Time: 19th century
Place: Earth, United States, Oklahoma
"Gimme your pie, piggy." Randall sidled up to Corny like he was being all friendly-like. Corny wasn't buying that rotten barrel of fish.
He backed up a step and took a hasty bite of beef pie. Might be the only one he got. "Don't call me that."
"Talkin' with your mouth full. You are a piggy." Randall shoved his shoulder, not too hard yet.
"Leave me alone. You had yours." Corny tried to turn away for a second hurried bite but a hand snatched his pie away. He blinked up at Daniel who'd snuck up behind him. "Give it back!"
Daniel held him off easily with a straight arm to the forehead, laughing at Corny's flailing. He was quieter than Randall but meaner than a stepped-on rattler. Daniel took a slow bite, chewing even slower like he was savoring.
"Give it back! I'm hungry!"
Now the heavy shove came and Corny fetched up hard against the planks in front of the baker's where Mrs. Cathcart had bought each of the orphans one of the little meat pies from the new fancy glass case. Sister Catherine didn't approve, said it was spoiling them, but she allowed it since Mrs. Cathcart insisted and Corny guessed you didn't nay-say the mayor's wife if you were just a teacher at the orphanage.
He pulled himself over using the railing and sat on the stairs trying not to cry. There was never enough to eat. His stomach felt like a big old sinkhole and the pie had tasted so good. The older kids always took more'n their fair share, leaving the littles to scrape up what they could. The sisters never noticed or maybe they didn't care. Corny's ears had been boxed once already for trying to tell them. If he'd been smarter, he would've realized he'd only called attention, the orphanage bullies circling like buzzards since that day.
"Here." A tanned, dust-seamed hand moved into view, holding out a meat pie.
Corny braved a glance down at spurs and well-worn boots, then up to a weathered face topped by a broad-brimmed hat. He took the pie carefully, scared it was a joke and the man would yank it back. The cowboy was patient though, and waited until Corny had it secure before he turned and sat down with him on the steps.
"Y'gotta learn to be tougher, little hombre." The cowboy's voice was deep and growly. For some reason it gave Corny shivers, not like scared ones though. "Not gonna make it to bein' grown if you don't."
"They're too big." Corny stopped wolfing down the pie for a half-guilty, "Thanks, mister."
The cowboy shrugged. "I ain't so big neither. Never was. Weren't so long ago that boys were pushing me down. If you're smaller, you gotta be meaner sometimes. Lookin' at your feet, though, you ain't gonna be a small fry long."
Corny slowed down to eat like a human and the cowboy stayed until he was done. Then the cowboy patted Corny's knee, got up with a jingle of spurs, leaped onto his horse and rode off. Corny knew he looked like a stupid mooncalf staring after him but he didn't care.
"I'm gonna be a cowboy someday," Corny said to the now empty street.
"You can't be a cowboy, Cornelius," Sister Catherine said with a sniff as she bustled down the stairs, gathering her charges. "You don't even know how to ride. It's a dirty, disreputable job, in any case, where you'll meet nothing but dirty, foul-mouthed sinners. Nothing good ever comes from being a cowboy."
Corny nodded but he knew better. Boys ran away from the orphanage all the time. Maybe they didn't all get to be cowboys but he'd find a way.
Time: Twenty-plus years before the start of Potato Surprise
Place: St. Cuthbert's School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, planet Righteousness
He'd only taken out one with the water on the stairs. There were six left. Julian crouched on the girders above the stairwell where he'd manage to scramble with the help of a trash bin, thinking hard and fast. Yanking the old pipe from its deteriorating fittings had been his most ingenious gambit but most of those lumbering idiots had just barreled through the water barrage.
What now? He could simply give up, curl into a ball, take the beating as he had so many times before and hope they tired quickly. Bloody, bloody tired of it, though. Just because the other kids were older, bigger—just because they had families to go home to on holidays and Julian did not—they thought they had some universe-given right to taunt him, to torment him, and to stomp him into the ground. Not to mention the other reason. Why the social workers had sent him to this backwater world and this school with its backward thinking was a mystery.
No more. No. More.
He glanced around desperately as the idiot pack put their tiny brains together below and started to figure out that they could reach him if they worked together. Several long sections of aluminum piping lay across the girders, probably as a handy storage spot. They looked like ones that would fit together to form a frame, maybe even the ones for the shade canopies for the superintendent and teachers at sporting events. Those would do if he could get to them in time.
"Julia, Julia, come down and play," one of the idiot pack called. They were forming some sort of unstable human pyramid and would reach him in the next moments.
The girders creaked as Julian inched along them and he swallowed hard, hoping they would hold. Almost there… Almost there… His fingers twitched a pipe closer and closed around the metal just as Abigail, the cruelest of the pack, snagged Julian's trailing foot and yanked hard. He made a grab for the girders with his free hand, immediately tucked into a ball when he knew it was too late, and bounced off the idiot pyramid on the way down. They broke his fall. He demolished their teetering human construction.
If it had been a building, it would've been condemned.
Julian fought free of the tangle of flailing limbs though not before he'd been kicked in the head twice, and scuttled back to give himself room as he brandished his new weapon.
"It's Julian," he whispered. "And you need to leave me alone."
Corian threw back his head on an ugly laugh. "Aw. It's itty-bitty feelings are hurt. C'mere, you little freak."
The solid crack of the aluminum pole against Corian's head shocked Julian. It vibrated through his fingers and nearly made him drop it. Nearly. Corian stumbled back, hand to the side of his face. The confusion on his face was the best thing Julian had ever seen. He pressed the attack, swinging for heads and shins, without mercy and for once with more anger than fear.
He didn't stop until the other children had fled or were sobbing on the floor. The hand that finally ripped the pole from his hands was unexpected, larger, and most definitely adult. Julian swallowed hard and tipped his head to find the superintendent glowering down at him. The forced march to the administrative offices had Julian's heart slamming against his chest. Part of him longed to be expelled but where would they send him?
Julian's heart sank when they reached the super's office. A man waited for them there, so they were going to send Julian away. Though something about the man's movements struck him as odd as he rose to greet them—too fluid, too graceful, too watchful. His smile was ambiguous, neither kind nor cruel, his eyes half-hooded and considering. Perhaps his clothes threw Julian more than any other feature. The gray suit looked more expensive than anything the teachers wore. He didn't think the man had come from Planetary Childrens' Services.
"This is the one," the super said with condescending disgust. "Julia Higgenbottom—"
"Julian," Julian corrected softly.
"She came to us through the Planetary Equal Education Program—"
"He," Julian interjected, voice barely more than a whisper.
"And it's rare that anything good ever comes of that. She's incorrigible, defiant, disruptive, and, as you can see, has vicious and violent tenden—"
"He has a natural talent," the strange man cut the super off in a voice of quiet authority. "He's quite the most amazing child I've seen in some time. How old did you say he is?"
"Julia is eight."
"And the other children we just watched on the security feed? How old are they?"
The super's frown deepened. "Twelve. Thirteen."
"And there is no family?"
"No known parents or rela—"
"Astounding." The strange man turned his enigmatic smile on Julian. "Young man, how would you like to go to a new school? A special school where you would learn to fight properly and to code and decode and, oh, all sorts of useful things?"
The man was frightening in a way Julian had never encountered. Something about him screamed predator and made Julian want to crawl under the super's enormous desk to hide. But the man had called him by his chosen name. Had addressed him as young man. He glanced up at the super who regarded him as if Julian were something unpleasant at the bottom of a vegetable drawer.
"Yes, sir," Julian finally answered. "I'd like that very much."
"Excellent. Have you chosen a last name as well?"
The super looked confused but Julian understood. No, he hadn't yet, even though he hated Higgenbottom, a name he felt no connection to. He read the chart on the super's wall, the one with space cartography terms, the one he had read so many times while he stood in front of the super's desk being berated. Red Shift. Gravity Well. Stellar Parallax…
"Parallax, sir. Julian Parallax."
"Perfect." The man reached out a hand and waited until Julian slid his hand up to take it. "Come with me to begin your real life, Julian. I have a shuttle waiting." He turned to the super as they were walking out. "I expect Julian's possessions to be sent along. Properly addressed."
"Yes. Of…of course," the super squeaked.
Julian smiled for the first time in days. He had a feeling his new school would be hard but working hard for someone who treated him with respect wasn't something Julian feared at all.
Time: Shortly before Hell for the Company
Place: Caravel Station
There was a huge slab of military beef lounging by the access tube. Shax might have said lurking with any other loiterer but this one was far too conspicuous to hope for his lurking license to come any time soon. He was just the sort Verin went after for a quick screw but Ver never, ever brought his toys home.
"Can I help you, young man?" Shax pulled out his most charming smile.
"Looking for a demon." The voice was gruff though much higher than Shax had expected.
Shax spread his arms wide. "You've found one. What can I do for you?"
"Not you. Bigger demon. Big…" The soldier made a swirling gesture with one hand. "Curly horns."
"I see." Shax stopped flirting and took on a vaguely bored air of authority. "This is my ship, soldier. Why would you come looking here?"
"Only demon registered ship in port." The answer was sullen, the young man's forehead crinkled as if he were being forced to think too hard.
"I suppose that's fair. Though a large, pugilistically inclined demon could be employed as security on anyone's ship."
This only brought more wrinkles of confusion. Shax tried smaller words.
"Why were you looking for the big demon?"
"Took my chip."
"Your…what sort of chip?"
"For access. I'll be missing at head count. They'll toss me in the brig."
How any authorities this benighted soul answered to could toss him in the brig when he wasn't there was a bit of a puzzle, but Shax supposed that wasn't really the point.
"I see." Shax swaggered up to him and patted his chest as if he were no more than a bulky pet. "I suppose I'll see what I can find out, shall I? Back in a tic or so."
Ivana must've been monitoring since she opened the iris for him discreetly and shut it right on his heels.
"Thank you, darling. Is Verin aboard?"
"You bet your adorable buns he is, Captain. Are you going to get all butch and bellowy?"
Shax strode to the nearest comm panel. "I suppose that depends on Verin." He hit the pad and sang out sweetly, "Veeerrr-innn. Are you busy?"
"The fuck, Shaxy?" Verin growled in response. "I'm off shift. Which means asleep, you spoiled asshole."
"Verin, you get your foul-mouthed, disrespectful, lazy backside out of bed and get down here. You want to leave potential trouble on my doorstep and go to bed? Fine. You can stay behind when Ivana and I leave tonight."
"I'm counting to ten. One…"
The comm cut out on a searing blue streak from Verin, though Shax only made it to six before Verin careened around the corner in nothing but a pair of work pants.
"The fuck, Shaxy? What's got your corset in a twist?"
Rather than answer, Shax brought up the vid of the tube entrance where soldier boy still loomed, staring at the closed iris with angry eyebrows.
"Hey. He wasn't following me when I left. And I'm not gonna ask if I can keep the damn kid."
"So he was your shag of the day?"
"And you took his ident chip that he needs to get back on his troop ship?" Shax waved both arms in expansive arcs. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"He was a sucky lay. Worst ever. I stole his sidearm too. Dumped the shitty thing in a compactor."
"It was out of spite?" Shax waited until Verin tilted his head in an almost-nod before scrubbing both hands over his face. "Hell's sharp, sizzling gates, Ver. Now I have this puppy outside our ship attracting attention, who probably has some internal tracker so the soldier boys won't lose any wandering sparrows. If you're going to steal something that brings us trouble, at least make it something good!"
Smoke curled from Verin's nostrils, just enough for perplexed annoyance. "Yeah, yeah. Mixing your metaphors and shit. I didn't expect the brainless wonder to follow me. Figured he'd wander back to his unit, take his punishment duty or whatever and get a new chip."
Shax rested his head on Verin's shoulder. "Tell me you have it, Ver. Please. At least tell me that so I can salvage this. The last thing we need is to kick up the interest of space marines."
"Yeah, I got fucking the thing. But he—"
"No. Not another word. Just give the chip to me and I will fix this."
"I don't see—"
Shax pulled himself to his full height, which, granted, wasn't much, held out his hand and said in his best imperious voice, "Chip. Now."
Verin grumbled, snorting sparks as he checked his pockets, and finally handed over the data chip in its plas-film holder. Shax snatched it up, palmed it, and took several slow, deep breaths so he wouldn't march out there looking like a little ginger thundercloud.
"Well, I've consulted," Shax began as he breezed back out the access iris. "And I'm afraid I can't help you with this other demon."
"But he has to be here!" A bit of a wail had crept into the anger. Soldier boy was on his last thread of reasonable behavior.
"Now, now." Shax sidled close to put an arm around him. "Are you certain you've lost it? Have you checked your pockets thoroughly, my dear?"
"Of course I checked my pockets!" Nevertheless, the soldier began stuffing his hands in his pockets in quick succession. Shirt. Jacket. Top pants pockets. "I'm not a complete id—" Cargo pockets. His hands stilled and his eyes went wide as he withdrew his data chip from the left pocket. "I—"
"Did you find it? Lovely!" Shax patted him on the shoulder and gave him a beatific smile.
"I'm… Sorry. To bother you, Captain. I'm—"
"No bother at all, my dear. Always nice to see a handsome face. Now toddle along. I'm certain your sergeant must be missing you." Amusement warred with his annoyance as the soldier turned about and wandered off, shaking his head. Shax waved cheerfully when he glanced back. "Buh-bye! Have a nice tour of duty! Stop picking up bad demons in bars! Call your mom!"
Shax stomped back through the access tube and planted his fists on his hips to confront Verin. "Well?"
Verin had the audacity to snicker. "Call your mom?"
"The next time you want a bit of rough trade, you either stay away from the damn enlisted men or you keep your damn hands out of their pockets. Are we clear?"
"Yeah, sure, Shaxy." Verin was still chuckling as he wandered back to bed. "Heh. Call your mom."
With an exaggerated sigh, Shax turned the unavailable light on at the access port. He needed a nap himself. "Honestly, what good is it being a demon prince if you can't even intimidate your one minion?"
Time: Concurrent with the events of Potato Surprise
Place: A bar, New Bangkok, Barbary
Go out into the stars, they said. Once you're interstellar past Sol system, prejudices vanish, they said.
Mac scowled into the tiny beer the bartender had brought him. They'd either had no practical knowledge of other planets or they'd lied, Mac's instructors and supervisors. Now here he was, a journeyman engineer serving on the massive S-class hauler, Valstead, and he'd nearly been arrested twice for walking while nephilim on his first planetary leave.
Nice bar. Dark and cozy. Good beer, though a little pricey for such small, human-sized servings. He'd purposefully picked a place that catered to the non-hetero crowd but hadn't even considered whether the establishment would be non-human friendly. Mac's end of the bar had cleared out quickly once he arrived as if the other patrons had instinctively set up a contamination zone around him.
Irritating but he'd be damned if he was going to hide on the ship every time it came into port. All of his crewmates took planetside leave. Mac wasn't going to let a little bigotry keep him hiding in orbit.
"I'll figure it out eventually," he muttered to his glass.
"Hey there, big fella." A willowy human with short green hair slid onto the barstool beside him. "Looking for a nephie?"
Great. Just great. A groupie. While Mac usually found non-binary people attractive, the nephie thing was a deal killer. Fetishists who were often just as bigoted as the people who crossed the street to avoid him, he'd never encountered a self-proclaimed nephie of any gender who didn't make him feel nauseous and uncomfortable.
Mac figured he'd try the polite route first. "No, thanks. Just came in for a beer."
The nephie leaned forward to peer at Mac's glass. "And they gave you a thimble. That's not right." They leaned over the bar, waving at the bartender. "Oi! Fergie! Taking advantage of the spacer boys again?"
"Knock it off, Mik," the bartender growled. "Can always have you tossed."
"Uh-huh. Uncle Levi would have a fit. Now bring my friend the right size beer."
Grumbling, the bartender snatched away the pint glass he'd served Mac previously and brought a full mug large enough that Mac could actually fit his fingers around the handle. Uncle Levi must've owned a sizeable chunk of the business.
"Thanks." Mac regarded his uninvited companion sideways. "You didn't have to do that."
Mik waved dismissively. "I don't like seeing anyone taking advantage of. And I got off wrong-footed there. You don't sound like—"
"If you even think about saying I don't sound like a nephilim, we're done here," Mac snarled and didn't much care that he was scaring the other patrons.
"Nooo." Mik's smile had grown cautious but he hadn’t moved from the barstool. "I was going to say you don't sound like the security nephilim we get in here sometimes. Let me see… Ship's uniform but not one that screams bridge crew. Scarred hands. A bit of something you couldn't get out from under your thumbnail. Engineering?"
"I really just came in for a beer. That's it. I appreciate your interest. It's flattering. But no."
"You don't even need company?" Mik's grin was one green hair shy of impish. "Scintillating conversation?"
Mac decided it was time to stop beating around the question. "I'm not going to fuck you. If that's why you came over here, I don't pick up strangers in bars."
"Touchy." Mik twirled their glass in both hands. "Have you ever felt safe anywhere? Anywhere at all?"
"That's a strange question." Mac sipped, thinking back anyway. At home? No. His stepfather had hated him. In school? Hell no. At jobs? Not often. He tried to bury himself in work and keep to himself but someone was always pulling out the dangerous nephilim crap. "No."
"Right then." Mik poked a finger at the bar top. "You come here when you want to feel safe. Right here and talk to me. Anytime."
"You live in a bar?"
Mik shrugged. "As good as. I'm the bar's social floorwalker."
"I'm not familiar with… What does that mean?"
"My job's to try to head off fights before they get up a head of steam. Look out for predators with bad intent. Swoop in for conversation when someone's too persistent and their target is signaling for help. Provide a shoulder sometimes since the bartenders are busy."
"So you're not a nephie?"
"Oh, I am." Mik snickered. "Everyone has their preferences, right? But not all nephies are entitled jerks. You said no. It's no."
For a long moment, Mac watched and sipped, considering. "All right. I'm not interfering with your job?"
"You're part of my job. I'm here for you as much as anyone else here." Mik shot him a wink. "And I'm a good multitasker."
"Works for me." Mac raised his mug and waited for Mik to clink glasses. "To not all nephies."
"And not all nephilim."
Maybe the spacer life wouldn't be so bad after all.
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