At The Races
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Ness pulled in a deep breath over the steam, luxuriating in what was now a familiar, comforting scent. Coffee had taken some getting used to, but Ms. Ivana had begun adding that most celestial of foods, chocolate, to his. Better than heaven. Both chocolate and coffee should have been nearly impossible commodities in space since Earth produced both in such tiny, extraordinarily expensive amounts, but Ness had learned the secret.
Most of the fabulous wealth on Elistrus came from coffee and chocolate farming and production. Shax swore that the Elistran products were better than Earth's. They were certainly less scarce.
Lost in chocolate-laced caffeine euphoria, it took Ness several minutes to realize he was the only one in the kitchen. Yes, he'd slept a little late, but most of the crew lounged around over breakfast on days the ship was in transit. He shouldn't have been alone. No chatter on the ship's comm and no alarms blaring meant everything was fine. So where was everyone?
He could have asked Ms. Ivana, of course. Not nearly as interesting as investigating for himself.
Coffee mug in hand, he followed his instincts and his ears to the hold where he stopped on the landing, leaning against the rail in a half-conscious imitation of Shax in a pensive mood. The noise alone would have brought him there eventually to find everyone present and accounted for and doing…something.
The larger people, Shax, Verin, Corny, Mac and even Julian stood on either side of the hold, making an unholy amount of noise. Heckle perched on a stack of crates, adding his higher voice to the cacophony. Zooming down the center of the hold floor were three…sweeper bots? Yes. That's what they were. Two of the smaller ones that normally did vent cleaning and one of the larger ones that cleaned rooms and corridors. Running in straight lines wasn't normal behavior for any of them.
Neither was carrying passengers.
Except for sips at his coffee, Ness stood still as stone, trying to parse the scene in front of him before he moved. The three bots zipped across a line of black electrical tape laid out near the far wall, the one carrying Max first, then the one carrying Nicodemus, and last by a whisker…a spiny prickle? The one with Leopold. Shax whooped and leaped into the air several times pumping his fist. Verin swore an inventively blue streak. Julian laughed and shook his head ruefully.
Races? With sweeper bots?
Leopold, peeping, pushed his bot over to Mac, who should have been the voice of sanity here. But Mac went down on one knee, made some adjustments to the underside of the bot, and set it back down for Leopold to climb aboard. Remounted, Leopold rode to join Max and Nic at a line of red electrical tape at the opposite end of the hold, presumably the starting line.
Ness took one more sip of coffee and spoke into the relative silence. "I can't be certain, but I don't think you're using those according to factory specifications."
"Good morning, cupcake!" Shax called up and blew a kiss. That was encouraging, at least. Better than the moping about he'd been doing so much of. "The boys are just blowing off a bit of steam."
"And Shaxy's cheating," Verin growled. "Don't know how yet, but he has to be."
"By betting against our son, it seems." Ness cringed the moment he said it since Shax's brilliant smile slipped.
"Gotta be fair here. This was Leo's idea." Mac held up a hand. "I know. It's the betting thing. But it's just between family, Ness. Nobody's putting up any serious money."
Heckle had gone still, chewing at his bottom lip. Shax was rubbing at his chest where an archangel's sword had once pierced him. Ness was sure he didn't even realize he did that when anxious. Everyone was staring at him. They thought he was angry. Did he really get angry that often these days? Was his anger so often extreme? The backs of Ness's eyes stung to think his crewmates might find him frightening sometimes.
In his softest voice, he addressed Heckle. "Who's been winning?"
"Um." Heckle stumbled and hiccoughed before he found his voice. "Nic won the first race, but Max took the next two. They're driving by covering and uncovering the bots' eye things…"
"Optic sensors," Mac supplied.
"Those. And Max's good at it."
Ness sipped at his coffee as he descended the stairs, settling his wings to his back. He took another glance around the room, took in the bot jockeys watching him with various unreadable expressions. He had to do something here.
"Twenty on Leopold to win."
Leopold gave a happy chirp and the room regained its joyful noise.
A Letter from Shax
Place: From the desk of Captain Shax Goldner, Demon Prince of Thieves
Dear Earth-bound Readers,
My chronicler and biographer has recently returned from some business venture or other and has been irresponsible enough to neglect having a story about me ready beforehand. Shameful behavior. My apologies, since someone needs to be the adult here.
Please don't misunderstand me. I do appreciate Angel's efforts to recreate my adventures (and those of my crew as well, I suppose.) My heroic stands, such as the one against the Archidiot Michael, and my astounding victories (see the triumph over the Polyphemus) have been recounted fairly well. A bit more heroism and a bit less emphasis on the frantic parts would be preferable, but all in all, not too shabby.
I do want to clear something up, though. In moments of stress, I do not squeak, scream, whimper, or faint, e.g. in regard to frogs especially, and I very much resent the implication.
So please write to Angel and ask her to portray me in a more heroic, brilliant light with perhaps more emphasis on my impeccable sartorial choices and superior leadership skills.
Thank you, dear readers,
Son of Shax
Location: Habitat Atop Lunette the Space Shark
Time: Shortly before the beginning of Beside a Black Tarn
Benny squinted at the pink being on his viewscreen. "Does your Papa Shax know you're using comm without, you know, adult supervision?"
The spiny head bobbed up and down, vanishing and reappearing several times before the little guy managed to get something in place to use as a booster on the pilot's chair.
"No, he does not know. I could ask him things instead. But, independence."
"Hope I don't catch shit for this, short stuff," Benny muttered.
The Brimstone had caught up to Lunette during the ship's night cycle. Since it was a planned meeting, Lunette the space shark was content to circle the Brimstone until captain and crew woke up. Benny was awake. He was usually awake. Self-preservation had beaten the habit of sleeping more than twenty minutes at a time out of him.
The hedgehog managed to look offended, and that wasn't an everyday kind of thing. "My side jobs are mine. He is aware I have them. My private income."
"Okay." Benny drew the word out as his mind raced through probable outcomes. As long as the little demon spawn was telling the truth, everything would be fine. If he was lying… Well, Shaxy needed him. They had a good business relationship. "So you've got something of your own you want me to, ah, appraise for you. Something your papa can't, maybe?"
Leopold vanished again and there was a lot of peeping and grunting. Finally, the pink spines reappeared and Leopold wrestled a black box up onto the console. His cute little paws struggled with the latch for a few seconds. Easy to dismiss Leopold as cute, to underestimate him. Benny knew better than to judge the intelligence or threat-level of any being on appearance. Box open, Leopold turned it toward the screen.
Benny stared for a good thirty seconds. "Fuck me sideways with an engine turbine," he whispered. "It's been years since I saw one of those."
Inside the box on padded satin sat a black orb, so dark it tried to drink the light around it. While the thing did a good impression of a black hole, it wasn't one, of course. Lunette would never have circled so close to one. Instead of swallowing light and matter, it absorbed something else. Truth.
"You even know what you have there, Son of Shax?"
The pink head bobbed up and down. "I have done research. An Obfuscational Orb. At least that's its name."
"Okay. Close the box, kiddo. Um. Do you know what it does?"
Somehow hedgehog shoulders managed a shrug. Uncanny. That was the word for things like Leopold. Sure, Benny felt a little bad about it, but the bizarre giant hedgie made him uncomfortable. He shouldn't have existed.
"Great. A little background on the OO. From what I know, there's only five of the things. There were six but one got smashed in the wreck of the Polyphemus. Supposedly."
Again, Leopold nodded, pointing to the box.
"Yeah. Was afraid of that. You've got the one from the Polyphemus." Benny sighed. "Great. Just fucking great. Anyway, what it does is make it impossible for everyone around you to know if you're lying. You can tell the biggest juiciest lies ever and people think it's, you know, gospel and stuff. It's some neuro-interference transmitter. No one knows how it works, since the guy who invented them's dead. Really, really dead. Don't ask."
Leopold closed the box slowly and fastened the latch.
"You want me to give you a price on it? Can't do it. Only way to sell it is to a hungry buyer, some schmuck willing to toss down a pile. Finding a buyer and negotiating exposes you. Exposes me. That one's hot. So hot you could power a freighter with it. The owners are still alive and liable to ping to it if you try to sell, right? You hold onto it for a few decades until it's not so hot. Better yet, get rid of the scary fucking thing."
Leopold let out a sad peep and reached to cut the connection.
"Hey. Leo. You came to me for advice? You don't gotta listen. None of my business. But I've got one more important bit for you. Don't hide things from your papa. It'll just come around to bite your ass."
The little guy signed off and Benny stared at the screen, still for a long moment while he processed. When he had sifted through his brain to be certain there wasn't anything immediately dangerous about the information, he filed it with all of the other items his mind held onto for possible future need.
He shook himself, chomped a corner off a protein bar, and went back to processing the interstellar datastream.
Location: Elistrus, the city of Helike, one of the swankier sections thereof
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Heckle tugged at the fancy new vest. Again. It fit perfectly, but the heavy brocade was stiff, silver on dove gray velvet, and he couldn't help the feeling that he should take it off before he had a chance to ruin it.
"Captain, this party…"
"Hmm?" Captain Shax inclined his head toward Heckle, though he kept his eyes on the arriving guests. He looked like he belonged, elegant and regal in his royal blue topcoat and shining black boots. He strode confidently toward the front door of the estate while Heckle trotted hesitantly in his shadow.
"Why me, Captain?"
Now Shax stopped, regarding him with a raised eyebrow. "Why my dear Heckle, because you're absolutely adorable and without a doubt the most appropriate companion for this evening."
"Is gloriously beautiful." Shax tapped his gold-handled walking stick on the pavers and resumed walking. "Humans often find him intimidating."
"Also lovely, but does not necessarily enjoy a more rarified environment."
Heckle took the captain's offered hand and trotted beside him, bottom lip caught between his teeth. Finally, he asked softly, "So, I'm a distraction, Captain?"
Shax pulled him closer as they passed a group of young men in excessively wide kilts, apparently all the rage that season. "I do like your company, you know."
The evasion was answer enough. Heckle bounced a step or two before he caught himself. "I'm helping on a job?"
Shax sniffed, his expression exceptionally haughty. "I don't know what you're on about. We're here to enjoy the food, the wine, and the company. And don't you dare tell Mac."
"Of course not, high— Captain." Heckle tried to imitate the serious, snooty expression and thought his face might break. "What should I do?"
"Stay with me for the first promenade around the room. We'll let ourselves be seen, chat a bit, gauge the temperature of the soiree. After that, I'll set you loose and you just go and enjoy yourself."
"That's it?" Heckle couldn't help the disappointment in his tone.
"Believe me, my dear, it will be an enormous help to me if I read this crowd correctly."
Heckle nodded, though he didn't quite understand. He had thought there would be a more elaborate scheme, somehow. The stories Verin and Captain Shax told…well, there were always schemes. Weren't there?
Though he had to admit that the captain was more than right to keep Heckle with him when they first arrived. Heckle found himself overwhelmed, befuddled by the dazzling displays of decadence everywhere he looked. Captain Shax was in his element, chatting here, nodding regally there, sampling this, tasting that. He made sure Heckle got some food in him, pointing out the best bits and letting him know in soft murmurs what bits weren't worth the effort.
"There." Shax pointed out a tiered silver tray piled high with sweets. "Those are Turin Dots. I think you'll like them."
The tray was too high for Heckle so Shax retrieved two for him on a fussy bit of paper lace. Heckle bit into one and closed his eyes on a little moan. Chocolate, caramel and an amazing sweet cream he couldn't quite identify nearly shoved him into food orgasm.
"Those are my favorites, too," a smooth alto said just behind him. "Though I could watch you eat them all day."
Heckle turned, the second sweet held in his claws and found himself face to face with a blindingly white shirt. He tipped his head up and managed a little smile for the person peering down at him. Color appeared unable to touch this being, from the white cutaway and trousers to the short white hair and perfect, pale skin. Red eyes were the only hint of hue.
Gaze fixed on Heckle, the person said, "Hello, Shax."
"Hello, Arian." Captain Shax's smile might have been a little strained. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Likewise, though we can keep this civil, I'm certain."
"Who is this enchanting person you've brought with you?" Arian put a white gloved finger under Heckle's chin.
"This is Heckle, my ship's quartermaster. Heckle, this is Arian Brun. Make sure to count your fingers after shaking hands."
Arian laughed, a low, purring sound. "Hazards of the profession. May I steal him, Captain Shax? For one dance, I promise."
"I know you don't mean literally, but yes. You may borrow him for one dance. I need Heckle circulating."
Arian extended a leg in a courtly bow, which Shax returned graciously. "As much as I would like to keep him, my word on it. One dance."
Heckle felt as if he'd been bartered for, but he was more curious than nervous. Captain Shax wouldn't abandon him. He knew that by now. If this intriguing colleague of his wanted a dance, he could oblige. The orchestra had just struck up a minuet, so he really could. Ness had started to teach him partnered dances and they'd just reached Earth eighteenth century ones.
"Lady Arian?" he began, his scarlet fingers stark against the white-gloved ones gripping his hand.
"Oh, little one, none of that. Just Arian. You may call me Mx. Arian, if you must have an honorific."
Heckle nodded. "Sorry. Mx. Arian, how do you know Captain Shax?"
Zhe's pale lips tipped up in a thin smile. "Let's just say we're in the same line of work. Though I bow to Shax's additional years of experience. I love your hooves, by the way. The way they shine."
Heckle's face heated at the compliment, but he managed a smile and a polite thank you. He draped his tail over his arm so it wouldn't twitch around and smack into people, and took his place beside Arian.
The couple across from them in dance pattern smiled politely, but didn't seem entirely comfortable with them. That was fine. It was a Bath Minuet, so everyone would be changing places soon, anyway.
"Smile. Be charming. You are an absolute delight," Arian purred as the dancers began to move.
He did as she asked, a little stiffly at first, but with greater ease as he skipped forward and back, turned and spun as the pattern required, taking one hand and then another and another. It truly was fun and all the humans smiled at him, watching his hooves, sometimes giving him little pets as he went by. A little disconcerting to be the center of attention, but it was all so polite and controlled. With specific expectations, he could deal with strangers.
At the end of the dance, Arian returned Heckle to his captain as promised, placing his hand in the crook of Shax's elbow with a bow.
"Thank you for indulging me," Arian said. "Both of you."
Shax chuckled and patted Heckle's hand. "You're welcome, I think. Did you leave me the emeralds, at least?"
Zhe made a dismissive gesture. "You know I've no use for colored stones. It was a productive turn about the floor, though."
"Oh, yes." Shax nodded, a definite gleam in his eyes. "It most certainly was. Heckle, my dear, you were perfect."
They didn't stay too late, which was fine with Heckle. He wanted to get home to Mac at a decent hour. But he did dance with several people and Captain Shax, as well, who was an excellent dancer. Not that Heckle was surprised.
At the end of the evening, Captain Shax hummed and sang all the way back to the Brimstone. He wasn't much of a judge of these things, but Heckle deduced that it must have been a top-notch sort of party.
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.
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