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
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.]
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Elistrus, Thinis CIty
"Shoo! I don't want any dirty animals in my bakery!" The proprietor backed up her words with sharp snaps of an apron.
This was why Leopold dreaded going into new establishments, though he realized he would probably do better if he wore pants on a consistent basis.
He heaved up onto his hind legs and held out his front paws. "I'm a small demon. Not an animal, per se. And I have money."
"Oh. Sorry." The proprietor still scowled. "You should probably lead with that."
"My apologies," Leopold managed a little bow, careful of his backpack. If he disturbed Max and Nic too much, they'd want to come out and see what was happening. Yes. That would go well. "Your danishes smell so good. I would like two, please."
After a bout of indecision—all of the pastries looked delicious—Leopold settled on a raspberry danish and a lemon one. The shop owner was magically more polite and friendly when he paid for them, but he reasoned that he could be a bit of a shock for some people. The nice human in his favorite yarn store in Thinis had never reacted that way, but they were the exception.
Outside the shop, he reverted to all fours and ran to the nearest city park where he monopolized a bench and let Max and Nic out of the backpack. Max trilled and waved his front sets of legs toward the sunlight while Nic stayed close to Leopold and sniffed the air suspiciously. Planetary air was always a little weird for Nic, born and raised in space.
Leopold broke bits off each pastry, with a line of tiny pieces for Max on the right and another for Nic on the left, before he began devouring. They really were as good as they smelled and Leopold polished off his portions in seconds. His companions were considerably slower eaters, nibbling, in Nic's case, and breaking off tiny crumbs for a tiny mouth in Max's. Not that they were in any hurry and Leopold enjoyed the sunshine.
While waiting, Leopold opened his backpack all the way and dug into the larger pocket for his flute, the silver one, and started to compose a song about pastries. Max hummed softly in accompaniment while he ate and Nic swayed to the rhythm. Leopold lost track of his surroundings until a man walking by dropped a small credit chit into the open backpack.
"Sir? You've dropped something," Leopold called after him. "A credit chit—in my pack. I see it in there."
The man kept walking, oblivious, so Leopold shrugged and returned to playing, transitioning from his new song to older ones he'd learned from Papa Shax. A few minutes later, another human dropped a chit into the pack. This time Leopold was watching and it looked oddly deliberate.
Max finished his crumbs and began to sing in earnest, harmonizing with the flute, while Nic began to do a rat dance in earnest, the suckers on his paws allowing him to use the back of the bench as well as the seat. The chits kept coming, from a few isolated plinks to a steady shower.
When Leopold finally packed up to go home, there wasn't any room left for Nic and Max in the backpack, so they rode on top, clinging to the clinking pack. Still puzzled, he took everything into the galley where he found his Papa Shax.
"What in all levels do you have in there?" Papa Shax asked as his eyebrows rose. "It sounds like your pack's full of credit chits."
Leopold thumped the pack on the bench and climbed up before he opened it.
"Ah. It is indeed a pack full of small credit. Should I ask how you obtained these? Or perhaps why in the world you would?"
"In the park, Papa. It's accidental busking. I didn't mean to."
"Huh. Well. I'll have Heckle and Ms. Ivana help you get those deposited." Papa Shax patted his paw. "Don't feel bad, my dear. We've all engaged in more-or-less honest employment from time to time, accidentally or not."
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