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."
Time: Twenty-plus years before the start of Potato Surprise
Place: St. Cuthbert's School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, planet Righteousness
He'd only taken out one with the water on the stairs. There were six left. Julian crouched on the girders above the stairwell where he'd manage to scramble with the help of a trash bin, thinking hard and fast. Yanking the old pipe from its deteriorating fittings had been his most ingenious gambit but most of those lumbering idiots had just barreled through the water barrage.
What now? He could simply give up, curl into a ball, take the beating as he had so many times before and hope they tired quickly. Bloody, bloody tired of it, though. Just because the other kids were older, bigger—just because they had families to go home to on holidays and Julian did not—they thought they had some universe-given right to taunt him, to torment him, and to stomp him into the ground. Not to mention the other reason. Why the social workers had sent him to this backwater world and this school with its backward thinking was a mystery.
No more. No. More.
He glanced around desperately as the idiot pack put their tiny brains together below and started to figure out that they could reach him if they worked together. Several long sections of aluminum piping lay across the girders, probably as a handy storage spot. They looked like ones that would fit together to form a frame, maybe even the ones for the shade canopies for the superintendent and teachers at sporting events. Those would do if he could get to them in time.
"Julia, Julia, come down and play," one of the idiot pack called. They were forming some sort of unstable human pyramid and would reach him in the next moments.
The girders creaked as Julian inched along them and he swallowed hard, hoping they would hold. Almost there… Almost there… His fingers twitched a pipe closer and closed around the metal just as Abigail, the cruelest of the pack, snagged Julian's trailing foot and yanked hard. He made a grab for the girders with his free hand, immediately tucked into a ball when he knew it was too late, and bounced off the idiot pyramid on the way down. They broke his fall. He demolished their teetering human construction.
If it had been a building, it would've been condemned.
Julian fought free of the tangle of flailing limbs though not before he'd been kicked in the head twice, and scuttled back to give himself room as he brandished his new weapon.
"It's Julian," he whispered. "And you need to leave me alone."
Corian threw back his head on an ugly laugh. "Aw. It's itty-bitty feelings are hurt. C'mere, you little freak."
The solid crack of the aluminum pole against Corian's head shocked Julian. It vibrated through his fingers and nearly made him drop it. Nearly. Corian stumbled back, hand to the side of his face. The confusion on his face was the best thing Julian had ever seen. He pressed the attack, swinging for heads and shins, without mercy and for once with more anger than fear.
He didn't stop until the other children had fled or were sobbing on the floor. The hand that finally ripped the pole from his hands was unexpected, larger, and most definitely adult. Julian swallowed hard and tipped his head to find the superintendent glowering down at him. The forced march to the administrative offices had Julian's heart slamming against his chest. Part of him longed to be expelled but where would they send him?
Julian's heart sank when they reached the super's office. A man waited for them there, so they were going to send Julian away. Though something about the man's movements struck him as odd as he rose to greet them—too fluid, too graceful, too watchful. His smile was ambiguous, neither kind nor cruel, his eyes half-hooded and considering. Perhaps his clothes threw Julian more than any other feature. The gray suit looked more expensive than anything the teachers wore. He didn't think the man had come from Planetary Childrens' Services.
"This is the one," the super said with condescending disgust. "Julia Higgenbottom—"
"Julian," Julian corrected softly.
"She came to us through the Planetary Equal Education Program—"
"He," Julian interjected, voice barely more than a whisper.
"And it's rare that anything good ever comes of that. She's incorrigible, defiant, disruptive, and, as you can see, has vicious and violent tenden—"
"He has a natural talent," the strange man cut the super off in a voice of quiet authority. "He's quite the most amazing child I've seen in some time. How old did you say he is?"
"Julia is eight."
"And the other children we just watched on the security feed? How old are they?"
The super's frown deepened. "Twelve. Thirteen."
"And there is no family?"
"No known parents or rela—"
"Astounding." The strange man turned his enigmatic smile on Julian. "Young man, how would you like to go to a new school? A special school where you would learn to fight properly and to code and decode and, oh, all sorts of useful things?"
The man was frightening in a way Julian had never encountered. Something about him screamed predator and made Julian want to crawl under the super's enormous desk to hide. But the man had called him by his chosen name. Had addressed him as young man. He glanced up at the super who regarded him as if Julian were something unpleasant at the bottom of a vegetable drawer.
"Yes, sir," Julian finally answered. "I'd like that very much."
"Excellent. Have you chosen a last name as well?"
The super looked confused but Julian understood. No, he hadn't yet, even though he hated Higgenbottom, a name he felt no connection to. He read the chart on the super's wall, the one with space cartography terms, the one he had read so many times while he stood in front of the super's desk being berated. Red Shift. Gravity Well. Stellar Parallax…
"Parallax, sir. Julian Parallax."
"Perfect." The man reached out a hand and waited until Julian slid his hand up to take it. "Come with me to begin your real life, Julian. I have a shuttle waiting." He turned to the super as they were walking out. "I expect Julian's possessions to be sent along. Properly addressed."
"Yes. Of…of course," the super squeaked.
Julian smiled for the first time in days. He had a feeling his new school would be hard but working hard for someone who treated him with respect wasn't something Julian feared at all.
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked at Triton Station
Being in dock was positively restful sometimes, especially during night cycle. Ivana had time to defrag systems and maximize efficiencies when the ship was still. Sure, she had to talk to the station about certain things, but none of that took up much of her capacity.
She checked on her boys—and they were her boys, every one of them, and Rosa, of course, was hers too. Captain Hot Stuff lay asleep in his security officer's arms and wings. Shax looked so angelic when he finally slept deeply, never mind the horns, and it warmed Ivana's processors the way Ness curled around him so protectively. Her little demon pirate hadn't changed much since the first time her optics had fastened on him. Still the schemer, still the compact package of sex appeal and swagger, but a piece of him had changed. He was, what? More responsible now? In his own way, she supposed. He'd become a lot more captain than brigand in the past couple of years.
Verin slept on his back, snoring loud enough to rattle the deck plates. Somehow, his cowboy slept with his head on that broad chest, not bothered by the racket one bit. Maybe it reminded Corny of an old steam train. They'd had a rocky start, her and Verin. She was used to him now. Depended on him for many things, the grump. While Shax was the unstoppable force that impelled them, Verin was the gravitational force that steadied them.
Station: seals check
Brimstone: confirmed, within standard limits
Leopold slept curled in a tight ball in his fabulous nest of many colors, with Nicodemus burrowed in nearby. Nic officially belonged to Ness but he'd taken to sleeping with Leopold since it tended to be less active in Leo's cabin at bedtime. Maximillian slept nearby in one of the padded compartments of his play maze. Safer for him if anyone rolled over. Leo's posse—they had become that, and if anyone ever doubted that the hedgehog was a demon prince's son, they just had to look at his talent for gathering minions and his huge obstinate streak. Leo often did as Leo pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Brimstone: CO2 up .002%
In Mac's cabin, Heckle slept atop his giant lover, probably the warmest bed on the ship. The slow ride up and down with each of Mac's breaths seemed to soothe him, too, the little cutie. He smiled in his sleep as he did sort of a wriggle-snuggle. Heck had been another surprise, one Ivana would've gladly tossed out the airlock those first days, but her imp had hidden depths and he was lightning quick when you explained something new without yelling at him. Mac, for his part, could do no wrong in Ivana's eyes. She wouldn't have cared if he was a serial killer. Having a skilled engineer on board was just too lovely.
Brimstone: Delivery query 58674192
Station: 0600 confirmed, signature required
And her Julian, oh, her handsome Julian. She was glad to have him back for a while. He never stayed long anymore. Pity. Though this time, he seemed to have settled in for a stay. He whimpered and snuffled in his sleep, shifting until he had his back to the wall. Ivana wished she had hands to soothe him. Poor sweetie needed someone to sleep with.
Ivana hummed as she checked through station data. She wasn't supposed to be able to sift through the things behind firewalls, but Captain Cute Buns had set up some programming that helped her get around those nasty things.
Outstanding warrant: Verin Hammer. Civil disturbance. Simple assault. Assault with blunt object (chair.) Assault with blunt object (bar top.) Bartender tossing.
Really? That was a specific offense now? The warrant's date corresponded with their last visit. Oops. Surprising that station security hadn't pinged them on docking. Lazy ninnies. Ivana asked the system nicely to delete the warrant. The security system refused. She threatened selective data erasure. The warrant vanished without a trace.
Ivana gave a prim sniff. Nobody better mess with her boys.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Most nights, Heckle loved sleeping with Mac. Sleeping alone for imps wasn't natural. They grew up in communal nests and slept in imp piles even after reaching full growth. Sleeping with Mac was better than any overcrowded imp pile, though. The ship's engineer tended to sleep on his back with Heckle draped over him like an extra blanket, most often with a hand on Heckle somewhere and Heckle's tail wrapped protectively around that wrist.
Most nights? It was perfect. The heat, the closeness, the steady drum of Mac's heart under Heckle's ear. Except on those few nights when Mac had nightmares.
The previous night, Heckle had snapped awake to the sickening feeling of falling just before he landed with a thud on the floor. Thrashing and flailing, Mac had become a hazard and had unknowingly tossed Heckle out of bed. With a sigh, Heckle had crawled into Mac's footlocker and slept on the clothes and extra blankets there, which was fine. It just wasn't Mac.
He gave up on sleep in the early hours of the ship's day cycle and wandered to the galley for breakfast without waking Mac. His poor nephilim had spent a terrible night with his dreams and was finally sleeping quietly. Oddly, Corny and Verin were already there having breakfast, which probably meant they hadn't been to bed yet. Ship hours for a pilot could get weird sometimes, especially when the ship had to drop out of Copernicus space at off hours.
"Hey, Heck." Corny glanced up from his oatmeal. "All right there? You look a mite put out."
"I'm all right." Heckle climbed onto the opposite bench. "Ms. Ivana? Could I have a sausage, please? And some chilies?"
"Of course, sweetie. Be just a second." The AI chirped from the galley speaker. "You do look down in the dumps, sugar."
"I guess a little. I don't know what to do about Mac's nightmares."
Verin growled into his coffee before he set the mug down with a thump. "Everybody has nightmares, short stuff. You can't stop the fucking things."
Heckle nodded. "Right. Of course. It's just...I get dumped out of bed or kinda seasick when he has them."
"So wake him up," Corny said with a raised eyebrow.
Heckle shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "I, um, can't. I've tried. I shake his arm when it's safe to. I call to him. Nothing wakes him up when he's having a bad dream."
"So bite him." Verin waved a spoon at him. "You've got sharp teeth. Use the damn things."
"But…" Heckled stared at him. "I can't do that."
"You chomp on me to get me woke and you'll pull back a few less teeth, Hammer." Corny gave his demon lover a playful shove.
"Big talk, cowboy. Besides, you don't sleep through a fucking pin dropping."
"True enough." Corny shrugged. "Old habits. You reckon you know why he's got such bad dreams, Heck?"
"I don't know. He won't talk about it. I'd guess it's mostly stuff from when he was a kid."
A throat cleared from the doorway. Julian, far too awake and perfectly put together. Didn't he ever sleep? Didn't he need to? Heckle still wasn't sure how he felt about Julian. He was a killer, fine, but Heckle didn't hold that against him. It was his job. He was polite, quite, neat, could be kind, but there was something always…watchful about him as if he didn't trust any person or any given situation for more than a few moments.
Heckle didn't dislike him? He just wasn't comfortable to be around.
"I have a suggestion, Mr. Quartermaster, if you don't mind coming with me," Julian said with a soft smile.
Startled, Heckle shot a glance Verin's way.
"Go on, mini-minion," Verin grumbled with a jerk of his head toward Julian. "Parallax is an asshole but he won't hurt you."
Julian's laugh was somehow both bright and brittle as he took Heckle's hand and led him back toward the cabins. "I have a device that helps me sometimes."
"You have nightmares?" Heckle cringed as his voice squeaked.
"The nightmare having nightmares, right?" Julian gave him a conspiratorial grin before he sobered abruptly. "Oh, yes. I have them. About mistakes. About failure."
Heckle stayed outside Julian's cabin, shifting from hoof to hoof as the assassin retrieved something. When Julian reemerged, he put a curious object in Heckle's palm, a twisted shape of metal and electronics that reminded Heckle of a dragon.
"What is it?" Heckle blinked first at the device, then at Julian. "And don't you need it?"
"It's called an Ear Wyrm, my dear." Julian closed Heckle's fingers around it. "I can get another one. It goes around the outside of the ear like a cuff or a mini-comm. Certain repeated frequencies keep the nightmares at bay. It does have, ah, certain side effects, but nothing harmful."
"Oh. All right."
"Just have him try it. If he doesn't want it, just bring it back to me. I won't be offended."
"Thank you." Heckle stared at for a bit more, gathering his courage. "But the side effects?"
"It varies according to the individual." Julian crossed his heart in the ancient gesture of promise. "Nothing that will hurt him, I swear."
Heckle thanked him again and trotted off to the cabin he shared with Mac to see if his giant lover was awake yet.
The next sleep cycle, Mac fitted the golden ear wyrm around his right ear, took Heckle in his arms, and had one of the quietest nights of sleep he'd experienced in years, so he said. Heckle smiled as he trotted about his day. It had worked, they were both rested, and Heckle didn't have any butt bruises from smacking into the floor.
The only strange thing? Mac kept singing, Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do, all day long. Over and over and over…
Time: During Hell for the Company
Place: An unspecified city done on Barbary
Sometimes the agency liked to challenge him with the impossible, Julian was absolutely certain. Since rumors floated through the halls of the ISE that he could accomplish six impossible things before breakfast, sometimes the jerks sorting assignments thought it would be hilarious to test those rumors.
Actinide Morose would be his first target tonight on Barbary. Then somehow he was supposed to catch up to and eliminate Serafina Cataclysm on one of the orbiting stations before the night was over. This might be the first time Agent Parallax failed to carry out his orders to the letter. Perhaps. He still hoped to find a way. Improvisation was one of his best things, after all.
It was a strange universe where the most ruthless crime lords took on the most ridiculous names. Julian shifted his cramping foot on the metal framework that held up the ceiling plates, oh so carefully so he wouldn't make a sound.
Come on now, Morose. I don't have all night while you shillyshally.
His micro camera showed the minions in place, but no Morose yet. The boss had set the meeting for eight. It was twenty minutes past the hour. Terribly rude. Finally, Morose made his grand entrance with a bit of arm candy plastered to his side and a monitor lizard tucked under his arm. So much drama. Julian was beginning to prefer the quiet hits on other operatives—that single muffled shot in the night, the subtle untraceable poison, the well-timed accident—to all this circus. So. Three minions. One boss. One bit of fluff who might escape becoming collateral damage if Julian did this efficiently. Boss first. Minions in quick succession according to their respective observed competence. He just had to wait until they were seated and--
The double doors to the posh conference room flew open with a crash. A tall slender figure stood silhouetted by the chandeliers in the hallway and shadowed by two crate-sized blocks of bodyguards.
"Serafina Cataclysm, it's been far too long," Morose intoned, eyes hooded as he stroked his lizard. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
Cataclysm tossed her beautifully coifed purple hair and slunk into the room. "Actinide, darling, you look positively awful. I've come to pay my respects, of course, since I was in the vicinity."
What were the odds? Julian found himself grinning, despite the fact that he usually hated coincidences. But this was too good to pass up, if he could somehow avoid becoming ill from the cheesy dialogue. He eased a concussion grenade from his thigh pocket. That first. Then he could pick off the stunned roomful of awful below.
"I thought you were sulking up on station, my dear. Nasty rumors say you don't respect my authority," Morose purred.
Cataclysm let out a wordless snarl and flicked her nails in some coded gesture. Violent rustles of cloth and shouts followed as every single person in the room, including the supposedly harmless pretty, pulled guns. Invective flew, everyone covering everyone else.
One of Cataclysm's bodyguards shoved her behind him. She tripped on her long faux ermine coat. Her gun went off and took out the back of her guard's head. The other bodyguard, nervous and trigger happy, got off two shots and somehow managed to take down all three of Morose's goons. One of them fired as he hit the floor and hit the pretty in the chest, who flailed and shot Serafina, who managed to shoot her second bodyguard, whose gun flew out of his hand, hit the table and fired, putting a bullet between Morose's eyes.
The whole fiasco had taken no more than twelve seconds. Everyone in the room below was dead except the monitor lizard who sat on the table flicking his tongue in an unconcerned way. Julian lay on his ceiling girders, completely stunned. He'd barely been able to keep up with the epic levels of incompetence he'd just witnessed. How in the world was he supposed to report this?
With painstaking care, Julian retraced his steps, sliding back across the girders and through the duct system out to his waiting hoverbike beside a large drainage pipe. He was still so flabbergasted by the whole thing that he hadn't sent a status by the time HQ called him.
"Heading for the drop zone."
Julian hesitated long enough that HQ repeated the question. "The packages, ah, delivered each other."
"Full report on arrival. Let’s just say for now it's done." Julian shifted to take a hard left around a warehouse on the outskirts of the spaceport, trying to get his jumbled brain in order. "I'd like a counseling debrief with the usual round of meetings when I come in, please."
He could almost hear the puzzled frowns through his comm. "You never request voluntary counseling, Forty-two."
"Yes. I'm aware, thank you. This one…I'm not sure why I'm so disturbed except that it shouldn't have happened."
"Very good. Room twelve when you come in." Again, HQ hesitated. "You have vids?"
"Yes." Julian couldn't speak to the quality yet but he had been recording the entire time. "Good thing, too, or no one would believe me. I couldn't make this up if I tried."
Time: Directly before the start of Shax's War
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
"Parallax." The director tapped his papers straight, a nervous tic. "Come in."
"Sir." Julian hesitated in the doorway, thrown off by the sheer number of administrators behind the table. "Am I up for review?"
"No. The committee has some questions. Come in. Sit down." The director indicated the single uncomfortable chair in front of the table. "I must say, this is rather poor form. This is not how I'm accustomed to seeing agents at headquarters."
Bad enough being called in right from an assignment. Julian was filthy, exhausted, and his arm might have been bleeding again. Well, it would serve them right if he dripped on the lovely new conference room tiles. "I was on assignment when the summons came through, sir. It did have a level five priority on it."
Urgent. Come with all possible speed.
He'd expected headquarters to be under siege or something equally exciting. No such luck.
"Yes. Quite." The director did that blustery throat-clearing thing. "For god's sake, Julian. Sit."
Lovely. He'd embarrassed the director. "Yes, sir." He sat carefully, set his hoverbike helmet on the floor and tried not to look like he was cradling his arm.
"Parallax." A woman he couldn't identify spoke up sharply from halfway down the left side of the table. She was iron-haired and hard featured. Ex-marine, Julian guessed. "You consort with demons in your line of work?"
Consort? What an odd way to put it. "I have contact with demons and certain other hell species, yes."
"This demon?" The head of research asked as a holo still image flashed into the air before them.
Julian had to fight a smile. It was Shax, cocky and self-assured as he leaned against a bar somewhere chatting to the bartender. Little alarm bells rang in Julian's head, but he'd certainly mentioned Shax in previous reports. Using him as an informant and occasional operative wasn't a secret he'd kept from the ISE. "Yes."
"Can you verify his name?"
Ye gods, what had Shaxy gotten himself into now? "That's Captain Shax Goldner, of the transport ship, Brimstone."
"You're certain?" a thin-faced man from the opposite end barked out.
Another holographic still popped up. "And this one?"
This was Shax on a dock somewhere, talking to what appeared to be a group of academic types. He was grinning. They were scowling. "That's also Captain Goldner."
"You are a hundred percent certain?" the first woman snapped.
"No, ma'am. That's foolish in my profession. I can't be without doubts from a still image. One I didn't take."
"Reasonably certain, then?" a small man with a high voice piped in.
"Yes, sir. Reasonably certain."
"Were you aware then, Mr. Parallax, that the captain of the Brimstone recently engaged in unauthorized temporal displacement?" This from an older military man, so old he looked like retirement was several centuries late.
Wait…what? Unauthorized? "I had heard rumors, none I've followed up on, that there was a time travel incident. I'd also heard it was disastrously accidental."
"When you heard these rumors, why didn't you detain the demon captain for questioning?" the head of research asked.
Julian blinked, staring. He glanced at the director for some clue as to how he was supposed to handle this. The director tapped on his holo pad, very studiously not looking up. "I…had no orders to do so? None that reached me, in any case."
"We understand that you're a high-level agent," a younger man purred from the far right end of the table. Julian hadn't a clue what role that one might play, which made him supremely uncomfortable. "And have a great deal of autonomy in the field. Why wouldn't you take the initiative to bring this demon in?"
Again, Julian tried and failed to catch the director's eye. What the hell was going on here? "My autonomy is generally mission specific. Yes, I'm authorized to intervene in matters of interstellar security threats but they need to be overt threats without orders." He cleared his throat, knowing he was wandering out onto cracking ice. "Time travel, while outlawed on some space stations specifically, is not prohibited by interstellar law or planetary law. Since no one's done it before, I assume no one felt the need to legislate. It was my understanding that Captain Goldner's temporal accident occurred in Copernicus space? Not on a space station? Am I incorrect?"
"You are correct, Mr. Parallax." The minister of transportation nodded. "But such an unusual occurrence didn't even peak your curiosity?"
"I won't say that, sir. But the Brimstone's time jump accident was safely in the hands of top-notch academics by the time word reached me. I didn't see any need to be involved."
The marine type was by now alarm siren red and her teeth were quite obviously clenched as she said, "Your demon captain friend received a summons from ISE to come in for questioning regarding the incident. This was his response."
The holo projector popped on again, this time showing a full vid. Shax spun idly in the desk chair of what looked to be a private communications suite of the sort found on some space stations. He was playing pirate captain, appearance-wise, in his captain's jacket and silver scale armor shirt, a bit too much eye makeup and probably half the earrings he owned. He came around on the third spin and propped his boots up on the comm console.
"Greetings, lovely ISE people. I realize our relationship has been rather problematic over the years. But your last communique was nothing short of rude, so I will be clear and bluntly to the point and use one of my favorite phrases. You are out of your jurisdiction. So far out of it, I fear you may not find your way back. I'm not unreasonable, as demons go, and I'm perfectly willing to point the way."
He took his feet down and leaned closer to the vid screen. "My time and my information are not free. I've sold both to the nice professors at the university, much to their finance manager's chagrin. If you want the information, you pay me what they paid or you negotiate with them. I am not coming in to headquarters to end up some caged pet demon and you have no right to demand it. Now shoo."
Shax ended the communication by sticking a cigar in his mouth and holding up both middle fingers.
It was impolitic and incredibly stupid but Julian laughed and once started, found it difficult to stop. When he finally took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, the director was drumming his fingers on the table.
"Found that amusing, did you?" the strange man at the end of the table purred.
"It was. Because he's right, I'm afraid." Julian pulled in another deep breath and made a conscious effort at a more sober demeanor. "We have no right to harass him for the information."
The hard-faced woman growled, "You have an obligation here, Parallax—"
Julian held up a hand. "Ladies and gentlemen of whatever committee this happens to be, here's what I see. Somewhere, there is an internal program to develop time travel. To date, this program has not been successful. Then you hear that a disreputable demon has managed to accomplish, by accident, that which you cannot. This annoys certain internal parties and you believe you can make demands. When they are refused, you call me in to make the demands instead because I have prior contact with said disreputable demon."
He shook his head, managing a pleasant enough smile. "My answer is no. I will ask. But this particular demon is valuable in the long run. I will not jeopardize a good working relationship with a vital operative to coerce information that can be obtained by other means."
The director finally sat up straighter and raked a gaze over one side of the table, then the other. "There you are, ladies and gentlemen. I will repeat that I predicted this outcome."
"You're his supervisor! You can—"
The director cleared his throat to cut off the objecting VIP type. "No. There are procedures in place for a reason. No, I can't."
The head of research frowned, though what he said wasn't what Julian was expecting. "Mr. Parallax, your arm is dripping."
Julian leaned over and spotted the ever-growing red puddle on the crisp white tiles. "Ah. So it is."
The director huffed a sigh. "Dismissed, Parallax. And for god's sake, get to medical."
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