Time: 21st century, December
"The fuck, Shaxy?" Verin spun in a slow circle, taking in their surroundings.
"I have reasons." Shax stamped his boots in the snow while he got his bearings. The graveyard was lovely in its festive lights and holiday decorations. He had no idea why every human community didn't do this for the solstice. But no, graveyards had to be creepy, silent, respectful places, not like the old days--
"Shax!" Ver bellowed. "Five seconds to tell me why I'm freezing my damn balls off in wherever the fuck we are!"
"Oh, very well. If you insist. We're going to spend the winter holidays in Iceland."
Verin dropped his head into his hands. "Why do you hate me, you short-assed royal prick? Why?"
"I'm quite fond of you, Ver." Shax patted his shoulder and pointed to the nearby road. "We're going this way. I have reservations at a lovely inn. We'll stay inside and drink and eat and read. And no one will be able to find us for anything Krampus related at all this year."
That brought Ver's head up. "So no Krampus herding for all the fucking krampuslaufs?"
"What the fuck ever. No oversight of the annual brushing? Or the stupid Krampus feed supervision?"
"None of it. We are bowing out inasmuch as we won't be locatable." Shax strode off, confident Ver would follow. "It'll be the best solstice we've had in years. Trust me."
"I hate it when you say that."
But Shax knew he was right this time. The doorway from Hell was conveniently located with the hotel on the Varma not even a quarter mile away. They were greeted warmly, and set up in a spacious room with two beds and lovely down duvets. They dined on reindeer and goose, trout and cod, boiled eggs in the hot springs on the property—because why not?—and lolled about in the geothermally heated pool. In the evenings, they drank Opal, which Verin claimed as his favorite fucking thing ever, and Brennivin, which the locals called Black Death.
No place in the human world got closer to good demon liquors than Iceland. It was grand.
Their peace remained undisturbed until Jól—another lovely custom, that Icelanders used the old word—when Verin had burrowed back into his bed for a nap after breakfast and Shax sat by the window, reading. The screams were entirely unexpected.
"Go tell them to keep it the fuck down," Ver growled from his blanket nest.
Shax raised an eyebrow even though Ver couldn't see. "You do know you should be looking into that as a serious threat, don't you? Aren't you my bodyguard?"
A good deal of grumble-cussing followed as Ver emerged and located his pants. Even after his bodyguard statement, Shax decided to go with him, two steps behind him, since his curiosity was going to give him an aneurysm otherwise. There were definite wails of despair amid the screams. No demon could resist that.
Footsteps pounded down stairs and hallways toward the common room with its fireplace and Yule tree. Presumably other guests and staff also drawn by the shrieks. Far from calming the situation, more people simply seemed to produce more screams.
Shax understood enough Icelandic—since human languages were one of his favorite pastimes—to pick out, "This can't be!" "It's the Christmas cat!" And one voice sobbing, "I'm so sorry! I'm not wearing anything new! It's my fault!"
"Oof," Shax exclaimed as he ran into Verin's rather solid back.
Ver had stopped in the hallway, just out of sight of the common room. "Christmas cat? The fuck are they yammering about?"
"It's a human thing. Regional. A belief that on this day, if you don't wear a new article of clothing, preferably one gifted to you, a giant cat will come and eat you."
"That's...humans are weird."
True, though when they rounded the corner, the humans were actually trapped in the common room by a giant cat lounging across the doorway. Larger than a Siberian tiger, glossy black with red paws, the cat's long tufted ears swiveled to catch every whimper and scream.
Shax sighed. "I suppose it was just a matter of time."
"Steaming piles of troll shit," Ver agreed.
The cat was, naturally, not a Christmas Cat.
"Mittens," Shax whispered as sternly as he could manage. The end of the hellcat's tail twitched in response. He stepped over her tail to stand where she couldn't pretend not to see him. Hands on his hips, he began a more proper scold. "Mittens, you can't be here. You know it's not allowed."
Her tail did the little quiver that cats used to say I'm very pleased to see you, and she mewed at him.
"I know I didn't come home. I've been having a bit of a holiday." Shax turned to the humans who had huddled, more or less, in the corner behind the tree. "I'm so sorry. She's usually the good kitty of the pride. I'll just, ah, give me just a moment."
"So it's not the Christmas Cat?" one of the humans whisper-squeaked.
"Then what the hell is it?"
Shax rolled his eyes. Though they had come awfully close to guessing. "Exotic wildcat breed. Hybrid. Stay where you are gentle folk."
"She won't eat us?"
"Can't guarantee that," Ver rumbled. "I'd stay real still if I didn't wanna be cat lunch."
The humans froze into a tangled knot of limbs and heavy breathing. Shax shot Ver a Very Stern and Quelling Glance, but he just grinned around his cigar stump. Mittens sat up and butted her head against Shax's chest with a more demanding mew.
"I suppose so. The Krampuses should all be fed and put to bed by now, I'd think." Shax stroked behind her ears and couldn't help the smile when she started to purr. "Ready to go home, Ver? Mittens says she missed us."
"You. The damn cat missed you. She thinks I'm just furniture."
Mittens rubbed the side of her head against any part of Shax she could reach.
"All right, sweetie. All right." He laughed and rubbed his face against hers. To the humans, he said, "Sorry about that. You might want to make sure you all have something new, though. The day isn't over and the actual Christmas Cat might still come."
The humans' shudders practically vibrated through the floorboards. The unmistakable scent of someone's bladder giving up followed them out. Upstairs, Shax packed quickly, Verin ready to go seconds before him, which had to be a record. Packing quickly and Shax were not things that went together well.
On the way back to the graveyard, Mittens happy to walk at Shax's side with his hand on her shoulder, Verin gave him an odd look. "That was kinda meaner than your usual, your irritating highness."
Shax snorted. "Mistaking my beautiful Mittens for some mangy Christmas Cat. The utter nerve."
With a definitely offended sneeze, Mittens obviously agreed.
Author's note: The Christmas Cat is actually a thing in Iceland. Really.
Time: Sometime Tuesday morning
Place: Angel's desk
"What do you mean she's gone?" Shax clawed frantically at the interface and stuck his head out through the interwebs. "She's just not at her desk. Went for coffee. Or out into the garden."
"I told you she was going, Captain Adorable When He's Frantic," Ivana crooned, halfway between fond and exasperated.
"Did you?" Shax poked about on the desk. No coffee mug. No iPad. No Notebook Of All The Notes. "She can't just abandon us!"
"She'll be back, dumbass," Verin growled from the safety of the Brimstone. "Not the first time she's been away. Give the author a fucking break."
"You're the one who's always angry with her," Shax muttered, poking around in the calendar. "And for a whole week? This is unacceptable."
"Captain, please come back inside. Your cute little tushy isn't supposed to be out there." Worry laced Ivana's disembodied voice. "There are things--"
Shax ignored her. Maybe there was something he could take. Would serve the author right. A breeze ghosted over his cheek. No, not a breeze, a breath. He turned his head slowly...and screamed.
"Yaaaaagh! Giant cat! Giant cat!" Shax scrambled back so fast he fell on his butt in the pilot's pod. "Hell's gates! What was that monster!"
Verin fell over laughing. Ivana tsked.
"That's a regular sized cat, Captain. Well, all right. It is a big fluffy-wuffy cat, but not that big. You're just small when you poke through the interface."
"I think I'll just watch and wait from in here." Shax rubbed at his chest, recovering the pieces of his tattered dignity.
In the study, Sweetpea, the admittedly large half Maine Coon, pats at the computer screen, hoping Mom comes back soon. Her desk does weird things without her.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked on Triton Station
Shax took a deliberate sip of coffee. "Was it Charles or Georgette?"
"Uh, Charles." Verin had the decency to shuffle his big scaly feet in embarrassment.
The impressive spread of destruction kept Shax from managing more than mild annoyance. It really was exceptionally thorough. "You do know we need Charles to keep the air breathable in here."
"I said I was fucking sorry," Ver muttered.
"So you did. That didn't save Charles from your big, scaly feet."
One of the aforementioned big scalies toed a piece of Charles's broken carapace. "I was mad. He got in my way. Stomping happened."
Another sip. "I got you a punching bag for these occasions."
"That shit's just not the same."
Shax allowed a sideways glare at his long-time partner in crime. "Corny's angry with you, isn't he?"
Another foot shuffle and nudging of cleaner-bot pieces. "Yeah."
"Any thoughts on why Corny's not speaking to you?" The last was a bit of a logic leap, but Shax felt it wasn't an outrageous one given the circumstances.
Steam trailed from Ver's nostrils as he muttered about an old lady in a crowded passageway moving slowly and a certain Demon of Impatience losing his temper. Loudly. At her. Mutter mutter mumble… "So Corny's pissed."
They both stared at the remains of Charles for a few silent moments.
"What the fuck do I do?"
"That's the question, isn't it?" Shax sipped once more, thinking. I suppose I need to be captain here. He turned to face Verin, putting on his most imperious expression. "First, you're going to find Mac, explain what happened and apologize for the trouble. I think Charles's central core looks intact. Possibly. We'll let the qualified engineer make the call on whether poor Charles's rebuildable."
"That's not a real word," Verin muttered, probably out of habit.
"You," Shax poked a finger at Verin's chest. "Do not get to police my wordage right now. Next you're going to go to Corny and grovel. Say you're sorry, that you know you were wrong—"
"That you know you were wrong. And that you'll try to do better." Shax huffed out a breath. "Truly, for all of our sakes, mend things with your lovely cowboy and have some loud make up sex so we don't have these things happening."
"Okay," Verin mumbled to the floor.
"And you will write an Ode to Charles to apologize for wrecking him when he was just doing his job."
Shax did his best not to react to the bellow. A small cringe might have gotten away from him. "You heard me. This ode will be recited to Charles when he's repaired—or, barring that, before he goes into the scrap recycler—and in front of the crew."
"Fucking pits, Shaxy…"
"Get going." Shax stopped for a pointed sip of coffee. "You have a lot to accomplish, Mr. Lead Feet."
Verin stomped off in the direction of the engine room, muttering invective all the way. Fine, let him curse Shax all he wanted. But there was just enough frustration and embarrassment involved in his directives that maybe—just maybe—Ver would be less likely to destroy helpless bots in the future.
Or maybe Shax should ask Mac to add defensive capabilities to Charles and Georgette's repertoire.
After dinner that evening—after there had been a flurry of activity repairing and refurbishing Charles, after there had, indeed, been loud and, from the sounds of it, rather violent make up sex—Shax gathered the crew in the cargo hold with the shiny new version of Charles at their center.
"All right, Ver. Let's hear it."
"Come on, your annoying highness. Don't make me do this." Verin's jaw jutted defiantly, but his shoulders slumped.
"Just get it done, Ver." Corny bumped his shoulder. "Won't take but a minute."
"Fucking fine." Without meeting anyone's gaze, Verin began. "Ode to Charles:
You're a good bot
You do a lot
Sorry I got hot
Poems are fucking grot."
Heckle started to applaud, trailing off when no one else did. Several faces appeared to be fighting snickers. Julian looked on the verge of a stroke from holding it in. Charles simply beeped.
"Charley-kins says thank you," Ms. Ivana said with a verbal flounce. "But he wants a kiss."
"The fuck?" Verin gestured at the cleaner bot. "He's just a little sweeper. He can't fucking say things."
"Who speaks AI here, you or me, Meanie Bighorns?" Ivana snapped.
"Fucking deepest shit pits," Verin growled under his breath, but he bent and planted a quick kiss to the top of Charles's ocular module.
Charles pip-beeped and scurried away on his several mechanical legs.
"There. Was that so hard?" Shax made a show of straightening his jacket so he didn't have to look at Verin. Laughing at that moment? Probably hazardous.
Verin snorted a cloud of steam so thick that his head vanished. "Yeah. It was." He stomped out of the hold muttering about self-important little pricks and oversensitive electronics.
"I thought it was a good poem," Heckle offered.
"For Ver? An excellent poem indeed." Shax raised a finger before Heckle could continue. "But we shall never, ever recite it again."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Planet Elistrus, Thinis
"It's a simple commission," the angel sniffed in a superior way. "One even a nephilim can manage."
Mac was already regretting answering the hail from this piece of arrogance with pewter silver wings. He'd been curious about what the wing color meant since he'd never seen it on any other angel. But this one was more of an ass than some were and he was scaring Heckle, who'd plastered himself against Mac's side.
"Not something in my usual line of work, Mr.—?" Mac let the question hang between them like a rotten apple neither of them would want.
"Azrael." The angel—Azrael—sniffed again. "If you refuse the job, I'll call your whereabouts in to the Host. They'll be very interested in you and your crew. Whereas, if you complete it, the payment's more than fair."
His back teeth grinding together, Mac glared for a long, tense moment. Accept the job or put all of his friends and his beloved Heckle at risk. "Fine. We'll do it. But only the bringing part. Afterward, we've got nothing to do with it."
Azrael inclined his head regally. "Of course."
There might have been an angry stomp in Mac's stride as they left the café, but he soon reined in his temper to check on Heckle. "You okay, little bit?"
"Yeah." Heckle blew out a hard breath. "He didn't seem very, you know, angelic."
"He really didn't." Mac took his hand and gave a little squeeze. "Sorry about getting you mixed up in this. My size—"
Heckle tugged hard on his hand. "Don't, Mac. Don't apologize for being you. And it's not a dangerous thing that we're doing." Heckle little nose wrinkled as he thought about that. "Probably."
They reached the shop Azrael had mentioned—it was only two blocks over from the café where he'd been sitting—and Mac ducked under the doorframe, trying not to take up too much space amid the delicate china towers and glass cases. The woman—long black hair and amber skin just as Azrael had described—behind the counter looked up with a smile.
"Can I help you gentlemen?"
Mac cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Normally, Ms. Cleo, I'd just be here for pastries. But you're to come with us, please. Azrael sent us."
Her smile evaporated in an exasperated sigh and a dark frown. "Bribes or threats?"
"Both, ma'am." Heckle peeked out from behind Mac. "Though…I know Mac doesn't care about the bribe part. And…and I don't know why he didn't just come see you?"
Something in her expression softened, probably because of the earnest expression on Heckle's adorable face. "I see. Well. He can't come see me because I filed a restraining order with the city. Let me put some things away and I'll be right with you."
She vanished into the back room, followed by rummaging sounds, and the clack and snick of cabinets and compartments opening and closing. When she reappeared, she had on a sensible jacket and floppy hat and a square carrying case slung over one arm. "All right, gentlemen. I'm ready and I recognize that this isn't your fault. Lead on."
Head held high, spine steel straight, she marched beside Mac with an expression made of stone. She's going to war. No idea what's going on here, but I think Azrael's going to regret this.
When they reached the café, Azrael stood and offered what he probably thought was a charming smile. To Mac, it looked like a predator baring his teeth. "Cleo! My muse returns to me! I knew you couldn't stay away."
Not shockingly, Cleo didn't return his smile. "Now you listen to me, you slimy, misbegotten, smarmy waste of space. You have no business threatening dear little imps into doing your nasty work. Also, I wouldn't come back to you if you were the last being, of any species, in the galaxy."
She unzipped her case, reached inside and pulled out a pie. Azrael backed a step.
His protests came too late. She'd already hurled the pie accurately and precisely at his face. It hit with a wet splut. Cream pie, then. Good choice. Heckle snorted, probably trying to stifle a giggle.
"If you ever try to contact me again, through any means, I'm just going to call enforcement and let them sort it out." She zipped her case back up, readjusted her hat, and turned to go.
Azrael had plunked back onto his chair, his pie-covered face managing still to convey disbelief. "Cleo! Where are you going?"
"To file a restraining order with Interplanetary Enforcement, since the city one wasn't enough for you. Goodbye, you mangy jackass."
Mac waited until she had marched off before he said, "You probably deserved that."
"More than likely," Pie-Covered Azrael sighed.
"You're not an angel at all, are you?"
"Fallen, some years back."
That explained the odd colored wings. "Payment?"
"Oh. Yes." Azrael tapped on his comm to transfer the funds to Mac. His tongue snuck out and licked some of the cream from his lips.
Heckle rocked back and forth on his hooves. "Good pie?"
"You know…" Azrael swiped a bit off his cheek and sucked the cream off his fingers. "It's not bad. Not bad at all."
Time: Shortly after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"Were there more?" Leopold asked as he polished an emerald. "More apprentices, Papa? Maybe long ago?"
"Oh, certainly." Shax paused in examining a charming kangaroo-shaped flaw in one of his newly acquired diamonds. Loose stones, but there were some valuable pieces among them and Leopold was helping him sort them for sale. "Ver, do you remember Jay?"
"I'm not the one with Swiss cheese for brains, dumbass," Verin grumbled from his spot at the galley table where he was sorting opals. "'Course I remember Jay. They were with us, what? Thirty fucking years?"
Leopold placed the emerald in its velvet pouch with a pat of his pink paw. "Is that a long time? To stay on as apprentice? It seems long to me."
"Mmm. I suppose it would've been." Shax put down the loupe and stretched. "Certainly a long time for a human to stay with us in any capacity. Though I suppose Jay was more partner than apprentice toward the end."
Ness turned from where he was putting dishes away. "What happened to Jay in the end?"
"We took their soul, killed them and ate them." Verin let out a satisfied growl. "Fucker was delicious."
"No you didn't." Ness gave him a hard squint, a long way from the Ness who first came aboard the Brimstone and would have taken Ver's statement at horrified face value.
Shax chuckled. "We didn't. Jay would've made a stringy meal, in any event. We met them, oh, let me think…around the turn of the twentieth century, I believe. We were at Hyde Park on the Hudson, the old Vanderbilt estate in New York— What in blazes are those wavy lines, Ms. Ivana?"
"Those silly things?" Ms. Ivana tsked over ship's comm. "Those are just flashback thingies, sweetie."
"Ah, that's all right, then. So. Hyde Park…"
Shax had decided to hit the mansion in September. The Vanderbilts were on a weeklong sojourn with friends and only a handful of staff remained on the property. This created the perfect time for a little second story work with the perfect intersection of fewer people to interfere and just enough of Mrs. Vanderbilt's jewelry left safely behind. The warm weather persisted. Upstairs windows stood open. Getting in wasn't even a challenge.
They already knew the house well since Shax had attended parties there under the guise of Hungarian nobility. Americans had a raging fascination for European royalty and they couldn't tell a Hungarian accent from an Italian one. That too had been easy.
It stood to reason then that something would go wrong.
"Found it," Verin whispered from across Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom. He had a portrait lifted away from the wall.
"Ah, I do love the classics." Shax trotted over to him and let out a contented sigh. "Safe behind painting and it's a Rosengren, too. So nice to see a familiar face, er, tumbler lock sometimes."
"You gonna crack it or marry it, idiot?" Verin stepped back to give Shax room and padded to the doorway to listen for any movement in the house.
Ear to the safe door, Shax's demon hearing and nimble fingers made short work of the combination. He had the safe open and was piling jewelry boxes and velvet bags into his carry sack, when a tinkling crash came from nearby. His perfect, quiet job in danger of being ruined, he closed to safe with a huff and joined Verin by the bedroom door.
"Where?" he mouthed to Verin.
Ver tipped his horned head to the left, down the darkened hallway. Since it was always better to know the exact location of possible issues, such as a maid or valet not abed, they crept down the hall to the next massive bedchamber, that of Mr. Vanderbilt. Shax handed the sack to Verin, dropped to his knees and crawled to keep himself well below furniture height, hidden in the deep shadows cast by the unreliable sliver of moon that night.
A definite scent of frightened human permeated the air. Shax crawled around a side table and spotted his quarry by the far wall—a slender human crouched frozen in the shadows, obviously listening hard for any sounds of the household stirring.
Ah. Not staff, then. Shax rose and dusted off his knees with an exasperated sigh. "Well, duckling, what have you gotten yourself into here and why are you disturbing my perfectly lovely burglaring?"
The human stifled a startled gasp and whirled to face him. "I wasn't—"
"Mm-hmm. Yes, yes. The Vanderbilt's guests always prance about the house dressed and gloved in black and look like frightened mice when they knock over a crystal vase. No need to dissemble, my dear. Not with me. But what on earth were you trying to steal in here?"
The human straightened, squinting. "Who are you?"
"Not the most polite way to ask. However…" Shax swept a courtly bow. "I am Shax, the demon Prince of Thieves."
"D—demon? You're here for my soul?"
Verin snorted. "Stupid humans. Souls don't do us any fucking good."
"Dear me, no." Shax shot Ver a quelling look. "We came for the jewelry. And I repeat my query—what are you trying to accomplish here?"
The human of indeterminate gender pulled themself straight. "I'm stealing art."
"Truly? The Delacroix?" Shax stepped closer and made a show of examining the painting above the dresser. "There are so many reasons not to."
"It's worth a lot of money," the would-be art thief protested. "A lot. And I know where to sell it and everything."
"I see. Certainly, it's valuable. But it's also huge. How would you even get it down from the wall on your own? Even assuming you were going to cut it from its frame, which would be a terrible shame. It's lovely. I don't see how you would carry that canvas without damaging it."
"I was… I have…" The human sighed. "I didn't think it would be so big."
"Ah, to be young again." Shax draped an arm around the young person's shoulders. "Do you have a name, duckling?"
"Jay," the human said with a mix of reluctance and bravado.
"Excellent. I hear the household stirring so we must away. If you like, you may come with us and learn what it is to be a proper gentleman, er, gentleperson thief." Shax turned his head. "You don't object if Jay joins us, do you, Ver?"
"Like it makes a fuckload of difference if I did," Verin grumbled. "Nah. It's fine. The kid can come."
"I'm not a kid!"
"Yeah, you are." Ver stabbed a finger at Jay's chest. "Two things. Don't steal my cigars and don't touch the horns. Got it?"
Jay swallowed hard and squeaked out, "Got it."
"Let's be on our way, then." Shax steered them back toward Mrs. Vanderbilt's room where egress would be eased by the oak outside her window. "I haven't had a duckling to teach in some time. This will be such fun."
"I'm not a duckling, either."
Verin snorted. "Don't mind his idiotic highness. He's annoying as fuck, but you'll get used to him."
Lights came on and the alarm was raised well after the three of them had escaped across the broad expanse of lawn outside. Not that they were likely to find anything missing for some time. Shax doubted any of the staff had the ability to check the relocked safe.
"So what did happen to Jay in the end? After those thirty years?"" Ness asked as Shax's story wound to a close. "Did they meet some terrible, violent end during a break-in?"
Shax smiled, still caught in reminiscing. "Well, no. Jay got a little old for climbing in and out of windows and scurrying over rooftops. They retired and bought a farm."
"Oh. That sounds nice." The furrows in Ness's forehead eased. "What sort of farm?"
"Ferrets." Shax tapped his loupe on the table with a laugh as he came to a realization. "Clever things, ferrets. So in the end, maybe Jay didn't retire after all."
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."
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