Time: Shortly after Shax's War
Place: Helike, Planet Elistrus
Corny reckoned that a lot of his life had been taken up by waiting around. Not that this was a bad thing necessarily, and he'd usually had things to keep him busy in the meanwhile. Today's waiting was for Ver to get back from whatever shopping he'd wanted to do alone, and that wasn't any hardship either. It was a beautiful spring day in Helike and he'd found a good spot on a park bench in the shade.
He had a bag of some kind of dried fruit from a vendor a few streets over. The day was bright and just warm enough. Corny stretched his legs out in front of him, flexing his feet inside his boots, just enjoying the quiet.
"Excuse me, sir?"
Glancing left, right and behind him, Corny finally found the owner of the voice at his feet. A silver and steel squirrel, a might larger than life-sized, rolled around his boots on well-oiled silver wheels. "Aww, ain't you just the cutest little—"
The squirrel chirped sharply, cutting him off. "Have you been touched by the glory of our Nutness, the Great Pecan?"
Corny blinked at the little robot. "Have I what now?"
He didn't get any farther, interrupted by a tug on his pants leg. "Pardon me, sir? Have you been saved?"
What in thundering blazes? He leaned forward and found a mouse made of copper wire, roughly the size of the squirrel, with a hand on his leg. "Saved from what?"
"Saved by our merciful Lord Cheese."
"Of course. What else?" he muttered as he tried to free his pants from the grip of a wire paw.
Again, he didn't get time to go into detail about the mercy of Lord Cheese since someone tugged on his sleeve. He startled when he found a large brass porcupine sitting on the bench with him. It made an odd muttering sound before it began to speak, "Good morning to you, sir. Have you heard the news about our savior, Pine Nut?"
A whirring from his left had him jerking his head back in that direction in time to see a silver beaver robot rolling up to him. "Excuse me, sir? Do you have a moment to talk about the miracle of The Great Tree?"
But Corny never had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Every time he turned to address one little preacher robot, another rolled up to interrupt about savior carrots and cabbages and whatnot. He was dizzy from it by the time Ver showed up, and then he couldn't even get free of the mob of rodents—guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, chinchillas, various kinds of mice and squirrels and one capybara the size of a small pony.
"Ver," he called out, trying not to sound frantic. "Help?"
Verin regarded him with narrowed eyes, huffed a cloud of steam and stomped off, leaving Corny to gape after him. What in tarnation did I do to deserve that?
His confusion didn't last long, though. Verin returned within moments, something shiny tucked under his right arm. He waded partway into the robotic horde and dropped his bundle, which unwound to reveal itself as a brushed steel cat. The rodents shrieked and scattered on whirring metal wheels and rubberized treads. The cat hissed, shook itself and sat down in a patch of sunlight to clean a metal paw with a metal tongue.
Verin snorted a few sparks and pointed behind Corny. "You gotta read the fucking signs in these parks, cowboy. Save yourself a lot of trouble."
Nailed to the tree behind Corny's bench, the sign read Beware Of Proselytizing Rodents.
"Course it does," Corny grumbled and accepted a hand up. "I'll do my level best to remember that next time." He pondered for a moment, then asked, "Why didn't you just kick 'em out of your way?"
"You saying I'm predictable?" Verin asked in mock outrage while pointing again.
Fine For Damaging Robot Rodents – 100 cred per violation
"Good thing one of us fuckers is a law abiding citizen."
Corny gave him a playful shove for that as they walked away together, doing his best not to think about why in all the wide universe either of those signs had needed to be posted in the first place. And Helike had seemed such a nice, normal town, too.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ness retreated to the safety of the cabin he shared with Shax. Sometimes in moments of confusion, this was the safest and least humiliating option. Shax and Verin had been chatting and laughing about orgies over the centuries, the sort of conversation that brought all sorts of feelings bubbling to the surface.
This time, there wasn't the horrible flare of jealous rage Ness still suffered from when someone mentioned Shax and other people. A bit of bitter regret lodged under his heart, certainly, for all the years Verin and Shax had together, for all the years Ness had missed. But that was a small thing that never exploded into anything larger.
No, the reason for his escape this time had been simple embarrassment. He'd started thinking too hard about orgies, had realized he really had no idea how they worked, and had left before he could ask ridiculous questions.
He didn't need to ask those any longer. That's what the nets were for.
Orgies. The first few vids he tried were badly lit and therefore entirely too confusing, limbs and heads everywhere, everything moving as if of independent origin.
"Tsk. This will never do," Ness muttered, shaking his head as he refined his search to uncover quality orgies. He was beginning to think it might be a contradiction in terms.
After a bit more frustrated searching, he found one that wasn't grainy and half in the dark. The scene was pleasing enough in an aesthetic sense—a sea of bodies undulating in localized storms. Several genders, a multitude of skin tones and a variety of activity certainly made a fascinating scene. But there seemed little focus in much of the activity since the participants often distracted each other with new impalements, touches and toys. There seemed to be climaxing going on? All rather chaotic and messy, though.
Interesting to watch, but Ness didn't think he'd want to try one. The search suggested he try ménage next. Since he was already looking at vids, why not?
"Oh, a threesome. They could've said so." Ness huffed and flipped his wings to settle them better as he leaned in to observe.
Easier to follow with three instead of however many the roiling masses of flesh in the orgy vids had been and Ness found it rather sweet that a sandwich effect prevailed. No matter the grouping—all males, all females, various genders—someone appeared to be the focus of attention more often than not. A lot of attention in some cases.
"Oh, that's…goodness. I didn't think that was possible." Ness turned the holo view to a different angle and yes, both of those were penetrating the same orifice. Some humans were apparently as flexible as demons.
The door whooshed open and Shax sailed in to plant a kiss atop Ness' forehead. "What are you up to, sweetheart?" He stopped and leaned in. "Ah. Research."
"No need to mollycoddle me," Ness murmured. "I know it's porn by now."
Shax settled beside him to lean his horned head on Ness' shoulder. "It can be research, too. Sometimes even I find something new. What's happening here?"
Ness tilted his head at the image. "I'm not certain. Do you think the screen turned itself upside-down?"
"It's not a tablet, my dear." Still, Shax leaned forward and tapped the console up on his desk from whence the holo projection came. "No, seems to be…ah. They've lowered the gravity, you see. That's how they've managed such very interesting positions." He leaned back against Ness, claws drumming on his thighs.
Ness waved a hand toward the vid. "Is this something you would…want?"
"All things considered, more showy than practical. Difficult to get things to work properly in low G." Shax turned far enough to plant a soft kiss on his lips. "But you're sweet to offer, cupcake."
"Good. Plenty of other things to do." Ness wrapped arms and wings around Shax and held him tight. He hadn't been talking about the low gravity part, but it seemed terribly awkward to say that now. Maybe some other time.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Space Port
"Leopold, my dear, you do understand that your grandmother is dangerous, yes?" Shax peered at his spiny son as they strolled past the shops, Leopold's front paw tucked firmly in his Papa's hand.
"I'm aware, Papa. Traps can lie in promises. Grandmama's, at least."
"Well…good." Shax stopped to peruse a display of colorful boots. "I do love my mother, but I also know her well. She does nothing without reason and her pursuit of your loyalty is… Ah, well. It's expected. She consolidates power wherever she can. It's still mildly concerning."
"Grandmama plays games. Some of them are even fun. Best from a distance."
"Ha! Yes." Shax squeezed his son's paw. "She's only slightly less dangerous from afar, but it does give one a better feeling of control."
A cat raced by with something cylindrical in its mouth. Not five seconds later, a gremlin raced after it shrieking the war song of her people. A human followed shortly after, chasing the gremlin. Followed by a larger human. Then a larger, lumbering demon.
"Er. Hmm. That was interesting." Shax turned them to continue their meander. He did need to pick up the custom deck boots for Heckle that he'd ordered several weeks before, but a bit of window shopping and conversation never went amiss. "My point is that I'm pleased to see you get along so well, But do be careful if she starts asking for favors. Or worse, demanding that you do things for her out of familial obligation."
Whatever bits of haiku wisdom Leopold had meant to impart cut off as the gremlin raced by them headed in the opposite direction. She clutched the cylinder thing in both hands, cackling. The cat galloped after her. Followed by the larger human. Then the smaller human. Then the lumbering demon who looked a tad confused now.
Leopold shook out his spines with a sniff before he turned back to Shax. "She asked a question. Papa, I'm thinking I should—" The large demon lumbered past again, though now with the cylinder in his possession, both humans and the gremlin hanging off his arms trying to pull him down, and the hissing cat atop his head. "Should we do something?"
"I'm a dangerously curious demon, it's true." Shax picked Leopold up to keep him from being trampled as the whole cluster stumbled by again. "But there are times when you need to know when to mind your own damn business."
Leopold peeped as Shax strode at a determined rate away from the melee, "Yes, my dear. This would be one of those times."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"Hello, Mum." Shax settled himself in his desk chair, feeling on solid ground for once since he hadn't initiated the call or done anything to tick his royal mother off. "You're looking positively radiant. Bacchanal this evening?"
She preened a bit, smoothing her silver hair. Flattery was always a wise opening gambit with her, but she was particularly stunning in a diaphanous pale blue gown dripping with diamonds. "There is. I think I'll allow the general to escort me. I'm in the mood for a powerful demon groveling on his knees."
"Er, quite." Shax sipped his coffee and did his best to banish thoughts of how exactly General Separ would be groveling. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Not that I mind if this is a purely social call, of course."
"I would like to speak to my grandson when we've finished, but yes, I had a particular reason for calling." She adjusted her sleeves and managed it in a way that was both graceful and irritated. "I require something from you."
"A favor?" Shax purred. Favors could be as good as currency.
Her eyes narrowed. "Hardly. You are my son and should accede to my wishes. Besides which, you are indebted if we come down to it."
Shax barely managed to keep himself from answering with an eye roll. "Even after the Leopold kidnapping? I'd say your account was emptied there."
"It was an enforced familial visit. Not a kidnapping. Don't over dramatize." She sniffed. "Though my beautiful boy once lived to please me."
Oh, I've missed these games. "I grew up and moved out of the palace, Mum. But tell me what this is all about. Perhaps it's something I can help with in the course of my normal activities."
"Lu's trying to find—"
"Oh, no no no no." Shax put his coffee mug down with a thump. "Let's stop right there. Why in all the wide universe would I ever do a favor for him?"
Mum favored his question with a delicate snort. "It's not a favor for him. It's for me. I'll have no peace from his whining until I've at least brought the subject to you. He's recently heard that there are objects out there in the universe called Obfuscational Orbs. Some exotic human tech or other that allows the holder to lie with impunity and be believed without reservation. Obviously, he wants one."
"Of course he does. This wouldn't be a favor, though. This would be a commission. If I do happen to find one, and I've never heard of them, I would expect to be compensated for skilled services."
"So very mercenary." A little smile tugged at her lips. "That's my boy. I understand compensation would be negotiable."
"Up to and including full pardon and a restoration to the courts for me and Verin?"
"It may have been discussed."
Shax waved a hand. "I just wanted to check. Interesting, but I wouldn't take that offer. Rather fond of my life out here."
She heaved a mournful, tragic sigh—a graceful sigh, and how many beings could manage that? "I was afraid you might feel that way. Though why you would so thoroughly embrace a life of uncouth brigandry when you could live as a prince again is baffling. Regardless, price is highly negotiable."
"Very good. I'll keep eyes and ears out for it." The door behind Shax opened followed by a scrambling of claws as Leopold ran across the cabin. "Hello, my dear. Have you come to speak with Grandmama?"
Leopold stood on his hind legs, forepaws clutching the edge of the desk. "Hello, Grandmama." Then he made little shooing motions at Shax. "Could you go away, Papa? Some privacy, please?"
Shax glared from his son to his mother. "Did you just try to shoo me from my own cabin?"
"Yes, darling." His mother purred. "Shoo. Run along now."
"You could take this in your own cabin." Still, Shax found he had risen from his chair and Leopold now occupied it. Leopold peeped and pointed to the holo display. "Yes, I know my comm is better quality than yours. Oh, very well. Fifteen minutes."
Grumbling, he walked to the door and put one foot out before he turned back. "And don't change the settings on my chair."
Leopold waved over his shoulder with a distracted peep.
Lovely. I know where I rate here. There might have been grumbling all the way to the galley.
Time: Shortly before Hell For The Company
Place: Triton Station
"Captain! Excuse me! Captain!"
Shax stopped in the middle of the decking on docking arm C, trying to pinpoint if someone was indeed calling out to him and who the someone might be. The short human in coveralls did indeed appear to be headed right for him, so he waited, one eyebrow raised, hoping short human would be able to stop in time.
She did, in a skid that brought her nearly up under Shax's nose. Skidding in deck shoes. Impressive. "Yes?"
"Sorry to bother you, Captain. But you’re a demon, right?" The young woman waved a power wrench, realized what she was doing and stuck it in a coverall pocket.
"Am I?" Shax feigned surprise and reached up to touch his horns. "Oh dear. I suppose I am."
"Right…um. We were hoping you could help us with a gremlin problem. He's a demon, you're a bigger demon and all."
"Yes, that's generally how it goes. Bigger demon trumps smaller demon." Shax backed a step to retrieve some personal space. "But why would I do that?"
"Captain Lawhorn's offering a bounty to anyone who can talk the little guy out of the port thruster." She tapped on her wrist comm to show Shax the figure.
"Ah. Well. That's different. Lead on, then. I'll see what I can do."
He had no doubt that the young woman referred to a derfa and not a gremlin at all. True gremlins were the bureaucrats of Hell, and took pride in creating the most hellish bureaucracy they could. The derfa and various subsets were related to gremlins way back in the demon evolutionary chain, but so distantly that it would be like saying a mouse was a distant relative of the giraffe. Nevertheless, the humans had decided for whatever reasons human brains concocted, that the creatures messing with their machinery starting shortly after the industrial revolution would be called 'gremlins.'
The Celadon had one of the larger bays down the row from the Brimstone, small enough still to fit in a bay, large enough that it was difficult to take in the whole ship at once. Part of the port thruster's housing lay in pieces beside the hull, disassembled most likely to try to get at the derfa.
"How do you know you have a visitor and not a broken thruster?" Shax asked right before he had to duck a bolt hurled from within. "Ah. I withdraw the question."
A stream of what nearly sounded like profanity followed, then a bit of metal Shax couldn't begin to identify hit one of the nearby mechanics in the head.
"Damn it." The mechanic beside Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "It's started on the turbines."
Shax settled his captain's jacket on his shoulders, shot her his best hold my beer grin, and jogged over to climb into the remainder of the housing. There, perched on the turbine, was a rather cute purple derfa.
"Well, hello there."
*scree!* *chirp* *clack* !@%$#
"No need for formalities. It's just Shax these days." Shax turned so he could lean against the housing's wall. "Any particular reason you're taking apart this human ship piece by piece?"
*pfffftthh* &^*$%#@ *snort*
"Are you certain they understood the concept of tribute? Humans can be a little dense."
*SCREEEEEEEEE!* *chirp* *chep*
"Ah, well. I see. It does sound like you were clear enough." Shax searched his pockets and found a wrapped caramel, which he handed to the derfa. "What have you demanded as restitution?"
The derfa accepted the caramel with a happy squeak and swallowed it whole, plastic and all. *squeak* *chirrup* *hfff* *crrrrreh*
"That seems more than fair." Shax leaned around the housing to find the mechanics huddled in a we're-not-scared group nearby. "The de—gremlin requires a pie."
"Will it fix the damage if it gets a pie?" Shax's original mechanic called out.
Shax managed to keep a straight face. "Apparently not. But it will go away and leave you alone."
"What kind of pie?" an older mechanic demanded.
The mechanics all lost color at the same rate, as if they were a single organism. Maybe they were. What did he know about mechanics? "We…that's not possible. We'd have to special order that from dirtside somewhere."
The derfa ripped another piece from a turbine fin and lobbed it at the humans.
Sometimes the hardest thing about a situation was not laughing. Shax turned back to the derfa. "You don't really want to stay with this ship, do you? These humans can't even bring you appropriate tribute. Clearly not worth your time."
The derfa shrugged. *prrrrrt* *chirp*
"I know you have an obligation—look, what if I took over the tribute part as a one-time thing? You get away from these space cases, I get paid, we have a nice afternoon?"
"Very well, then." Shax held out his hand and the derfa put a tiny lilac paw into his palm. They left the housing, stopped by the mechanics long enough for Shax to collect payment, and together, sauntered back out to the corridor.
"No, you know they don't or you wouldn't have asked for it. You were angry, so you asked for something impossible." Shax peered down, trying to see the eyes hidden within the purple fuzz. "But I do know a lovely coffee shop that serves almond pastries to die for. And I know where a starliner's docked over on G arm. Much more fun for you than a silly cargo ship. How does that sound?"
*squeeeeee!!!* *chehrek!* %^#@$*
"I couldn't have said it better myself."
Time: Shortly after Potato Surprise
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
Parallax to CC1 in thirty. Parallax to CC1.
Julian's eyes snapped open and he glared at his comm on the side table. Convalescing was supposed to mean convalescing, and yes he was a little bored, but it shouldn't mean a call summoning him to the director's office.
"Oh, what now?"
He stifled a groan as he rolled up from his comfy spot curled up on his sofa. It was a dangerously cushy sofa, he'd been planning on spending the morning there, and it was his. IE provided quarters to agents in the annex beside HQ, and they weren't bad, small flats with their own kitchens, but everything contained therein was Julian's. His one little corner of the galaxy where he allowed himself nostalgia and sentiment tied up in the possession of things.
Annoying, this summons. Though thirty minutes was better than immediately. "At least they cut me some slack for being semi-mobile."
Julian debated staying in his pajama pants and T-shirt, heaving a put-upon sigh when he concluded that might be a bit much for the administrative offices. He still needed both arm crutches to get around while his legs slowly remembered how to interact with his central nervous system, so he kept wardrobe choices simple—soft micro-cotton pants and a not-too-casual placketed shirt.
Normally, he would've jogged over to admin. Jogging, along with many other activities-while-vertical, simply wasn't happening yet. He took one of the trams and tried to ignore the speculative stares. It was a short five minute ride, five minutes feeling like a bug trapped under a scope.
"Julian." The director smiled as Julian entered the office. "Have a seat."
"So that's how it is." Julian managed a weary smile in response as he lowered himself gingerly into one of the office chairs in front of the desk.
"How what is?" The director set a coffee mug on the desk within Julian's reach and that sealed it.
"First name. Getting me to sit—"
"You are still on medical. Barely on your feet."
"Sir, you know better. I don't need buttering. Besides, butter's fun only until it starts to smell off." Julian accepted the coffee anyway. It was better than the stuff he had in his quarters. "What do you need from me?"
The fake smile abandoned the director's face. "I need you to teach."
"Sir, we've been through this m—"
He held up a hand, cutting Julian off. "Not permanently. Just while you're recovering. And not a class. A single student."
Julian sipped, put the coffee down, and sighed. "I see. Problem student."
The director waggled a hand back and forth. "In a way. Promising student who's reached weapons phase training and is suddenly exhibiting disrespectful and disruptive behavior."
"Ah." Julian didn't even try to hide the smile. I remember being that age and at that point. Though he wondered if this youngster had started as young as he had.
"I've sent you the file." The director stood. Apparently the schmoozing was at an end. "Do your best with this one. There are some students we can't afford to lose."
Julian read the file on his comm before making his way toward the ranges. Of course he did. A lifetime of habit, going into a situation as prepared as possible. His potential student occupied one of the debrief rooms outside the range proper. Julian hit the door pad, frowned at the young person fidgeting at the table, and re-checked the name on the file. Kenneth Hayes. Perhaps, though his gut told him this youngster didn’t go by Kenneth.
"Who're you?" Surly, suspicious, oh yes, that was the right age.
"Agent Julian Parallax. I'm looking for someone I'm supposed to be teaching, but I may have taken a wrong turn. Hayes?"
Possible-student rolled dark eyes. "It's Kendra, not Kennett. I guess you're not going to bother to get it right either."
Julian's frown deepened. This explained more of the reported attitude than is just being the age of adults-are-stupid. "It should've been changed and that's unconscionably rude if one of your instructors is deadnaming."
"Whatever. Like you give a spacer rat's ass." Kendra leaned back in her chair, arms folded over her chest. "What're you supposed to be teaching me, gimpy?"
"I see." Julian nodded at her look of irritated confusion and moved to a spot where he could ease into the chair opposite. "This is the part where I'm terribly offended and tell you to be respectful and you escalate the rudeness until I stomp out. Maybe we'll save that for another day. I'm too tired."
She was still glaring, so he had her attention.
"Two things I want to say before we talk about training. One, the crutches aren't permanent. My vehicle was blown out from under me while I was helping a demon deliver gen-modified bugs. And two, grownups used to tell me that my name was Julia."
The first declaration had tossed the surly expression into a deep, dark pit. The second replaced it with wide-eyed surprise. "Oh."
"I'm supposed to be your weapons instructor." Julian put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. "And I'll gladly show you all the lovely toys and how to use them to best effect. But from your hand-to-hand scores, I don't think it'll take you long at all to catch on."
"You want to be an agent, right? That's why you're here?"
"Yeah." She drew the word out, cautious but no longer snarky.
Julian let a slow smile spread over his face. "They want me to be your instructor, Kendra. This falls under the category of be careful what you wish for. I'm going to teach you so many things the adults don't want you to know."
The return smile was so full of unholy joy, Julian knew he would teach her for that alone.
Time: Just before Potato Surprise
Place: Orbiting space station, Earth
Shax yanked Verin into the doorway of a closed shop, gesturing for silence.
What? Ver mouthed, though he was aware enough to look anxious instead of irritated.
The tension in Ver's arm ratcheted up the second he spotted them, though. No need for Shax to explain. Three granite trolls wearing Infernal Enforcement uniforms stomped down the station's shopping concourse, heads swiveling as they searched the crowd. Shax pulled the shadows closer around them, only exhaling when the troopers had passed.
"They can't be looking for us already," Ver whisper-growled, but he didn't look convinced.
"I don't know how the alarm sounded so quickly, but they are. I heard one of them mention us." Shax chewed on his bottom lip, thinking hard and fast. "Change of plan. We can't go to the travel office and book passage on anything, spaceliner or otherwise. They'll be watching there and even if I use a less obvious name and account… We don't have time for me to finagle that."
"So what the fuck do we do?"
"Convince someone to smuggle us out."
"Seedy bar time?"
Shax patted his companion's shoulder. "Yes. Quick trip to the lockers for a change in clothes, then seedy bar time."
They both knew the drill as they walked briskly, but in a confident, I-have-somewhere-to-be manner, toward the rental lockers where they'd stashed their luggage. Verin stood in front of him while he shimmied out of his work pants and into skin-tight leather and a gold mesh shirt.
"How're we playing this, mud-for-brains?" Verin closed up the locker as Shax shrugged back into his jacket so he wouldn't be quite as attention attracting as they walked.
"Clueless, feckless demon tourist and surly boyfriend, I think."
Verin nodded. "Sounds right."
With an offended snort, Shax smacked Verin's arm before getting into character. Ver offered that same arm and Shax clung to it, looking appropriately wide-eyed and goggly as they took a leisurely stroll through the corridors to the less respectable part of the station closer to the loading docks. They'd both been to the Earth transit station enough times to know exactly which bar they needed and managed to reach Space Junk without running into any more Infernal Enforcement officers.
In order to properly shimmer and slink, Shax handed his jacket off the Verin at the door. They proceeded with a sharp eye to the patrons, mostly hard-bitten men and women drinking alone.
"Any targets?" Verin muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
Shax lifted his chin. "That one. Over in the far corner. All alone and already half soused."
"That's most of the fuckers in here. Why him?"
"Seriously, Ver?" Shax tsked. "Captain's jacket on the back of his chair. He's too shoddy to fly corporate, so it's more likely he's an owner-operator. We may be able to do better than beg a ride."
Verin only answered with a grouchy harrumph and a puff of steam. Completely in character, so it worked. With a little skip and a bright smile, Shax sidled up to the presumed ship owner who was trying to kill his brain cells.
"Oooh!" Shax wriggled and petted the worn jacket. "Are you a starship captain? How exciting!"
The human glanced over blearily, but something registered in that pickled brain since his eyes traveled up and down Shax's body before he attempted to sit up straighter. "Cargo hauler." The man stopped for a semi-polite belch. "Wouldn't call it anything fancy like starship."
Shax waved the bartender over and bought their new friend three more drinks, which started to vanish with alarming speed. "But I bet you get out of boring old Sol system, don't you? You must see all kinds of things."
"Oh, yeah." The captain's head wobbled in an approximation of a nod. "All kindsa…things. Ha." He finished off the third and Shax had another set ready.
"Is it difficult? Copernicus drive travel?" Shax leaned a little closer, hip just brushing his mark's.
"Eh." The human flapped a hand. "Copernicus…schmernicus…the AI does mosht of it."
Shax looked over the barfly's head and nodded to Verin. Bingo. Interstellar craft.
"Does it? Oh my. I thought you'd need just an enormous crew for all that."
Captain Barely Conscious put his arms on the bar and rested his head atop them. "Nah. Ish jus' me an' Ivana. All I ever…"
He trailed off into an alcohol-induced nap. When he started to snore, Shax slipped his hand into one cargo pocket after another on his work pants, taking anything that looked useful, though he left the human the spare credit chits in his left pocket. No need to rob the man entirely blind. Finally, he slipped the wrist comm off the man's arm and nodded to Verin to grab the jacket.
"Sorry, Captain." Shax kissed the top of his head. "I truly am. But our need is far greater right now."
Shax slipped into the captain's jacket once they'd left the bar, ignoring Verin's raised eyebrow, and they hurried back to the lockers to retrieve their meager luggage. It wasn't much, but it had been all they could pack in a panicked frenzy before anyone could catch on that Shax knew. Hells gates, yes. He knew they were doomed if they stayed, doomed twice over if he simply refused the suicide job, and possibly still doomed if they couldn't get away.
"Docking chit. He's at berth nine." Shax murmured as he went through the human's things. "Let’s hope one of these things provides entry."
They had to hide once more in a dimly lit cross-corridor when the Hell goons tromped by. Once they were out of sight, they both lost their nerve and raced through the hallways to the docking bays. Nine wasn't too far down, thank all the unholies, in the section for smaller cargo ships. Shax made an educated guess and held the stolen comm link up to the pad for the access portal. He allowed himself a huff of breath and a grin when it cycled open.
"We'll be okay now, Ver. Promise."
"Better be." Ver gave him a little shove into the access tube. "Go. Let's get the fuck out of this system."
Shax hurried along and into the ship, which, granted, had probably seen better days, but looked sound. "Away, away. Where the long arm of Hell has no jurisdiction and the powers that be can't travel. Oh, Ver. This will be such fun."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, Barbary
"Where you off to looking like a thundercloud, Ver?" Corny straightened from where he'd been fussing with Rosa's hooves.
Damn it. Verin had hoped he could slip out without seeing anyone. "Somewhere."
"You need company? I might could come along if you give me a minute."
"No. Did I ask for company?" Verin cringed inwardly. That was harsh.
"All right, then." The hurt in Corny's voice was muffled as he bent back to Rosa's hoof. "Don't mind me."
Trailing steam, Verin stomped out of the cargo bay. Fuck it. I don't have to explain myself. Never made any promises that I'd tell him everything or shit like that. This is me still. My life. And I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want.
People scattered from his path as he stomped out of the spaceport and into the streets of New Bangkok. Because he could, and because he was running a little late, he hailed a tuk-tuk, surprised when the first one stopped for him. Usually took a few passing him before one stopped. He climbed in and gave the driver the address.
The driver's eyebrows rose. "You sure that's where you want to go, Mr. Demon?"
"Yeah, I'm fucking sure. I tell you where to go. You drive. That's how this works. First day?"
"Ha. Funny demon." The driver snorted and eased back into traffic, heading uptown.
Once they arrived, he paid the driver a little extra for not making any smartass remarks. Yeah, this place was in a fancier part of town than he'd normally go, and yeah, it was kinda pricey. He got why the driver didn't think he belonged. Didn't mean he appreciated it. Ballsy judgmental humans.
No sign hung over the door to the establishment. Just a plain black door and a person either knew the place was there or they didn't. Verin squared his shoulders, strode in like he belonged there, and only let out a little puff of smoke when he saw they had another new receptionist.
She gave him the hairy eyeball as he approached the desk. "Can I help you, um, sir?"
"Yeah. I'm here to see Gino."
Her perfectly applied cosmetics threatened to crack when she wrinkled her forehead. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No, I'm just here to cause trouble 'cause I'm a demon. Of course I have an appointment. You could check first before going all snooty as gold shit on me."
"Sir, there's no need to take that tone—"
The heavy red curtains behind the front desk flipped open, revealing a beautiful human in skintight shorts and crop top, his makeup much more artfully applied than Ms. Thing's at the desk. "Tara, is my ten o'clock— Oh, there you are, Mr. Hammer! Right on time. Why don't you slide on back here with me? Tara will sign you in."
The receptionist stared from one to the other and Verin was more than happy to stride past and leave her gaping. Gino took his arm with a smile, hips twitching as he walked Verin through the velvet-lined corridor.
"The usual today, handsome? Or did you need something…special?"
"Usual's good, Gino." At the alcove where Gino held the curtains aside for him, Verin stopped and scuffed a clawed foot on the carpet. "Maybe horns, too?"
"They do look like they need some attention," Gino crooned, stroking along the outer curl of the left one. "Hop up on the chair, sweetie, and put those glorious scaly feet in the water for me."
Verin did as he was asked, knowing the foot tub Gino used for him was three times bigger than the normal one. Good to have a place that understood. He let out a grateful sigh as his feet went into the ginger-scented, Epsom salt water. Hell's fucking gates, that always feels good.
Perched behind Verin on a stool, Gino started on his horns while his feet soaked, filing away rough spots, polishing them to high shine. "Sure you don’t want any color today? You know I can do your nails in a nice black if you want."
"No." Verin let the steam trickle from his nostrils, doing his best not to sound so short and sharp. "Thanks, Gino. No color."
He let Gino chatter away at him, the stream of small talk swirling around him in soothing waves while he had his claws clipped and filed. Gino fussed at him for letting one of them split so badly, but even that didn't annoy him. This was time away from everything, away from the galaxy and all the weird shit in his life.
When he returned to the Brimstone a couple of hours later, he was relaxed enough to be thinking of an apology for Corny. He hadn't meant to hurt his cowboy. It was all just so…
"There you are." Corny's hands slipped around his waist from behind, his chin on Verin's shoulder as he drew in a deep breath. "My, my, someone smells powerful nice."
Strong hands took him by the arms and turned him. Verin expected Corny to be laughing at him, but those eyes were full of understanding instead. "Bull-headed sometimes, Hammer. You are that. You should know better by now."
Verin frowned. "Know what?"
"That I ain't gonna be makin' fun or saying you're unmanly for things you hanker for. You got your nails and your horns seen to. They look damn good. Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of."
"But it's… It's a fucking pedicure. I mean, fussy demons like Shax might get that done…and then they always wanna add some damn color, too. It's not, you know, a really butch place."
Now Corny did snicker. "Sorry. I was just thinking you could call it a horny-pedi. And if you wanted color, so what? Could paint your claws bright red and you'd still be twice as tough as nails."
Verin rested his head on Corny's shoulder. "Good. Shit… Yeah. It's good. Wanna come with me next time?"
Another soft chuckle rumbled through Corny's chest as he wrapped his arms tight around Verin. "You know, I think I just might."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"So who's your favorite human hero?" Julian asked as he stirred more sugar into his tea. So bitter. Let it steep too long again.
"Well, we're all for damn sure who yours is." Corny poked him in the ribs. "Since you made us watch all them James Bond movies."
"Not all of them. I spared you Moonraker. Though if you wanted to watch it…"
"Oh fuck no." Verin snarled. "Stupid movie."
They had been discussing demon heroes over breakfast—Abaddon, Mephistopheles, and so on, and an interesting mix of clever and brutal they were. Julian didn't know enough demon lore to pick one, though. Saying Shax was his demon hero would've sounded saccharine and probably would've ticked Ness off. Redirection had been in order before Julian started feeling out of place. More out of place.
"I'm partial to that Jane Goodall," Corny offered. "She didn't take nothin' from nobody and, well, animals."
Shax reached for a second cinnamon bun. Why he never gained an ounce with all the sweets he scarfed down, Julian would never understand. "I agree with your assessment, Corny, and she was an unquestionably admirable human, but I thought we were speaking of fictional humans."
"Oh. All right." Corny's forehead creased as he considered. "I'll pick that little Miles Vorkosigan I'm readin' through now. Great big brass balls on that one and he's always thinkin', even in the worst spots. Kinda reminds me of you, Cap, a little. In your demon tornado moments."
"Thank you? I think?" Shax shook his head with a quirk of a smile and leaned his head on his angel's shoulder. "Ness?"
Ness turned his coffee mug in his hands, staring into the depths for so long that Julian wondered if he was already ticked off about something and refusing to answer. Finally, he flushed pink as he said, "Eowyn. She's a true hero who didn't let what others thought of her get in the way of being a true hero."
"She is pretty badass," Verin said, a sentence so unexpected that all eyes whipped over to him. "What? All those idiots telling her what she couldn't do and she's like fuck you all, I'm doing it."
"So, Ver. What's yours?" Shax reached for yet another cinnamon roll and Ness smacked his hand. He turned an actual pout Ness's way, which on him looked absurdly fetching, but Ness pushed a plate of bacon in his direction instead.
Ver let out a puff of steam. "That's easy. Mine is that Cuchulain fucker. All the rage and destruction. Good stuff for a human story."
"Cap? Guess yours is someone like Robin Hood, huh?" Corny ventured.
Shax regarded him in wide-eyed horror. "Great bubbling sulfur pits, no! What a complete git. Why would you go to all the trouble of stealing pretties and give them all away? Absolute lunacy." Shax drummed his fingers on the table while he considered. "I do like that Deadpool though. The ability to spread chaos like an industrial farm sprinkler is something to be admired. And keep a sense of humor while doing it."
"Yeah." Verin nodded. "All that destruction and shit. Good stuff."
Shax's smile grew wistful as he crunched on his consolation bacon. "He would have made an excellent demon."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Corny pushed back his hat to rub at his forehead. "We're transporting what now?"
"Rats!" Eyes gleaming in unholy excitement, Shax tugged on his sleeve. "Come on. Help me get them up the ramp."
Some people were scared silly of rats. Corny had never been one of them, but in his past life, they'd been vermin, critters to keep out of feed for the cattle and the horses. Nicodemus was different, of course. Spacer rats weren't the same critters at all. Most times. Nic still got into the grain when nobody was watching him, the little varmint.
"Are they rats for science types, Cap?" Corny slowed as they neared the end of the Brimstone's loading ramp. "I might not cotton to the little troublemakers myself, but I'm not sure as I want to send them off for torture."
Shax blinked at him. Bless him, their captain looked honestly shocked. "Hell's gates, no. Oh, no, my dear DeGroot. These are special rats. Expensive rats. For pets."
"That's a horse of a different color, I reckon."
"To be precise…" Shax waved at the animal carriers waiting for them dockside, his grin just about taking over his face. "These are rats of a different color."
All right. Sometimes domestics take on different colors, like black and white rabbits, sure. Or like… "Holy moly," Carny whispered as he bent down to peer at the little screen on the carrier that let him see inside.
Rats scurried about, busy doing rat things and they looked like any dagblamed rats he'd ever seen except for the dang colors. Some were white, but with orange and blue polka dots or striped in green or purple like tigers drawn by three-year-olds. Some were ebony with red-tipped ears, feet and tails. Some were patterned in bright rainbow calico or brindled in eye-watering combinations.
"Pretty for sure you're gonna tell me those aren't dye jobs." Corny glanced over at Shax, who looked like he was trying hard not to laugh, damn him.
"No dye. Some genetic funny business and some breeding." Shax turned more serious. "Painted rats, they're called. These are expensive designer commodities, when it's all said and done. It's an easy haul for us for an obscene payoff, relatively speaking."
Corny didn't ask how much relatively speaking was. That was Cap's business and none of his own. His was getting the carriers loaded and secured for flight and making sure the critters got their feed on their big adventure in space. That first night out, he thought he was getting accustomed to them. Some of them were eye popping, sure, but they were kinda cute with their multi-colored whiskers. The second evening, though, he moseyed down to the hold to see to the cargo and got hit in the gut by a Very Bad Feeling.
The hold wasn't always empty. It was the only big space on the ship, so the crew played games and Ness held dance lessons there. Any of that would've been just fine. Not fine was Ness standing in the middle of the floor with his wings drooping and his hands wringing in distress.
Making certain his boots clomped on the hold steps, Corny called out, "Ness? You all right there?"
Ness still twitched despite the warnings Corny tried to give. "I'm…no. Not really. That is I'm fine, but…oh dear."
"What's happened? Anything I might can help with?"
"Shax will be, ah, upset." Ness pointed to the carriers—the open empty carriers.
"Well, shit," Corny grumbled. "How in all horny toads did that happen?"
Another twitch. "I don't believe toads were involved. I checked the security feed. It was Nic. He let them out."
That took a minute to sink in. "Nic. Our Nic? How do you reckon?"
"I'm not entirely certain how, but he puzzled out how to open the carriers. He did that, then appeared to be squeaking at the painted rats." Ness cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Then they followed him out."
Corny gave that a good ponder, too. He didn't stop to tell Ness it was impossible or any other such nonsense. If their security officer said a thing was, well, it was a thing. "Have you tried calling Nic? Doesn't he usually come to you?"
"He does. Though he might be where he can't here me." Ness checked his wrist comm. "So I've sent for Leopold."
"Huh. What's Leo gonna—"
Scrabbling claws interrupted him as Leopold came careening through the hold door and down the steps with his backpack on. Speak and the demon princeling appears.
"Papa Ness, I'm here!" Leopold huffed trying to catch his breath as he slid his backpack off. "Maximillian has come too. What has happened there?"
Ness cleared his throat again as Max swarmed out of the pack and climbed to his shoulder. "Our Nic has stolen the cargo."
"Nicodemus has? Maybe he just borrowed them? Always curious."
"He may have meant to borrow them." Ness stroked the millipede with one finger. "But these aren't spacer rats. They're not safe outside their carriers while we're in flight. Could you and Max try to call him, please? I think he may hear your frequencies where he can't hear my voice. I hope."
Leopold nodded and pulled his flute from his pack. While he settled himself, Max hurried back down to climb atop Leopold's spiny head. They exchanged a few notes, tuning Corny figured, before Leopold started playing a four-note refrain and Max began singing in his high-frequency voice, Ni-co-deeeeee-muuus!
This went on for seven or eight rounds until Corny caught movement in the far corner of the hold. Nic popped his head out from around the auto-loader and squeaked what sounded like a whole rat sentence before he came running to Ness. He tugged at Ness's pant leg, chittering like he had serious things to say.
"Could you bring them back, please?" Ness crouched down, speaking softly. "They can't do the things you do, Nic. They're not safe if we have to make any sudden maneuvers."
After one more squeak, Nic raced back to the corner and started squeaking again. This time a whole passel of rats followed him and dang if they didn't look like they were running in some kind of…formation? Damndest thing Corny had ever seen—rats in straight lines.
Nic raced ahead and climbed atop one of the carriers, squeaking in short bursts. The rats circled the carrier, still looking like troops on parade, and with each of Nic's squeak sessions, they reordered themselves. One bunch of squeaks had them sorted by color. The next one saw them sorted by pattern. The next had them in some fancy alternating thing that maybe only Nic understood.
Finally, Nic stood on his hind legs and squeaked loudly. All the rats broke formation and scurried back to their carriers. It took one shocked moment for Corny to react, then he hustled over to each one and closed the doors.
"All there?" Ness asked in an anxious whisper.
"Hold up. Gettin' a count," Corny said as he checked each carrier. Not only all there, but all back in the right container. "Yep. Got all the little scallywags."
Nic looked positively smug as he leaped to Ness's offered arm and climbed to his shoulder. "Please don't do that again, Nic. Not without someone with you. We want your little friends safe."
Ness sighed and reached up to pet Nic's head. "Yes, yes. Fine. You can be called the rat king."
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