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.