Time: Shortly before Hell For The Company
Place: Triton Station
"Captain! Excuse me! Captain!"
Shax stopped in the middle of the decking on docking arm C, trying to pinpoint if someone was indeed calling out to him and who the someone might be. The short human in coveralls did indeed appear to be headed right for him, so he waited, one eyebrow raised, hoping short human would be able to stop in time.
She did, in a skid that brought her nearly up under Shax's nose. Skidding in deck shoes. Impressive. "Yes?"
"Sorry to bother you, Captain. But you’re a demon, right?" The young woman waved a power wrench, realized what she was doing and stuck it in a coverall pocket.
"Am I?" Shax feigned surprise and reached up to touch his horns. "Oh dear. I suppose I am."
"Right…um. We were hoping you could help us with a gremlin problem. He's a demon, you're a bigger demon and all."
"Yes, that's generally how it goes. Bigger demon trumps smaller demon." Shax backed a step to retrieve some personal space. "But why would I do that?"
"Captain Lawhorn's offering a bounty to anyone who can talk the little guy out of the port thruster." She tapped on her wrist comm to show Shax the figure.
"Ah. Well. That's different. Lead on, then. I'll see what I can do."
He had no doubt that the young woman referred to a derfa and not a gremlin at all. True gremlins were the bureaucrats of Hell, and took pride in creating the most hellish bureaucracy they could. The derfa and various subsets were related to gremlins way back in the demon evolutionary chain, but so distantly that it would be like saying a mouse was a distant relative of the giraffe. Nevertheless, the humans had decided for whatever reasons human brains concocted, that the creatures messing with their machinery starting shortly after the industrial revolution would be called 'gremlins.'
The Celadon had one of the larger bays down the row from the Brimstone, small enough still to fit in a bay, large enough that it was difficult to take in the whole ship at once. Part of the port thruster's housing lay in pieces beside the hull, disassembled most likely to try to get at the derfa.
"How do you know you have a visitor and not a broken thruster?" Shax asked right before he had to duck a bolt hurled from within. "Ah. I withdraw the question."
A stream of what nearly sounded like profanity followed, then a bit of metal Shax couldn't begin to identify hit one of the nearby mechanics in the head.
"Damn it." The mechanic beside Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "It's started on the turbines."
Shax settled his captain's jacket on his shoulders, shot her his best hold my beer grin, and jogged over to climb into the remainder of the housing. There, perched on the turbine, was a rather cute purple derfa.
"Well, hello there."
*scree!* *chirp* *clack* !@%$#
"No need for formalities. It's just Shax these days." Shax turned so he could lean against the housing's wall. "Any particular reason you're taking apart this human ship piece by piece?"
*pfffftthh* &^*$%#@ *snort*
"Are you certain they understood the concept of tribute? Humans can be a little dense."
*SCREEEEEEEEE!* *chirp* *chep*
"Ah, well. I see. It does sound like you were clear enough." Shax searched his pockets and found a wrapped caramel, which he handed to the derfa. "What have you demanded as restitution?"
The derfa accepted the caramel with a happy squeak and swallowed it whole, plastic and all. *squeak* *chirrup* *hfff* *crrrrreh*
"That seems more than fair." Shax leaned around the housing to find the mechanics huddled in a we're-not-scared group nearby. "The de—gremlin requires a pie."
"Will it fix the damage if it gets a pie?" Shax's original mechanic called out.
Shax managed to keep a straight face. "Apparently not. But it will go away and leave you alone."
"What kind of pie?" an older mechanic demanded.
The mechanics all lost color at the same rate, as if they were a single organism. Maybe they were. What did he know about mechanics? "We…that's not possible. We'd have to special order that from dirtside somewhere."
The derfa ripped another piece from a turbine fin and lobbed it at the humans.
Sometimes the hardest thing about a situation was not laughing. Shax turned back to the derfa. "You don't really want to stay with this ship, do you? These humans can't even bring you appropriate tribute. Clearly not worth your time."
The derfa shrugged. *prrrrrt* *chirp*
"I know you have an obligation—look, what if I took over the tribute part as a one-time thing? You get away from these space cases, I get paid, we have a nice afternoon?"
"Very well, then." Shax held out his hand and the derfa put a tiny lilac paw into his palm. They left the housing, stopped by the mechanics long enough for Shax to collect payment, and together, sauntered back out to the corridor.
"No, you know they don't or you wouldn't have asked for it. You were angry, so you asked for something impossible." Shax peered down, trying to see the eyes hidden within the purple fuzz. "But I do know a lovely coffee shop that serves almond pastries to die for. And I know where a starliner's docked over on G arm. Much more fun for you than a silly cargo ship. How does that sound?"
*squeeeeee!!!* *chehrek!* %^#@$*
"I couldn't have said it better myself."
Time: Shortly after Potato Surprise
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
Parallax to CC1 in thirty. Parallax to CC1.
Julian's eyes snapped open and he glared at his comm on the side table. Convalescing was supposed to mean convalescing, and yes he was a little bored, but it shouldn't mean a call summoning him to the director's office.
"Oh, what now?"
He stifled a groan as he rolled up from his comfy spot curled up on his sofa. It was a dangerously cushy sofa, he'd been planning on spending the morning there, and it was his. IE provided quarters to agents in the annex beside HQ, and they weren't bad, small flats with their own kitchens, but everything contained therein was Julian's. His one little corner of the galaxy where he allowed himself nostalgia and sentiment tied up in the possession of things.
Annoying, this summons. Though thirty minutes was better than immediately. "At least they cut me some slack for being semi-mobile."
Julian debated staying in his pajama pants and T-shirt, heaving a put-upon sigh when he concluded that might be a bit much for the administrative offices. He still needed both arm crutches to get around while his legs slowly remembered how to interact with his central nervous system, so he kept wardrobe choices simple—soft micro-cotton pants and a not-too-casual placketed shirt.
Normally, he would've jogged over to admin. Jogging, along with many other activities-while-vertical, simply wasn't happening yet. He took one of the trams and tried to ignore the speculative stares. It was a short five minute ride, five minutes feeling like a bug trapped under a scope.
"Julian." The director smiled as Julian entered the office. "Have a seat."
"So that's how it is." Julian managed a weary smile in response as he lowered himself gingerly into one of the office chairs in front of the desk.
"How what is?" The director set a coffee mug on the desk within Julian's reach and that sealed it.
"First name. Getting me to sit—"
"You are still on medical. Barely on your feet."
"Sir, you know better. I don't need buttering. Besides, butter's fun only until it starts to smell off." Julian accepted the coffee anyway. It was better than the stuff he had in his quarters. "What do you need from me?"
The fake smile abandoned the director's face. "I need you to teach."
"Sir, we've been through this m—"
He held up a hand, cutting Julian off. "Not permanently. Just while you're recovering. And not a class. A single student."
Julian sipped, put the coffee down, and sighed. "I see. Problem student."
The director waggled a hand back and forth. "In a way. Promising student who's reached weapons phase training and is suddenly exhibiting disrespectful and disruptive behavior."
"Ah." Julian didn't even try to hide the smile. I remember being that age and at that point. Though he wondered if this youngster had started as young as he had.
"I've sent you the file." The director stood. Apparently the schmoozing was at an end. "Do your best with this one. There are some students we can't afford to lose."
Julian read the file on his comm before making his way toward the ranges. Of course he did. A lifetime of habit, going into a situation as prepared as possible. His potential student occupied one of the debrief rooms outside the range proper. Julian hit the door pad, frowned at the young person fidgeting at the table, and re-checked the name on the file. Kenneth Hayes. Perhaps, though his gut told him this youngster didn’t go by Kenneth.
"Who're you?" Surly, suspicious, oh yes, that was the right age.
"Agent Julian Parallax. I'm looking for someone I'm supposed to be teaching, but I may have taken a wrong turn. Hayes?"
Possible-student rolled dark eyes. "It's Kendra, not Kennett. I guess you're not going to bother to get it right either."
Julian's frown deepened. This explained more of the reported attitude than is just being the age of adults-are-stupid. "It should've been changed and that's unconscionably rude if one of your instructors is deadnaming."
"Whatever. Like you give a spacer rat's ass." Kendra leaned back in her chair, arms folded over her chest. "What're you supposed to be teaching me, gimpy?"
"I see." Julian nodded at her look of irritated confusion and moved to a spot where he could ease into the chair opposite. "This is the part where I'm terribly offended and tell you to be respectful and you escalate the rudeness until I stomp out. Maybe we'll save that for another day. I'm too tired."
She was still glaring, so he had her attention.
"Two things I want to say before we talk about training. One, the crutches aren't permanent. My vehicle was blown out from under me while I was helping a demon deliver gen-modified bugs. And two, grownups used to tell me that my name was Julia."
The first declaration had tossed the surly expression into a deep, dark pit. The second replaced it with wide-eyed surprise. "Oh."
"I'm supposed to be your weapons instructor." Julian put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his hands. "And I'll gladly show you all the lovely toys and how to use them to best effect. But from your hand-to-hand scores, I don't think it'll take you long at all to catch on."
"You want to be an agent, right? That's why you're here?"
"Yeah." She drew the word out, cautious but no longer snarky.
Julian let a slow smile spread over his face. "They want me to be your instructor, Kendra. This falls under the category of be careful what you wish for. I'm going to teach you so many things the adults don't want you to know."
The return smile was so full of unholy joy, Julian knew he would teach her for that alone.
Time: Just before Potato Surprise
Place: Orbiting space station, Earth
Shax yanked Verin into the doorway of a closed shop, gesturing for silence.
What? Ver mouthed, though he was aware enough to look anxious instead of irritated.
The tension in Ver's arm ratcheted up the second he spotted them, though. No need for Shax to explain. Three granite trolls wearing Infernal Enforcement uniforms stomped down the station's shopping concourse, heads swiveling as they searched the crowd. Shax pulled the shadows closer around them, only exhaling when the troopers had passed.
"They can't be looking for us already," Ver whisper-growled, but he didn't look convinced.
"I don't know how the alarm sounded so quickly, but they are. I heard one of them mention us." Shax chewed on his bottom lip, thinking hard and fast. "Change of plan. We can't go to the travel office and book passage on anything, spaceliner or otherwise. They'll be watching there and even if I use a less obvious name and account… We don't have time for me to finagle that."
"So what the fuck do we do?"
"Convince someone to smuggle us out."
"Seedy bar time?"
Shax patted his companion's shoulder. "Yes. Quick trip to the lockers for a change in clothes, then seedy bar time."
They both knew the drill as they walked briskly, but in a confident, I-have-somewhere-to-be manner, toward the rental lockers where they'd stashed their luggage. Verin stood in front of him while he shimmied out of his work pants and into skin-tight leather and a gold mesh shirt.
"How're we playing this, mud-for-brains?" Verin closed up the locker as Shax shrugged back into his jacket so he wouldn't be quite as attention attracting as they walked.
"Clueless, feckless demon tourist and surly boyfriend, I think."
Verin nodded. "Sounds right."
With an offended snort, Shax smacked Verin's arm before getting into character. Ver offered that same arm and Shax clung to it, looking appropriately wide-eyed and goggly as they took a leisurely stroll through the corridors to the less respectable part of the station closer to the loading docks. They'd both been to the Earth transit station enough times to know exactly which bar they needed and managed to reach Space Junk without running into any more Infernal Enforcement officers.
In order to properly shimmer and slink, Shax handed his jacket off the Verin at the door. They proceeded with a sharp eye to the patrons, mostly hard-bitten men and women drinking alone.
"Any targets?" Verin muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
Shax lifted his chin. "That one. Over in the far corner. All alone and already half soused."
"That's most of the fuckers in here. Why him?"
"Seriously, Ver?" Shax tsked. "Captain's jacket on the back of his chair. He's too shoddy to fly corporate, so it's more likely he's an owner-operator. We may be able to do better than beg a ride."
Verin only answered with a grouchy harrumph and a puff of steam. Completely in character, so it worked. With a little skip and a bright smile, Shax sidled up to the presumed ship owner who was trying to kill his brain cells.
"Oooh!" Shax wriggled and petted the worn jacket. "Are you a starship captain? How exciting!"
The human glanced over blearily, but something registered in that pickled brain since his eyes traveled up and down Shax's body before he attempted to sit up straighter. "Cargo hauler." The man stopped for a semi-polite belch. "Wouldn't call it anything fancy like starship."
Shax waved the bartender over and bought their new friend three more drinks, which started to vanish with alarming speed. "But I bet you get out of boring old Sol system, don't you? You must see all kinds of things."
"Oh, yeah." The captain's head wobbled in an approximation of a nod. "All kindsa…things. Ha." He finished off the third and Shax had another set ready.
"Is it difficult? Copernicus drive travel?" Shax leaned a little closer, hip just brushing his mark's.
"Eh." The human flapped a hand. "Copernicus…schmernicus…the AI does mosht of it."
Shax looked over the barfly's head and nodded to Verin. Bingo. Interstellar craft.
"Does it? Oh my. I thought you'd need just an enormous crew for all that."
Captain Barely Conscious put his arms on the bar and rested his head atop them. "Nah. Ish jus' me an' Ivana. All I ever…"
He trailed off into an alcohol-induced nap. When he started to snore, Shax slipped his hand into one cargo pocket after another on his work pants, taking anything that looked useful, though he left the human the spare credit chits in his left pocket. No need to rob the man entirely blind. Finally, he slipped the wrist comm off the man's arm and nodded to Verin to grab the jacket.
"Sorry, Captain." Shax kissed the top of his head. "I truly am. But our need is far greater right now."
Shax slipped into the captain's jacket once they'd left the bar, ignoring Verin's raised eyebrow, and they hurried back to the lockers to retrieve their meager luggage. It wasn't much, but it had been all they could pack in a panicked frenzy before anyone could catch on that Shax knew. Hells gates, yes. He knew they were doomed if they stayed, doomed twice over if he simply refused the suicide job, and possibly still doomed if they couldn't get away.
"Docking chit. He's at berth nine." Shax murmured as he went through the human's things. "Let’s hope one of these things provides entry."
They had to hide once more in a dimly lit cross-corridor when the Hell goons tromped by. Once they were out of sight, they both lost their nerve and raced through the hallways to the docking bays. Nine wasn't too far down, thank all the unholies, in the section for smaller cargo ships. Shax made an educated guess and held the stolen comm link up to the pad for the access portal. He allowed himself a huff of breath and a grin when it cycled open.
"We'll be okay now, Ver. Promise."
"Better be." Ver gave him a little shove into the access tube. "Go. Let's get the fuck out of this system."
Shax hurried along and into the ship, which, granted, had probably seen better days, but looked sound. "Away, away. Where the long arm of Hell has no jurisdiction and the powers that be can't travel. Oh, Ver. This will be such fun."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, Barbary
"Where you off to looking like a thundercloud, Ver?" Corny straightened from where he'd been fussing with Rosa's hooves.
Damn it. Verin had hoped he could slip out without seeing anyone. "Somewhere."
"You need company? I might could come along if you give me a minute."
"No. Did I ask for company?" Verin cringed inwardly. That was harsh.
"All right, then." The hurt in Corny's voice was muffled as he bent back to Rosa's hoof. "Don't mind me."
Trailing steam, Verin stomped out of the cargo bay. Fuck it. I don't have to explain myself. Never made any promises that I'd tell him everything or shit like that. This is me still. My life. And I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want.
People scattered from his path as he stomped out of the spaceport and into the streets of New Bangkok. Because he could, and because he was running a little late, he hailed a tuk-tuk, surprised when the first one stopped for him. Usually took a few passing him before one stopped. He climbed in and gave the driver the address.
The driver's eyebrows rose. "You sure that's where you want to go, Mr. Demon?"
"Yeah, I'm fucking sure. I tell you where to go. You drive. That's how this works. First day?"
"Ha. Funny demon." The driver snorted and eased back into traffic, heading uptown.
Once they arrived, he paid the driver a little extra for not making any smartass remarks. Yeah, this place was in a fancier part of town than he'd normally go, and yeah, it was kinda pricey. He got why the driver didn't think he belonged. Didn't mean he appreciated it. Ballsy judgmental humans.
No sign hung over the door to the establishment. Just a plain black door and a person either knew the place was there or they didn't. Verin squared his shoulders, strode in like he belonged there, and only let out a little puff of smoke when he saw they had another new receptionist.
She gave him the hairy eyeball as he approached the desk. "Can I help you, um, sir?"
"Yeah. I'm here to see Gino."
Her perfectly applied cosmetics threatened to crack when she wrinkled her forehead. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No, I'm just here to cause trouble 'cause I'm a demon. Of course I have an appointment. You could check first before going all snooty as gold shit on me."
"Sir, there's no need to take that tone—"
The heavy red curtains behind the front desk flipped open, revealing a beautiful human in skintight shorts and crop top, his makeup much more artfully applied than Ms. Thing's at the desk. "Tara, is my ten o'clock— Oh, there you are, Mr. Hammer! Right on time. Why don't you slide on back here with me? Tara will sign you in."
The receptionist stared from one to the other and Verin was more than happy to stride past and leave her gaping. Gino took his arm with a smile, hips twitching as he walked Verin through the velvet-lined corridor.
"The usual today, handsome? Or did you need something…special?"
"Usual's good, Gino." At the alcove where Gino held the curtains aside for him, Verin stopped and scuffed a clawed foot on the carpet. "Maybe horns, too?"
"They do look like they need some attention," Gino crooned, stroking along the outer curl of the left one. "Hop up on the chair, sweetie, and put those glorious scaly feet in the water for me."
Verin did as he was asked, knowing the foot tub Gino used for him was three times bigger than the normal one. Good to have a place that understood. He let out a grateful sigh as his feet went into the ginger-scented, Epsom salt water. Hell's fucking gates, that always feels good.
Perched behind Verin on a stool, Gino started on his horns while his feet soaked, filing away rough spots, polishing them to high shine. "Sure you don’t want any color today? You know I can do your nails in a nice black if you want."
"No." Verin let the steam trickle from his nostrils, doing his best not to sound so short and sharp. "Thanks, Gino. No color."
He let Gino chatter away at him, the stream of small talk swirling around him in soothing waves while he had his claws clipped and filed. Gino fussed at him for letting one of them split so badly, but even that didn't annoy him. This was time away from everything, away from the galaxy and all the weird shit in his life.
When he returned to the Brimstone a couple of hours later, he was relaxed enough to be thinking of an apology for Corny. He hadn't meant to hurt his cowboy. It was all just so…
"There you are." Corny's hands slipped around his waist from behind, his chin on Verin's shoulder as he drew in a deep breath. "My, my, someone smells powerful nice."
Strong hands took him by the arms and turned him. Verin expected Corny to be laughing at him, but those eyes were full of understanding instead. "Bull-headed sometimes, Hammer. You are that. You should know better by now."
Verin frowned. "Know what?"
"That I ain't gonna be makin' fun or saying you're unmanly for things you hanker for. You got your nails and your horns seen to. They look damn good. Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of."
"But it's… It's a fucking pedicure. I mean, fussy demons like Shax might get that done…and then they always wanna add some damn color, too. It's not, you know, a really butch place."
Now Corny did snicker. "Sorry. I was just thinking you could call it a horny-pedi. And if you wanted color, so what? Could paint your claws bright red and you'd still be twice as tough as nails."
Verin rested his head on Corny's shoulder. "Good. Shit… Yeah. It's good. Wanna come with me next time?"
Another soft chuckle rumbled through Corny's chest as he wrapped his arms tight around Verin. "You know, I think I just might."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"So who's your favorite human hero?" Julian asked as he stirred more sugar into his tea. So bitter. Let it steep too long again.
"Well, we're all for damn sure who yours is." Corny poked him in the ribs. "Since you made us watch all them James Bond movies."
"Not all of them. I spared you Moonraker. Though if you wanted to watch it…"
"Oh fuck no." Verin snarled. "Stupid movie."
They had been discussing demon heroes over breakfast—Abaddon, Mephistopheles, and so on, and an interesting mix of clever and brutal they were. Julian didn't know enough demon lore to pick one, though. Saying Shax was his demon hero would've sounded saccharine and probably would've ticked Ness off. Redirection had been in order before Julian started feeling out of place. More out of place.
"I'm partial to that Jane Goodall," Corny offered. "She didn't take nothin' from nobody and, well, animals."
Shax reached for a second cinnamon bun. Why he never gained an ounce with all the sweets he scarfed down, Julian would never understand. "I agree with your assessment, Corny, and she was an unquestionably admirable human, but I thought we were speaking of fictional humans."
"Oh. All right." Corny's forehead creased as he considered. "I'll pick that little Miles Vorkosigan I'm readin' through now. Great big brass balls on that one and he's always thinkin', even in the worst spots. Kinda reminds me of you, Cap, a little. In your demon tornado moments."
"Thank you? I think?" Shax shook his head with a quirk of a smile and leaned his head on his angel's shoulder. "Ness?"
Ness turned his coffee mug in his hands, staring into the depths for so long that Julian wondered if he was already ticked off about something and refusing to answer. Finally, he flushed pink as he said, "Eowyn. She's a true hero who didn't let what others thought of her get in the way of being a true hero."
"She is pretty badass," Verin said, a sentence so unexpected that all eyes whipped over to him. "What? All those idiots telling her what she couldn't do and she's like fuck you all, I'm doing it."
"So, Ver. What's yours?" Shax reached for yet another cinnamon roll and Ness smacked his hand. He turned an actual pout Ness's way, which on him looked absurdly fetching, but Ness pushed a plate of bacon in his direction instead.
Ver let out a puff of steam. "That's easy. Mine is that Cuchulain fucker. All the rage and destruction. Good stuff for a human story."
"Cap? Guess yours is someone like Robin Hood, huh?" Corny ventured.
Shax regarded him in wide-eyed horror. "Great bubbling sulfur pits, no! What a complete git. Why would you go to all the trouble of stealing pretties and give them all away? Absolute lunacy." Shax drummed his fingers on the table while he considered. "I do like that Deadpool though. The ability to spread chaos like an industrial farm sprinkler is something to be admired. And keep a sense of humor while doing it."
"Yeah." Verin nodded. "All that destruction and shit. Good stuff."
Shax's smile grew wistful as he crunched on his consolation bacon. "He would have made an excellent demon."
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: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Place: An unspecified lovely beach, Earth
"Know why I hate the fucking beach?" Verin grumbled as he set up the umbrella.
Shax sighed, trying to be patient while unloading the rest of the float cart. The walk from the transport had been longer than he'd anticipated, ratcheting up his own irritation. "Too much like home?"
"No. Too many shitball birds." Verin frowned up at the gulls wheeling overhead.
"We'll keep the bird interaction to a minimum. Promise." Shax patted Verin's shoulder before he set up the beach chairs and the cooler.
Beach visits hadn't changed much over the centuries—shade, something to keep one's butt off the sand, something to read, and a picnic, bathing attire not always required depending on the beach. Only the materials had changed, from wicker and cloth to plastics, bio-polys, and synth fibers. Shax had also become more discerning about the beaches he chose over the years. This particular one wasn't clothing optional, but there were good reasons for selecting it.
He left Verin reading whatever horror novel he was working on—Ver found them hilarious—and went for a quick swim to cool off. By the time Shax returned, his mood had leveled out and he happily acquiesced to Verin's demand that they dip into the beer supply. Ver went for his own brief dip and came back shaking the water off his horns. He still hadn't seemed to have caught on, which made Shax smile and shake his own head.
Shouldn't be long now.
No more than thirty minutes later, a volleyball flew in the direction of their little oasis and smacked Verin in the head. He palmed the volleyball and rose with a menacing growl rumbling in his chest. "What the fuck do you think—"
And cut off abruptly, blinking, when he caught sight of the person who'd come to retrieve the errant bit of equipment. The man matched Verin in height and breadth of shoulder, a barrel of a man with a fine pelt of dark hair on his chest and a lovely, friendly smile.
"Sorry about that! My fault. That one got away from me." The bear of a man held out a hesitant hand for the volleyball.
Verin ogled a moment longer before handing it back. "Oh. Um. Sure. Not a problem."
The human's smile widened. "We don't get a lot of demons on the beach. Kind of a shame. You and your friend want to play?"
Leaning around him to check out the players, Verin's eyes nearly popped out of his head. All of them were bears of different sizes, ages, and skin tones—a veritable Verin buffet. Though Verin certainly didn't need his permission, he still looked to Shax out of habit.
Shax flapped a hand at his bodyguard, pretending to be absorbed in his book. "Go on, Ver. That's far more physical activity than I was planning on today. I'll stay here and enjoy the…scenery."
The exact moment Verin spotted what's different about this beach was classic. In rapid fire succession, Shax watched him pick out the lesbian couple strolling hand in hand, the three men in a kissing clinch in knee-deep water, the variety of non-binary people. Ver's smile widened—a little scary, granted, but volleyball man didn't seem to mind—and he swaggered off to join the game of bears.
Shax snuggled down into his beach chair to read a bit and, indeed, to watch the scenery. With any luck, or rather if Ver got lucky, he'd be gone for hours and Shax felt rather smug at having managed things so easily. One's bodyguard needed a proper treat now and then, not to mention a bit of a disposition sweetener sometimes.
Especially before a tricky job, but all that could wait a couple of days. Over at the net, Verin spiked the ball with a bone-shivering roar, answered by approving roars from his teammates.
Perfect. And not a gull in sight.
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: Twenty years after The Big Reveal
Place: Santa Cruz, CA, Earth
"Why do you have horns?"
Shax glanced up from his reader, vaguely alarmed that a small human had insinuated herself at his café table without him noticing. "Er, hello?"
"Hi. I'm Hatshepsut. I'm named for a woman who was pharaoh a long time ago."
"Lovely name." Shax pulled out a smile. The kid's parents couldn't be far away and would come to rescue him soon. No need to be unpleasant. "I knew her."
She squinted at him. "It's a stupid name. No one can say it. Everyone calls me Hattie, which is stupid, too. I'm going to change it." She swung her feet, squinting at him harder. "You're fibbing. You can't be old enough to know her."
"Hmm. I do often fib. But not about this. My kind of demon doesn't age after we're grown." He sipped at his espresso. "I'm Shax, the Demon Prince of Thieves."
"That doesn't sound like a nice thing to be."
"I'm a demon." Shax quirked a brow at her. "Most of us aren't nice things, and many are perfectly horrid."
With a nod, she glanced away from him, gaze searching the plaza. "I guess. Klfruk doesn't have horns."
Sounds like a Hellish name… But Shax couldn't place it. "Who is Klfruk?"
"He's our demon house guard." The squint became a scrunched nose, no longer directed at Shax. "He's s'posed to be watching me. But he's not smart."
"Ah. I used to slip away from my guards when I was young, too. They weren't terribly bright either." Sometimes the out in the open nature of human-demonic relations still hit him sideways. A Hell denizen guarding a human household. So odd. "Does he have strange ears that look like squashed cauliflowers?"
She nodded, the crinkle vanishing. Perhaps Shax was being reevaluated as not stupid.
"That means he's a rock troll. Which is a sort of demon, but not my sort."
The feet swinging escalated. "So why do you have horns?"
"Why do you have green eyes?" Shax countered with a raised brow.
She snorted at him. Astounding. He'd introduced himself as a demon prince and she exhibited no fear. None at all. "Cause my mom does. Of course." She stopped, eyes widening. "So your mom has horns."
"Well...no. She has wings, though."
Leaning back in her chair, Hattie checked behind Shax. "Did yours get cut off?"
"No." Shax tried for haughty but only managed irritated. "I never had wings."
She gave a terribly serious nod. "My dad's got brown eyes. I didn't get those. I guess your dad's got horns."
"Stands to reason, yes." Don't frown. No need to scare the poor kid now. "I've never seen him, though."
"That's silly. You're a prince. You have to know who your dad is."
Shax pushed his plate of macarons toward Hattie, pleased when she took one. It only seemed polite. "Demon royalty does have registries and bloodlines, like human nobility, but it's not always trackable. Some high-echelon demons weren't born, you see. They were created." He gave an insouciant shrug. "And some don't care to acknowledge offspring or progeni— Parents."
"So your dad's…" Hattie bit into her carefully selected macaron and leaned closer to whisper, "A secret?"
Shax brightened considerably. A secret was much more fun than saying I have no idea. "Yes," he whispered back. "A secret."
Hattie stuffed the rest of her bright purple macaron into her mouth and hopped off her chair. A uniformed rock troll had just entered the plaza, head swiveling back and forth. Hello, sir. You must be Klfruk.
"That's all right then. You just have to go on a quest someday to find him. Princes do that." Hattie scampered off and only turned to wave when she'd taken the befuddled rock troll's hand.
A quest? Shax pulled the plate back toward him and took a delicate nibble of a virulently yellow macaron. Ridiculous. Absurd. Demons didn't go on quests. He shook himself, trying to get rid of the unsettled ripples under his skin. If he'd had a cane, he would've been shaking it. "Damn kids. Stay off my lineage."
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.]
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