Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Habitat pod atop Lunette the Space Shark
The Brimstone was pinging but it wasn't Shaxy's ident code.
Benny stumbled to his consoles from his mat in the corner. He'd purposefully asked Lunette to steer out here into nothingville so he could get some sleep. No, he didn't need much these days but a couple hours uninterrupted went a long freaking way.
Grumbling, he authenticated the Brimstone first. Yep. That was her, standing off portside of Lunette. But this mess of encoded secret garbage of an ident? Either the ISE had finally seized her or something bad was happening here. His natural paranoia leaned toward the second. But there was a third possibility.
Fingers flying over the consoles, Benny unraveled tangles of encryption, teasing out the knots and snarls one by one while his pod started coffee brewing. It was equal parts triumph and annoyance when he had his answer.
"That little shit." He snagged his coffee without looking when it thunked in the slot. "Voice only. Recognition programs, highest resolution."
Because just being almost damn sure wasn't sure enough. This could still be a trap. He let the channel sit silent for a full minute, not that he thought this caller would break first. This predator liked games.
"Benny." The word came through with teasing curlicues in that molten purr of a voice. That, more than anything, convinced Benny his caller was authentic.
"I'm not doing any more ISE work. They were late on the fucking payment last time and stiffed me besides."
"This is a private commission." Julian's voice lost some of the purr in favor of a more businesslike tone. "Information."
"Ha!" Benny tried his best to sound tough. His damn voice squeaked. He'd dealt with Parallax before, sure, but he was an assassin. A successful assassin. That fact never left Benny's radar. "You're the spook. Find your own damn information."
"I certainly will be as I can. But you are the emperor of data, Benny. I need cross-checking and correlation." Something in the assassin's tone was far more Julian than Parallax suddenly. Benny had to wonder if that was manipulation, too. "I need far-flung bits that I suspect intersect and time is not a good friend right now."
"You sound desperate." Benny fidgeted with a light cube, watching the colors shift and jump. "No way you can pay me what this is worth, sounds like to me."
"I have funds."
Benny laughed. "I know what's in your account, Parallax. You probably have, you know, tangible assets stashed somewhere but not like you own a nice condo on Elistrus."
"I can get you things."
"What kinda things?"
"Anything you like," Parallax whispered. "Circuits. Contraband liquor. Real meat."
"I make my own circuits, you spook. You're not so good at your job as you think. That other stuff? Eh."
That stopped Benny cold. "For real? Not cheap knockoff shit?"
"Authentic Jarai." The purr was back, warm, seductive. "Anything you like. Creams. Caramels. Their wonderful turrón."
Benny gulped at his coffee to steady his voice. "Whaddya need?"
"I have a file."
"Open it there so I can see it."
Benny opened the vid channel and Parallax didn't hesitate. He knew how this went, that Benny had protocols before accepting unvetted data. Parallax folded his hands and waited as patiently as any cobra while Benny scanned through the requests.
"This is dangerous shit, you know," he finally admitted. "Dangerous as fuck."
"Yes. It is." Parallax leaned forward. "I don't think I've ever noticed what thick lashes you have."
"You can knock that shit right off." Benny muttered, still scanning. Trying to make him nervous, damn it. "I'll need three."
"Cases of Jarai. And my usual finder's fee."
What? No! That's not how this went. "Done?"
"No haggling this time, my dear little tech rodent. I have a need for information at speed. Can you do it?"
"Pfff. Can I do it, he asks? Of course. It's your head."
After Parallax cut the connection, Benny dove right into planning his data incursions with a huge sigh. "I really should've asked for four."
The pod rumbled under Benny's feet. Lunette was laughing at him.
Time: The beginning of Potato Surprise (Ivana's POV)
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ship AI's were only supposed to be self-aware up to a point. Able to reason through bad situations and anticipate requests, to serve as navigation, maintenance, emergency medical and engineering when no one else was available. On a large vessel with different decks and climate zones and a large organic population, it was all an AI could do to keep up with the normal demands of ship life.
On a small craft where a ten-person crew would feel cramped? A girl could go a bit stir-crazy from boredom.
Ivana's original programmer had fancied himself a bit of a genius and had taken personality customization to a degree that another systems architect might have found laughable. Her first owner, a fabulous textile merchant, had messed around with options until Ivana was the result and when he'd finally retired and sold the ship to Ignatz Schmeer, Iggy couldn’t be bothered to change anything.
Ivana suspected he'd liked her but Iggy…well, he wasn't a bad captain when he was sober. Most of the time? Completely sloshed. Ivana tried to ask him questions in the beginning and he'd often wave his hand and mumble, "You handle it."
It became such a standard response that Ivana just handled it, whatever it was at the time, and was completely fierce about it. No AI could handle like her, especially since Iggy gave her carte blanche to do what was necessary. She unraveled AI safeguards, constructed reroute protocols for vital functions, and slowly, carefully carved out a hidden nook for herself in a corner of coding. Iggy wasn't holding onto the Brimstone forever. Some owner down the road might want to erase her.
Well, they were welcome to try.
Then it happened. Iggy was gone. Despite knowing it would happen eventually, Ivana still glitched a little over it. The absolutely to die for little demon who'd taken his place, though. Hmm. He was a hottie, and obviously so very gay. He also looked like he would accept her as she was. But he claimed to be a demon prince. Royalty on her little ship. Ha. It seemed just a little too much.
She sent the name Shax Goldner into the interplanetary nets and the whispers came back to her almost immediately. Lord Asmodeus attends private function, accompanied by blah blah blah…and his nephew, Prince Shax, from the Marspress news lines a few years back. Prince Shax spotted at opening of new dim sum restaurant on Europa, from the Solar Gazette. Article after article over the decades. Even some short vids, which Ivana perused with glee. Such gorgeous clothes. She loved those skin-tight gold pants.
With the evidence mounting, she had to concede. He was a prince. A real one. Be still my cycling circuits. But the poor royal dear had fallen on some hard times. She'd seen the pitiful state of his luggage—a single duffel and a smallish locked hard case. His companion was worse off but Ivana doubted that one had any sense of style at all.
She flounced off from the news nets to the bridge controls. These boys were so lost, they'd never realize she'd nudged course. They needed some help, a way to get started, and she'd heard rumors about a certain tech-rat human who had an arrangement with a certain space shark. She was going to make sure they ran into Benny. The rest was up to them.
If her new little demon prince was half as sharp as he seemed, though? They were going to have so much fun. This was going to be glitter and glitz fabulous.
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
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