Time: During Hell for the Company
Place: An unspecified city done on Barbary
Sometimes the agency liked to challenge him with the impossible, Julian was absolutely certain. Since rumors floated through the halls of the ISE that he could accomplish six impossible things before breakfast, sometimes the jerks sorting assignments thought it would be hilarious to test those rumors.
Actinide Morose would be his first target tonight on Barbary. Then somehow he was supposed to catch up to and eliminate Serafina Cataclysm on one of the orbiting stations before the night was over. This might be the first time Agent Parallax failed to carry out his orders to the letter. Perhaps. He still hoped to find a way. Improvisation was one of his best things, after all.
It was a strange universe where the most ruthless crime lords took on the most ridiculous names. Julian shifted his cramping foot on the metal framework that held up the ceiling plates, oh so carefully so he wouldn't make a sound.
Come on now, Morose. I don't have all night while you shillyshally.
His micro camera showed the minions in place, but no Morose yet. The boss had set the meeting for eight. It was twenty minutes past the hour. Terribly rude. Finally, Morose made his grand entrance with a bit of arm candy plastered to his side and a monitor lizard tucked under his arm. So much drama. Julian was beginning to prefer the quiet hits on other operatives—that single muffled shot in the night, the subtle untraceable poison, the well-timed accident—to all this circus. So. Three minions. One boss. One bit of fluff who might escape becoming collateral damage if Julian did this efficiently. Boss first. Minions in quick succession according to their respective observed competence. He just had to wait until they were seated and--
The double doors to the posh conference room flew open with a crash. A tall slender figure stood silhouetted by the chandeliers in the hallway and shadowed by two crate-sized blocks of bodyguards.
"Serafina Cataclysm, it's been far too long," Morose intoned, eyes hooded as he stroked his lizard. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
Cataclysm tossed her beautifully coifed purple hair and slunk into the room. "Actinide, darling, you look positively awful. I've come to pay my respects, of course, since I was in the vicinity."
What were the odds? Julian found himself grinning, despite the fact that he usually hated coincidences. But this was too good to pass up, if he could somehow avoid becoming ill from the cheesy dialogue. He eased a concussion grenade from his thigh pocket. That first. Then he could pick off the stunned roomful of awful below.
"I thought you were sulking up on station, my dear. Nasty rumors say you don't respect my authority," Morose purred.
Cataclysm let out a wordless snarl and flicked her nails in some coded gesture. Violent rustles of cloth and shouts followed as every single person in the room, including the supposedly harmless pretty, pulled guns. Invective flew, everyone covering everyone else.
One of Cataclysm's bodyguards shoved her behind him. She tripped on her long faux ermine coat. Her gun went off and took out the back of her guard's head. The other bodyguard, nervous and trigger happy, got off two shots and somehow managed to take down all three of Morose's goons. One of them fired as he hit the floor and hit the pretty in the chest, who flailed and shot Serafina, who managed to shoot her second bodyguard, whose gun flew out of his hand, hit the table and fired, putting a bullet between Morose's eyes.
The whole fiasco had taken no more than twelve seconds. Everyone in the room below was dead except the monitor lizard who sat on the table flicking his tongue in an unconcerned way. Julian lay on his ceiling girders, completely stunned. He'd barely been able to keep up with the epic levels of incompetence he'd just witnessed. How in the world was he supposed to report this?
With painstaking care, Julian retraced his steps, sliding back across the girders and through the duct system out to his waiting hoverbike beside a large drainage pipe. He was still so flabbergasted by the whole thing that he hadn't sent a status by the time HQ called him.
"Heading for the drop zone."
Julian hesitated long enough that HQ repeated the question. "The packages, ah, delivered each other."
"Full report on arrival. Let’s just say for now it's done." Julian shifted to take a hard left around a warehouse on the outskirts of the spaceport, trying to get his jumbled brain in order. "I'd like a counseling debrief with the usual round of meetings when I come in, please."
He could almost hear the puzzled frowns through his comm. "You never request voluntary counseling, Forty-two."
"Yes. I'm aware, thank you. This one…I'm not sure why I'm so disturbed except that it shouldn't have happened."
"Very good. Room twelve when you come in." Again, HQ hesitated. "You have vids?"
"Yes." Julian couldn't speak to the quality yet but he had been recording the entire time. "Good thing, too, or no one would believe me. I couldn't make this up if I tried."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone and on Elistrus
"I miss trees sometimes." Shax leaned against the frame of the aft portal, staring out into the star dotted void.
Ness hesitated, wondering what sort of a mood this was, then put a gentle hand on Shax's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?"
Instead of answering the question, Shax went on. "It's not as if I grew up with trees, you understand. The flora in Hell doesn't run toward them. Except the anguish thorn trees in the eighth circle. You can't climb those, though. Certainly can't sit in their shade."
Ah. One of those moods. Instead of answering, Ness pull Shax back against his chest wrapping arms and wings around him.
"When Verin and I first started going topside, trees were almost too alien, too incredible to take in. They could be unthinkably huge and these giant beings stood around whispering to each other."
Ness probably knew less about trees than any of the crew did since he'd come directly from an isolated hallway in heaven to an archangel's troop ship. "You could understand tree?"
"Well, no." Shax turned his head, his expression frankly startled. "It's not as if I could speak to trees. That is, I suppose I did talk to them sometimes, but they pointedly ignored me. I could sense them speaking to each other, though, ponderously slow communications through chemical means and mycorrhizal networks."
"Oh, I see." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head, thinking. "There are trees on Elistrus."
"Not really the same, sweetheart."
"No, I suppose not."
Not too long after that strange, melancholy interlude, they found themselves headed to Elistrus with a delivery of specialty cat food. The shipment had missed its scheduled transport and the Brimstone had picked up the job out of dock messaging. Such a small shipment wasn't something Shax would have normally considered, but they all had to concede that the fee was more than fair. Ness had never realized cat food could be so expensive.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to lift Shax's spirits. He simply hadn't been the same since the Poe house incident. Ness suggested a walk in the park and Shax, once he'd checked the local weather several times, enthusiastically agreed. It might have been an excuse to wear that new bright blue jacket but Ness wasn't going to say anything.
"Lovely day." Shax nodded politely to a couple walking on the path.
"Yes. Good to be out in the sunshine sometimes. Starshine. Solar rays," Ness answered in distracted fashion. He considered shrugging out of his long black coat, now uncomfortably warm, though showing his wings would attract unwanted attention. Shax's jacket was the more sensible option… Odd. It seemed to be the precise shade of blue tinting the leaves on the trees. Something in the soil caused a blue rather than green tint, apparently. Blue leaves. Blue coat.
Shax's demeanor was all innocence when he finally got around to it. "I think I'd like to climb one."
I suppose I can't be shocked. "What are you up to, love?"
"Up to. Climbing trees. Ha. Come on, cupcake." Shax gave him the barest evil grin. "We used to do this at home. It'll be fun."
Those three words from Shax always sent vague shivers of dread down his compatriots' spines. Ness was no exception, but it was good to see Shax smile. They both waited until the footpath was clear of traffic. Shax picked an ancient tree whose branches overhung the trail and he shimmied up as easily as a squirrel. Ness shed his coat and took the more expedient winged route.
When they were safely sheltered in the thick blue foliage, Shax stretched out on his stomach along the branch and Ness sitting closer to the trunk, the demon prince pulled out an object reminiscent of a yo-yo.
Ness knew his role in these sorts of situations and obliged by asking, 'What's that?"
"It's a sort of a fishing rod. Shh. Just watch."
Carefully balanced on the branch with his ankles hooked behind him, Shax freed a sort of hook from the device. Ness felt certain that it wasn't just a hook, it's odd shape giving the impression of a magnetic component as well. Shax spooled out a length of clear line, so thin as to be nearly invisible. Then he shot a grin over his shoulder at Ness and settled in to wait.
That lovely butt wriggling from time to time to adjust sang a siren song to Ness. He really wanted to smack it. Bad idea, of course, since Shax would most likely lose his balance.
Soon enough, an equestrienne trotted down the path. Anyone owning a horse on Elistrus was obscenely wealthy, so Ness didn't feel quite as bad about what he was sure would happen. She wore one of the helmet-style hats with faux gears that were all the rage this year. Behind her saddle, a little bag sat secured, drawstring opening pointed up. That was the woman's first mistake.
With the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Shax lowered his line and expertly dropped the hook into the opening provided by the drawstring. Some quick tugs and twitches, a tightening of his delicious thighs on the branch, and a little parcel emerged from the bag attached to the odd hook. Shax pulled it up quickly and the woman rode on, oblivious.
"Lovely! We seem to have acquired lunch." Shax chuckled as he tossed the packet over his shoulder to Ness.
Fumbling, nearly dropping it, Ness caught the packet and unwrapped the plastifoil. There was, indeed, a rather fussy-looking sandwich. "I don't understand why you would want to steal food."
"It's wasn't intentional, sweetie. Not always certain what you'll get during these expeditions. You're welcome to it, if you're hungry."
Over the next half hour, Shax's arboreal fishing snagged a ring, a pack of prophylactics, a shopping list, and a good pair of gloves. He didn't seem at all disappointed by the dubious haul. It was obviously the thrill of the hunt that amused him. Ness' only contribution was to put the items in his pockets to keep them safe.
"One more, cupcake. Promise." Shax blew him a kiss. "Thank you for being so patient today."
Another rider came cantering down the path, this one wearing a modern-style Homberg, a black one with just the barest hint of gold dust sparkle as it caught the light. Ness had no doubt that this hat was in trouble.
Shax hissed a breath through his teeth. "I must have that hat."
Hat lust, right on schedule…
The unsuspecting owner of the coveted headgear rode underneath their branch and Shax unerringly snagged the hat, yanking it up into the leaf cover before the owner had a chance to glance around and up. Too late to catch its trajectory and unable to see the missing hat, the poor man had no idea what had happened. He stopped, rode, back, and searched the ground for a few moments. Then he shook his head in bemusement and rode on.
The hat, due to its precipitous flight, was lodged in the leaves out of Shax's immediate reach. He tugged on his line but it was stuck tight. Carefully, Shax scooted farther out on his limb, trying to reach it. His arms weren't quite long enough.
"Be careful love. Do you want me to get that?"
"No, no, almost there." A little farther, a little farther…Shax had just managed to close his fingers around the hat's brim when the branch bent under him wildly. Unwilling to let go of the hat, he flailed wildly, snagged a handful of leaves, and plummeted.
Ness barely had time to react before Shax landed in the middle of the path with a solid whump, badly startling, and barely missing, an approaching couple. He lay there scowling up at the branches for a moment before he bounced up and offered the traumatized pair a bow.
"Terribly sorry. Wasn't quite the landing I'd intended."
They sidled around him, wide-eyed, and hurried away, leaving Shax to dust himself off.
"Are you all right?" Ness called down as he gathered the tree-fishing tool and his coat.
"More or less. Ow." Shax rubbed at his hip as Ness joined him on the ground.
Ness handed Shax his little tool of ill-gotten gains and brushed some of the dust off his back. "It probably doesn't do any good to say it serves you right, does it?"
"Not in the least." Shax plopped his new hat on his head and turned to point an accusing finger at the tree. 'You did that on purpose."
Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, the tree's leaves rustled.
Shax paled. "I think I've had enough fresh air and trees today, don't you?" He took Ness's arm and turned him back the way they had come. "Let's go back to the nice, unforested ship."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Dock
Shipments were exciting. Heckle had originally been a bundle of nerves with every new shipment. Would it be right? Had he made mistakes? What would happen if he had? Now, though, he knew all of those answers and had the right tools for the job. Getting the boxes into the ship and entered into inventory was actually fun.
He'd even gotten to the point where he could time it so shipments were waiting for them when they docked. He would message one of the Dock Agents en route, they filled the orders, and hooray! Instant shipment as soon as Brimstone opened her hold. Not that he could get everything at every port of call. Oh, no, no. A quartermaster had to know which supplies were local so he wasn't paying a prince's ransom for sugar on Triton Station or three times the actual worth of a seal gasket on Elistrus.
Most of the crew even trusted him with special requisitions, now that he was more comfortable with his job. Sure, there were things the captain wanted to shop for himself still, but Heckle wasn't offended. Captain Shax enjoyed his shopping therapy too much. It would be incredibly mean to ask him to give that up.
Today's shipment was mostly dry goods—coffee, oats, flour, and so on. Heckle stood by the conveyor with its robot arms that took the boxes and crates from dockside up into the hold. The upgrade to a robotic assist loader was exciting too, since now the crew didn't have to help him load the heavy things on the conveyor. Heckle could manage it all himself.
"Gryphon on. Inventory up. Adding quantities." Heckle's tablet chirped and lit up to show the inventory screens. He couldn't read them but he could see the right numbers going in. "Coffee, three crates."
"Coffee, three crates," the pleasant Gryphon voice verified. They were good friends now that they understood each other and Heckle rarely had to make corrections anymore.
"Baking soda, one box."
"Baking soda, one box."
"One package…what in Hell's pits?"
"One package, Worcestershire sauce."
"Delete last entry, Gryphon." Heckle hurried to turn off the conveyor.
The oddly shaped package halfway up the belt didn't have a scanning label or any markings indicating what it was. Several cylindrical lumps showed through the packaging along with a strange collection of other shapes. He was about to call Ness, anxieties about sabotage and bombs forming in his stomach, when three heads popped up on the other side of the conveyor, two pink, one white.
Heckle blinked in surprise at the sudden and suspiciously convenient appearance. "Um, hello, boys."
"Hello. That is mine." Leopold said as Nicodemus scurried from atop his head to explore the strange package. "Special order from Habco. I will take it, please."
"Okay, I guess? I mean, I didn't get a requisition for it?" Heckle caught his tail to twist it between his fingers. This felt like it could be a confrontation soon and he hated those more than anything. "And I don't want to be a pain, Leo, but I kinda have to know what's coming aboard. It's…it's my job."
Leopold stared at him for one of those long, unsettling Leopold moments. Max had joined Nic on the package, tapping here and there with his feelers, singing soft notes to the shapes.
"It's a habitat. For Max and Nicodemus. Papa said I should."
"Oh. But they live in the ship? I don't understand."
Leopold sighed. Anyone who said he had no expressions had never heard Leopold sigh. It was such a long-suffering, aggravated sound that it made Heckle feel smaller for asking the question.
"For when I'm not there. Papa Shax says secure them. I won't use cages." Leopold trundled around to Heckle's side of the conveyor belt, pushing a little cart. "It has nooks and toys. And Copernicus flight pods. And many tunnels."
Heckle picked up the package and turned it over to find the Habco label on the bottom. "Oh. I get it. Someplace fun for them to be when you're not with them. That's a good idea."
"I hope they like it. Some assembly is required. Put it on the cart?"
With a start, Heckle realized he was still holding the package. He placed it carefully on the cart, with the flattest side down so it wouldn't fall off. "Sure. Okay. Could you, um, maybe let me know when you have something coming in next time?"
"I suppose I could. Unless it's super secret. Then I won't tell you." With that, Leopold waddled off on his hind legs, forepaws clutched around the handle of his cart. Max and Nic leaped off the conveyor and scurried after him, climbing up his spines to hitch a ride. No thank you, not even a look back. Leopold did get in strange, secretive moods sometimes, but that probably had everything to do with being a demon princeling.
"Some people's kids," Heckle muttered as he started the conveyor again.
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