"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
"It's an ocean, Ver." Shax spread his arms toward the crash and retreat of the waves, the cool salt spray exciting and new.
"Yeah? Where's the magma? Where's the sulfur mist? How the fuck is this an ocean?" Verin scowled hard enough to scare away a group of nearby birds.
Shax patted his companion on the shoulder. "It's a water ocean. It's all salted water. Amazing, don't you think?"
"It's stupid. And colder than ice dragon balls. And who had the shitty idea to pour salt into it?"
"Pour…? I don't think anyone did, you know. I think they simply come that way. Oceans." Shax frowned at a creature with huge claws scuttling sideways past his toes. "Though some of the wildlife looks much like home."
"Why're we here, genius?"
Shax gave a one-shouldered shrug and wandered closer to the waves with his boots in one hand. "I'm not certain. I wanted to see it, I suppose. Auntie Lilith talks about the sea. It always sounded unbelievable. A story."
"Tons of better places we could've gone if you wanted something fucking unbelievable."
"I think it's quite lovely, in a melancholy way." Shax dug his toes into the sand, relishing the soft spread of it as he pressed down. "Besides, pearls are said to come from oceans. Pearls are so pretty."
"Whatever. Some hell-boar flank would be a lot prettier right now."
Shax shot him a startled glance. "You can't be hungry again already."
"Always fucking hungry." Verin crouched, drawing angry lines in the sand with a stick. "Stupid body needs to stop the stupid growing already."
Since they'd hit puberty it had been like this, and had only gotten worse. As Verin outstripped Shax in height and breadth of shoulder, his constant gnawing hunger only increased with his size. He hoped that Ver would stop growing soon. Mum said he was to be Shax's bodyguard and would receive the proper training and, granted, while it was good to have a sizeable personal guard of impressive strength, Shax didn't want to have to look up too far to speak to him.
"Psst. Hey. Demon kids."
Shax peered up and down the beach, frowning when he didn't spot anyone.
"Down here, dummy," the voice went on. "By the waves."
A glance down and to the left revealed a fascinating being. They, for gender was difficult to determine with an unknown species, were built something like a fish, though with sleek watertight skin rather than scales and a breathing opening atop the head.
"Well, hello there," Shax smiled tentatively. "Who might you be?"
The being emitted a series of high-pitched whistles and chirps. "But my name's not important right now. You kids shouldn't be on topside land. Didn't anyone tell you humans live there?"
Shax blinked at that. "Well…yes? We've met quite a few humans. They're rather fun."
"Filthy, greedy, violent," the being with the whistle-chirp name went on heatedly. "No sense of proportion and their singing is terrible. Not to mention, they think dolphins are fish! Idiots. Look, you boys be careful. All I'm saying. Humans are trouble and they're multiplying. It'll only get worse from here."
"Thank you, Mr. um…Dolphin." Shax swept the ocean being an elegant bow. "We'll be as careful as we can. It will be part of our jobs when we're older to seed chaos in among the humans. We can't really avoid them, I'm afraid."
The dolphin, since they didn't object to the name, snorted through the hole atop their head. "Sucks to be you, then."
With a flip of their tail that soaked Shax, the dolphin used its flippers to turn, humped back into the water and swam away.
"Can we go home now, your dripping highness?" Verin muttered. "The water ocean is fucking ridiculous."
Shax shoved his sodden hair out of his eyes. "Yes. To both those things. And I'm going to have some sharp words for Auntie Lilith when we get there."
"It's not right." Verin stormed down the corridor toward Ness, his bulk taking up too much space to edge around.
Ness had mantled out of startled reflex and pulled his wings in. "Several things aren't right, I'm sure. What specifically, Ver?"
Verin poked at his comm and brought up a holo display. "The fucking weapons' ratings, that's what. The fuck, featherboy?"
"The—" Ness leaned forward to peruse the numbers with a puzzled frown. "Did I make a mistake entering them?"
Heavy footfalls approached from behind him and a hand the size of a dinner platter fell on his shoulder. "Mind if I squeeze by, boys?"
"Ah." Ness half-turned to offer Mac an apologetic grimace. "I think I have to understand why Verin's having a fit before he'll move."
"A fit? I'll give you fits, you pea brained crappy excuse for a fallen!" Verin stabbed a claw at the numbers. "You can't be that blind. Look at the rankings. Why is that half-pint little—"
"Choose your next word carefully, Hammer," Mac rumbled.
Verin's mouth snapped shut and it took half a heartbeat for him to say, "Twerp. That damn little twerp's rated higher than me." Verin shot Mac a venomous look when he chuckled. "Shut it. This is serious. I can handle any weapon manufactured now or whatever the fuck came before. I've been his rotten sodding selfish highness's bodyguard for how many troll-fucking centuries? And that little twerp—"
"Outscored you on the qualifying course," Ness cut him off softly. "I'm sorry. I know it's unfair, and overall, yes, you're far more experienced and qualified. But for the interplanetary ratings course, these were the scores."
"You." Verin first pointed a finger, then grabbed a handful of Ness's sleeve. "You're gonna sit down with me and explain how in all levels of fucking fuckery this happened."
Too befuddled to protest, Ness allowed himself to be dragged to the galley and shoved onto one of the benches. If he'd known Verin would take the scores so personally, he would have…what would he have done? Hidden them? Tried to soothe an irritable demon's ego? Talked to Shax? He sighed and pulled the scores up on the table's holoscreen for better viewing. The new rating system had come down from ISE, mandatory for anyone who wanted a weapons license and competence level in any planetary city or station. As security officer, Ness had needed to make certain the crew ran through the approved course, a much stranger qualifying course than he'd anticipated.
"You and Heckle have nearly identical scores until we reach this part here." Ness enlarged the scores and expanded Heckle's and Verin's to show each segment.
Verin snorted a heavy, unhappy cloud of steam and sparks. "What in all levels of fuck was that?"
"Let's see…" Ness checked his coding list, pointing to the specific numbers where the scores diverged. "Here's where the wind tunnel test began. And here's where the required dual weapon firing starts within the wind tunnel."
"How did that little runt do better'n me in the cocksucking wind tunnel?" The sparks flew at an alarming rate as Verin's volume reached bellow stage. "It should've blown him over at the first fucking breeze!"
"Well, yes." Ness brushed a spark from his sleeve. "From what I understand, it did initially. But Heckle has extra appendages at his disposal. He went airborne with his tail wrapped around a support beam and was able to navigate the air currents better than a standing shooter could."
Verin stared at him, his expression hovering between shock and fury. Finally, he sputtered, "That should've been a disqualification!"
No cuss words in an entire sentence just highlighted how upset Verin was, and Ness thought he began to understand why. "Well, no. Everyone was permitted to use their natural attributes. You have your enormous strength, Heckle has a tail. His accuracy is a bit better than yours, but your rate of fire is higher than anyone on board. Except perhaps Julian…" He had to stop for a breath to avoid sounding annoyed. "But Julian's licensing isn't something I need to worry about. For sheer mayhem, no one can outdo you, Ver."
Ness dared to reach across the table to pat Verin's arm. "Yeah. Heckle doesn't have the mass or the horns to brawl as you do. Even Mac, who just doesn't have the experience, would stand up to you in a protracted fight. You are The Hammer, Shax knows it, and no one could ever replace you by his side."
"What the fuck ever." Verin pulled his arm away, though only so he could stand. His steam had calmed to occasional puffs. "Stupid touchy feely angel stuff."
Ness kept a straight face as Verin stalked out, shutting down the holo screen, ignoring the muttering. Only when those big, clawed feet had stomped away down the corridor did he allow himself a chuckle. "You're welcome, Ver."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Amnesia got a bad rap in Mac's opinion—not quite the hive of thieves and villains some people made it out to be. Sure. There were thieves and villains, since Amnesia spaceport had an extremely loose definition of law, but there were plenty of honest folks and business owners just trying to make a living. It was also a familiar place where he knew the streets and a place where people understood a simple social contract:
If it doesn't concern you, keep walking.
Which was why he shocked himself by stopping when he heard a frustrated squeak overhead.
He'd just had lunch with his handsome imp, though Heckle had needed to scurry back to the Brimstone for an incoming shipment, and Mac had decided on a window-shopping stroll. Gnawing on a toothpick, taking his own time down the covered sidewalk, he'd let other pedestrians part around him, wavelets to the prow of his ponderous barge of a body, as he headed toward the bazaar. Never knew what to expect there.
The overhead squeak sure as hell wasn't expected. Mac peered up into the support beams of the walkway awning and spotted something glittery squirming up there. A packing crate outside one of the shops made a good stepstool for Mac. Perfect for him, anyone else would've needed a ladder. Someone more or less Heckle-sized had gotten snagged on a jagged edge of one of the beams and Mac carefully disengaged the captured fabric before lifting the small person down.
"Put me down!" Small Person shrieked and hammered against Mac's shoulder with a tiny, sparkly hand.
"Sure. No problem." Mac set Small Person on his feet, so small he only came up to Mac's waist. "Are you all right?"
Small Person shook out shimmering gossamer wings with a disgusted snort and straightened what appeared to be a blue satin princess dress and tiara of questionable quality. A cigarillo clamped tight between blinding white teeth completed the look. "Yeah. Yeah. I'll live."
"I know it's none of my business, but are your wings viable?"
"Vestigial, thanks for bringing up a sore subject, you ass." Small Person straightened his shoulders. "I'm a dentata pseudonymph."
Mac fought against squinting, though it was a struggle faced with such an abundance of glitter. "You're…some kind of tooth fairy?"
"Oh fuck you, nephy-poo." Small Person rolled his eyes. "Like fairies exist. I'm a dental demon."
Mac's forehead crinkled at the childish insult. "Why were you stuck up in the roof beams if you can't fly?"
Not-The-Tooth-Fairy shot him a frown blacker than anything Captain Shax could manage. "Some big bruiser shoved me up there for stealing her box of flavored dental dams."
"Ookay." Mac wondered if he'd fallen out of bed that morning and hit his head. "Why would you steal dental dams?"
"Hello! Dental demon! It's what I do. I steal mouth stuff. Teeth. Fillings. Ball gags. Dentures. Toothbrushes. All that crap."
Amazing how some explanations don't explain one damn thing. "And what do you do with all of it?"
"You sure ask a lot of dumb questions. But you're a nephy, so I guess you can't help it." The dental demon shrugged. "It's what I do. What I do with what I do isn't any of your damn business. Thanks for the hand, but it's not like we're gonna be friends or anything." The dentata demon glared up at him, obviously waiting for something. "Move, you cretinous mountain!"
Mac stepped aside, gaping after the demon who stomped off in a huff of glitter and fluttering shimmery wings. When the demon vanished around a corner, Mac realized two things—his toothpick had also vanished and he'd completely forgotten what he'd planned to do with his afternoon.
Shaking his head, he made his way back to the Brimstone instead. Heck was never going to believe this.
Then again… Mac shook his head at himself. Heckle had seen a lot during his life in Hell. Probably not much left he wouldn't believe, even demonic tooth not-fairies.
Time: Directly after The Big Reveal
Place: Undisclosed large city, Earth
They really didn't waste any time, did they? Shax stood on the sidewalk staring at the Demon Prizefighting sign with mixed interest and jaundiced dismay. A mere three years after the Powers That Be had decided to reveal the physical reality of demons and angels, and humans had discovered ways to exploit it.
"You're sure?" Shax tore his attention far enough from the lurid poster of battling 'demons'—the artist had obviously never seen one in person—to give Verin a hard side-eye.
"Easy money, Shaxy." Verin gave him a little shove. "You saying you don't fucking believe I can win?"
"I have every confidence in your pugilistic prowess. It's the fighting for the entertainment of humans I find…questionable." Shax wrinkled his nose. "Undignified. Exploitative."
"Just another way to take their money, your royal pain in the ass. Come on." Verin took his arm and gave him no choice but to trot along inside.
The venue was just as dirty and unpleasant as he had feared, a distressing mix of unwashed human and demon blood suffusing the air. A dark hallway let out into the fighting arena, not much more than a sandpit surrounded by chicken wire and rusty bleachers. Shax felt his nose would be permanently wrinkled after this.
A human of impressive size blocked the way into the main room. "Watching or fighting?"
"Fighting," Verin growled and jerked a thumb at Shax. "My manager."
Shax raised an eyebrow, but fell into the role without a hitch. "Who do we need to see to get my boy on the lists?"
Large Human nodded to a desk beside a scale in the corner where flurries of activity welled up and subsided at regular intervals. Not only the registry for fighters but also the betting table. He could at least appreciate the economy of purpose.
"Fighter, before you ask." Shax imitated Verin's thumb jerk. It seemed appropriate to the venue. "Your doorman said to sign him in here."
After a quick visual assessment of Verin, who stood with arms crossed and his most belligerent expression, the man behind the table raised bushy eyebrows. "He got powers? Can't use 'em here."
Shax resisted the urge to correct the man's grammar. "Nothing beyond snorting sparks."
"Um." Yes? Occasionally? He cleans up rather well? Shax managed a quick peek at the registry book—so old fashioned, an actual paper book—and the light dawned. "Ah. High-echelon non-royal with infernal attribute."
"Yeah? Don't get many of those. What's his handle?"
"Demon of Impatience." Shax ducked instinctively as Verin aimed a swat at his head. "I'm sorry, Ver. But it's true."
"Stupid demonic registry," Verin muttered.
Despite the grumbling, Verin stripped to his boxer briefs and stepped up on the scale when asked. His horns caused something of an issue since one of the human officials thought they shouldn't be included in his weight class and the other thought they should. In the end, they registered him as a heavyweight since they didn't have the equipment to deduce how much of Verin's weight was horn.
The venue might have been seedy, but the lack of posh credentials didn't appear to hurt its popularity. Humans and demons packed the bleachers and the schedule was likewise overflowing, allowing time for observation before Verin's fight. The rules appeared to follow those of bloodier human sports, those without gloves or head protection or, quick frankly, much in the way of rules. Two demons walked in. One demon walked out, the other crawled or left in some other less dignified manner. No fire or acid breathing permitted and those with wings had them pinned, but otherwise? Claws, teeth, horns, spiked tails, tentacles—all permissible.
As his turn approached, Verin became fidgety, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "You place a bet?"
"Not that I support this demonsploitation, but yes." Shax held up a hand when Verin shot him a hard look. "For you to win, Ver."
"Too fucking right."
Verin's first fight was against a distinctly reptilian demon with a heavy crocodilian tail. The referee, one of the largest rock trolls Shax had ever seen, introduced the lizard demon as Haket Escala, so he was one of those who had embraced the fashion of taking a surname as humans did. Partly, Shax saw the sense of it. If one wanted to interact with the human world, one eventually ran into—he shuddered delicately—paperwork. Much easier to navigate with a first and last name.
The combatants circled. Shax leaned forward as if it would help his focus. While Verin had perhaps a few pounds on his opponent, Haket had the reach and that pits-forsaken tail. Predictably, he feinted with a claw slash and employed the tail in his first attack, trying to sweep Verin's feet out from under him. Silly of him since Verin was far too canny a fighter to fall for the trap. Verin leaped over the tail sweep and delivered a roundhouse kick to Haket's midsection where his foot claws took out a nice chunk. Before the reptile demon could even dredge up surprise, Verin leaped again and brought his joined fists down atop Haket's skull with a nasty crunch.
The evening progressed in this way with Verin taking out previously victorious opponents one by one, usually in the first two minutes of the fight. By the fourth bout, he'd gained a proper fighter's title—Verin the Hammer—for that devastating double-fisted blow.
Just as Shax was feeling rather smug about the fact that none of the demons that evening were at all up to Ver's level of brawling, the referee announced the final bout of the evening. Horror crept up his spine as he caught sight of Verin's final opponent. Twice Verin's size, huge black wings clipped back, sharp bull's horns, one of the most handsome demons in all the precincts of Hell…
"Ver!" Shax waved him over frantically, speaking in a heated whisper as Verin jogged up. "You can't fight him."
Verin twitched when he caught sight of his last opponent, but covered it with a shrug. "So Agi's slumming tonight, so what?"
"Agaliarept will tear you into bite-sized pieces." Shax scrubbed both hands over his face. "Even if you do manage to beat him, think. Commander of Lu's own guard beaten by…well, you? My mother's general might enjoy a bit of humiliation. Agi certainly doesn't. It'll get back to court. We'll be stirring up things we don't want to. Revenge issues. Lu wondering if he needs a new commander. Do you really want to attract attention like that?"
"Fuck's sake, Shaxy. I can't just walk away now. May not matter to you, but I've got pride too."
"Could you, perhaps, throw the fight?"
In response, Verin snorted a cloud of smoke and sparks at him so thick it set Shax coughing, and stomped away to take his place arena-side. Both combatants were announced. The worked up and inebriated crowd roared. The bell rang. Shax winced as the first flurry of fists and claws ended with Verin thrown hard against the chicken wire. With a little niggle of shame wedged under his heart, his relief only grew each time Agaliarept tossed, flattened or stomped Verin. Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and good for Ver, he left the commander bruised and bloody, but not an evenly matched contest in the end.
The arena erupted in wild cheers when the referee called the bout, and Shax used the pandemonium to retrieve his fallen companion as discreetly as possible, head down so Agaliarept wouldn't recognize him. Not that being recognized mattered too much, but there would be the inevitable kowtowing and court gossip and the commander would want to go out for drinks. Shax just didn't think Ver would be up to it. For a few days.
Cab. Assistance from a bribed bellhop. Hotel room. Some good scotch. Verin had managed a glowering and subdued consciousness a bare two hours later. Not a bad showing, really, but Shax would have to find something Verin enjoyed doing in the next day or so. Otherwise he would become morose.
"You know, I rather liked that." Shax said as they watched the late news.
Verin managed a tiny gout of steam through his swollen nose. "Me getting pounded into the floor? Fuck off, dickweed."
"No. Ver, don't be like that. I meant the ring name they gave you. Quite fitting."
"We really should pick out last names we can register, you know. High time since we're topside so often. Verin Hammer. It suits you, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Verin stopped in the act of pouring himself another scotch and started drinking from the bottle. "Could be worse, I guess."
"Good." Shax hid his smile in a sip of his own drink. Verin hadn't cussed, so the conclusion had to be he was secretly pleased. It was going to be fun, being official in the human world. Even if there was paperwork.
Time: Shortly after Potato Surprise
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"All right. I have something." Shax nestled into the corner and put his feet up on the galley bench. Teaching the ship's AI to play Twenty Questions was just to pass an incredibly boring stretch of Copernicus flight. He reasoned it would be easy to win since even Ivana's circuits shouldn't be able to make the jumps of intuition necessary.
After a moment's silence, Ivana asked, "Now I'm supposed to ask if it's animal, vegetable or mineral, hotstuff? Are all chlorophyll based life forms considered vegetable for the game? And do all the adorable little fungi get smushed into animal, then?"
Shax furrowed his brow at the nearest speaker. "I think you're making this too complicated, my dear. If it's organic and moves at a visible pace under its own power, we'll call it animal."
"I'm just trying to get the rules down, Captain." Ivana sniffed in offense. "Human games can be so vague and wobbly."
"In the interest of moving along here, I will tell you that my thing is an animal."
Ivana's voice became insufferably smug as she said, "It's a hellcat."
"What? No. That's not how this is done."
"It was a hellcat. You're lying Captain Innocent Face. There's just this teensy kick in your pulse sometimes when—"
"Fine. It was. But that's still not how it's done. This is a process of elimination exercise. If it's not this subset, then it's that subset sort of thing."
"I see. The object is the process." Ivan sent a cup of coffee out on the conveyor, her voice eager and chipper again. "Did you want to start again?"
"All right. Once more from the beginning." Shax sipped at his whiskey-laced coffee with a contented sigh. "Ah, bribes. Thank you, Ms. Ivana."
"You're very welcome. Now is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"One track mind this morning. Is it a Sol system species?"
Ivana snickered. "That narrows it down to about a hundred and thirty thousand possibilities. Is your animal chordata?"
"I beg your pardon?" As discreetly as he could, Shax attempted to look up the word.
Chordata…vertebrates… "Oh. Yes. Yes it is."
Shax gave the speaker a side eye. "Yes."
"Is it an otter?"
"That's…" Shax plunked down his coffee mug. "If you've installed some sort of telepathic software, you know that's not at all cricket, Ms. Ivana."
"I'd need bio components that I don't have for that," Ivana said in flounce mode. "Don't you accuse me of cheating, Captain. You were looking at otter videos earlier. It was a reasonable guess."
"Oh. So I was. My apologies."
"Really, I'm surprised you were so obvious. Did you want to try again, Captain Tightbuns?" Ivana cooed, all but stroking Shax as she spoke.
"No. Thank you for indulging me." Shax did his best not to scowl and sipped at his coffee. "It's a stupid game anyway."
Time: An Incredibly Long Time Ago
Place: Palace of Princess Ashtaroth, Hell
"Prince Shax, your shoes!"
For a fleeting instant, Shax nearly obeyed the call of his attendants, the ones who dressed him every morning so he could be presentable for breakfast with Mum. She was a princess and wanted him to look perfect at her table. Normally, he sat quiet and still while the goblin dressers bathed him, fussed with his hair and nails, and picked out the perfect clothes. But today was special and he couldn't wait any longer.
Today was his birthday.
He raced down the stairs from his tower and only slowed as he got close to his mother's breakfast room. Running in the palace wasn't allowed. It wasn't dignified and messed up your hair, Mum said. Shax tried to look dignified as he marched past the servants, but he wasn't sure what that looked like. He would get better at it. At least this year, he didn't have an attendant leading him by the hand as if he didn't know the way.
Mum already sat in her throne-like chair in her breakfast room of black velvet and obsidian. She shone like a star against the dark background and the notion hit
Shax for the first time that it was probably the point to all the black furniture and drapery.
Carefully so he didn't fall over, Shax gave her a proper bow since he knew how to do that now. "Good morning, Royal Mum."
One perfect white eyebrow arched at him. "Where your shoes, my princeling?"
"Upstairs. Mummy, I was too excited…"
"I suppose since your feet are perfectly shaped, they won't disturb the aesthetics of the room. Though I do hope you won't be barefoot all day. Calloused feet are so unattractive." She waved to his smaller chair beside him and waited for him to clamber up. There were only two cushions now instead of three to bring him up to the height of the table. "So my own little demonling, what would you ask of your mother for you birthday this year? You must consider carefully since your sixth birthday is an auspicious one."
Considering carefully had taken up most of his thoughts the last month. For his fifth birthday, he'd asked for his own nightmare. Mum had given him a spark pony instead, and told him he must learn to ride first. The pony was wonderful, but made him think about how his mother might react to this request or that.
"I would like my own minion, Mummy. You have lots of minions. I'd like just one because I'm still a demonling."
Mum broke the top of her egg and took a dainty bite before she answered. "I see. This is an admirable wish in a young prince, to want vassals of your own. But minions are a heavy responsibility. Their appearance, their words and actions all reflect upon their liege. You must be able to control them and to discipline them. For that, I'm afraid you're still too young, my own."
"Oh." Shax tried not to let his disappointment show, but a shaky sigh still got away from him. Always too young, too small. When would he be big and have beautiful wings like Mum?
"Someday, I will choose minions for you." Mum raised her hand and with an elegant wave, ordered one of the imps forward. "Today, I have a more appropriate present for you. One I know will please you."
The imp staggered under the weight of a strange stone box. Fancy holes were carved into the lid and the box seemed to be…squeaking.
"You may open it." Mum sounded amused, though Shax didn't know why.
He eased the lid back on its hinges to reveal a ball of glossy fur crouched at the bottom of the box. Shax gasped and bounced in his chair. "A hell kitten! Really for me?"
"For you, my darling prince. We will start with smaller responsibilities before we talk about minions, yes?" She leaned down so Shax could plant a careful kiss on her cheek.
The kitten uncurled to stare up at him with its gorgeous glowing red eyes. Shining black fur covered most of it, but its ear tufts, tail tip and paws were scarlet.
"What will you call your kitten?" Mum asked in that same amused tone.
Shax lifted the kitten from its box to set on his lap and feed little bits of egg. He considered the question seriously, before answering, "I will call her Mittens."
(Author's note: Shax would continue to name his hellcats absurdly inappropriate things like Fluffy and Socks and Spot his entire life.)
Time: Ten years prior to Potato Surprise
Place: Earth, a training spaceport, North America
"You can't take a lit cigar on a training flight." The extra-planetary flight instructor's already thin lips pressed together until he appeared to have a lizard mouth.
"It's not fucking lit," Verin grumbled with the end of his cigar held between his teeth in stony obstinacy.
The instructor waved a hand through the haze around them. "Of course it is! I'm choking in the smoke."
"Ah." Shax turned on his most gracious royal smile as he made a show of checking the instructor's nametag. "You see, ah, Doug, that's not from a cigar. That's from Verin. He puts out a bit of smoke when he's nervous."
"I'm not nervous, your royal douchenozzleness!"
Shax shrugged. "Or angry. Take your pick."
Instructor Doug backed off a few wary steps. "Prince Shax, I was told I'd be giving you lessons, not—"
Smart man, not finishing that sentence. "Mater wants me qualified, yes. Just in case something happens on one of the royal ships. But Verin is my personal bodyguard and my mother is adamant that his training is the priority."
"Oh…well. Just some warning, ah, I mean a heads up would've been good."
Verin grumbled some choice insults, but Shax was in a gracious enough mood to let the slip go. He waved Doug toward the stairs that led to the shuttle's cockpit. Verin climbed right into the pilot's seat and let Shax take the jumpseat behind him. He wasted no time getting harnessed while Verin started flipping toggles and switches.
"Wait! No! We have… Stop!" Doug cried out in horror.
"Get us clearance, little human instructor," Verin growled around his cigar stub.
"But I can't let you—"
Verin turned slowly toward him, sparks decorating the steam billowing from his nostrils. "Clearance, Doug. And tell me if I do anything wrong. Keep up here."
"Verin's licensed on M and H-class extra-planetary's," Shax pulled out a file and worked on a ragged claw with a yawn. "We're working through all the civilian models. As he said, keep up, Doug."
Poor shell-shocked Doug scrambled for the headset, trying to talk to traffic control and get his harness on at the same time. He did both badly. If he'd been a palace demon, he would've been someone's dinner long before. While he maintained a careful air of bored dilettante, Shax did pay sharp attention to Verin's muttering and Doug's stuttered—sometimes panicked—instructions as they taxied out to the launch pad. These exercises in familiarization with different types of small spacecraft were for both of them.
A prince is ready for any contingency. Never be helpless. Mama's favorite edict.
"Got my damn clearance?" Verin growled as he turned the shuttle into position. "No, never mind. Too fucking slow. I see it on the boards."
Verin punched the EM throttle and the craft jerked into the air with a stomach-dropping leap. Doug might have screamed, but Shax was diplomatic and didn't mention it. Maybe Verin took the ascent toward atmosphere a bit faster than was strictly safe. That shouldn't have been quite so upsetting. Perhaps Doug was having a bad day.
The G-forces eased and the craft leveled out as Verin left atmosphere and switched over to fuel cell propulsion. He leaned back, head turned toward Shax. "You're gonna do re-entry, princess."
"I most certainly am not. Re-entry makes me nauseous."
"Re-entry when I'm flying makes you upchuck 'cause you're a wuss." Verin pulled out his best scowl. "Seriously, Shaxy. You need to do this shit."
Shax countered with his most put-upon sigh. "Fine."
"Good. Fucking perfect." Verin unbuckled and jostled Doug as he prepared to switch places.
"What are you…? You can't…"
"Hell's gates, Dougy. Simmer the fuck down. We're in orbit. We've got a couple minutes here." Verin snorted at Doug and the poor human nearly compacted into his seat since there was nowhere else for him to hide.
The switch was mostly uneventful, though Verin's left horn briefly caught in the strap-hangers at the rear of the cockpit. With a good deal of grumbling and soft swearing, Shax took the pilot's seat and began his checks for re-entry. "Clearance to land, my dear Doug? I do believe we need that."
Doug managed a grimace that he might have meant as a smile—who could tell with some humans? Somehow he stuttered and gulped his way through the conversation with control. "You have clearance, highness. Pad five for landing. You…you have done this before?"
"A time or two, yes." Shax took the controls and edged the shuttle around until the instruments showed it in correct attitude for re-entry. Always important if he didn't want to render them fried students and instructor.
"Gently, highness. Please," Doug whispered. He could, at any time, have taken control himself. Interesting that he hadn't tried, though that might have been Verin's rather effective intimidation factor. It was one of his best things.
Shax toyed with the idea of taking a slow, conservative dive back into atmosphere. Messing with Doug had become too much fun. He punched the throttle and sent them careening back into the gravity well at the top end of the shuttle's tolerances. "Wheeee!"
Doug, poor dear, didn't even seem to have the energy left for a scream.
Once landed and disembarked, Shax gave a shaking, gibbering Doug with a pat on the shoulder, while getting his thumbprint and signature on the certifications. Yes, those usually took a number of flying hours, but royalty didn't have time for that. Then he strode off to catch up to Verin.
"So which fucking shuttle's next, sawdust-head?" Verin asked as they made their way across the tarmac.
"The Starlion—ooh. A luxury shuttle. You'll like this one, Ver." Shax took a quick glance back at Doug who now sat on the ground with his head in his hands. "Pity about poor Dougy. I really don't think he has the constitution for this job."
Time: Just after Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone cargo hold, Carolus Spaceport on route to Opal
"I thought we agreed no more unverified fucking eggs, sawdust for brains!" Sparks flew from Verin's nostrils as he gestured toward the aforementioned alleged egg on the floor of the hold.
It was an odd one, if it was an egg at all. More of a rounded cube than an ovoid, striated as if it were made of granite, it had been lurking, er, sitting outside the Brimstone's hatch access. In the most logical, reasonable, self-preservation parts of Shax’s brain, he knew he shouldn't have brought it inside.
But he was curious.
"Don't look like no egg I ever laid eyes on," Corny drawled at his shoulder. "But then, I ain't exactly home no more, am I?"
Shaking his head, Corny turned on one of the adjustable spot lamps, turned it so it faced the ceiling, and ambled over to the egg.
"Uh, what're you doing, Corn?" Verin asked in a much softer voice than he'd used to address Shax. Typical.
"City demons." Corny shook his head as he picked up the egg and placed it atop the spotlight. The bright light rendered the shell partially translucent.
Shax leaned in with undisguised fascination. "There's someone in there, I take it?"
"I reckon so, Cap. Not sure what, but you've got yourself an egg that's fixin' to hatch, well, somethin'."
"Do you suppose we should keep it warm?" Ness cupped the egg in his hands, frowning at it.
Verin snickered. "You gonna sit on it, wingboy?"
"I may have feathers, but I'm not shaped quite right for that," Ness said in a too-even tone Shax couldn't quite parse as serious or not. Probably not, but Ness's sense of humor could evaporate when he was distracted. His wings flipped and fluttered as he gathered some hay from Rosa's feed bin and constructed a serviceable nest. This he set on the floor of the hold and turned the spotlight on it. "Should be warm enough, don't you think?"
"Probably won't need it long." Corny pointed to a crack started on the top surface of the egg cube.
All sorts of possibilities swarmed in Shax's brain and he knelt beside the nest to watch as the unknown eggling pecked its way toward freedom. Some little alien dragon, perhaps? Or an exotic reptile? A recognizable beak showed through the gray and white shell now, yellow and thick. With a heave, the eggling broke the shell in half and sat in the midst of the shards, breathing hard. It was just a ball of egg muck at first, but it shook itself…
Its covering—feathers, fur, hair—fluffed out all at once. Now it was a ball of purple fluff with a beak and, possibly eyes in there somewhere. Tiny talons peeked out at the bottom of the fluff ball, so there were at least feet if not legs.
"Aww." Corny tipped his hat back and crouched beside Shax. "The little feller's so dang cu—"
The force of the chirp soundwave knocked Shax and Corny on their butts and sent Ness staggering back a step. Verin, too sturdy to be knocked about by a mere bit of auditory shockwave, had still squeezed his eyes shut.
"Well." Shax decided sitting was a good idea and stayed right where he was on the floor. "That was unexpec—"
At least they were more prepared this time, though Shax was quite certain the sound could stop someone's heart. "Perhaps we should move ba—"
"Hell's motherfucking pointy gates!" Verin bellowed, hands clapped over his ears. "Get rid of that thing or I'm dropkicking its ass into the next century!"
"It's just a baby," Ness grabbed his arm to keep him from charging. "Don't hurt the poor thing."
"I don't care of it's a stinking cherub made of gold! Shax, don't just fucking sit there!"
Carefully, to make certain he didn't startle the potentially dangerous fluff ball, Shax reached for Rosa's empty feed bucket and popped it over the newborn whatever-it-was.
The mighty soundwave nearly knocked the bucket off again but Shax held tight. Contained, the sound was nearly bearable, though probably not good for the hatchling. What now, what now… Call spaceport security? Find a soundproof box? Before he could make any decision, a beautiful trilling song drifted into the cargo hold followed by one of the most gorgeous creatures Shax had ever seen. Not quite the length of his forearm, the creature flew on shining appendages that were more delicate fins than wings, trailing lustrous, decorative tails. Color was difficult to assign since it changed from blue to green to brilliant orange as it progressed through different bits of light. The closest analog he had were old Earth sea dragons, but that didn't give the creature justice.
It flew right to Shax as he sat entranced at its approach, then it turned and smacked him across his face with its several shining tails.
"Ow!" Shax sat hard, hand on his stinging cheek.
The creature trilled again and Shax nearly forgave it for striking him. Then it pushed over the bucket and fluttered around the hatchling.
"That can't be the parent?" Ness asked in an awed whisper. "Can it?"
The hatchling answered for them, bouncing on its stubby feet and calling pitiably in a tiny voice to the flying creature, cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, as if it had never produced sounds capable of endangering ships. The shimmering creature hovered close, gathered the peeping hatchling into several of its appendages and flew off out of the hold, leaving Shax on the floor gaping after it.
"Shaxy," Verin's growl was soft, all the more threatening for its lack of volume.
"No more unverified eggs or I snap your horns off and give them to a pack of stray dogs."
Shax accepted Ness's hand up and dusted off the seat of his work pants as he huffed at Verin. "Fine. No sense of adventure."
"Your sense of adventure might well get us all killed someday," Ness murmured. "And I agree with Verin. No more strange eggs. They don't seem to be good for you at all."
Time: Shortly after the end of Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"It won't hurt him, will it?" Ness eyed the contraption warily as Nic ran down his arm to sniff at the thing.
"The whole rig only weighs about eight grams." Mac pointed to the little camera on top. "Whatever branch of ISE Julian works for, their equipment's topnotch and the harness is all out of polyglass fiber."
"All right. If Nic lets us put it on, he can try it." Ness held out his hand to let Nic climb back on, whiskers twitching. He kept putting his head back down to sniff the camera harness, though, so he was more curious than cautious.
With more delicate care than Ness would've credited for such huge hands, Mac slipped the harness over Nic's head and body, making small adjustments until it was snug and secure. Nic lifted his head, still sniffing, though he quickly figured out that lifting his head also lifted the camera and he seemed to offer the rat equivalent of a shrug before he went back to the plate of brownie crumbs on the table.
Ness put his head atop his arms on the table to get to Nic height. "How will you tell him where to go?"
"I'm thinking some combo of light trails and treats. But for now, just want to see how he does with it and how clear the camera is when it's inside the guts of the ship."
"Hey now!" Ms. Ivana chimed in on the comm system. "I didn't consent to any rodent running around inside my—insides."
"Technically, we're all running around your insides," Mac said as he adjusted Nic's camera a hair. "This'll help with diagnostics, Ms. Ivana. I know you can tell me when something goes wrong and where, but sometime places are hard for the little camera bots to get to so I can see exactly what."
"Well, I suppose," came over the comm with undeniable flounce and sulk. "Since it's all official."
"Good. I wouldn't want to have non-consensual diagnostics on my record." Mac finished fiddling and opened the grate on the vent beside the galley table. "Off you go then, Nic. Go explore."
Nic sat up on his haunches and glanced at Ness.
"Yes, you may," Ness told him softly. "Go on, but no chewing on wires."
With a squeak and a whisker twitch, Nic scampered into the duct system. Mac brought up the holo display for the camera so they could both monitor his progress. The mini light on the camera did a better job than Ness would've credited and while colors were muted, the display was sharp and clear, showing every seam and rivet along Nic's route.
For the first few minutes, the view remained relatively uniform with only the turns of the ductwork for variety. Then Nic stopped and poked his head through a grate somewhere. Lighting contrast whited out the image for an instant while the camera readjusted and the picture resolved to a view of storage from above with Heckle happily engaged in counting supplies, pirouetting between stacks as he entered totals.
Nic must have squeaked a greeting since Heckle stopped his dance-counting and looked up. His smile immediately became concerned and he approached Nic saying things that Ness couldn't quite make out, though the shooing motions were clear enough. You're not allowed down here, Nic and the captain's going to have you for dinner if he finds out. Go! Go!
Not that Ness really believed Shax would do away with his rat for a minor infraction, but he would be quite annoyed.
Duct corridors came back onscreen for a few turnings, then a shorter whiteout as Nic stuck his head into a dimmer ship space. The lowered lights revealed someone's cabin, not one Ness could place immediately. The camera panned, almost as if Nic had experience in shooting vids, and stopped on a figure curled up into a tight ball on the bunk. Even curled up tight, the thick black hair marked the figure as Julian. He twitched and shifted restlessly, showing eyes slitted open even in sleep. In a sudden blur of motion, Julian whirled to his feet, laser pistol pointed directly at the camera. For just a moment, his expression was flat and cold, eyes narrowed, stock still.
The moment passed and Julian shook himself with a laugh as he waved to Nic and pointed to the camera. He holstered his weapon, sat back on the bed and said something with his eyes twinkling. Nic took it as a signal to leave.
Ness glanced over at Mac with a shudder. "That was…"
"Yeah. Little scary sometimes, that one." Mac shrugged. "But it's the work he does and he's still alive to do it."
"I…" Ness forced himself to think about that without jealous twinges in the way. "I suppose that's true. Can't be an easy life."
The next time Nic emerged, the camera showed a more familiar cabin. A very familiar cabin. Shax stood in front of the mirror in a long coat Ness had somehow missed seeing. The black velvet swirled about his bare ankles as he turned this way and that—preening. There was no other word for it. Shax did that when he was needed a specific look or when he tried out a new outfit. A fond smile crept up on Ness as he watched, though this face heated when he recalled Mac was also watching.
The heat increased to inferno levels when Shax flung open the coat and let it drop to the floor, revealing the black corset and thong—and nothing else—he wore underneath. Ness nearly dropped his mug of tea.
"Well." Mac sipped at his own mug. "That's not something I ever needed to see."
"Nic!" Ness reached over and smacked the all-ship comm. "Nic, you need to come back now, please!"
The vid stayed on Shax for a few more moments as he turned and posed, cocking on foot back and bending at the waist. Then the view shifted abruptly, the camera bouncing as Nic ran at top speed back to the galley. Ness got him treats to work on, hurriedly put his tea mug away, and made flustered sounds that should have been speech.
"I'll get the rig off and make sure Nic gets dinner." Mac made shooing motions. "Go, ah, see to things."
Ness gave him a grateful nod, wings rustling in agitation as he hurried out, hoping by all the holies that Shax would be preening for just a few seconds longer.
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