Place: Outside Roswell, New Mexico, USA, Earth
"We shouldn't be here," Trx's second eyes twitched nervously. "Parental group said we're not supposed to go here."
Jvn stopped studying the forbidden blue planet staring balefully at them through the view screen and rolled all three sets of eyes. Why parental group insisted that they bring their younger-clutch sibling along Jvn would never understand. It was so un-gfk.
"So, you're strafing ionosphere, zoob?" Flk's voice came through the comm. "I've done that a thousand times."
"Zoob, you've done it twice! And got scared the first time," Sdw protested from the third ship.
"Zoob, not gfk!" Flk shot back.
"Settle, zoobs." Jvn cut through the chatter. "I'm not doing that egg stuff. I'm strafing planetary crust."
"You can't do that, zoob, are you ynrf?"
"No. I have it all calc'ed out. Someone should take Trx, though." Jvn eyed their unwanted passenger with their lowest set of obs. "This isn't a thing for an egg."
"No!" Trx wailed. "Parental group said to stay with you. I'm not allowed to be in another ship. I'll tell!"
"You heard the little zoob." Flk sounded far too smug. "Either do it with the sib onboard or admit you're making excuses."
Jvn glared at their sib. "All right. The egg comes with me. Put on your transpace web, Trx."
"Zoob, are you sure?" Sdw asked softly. "Come on, Flk, don't goad. Jvn, you don't have to prove you're gfk to us. What if you crash and the planetary apex predators catch you? I hear they eat everything."
Flk cleared their throat over comm. "Yeah, they're insane. I hear they use transports that rely on continuous small explosions for propulsion. And that they kill things they don't even want to eat. I read somewhere that they don't even have parental groups. Look, zoob, I didn't mean it. Don't do this."
"I'm going in." Jvn adjusted their own webbing. "I know what I’m doing."
"Zoob," Sdw whispered and the terror in their voice sent chills up Jvn's spine.
Too bad. They were doing this. No one else in their clutch-year ever had. They concentrated on the readouts and did not think about ugly, bipedal predators with brains of violence storms down there. Jvn checked their flight path once more and began the careful circling for a gravity well dive.
"Keep the channels open, zoob!" Flk yelled over the whine of the solar boosters. "You're the most gfk!"
Atmospheric entry wasn't fun—Jvn had taken it too fast—but the dampeners took most of the stress. Clutchling rounds were forgiving ships, made specifically for younger pilots. There was the arid portion of the planet they were aiming for. Recorders on, they dove for the surface. The plan was to kick up a small cloud of dust and zip away.
The proximity alarms barely had time to ping before they were hit, the ship spinning out of control. Trx was shrieking, which was terribly distracting, until the ground hit the view screen with a solid whump.
After a moment's silence, Trx sniffled, "Are we dead?"
Jvn took a few breaths to be sure. "No. No, we're not. Hush." Something had come out of nowhere and smacked them into the sand. A missile of some sort, Jvn guessed. They'd been spotted and they had to get away. Jvn's tentacles flew over the control surfaces but nothing responded.
"Undo your webbing, Trx. Hurry. We have to get out." Jvn's third left tentacle didn't feel right but there was no time to assess. They hurried through unhooking their webbing and turned to help Trx, who seemed to be making things worse.
They popped the cracked canopy and lifted Trx out so they could set up the decoys. Poor Trx was whimpering and shaking. Sib comfort would have to wait. The decoys were flat when Jvn pulled them from behind the panel though they expanded into solid, convincing shapes with a few drops of water. Bipedal, gray-green, with large heads and a single set of huge black eyes, these were the shapes that parental group said would convince predators that the ship's inhabitants were dead. Something about more familiar, analogous shapes.
Right now, Jvn didn't care. They glided out of the ship and gathered Trx up in their front tentacles as their eyes desperately searched this terrible, dry place for cover. The predators would come.
"Trx, hush. Be gfk, little zoob. We can't let the predators know we're here."
There. A rock formation. It wasn't large but they might be able to squeeze in under that little shelf and hide. Just until someone came for them. It wouldn't be long with the distress beacon sending.
"Psst. Hey, clutchling," a strange dry voice whispered from the rocks.
"Who…who's there?" Jvn whispered. It couldn't be a predator. They didn't speak any civilized language, did they?
"Hurry. Over this way. There's a little cave," the voice went on. "I'll hide you."
Jvn glided cautiously toward the voice. Fighting something of wouldn't be possible with Trsk clinging so tightly. Not that Jvn had anything to fight with. "Who are you?"
"My name is Shax. And no, before you catch sight of me and ask, I'm not human." A hand with fingers appeared out of a shadowed crevice, waving them forward. "Come on. You're not safe out there. They're coming."
Jvn shuddered. Hands were gross. But they didn't have much choice. Some races had hands, they told themselves firmly. That didn't make them bad. They reached the shade of the outcropping much to their relief. The solar heat here was terrible. How stupid was it to try a touch and go where there was no water? They rounded the corner and gasped reflexively. The being before them was hideous. Bipedal, two other appendages that looked so wrong, only two eyes—just like the ugly decoys in the ship. Parental groups had been right about the shape of life forms here. It did have cute horns, which helped Jvn not to run screaming.
"We crashed," Jvn blurted out, their tentacles whitening in embarrassment. What a dumb thing to say. It knows that.
"Is the egg sib all right?" The alien's phrasing was strange but understandable.
"Mostly scared." Jvn hurried into the rock crevice where it was cool and, thank hklfrn, damp. "Why can we understand you?"
The alien did a disturbing thing with its mouth that showed far too many of its sharp white teeth. "I've met enough of you over the centuries to have learned."
Jvn averted all their eyes. The alien, Shx, was just too hard to look at. "Won't the predators see us here?"
"No. I have us hidden. Here comes the first one."
A horrid, loud transport coughed and snarled its way toward the ship. One of the hideous predators got out, looked at the crash site, then thundered off again. Not too much later, more predators came and swarmed the area. They seemed to be measuring and making some sort of primitive visual record of the crash, if Jvn had to guess. The predators were loud and frightening and moved with frightening speed over the dry landscape. Finally, they dragged the decoys out of the ship, threw ugly gray-green coverings over everything, brought even larger, louder transports and carted everything away.
"Parental group will be mad," Trx said in a small voice. "They just gave you that ship."
"We need to get back to parental group for them to be mad," Jvn reminded them and regretted it when Trx started whimpering again. "Shh, little zoob. Sorry."
"You'll be all right," Shx reassured them. "I'm sure they're already on their way."
Sure enough, soon after planetary night fell, the drop ship zipped in through the atmosphere and settled with a soft whoosh near Jvn's crash marks. They tucked a sleeping Trx up close and hurried as fast as tentacles could manage across the hard ground. Parental group was angry, of course, all seven of them dark umber with strong emotions but outwardly, they expressed relief. Shx and parental group exchanged words about adolescent impulsiveness and Jvn wanted to hide behind their tentacles.
"You were lucky to meet the Shx instead of the violent aliens here," oldest parental scolded as they hurried into the safety of the ship. "There will be no more free flight with your friends for at least four dcbn's."
"We could say five."
Jvn subsided, knowing they were being lenient out of relief. Four dcbn's wasn't that long.
"So." Verin drank from his hip flask as they watched the ship zip away from Earth. "You gonna tell the humans what they captured?"
Shax laughed. It was always interesting to see the tentacle aliens. He had no idea what they called themselves since he'd never asked. "No. What fun would that be? Let them think that they have real dead space creatures instead of what amounts to fancy blowup dolls."
He took a sip when Verin offered the flask as they stood watching the now-empty sky.
"Besides, this will be hilarious," Shax finally broke the silence.
"What will, genius?"
"Watching the humans believe that's what space creatures look like for who knows how long now. This is going to be great."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Most nights, Heckle loved sleeping with Mac. Sleeping alone for imps wasn't natural. They grew up in communal nests and slept in imp piles even after reaching full growth. Sleeping with Mac was better than any overcrowded imp pile, though. The ship's engineer tended to sleep on his back with Heckle draped over him like an extra blanket, most often with a hand on Heckle somewhere and Heckle's tail wrapped protectively around that wrist.
Most nights? It was perfect. The heat, the closeness, the steady drum of Mac's heart under Heckle's ear. Except on those few nights when Mac had nightmares.
The previous night, Heckle had snapped awake to the sickening feeling of falling just before he landed with a thud on the floor. Thrashing and flailing, Mac had become a hazard and had unknowingly tossed Heckle out of bed. With a sigh, Heckle had crawled into Mac's footlocker and slept on the clothes and extra blankets there, which was fine. It just wasn't Mac.
He gave up on sleep in the early hours of the ship's day cycle and wandered to the galley for breakfast without waking Mac. His poor nephilim had spent a terrible night with his dreams and was finally sleeping quietly. Oddly, Corny and Verin were already there having breakfast, which probably meant they hadn't been to bed yet. Ship hours for a pilot could get weird sometimes, especially when the ship had to drop out of Copernicus space at off hours.
"Hey, Heck." Corny glanced up from his oatmeal. "All right there? You look a mite put out."
"I'm all right." Heckle climbed onto the opposite bench. "Ms. Ivana? Could I have a sausage, please? And some chilies?"
"Of course, sweetie. Be just a second." The AI chirped from the galley speaker. "You do look down in the dumps, sugar."
"I guess a little. I don't know what to do about Mac's nightmares."
Verin growled into his coffee before he set the mug down with a thump. "Everybody has nightmares, short stuff. You can't stop the fucking things."
Heckle nodded. "Right. Of course. It's just...I get dumped out of bed or kinda seasick when he has them."
"So wake him up," Corny said with a raised eyebrow.
Heckle shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "I, um, can't. I've tried. I shake his arm when it's safe to. I call to him. Nothing wakes him up when he's having a bad dream."
"So bite him." Verin waved a spoon at him. "You've got sharp teeth. Use the damn things."
"But…" Heckled stared at him. "I can't do that."
"You chomp on me to get me woke and you'll pull back a few less teeth, Hammer." Corny gave his demon lover a playful shove.
"Big talk, cowboy. Besides, you don't sleep through a fucking pin dropping."
"True enough." Corny shrugged. "Old habits. You reckon you know why he's got such bad dreams, Heck?"
"I don't know. He won't talk about it. I'd guess it's mostly stuff from when he was a kid."
A throat cleared from the doorway. Julian, far too awake and perfectly put together. Didn't he ever sleep? Didn't he need to? Heckle still wasn't sure how he felt about Julian. He was a killer, fine, but Heckle didn't hold that against him. It was his job. He was polite, quite, neat, could be kind, but there was something always…watchful about him as if he didn't trust any person or any given situation for more than a few moments.
Heckle didn't dislike him? He just wasn't comfortable to be around.
"I have a suggestion, Mr. Quartermaster, if you don't mind coming with me," Julian said with a soft smile.
Startled, Heckle shot a glance Verin's way.
"Go on, mini-minion," Verin grumbled with a jerk of his head toward Julian. "Parallax is an asshole but he won't hurt you."
Julian's laugh was somehow both bright and brittle as he took Heckle's hand and led him back toward the cabins. "I have a device that helps me sometimes."
"You have nightmares?" Heckle cringed as his voice squeaked.
"The nightmare having nightmares, right?" Julian gave him a conspiratorial grin before he sobered abruptly. "Oh, yes. I have them. About mistakes. About failure."
Heckle stayed outside Julian's cabin, shifting from hoof to hoof as the assassin retrieved something. When Julian reemerged, he put a curious object in Heckle's palm, a twisted shape of metal and electronics that reminded Heckle of a dragon.
"What is it?" Heckle blinked first at the device, then at Julian. "And don't you need it?"
"It's called an Ear Wyrm, my dear." Julian closed Heckle's fingers around it. "I can get another one. It goes around the outside of the ear like a cuff or a mini-comm. Certain repeated frequencies keep the nightmares at bay. It does have, ah, certain side effects, but nothing harmful."
"Oh. All right."
"Just have him try it. If he doesn't want it, just bring it back to me. I won't be offended."
"Thank you." Heckle stared at for a bit more, gathering his courage. "But the side effects?"
"It varies according to the individual." Julian crossed his heart in the ancient gesture of promise. "Nothing that will hurt him, I swear."
Heckle thanked him again and trotted off to the cabin he shared with Mac to see if his giant lover was awake yet.
The next sleep cycle, Mac fitted the golden ear wyrm around his right ear, took Heckle in his arms, and had one of the quietest nights of sleep he'd experienced in years, so he said. Heckle smiled as he trotted about his day. It had worked, they were both rested, and Heckle didn't have any butt bruises from smacking into the floor.
The only strange thing? Mac kept singing, Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do, all day long. Over and over and over…
Time: Sometime after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in far orbit around Horvath Station
Some things passed around as "common knowledge" are a bit spurious. Other things are simply lies. Mac found that out the hard way en route to Horvath Station. Demons, so common knowledge said, didn't need sleep. Until that run, Mac had kept right on believing it. Captain Shax slept when he felt like it but could go days without when he had to and didn't seem to suffer.
Since Horvath was a relatively new station and the Brimstone had never had business there, this would be her first docking there to deliver extra insulators for their hydrogen oxidation tanks. Problem was that Horvath was largely a research station, built by and for, largely, engineers, scientists and accountants. Their ponderous docking regulation manuals and forms reflected this.
No. Strike that. Their manuals were arcane tomes of eldritch mutterings. Just awful.
By the ninth day, Shax still wasn't finished and he had them hold the Brimstone outside approach lanes since they wouldn't be cleared for approach without all the proper documents. Mac found him in the galley on probably his seven hundredth cup of coffee as he stared blankly at his display.
"Cap? You all right?"
Shax lifted his head, blinking bloodshot eyes at Mac and, Mother of Earth, that was disturbing to see the red cracks in a demon's black eyes. "Sorrel wine tiles."
"Pardon?" Mac came to sit across from him, more disturbed by the moment.
"I…" Shax shook his head slowly. "Caption sea verity."
"Maybe you need a rest, Cap."
Shax waved a frustrated hand at his screen. "Orange! Twelve manic!"
"I know you want to get it done but I don't think you can right now." Mac stood and hit the ship's comm on the wall. "Ness? Come get your demon. I think the Horvath manuals broke him."
Not ten seconds later, deck boots pounded down the corridor and Ness caromed around the corner into the galley. "He's worse?"
Mac waved a hand at their barely functional captain. "He's not making sense anymore. And he's not looking his normal dapper self."
Ness didn't ask any more questions. He simply hoisted a protesting Shax from the bench and carried him away. Five minutes later, he returned. "He's sleeping. Ms. Ivana put him out for his own good. I've never seen anything like that."
"Sleep deprivation and caffeine poisoning, maybe." Mac sipped his own coffee. "Don't suppose you have his access codes? Maybe he's far enough along that we can finish for him."
"I don't." Ness frowned. "I don't think it ever occurred to him to give them to me. Maybe Verin does."
Since the ship wasn't moving, Verin was able to join them and together they squirreled into Shax's files where the Horvath forms crouched in an ominous pack of bureaucratic nightmare. It only took opening the first few files to see why their captain had been taking so long to finish and why he'd nearly collapsed in a puddle of exhausted frustration. There was the docking permit, of course. That was normal. But there was also an application for the docking permit and an application to apply for the application of the docking permit. There were cargo and lading forms, ship registration separate from the docking permit, ship spec forms separate from those and on and on.
"Do these fuckers not want their cargo delivered?" Verin growled.
"Looks like most of this is initial contact stuff, Ver," Mac said as he scrolled through all the files. "After this first time, we're probably down to four or five forms. Instead of however many this is."
Corny joined them as Mac searched through form after form, then Leopold galumphed in soon after. Mac had to admit, Shax had managed an amazing amount of work in nine days considering some of the forms required dockmaster verifications from last ports of call and other officials. As far as Mac could tell, only two forms were incomplete—the ship specs and the crew manifest.
"Poor Cap." Mac cringed as he scrolled through the specs form. This was obviously where their captain's brain had given out. Shax had typed "lightning" in the box for propulsion type and "head cheese" for the interstellar drive model. Mac corrected those and moved on to the rest of the form. They wanted…what?
"Corny, hit the comm for me, would you? Get Heck up here."
A minute or so later, the trotting of muffle hooves came from the corridor—Heckle in his friction socks.
"Oh!" Heckled stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed and searching the gathered faces. "Did I miss the start of a meeting?"
"No, Heck. Just need your help." Mac waved the imp over to come sit on his knee.
"Mine?" Heckle squeaked as he wriggled into place.
"Yes, yours." Mac gave him a gentle poke. "This damnable form wants to know the configuration of our supplies."
"I don't…how do I tell it that?"
"You help me tell it that." Mac showed him the choices for supply holds, showing different numbers of aisles and stacks. Heckle picked the one that matched his supplies and then began happily rattling off what was in each stack and how much.
That went well for a bit until Mac hit a snag. "Um. Huh. Don't suppose you know the volumetric weight on each of your stacks?"
Heckle slumped in a crestfallen way. "I don't. I'm sorry. Is that a thing I should know?"
"Probably not. Ms. Ivana?"
Ship comm chirped and their AI purred, "You rang, tall dark and hung?"
"Give away all my secrets, why don't you," Mac said with a chuckle. "Volumetric weights on Heck's supply stacks? You must be helping with the load balancing, right?"
"Oh, I do, hon. Our little imp sweetie's a joy to work with. You need them all?"
With Ms. Ivana's help, even that was done in short order. That only left the crew manifest, which was far more detailed than any Mac had ever seen. Of course it was. Name, ship rank, height and weight, date of birth, place of origin, species. They did all right, checking with Ms. Ivana on some of Captain Shax's vitals since he wasn't available, until they got to Leopold.
Leopold Goldner, Mac typed in the name box. "Um. Leo? Are you demon or angel?"
"Neither one of those. I'm a genetic construct. Also a hedgehog," Leopold said in a puzzled tone.
"Right. But that's not a choice. I have to pick from the choices here."
"I suppose we'll have to say demon," Ness stroked Leopold's spines gently. "Since your Papa Shax is one and I was fallen before your, ah, birth. Though I don't know your actual birthday. I'm a terrible father, I'm sorry."
Leopold leaned against him with a peep. "We can guess on that. I'm not entirely sure. Since I was new then."
Between them, they came up with an approximate birthday and Mac listed him as a crew dependent since "apprentice thief" wasn't in the long list of choices. There was some argument about how to list Rosa, Maximillian and Nicodemus. In the end, they had to go under Livestock and Domestics since they would need official identification before being listed as crew on a docking manifest. The last thing they needed was for the forms to be rejected on a technicality.
They finished up, Mac shut everything down and the crew drifted off to whatever they'd been doing before the document crisis. Several hours later, Mac was back in the galley having dinner with Ness and Heckle when Shax strode in looking marginally better.
"Well. That was a bit of a dirty trick, Ms. Ivana but I do feel more chipper." He clapped his hands together. "Now to finish those thrice blasted, sadistic forms."
Shax nibbled on the dinner Ivana sent out for him while he checked through the documents, his expression more and more puzzled by the moment. "Did I finish these? I don't recall finishing them. Huh. Well, everything looks in order. Just need to sign and send them off."
Mac exchanged a glance with Ness, whose eyebrows were climbing up his forehead.
"Ha! Done, you pencil-pushing, nitpicking bastards!" Shax laughed in slightly hysterical triumph. "Thought you could defeat me with all of your repetitive nonsense. Persistence is my middle name. Or would be if I had one."
Should we tell him? Ness mouthed to Mac.
No. Would break his heart. Mac responded with a shake of his head.
For a few moments, there was silence in the galley, broken only by the sounds of eating. Then Shax's messaging pinged on his still open screen. When he opened it, visible to everyone at the table on his holo screen, the message from Horvath Docking Control read, Please resubmit forms using approved font.
In all his years on various ships, Mac had never seen the ship's captain break down and cry over forms before.
Time: A bit after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, Cargo Hold
Rosa liked her stall in the big echoing place. Sometimes it was chilly but she had a good blanket and the walls of her enclosure had warm coming out of them. She missed others like her some days but she did not miss the dapple-gray stallion who had always tried to bite her.
All of the two-leggeds here were good ones. None of them shouted at her or flicked a whip in her direction. She liked her own two-legged best, of course, the one she had brought with her into the metal barn. He would always be her favorite. They were a good team. But she liked the small-winged one, too, the one who brought her treats and talked to her as she helped him practice his flying. Small-wings was a nervous sort and needed supervision. Also, she liked the small-horned one very much, who also brought her treats and sometimes exercised with her in the big echoing place. He didn't need as much watching over, though. Usually.
Today, small-horns had climbed up a long metal thing, almost to the roof. In Rosa's experience, two-leggeds without wings climbing high on things often ended badly. This made her anxious.
He wore a metal plate in front of his face, held a metal tube on his back, and carried a metal stick that spat fire from time to time. Whatever the fire was supposed to do, it smelled terrible and the sounds were distressing. Rosa kicked her stall with her forelegs and whinnied, trying to tell small-horns to stop playing with stinking fires and come down. He went right on making the stick spit sparks at the ceiling. She reared up and neighed loud enough the sound echoed around her.
Small-horns stopped and lifted the metal plate from his face. He turned and called to big-wings down below on the floor. Why the one with wings was on the floor and the one with no wings was up dangerously high, Rosa couldn't understand. It made her very upset that her small-horns was up there.
Big-wings gestured toward her. Small-horns said something and gestured back, swinging out on his perch with a precarious one hand and one foot hold. Rosa banged against her door, frantic now. Big-wings came to talk to her. He had such a soft, soothing voice that normally would have calmed her but now small-horns had climbed off the long steps and was climbing around the metal pieces on the roof.
No! Come down! Come down now! Rosa screamed at him. He had to listen to her. Something bad would happen.
She backed up in her stall, gathered her hindquarters under her and sailed over the wall of her enclosure. Slipping and skidding over the shiny metal in the middle of the space, she raced to stand underneath small-horns, snorting and whinnying her disapproval. Big-wings flew up to where small-horns was playing with fire and they spoke with much waving of hands that nearly cost small-hands his already precarious grip.
When all the dangerous gestures were done, big-wings flew down and retrieved something that look to Rosa like a harness she would wear when pulling a cart. Small-horns stood on the long steps and put on this harness while big-wings flew over to clip the harness lead onto one of the metal bits attached to the ceiling.
Small horns called down to her, "Rosa! Look!"
She nearly had a fit when he let go of the ceiling, but he swung from the lead quite securely until he could grab on again. With a snort and a stamp of her hoof, she conceded. That was better. A little. Small-wings brought her an apple and walked her back to her stall where she settled in happily to her evening feed, though she did keep an eye on small-horns until he came down.
Just in case.
Shax came down the ladder after he'd finished welding and handed Ness the clip harness. "I'm adding her to the ship's roster. So you know."
"Oh?" Ness rolled the harness back up and put it in its cabinet. "As what, love?"
"I would have thought that was quite obvious," Shax grumbled. "Safety officer."
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