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: 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."
"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."
Time: Just after Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone cargo hold, Carolus Spaceport on route to Opal
"I thought we agreed no more unverified fucking eggs, sawdust for brains!" Sparks flew from Verin's nostrils as he gestured toward the aforementioned alleged egg on the floor of the hold.
It was an odd one, if it was an egg at all. More of a rounded cube than an ovoid, striated as if it were made of granite, it had been lurking, er, sitting outside the Brimstone's hatch access. In the most logical, reasonable, self-preservation parts of Shax’s brain, he knew he shouldn't have brought it inside.
But he was curious.
"Don't look like no egg I ever laid eyes on," Corny drawled at his shoulder. "But then, I ain't exactly home no more, am I?"
Shaking his head, Corny turned on one of the adjustable spot lamps, turned it so it faced the ceiling, and ambled over to the egg.
"Uh, what're you doing, Corn?" Verin asked in a much softer voice than he'd used to address Shax. Typical.
"City demons." Corny shook his head as he picked up the egg and placed it atop the spotlight. The bright light rendered the shell partially translucent.
Shax leaned in with undisguised fascination. "There's someone in there, I take it?"
"I reckon so, Cap. Not sure what, but you've got yourself an egg that's fixin' to hatch, well, somethin'."
"Do you suppose we should keep it warm?" Ness cupped the egg in his hands, frowning at it.
Verin snickered. "You gonna sit on it, wingboy?"
"I may have feathers, but I'm not shaped quite right for that," Ness said in a too-even tone Shax couldn't quite parse as serious or not. Probably not, but Ness's sense of humor could evaporate when he was distracted. His wings flipped and fluttered as he gathered some hay from Rosa's feed bin and constructed a serviceable nest. This he set on the floor of the hold and turned the spotlight on it. "Should be warm enough, don't you think?"
"Probably won't need it long." Corny pointed to a crack started on the top surface of the egg cube.
All sorts of possibilities swarmed in Shax's brain and he knelt beside the nest to watch as the unknown eggling pecked its way toward freedom. Some little alien dragon, perhaps? Or an exotic reptile? A recognizable beak showed through the gray and white shell now, yellow and thick. With a heave, the eggling broke the shell in half and sat in the midst of the shards, breathing hard. It was just a ball of egg muck at first, but it shook itself…
Its covering—feathers, fur, hair—fluffed out all at once. Now it was a ball of purple fluff with a beak and, possibly eyes in there somewhere. Tiny talons peeked out at the bottom of the fluff ball, so there were at least feet if not legs.
"Aww." Corny tipped his hat back and crouched beside Shax. "The little feller's so dang cu—"
The force of the chirp soundwave knocked Shax and Corny on their butts and sent Ness staggering back a step. Verin, too sturdy to be knocked about by a mere bit of auditory shockwave, had still squeezed his eyes shut.
"Well." Shax decided sitting was a good idea and stayed right where he was on the floor. "That was unexpec—"
At least they were more prepared this time, though Shax was quite certain the sound could stop someone's heart. "Perhaps we should move ba—"
"Hell's motherfucking pointy gates!" Verin bellowed, hands clapped over his ears. "Get rid of that thing or I'm dropkicking its ass into the next century!"
"It's just a baby," Ness grabbed his arm to keep him from charging. "Don't hurt the poor thing."
"I don't care of it's a stinking cherub made of gold! Shax, don't just fucking sit there!"
Carefully, to make certain he didn't startle the potentially dangerous fluff ball, Shax reached for Rosa's empty feed bucket and popped it over the newborn whatever-it-was.
The mighty soundwave nearly knocked the bucket off again but Shax held tight. Contained, the sound was nearly bearable, though probably not good for the hatchling. What now, what now… Call spaceport security? Find a soundproof box? Before he could make any decision, a beautiful trilling song drifted into the cargo hold followed by one of the most gorgeous creatures Shax had ever seen. Not quite the length of his forearm, the creature flew on shining appendages that were more delicate fins than wings, trailing lustrous, decorative tails. Color was difficult to assign since it changed from blue to green to brilliant orange as it progressed through different bits of light. The closest analog he had were old Earth sea dragons, but that didn't give the creature justice.
It flew right to Shax as he sat entranced at its approach, then it turned and smacked him across his face with its several shining tails.
"Ow!" Shax sat hard, hand on his stinging cheek.
The creature trilled again and Shax nearly forgave it for striking him. Then it pushed over the bucket and fluttered around the hatchling.
"That can't be the parent?" Ness asked in an awed whisper. "Can it?"
The hatchling answered for them, bouncing on its stubby feet and calling pitiably in a tiny voice to the flying creature, cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, as if it had never produced sounds capable of endangering ships. The shimmering creature hovered close, gathered the peeping hatchling into several of its appendages and flew off out of the hold, leaving Shax on the floor gaping after it.
"Shaxy," Verin's growl was soft, all the more threatening for its lack of volume.
"No more unverified eggs or I snap your horns off and give them to a pack of stray dogs."
Shax accepted Ness's hand up and dusted off the seat of his work pants as he huffed at Verin. "Fine. No sense of adventure."
"Your sense of adventure might well get us all killed someday," Ness murmured. "And I agree with Verin. No more strange eggs. They don't seem to be good for you at all."
Time: Between Shax's War and Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok spaceport, planet Barbary
"Well." Shax sat back, drumming his fingers on the boards in the pilot's pod. "This is potentially disastrous."
"What is, sawdust for brains?" Verin muttered from the pilot's chair as he worked through their launch forms.
"Did you visit any demon bars in port, Ver? And if so, which ones?"
"None of your fucking business." Steam curled from Verin's nostrils at an accelerated rate.
"Hmm, yes. Normally I'd agree with you." Shax waved a hand at his view screen. "But we just had a health bulletin come in from city L&I. They've tracked an outbreak of volcanitis back to Tartarus, and I know you go there sometimes."
"Are you shitting me?" Verin surged up from his chair to lean over Shax and read the bulletin. "Aw, fuck. The bastards couldn't have sent this out before we were all boarded?"
"Apparently not. Are we screwed, Ver?"
"We are screwed to the wall with giant screws." Verin sank back into his chair. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
Shax hit the all ship comm. "My dear crew, we have a bit of an issue with takeoff. No panicking, please. Meet me in the cargo bay immediately."
"Really? You went there?" Verin snarled. "Now everyone's gonna fucking panic."
"Then we'll unpanic them." Shax flapped a hand at him. "Go, go. I just need to peruse details and I'll be right there."
By the time Shax reached the cargo bay, there were indeed signs of panic, raised voices chief among them.
Mac strode to the foot of the steps before Shax had a chance to descend and demanded, "What's this about an epidemic, Captain?"
That escalated quickly. "Nothing quite so dire." He decided to address his crew from the landing and set his hands on the railing. "We received a health bulletin regarding an outbreak of volcanitis this week. They've traced it back to Club Tartarus. How many of you have been there in the past five days?"
Nearly every ship denizen in the bay raised a hand, with the exceptions of Leopold and Rosa.
Shax pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Wonderful."
"What does this mean, love?" Ness took a step toward him, the trembling in his wings barely discernible.
"It means we're docked and confined to the ship until we've passed the incubation period. Corny, you're exempt. Humans can neither catch not carry this."
"What about Mac?" Heckle's voice shook worse than Ness's wings.
"I'm…not sure." Shax turned to address his engineer. "Mac? Any idea if nephilim are susceptible?"
Mac shook his head. "Don't know, Cap. Never came across an outbreak before."
"All right. So everyone except Corny is confined to the ship. Leopold my dear, that means you too. We have no idea if you'll be affected." Shax heaved a put upon sigh. "This mean three more days in port. Not a terrible hardship, but I was hoping to leave this afternoon. Anyone who comes down with symptoms needs to bunk here in the hold. We can't have—"
Verin made a distressed choking sound, turned away from his shipmates and spewed flame at the metal deck plates.
"Cabin fires," Shax concluded wearily. "Well, damn it, Ver."
"Not my fault." Verin sat hard on the deck, clutching his head. "Oh, fuck."
Everyone backed up as Verin let loose with another gout of fire. Corny held a hand out toward him, clearly uncertain whether it was safe to approach.
"Can we do anything, Cap?" Corny asked from his relatively safe distance.
"I don't suppose anyone has ideas about fire-retardant bedding?"
By the time Mac had found some insulation material that wouldn't burn and had set up a few makeshift pallets in the hold as far away from Rosa as possible, Heckle had collapsed to his hands and knees spewing small spurts of flame and Shax wasn't feeling terribly well himself.
"I'll, ah, sleep in the hold tonight, cupcake." He leaned his aching head against Ness's chest.
Ness stroked his hair and kissed the base of one horn. "I should stay with you, don't you think?"
"Only if you're starting to feel poorly, too." Shax glanced up at him. "You're not, are you?"
"Not at all. Maybe the virus doesn't infect the fallen?"
"I don't—" A sudden wave of heat and nausea warned Shax. He whispered excuse me, and managed to turn before flame erupted up his esophagus and onto the corridor's deck plates. "Pits. I'll just, ah, crawl to the hold. Ms. Ivana could you—"
Another column of flame escaped. Fire suppression alarms sounded. The system doused Shax in foam fire retardant.
"—hold the fire suppression," Shax gasped out, spitting foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Captain Hot Stuff. Didn't catch it in time." Ivana did sound sorry. She also sounded like she was trying not to snicker. "Didn't realize you'd gone literally hot stuff already."
"Do you need help?" Ness called after Shax as he crawled down the now slippery corridor.
"Stay there," Shax got out in a desperate plea as he tried to suppress the next fountain of flame. It didn't work. "Don't want to hurt you."
"All right." Ness agreed, then followed him at a safe distance anyway.
Damn Verin and his clubbing. Though they all went. Damn them all. And no one invited me. What the deuces am I saying?
Shax made it to the hold without setting his ship alight. He curled up on one of the empty pallets by the wall, fevered, miserable, and from time to time vomiting flame, which, frankly, wasn't much fun at all. Verin shivered and moaned through his own fever. Heckle's didn't seem quite as bad as he only hiccupped a few candle's worth of fire here and there.
While demon innards were relatively fireproof, it was still a miserable two days before symptoms and fever dreams subsided. Mac never caught it and neither did Leopold. On the afternoon of the second day, Ness joined them, though.
"You too, hon?" Shax whispered from the pallet that he had partially shredded to make himself a nest.
"I just don't feel terribly well." Ness let out an un-angelic belch. "Thought I should come down as a precaution."
"Sorry, sweetheart. I hope it's not too bad for you."
"I—" Ness hiccupped and belched again. Instead of the expected geyser of flame, pearlescent bubbles escaped his mouth and drifted peacefully toward the ceiling where they popped with little musical pings.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Verin grumbled from his pallet.
Heckle watched the bubbles with fascinated longing. "That's just not fair."
"It's not as if I'm trying to do it," Ness said with an exasperated sigh.
Shax watched another round of bubbles pop against the ceiling girders. Maybe it was leftover fever hallucinations, but he thought he saw sparks.
"Cupcake, if you don't mind aiming those at the floor, please?"
Ness shrugged but repositioned so his bubbles would hit the floor directly in front of him. Sure enough, the next ones hit the decking in showers of miniature lightning storms.
"Oh…oh, dear," Ness whispered as he lay down with his head hanging off the insulation. "There's two days of this?"
The tiny lightning strikes had become miniature thunderstorms with the next bout of bubbles, complete with about three seconds of rain. Shax rolled father into his nest, pulling the insulation up around him to protect against tiny lightning strikes. Living with a newly fallen was mostly wonderful, incredibly instructive, and never, ever boring.
Time: After Shax's War
Place: Planet Barbary, New Bangkok city dome
Heckle swung his hooves as he waited for Corny to come back from the counter. They'd come into the shopping district for, surprisingly, shopping. Things they couldn't just order from the dockmaster at the spaceport. Captain Shax had asked for a list of things for Ness's unbirthday—in place of a birthday since Ness had no idea when his creation day was—and Corny had needed a substitute for leather for tack repair.
By the time they were finished, they were both starving so Corny had found a place serving a meatless pulled pork that smelled wonderful. Heckle snagged a table for them while Corny ordered since the counter wasn't even close to imp-sized. The food stand was doing a brisk business and customers far outnumbered tables, which worked well since so many of the customers, probably locals, wanted takeaway. Unfortunately, not everyone.
"Oy! Mini-demon! Move along. You don't need that whole table." A large bald human—Heckle was sure he was a human by the scent, though his much bent and crinkled nose could've been a pit demon's—loomed over him, blocking the day-cycle lights of the dome.
Heckle didn't dare look the rude human in the face, but he did manage to stammer out, "I'm—I'm waiting for a friend."
"Then both you mini-demons can go sit your asses on the curb where you belong." The human's smaller, mean-eyed friend guffawed.
Even though he knew he risked being tossed, Heckle swallowed hard and stood his ground. "It's not—"
"Move along, gentlemen," Corny's softest, most dangerous tone came from behind them. "The little hombre got there first."
"Who the fuck are you?" Crinkle Nose turned on Corny.
"The friend he's waiting for."
The threat in Corny's eyes was hard and unmistakable. Both humans moved off muttering about the benches in the park being cleaner anyway. Corny shook his head and handed Heckle his share of lunch as he sat down.
"You all right, little bit?"
The confrontation had shaken Heckle down to his hooves. He pulled in a slow breath before answering, "They didn't hurt me."
"Not what I asked but good to hear."
Heckle dug into his lunch, which was spicy and warm. The food in his stomach steadied him, as it often did and he started to wonder about things. "Are humans or demons worse, do you think?"
It took three bites for Corny to answer. "Well, I reckon there's worse and there's worse."
"I don't know what that means," Heckle said as he shoveled up another forkful.
Corny waved his own fork around to include the other patrons. "Some people used to say that humans are half demon and half angel. That we have to fight all our lives against the bad parts of who we are if we wanna be good people. I dunno much about that. I do know that demons come in lots of types and some are bone-deep bad and heartless. Others are just, what does Cap say? Morally dubious."
"So humans come in different kinds, too?"
"Nah. We're all the same. Not like pit demons and imps and other hell critters. But lots of humans… Well, something goes wrong in their rearing. Or just in their insides. They grow up heartless. Still human. Just can't think beyond their own selves." Corny shrugged. "Demons just are what they are. Come to think of it, some of the things I've heard tell about angels have been pretty heartless, too."
Heckle nodded at that. Taking Ness's beautiful golden wings because he was in love? That had been shockingly cruel even from a demonic view of things.
"I'll cotton to not thinking everything Cap'n Shax does it right, but he's still got a heart. And Ver will tear you to pieces if he thinks you done him wrong. But his heart's still in there. That's what matters, I reckon."
The proprietor of the food stand bustled up then with a thundercloud frown. Heckle was sure she was going to tell them to leave. No imps allowed or something.
She plunked a takeaway container on the table. "Here, sweetie. You take that with you. I don't like seeing my customers bullied."
"Oh." Heckle blinked at the container. "Thank you."
But she'd already hurried off again and probably hadn't heard. He gathered the container close as they left the table. Heart. Heart was good. A full stomach was sometimes just as wonderful.
Time: 19th century
Place: Earth, United States, Oklahoma
"Gimme your pie, piggy." Randall sidled up to Corny like he was being all friendly-like. Corny wasn't buying that rotten barrel of fish.
He backed up a step and took a hasty bite of beef pie. Might be the only one he got. "Don't call me that."
"Talkin' with your mouth full. You are a piggy." Randall shoved his shoulder, not too hard yet.
"Leave me alone. You had yours." Corny tried to turn away for a second hurried bite but a hand snatched his pie away. He blinked up at Daniel who'd snuck up behind him. "Give it back!"
Daniel held him off easily with a straight arm to the forehead, laughing at Corny's flailing. He was quieter than Randall but meaner than a stepped-on rattler. Daniel took a slow bite, chewing even slower like he was savoring.
"Give it back! I'm hungry!"
Now the heavy shove came and Corny fetched up hard against the planks in front of the baker's where Mrs. Cathcart had bought each of the orphans one of the little meat pies from the new fancy glass case. Sister Catherine didn't approve, said it was spoiling them, but she allowed it since Mrs. Cathcart insisted and Corny guessed you didn't nay-say the mayor's wife if you were just a teacher at the orphanage.
He pulled himself over using the railing and sat on the stairs trying not to cry. There was never enough to eat. His stomach felt like a big old sinkhole and the pie had tasted so good. The older kids always took more'n their fair share, leaving the littles to scrape up what they could. The sisters never noticed or maybe they didn't care. Corny's ears had been boxed once already for trying to tell them. If he'd been smarter, he would've realized he'd only called attention, the orphanage bullies circling like buzzards since that day.
"Here." A tanned, dust-seamed hand moved into view, holding out a meat pie.
Corny braved a glance down at spurs and well-worn boots, then up to a weathered face topped by a broad-brimmed hat. He took the pie carefully, scared it was a joke and the man would yank it back. The cowboy was patient though, and waited until Corny had it secure before he turned and sat down with him on the steps.
"Y'gotta learn to be tougher, little hombre." The cowboy's voice was deep and growly. For some reason it gave Corny shivers, not like scared ones though. "Not gonna make it to bein' grown if you don't."
"They're too big." Corny stopped wolfing down the pie for a half-guilty, "Thanks, mister."
The cowboy shrugged. "I ain't so big neither. Never was. Weren't so long ago that boys were pushing me down. If you're smaller, you gotta be meaner sometimes. Lookin' at your feet, though, you ain't gonna be a small fry long."
Corny slowed down to eat like a human and the cowboy stayed until he was done. Then the cowboy patted Corny's knee, got up with a jingle of spurs, leaped onto his horse and rode off. Corny knew he looked like a stupid mooncalf staring after him but he didn't care.
"I'm gonna be a cowboy someday," Corny said to the now empty street.
"You can't be a cowboy, Cornelius," Sister Catherine said with a sniff as she bustled down the stairs, gathering her charges. "You don't even know how to ride. It's a dirty, disreputable job, in any case, where you'll meet nothing but dirty, foul-mouthed sinners. Nothing good ever comes from being a cowboy."
Corny nodded but he knew better. Boys ran away from the orphanage all the time. Maybe they didn't all get to be cowboys but he'd find a way.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
This bar is powerful blue. Corny figured it probably wasn't all blue, but all the glass and chrome with soft blue lighting along the floors and walls certainly created the illusion. Peaceful. Like being one of them mer people in stories, living under the sea and breathing just fine. It wasn't a fancy place, not like one Cap'n might take them to where he'd have to get all gussied up and strangle himself with a stiff shirt collar. But it was a heaping helping fancier than the bars they usually went to in New Bangkok.
Verin glanced at his face and snorted. "They won't toss us out, cowboy. Don't say I never take you anywhere nice."
"It is nice. Was just taking a gander. Pretty place." Corny bumped shoulders with him before weaving through the patrons to a raised table at the far end of the blue glass bar top. He waited until they were settled before he asked, "What's the occasion? Did I misrecollect a date?"
"Just thought a change of scenery…" Verin shrugged. Clearly, he was chewing on something but Corny wasn't about to prod at him. If he wanted to say it, he would in his own good time.
They ordered the usual—something toxic for Ver, a whiskey for Corny—and settled back to watch the patrons and talk about little things. They needed to get a new file for Verin's claws. Corny kinda liked doing the foot claws since it wasn't too far a throw from taking care of hooves and it was… Well, it was intimate. Taking care of your lover's feet. Not something he'd been able to do before Ver.
Ver swirled whatever nasty rotgut he had in his glass, watching the gray-green whirlpool with a frown. "You ever regret it, Corn?"
That set Corny back. "Regret filing your claws?"
"No, dumbass." Ver blew out a slow breath, smoke spiraling from his nostrils. "Coming with me. Leaving your own time."
A quick answer would sound like he wasn't willing to think about it, so Corny tipped back his chair and thought a spell. "I miss some things, sure. Riding out under the sky most every day. The smell of a cookfire. Waving grass that…looks like grass should. Guess that's true of anybody who leaves home. You miss little things."
Verin stared off across the bar, silent, sipping his drink.
Corny let his chair down, reached across the table and seized Verin's hand. "But I don't regret it, Hammer. Not for one second. I don't regret bein' here with you. I don't regret traveling to a time where I can hold your hand and no one's got a word to say contrariwise. Where I can—"
He broke off and leaned across the table to plant a kiss at the base of Ver's right horn. While he would've loved to get a real kiss, probably best not while Ver was drinking poison. Corny smiled as he smoothed the dark hair between Ver's curled horns.
Raised voices came from the other end of the bar, two people arguing in a language Corny couldn't understand. One had multiple braids of different colors, though the blue light made it hard to tell what colors. The other was covered either in green scales or in tattoos of green scales. Corny had learned not to assume about things like that. Braids shoved Scales. The bartender tried to calm things down but it looked like these boys were fixin' to fight like Kilkenny cats.
Corny glanced between the brewing fight and his demon lover, still sipping his drink. Ver was interested but he was slouched back in his chair, relaxed. Wouldn't be the first bar fight, and sure as shooting wouldn't be the last they saw, but so long as Ver wasn't reaching for his weapons, Corny wouldn't start worrying.
Scales had Braids by the throat now. The bartender was signaling frantically for one of the security demons at the door.
"Bets on the door goons getting there in time?" Ver asked with an evil grin.
"Five says the big demon gets there afore a punch gets thrown," Corny said, eyeing the action with more interest now.
Security waded through the crowd, hampered by their size. Braids kneed Scales in the balls, or tried to. Didn't quite connect since it just made Scales madder. He picked Braids up and tossed him down the length of the bar where he skidded to a stop just shy of Corny and Verin's table. Ver turned to Corny to say something but one of the patrons whose drinks had been bulldozed grabbed Braids off the bar and tossed him at the table. The poor table broke. Ver rose slowly from his chair, sparks shooting out with each breath.
"Just your fists, Ver," Corny murmured as Verin got up a head of steam.
Verin charged into the growing melee, going after the patron who had spilled his drink. She was a tough old bird and got in some painful licks before Ver flattened her. Not that it mattered. It was an out and out brawl now, fists flying without rhyme or reason. Corny sighed and waded in after his demon, keeping combatants off his back best he could. Wasn't too hard. When Ver got going, he was a one-demon wrecking ball. Best Corny could do was keep up and try to steer them toward the door.
He was so intent on his goal that he had to stop a second and reorient when they stumbled out onto the street. Sirens wailed in the distance. The riot raged on inside.
"Shame. Nice place like that. Best make ourselves scarce," Corny insisted as he steered Ver down the street. "All right there?"
"Yeah. That was great," Ver grinned and stuck a cigar stump between his teeth. "And you owe me five, cowboy."
Corny snorted. "I reckon I don't." He stopped in front of Verin and plucked the cigar out. "We said the first punch afore security got there. Weren't no punch till you threw one."
"Aw, c'mon. Technicalities."
"Nope. That was the bet. Fair and square, Hammer." He seized Ver's head between both hands and kissed him hard, right there in the street, which he could've never done in his old life if he wanted to keep breathing. "You remember what you asked me?"
Ver blinked a few times before he got out in a husky murmur, "Yeah?"
"I got some small wistfuls, Ver. But I ain't got no regrets." Corny dove in for another kiss, pulling Ver close with a hand on his ass for good measure. "Nary a one."
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