"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
"It's an ocean, Ver." Shax spread his arms toward the crash and retreat of the waves, the cool salt spray exciting and new.
"Yeah? Where's the magma? Where's the sulfur mist? How the fuck is this an ocean?" Verin scowled hard enough to scare away a group of nearby birds.
Shax patted his companion on the shoulder. "It's a water ocean. It's all salted water. Amazing, don't you think?"
"It's stupid. And colder than ice dragon balls. And who had the shitty idea to pour salt into it?"
"Pour…? I don't think anyone did, you know. I think they simply come that way. Oceans." Shax frowned at a creature with huge claws scuttling sideways past his toes. "Though some of the wildlife looks much like home."
"Why're we here, genius?"
Shax gave a one-shouldered shrug and wandered closer to the waves with his boots in one hand. "I'm not certain. I wanted to see it, I suppose. Auntie Lilith talks about the sea. It always sounded unbelievable. A story."
"Tons of better places we could've gone if you wanted something fucking unbelievable."
"I think it's quite lovely, in a melancholy way." Shax dug his toes into the sand, relishing the soft spread of it as he pressed down. "Besides, pearls are said to come from oceans. Pearls are so pretty."
"Whatever. Some hell-boar flank would be a lot prettier right now."
Shax shot him a startled glance. "You can't be hungry again already."
"Always fucking hungry." Verin crouched, drawing angry lines in the sand with a stick. "Stupid body needs to stop the stupid growing already."
Since they'd hit puberty it had been like this, and had only gotten worse. As Verin outstripped Shax in height and breadth of shoulder, his constant gnawing hunger only increased with his size. He hoped that Ver would stop growing soon. Mum said he was to be Shax's bodyguard and would receive the proper training and, granted, while it was good to have a sizeable personal guard of impressive strength, Shax didn't want to have to look up too far to speak to him.
"Psst. Hey. Demon kids."
Shax peered up and down the beach, frowning when he didn't spot anyone.
"Down here, dummy," the voice went on. "By the waves."
A glance down and to the left revealed a fascinating being. They, for gender was difficult to determine with an unknown species, were built something like a fish, though with sleek watertight skin rather than scales and a breathing opening atop the head.
"Well, hello there," Shax smiled tentatively. "Who might you be?"
The being emitted a series of high-pitched whistles and chirps. "But my name's not important right now. You kids shouldn't be on topside land. Didn't anyone tell you humans live there?"
Shax blinked at that. "Well…yes? We've met quite a few humans. They're rather fun."
"Filthy, greedy, violent," the being with the whistle-chirp name went on heatedly. "No sense of proportion and their singing is terrible. Not to mention, they think dolphins are fish! Idiots. Look, you boys be careful. All I'm saying. Humans are trouble and they're multiplying. It'll only get worse from here."
"Thank you, Mr. um…Dolphin." Shax swept the ocean being an elegant bow. "We'll be as careful as we can. It will be part of our jobs when we're older to seed chaos in among the humans. We can't really avoid them, I'm afraid."
The dolphin, since they didn't object to the name, snorted through the hole atop their head. "Sucks to be you, then."
With a flip of their tail that soaked Shax, the dolphin used its flippers to turn, humped back into the water and swam away.
"Can we go home now, your dripping highness?" Verin muttered. "The water ocean is fucking ridiculous."
Shax shoved his sodden hair out of his eyes. "Yes. To both those things. And I'm going to have some sharp words for Auntie Lilith when we get there."
"It's not right." Verin stormed down the corridor toward Ness, his bulk taking up too much space to edge around.
Ness had mantled out of startled reflex and pulled his wings in. "Several things aren't right, I'm sure. What specifically, Ver?"
Verin poked at his comm and brought up a holo display. "The fucking weapons' ratings, that's what. The fuck, featherboy?"
"The—" Ness leaned forward to peruse the numbers with a puzzled frown. "Did I make a mistake entering them?"
Heavy footfalls approached from behind him and a hand the size of a dinner platter fell on his shoulder. "Mind if I squeeze by, boys?"
"Ah." Ness half-turned to offer Mac an apologetic grimace. "I think I have to understand why Verin's having a fit before he'll move."
"A fit? I'll give you fits, you pea brained crappy excuse for a fallen!" Verin stabbed a claw at the numbers. "You can't be that blind. Look at the rankings. Why is that half-pint little—"
"Choose your next word carefully, Hammer," Mac rumbled.
Verin's mouth snapped shut and it took half a heartbeat for him to say, "Twerp. That damn little twerp's rated higher than me." Verin shot Mac a venomous look when he chuckled. "Shut it. This is serious. I can handle any weapon manufactured now or whatever the fuck came before. I've been his rotten sodding selfish highness's bodyguard for how many troll-fucking centuries? And that little twerp—"
"Outscored you on the qualifying course," Ness cut him off softly. "I'm sorry. I know it's unfair, and overall, yes, you're far more experienced and qualified. But for the interplanetary ratings course, these were the scores."
"You." Verin first pointed a finger, then grabbed a handful of Ness's sleeve. "You're gonna sit down with me and explain how in all levels of fucking fuckery this happened."
Too befuddled to protest, Ness allowed himself to be dragged to the galley and shoved onto one of the benches. If he'd known Verin would take the scores so personally, he would have…what would he have done? Hidden them? Tried to soothe an irritable demon's ego? Talked to Shax? He sighed and pulled the scores up on the table's holoscreen for better viewing. The new rating system had come down from ISE, mandatory for anyone who wanted a weapons license and competence level in any planetary city or station. As security officer, Ness had needed to make certain the crew ran through the approved course, a much stranger qualifying course than he'd anticipated.
"You and Heckle have nearly identical scores until we reach this part here." Ness enlarged the scores and expanded Heckle's and Verin's to show each segment.
Verin snorted a heavy, unhappy cloud of steam and sparks. "What in all levels of fuck was that?"
"Let's see…" Ness checked his coding list, pointing to the specific numbers where the scores diverged. "Here's where the wind tunnel test began. And here's where the required dual weapon firing starts within the wind tunnel."
"How did that little runt do better'n me in the cocksucking wind tunnel?" The sparks flew at an alarming rate as Verin's volume reached bellow stage. "It should've blown him over at the first fucking breeze!"
"Well, yes." Ness brushed a spark from his sleeve. "From what I understand, it did initially. But Heckle has extra appendages at his disposal. He went airborne with his tail wrapped around a support beam and was able to navigate the air currents better than a standing shooter could."
Verin stared at him, his expression hovering between shock and fury. Finally, he sputtered, "That should've been a disqualification!"
No cuss words in an entire sentence just highlighted how upset Verin was, and Ness thought he began to understand why. "Well, no. Everyone was permitted to use their natural attributes. You have your enormous strength, Heckle has a tail. His accuracy is a bit better than yours, but your rate of fire is higher than anyone on board. Except perhaps Julian…" He had to stop for a breath to avoid sounding annoyed. "But Julian's licensing isn't something I need to worry about. For sheer mayhem, no one can outdo you, Ver."
Ness dared to reach across the table to pat Verin's arm. "Yeah. Heckle doesn't have the mass or the horns to brawl as you do. Even Mac, who just doesn't have the experience, would stand up to you in a protracted fight. You are The Hammer, Shax knows it, and no one could ever replace you by his side."
"What the fuck ever." Verin pulled his arm away, though only so he could stand. His steam had calmed to occasional puffs. "Stupid touchy feely angel stuff."
Ness kept a straight face as Verin stalked out, shutting down the holo screen, ignoring the muttering. Only when those big, clawed feet had stomped away down the corridor did he allow himself a chuckle. "You're welcome, Ver."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Amnesia got a bad rap in Mac's opinion—not quite the hive of thieves and villains some people made it out to be. Sure. There were thieves and villains, since Amnesia spaceport had an extremely loose definition of law, but there were plenty of honest folks and business owners just trying to make a living. It was also a familiar place where he knew the streets and a place where people understood a simple social contract:
If it doesn't concern you, keep walking.
Which was why he shocked himself by stopping when he heard a frustrated squeak overhead.
He'd just had lunch with his handsome imp, though Heckle had needed to scurry back to the Brimstone for an incoming shipment, and Mac had decided on a window-shopping stroll. Gnawing on a toothpick, taking his own time down the covered sidewalk, he'd let other pedestrians part around him, wavelets to the prow of his ponderous barge of a body, as he headed toward the bazaar. Never knew what to expect there.
The overhead squeak sure as hell wasn't expected. Mac peered up into the support beams of the walkway awning and spotted something glittery squirming up there. A packing crate outside one of the shops made a good stepstool for Mac. Perfect for him, anyone else would've needed a ladder. Someone more or less Heckle-sized had gotten snagged on a jagged edge of one of the beams and Mac carefully disengaged the captured fabric before lifting the small person down.
"Put me down!" Small Person shrieked and hammered against Mac's shoulder with a tiny, sparkly hand.
"Sure. No problem." Mac set Small Person on his feet, so small he only came up to Mac's waist. "Are you all right?"
Small Person shook out shimmering gossamer wings with a disgusted snort and straightened what appeared to be a blue satin princess dress and tiara of questionable quality. A cigarillo clamped tight between blinding white teeth completed the look. "Yeah. Yeah. I'll live."
"I know it's none of my business, but are your wings viable?"
"Vestigial, thanks for bringing up a sore subject, you ass." Small Person straightened his shoulders. "I'm a dentata pseudonymph."
Mac fought against squinting, though it was a struggle faced with such an abundance of glitter. "You're…some kind of tooth fairy?"
"Oh fuck you, nephy-poo." Small Person rolled his eyes. "Like fairies exist. I'm a dental demon."
Mac's forehead crinkled at the childish insult. "Why were you stuck up in the roof beams if you can't fly?"
Not-The-Tooth-Fairy shot him a frown blacker than anything Captain Shax could manage. "Some big bruiser shoved me up there for stealing her box of flavored dental dams."
"Ookay." Mac wondered if he'd fallen out of bed that morning and hit his head. "Why would you steal dental dams?"
"Hello! Dental demon! It's what I do. I steal mouth stuff. Teeth. Fillings. Ball gags. Dentures. Toothbrushes. All that crap."
Amazing how some explanations don't explain one damn thing. "And what do you do with all of it?"
"You sure ask a lot of dumb questions. But you're a nephy, so I guess you can't help it." The dental demon shrugged. "It's what I do. What I do with what I do isn't any of your damn business. Thanks for the hand, but it's not like we're gonna be friends or anything." The dentata demon glared up at him, obviously waiting for something. "Move, you cretinous mountain!"
Mac stepped aside, gaping after the demon who stomped off in a huff of glitter and fluttering shimmery wings. When the demon vanished around a corner, Mac realized two things—his toothpick had also vanished and he'd completely forgotten what he'd planned to do with his afternoon.
Shaking his head, he made his way back to the Brimstone instead. Heck was never going to believe this.
Then again… Mac shook his head at himself. Heckle had seen a lot during his life in Hell. Probably not much left he wouldn't believe, even demonic tooth not-fairies.
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