person tried to scoop him up from under his hiding place, but Max scurried back to his metal friend. He just wanted one more song.
“Looks like Max made a friend there.” Small horn person had arrived as well. That was good. Things happened around small horn person.
“What… is that?” Bird-wing person asked.
Small-horn person came close to peer at the metal millipede. “Locator beacon. It’s designed to ping back whatever you send out. Good for distress signals and traffic control, that sort of thing.”
“But it’s singing with Max.”
“Hmm, yes. Seems to be a new model. Learns sequences instead of just echoing back.”
Pink spiny clambered up to join them. “Father, Max likes it. Could he keep it, do you think? To keep him busy?”
“It’s not something we need—”
“He does seem rather attached,” Bird-wing person said softly.
“Ness, for sulfur pits’ sakes, it’s a rather pricey bit of tech!” Small-horn person let out a slow breath. “Fine. Get everyone out of here. I’ll meet you back at the ship.”
Max found himself picked up and stuffed back in the cloth carrying cave despite waving all his legs in protest. All the way out, he kept sending notes to his metal friend until he no longer picked up on the vibrations being returned. Then he curled into the smallest ball he could manage, feeling empty and tired.
A feeding time or two later, back in the home caves, Max still refused to come out. They had taken him away from something wonderful and he wouldn’t be able to make them understand. He tucked his head farther under his segmented body.
“So where is he, my dear?” Small-horn person was there, in the cave Max shared with pink spiny.
“Won’t come out for me. He seems terribly depressed. What do you have there?”
“Something to cheer him up, I hope. But it stays here in your cabin. And if Ms. Ivana complains about interference, we’ll have to turn it off and bring Mac in for a look.”
The cloth cave shifted as someone turned it upside down and shook it. “Was it hard to steal? Distraction or snatch and grab? You did steal it, yes?”
Small-horn person came into view as Max lost his grip and tumbled out onto the floor. He was holding something wrapped in cloth and he was laughing. “I’m hurt! My son has no faith in me. Of course I stole it, Leo. Simple misdirection. Sometimes sticking to the classics is best.”
As small-horn person uncovered the object, Max trilled in delight, rearing up to wave his legs in the air. He raced over the hand and arm holding his metal friend in thank you, calling out, “Shaaaaa-aaaaxx!”
“All right, Maximillian, all right. You have your…well, whatever it is to you, it’s obviously important.”
Joyfully, Max began to sing to the metal millipede again, thrilled to have his notes returned to him phrase for phrase.
“I think it’s pretty,” Pink spiny said. “But I don’t recognize it. The song they’re singing.”
Small-horns cleared his throat. “Odd choice that. It’s an old song. Some Enchanted Evening. Wonder where Max picked that up?”
Of course Max knew where he’d learned it. Small horns often sang it when he went into his cleaning cave. For some reason, he didn’t think he should tell anyone that.
Location: Brimstone, deep space
Time: shortly after the events of Beside a Black Tarn
“Coming up on our two o’clock, Captain Yummy.”
Shax startled out of his half doze. “Visual yet?”
“Give me a sec, sweetie. Just swinging one of the hull cameras,” Ms. Ivana whispered. “There you go.”
The softly glowing bulk of Lunette the space shark registered as a distant blob on the view screen, a graceful, undulating island of light in the vast ocean of black. Except for the murmurs of life support and the occasional pings from the pilot console, the Brimstone’s interior lay wrapped in a blanket of silence in the late hours of night cycle. Shax had volunteered to take watch, a necessary evil while they were in transit, partly because someone had to and partly because he wanted a bit of privacy for this transaction.
“Ship to ship comm range yet?” Shax murmured as he watched Lunette’s impossible bulk increase with every passing second.
“Just coming up on it now. Hailing.”
The familiar set of rotating nebulae images popped up on the holo pad and Shax waited, the steam from his coffee mingling with pictures of astronomical dust clouds. Of course his hail had been recognized, but paranoid procedures were in place for a reason.
Finally, the image of a skinny, rat-faced man appeared above the holo plate. “Hey, Shaxy! How’s all the demon junk hanging?”
“Very well, thank you, Benny. I’ve got you on low volume. Everyone’s asleep.”
Benny nodded, his eyes darting about as if there might be someone in his pod to overhear. “Were you serious, Shaxy? You got the stuff? You’re not just playing with me, right?”
“I’m shocked, Benny. What have I ever done that would make you think I’m that kind of demon?”
“You live to mess with people’s heads.” Benny let out a high-pitched twitter, his version of a laugh. “But it’d be weird for you to come all this way just for that.”
“Truer words, Benny. Far too busy for that.” Shax put his coffee down and started the sequence to maneuver the cargo boom. “Can Lunette match speed and come alongside? If I slow the engines, Ver’s liable to wake up.”
“Good thinking. Yeah, Smoky Horns would just have questions.” Benny bent low to part of his console and whistled softly through his teeth, a wavering, tuneless song, before he cocked his head to listen. “Lunette says no problem. You’re not going fast.”
“Tell Lunette she’s amazing for me. I’ve got the cargo out on the starboard boom.”
It was a matter of some tense minutes and Shax adjusting to meet the trajectory of an oncoming space shark. Boom to boom space transfer was always tricky, but Benny had a light and practiced hand on the controls. He managed to snag the container and bring it into his habitat space atop Lunette’s back.
Shax waited in relative silence while he retracted and secured the Brimstone’s cargo boom. Within five minutes, Benny reappeared above the holo pad, dragging a plascrete container half his size.
“Heavy,” he panted, and Shax realized he’d never seen Benny do anything other than sit at his console.
“They’re fairly dense, and well packed.”
Benny flopped back into his chair, produced a mag wrench from some secret pocket or drawer out of Shax’s sight, and proceeded to open the lid. Frantic ripping of plastic and several curse words later, Benny was back upright, holding a dark brown disc the size of his palm.
“So this is the real thing, right? No cheap knockoff?”
Shax sniffed in offense. “I don’t deal in faux merchandise. Those are real Mittans.”
With a sniff of his little nose, Benny brought the disc to his mouth, took a careful bite, and closed his eyes on a filthy orgasmic moan. “Oh, fuck…Shaxy. This is amazing.”
The combination of dark chocolate, marshmallow, caramel and cherry cordial was a bit much for Shax. He liked his sweets, but Mittans made him feel like he was on a psychedelic sugar high and his stomach hated him afterward. People who loved the evil things, though, loved them with fanatic devotion. Benny was an admitted zealot.
“So what’s the catch?” Benny licked a stray bit of marshmallow off his thumb, his little rat eyes narrowed and suspicious. “What do I gotta do for these?”
Shax put a hand over his heart. “Benny, you wound me. Mortally. I may never recover.”
“C’mon, Shaxy. We’ve always been crystal with each other. Don’t fuck around now.”
“Listen, little man.” Shax leaned forward, his smile melting from cynical to something more sincere. “This is from me to you. Years ago, you helped a couple of bumpkin dirtsuckers when you didn’t have to. You’ve looked out for us all these years. For your own reasons, certainly, but you still do. It’s just a thank you, Benny. No strings.”
“Absolutely no shit involved.” Shax fought a laugh as Benny polished off the first of the Mittans in greedy bites. “Someday I’ll come and ask too much of you. It’s bound to happen. Consider this a proactive apology as well.”
Benny grinned with bits of chocolate stuck in his teeth and signed off without another word.
“Back on course, please, Ms. Ivana,” Shax said with a satisfied smile.
Ivana tsked even as the Brimstone adjusted heading. “What do I tell Mr. Grumpypants about the course diversion? He’s going to see it in his nav calc.”
“Tell him I needed to talk to Benny.” Shax put his feet up on the console and slumped in the co-pilot’s chair for a quick nap. “Always best to stick to the truth when you can.”
“Funny,” Ivana said in a pensive tone. “I didn’t know there were so many versions of truth before I met you.”
Location: Thinis, Elistrus
Time: Several weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
I didn’t think this all the way through.
Mac did own a suit, singular, that Heckle had already seen, and nothing else beyond work clothes. Of the two choices, too formal or too utilitarian, he wasn’t sure which was worse.
But, damn it, Heck had never been on a date. They’d been talking about what people do on dates while Mac worked on one of the ventilation fans. He’d happened to mention one young man who had thought it was childish when Mac bought him ice cream.
Heckle had stared at his hooves and started twisting his tail in both hands. “I wonder…is ice cream good?” he’d said in that small voice that meant he wasn’t sure if he should have said it aloud.
Suit. He’d leave off the jacket. Black dress pants tucked into boots with the midnight blue shirt—wasn’t too much, right? The sheet of stainless he’d set up as a mirror showed him a forbidding figure towering over his bunk, the shine of a double row of jet buttons on the shirt and the deep blue sash around his waist gave him a martial instead of a formal air. Mac sighed, smoothing down the front of his shirt with one hand. I really need to get some casual civvies. Easier said than done when you were eight feet tall.
His breath stuttered when he spotted Heckle waiting for him by the loading ramp. The black leather pants, tailored to accommodate his cute, pointy tail, were heart attack tight. His dark green shirt, likewise custom made for his wings with the extra buttons down the sides, was open to mid-chest. Mac forced his mouth shut and stomped down on the urge to forget the date and take his delicious imp right to bed.
Heckles head snapped up, black eyes wandering over Mac’s frame. “Oh…you look…look…”
“No.” Heckle ducked his head as he chewed on the edge of a claw. “I was thinking more like…magnificent.”
Me? Mac’s face heated, though he laughed it off. “In a lumbering monster way? Okay, I’ll take it. You look gorgeous.”
It wasn’t possible for Heckle’s scarlet skin to blush, but his face darkened a shade or two. “Cap’n helped.”
Mac bit his tongue on several things about their busybody demon prince Captain. He sometimes treated Heckle like a dress-up doll. Shax’s little black heart was in the right place, more or less. He did try to look out for Heckle and was getting closer to seeing him as a grownup person. Instead, Mac offered his arm and a smile. “Ready?”
While Heckle didn’t have to reach too far, he did have to reach up to tuck his hand into the crook of Mac’s elbow as they walked out under the Elistrusian stars. As a wretched hive of villainy, Thinis was on the tame side, but as a food resupply port, there was no better spot in the galaxy. Not only was ice cream possible, several highly rated ice cream shops dotted the city.
Mac adopted a slow stroll to accommodate Heckle’s shorter legs, content to let Heckle absorb the sights at his own pace. Head swiveling in manic fashion, Heckle actually skipped a few steps every dozen or so, and if he heard the occasional whispers of freaks and monsters, it didn’t seem to bother him. Not that Mac worried about real ugliness. Thinis was urbane and full of artful ennui, the kind of place where it was gauche to exhibit surprise.
They soon passed the crystal shop Shax had described, the one with the huge glass peacock in the window, and arrived at Ezekiel’s Ice Cream Parlor. Ezekiel’s had come highly recommended, not only by Shax, but by Corny and Leopold as well, though Mac had to question whether hedgehogs should be eating ice cream.
The shop’s marquee bathed the sidewalk in cool blue, appropriate and inviting, while inside the light centered in warm glowing circles around each cozy table and the kiosks dotted around the walls.
Heckle stopped short in the doorway. “Where are the people?”
“There’s people.” Mac nodded to the other patrons in the shop, puzzled that Heckle balked now.
“The counter people. With the ice cream. I’ve…I’ve seen pictures.”
“Got it. This one’s AI run.” He managed to get Heckle moving to one of the queues so they didn’t block the doorway. “Might even be AI owned by now, for all I know.”
“Ooooh. Okay.” Heckle went back to excited bouncing beside him, the AI revelation obviously the perfect thing since he adored Ivana, the Brimstone’s AI.
When their turn came for the kiosk, Mac lifted Heckle onto the sliding stool at the menu board, the imp’s dark eyes darting with ever-increasing anxiety over the pictures of dozens of flavors on offer.
“Well, hey there, aren’t you just the cutest imp we’ve ever had in here?” the AI’s matronly voice purred from the speakers.
Heckle’s head jerked up so he could address the speakers directly. “Do you have a lot of imp customers, ma’am?”
“A couple here and there. None as adorable as you. What can I get for you, sweetie?”
“I…um…” Heckle’s wings were fluttering so hard, Mac was afraid he might take off.
He put a calming hand on Heckle’s shoulder and leaned in. “It’s his first time having ice cream, ma’am. Any chance you have a sampler?”
“First time? That’s just criminal.” The AI somehow managed both genuine shock and amusement. “I can do five small dishes to try. You want me to pick, sweetie? Anything you really like? Or don’t like?”
“I like spicy things.” Heckle’s forehead scrunched as he concentrated. “And chocolate. I like most things. But not lima beans.”
The parlor AI laughed. “I promise. No lima bean ice cream. And what can I get for you, extra-large, dark and handsome?”
“Just a bourbon caramel for me, please.”
Machinery whirred and clanked, a drawer slid out, and the machine produced a tray with six dishes of ice cream, five small and one larger. The five small ones even had helpful labels. Heckle let out a little squeak of delight and Mac couldn’t help chuckling as he paid the AI and took the tray to an empty table.
Heckle watched with shining eyes as Mac lined up the dishes for him, naming them one by one. “Let’s see what the nice AI picked for you, Heck. There’s chocolate and chili peppers. I think you’ll like that one. White chocolate ginger. Nice. This one’s labeled an Ezekiel Special. Ah. Peanut butter, chocolate, almonds and fudge. Then there’s a peppermint chocolate chunk and a chai swirl. Sound like good choices?”
“Crazy good,” Heckle whispered, but he shot Mac a grin so he wasn’t overwhelmed.
They worked on their ice cream for a few minutes in near silence punctuated only by Heckle’s pleased purrs, squeaks, and moans so decadent they vibrated right through Mac’s balls. In his usual distractible fashion, Heckle couldn’t settle on one dish at a time, his spoon flitting from dish to dish as he devoured in uneven, random fashion. It was enough to make someone with borderline OCD a little crazy, but Mac kept his twitches to himself. The little guy was enjoying himself way too much.
He’d settled on attacking three of the dishes in turn, saving the chocolate chili and the white chocolate ginger, both of which he savored last with decadent, eyes half-lidded moans while his little hooves swung under his chair. After the last bite, Heckle put his spoon down, his complexion fading from scarlet to an unhealthy terra cotta.
“Excuse me,” he whispered before he leaped from his chair and rushed to the facilities at the back of the shop, hooves clattering and slipping on the tile floor.
Mac fought the urge to go after him, to make sure he was all right. But, damn it, he wouldn’t do that to any other male. He couldn’t barge in on Heckle’s possibly embarrassing moment, either. His instincts proved correct when Heckle emerged from the bathroom less than five minutes later, still pale but calmer.
“Okay there?” Mac asked out of habit as Heckle took his hand to urge him outside.
“I’m fine now.” No more bouncing. Wings drooping.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. “Heck…I’m sorry. I should have thought of that. Too much ice cream too fast. Your size—”
Mac cut off and halted in shock when Heckle’s face appeared before him, wings whirring to bring him up to Mac’s height. His mouth set in a hard line, Heckle actually seemed angry. He never got angry.
“Now you…you listen.” Heckle jabbed a finger at Mac’s shoulder as he obviously fought for words. “You’re not…I’m not… It’s my fucking body and I should know to listen to it. Not you. I mean it’s not your fault. I’m not a little kid and I knew I should’ve stopped. I was greedy. But it’s not like something bad happened. Okay. Not real bad. The next person using that bathroom might not agree.”
Mac swallowed hard, unsure what to say to this bold verbal assault. “Heck?”
“You’re wonderful. You’re perfect. This was wonderful.” Heckle was still jabbing. “You are not going to feel bad about this and ruin our first date because then I’ll feel bad and you’ll feel worse cause I do and…and…thank you for the ice cream!”
Heckle wrapped his arms around Mac, folding his wings so Mac had to return the embrace or take Heckle’s full weight around his neck. “I’m sorry for yelling. Ice cream is delicious. Just not so much of it. I really did have fun.”
Mac held him tight, right there in the middle of the walkway, not giving a single fuck about people trying to get by. “Glad you liked your first ice cream. Probably the first time that shop had to deal with imp airborne chemical warfare, too.”
Heckle was still snickering when they walked hand in hand back up the Brimstone’s loading ramp.
Place: Brimstone and Amnesia Spaceport
Time: Several weeks after the end of Shax's War
“You really don’t have to, cupcake,” Shax murmured from where he studied his desk screen with ferocious intensity. “The Brimstone’s scrubbers do a fine job with all that.”
“I know.” Ness kept blindly stuffing laundry into a carry sack. “But we’re planetside. With laundries and water. It’s nice to have one’s laundry smell like…well, laundry once in a great while.”
“Hmm. Just make sure nothing leather goes in a washing machine. Or silk. Really not good to wash silk in water.”
“I know how to do laundry.” The sharp bite of his words shocked Ness and he found himself staring into Shax’s dark eyes. Wounded, unsure.
Shax turned in his desk chair to give Ness his full attention. “Have I done something? Not done something?”
“No. Yes.” Ness closed his eyes and drew in a slow, measured breath. “Things ache. I’m sorry. And I—”
“You what, love?” Shax’s murmured in what sounded like equal parts encouragement and dread.
The days when Ness feared to say what he thought were long gone, but he still had difficulties saying things that might breed conflict. “I…I do wish you wouldn’t imply that I’m stupid quite so often.”
Shax leaped from his chair and crossed the floor before Ness could draw his next breath. “No. Damn it. No. Flaming yellow sulfurous hell pits, no.” Slender demon arms flung around Ness, the strength in them still surprising after all this time. “My heart, my own. I’m just an imperious prick sometimes. I’ve never, ever thought you were stupid. A bit naïve, perhaps. A bit unfamiliar with certain parts of life. But quick as light and hundreds of times brighter and…I’m sorry.”
Ness hugged him tight, recognizing this for what it was. Leftover, weary frustration from weeks of recovery for Ness, which had made him irritable, and bone-deep guilt for Shax. Misplaced guilt, of course, but Shax refused to hear it. Every wince, every flinch, every small sound of pain since he’d rescued Ness from the Polyphemus had crawled under Shax’s skin and Ness had held him through several bouts of tearful recrimination. He should have known. He should have prevented it. He should have found Ness sooner and saved him all the pain.
All ridiculous, since no one else could have pulled off the rescue and shut down those horrid labs so quickly.
A few murmured reassurances later, a few anxious questions from Shax about wearing his comm and his tracker and taking a sidearm or three, and Ness was striding through Amnesia spaceport with the carry sack slung over his shoulder. He still found it a fascinating place with all the colors and scents, both enticing and foul, and the amazing variety of people. Amnesia offered everything a weary space traveler might want or need and many things Ness had never thought of, but he wasn’t a raw, new spacer any longer. The delights of the marketplaces and shops only distracted him three or four times along his way now.
The golden dildo in one shop window nearly did sidetrack him, shining, curved and decorated with lovely ridges, but Shax had intimated several times that the prettiest sex toys didn’t always feel the best.
Out of the several laundry facilities, Ness liked the one owned by the cat triplets best. They weren’t truly cats, of course, just body modified humans with cat ears and tails. Clean and well lit, their complex offered both water and chemical machines, and access to an enormous data library.
With late twentieth century music playing in his ear since he was trying to understand Shax’s obsession with the period, Ness set his sack on the ledge in front of one of the sorting machines and began to slide items into the appropriate slots. Shax’s black leather pants went in the “bioskins” slot. The blue silk shirt with the silver buttons went in the “non-hydro bio” slot. Several pairs of socks, utility pants, a thermal shirt with bloodstains, and everyday briefs went in the “hydro wash” slot. The--
What in the world is this?
Ness pulled out a little contraption that looked like a carriage harness for a mouse or perhaps the world’s smallest horse with extra straps at the— Oh. With his face heating, he slid the leather harness into the bioskin slot and tried not to think about how parts of it were sticky. When his brain made the connection between cock harness and Shax, his face burned hot enough that he glanced around furtively. He had to be glowing and people had to be staring.
No one noticed. He shook his head at himself and continued sorting. Sock…sock…fishnets… Fine, he remembered those from the other night and he was not thinking about the beautiful curves of Shax’s perfect, compact legs in stockings, or how the silky material felt wrapped around his waist. He fed the stockings into the synth wash, banging his head against the wall in a slow, steady thud to distract himself from increasingly frustrating thoughts.
“Sir? Are you all right?”
Ness stopped giving himself a blunt force headache and found one of the owners addressing him, her cat ears flicking and twitching. How they managed to alter human ears to do that, he couldn’t imagine, but having been the recipient of unnecessary, radical surgery, and having survived, he was willing to believe anything.
“My, ah, lover—” He nearly sputtered the word, not out of shame but because he simply wasn’t used to saying it in public. “His laundry tends toward fussy and, um, complicated.”
While he spoke he had reached into the sack for another pair of rolled up work pants, which unrolled in front of the kitty woman to reveal a rather astounding variety of underwear—lace, silk, and leather in thongs, briefs, and micro shorts. When is Shax wearing all these things?
“I see.” Kitty woman’s mouth had twisted in a tight line and Ness was certain she was fighting a fierce skirmish against laughing.
“Is this silk or synth silk?” Ness murmured in distracted fashion as he held a pair of red briefs with a hint of lace around the leg openings.
Kitty woman took the briefs and rubbed them against her cheek, purring. “Silk. Definitely.” Her eyes sparkled as she handed them back. “Your lover has expensive taste.”
“He does.” Ness choked out, wondering why he hadn’t set fire to his clothes yet.
Two hours later, Ness had puzzled through some things. The first was that he had never seen most of these items because Shax was using them as stimulation in private. The second was that demon sex drives, or at least Shax’s, were more prodigious than he’d thought. Third? All of those times Shax excused himself to freshen up… Ness had resigned himself to blushing permanently.
When he reached their shared cabin where Shax still studied whatever reports or articles he’d been reading, Ness flung the carry sack on the bed and took out the carefully stacked and folded pile of Shax’s special underthings.
“Pick something,” he demanded in his best command voice as Shax startled and whirled in his chair, dark eyes wide. “Five minutes. I want you ready and waiting for me.”
“Ness? You’re…angry at me for underwear?”
“I’m annoyed that you haven’t been telling me what you need. Five minutes. Anything from that pile.”
Though Shax lowered his head in a pretense of shame, a little smirk tugged at his sinful mouth. “And where are you going?”
“I’m going to ask Ivana for a drink.”
Shax blinked at him. “You don’t drink in the middle of the day.”
With a raised eyebrow, Ness waved a hand at the unusual collection. “Somehow it feels like a good day to start.”
Location: Amnesia Spaceport
Time: Several weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Leopold checked the time on his comm again and squinted at the street map in front of him. Fifteen minutes until he was due to meet his fathers for lunch, and he was on the wrong side of the merchant blocks. While this wasn’t a life or death situation, it was annoying. He’d been distracted, scurrying from one interesting shop to the next, without paying attention to direction as he scrambled to avoid the clumsy, inattentive human feet crowding the walkways.
The thought of having to work his way back through those crowds was even more annoying.
Maximillian crawled partway out of the backpack to peer with his neon pink head over Leopold’s shoulder, singing, “Shaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaxxx.”
“Yes, we’re going soon,” Leopold told his millipede. “I need to find a good route. Or we’ll be quite late.”
Nicodemus peeked over his other shoulder with a squeak, his little rat whiskers tickling Leopold’s face. He still wasn’t certain if Papa Ness would be angry about his pet rat coming along for the shopping excursion, but Nic seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Everyone back in,” Leopold scolded. “Someone might want to steal you. Thieves everywhere here.”
He flipped through the holographic street map schematics, ignoring the irony of that statement since he was a trained thief and one of his fathers was a master thief extraordinaire. The little bit of rustling behind him told him both rat and millipede had taken his advice. Maximillian was sentient in certain ways and understood more than should’ve been possible, and Nicodemus? Leopold didn’t know much about rats but he didn’t think they were supposed to be quite that smart. He suspected human experimentation. Considering his own genesis, it seemed likely.
In a sudden rush of pink legs, Maximillian swarmed back out of the backpack, singing an agitated scale in his high-pitched voice. About to scold, Leopold stopped when he realized arthropod legs and head were waving at the upper left corner of the map. What’s this, then? He tapped on the little icon with his paw. The tiny picture of perhaps a wire or a resistor was almost too small to see, but the icon brought up an overlay, one that had Leopold’s little heart pounding with excitement.
The underground infrastructure of Amnesia’s spaceport lay before him, all the access ways, tunnels and tubing delivering services to the merchants, hoteliers, and residents.
“A much better way. Back inside, Maximillian. And thanks for pointing.”
Leopold took a moment to memorize his route, then took off on all fours. The best non-sewer related access appeared to be in a teashop three doors down from the map kiosk. It had an old-fashioned door with a handle, forcing Leopold to wait until someone taller opened it, but the shop did steady business and he didn’t wait long.
Inside, he dashed for the employee’s only back room, ignoring the calls of “Hey, you can’t go back there!” and “What the hell was that?” that chased him through the dividing curtains. The ventilation access was behind a stack of boxes, which was stupid. Blocking a ventilation shaft had to be some sort of violation. Of something. He nosed the precarious pile of boxes aside just enough to squeeze behind them. Only one fell off the top, though he didn’t stop to check its condition.
Human footsteps had entered the back room now, three sets, the humans talking loudly and stomping around. He didn’t have much time. At least the stomping and yelling covered up the sound of his mag wrench and he had the vent screen’s bolts off inside thirty seconds. He thought Papa Shax would have been proud.
The vent shaft was just a hair too small, so he took off his backpack, shooed Maximillian and Nicodemus into the opening ahead of him, and slipped in after them with his backpack held in front. The darkness, punctuated here and there with light from other access panels, was no hardship. All three of them were night adapted creatures, Nicodemus most of all with his huge black eyes. The spacer rat ran along the ceiling on his suction cup pads to stay out of the way, while Leopold scuttled along the dusty shaft. Maximillian prudently crawled atop the pack so he could ride and not have his little legs stepped on.
Every turn in the map was burned into Leopold’s memory. Left, right, right again, center at the three-way junction. Some portions of the ventilation systems were cleaner than others, all hooked into the solar heating and cooling units shared by merchant blocks. The part of the system behind the spice shop made him sneeze. The part behind one of the brothels gave him a headache from all the oils, perfumes and pheromones. It occurred to him that some of these vent accesses afforded opportunities to steal a number of fun things, but his demon father always said to be careful about stealing when they were on Amnesia.
They dealt with a number of the merchants here on a regular basis, and merchants talked to each other.
One more turn and he was at the access screen to The Pine Nut’s kitchen where he discovered the flaw in his plan. Easy enough to get into the vent system. Not so easy to get out. The holes in the screen were too small to fit his mag wrench through and there didn’t seem to be a release on the inside. Why would there be? People didn’t regularly trap themselves in the ventilation.
Nothing for it. He gathered Nicodemus and Maximillian back into his pack, hugged the pack to his chest, rolled into a ball of spikes and slammed into the screen. On the third hit, the screen’s mesh broke and he was able to squeeze through. Carefully, he eased away from the vent, taking in his surroundings. Unfortunately, dinner service had begun. The kitchen was a madhouse.
He thought he could hug the wall and escape notice. No such luck. One of the chefs spotted him just as she lifted a huge ladle of soup from a pot. The chef screamed. The ladle flew. Leopold curled around his backpack to let his spines take the brunt of the hot liquid splattering everywhere. Then he took the backpack’s top strap in his mouth and ran through legs of panicking kitchen staff to the soft light of the dining room.
With staff still in pursuit, he spotted his fathers at a cozy table in the corner and dashed under chairs and tablecloths to get to them.
Papa Shax glanced over his menu and patted the chair with the booster seat beside him. “You’re a bit late, my dear. Come sit.”
The staff in pursuit screeched to an abrupt and confounded halt as Leopold climbed onto the chair between his fathers.
With his forehead wrinkled in annoyance, Papa Shax turned to the frozen tableau of staff. “My son will have a melon juice, please. And a menu.”
Given direction, the collection of staff scrambled away and Papa Shax returned to his menu. “Glad you’re safe. I am hoping you’ll tell me why you’re covered in dust and chicken consommé.”
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.
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