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."
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: Directly before the beginning of Shax's War
Place: Opal, Planetary Resort
Theft. Ness strolled through the resort's entertainment district, pondering. It wasn't as if he thought he could reform demons. That was a silly thought, though one held by certain fringe religious sects. Shax was a thief, well…because that's what he was. Verin was one more out of habit. Corny wasn't a thief but he shrugged at the necessity of letting demons be demons and added that they could've made a living in more horrible ways.
Ness stopped to peruse a shop window full of pastries. Wonderful things. Pastries. He stepped inside to buy several of the delicate miniature fruit-filled danishes and two chocolate-iced confections he didn't have a name for and considered the question while he devoured them. Shax never stole food. It was an interesting distinction that Ness couldn't quite puzzle out. Shax also tended to steal from wealthy humans or ones who had annoyed him, though he wasn't above taking something from a shop when he wanted an item. He always paid for items he had specifically ordered or ones specially made for him.
The flexible morality of thievery was quite baffling.
Perhaps if I tried it, though? Things might become clearer? Shax's love of certain foods had certainly become clearer when Ness had tried them. Sexual desire had as well. Maybe theft worked in similar ways.
The last delicious pastry had met its inevitable end just as Ness reached the end of the resort's shopping park and wandered into one of several entertainment clusters. This one was more young-person oriented than the one he'd visited with Shax the previous evening. Fewer gyrating, glittering dancers. More holo-adventures and games.
A few parents shrank away from him and pulled their children close. It hurt Ness a bit to see but he supposed he understood their reaction to a gray-winged angel stalking through their midst, and he probably should've worn something other than black leather. For the most part, though, the other guests ignored him, too intent on their own amusements.
He stopped where a small crowd had gathered, curious what held their attention, and peered over shoulders to see. The crowd surrounded a small track with a sign in the center that announced Wublit Racing. Wublits, apparently, were fuzzy spherical creatures on which the only indication of top or bottom was the several dozen tiny feet on one side. Whether they came in a riot of bright colors naturally or had been dyed, Ness couldn't be certain.
The dozen wublits, each in its own padded lane, apparently knew there would be treats at the end of the course. When their holding gate dropped, they raced like mad for the finish, careening off lane walls, falling over and rolling only to scramble back up and scurry on, all to the shrieking delight of the human onlookers. A neon yellow one appeared to be the crowd favorite, though the flame red one had fans, too. During the first race Ness watched, the yellow beat the red one to the treat trough by a skitter-roll.
"Do the children, er, gamble on the outcomes?" Ness asked a well-dressed man to his right.
"It's all in good fun, Mr. Angel." The man looked him up and down with a disapproving nose wrinkle. "Don't go all holy roller."
"As if I had any right to," Ness said softly as the next race started.
The man had three children with him, though he seemed more invested in his own betting than how the kids were doing. He also wore a gold and presumably diamond bracelet so heavy that it clunked every time it hit his wristcomm.
Shax would steal from this sort of person. He displays the bracelet to let people know how wealthy he is. It's not as if he needs it.
Ness waited until the man's focus returned to the race. Cerulean wublit was unexpectedly in the lead. The crowd surge forward to see, packed in tight. The man had his left hand on one of his kids' shoulders. Gently, Ness unhooked the clasped, caught the bracelet as it fell, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. The man was too caught up in the scramble of wublits to notice.
Initially pleased with himself, Ness began to walk away. The bracelet seemed to weigh heavier with each step he took. He turned back in time to see the man herding his children away from the wublit course, one of them obviously elated, the man himself disgruntled and annoyed. Yes, he'd been annoying and condescending, making assumptions about Ness on appearance alone.
But the weight of jewelry in Ness's pocket was reaching critical mass and no matter how he justified it, he was taking something that did not belong to him. He spun about and hurried after the little family group.
"Excuse me, sir?" Ness held the bracelet out to him. "You dropped this."
"Oh. Um. Thanks." Red-faced, the man took the bracelet and hustled his small brood away, perhaps chagrined over being rude to Ness. One could hope.
Not quite depressed but no longer in the holiday spirit, Ness made his way back to the room he was sharing with Shax. Lovely room with a huge bed and a view of the seaside—their own private sanctuary. Even better, Shax was there, sorting through some of his shirts.
"Hello there, gorgeous." Shax greeted him with a bright smile. "What've you been up to?"
Ness crossed the room to gather Shax into his arms. He needed to hold his demon, needed his heat, his strength, his cheerful amorality as he told the story of the wublits and the bracelet. Shax stroked his back and kissed him softly when he was done.
"Ah, well. Worth a try, I suppose." Shax leaned back to look up at him. "Don't feel bad, cupcake. It's not for everyone."
"You're not disappointed?"
Shax let out a huff. "Of course not. I can manage enough thievery for both of us and you have other talents of which I'm mightily glad. It's a perfect arrangement."
"Perfect." Ness pulled him close with a soft sigh and kissed his hair. Morality could go…bugger itself. He'd found where he was accepted for what he was, as he was. Really wasn't any more complicated than that.
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: A bit after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, Cargo Hold
Rosa liked her stall in the big echoing place. Sometimes it was chilly but she had a good blanket and the walls of her enclosure had warm coming out of them. She missed others like her some days but she did not miss the dapple-gray stallion who had always tried to bite her.
All of the two-leggeds here were good ones. None of them shouted at her or flicked a whip in her direction. She liked her own two-legged best, of course, the one she had brought with her into the metal barn. He would always be her favorite. They were a good team. But she liked the small-winged one, too, the one who brought her treats and talked to her as she helped him practice his flying. Small-wings was a nervous sort and needed supervision. Also, she liked the small-horned one very much, who also brought her treats and sometimes exercised with her in the big echoing place. He didn't need as much watching over, though. Usually.
Today, small-horns had climbed up a long metal thing, almost to the roof. In Rosa's experience, two-leggeds without wings climbing high on things often ended badly. This made her anxious.
He wore a metal plate in front of his face, held a metal tube on his back, and carried a metal stick that spat fire from time to time. Whatever the fire was supposed to do, it smelled terrible and the sounds were distressing. Rosa kicked her stall with her forelegs and whinnied, trying to tell small-horns to stop playing with stinking fires and come down. He went right on making the stick spit sparks at the ceiling. She reared up and neighed loud enough the sound echoed around her.
Small-horns stopped and lifted the metal plate from his face. He turned and called to big-wings down below on the floor. Why the one with wings was on the floor and the one with no wings was up dangerously high, Rosa couldn't understand. It made her very upset that her small-horns was up there.
Big-wings gestured toward her. Small-horns said something and gestured back, swinging out on his perch with a precarious one hand and one foot hold. Rosa banged against her door, frantic now. Big-wings came to talk to her. He had such a soft, soothing voice that normally would have calmed her but now small-horns had climbed off the long steps and was climbing around the metal pieces on the roof.
No! Come down! Come down now! Rosa screamed at him. He had to listen to her. Something bad would happen.
She backed up in her stall, gathered her hindquarters under her and sailed over the wall of her enclosure. Slipping and skidding over the shiny metal in the middle of the space, she raced to stand underneath small-horns, snorting and whinnying her disapproval. Big-wings flew up to where small-horns was playing with fire and they spoke with much waving of hands that nearly cost small-hands his already precarious grip.
When all the dangerous gestures were done, big-wings flew down and retrieved something that look to Rosa like a harness she would wear when pulling a cart. Small-horns stood on the long steps and put on this harness while big-wings flew over to clip the harness lead onto one of the metal bits attached to the ceiling.
Small horns called down to her, "Rosa! Look!"
She nearly had a fit when he let go of the ceiling, but he swung from the lead quite securely until he could grab on again. With a snort and a stamp of her hoof, she conceded. That was better. A little. Small-wings brought her an apple and walked her back to her stall where she settled in happily to her evening feed, though she did keep an eye on small-horns until he came down.
Just in case.
Shax came down the ladder after he'd finished welding and handed Ness the clip harness. "I'm adding her to the ship's roster. So you know."
"Oh?" Ness rolled the harness back up and put it in its cabinet. "As what, love?"
"I would have thought that was quite obvious," Shax grumbled. "Safety officer."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone and on Elistrus
"I miss trees sometimes." Shax leaned against the frame of the aft portal, staring out into the star dotted void.
Ness hesitated, wondering what sort of a mood this was, then put a gentle hand on Shax's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?"
Instead of answering the question, Shax went on. "It's not as if I grew up with trees, you understand. The flora in Hell doesn't run toward them. Except the anguish thorn trees in the eighth circle. You can't climb those, though. Certainly can't sit in their shade."
Ah. One of those moods. Instead of answering, Ness pull Shax back against his chest wrapping arms and wings around him.
"When Verin and I first started going topside, trees were almost too alien, too incredible to take in. They could be unthinkably huge and these giant beings stood around whispering to each other."
Ness probably knew less about trees than any of the crew did since he'd come directly from an isolated hallway in heaven to an archangel's troop ship. "You could understand tree?"
"Well, no." Shax turned his head, his expression frankly startled. "It's not as if I could speak to trees. That is, I suppose I did talk to them sometimes, but they pointedly ignored me. I could sense them speaking to each other, though, ponderously slow communications through chemical means and mycorrhizal networks."
"Oh, I see." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head, thinking. "There are trees on Elistrus."
"Not really the same, sweetheart."
"No, I suppose not."
Not too long after that strange, melancholy interlude, they found themselves headed to Elistrus with a delivery of specialty cat food. The shipment had missed its scheduled transport and the Brimstone had picked up the job out of dock messaging. Such a small shipment wasn't something Shax would have normally considered, but they all had to concede that the fee was more than fair. Ness had never realized cat food could be so expensive.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to lift Shax's spirits. He simply hadn't been the same since the Poe house incident. Ness suggested a walk in the park and Shax, once he'd checked the local weather several times, enthusiastically agreed. It might have been an excuse to wear that new bright blue jacket but Ness wasn't going to say anything.
"Lovely day." Shax nodded politely to a couple walking on the path.
"Yes. Good to be out in the sunshine sometimes. Starshine. Solar rays," Ness answered in distracted fashion. He considered shrugging out of his long black coat, now uncomfortably warm, though showing his wings would attract unwanted attention. Shax's jacket was the more sensible option… Odd. It seemed to be the precise shade of blue tinting the leaves on the trees. Something in the soil caused a blue rather than green tint, apparently. Blue leaves. Blue coat.
Shax's demeanor was all innocence when he finally got around to it. "I think I'd like to climb one."
I suppose I can't be shocked. "What are you up to, love?"
"Up to. Climbing trees. Ha. Come on, cupcake." Shax gave him the barest evil grin. "We used to do this at home. It'll be fun."
Those three words from Shax always sent vague shivers of dread down his compatriots' spines. Ness was no exception, but it was good to see Shax smile. They both waited until the footpath was clear of traffic. Shax picked an ancient tree whose branches overhung the trail and he shimmied up as easily as a squirrel. Ness shed his coat and took the more expedient winged route.
When they were safely sheltered in the thick blue foliage, Shax stretched out on his stomach along the branch and Ness sitting closer to the trunk, the demon prince pulled out an object reminiscent of a yo-yo.
Ness knew his role in these sorts of situations and obliged by asking, 'What's that?"
"It's a sort of a fishing rod. Shh. Just watch."
Carefully balanced on the branch with his ankles hooked behind him, Shax freed a sort of hook from the device. Ness felt certain that it wasn't just a hook, it's odd shape giving the impression of a magnetic component as well. Shax spooled out a length of clear line, so thin as to be nearly invisible. Then he shot a grin over his shoulder at Ness and settled in to wait.
That lovely butt wriggling from time to time to adjust sang a siren song to Ness. He really wanted to smack it. Bad idea, of course, since Shax would most likely lose his balance.
Soon enough, an equestrienne trotted down the path. Anyone owning a horse on Elistrus was obscenely wealthy, so Ness didn't feel quite as bad about what he was sure would happen. She wore one of the helmet-style hats with faux gears that were all the rage this year. Behind her saddle, a little bag sat secured, drawstring opening pointed up. That was the woman's first mistake.
With the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Shax lowered his line and expertly dropped the hook into the opening provided by the drawstring. Some quick tugs and twitches, a tightening of his delicious thighs on the branch, and a little parcel emerged from the bag attached to the odd hook. Shax pulled it up quickly and the woman rode on, oblivious.
"Lovely! We seem to have acquired lunch." Shax chuckled as he tossed the packet over his shoulder to Ness.
Fumbling, nearly dropping it, Ness caught the packet and unwrapped the plastifoil. There was, indeed, a rather fussy-looking sandwich. "I don't understand why you would want to steal food."
"It's wasn't intentional, sweetie. Not always certain what you'll get during these expeditions. You're welcome to it, if you're hungry."
Over the next half hour, Shax's arboreal fishing snagged a ring, a pack of prophylactics, a shopping list, and a good pair of gloves. He didn't seem at all disappointed by the dubious haul. It was obviously the thrill of the hunt that amused him. Ness' only contribution was to put the items in his pockets to keep them safe.
"One more, cupcake. Promise." Shax blew him a kiss. "Thank you for being so patient today."
Another rider came cantering down the path, this one wearing a modern-style Homberg, a black one with just the barest hint of gold dust sparkle as it caught the light. Ness had no doubt that this hat was in trouble.
Shax hissed a breath through his teeth. "I must have that hat."
Hat lust, right on schedule…
The unsuspecting owner of the coveted headgear rode underneath their branch and Shax unerringly snagged the hat, yanking it up into the leaf cover before the owner had a chance to glance around and up. Too late to catch its trajectory and unable to see the missing hat, the poor man had no idea what had happened. He stopped, rode, back, and searched the ground for a few moments. Then he shook his head in bemusement and rode on.
The hat, due to its precipitous flight, was lodged in the leaves out of Shax's immediate reach. He tugged on his line but it was stuck tight. Carefully, Shax scooted farther out on his limb, trying to reach it. His arms weren't quite long enough.
"Be careful love. Do you want me to get that?"
"No, no, almost there." A little farther, a little farther…Shax had just managed to close his fingers around the hat's brim when the branch bent under him wildly. Unwilling to let go of the hat, he flailed wildly, snagged a handful of leaves, and plummeted.
Ness barely had time to react before Shax landed in the middle of the path with a solid whump, badly startling, and barely missing, an approaching couple. He lay there scowling up at the branches for a moment before he bounced up and offered the traumatized pair a bow.
"Terribly sorry. Wasn't quite the landing I'd intended."
They sidled around him, wide-eyed, and hurried away, leaving Shax to dust himself off.
"Are you all right?" Ness called down as he gathered the tree-fishing tool and his coat.
"More or less. Ow." Shax rubbed at his hip as Ness joined him on the ground.
Ness handed Shax his little tool of ill-gotten gains and brushed some of the dust off his back. "It probably doesn't do any good to say it serves you right, does it?"
"Not in the least." Shax plopped his new hat on his head and turned to point an accusing finger at the tree. 'You did that on purpose."
Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, the tree's leaves rustled.
Shax paled. "I think I've had enough fresh air and trees today, don't you?" He took Ness's arm and turned him back the way they had come. "Let's go back to the nice, unforested ship."
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