Not All Rats
Place: The Brimstone's loading ramp
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
A scrabbling sound came from just outside the open cargo bay. Ness slowed his steps and unsnapped the cover on his sidearm. Habit these days, going armed when they were in port. He cringed every time he realized how good it felt, how natural to wrap his fingers around a pistol grip, but Shax reassured him it was a good habit.
For the ports they visited and the company they kept, Shax probably wasn’t wrong.
When he reached the loading ramp, he spotted a pair of boots sticking out the side, the owner presumably wedged into the space between ramp and the outer hull plating of the bay door. The boots wriggled. More scrabbling came from the ramp followed by muffled and highly colorful cursing. Ness frowned at the boots. He recognized them, of course. He just couldn’t parse what was happening here and didn’t particularly trust their owner.
A tiny voice whispered that he should seize those boots by the ankles and yank hard, but he knew he’d immediately regret being mean. Probably not safe anyway, considering the person involved.
“Julian.” Ness tried to say it softly. The name still came out forbidding and sharp.
The boots wriggled backward as Julian squirmed out of the tight space, revealing first his too-perfect butt (that Ness shouldn't have noticed) and finally his too-handsome face (that Ness didn’t want to think of as attractive.) The drawn pistol didn’t help Ness’s opinion of him one bit.
“Oh, hey.” Julian’s smile seemed a bit distracted. “You’ve picked up a spacer rat.”
Ness still had a hand on the butt of his weapon. He eased off and crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes. I know.”
The shock on Julian’s face was nearly worth the uncomfortable conversation. “You can’t let those things get a foothold on your ship. They’ll chew through wiring and baffling panels. Damn nuisances. I’ll take care of the little bastard for you, though. Just need to get a good line-of-sight shot.”
Moving slowly, Ness put a hand on Julian’s shoulder and gently pushed him off to one side. With a pointed glare at Julian’s drawn sidearm, Ness waited until Julian secured it in a boot holster.
“Just…don’t do anything,” Ness said before he let out a low, trilling whistle.
Nicodemus poked his head below the loading ramp, whiskers twitching, and leaped to Ness’s offered hand. He squeaked at Ness and scurried up his arm to his shoulder still chittering in an agitated fashion the whole way.
“Shh.” Ness used one forefinger to stroke between Nicodemus’s ears. “The mean government agent won’t hurt you.”
“Shit.” Julian muttered. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry. You’re not thinking that I—”
Ness held up a hand. “I don’t think you purposefully set out to hurt something belonging to me. Though not all rats are vermin. This is my spacer rat, Nicodemus. Probably better if you had asked.”
All expression had drained from Julian’s face, all attempts to charm and cajole dropped completely. Something in his shuttered expression read as vulnerable, as if he expected a blow to fall at any moment. It made Ness feel guilty and…damn it, he didn’t want to feel guilty.
He fought an exasperated sigh and settled his wings against his back, surprised that he had been mantling unawares. “You were trying to help. The ship. Shax. The crew. I see that. But we are crew here and you are a passenger. It would be appreciated if you didn’t take things in your own hands.”
“Profound apologies.” Julian sketched a polite bow. When he straightened, a crooked smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “I’m told they’re nice hands. Are you certain you don’t have anything you’d like me to take in them?”
Not long ago, Ness would have missed any hint of suggestiveness. Now, he wished he could stop the blood from rushing to his face and ears. Julian probably never blushed. “Quite certain.”
“I’ll always be misstepping with you, won’t I?” The teasing tone had vanished again but at least Julian didn’t look so stricken. “May I pet your rat?”
“Nic will have to determine—” Ness choked off as Nicodemus ran onto Julian’s outstretched hand without hesitation. Little traitor.
“Please to meet you, Nicodemus,” Julian said softly, petting Nic’s head carefully. “Sorry for the misunderstanding. You're truly not like other rats I’ve met.” Julian glanced up at Ness, a calculating light in his eyes. “Do you have problems keeping track of him?”
“Not…most times. He’s often with Leopold.”
Julian held Nic up at eye level. “And yet you were running around the cargo ramp all by yourself, weren’t you, sir?”
Nicodemus chittered at him, clasping Julian’s thumb with both suction-cupped forepaws.
“Clever young man. Would you like a camera? I have something just the right size for you. We could make you a little harness, too. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Before Ness could find his voice to intervene or even protest, Julian had walked back up the cargo ramp with a happily chirping Nicodemus on his shoulder. Ness let out an irritable huff as he leaned against the outer hull of the Brimstone.
As bad as Shax, that one. And there, right there…that was the problem, wasn’t it?
Place: The Brimstone's engine room
Time: Shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
The engine was sound. The Copernicus drive, likewise. But, damn it, the whole engine room was kind of a mess after the captain tried to “help.” When Mac had first joined the crew, it had been as if a ten-year-old with a coloring book manual had been tinkering with the ship for the past several years.
Mac shook his head at the overabundance of lubricant on the C-nodes. Maybe that assessment wasn’t fair, though. Captain Shax had a certain native mechanical ability, especially when it came to navigating the workings of small devices. He just didn’t have the training necessary for star-capable ship engines.
As he contorted himself to retrieve a rag from under the housing, something skittered over his hand. He jerked back and slammed his head on a heat vent. “What in fucking gargleblasters?”
Pink flashed through the grey and white of pipes and ducts until a blindingly pink head poked out from under the housing, antennae waving.
“Come out of there, Max. It’s not safe.” Mac groaned is he stood, rubbing his head and hit the comm pad on the wall. “Leo! Come get your little friend. He can’t be in here.”
He got a peep from the comm in response and crouched back down to millipede level. “Come on, Max. You’re gonna get filthy under there and if the vector changes, you might get crushed.”
Maximillian curled around a pipe and refused to come to Mac’s outstretched hand. Frowning, Mac picked up the wrench he’d dropped earlier and tapped it absently against the housing. The little guy was all right there, so long as he didn’t skitter back under. The wrench hit one of the coupling rivets with a metallic ping and a strange echo answered. Mac tried it again, and again the hollow note repeated with more clarity. From under the engine housing.
“Was that you, Max?”
He picked up a second wrench, hit the first note and tapped a nearby pipe for a deeper sound. Both notes were returned to him from the same spot. Max poked his head out, waving his first set of legs, and sang the two notes in reverse order.
Annoyed as he was, Mac still couldn’t help a chuckle. “Liked that, did you?”
Mac tried a few of the other surfaces within reach, anything relatively hollow that didn’t house delicate sensors or gauges, in an attempt to coax Max out of his impromptu cave. The more notes he played, the more millipede segments crept out from under the housing as Max sang the notes back and rearranged them.
Max twitched suddenly and ran to the liquid accelerator pistons of the Copernicus drive. He reared up on his back segments and tapped at the nearest piston tube, singing a single note. Puzzled, Mac gently tapped the tube with his wrench and produced an identical note. Max stroked the tube with several sets of forefeet, then ran to the next tube in line. When Mac tapped this next one, millipede legs waved in agitation and Max repeated the note.
“Huh. You sure, little guy?” Mac grabbed a vibrational meter from his toolbox and set the sensor against the tube in question. The pitch was just a hair off.
The sound of claws scrabbling along the deck plates at a run reached him and Leopold careened around the corner into the engine room. “I am so sorry. Verin yelled at him today. Max hid away then.”
Mac flapped a hand to shush Leopold as he adjusted the tube’s internal width micrometer by micrometer until Max waved his legs and moved to the next tube.
“Give us just a couple minutes, Leo,” Mac said without looking up from his meter. “Max and I are kinda busy right now.”
Location: The Brimstone's galley
Time: a few days after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
“Whoa! What the hell are you cooking in here, cowboy?” Mac had stopped in the kitchen door, rubbing his eyes. “Smells like it could peel paint.”
Corny manufactured a smile, though he was getting dad-blamed tired of that question. “Chili. Like I used to make back home. ’Cept these here Opaline chilis give it an extra kick.”
“Ms. Ivana lets you do this in her kitchen?”
A huff came from the ship’s speakers. “Our handsome cowboy’s the only person allowed to cook in my kitchen. He knows what he’s doing. Obviously, the high concentration of capsaicinoids doesn’t bother me.”
“Guess that’s true, Ms. Ivana. No eyes to water and such.” Corny nodded as he added the cumin to the simmering meat and chilis. “Onions would be good. Hard critters to find out here. And I only make it when we’ve rounded up some meat. Tried a bean version once so Ness could have some, but whoa Nelly! Demon farts are deadly.”
Mac raised both hands in surrender. “Have at it. I’ll come back later after you’ve vented the room.”
Left in peace, Corny hummed happily. He’d tinkered with the recipe since that first explosive batch he’d made onboard. Dangerous stuff and a few of the Opalines went a long way. Even their fussy captain like the new recipe and only Leopold wouldn’t touch it. Hedgehog eating habits were still a mystery to Corny.
A puff of steam drifted past Corny’s head just before Verin stuck his head in the doorway. “Is it done yet?”
Corny laughed. “I just started, Ver. Hold your big ole hell horses.”
Still grumbling, Verin sauntered in to peer over Corny’s shoulder. “Why’s it take so fucking long? Can’t you, like nuke it or something?”
“Can’t rush good chili.” Corny reached over to stroke one of Verin’s curled horns. “Nothin’ to do, big guy?”
“Got tired of watching stupid human porn. Ship doesn’t need me until tomorrow.”
“Come set a spell.” Corny pointed to the kitchen table and benches. “Keep me company. When I get everything in the pot, we can play a couple hands.”
Ver nuzzled at his neck and stole a piece of mostly raw meat from the pot before he took a seat. Weird relationship. Corny knew that, and he knew it wasn’t normal for Ver either from the looks they got from Shax every time Ver did what Corny asked without argument.
“Oh, my. Is that chili cooking?” Captain Shax leaned in the doorway, eyes glittering.
“Sure is, Cap. Be a couple, three hours yet though.”
“Are we getting a few hands in while we wait?” He plunked his little demon butt across the table from Ver.
“No one invited you,” Verin growled.
“C’mon, Ver, don’t be all ornery.” Corny shot him a stern glance. “Poker’s better with more anyway, right?”
Verin grumbled and let off some steam, but he got the cards out of the drawer and started shuffling. In the moment’s relative silence, the sound of muffled hooves trotting down the corridor reached them loud and clear.
Heckle skidded to a stop in the doorway, his friction socks only doing so much to keep him from sliding. His eyes closed as he sniffed the air. “What’s that wonderful smell?”
“Chili, little hombre. Made with Opaline chilis.” Corny nodded to the box on the counter.
With an automatic look toward the other demons to check if they objected to him being there, Heckle eased into the kitchen, then trotted over to Corny. He picked a chili up, sniffing at it.
“They’re really hot on their own. Not something you can eat raw or—“ Corny blinked in horror as Heckle bit off the end and chewed thoughtfully before he devoured the whole chili like candy.
“Those are nummy.” Heckle’s tail twitched excitedly. “Can I have another one?”
Corny handed him two more. “Go easy on ‘em, Heck. Probably not best for your stomach.”
With pleased little sounds, Heckle crunched on the peppers as he wandered back out, verifying for Corny what he had suspected for a bit. Imps were the toughest of the hell critters. He guessed they had to be since the other demons tended to use them as sex toys, snacks and punching bags.
A few minutes after Heckle’s visit, one more head popped around the corner—Julian with his perfect, bright smile. “Are we making neurotoxins? Can I have the recipe?”
Mr. Parallax Is In
Location: Intersystem Enforcement (ISE) Headquarters
Time: A few days after the end of Shax's War
It was his office. The silver plaque beside the door read J. Parallax. He was so seldom in his office, though, it felt like foreign territory, and one of the new staff had been by already to ask him what he was doing in “Mr. Parallax’s office.”
The youngster slunk off red-faced and stammering when Julian held up his ID, still mortified after Julian explained it happened at least once every time he came in from the field. After that, the staff left him in peace. Reports – several. He knocked them out diligently. Intellnets – some interesting bits. He cherry picked through the bulletins and comm data he wanted, filing things away on some of the miscreants on his personal watch list. He messed about with the magnetic sculpture on his desk until it was vaguely hoverbike shaped. Stared at his messages. Spun about in his office chair.
It was only nine-thirty.
Julian groaned and slammed his forehead against the desk a few times for good measure. How did people survive this eight-hour slog every single workday? If it weren’t mandatory for him to be here between assignments, he sure as hell wouldn’t be. They were going to find him dead in his chair. Expired from boredom.
Just as he was trying to determine how bad the disciplinary action would be for lighting a fire in his waste disposal, an alert pinged softly in one of his files. Oh, please, please be something to get me out of the office. He flew through the layers of encryption and laughed in a mix of disappointment and sheer delight when he saw what the system wanted to tell him. The Brimstone had surfaced, requesting landing clearance on Amnesia several days before. Officially, ISE had no eyes on Amnesia. It was neutral ground, kept that way by agreement. With ISE’s hands off policy, every bit of scum and villainy eventually drifted to Amnesia’s spaceport making it a hotbed of unusual and hard-to-find information for intrepid dark operatives.
Unofficially, Julian had hacked the dock vids.
The vid cams didn’t show the Brimstone, of course. She was snug behind the blast doors in the spaceport proper. He let the feed play forward, patient now that he had something interesting to do.
The doors opened and Verin strolled out, the old bastard, chomping on a cigar and followed by…what in blazing quasars? The man wore a cowboy hat as if he were acting in a historical drama and he led an animal. A beautiful, prancing animal. Julian rifled through his brain cabinets and came up with the word—horse. A little surprising but the Brimstone had transported cows previously, after all. What shocked the stuffing out of Julian was when the cowboy tugged at Verin’s arm to stop him and instead of getting slugged, the cowboy got kissed.
Well. That’s new.
A few minutes later, Shax himself swaggered down the ramp into the spaceport wearing his captain’s jacket and his best “the universe is mine” smile. The graceful figure who followed confirmed some of the rumors Julian had picked up here and there of an angel joining Shax’s crew. Fallen, as it turned out, which made more sense. The fallen frowned at the walkway, checking both directions before following Shax. When he came aside Shax, his long, graceful strides easily catching shorter demon prince legs, Shax took his arm and leaned his head against the fallen’s shoulder.
So. Those rumors were true as well. Not just crew, but a new lover. From the looks of things, not the sort Shaxy was going to use for a weekend and toss away. Julian smiled at how sweet they looked together even as his stomach twisted in an unexpected proprietary knot. A rebellious bit of his brain insisted that was his demon prince hanging all over that ridiculously beautiful fallen angel.
Easy there, Parallax. Friends with benefits had been the arrangement with Shax, nothing more or less. They owed each other no explanations. They made no claims on each other. When they crossed paths, they engaged in some glorious fucking and exchanged stories. That was the deal.
A bright spot of color scurrying from the Brimstone yanked Julian out of his gloomy musings. Puzzled, he zoomed in. An eye-wateringly bright animal raced after Shax. Hedgehog, though much larger than Julian recalled other pet hedgehogs being. The streak of pink caught up, stood on its hind legs, and took Shax’s free hand.
Julian blinked, leaned back, adjusted the settings, and leaned closer to the screen again. Nothing changed the peculiar event to which he served as witness. He shook his head, chuckling.
Oh, my dear Shaxy, you have some explaining to do the next time I see you.
Location: Amnesia Spaceport
Time: About a year after the end of Potato Surprise
It was a sign of truly becoming a spacer, Shax supposed. When the first water drop hit his head, he reached up and wiped it off, vaguely irritated that someone’s cooling unit was leaking from the buildings above the street. The second and third puzzled him since he had reached the end of the block. It took several more drops before he realized it was raining.
Weather. One forgets planets have weather when you’ve been out in space.
Shax stepped under an overhang a moment before the intermittent drops became a deluge, stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets and amused himself as the scurrying commenced. Nothing screamed spaceport more loudly than the number of people who reacted with near panic as the heavens opened. Pedestrians scattered for any nearby shelter. A hoverbike collided with a palette mover to angry shouts and vivid cursing, though the argument died quickly when both operators realized they were only getting wetter.
By the time more people joined him under his overhang, Shax had to lean against the wall because he was laughing so hard.
“What’s so funny, you little freak?” growled the man closest to him. Big man with a scar bisecting the left side of his face. Packing several weapons.
All of this registered but didn’t bother Shax one jot. “You! All of you. Acting like cats made of sugar. You’re not going to melt, for pits’ sakes.”
“You don’t know what’s in that dirty atmospheric water.” The tall woman to Shax’s right shuddered. “Could be anything. Unfiltered shit could have microbes. Parasites.”
“And it’s hell on weapons.” Scarface snorted. “Not that a little cocksucker like you would be carrying.”
You’re lucky I’m in a good mood, you mindless lump of musculature. Shax made a deliberately sensual turn toward Scarface and batted his eyes in an exaggerated manner. “Oh, honey. If your weapons aren’t performing, you’re not packing the right equipment.”
“You little shit!”
Scarface made a grab but Shax had already danced out of reach, out into the vile, dangerous rain. He waved a pistol, the one he’d just lifted from Scarface’s shoulder holster. Several people ducked while Scarface’s complexion edged into an interesting purple. Shax gleefully twirled the weapon around its trigger guard and sidestepped the owner’s next lunge.
“Take this one. The SK49 isn’t a bad weapon, as far as it goes, but it’s like using a wrecking ball instead of a flyswatter, isn’t it?” Shax took a rakish gunslinger stance and pretended to aim down the street. “Could take out that whole bakery from here…”
“No!” someone cried out. “They have the best hamantaschen!”
Shax grinned for the crowd gathered under the eaves. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But the ’49’s really a spacer weapon, isn’t it? Doesn’t like humidity. Doesn’t like the rain.” He flicked the firelock off, aimed it at the ground and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. “Tsk. Piece of junk.”
With a shrug, he tossed the pistol back to its owner in an easy, well-aimed arc, but Scarface still managed to fumble and drop it, causing everyone in his vicinity to flinch. He snarled at Shax, took a menacing step forward, but stopped short of actually exposing himself to the weather.
“Ah, the advantages of being planet-born.” Shax tipped an imaginary hat at his audience, did a little Gene Kelly sidestep and dance-swing around the light post, and skipped off warbling I’m singing in the rain…
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