Location: Orion Station
Time: Shortly after the end of Potato Surprise
“These are…are these safe to eat?” Shax poked delicately at the pink and blue striped things the restaurant offered as alleged food.
“Yes, sir,” the counter attendant beamed. “Orion Birthday Cake Fungus. Fresh batch just this morning. We get them from an on-site grower."
Shax shot a sidelong look at Verin, but his faithful grouch was concentrating hard on frowning at the strange, frilly mushrooms. “What do they taste like?”
“That’s the thing, sir. The BCF’s are sensitive to your neural transmissions. We don’t really know how it works yet, but they taste like the things you want most.”
“Knock it off, you little shit,” Verin growled at the counter person, who backed up a step and turned a unique shade of gray. “We’re not stupid.”
“Completely serious, sir,” Counter Person squeaked. “And they’re safe. Look. Those little old ladies are eating them. They come in for them every day.”
Shax leaned out to see around Verin. A group of station mechanics in their advanced years were indeed shoveling the fungi down as if they might never get another. They talked and cackled to each other, perfectly healthy and happy.
“Huh. I suppose it won’t hurt to try them. Ver?”
“Oh, no. You first, your pushy highness. You’re the one who whined about coming here.”
With a shrug, Shax took a civilized forkful and took his first tentative bite. The flavor stormed over his taste buds and left him blinking under the assault.
“Well? You gonna die on me, genius?”
Shax chewed, considering. “No. It’s quite astounding. I’m getting garlic and beef. A hint of habanero. Just a touch of port. Quite delicious, actually.”
Verin watched him suspiciously for a few more moments, but Shax was enjoying the BCF too much to try to convince him. Finally, Verin picked up his fork and tried a fingernail-sized piece, unusual behavior for Verin who would normally eat just about anything. The cheerful, bright colors were most likely throwing him off.
“Huh.” Verin grunted and took a larger forkful. “Tastes like beer and smoke.”
“Good beer and smoke?”
“Oh, yeah.” Verin leaned over his plate and began to shovel BCF’s with zeal.
Two plates later, three for Verin, they finally pushed back from the counter with a bit of satisfied stomach patting. Not a bad trip to Orion Station this time around. Shax had sold a couple of choice pieces he’d picked up on Triton, they were flush with credit, and all seemed right with the universe.
Shax went back to the Brimstone for some quiet reading time while Verin headed toward the rougher section of the station to troll for sex. Odd, having more time for reading now that he and Verin were independent agents, but space travel had a surprising amount of downtime. Long journeys between points and pedestrian to boring entertainments on space stations gave a demon a lot of extra leisure time.
In a fit of nostalgia, Shax had started working his way through the Arsène Lupin stories in the original French. They’d never appealed to him when he lived on Earth, since he had lived as a gentleman thief. Why would he want to read about one? Now, though, the descriptions of Paris, the escapades of the charming and ingenious Lupin, and the frustrations of the authorities all amused him.
He was chuckling at the explanation of an imaginative jailbreak, scratching absently at his arm, when he happened to glance down.
“What in all fiery pits?”
Bright spots pocked his arm, little raised bumps of red, yellow, blue, and green, itching spots. Shax flicked off his floating virtual screen and clawed his shirt up his bank to yank it over his head. Both arms. Spots. Chest. Stomach. Spots.
“Ivana?” he called, his voice trembling. “I look like a blasted holiday fruit cake! Why do I look like a fruit cake?”
“Shh, calm down, Captain Hot Buns.” Ivana purred from the speaker. “Come on down to sick bay and let’s have a peek. Not sure I like the new look.”
“I sure as all the pointy spikes on Hell’s gates don’t!”
His comm beeped as he hurried to sickbay, Verin’s voice roaring at him when he tapped it on.
“What the flaming fuck is this shit!”
“Spots? Stupid clown-suit colored spots?” Shax shot back as he wriggled into the chair so the autodoc could examine him.
“Yes! Fucking stupid party fucking balloon spots!” Verin’s swearing could have been bottled as a concentrated acid, so Shax simply let him go for a bit.
“Come on back to the ship, Ver. I’ve got them too. Ivana’s having a look.” He sighed and tried not to scratch. “This better not be contagious. The last thing we need is to be stuck in quarantine.”
Shax turned his comm volume down since it sounded like Verin was going to swear the whole way back as he stomped through the station corridors. When his voice was finally audible in the ship’s corridors, he was still swearing a blistering streak.
“Balls deep in a motherfucking marine and this shit shows up!” he roared as he slammed into sickbay, smoke curling from his nostrils, shirt half undone and eruptions of cheerfully colored lesions all over his dark skin.
Shax fought to keep his expression neutral. “It’s…you’re…”
“You fucking laugh, numbnuts, and you’re going through the donkey-fucking wall!”
“Ahem. Well.” Shax cleared his throat and managed to contain his yelp when the autodoc pricked his skin. “You could warn me, Ms. Ivana.”
“Then you’d flinch, sweetie. Almost done.”
Verin plunked onto the nearest sickbay bunk with a huff and a cloud of smoke. “Ivana think it’s some new STD?”
“Don’t know yet.” Shax slumped in the chair. “Ivana, are Verin’s vitals the same?”
“Not exactly, hot stuff. He’s bigger than you.” Ivana tsked. “But no fever, no elevated vitals, just like you. No pathogens showing up in the scans. I hate to say this…”
“What is it? Ivana?” Shax sat up again, fighting panic.
“Well, you boys both have things like histamines in humans, and those are going crazy. You’re both allergic to something. Did you eat anything new today?”
Verin let out columns of smoke from both nostrils. “That son of a drainpipe fucking pimp. The BCF’s.”
“At least it’s not some obscure space plague. And it’s something we should be able to avoid going forward.” Shax scratched at his arm, then forced himself to stop as the colored bumps grew in size and virulent hue. “What do we do now, Ivana?”
“Synthesizing a magnesium ointment that should work for you, hon. Stay away from the BCF’s, whatever those are, and you should be back to your sexy self in a day or so.”
“Lovely.” Shax drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, an action made uncomfortable by the swollen lesions now between his fingers.
“What’re you thinking, Shaxy? We go rob the place? Trash it for revenge?”
Shax rose carefully and hobbled over to the comm unit in the corner of the sickbay. “No, Ver. Nothing so common and short-sighted.”
“Well? What’re you doing, bonehead?”
“I’m sending a complaint to the station’s health and safety office.”
Verin flopped back on the bunk with a snort. “Doesn’t sound like a big fucking deal to me.”
“A licensed establishment serving untested substances without cross-species warnings? Stand up, Ver. I need vids to send. This is a class three equity violation. They’ll have to shut down during the investigation. There will be fines. They’ll have to undergo re-licensing. This will be glorious.”
“Huh. I guess reading all those station reg manuals wasn’t so stupid.”
“Thanks, Ver. That means a lot.” Shax shifted uncomfortably. The damn itching polka dots had spread to his butt. “And maybe when I don’t look like a unicorn vomited confetti all over me I’ll steal something fun. Like the security pad to the restaurant owner’s apartment so he can’t get in. Or all his shoes. Or something. And Ver?”
“No more eating stuff that looks like a six-year-old drew it.”
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: Random spots of time after the ends of Shax's War and Beside a Black Tarn
Ship rule number one:
Don’t leave wet spills on the floor
Most crew have two feet.
The one with big horns,
Steam, smoke and lots of bluster
Easy to avoid.
Fallen angel down
Soft feathers from Papa Ness
For lining burrows.
Ship rule number two:
Secure all sharp possessions
When the jump drive starts.
Horses’ hooves are hard,
And they startle easily.
Sticky note to self.
Stole a friend today.
I suppose that sounds bizarre,
Burgling for new friends.
Papa Shax is quick,
Observant and shrewd, but still
I stole his doughnut.
New songs on my flute.
Tapping into files to learn.
Why so much New Wave?
Ship rule number three:
Do not touch pilot’s controls.
Ships are like burrows,
Corridor tunnels and caves.
Hedgehog happy place.
Location: Aleph Station, Barbary system
Time: An unspecified night after the end of Shax's War
“Why not?” Shax demanded, tipping his chair back on two legs as they waited for drinks. “A game would be just the thing.”
“Because any game we play, you’ll find a way to cheat, Cap,” Corny drawled, the corners of his eyes crinkling in obvious amusement.
Shax waved a hand toward his lover. “Ness could be judge and umpire. Since he’s already declared himself designated limiter of insanity this evening.”
“I dare say not,” Ness protested with a sniff. “I said I wouldn’t drink so I could get everyone home safe. I’m not going to be made a fool of when you find some way to…to hoodwink me.”
“Couldn’t we just…drink?” Heckle’s heart sped as he asked it. He didn’t have the right to demand or even suggest here. The captain had been nice enough to include him in a night out so Mac wouldn’t be an awkward fifth wheel.
Mac patted his shoulder, leaning forward over the table. “Here’s a thought. We just drink. But we drink according to body weight to make it fair and try to keep up with each other.”
“How the fuck do we figure that out?” Verin growled on a puff of steam. He sat relaxed, though, with an arm around Corny’s shoulders, so Heckle wasn’t worried about his temper yet.
“Look, I have all our weights in the system for loading calcs.” Mac tapped at his link. “If we start with a fifty gram drink for Heck, which is about right for his body weight, then we figure up proportionately from there. You’re about fifty kilos, Cap?”
“Closer to seventy if you don’t mind,” Shax said with an offended sniff.
Heckle’s brain zoned out during the calculations, more interested in the multi-colored bubbles that wandered around the bar in lazy trajectories. They didn’t seem to pop, so they couldn’t be soap bubbles, and they were shiny, but didn’t change color on their own. A blue one collided with a gold one and devoured it. The new larger bubble was turquoise. Cannibalistic bubbles. Is that a thing?
Shax’s voice brought his wandering brain back to the table. “Heckle, my dear, are you all right with this? Honestly?”
“Oh…um. Sure?” Not that he had anything to worry about. If he drank too much, Mac would get him back to the ship.
“Done.” A little evil crept into Shax’s smile, but he was a demon prince. It was kind of expected sometimes. “Mac, would you like to explain it to the bartender?”
Mac frowned. “Cap, I’m not intimidating him for you.”
“Nothing like that. You’ll simply be better with the numbers.”
That was a fib, of course. No one did better with numbers than Captain Shax. They were like his minions or something. Heckle turned the conversation over a couple of times and figured that maybe Shax did want the bartender intimidated so he wouldn’t say no, but he couldn’t tell Mac that, because Mac would say no.
Trying to follow a demon prince’s thoughts made Heckle’s head hurt.
The bartender, balancing a tray of drinks, returned with Mac. “Normally I wouldn’t encourage this, but so long’s you boys stay civilized, have at it. The wait staff is taking bets.”
“Oh, delightful!” Shax grinned as he took his tumbler-sized drink and handed Heckle the little shot glass meant for him. “Who’s the current favorite?”
“Odds are on your friend with the big horns.”
Verin slapped the table. “Ha! They know the royal runt can’t keep up with me.”
Shax grumbled a bit until Ness kissed him and gently reminded him that there would be no cheating.
“Rules, Cap?” Corny asked as he took a careful sniff of his liquor in its larger-than-Shax’s tumbler.
“We all drink at once. Down the hatch.” Shax sighed. “A bit gouache, but it’s the only way we’re all on an even keel. If you have to excuse yourself to worship the porcelain goddess, you’re out. If you fall off your chair, you’re out. Fall asleep at the table, out. And if you can no longer utter a relatively coherent sentence, you’re done. Ness will call that, if necessary. Fair?”
“Fair enough.” Mac nodded. “Ready? One…two…three.”
The whiskey burned a pleasant path down Heckle’s throat, warming his middle nicely. The first few rounds went by with teasing and laughing in between while they waited for the next set of drinks. Heckle curled his tail around his chair in his excitement at being included, then uncurled it again since hanging on like that might be seen as cheating.
By the fifth round, Corny was listing to the right, and by the eighth, their cowboy lurched up from the table and staggered to the facilities. When he returned, he sat down heavily, put his head on the table and promptly passed out face first.
“Coulda gone for one of the other, DeGroot,” Verin said with a surprisingly gentle pat to Corny’s shoulder. “Didn’t hafta to puke and fall over.”
An improbable giggle escaped Shax. “Wanted to go out in style, I suspect. Mac, how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine, your high and mightiness.” Mac hid a belch behind his hand as he took his next boot-sized drink from the bartender. “Worry about your own short self.”
“Oh, have no fear of that.” Shax tapped his claws against his glass. “I’m drinking you all under the table. Heckle, don’t force yourself to keep up at any point if you don’t feel well.”
Heckle startled at that. Did he look drunk? He didn’t feel like he did. “I’m fine, Captain. It’s good whiskey.”
Shax give him an odd sideways look, but chose drinking over talking. After the twelfth round, Heckle was keeping careful count, Mac nearly missed the table trying to put his glass down.
He eased his chair back, got down on his knees, and said with perfect clarity, “I’ll be under here if anyone needs me.”
“Mac?” Heckle tried to lean down to look under the table, but thought better of it when the room pitched and tilted.
“He’ll be all right, Heck,” Ness reassured him. “Probably more room down there for him, even though it can’t be terribly clean.”
Verin leaned his head in his hand as if his horns had suddenly become too heavy. “Didn’ espect that. Big man an’ all.”
“It’s the human genes.” Shax nodded sagely. “Not enough hell in him to keep up.”
Verin wasn’t looking too steady, either, so Heckle wasn’t at all surprised that his head wobbled badly two drinks later. He pulled his cowboy closer, draped his large demon self over Corny’s back, and started snoring. A chorus of disappointed Awww’s came from much of the wait staff.
“Sorry, boys and girls!” Shax called out cheerfully. “Just goes to show that size is no ind… no indi… not a thing to judge by.” He turned to Heckle with a wink. “You and me, little imp. We drank the big guns under the table. Some of them quite liber…liture…literally.”
Heckle nodded, staring in fascination at the lights glinting off Shax’s red horns.
“What?” Shax let the bartender place the next two drinks down rather than taking his off the tray.
“You have such pretty horns,” Heckle blurted out. Horrified that he would say such a bold thing, he still couldn’t stop himself. “I wish I had pretty horns.”
“My dear Heckle.” Shax gave him an awkward one-armed hug. “Your little horns are adorable. And you have wings and a tail besides. I always wanted wings. Rather unfair. Mummy had wings. You’d think I’d get some. Genetics and all.”
The next two drinks went down in relative silence since Shax had become pensive, staring at the table. Finally, he turned to Ness and crawled in his lap, snuggling close to lay his head on his angel’s shoulder.
“Ness has enough wings for everybody, I ‘spose. Big, sof’ gorgiss wings…”
Heckle leaned forward to hear since Shax’s voice had been fading. After a few moments, it was evident that had been it.
Ness shifted Shax more comfortably in his lap with a chuckle. “He’s out, Heck. You win. Do you think you can walk?”
One of the assistants behind the bar whooped and broke out in a victory dance. Heckle’s face warmed even more. Someone had actually believed in him. He tried to put a hoof on the floor, but the floor wouldn’t stay still.
“Um. I don’t think so. No.”
Ness put his demon burden on the table where Shax curled up in a contented, murmuring ball. “Lovely. I’d better call a transport then. And I’ll have to carry everyone back aboard. What a nuisance. Next time everyone can just get themselves home.”
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: About six months after the end of Shax's War
“Hey, half-kilo sized! Don’t leave those fucking crates in the middle of the corridor.” Verin waved impatiently at the containers Heckle was in the process of stacking outside Verin’s cabin. “Secure them in the damn hold where they belong.”
Heckle flinched and did that annoying thing where he ducked sideways with his shoulder over his ear. “But…these are for you.”
“The fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“You…” Heckle squeaked and swallowed hard. “Ordered these.”
Verin snorted a cloud of steam, annoyed at having his nap interrupted, annoyed that he was scaring the damn imp, and annoyed that he couldn’t recall asking for anything. Not that he felt bad about scaring Heckle. It just made him harder to talk to.
Clamping his nostrils shut a moment so he wouldn’t snort sparks, Verin clomped over to the nearest crate and tipped his head to read the label. Galactic Phonia, the shipping label read. Big fucking help that is. Long rectangles only a few inches high, the shape itself scratched at his curiosity. He dug his claws under the lid on the top crate and ripped it open.
He blinked stupidly, trying to make sense of what looked like a fancy pregnant banjo’s love child with a giraffe. “What in all sulfurous fuckity fucking pits is this?”
“Your sitars,” Heckle whispered from where he’d crouched on the floor behind the stack of cases. “You…you said you wanted a box of sitars. I didn’t…wasn’t sure how many that was, so I got ten.”
“My…?” Temporarily flummoxed, Verin gaped at the instrument. Finally, he found the right light switch in his brain. “Not sitars, you rat-tailed, pea brained moron! Cigars! I requisitioned a fucking box of fucking cigars!”
Heckle had curled into a whimpering ball with his arms over his head, which, really, if he had any sense, he would’ve known that was even more annoying. Verin lifted the sitar from the open crate, preparing to hurl it down the corridor to end its non-cigar life in a satisfying, splintering crash, when someone caught his wrist.
“Ver, come on now,” Shax purred way too close to Verin’s ear. “Why are you terrorizing our poor Heckle? And what did this instrument ever do to you?”
“Get your donkey-fucking hand off!” Verin roared, smoke replacing steam, sparks shooting out with each breath.
Shax let go but eased the sitar out of Verin’s grip. “Good quality instrument. I suppose we could sell them.”
“But I can’t fucking smoke them, can I?” Verin bellowed. He hadn’t meant to, but his control was slipping fast. “In what shit for brains universe is a sitar any fucking thing like a cigar?”
While he carefully replaced the sitar in its foam packing, Shax shook his head and muttered, “Well, maybe if you enunciated instead of mumbling around a well-chewed stump of stogie—”
Fire shot from Verin’s nostrils. He just had time to hear Shax’s oh, shit before he seized the little bastard’s shirt in both hands and hurled him across the corridor where he hit the metal panels with a beautiful clang. At least he’d gotten to throw something.
By the time the roaring in his ears started to clear, he realized three things. One, Heckle was making little peeping sounds that might have been crying. He frowned at the imp on the floor because, damn it, he really didn’t want to feel bad about that. Two, Ness was striding down the corridor with a huge sigh, so, okay, safe there. No fallen angel vengeance. And three, Mac was stomping toward him from the other direction, and that might be a bit of oh shit right there, too.
Ness surveyed the scene, shaking his head at the crumpled demon prince on the floor. “I’m not even going to ask. Though if all of these crates are sitars, I’d like to keep one.” He crouched down to check on Shax, smoothing the hair from his forehead. “At least the dent matches the other side of the corridor. Aesthetically, it works, I suppose.”
Mac had stopped a few feet away, giant feet spread, arms crossed over his massive chest. “Our Cap all right there?”
Carefully, Ness gathered Shax up, murmuring to him. Shax lifted a hand to pat his angel’s face and managed a slurred, “Maybe jus’ one more, cupcake. Those’ve gotta bit of a kick.”
“Yes. I think he’ll be fine.” Ness shot Verin a hard glare. “Good thing.”
Verin and Mac stared at each other until Ness was out of earshot.
“I didn’t touch him.” Verin pointed to the frightened ball of imp at Mac’s feet.
“Good thing on that count too, Hammer,” Mac said a little too softly. “You ever scare him this bad again, and we’ll have words, you and me. You ever lay a hand on him? There’ll be more than words.”
Mac held out a hand and gently pulled Heckle up from the floor. Once up, Heckle plastered himself to Mac’s side. “Come on, little bit. You’re okay. It was just a mistake.”
“What about the next mistake he makes?” Verin snarled. “What if it’s something important?”
“I’ll do better. I will,” Heckle piped up, braver now with his hand swallowed by Mac’s. “I never forget things.”
“Write it down, Ver. If you have requests, write it down. Cap already said he wants to verify requisitions and he’ll go over it with Heck.”
“Little control freak fucker.”
Some of the hard lines cleared from Mac’s face. “Maybe you should keep one of these for yourself.”
“For what? To break up for toothpicks?”
Mac raised an eyebrow as he steered Heckle toward the galley. “I hear they’re very soothing to play. You could do recordings. Start a class. Anger Management for Demons.”
“Hilarious. Fuck you, MacDougal.”
“Not even with someone else’s dick, Hammer. Not if you were the last demon in the galaxy.”
Verin waved some of the smoke away from his face, his irritation back to normal levels. He would never have thought of fucking Mac either, not really. Weird that being told he wasn’t interested kinda hurt Verin’s feelings. Maybe. A little.
Nah. He closed up the opened crate as best as he could, though he’d bent the lid and it wouldn’t quite latch. Then he walked over to the new dent in the hallway and used his fore claw to scratch the date beside it.
Good to keep track of these things.
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