Time: Shortly before Hell for the Company
Place: Kepler Station
"Well. They've certainly done a lovely job." Shax stopped on the catwalk above the newly renovated Kepler Station shopping concourse to appreciate the view. Brighter, wider, with more merchants and even a miniature park, the designers had completely transformed the old, dingy shopping district.
Unsurprisingly, Verin was less impressed. "Yeah, yeah. Can we just get the shit we need and get the fuck out of here?"
"You take all the fun out of shopping, Ver. Why did I bring you?"
"Because I don't trust you to buy pants for me, that's why."
Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "I bought you plaid pants once. Once. And it was centuries ago."
"One fucking time too many." Verin pushed off the railing and stomped toward the stairs. "Come on, your annoying highness. Let's get this crap over with."
"I'll just have to come back later and shop properly," Shax muttered as he followed Verin's streamers of steam.
The expedition went well for the first three stores—new work gloves, a bit of a restock on the liquor supplies, some electronic bits and bobs Ivana had requested. In the fourth store, however, things began to go oddly pear-shaped.
Verin was standing in the waist-high booth so the tape measure lasers could get his particulars for his pants purchase when the oddest feeling crept over Shax. Verin simply had the most glorious horns and Shax couldn't help staring as a contented warmth wrapped around his heart.
"What?" Verin finally stepped out of the booth, regarding Shax with narrowed eyes. "Shaxy?"
"Ver…you…" Shax stepped up to him and rested his head on Verin's shoulder. "You've put up with so much from me. Dragging you all over the galaxy and back. All the jobs gone wrong. All the times you've had to come after me. I…I don't think I tell you enough how very much I appreciate you."
"Hey, don't start crying and shit." Verin actually wrapped an arm around him instead of pushing him away. "If I didn't feel appreciated, I would never have fucking stayed. You know that, genius."
"I do. I know that. You're my brother in all but blood. You're…" Shax grabbed a fistful of Verin's shirtfront. "Ver…something's not right here."
Verin didn't let go but he did start to edge them toward the door. "Was kinda thinking the same thing."
"You are indeed very dear to me, but this isn't like us."
"Nope. Not one fucking bit. And I love you too, Shaxy." Verin held on tighter and started edging faster. "Fuck."
By the time they made it out of the store, they were the only people still making a concerted effort at moving forward. Difficult to say who might have known whom previously as they were forced to step over and around fellow shoppers, concourse employees and security who had paired off or trio-ed off or however many people were involved in the corner there, all kissing, groping and in various stages of screwing.
"Hell's gates," Shax whispered. "Come on. We have to get off the concourse."
He grabbed Verin's sleeve and pulled him along, though the urge to join the carousers on the floor yanked at Shax every step of the way. As soon as the concourse doors whooshed shut behind them, the powerful urges subsided.
"What the fuck was all that?" Verin yanked his sleeve out of Shax's grasp, steam billowing from his heaving breaths.
"Not sure, but certainly not a natural reaction." Shax stared through the closed doors at the orgy taking place on the other side. "Sonic interference isn't out of the question but one of us would've noticed. Chemical interference seems more likely and there are only two vectors that would work that quickly on such a varied sample of victims – air and water."
"And since all of those people weren't drinking water at the same fucking time…"
"Exactly. Whatever it is, it's in the ventilation system in there." Shax hurried over to the nearest maintenance port and hacked into the station schematics, fingers flying over the screen. "Interesting. Why would they do that?"
"Do what, you smug little shit?"
Shax grinned even as he kept at the schematics, drilling down into behind the scenes corridors. "That's my Ver. They've built the concourse with a ventilation system independent from the rest of the station. Or I should say isolated from."
"Well that's the stupidest—" Verin cut off, his eyes going wide. "Oh."
"Yes. While I completely support underhanded methods in merchandising, even as far as subliminal suggestions, this is going a bit too far." Shax shut down the terminal. "Come on. We're finding a way into the back rooms."
Breaking into the back corridors was child's play. Finding the room that served as the monitoring station for the concourse wasn't much harder. The screens showed the strange scenes playing out in the concourse, though the room appeared abandoned until Shax spotted the trio of security goons going at it under the counter. A huge tank on a transport cart sat along the far wall, hoses obviously hooked into the ventilation system, Experiment 642 stenciled in white block letters on its side.
"Ver, shut the damn valves. Please." Shax tapped a foot in irritation. "There's obviously a leak. How dare they. I don't even have words."
"Sounds like you still got plenty of words, slush for brains," Verin grumbled as he turned the valves shut on the tank. "So what now?"
"We're taking this thing and hooking it up to the administrative offices. Then we're leaving."
Verin snorted out a cloud of black smoke.
"What, Ver? You're against revenge suddenly?"
"Oh, fuck no. But I still didn't get any pants."
"Next station. I promise." It took both of them to get the tank moving into the corridor, Shax huffing and straining. "One that doesn't experiment with untested airborne drugs on its shoppers."
Time: August 2017
Place: Earth, Houston area
"This is so not my fault," Shax insisted as he hunched farther into his jacket.
"How the fuck is this not your fault?" The smoke from Verin's nostrils barely made it to steam before the pouring rain obliterated it.
The floodwaters had raced in too fast to do more than escape. Shax had planned it so carefully. Wait until the property owners had evacuated, slip in and take the lovely heirloom collection of Victorian jewelry. No worries. In and out. Except when he looked out to see if the street was clear, the street had become a raging river.
The waters had risen with such voracious force that they couldn't even get down the stairs to the first floor. Verin had ripped a door from its hinges and they escaped the flood from the second floor French doors on their makeshift raft.
He patted his pocket to make certain his procurement was safe. At least he'd had time to snatch a few things. Not that he felt terribly triumphant about it as he crouched on a dubious plank of wood, drenched to the bone, whirled about on the muddy currents.
"Not my fault," Shax snuffled and tried to stifle a bout of bone-rattling sneezes. "We should've had plenty of time."
"Yeah, well." Verin shoved his dripping hair out of his eyes. "Stupid humans and their stupid fucking around with the climate, anyway. Now what?"
"Keep an eye out for higher ground. We'll make for what we can." Shax squinted through the rain, wary of large flotsam that might capsize their craft, and saw something swimming nearby. "What's that, Ver?"
Verin half-turned at the tug on his sleeve. "Cat, I think."
"Poor thing. She looks tired." Shax crept carefully toward the edge of their door. "Psss, psss, psss. Come here, kitty. You can ride with us."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Shaxy."
The little black and white cat grabbed on and climbed aboard eagerly with Shax's help. She huddled beside him, eyes huge, shivering.
"See? She doesn't take up any room."
Except, a little farther on, they found a Pomeranian puppy barely holding to a branch, and a few minutes later, another cat with a kitten clinging to her back.
By the time a fire department rescue boat came for them, Shax and Verin had steered their door to a hill-island that stuck up above the flood. Somehow, illusion spells had held and what the rescuers believed they had found were two young men with kittens peeking out of their jackets and a small herd of animals—four dogs, six cats, a rabbit and a goat—huddled around them.
"All these yours?" One of the men in the boat called out.
Shax shook his head. "No. None of them. Just fellow flood travelers."
"We're gonna have to take a couple trips." The most senior firefighter shook his head. "We had a report of two people stranded but we didn't expect a damn Ark."
"Yes, sir. Take Ver first with some of the little ones," Shax said as he handed the Pom pup across.
"What's all the fucking good Samaritan act for, Shaxy?" Verin hissed in Shax's ear.
"Distraction. We're the good guys here. Unlikely they'll ask us many questions since they'll be worried about half-drowned pets." Shax patted his arm and spoke so the men could hear him. "Go on, Ver. I'll be all right for a bit here."
Verin took both kittens and the mama cat, still glaring at Shax as the rescue boat putted away. The goat butted gently at Shax with a soft maaaa.
"Yes, yes. Of course I couldn't let you all drown. But keep it to yourself, all right? I do have a reputation to maintain."
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
This bar is powerful blue. Corny figured it probably wasn't all blue, but all the glass and chrome with soft blue lighting along the floors and walls certainly created the illusion. Peaceful. Like being one of them mer people in stories, living under the sea and breathing just fine. It wasn't a fancy place, not like one Cap'n might take them to where he'd have to get all gussied up and strangle himself with a stiff shirt collar. But it was a heaping helping fancier than the bars they usually went to in New Bangkok.
Verin glanced at his face and snorted. "They won't toss us out, cowboy. Don't say I never take you anywhere nice."
"It is nice. Was just taking a gander. Pretty place." Corny bumped shoulders with him before weaving through the patrons to a raised table at the far end of the blue glass bar top. He waited until they were settled before he asked, "What's the occasion? Did I misrecollect a date?"
"Just thought a change of scenery…" Verin shrugged. Clearly, he was chewing on something but Corny wasn't about to prod at him. If he wanted to say it, he would in his own good time.
They ordered the usual—something toxic for Ver, a whiskey for Corny—and settled back to watch the patrons and talk about little things. They needed to get a new file for Verin's claws. Corny kinda liked doing the foot claws since it wasn't too far a throw from taking care of hooves and it was… Well, it was intimate. Taking care of your lover's feet. Not something he'd been able to do before Ver.
Ver swirled whatever nasty rotgut he had in his glass, watching the gray-green whirlpool with a frown. "You ever regret it, Corn?"
That set Corny back. "Regret filing your claws?"
"No, dumbass." Ver blew out a slow breath, smoke spiraling from his nostrils. "Coming with me. Leaving your own time."
A quick answer would sound like he wasn't willing to think about it, so Corny tipped back his chair and thought a spell. "I miss some things, sure. Riding out under the sky most every day. The smell of a cookfire. Waving grass that…looks like grass should. Guess that's true of anybody who leaves home. You miss little things."
Verin stared off across the bar, silent, sipping his drink.
Corny let his chair down, reached across the table and seized Verin's hand. "But I don't regret it, Hammer. Not for one second. I don't regret bein' here with you. I don't regret traveling to a time where I can hold your hand and no one's got a word to say contrariwise. Where I can—"
He broke off and leaned across the table to plant a kiss at the base of Ver's right horn. While he would've loved to get a real kiss, probably best not while Ver was drinking poison. Corny smiled as he smoothed the dark hair between Ver's curled horns.
Raised voices came from the other end of the bar, two people arguing in a language Corny couldn't understand. One had multiple braids of different colors, though the blue light made it hard to tell what colors. The other was covered either in green scales or in tattoos of green scales. Corny had learned not to assume about things like that. Braids shoved Scales. The bartender tried to calm things down but it looked like these boys were fixin' to fight like Kilkenny cats.
Corny glanced between the brewing fight and his demon lover, still sipping his drink. Ver was interested but he was slouched back in his chair, relaxed. Wouldn't be the first bar fight, and sure as shooting wouldn't be the last they saw, but so long as Ver wasn't reaching for his weapons, Corny wouldn't start worrying.
Scales had Braids by the throat now. The bartender was signaling frantically for one of the security demons at the door.
"Bets on the door goons getting there in time?" Ver asked with an evil grin.
"Five says the big demon gets there afore a punch gets thrown," Corny said, eyeing the action with more interest now.
Security waded through the crowd, hampered by their size. Braids kneed Scales in the balls, or tried to. Didn't quite connect since it just made Scales madder. He picked Braids up and tossed him down the length of the bar where he skidded to a stop just shy of Corny and Verin's table. Ver turned to Corny to say something but one of the patrons whose drinks had been bulldozed grabbed Braids off the bar and tossed him at the table. The poor table broke. Ver rose slowly from his chair, sparks shooting out with each breath.
"Just your fists, Ver," Corny murmured as Verin got up a head of steam.
Verin charged into the growing melee, going after the patron who had spilled his drink. She was a tough old bird and got in some painful licks before Ver flattened her. Not that it mattered. It was an out and out brawl now, fists flying without rhyme or reason. Corny sighed and waded in after his demon, keeping combatants off his back best he could. Wasn't too hard. When Ver got going, he was a one-demon wrecking ball. Best Corny could do was keep up and try to steer them toward the door.
He was so intent on his goal that he had to stop a second and reorient when they stumbled out onto the street. Sirens wailed in the distance. The riot raged on inside.
"Shame. Nice place like that. Best make ourselves scarce," Corny insisted as he steered Ver down the street. "All right there?"
"Yeah. That was great," Ver grinned and stuck a cigar stump between his teeth. "And you owe me five, cowboy."
Corny snorted. "I reckon I don't." He stopped in front of Verin and plucked the cigar out. "We said the first punch afore security got there. Weren't no punch till you threw one."
"Aw, c'mon. Technicalities."
"Nope. That was the bet. Fair and square, Hammer." He seized Ver's head between both hands and kissed him hard, right there in the street, which he could've never done in his old life if he wanted to keep breathing. "You remember what you asked me?"
Ver blinked a few times before he got out in a husky murmur, "Yeah?"
"I got some small wistfuls, Ver. But I ain't got no regrets." Corny dove in for another kiss, pulling Ver close with a hand on his ass for good measure. "Nary a one."
Place: English countryside, Earth
'Twas not a fit night out for man nor beast. Heavy clouds threatened snow and smothered the moonlight. The damp chill seeped into bones even through the heaviest cloak. Precious little light skittered along this stretch of road under heavy trees.
But there was a glint of hoof, a flash of harness, a quick bright flame to light the glowing end of a cigar. One horseman at least blocked the middle of the road, lying in wait for some unfortunate traveler caught out on this dark, inhospitable night.
Hoof beats drumming along the road began as a subterranean shudder until they grew loud and louder – a horseman come riding, riding, riding—a horseman riding through the gloom along the kind's road.
"Steady on," Shax murmured as he drew his pistols, his horse shifting restlessly under him.
Verin, who stood three yards in front of him, pistols ready, lit cigar jammed between his teeth, growled, "I know how this goes, you twerp."
"Did you want to say it?"
"Nah. You do it. Yours is more fucking posh."
Shax pushed his cocked hat back and sat up straighter in the saddle. Shame it was so dark. Their victim would never see the lovely scarlet coat he wore or the scandalously tight doeskin breeches. Oh, well. Best to dress the part, complete with leather and lace if one wanted to do things right. A black horse galloped round the bend and Shax cleared his throat and fired a pistol into the air.
"Stand and deliver, your money or your life!"
The horse reared and screamed in fear, her rider keeping his seat with ease, pistol butts and rapier hilt a-twinkle in the spare bit if starlight. The rider called out in a voice that tried for arrogance despite the quaver, "Nay, it is you who will stand and deliver!"
Shax gaped a moment before calling back, "No, that's not how this works. We said it first—Dick Turpin, is that you?"
"Aye. Who's doing the ask— Shax?"
"Dick, m'dear, as I live and breathe." Shax secured his pistols and rode forward grinning. "Haven't they caught you yet?"
"Not yet and my hope is not tonight." Dick Turpin, the butcher turned livestock thief turned highwayman, reached out to clasp hands with Shax. "You're a sight for these sore eyes, yer lordship. But I've red coats breathing down my neck. You've no desire to be within shouting distance of me tonight. I've an inn I must reach afore the moon is high. If they've reached it first, I'm done for."
"What've you gotten tangled in now? Innkeeper's daughter?"
Dick flashed his charming, albeit worried, grin. "Stable boy."
"Ah, what am I to do with you?" Shax stood in his stirrups to plant a kiss on Dick's cheek. "Ver? Fancy a bit of devil among the tailors this evening?"
"You mean go cave some redcoat heads in? Fuck yeah. Always up for that."
"Be my guest then, Ver. We'll waylay travelers another night. We'll be along soon."
Verin stubbed out his cigar on a nearby stump, vaulted into his saddle, and thundered off on his huge Friesian, one of the few horses they could find willing to bear Verin's weight. Shax and Turpin followed at a more leisurely pace as his highwayman friend told him the particulars. Not that Turpin usually cared about beyond the shag itself, but it was the principle of the thing. Red coats using a stable boy as hostage and bait. Appalling.
Shax patted Turpin's thigh. "All will be well, my dear, never fear. Except for the inn. There's likely to be damage. Would you care to leave the road for a bit for a quick bit of, as they say, backgammon? Would calm your nerves."
"Would be my honor, yer lordship. That clearing over there—"
"Stand and deliver!" a quavering young voice called from that very clearing.
Shax heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for pits' sakes. I see it's going to be that kind of night."
(Shax has a postscript to add: "My darlings, you may recognize bits of this from Alfred Noyes', "The Highwayman." But damn Alfred and his Victorian morals, changing the story I told him for, as he put it, dramatic purposes.")
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.
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