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: 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 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: 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."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
One hoof hop. One hoof leap over the square with the bolt in it. Two hoof hop. One hoof hop. Two. One. Turn. Come back the same way. Stop and bend to pick up the bolt. Try not to fall over.
"There you go, Heck. You're gettin' it." Corny laughed as Heckle returned through the squares grinning to hand the bolt off to Corny.
Corny took his turn more slowly than Heckle and without all the twitching of wings for balance. The long ship days of traveling between systems could get really boring, and Corny had suggested this game as a break from reading lessons. Before ballet with Ness, this probably wouldn't have worked. Actually, Heckle was sure all the one-hoof hopping would've been a disaster.
"What is this drawing?"
The voice behind Heckle made him jump and whirl. He hadn't heard Leopold come down the hold stairs.
"Is it some sort of floor plan? Layout for a job?"
"Nothing so serious." Corny completed his turn with a last hop. "It's just a game. Wanna try your hand, er, paw?"
Once the game was explained, Leopold gave it a try, doing his best to balance on one back paw and hop. He landed, wobbled, and plopped over onto his back with an exasperated peep.
"Well, now." Corny helped the hedgehog prince up. "I'm thinkin' since you got four feet and the game calls for a person to use half their feet, you should try two."
Heckle considered that a moment. "That sounds right. No one would ask Rosa to try on one hoof. Or Max on one foot."
"Don't think Rosa'd be keen on hopping more'n the once, anyhow." Corny pushed his hat back. "Give it a try, Leo."
Two paws worked infinitely better. There were still wobbles since the squares were spaced almost too far apart, and Leopold had to hit each of the double hop squares one at a time because of the spacing of his feet, but he came back with the bolt. Hedgehog triumphant.
They played through a round and at the end, Leopold held onto their marker bolt, tapping it against his paw in a thinky way. "It is a good game. Could we add more things to it? Make new obstacles?"
"I don't—" Corny tried to object, but Heckle had already picked up the chalk they'd used to draw the squares.
Leopold crouched beside him and between them they made snakes of squareish shapes and diamond patterns to work through. Soon Ness joined them, more than happy to kneel on the floor and help. The black holes were Ness's idea—filled in squares to jump over and if a player dropped the bolt in one, they had to start over. Wasn't too long before Captain Shax joined them, probably wondering where Ness had gone, and he added the innovation of circle squares, where the player had to hop on one foot in a complete circle within the lines before continuing.
Play started up again soon after with a lot of wobbling and hands slapped against the deck plates to prevent a fall—and some falling. Leopold played with intense concentration, though he finally decided that he couldn't manage the black hole obstacle. He jumped into the center of one and declared himself eaten. Captain Shax turned out to be ridiculously good at the game, which surprised no one, while Ness found his huge wings were sometimes more in the way than not. Verin strolled down to see what everyone was going, but declined to play.
He put a clawed foot in one of the squares, completely obliterating it. "Nah, too fucking dainty for me." Though he seemed happy to sit up on the landing and laugh at everyone's expense.
There was a lot of laughter and snickered cussing. The only casualty was when Corny's leg decided to cramp, which he called a charley horse. That made less sense than some of Corny's phrases did, but Heckle decided not to ask then in case everyone else understood it.
When they'd all conceded to Captain Shax and sat gasping and snickering on various crates and steps, Verin called down from his perch, "So what're you gonna call it?"
"I thought we should call it Hecklescotch," the captain called up from his spot leaning against Ness.
"Yeah? Why's that, genius?"
"Because the finished game is largely due to Heckle." Captain Shax stopped, his forehead crinkling. "And honestly? Shaxscotch just sounds ridiculous."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, In Transit
Blue dot. Treats come with blue dot.
Nic twitched his whiskers and hurried after the dot. Sometimes it wouldn't wait for him. Then he had to stop and watch until it came back. The dot zipped down the tunnel and Nic ran to keep up, barely in time to catch the quick turn it made to the left. There, in a little niche--
Treats! Yes! Nom nom…seeds…nom…pumpkin.
When he finished, he glanced around for the blue dot. Did it have more following games for him? Was it time to go back to Big Feathers? There! There it ran, back to the wide tunnel. Nic scurried after. There would be more treats. Blue dot did not go back the way he had come. Down the tunnel, then up, up, into a tunnel where Nic needed the sticky pads of his feet to run on the walls instead of the floor.
Up. Up. Up. Then blue dot turned down a flat tunnel again to stop at a tiny cave in the tunnel wall.
More treats! Sweet potato! Nom nom nom nom.
He finished his nibbling and sat up, alert and waiting. Blue dot returned and raced away down the tunnels up one way, down the other, through bends and twists, sharp corners, and the occasional scramble-plop from an up tunnel to a flat one below. There were treats, but it seemed to Nic that there was more game in between treats now than there had been the first time he'd played with blue dot. That was all right. A bit more of a run to food was never wasted time.
Scent told him they were backtracking now, returning along his own trail to rejoin Big Feathers in the bright room of food smells. The bright room meant the end of the game and more treats. Yes. He was right. The light from the opening shone at the end of the tunnel now. He followed blue dot out and onto the table where Big Feathers sat with Giant and Hunter. All of these were large folk Nic liked. In this flying cave, he liked most of the large folk. Spiney was the most fun, especially when he was with Nic's small friend, Many Legs. The large person who blew smoke was a little scarier, but he'd only tried to catch Nic that once.
Sniff sniff. Yes, there was egg for him. Who had it, though? The large people were talking and not paying proper attention to him. There…Hunter held something out for him. Nic scampered over to claim his prize and chomped down. A sharp cry startled him into jumping back and the taste in his mouth was definitely not egg. Oops. Finger.
There were some sharp words, but Nic decided they weren't for him as he discovered the bowl of chopped egg next to the finger. Giant took the strange little hat off Nic's head and blue dot vanished, signaling the end of the game—also, sadly, the end of treats. That was fine. He was full now, so he climbed Big Feathers and settled out of the way on his shoulder.
Blue dot was a good game. He might even consider playing it without treats. Maybe.
[Author's note: Rat eyesight is notoriously poor with a limited color range and lack of definition, although they do see ultraviolet light. Many a young rat friend has been nipped or bitten by making the mistake of putting a finger between the bars of a rat's cage. They're not being mean—they just mistook it for something else.]
"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
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