Place: Outside Roswell, New Mexico, USA, Earth
"We shouldn't be here," Trx's second eyes twitched nervously. "Parental group said we're not supposed to go here."
Jvn stopped studying the forbidden blue planet staring balefully at them through the view screen and rolled all three sets of eyes. Why parental group insisted that they bring their younger-clutch sibling along Jvn would never understand. It was so un-gfk.
"So, you're strafing ionosphere, zoob?" Flk's voice came through the comm. "I've done that a thousand times."
"Zoob, you've done it twice! And got scared the first time," Sdw protested from the third ship.
"Zoob, not gfk!" Flk shot back.
"Settle, zoobs." Jvn cut through the chatter. "I'm not doing that egg stuff. I'm strafing planetary crust."
"You can't do that, zoob, are you ynrf?"
"No. I have it all calc'ed out. Someone should take Trx, though." Jvn eyed their unwanted passenger with their lowest set of obs. "This isn't a thing for an egg."
"No!" Trx wailed. "Parental group said to stay with you. I'm not allowed to be in another ship. I'll tell!"
"You heard the little zoob." Flk sounded far too smug. "Either do it with the sib onboard or admit you're making excuses."
Jvn glared at their sib. "All right. The egg comes with me. Put on your transpace web, Trx."
"Zoob, are you sure?" Sdw asked softly. "Come on, Flk, don't goad. Jvn, you don't have to prove you're gfk to us. What if you crash and the planetary apex predators catch you? I hear they eat everything."
Flk cleared their throat over comm. "Yeah, they're insane. I hear they use transports that rely on continuous small explosions for propulsion. And that they kill things they don't even want to eat. I read somewhere that they don't even have parental groups. Look, zoob, I didn't mean it. Don't do this."
"I'm going in." Jvn adjusted their own webbing. "I know what I’m doing."
"Zoob," Sdw whispered and the terror in their voice sent chills up Jvn's spine.
Too bad. They were doing this. No one else in their clutch-year ever had. They concentrated on the readouts and did not think about ugly, bipedal predators with brains of violence storms down there. Jvn checked their flight path once more and began the careful circling for a gravity well dive.
"Keep the channels open, zoob!" Flk yelled over the whine of the solar boosters. "You're the most gfk!"
Atmospheric entry wasn't fun—Jvn had taken it too fast—but the dampeners took most of the stress. Clutchling rounds were forgiving ships, made specifically for younger pilots. There was the arid portion of the planet they were aiming for. Recorders on, they dove for the surface. The plan was to kick up a small cloud of dust and zip away.
The proximity alarms barely had time to ping before they were hit, the ship spinning out of control. Trx was shrieking, which was terribly distracting, until the ground hit the view screen with a solid whump.
After a moment's silence, Trx sniffled, "Are we dead?"
Jvn took a few breaths to be sure. "No. No, we're not. Hush." Something had come out of nowhere and smacked them into the sand. A missile of some sort, Jvn guessed. They'd been spotted and they had to get away. Jvn's tentacles flew over the control surfaces but nothing responded.
"Undo your webbing, Trx. Hurry. We have to get out." Jvn's third left tentacle didn't feel right but there was no time to assess. They hurried through unhooking their webbing and turned to help Trx, who seemed to be making things worse.
They popped the cracked canopy and lifted Trx out so they could set up the decoys. Poor Trx was whimpering and shaking. Sib comfort would have to wait. The decoys were flat when Jvn pulled them from behind the panel though they expanded into solid, convincing shapes with a few drops of water. Bipedal, gray-green, with large heads and a single set of huge black eyes, these were the shapes that parental group said would convince predators that the ship's inhabitants were dead. Something about more familiar, analogous shapes.
Right now, Jvn didn't care. They glided out of the ship and gathered Trx up in their front tentacles as their eyes desperately searched this terrible, dry place for cover. The predators would come.
"Trx, hush. Be gfk, little zoob. We can't let the predators know we're here."
There. A rock formation. It wasn't large but they might be able to squeeze in under that little shelf and hide. Just until someone came for them. It wouldn't be long with the distress beacon sending.
"Psst. Hey, clutchling," a strange dry voice whispered from the rocks.
"Who…who's there?" Jvn whispered. It couldn't be a predator. They didn't speak any civilized language, did they?
"Hurry. Over this way. There's a little cave," the voice went on. "I'll hide you."
Jvn glided cautiously toward the voice. Fighting something of wouldn't be possible with Trsk clinging so tightly. Not that Jvn had anything to fight with. "Who are you?"
"My name is Shax. And no, before you catch sight of me and ask, I'm not human." A hand with fingers appeared out of a shadowed crevice, waving them forward. "Come on. You're not safe out there. They're coming."
Jvn shuddered. Hands were gross. But they didn't have much choice. Some races had hands, they told themselves firmly. That didn't make them bad. They reached the shade of the outcropping much to their relief. The solar heat here was terrible. How stupid was it to try a touch and go where there was no water? They rounded the corner and gasped reflexively. The being before them was hideous. Bipedal, two other appendages that looked so wrong, only two eyes—just like the ugly decoys in the ship. Parental groups had been right about the shape of life forms here. It did have cute horns, which helped Jvn not to run screaming.
"We crashed," Jvn blurted out, their tentacles whitening in embarrassment. What a dumb thing to say. It knows that.
"Is the egg sib all right?" The alien's phrasing was strange but understandable.
"Mostly scared." Jvn hurried into the rock crevice where it was cool and, thank hklfrn, damp. "Why can we understand you?"
The alien did a disturbing thing with its mouth that showed far too many of its sharp white teeth. "I've met enough of you over the centuries to have learned."
Jvn averted all their eyes. The alien, Shx, was just too hard to look at. "Won't the predators see us here?"
"No. I have us hidden. Here comes the first one."
A horrid, loud transport coughed and snarled its way toward the ship. One of the hideous predators got out, looked at the crash site, then thundered off again. Not too much later, more predators came and swarmed the area. They seemed to be measuring and making some sort of primitive visual record of the crash, if Jvn had to guess. The predators were loud and frightening and moved with frightening speed over the dry landscape. Finally, they dragged the decoys out of the ship, threw ugly gray-green coverings over everything, brought even larger, louder transports and carted everything away.
"Parental group will be mad," Trx said in a small voice. "They just gave you that ship."
"We need to get back to parental group for them to be mad," Jvn reminded them and regretted it when Trx started whimpering again. "Shh, little zoob. Sorry."
"You'll be all right," Shx reassured them. "I'm sure they're already on their way."
Sure enough, soon after planetary night fell, the drop ship zipped in through the atmosphere and settled with a soft whoosh near Jvn's crash marks. They tucked a sleeping Trx up close and hurried as fast as tentacles could manage across the hard ground. Parental group was angry, of course, all seven of them dark umber with strong emotions but outwardly, they expressed relief. Shx and parental group exchanged words about adolescent impulsiveness and Jvn wanted to hide behind their tentacles.
"You were lucky to meet the Shx instead of the violent aliens here," oldest parental scolded as they hurried into the safety of the ship. "There will be no more free flight with your friends for at least four dcbn's."
"We could say five."
Jvn subsided, knowing they were being lenient out of relief. Four dcbn's wasn't that long.
"So." Verin drank from his hip flask as they watched the ship zip away from Earth. "You gonna tell the humans what they captured?"
Shax laughed. It was always interesting to see the tentacle aliens. He had no idea what they called themselves since he'd never asked. "No. What fun would that be? Let them think that they have real dead space creatures instead of what amounts to fancy blowup dolls."
He took a sip when Verin offered the flask as they stood watching the now-empty sky.
"Besides, this will be hilarious," Shax finally broke the silence.
"What will, genius?"
"Watching the humans believe that's what space creatures look like for who knows how long now. This is going to be great."
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: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Location: Earth, North America
"You know this is all crap, right?" Verin grumbled as he chewed on the end of an unlit cigar.
"What is, Ver?" Shax dodged a man on a unicycle, caught up in the distractions of the carnival crowd.
"The fucking tarot cards, dumbass. Those damn cards aren't any more mystical than my left nut. We used to use the same damn deck to cheat humans out of their gold."
Shax nudged Verin with an elbow. "And here I thought your left nut was just a little heavier." He ducked the cuff to his head and laughed. "It's not the cards, Ver, or the pictures on them. You could draw cards with flying pigs and baby vampire bunnies on them and it could still work."
"I'd pay to see that."
"Ha. Yes, actually, that would be fun. But it's all in the emotive energy invested, the psychic will of the reader and the subject. The cards themselves don’t matter, as long as you've assigned them meaning."
Verin's sigh carried a double curl of smoke. "If you say so, your all-knowing highness."
Their goal was at the far end of the carnival, beyond the brightest of the lights. Shax pulled Verin out of the way of a stilt walker—Ver would've happily let the man crash into him and topple over—and hurried them along. The tent at the end of the fairway was different from the larger tents, more of a yurt shape and hung with long tassels that gesticulated languidly in the breeze.
Shax stopped in the doorway to appreciate the artistry of the scene—the dark silks, the cinnamon and cardamom scent drifting from within, the soft red-tinged glow that beckoned the curious seeker. Well done, indeed. He pushed through the curtains, Verin's steam laden breath just behind him, a comfort and a distraction since he knew Verin well enough to know his companion wouldn't leave his skepticism at the door.
"Welcome, Highness," a genderless voice said from behind a velvet draped table. Black veils shrouded the figure, giving only an impression of a face, with the only visible physical attributes the elegant hands with their red lacquered nails.
"You know me?" Shax asked as he swaggered in.
"Not by name. Though Hell's courts are known to me. I know royalty when it's in my presence."
"Excellent." He took the chair opposite the tarot reader and set his hands flat on the table. "Then we shouldn't need preliminaries. I'd like a reading, please. Short-term future. The next year or two."
"You should have a more comprehensive one, Highness. It would be in your best interests."
"I'm sure it would, since it would be more expensive," Shax gave them a warm smile to show he didn't at all resent a bit of huckstering. "Just the immediate future, please."
The reader tipped their head in a sideways nod and handed the deck of cards to Shax. "Look them over. Let them know you."
The cards were, as so often with tarot decks, a bit larger than playing cards and a bit clumsy to fan out. Shax's eyebrows went up as he examined this particular deck, which wasn't at all usual. Instead of the normal suits and Major Arcana, all the symbolism on these cards was ornithological. No wands, pentacles, cups and swords here from the Rider deck, nor the discs of the Crowley Thoth. Instead, the suits appeared to be eggs, feathers, claws and…chickens? He might have been able to puzzle out the Major Arcana eventually, but they were all unfamiliar, each one a beautiful bird painting.
"What a lovely deck, Mx." Shax shuffled the cards and handed them back, annoyed at being thrown off balance.
"You will follow their meaning easily, Highness. Never fear." The smile in that soft voice was obvious, rankling Shax further since he wasn't normally so transparent.
They took his hand briefly in a light, cool grip, then laid the first card, the king of feathers, represented by a peacock with his tail spread behind him. "The peacock is you, Highness."
"Because I'm so beautiful?" Shax gave them a wink.
They answered with a throaty chuckle. "You are. But you are vain and proud, as well. These are your greatest challenges."
Shax fought a scowl. "It's a genetic issue."
"Your understanding of perception and your ability to project authority also come from these attributes, so long as you use them wisely."
"Duly noted." So far, the reader hadn't said anything new.
The next cards were the Knight of feathers, represented by a harpy eagle, and the ten of claws. The reader tapped it with their forefinger. "Your allies. The one who stands at your shoulder now, yes. But there will be others."
He wanted to ask why he would need allies, but kept silent. A demon prince could always use them, of course. In the court of Hell, he was such a fringe player, though, not involved in the broiling cauldron of constant intrigue.
Hesitantly, as if they were disturbed by it, the reader played the next card that showed a stooping hawk with red-talons and an ominous red sun behind it. "The Hawk, Highness."
Shax stared at it, threat nearly pulsating from it. "It's like the Tower, isn't it?"
"Very similar." They inclined their head. "Disaster in your near future." She laid out three more cards in quick succession, the Knight of eggs, represented by a partridge, the nine of feathers, a cardinal, and the King of chickens, represented by a Jersey Giant rooster in glossy black with a proud red comb. "Economic. Familial. Political."
The next card played was a vulture with a skull for a head, though it was reversed.
"Death?" Shax asked, his voice a spare murmur to keep is steady.
"The Vulture is Death, yes. Though reversed it can mean great change. A new beginning."
They drew several more cards—a flight of swallows, a great horned owl, a winter ptarmigan, and a mantling eagle. "When the time comes, and you will know the time, you must move swiftly, Highness. Swiftly, silently. Vanish into the landscape to avoid disaster." They stopped the reading suddenly and picked up all the cards. "I'm sorry, Highness. Normally, the readings are for show. To give the customer something hopeful. Sometimes, the cards read true. But I can't continue and I won't charge you."
"You can't?" Verin growled from behind Shax. "Why the fuck not?"
They nodded at Verin. "You will need your knight in the days to come. Take the warning, Highness. The reading is too dark for me, too difficult."
Shax rose slowly, confused and disturbed. Verin had to catch him by the elbow when he stumbled. "Er…thank you? I think? We won't distress you further."
As they made their way back out onto the midway, which now seemed too brassy and loud, the lights too garish, Shax managed to shake off some of the creeping dread he'd felt in the reader's tent. "Ah, well. I guess you're right, Ver. It was a load of crap."
Verin snorted sparks and jammed his cigar between his teeth again. "Told you. And I sure as shit am not some fucking harpy eagle."
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