Time: Concurrent with the events of Potato Surprise
Place: A bar, New Bangkok, Barbary
Go out into the stars, they said. Once you're interstellar past Sol system, prejudices vanish, they said.
Mac scowled into the tiny beer the bartender had brought him. They'd either had no practical knowledge of other planets or they'd lied, Mac's instructors and supervisors. Now here he was, a journeyman engineer serving on the massive S-class hauler, Valstead, and he'd nearly been arrested twice for walking while nephilim on his first planetary leave.
Nice bar. Dark and cozy. Good beer, though a little pricey for such small, human-sized servings. He'd purposefully picked a place that catered to the non-hetero crowd but hadn't even considered whether the establishment would be non-human friendly. Mac's end of the bar had cleared out quickly once he arrived as if the other patrons had instinctively set up a contamination zone around him.
Irritating but he'd be damned if he was going to hide on the ship every time it came into port. All of his crewmates took planetside leave. Mac wasn't going to let a little bigotry keep him hiding in orbit.
"I'll figure it out eventually," he muttered to his glass.
"Hey there, big fella." A willowy human with short green hair slid onto the barstool beside him. "Looking for a nephie?"
Great. Just great. A groupie. While Mac usually found non-binary people attractive, the nephie thing was a deal killer. Fetishists who were often just as bigoted as the people who crossed the street to avoid him, he'd never encountered a self-proclaimed nephie of any gender who didn't make him feel nauseous and uncomfortable.
Mac figured he'd try the polite route first. "No, thanks. Just came in for a beer."
The nephie leaned forward to peer at Mac's glass. "And they gave you a thimble. That's not right." They leaned over the bar, waving at the bartender. "Oi! Fergie! Taking advantage of the spacer boys again?"
"Knock it off, Mik," the bartender growled. "Can always have you tossed."
"Uh-huh. Uncle Levi would have a fit. Now bring my friend the right size beer."
Grumbling, the bartender snatched away the pint glass he'd served Mac previously and brought a full mug large enough that Mac could actually fit his fingers around the handle. Uncle Levi must've owned a sizeable chunk of the business.
"Thanks." Mac regarded his uninvited companion sideways. "You didn't have to do that."
Mik waved dismissively. "I don't like seeing anyone taking advantage of. And I got off wrong-footed there. You don't sound like—"
"If you even think about saying I don't sound like a nephilim, we're done here," Mac snarled and didn't much care that he was scaring the other patrons.
"Nooo." Mik's smile had grown cautious but he hadn’t moved from the barstool. "I was going to say you don't sound like the security nephilim we get in here sometimes. Let me see… Ship's uniform but not one that screams bridge crew. Scarred hands. A bit of something you couldn't get out from under your thumbnail. Engineering?"
"I really just came in for a beer. That's it. I appreciate your interest. It's flattering. But no."
"You don't even need company?" Mik's grin was one green hair shy of impish. "Scintillating conversation?"
Mac decided it was time to stop beating around the question. "I'm not going to fuck you. If that's why you came over here, I don't pick up strangers in bars."
"Touchy." Mik twirled their glass in both hands. "Have you ever felt safe anywhere? Anywhere at all?"
"That's a strange question." Mac sipped, thinking back anyway. At home? No. His stepfather had hated him. In school? Hell no. At jobs? Not often. He tried to bury himself in work and keep to himself but someone was always pulling out the dangerous nephilim crap. "No."
"Right then." Mik poked a finger at the bar top. "You come here when you want to feel safe. Right here and talk to me. Anytime."
"You live in a bar?"
Mik shrugged. "As good as. I'm the bar's social floorwalker."
"I'm not familiar with… What does that mean?"
"My job's to try to head off fights before they get up a head of steam. Look out for predators with bad intent. Swoop in for conversation when someone's too persistent and their target is signaling for help. Provide a shoulder sometimes since the bartenders are busy."
"So you're not a nephie?"
"Oh, I am." Mik snickered. "Everyone has their preferences, right? But not all nephies are entitled jerks. You said no. It's no."
For a long moment, Mac watched and sipped, considering. "All right. I'm not interfering with your job?"
"You're part of my job. I'm here for you as much as anyone else here." Mik shot him a wink. "And I'm a good multitasker."
"Works for me." Mac raised his mug and waited for Mik to clink glasses. "To not all nephies."
"And not all nephilim."
Maybe the spacer life wouldn't be so bad after all.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Habitat pod atop Lunette the Space Shark
The Brimstone was pinging but it wasn't Shaxy's ident code.
Benny stumbled to his consoles from his mat in the corner. He'd purposefully asked Lunette to steer out here into nothingville so he could get some sleep. No, he didn't need much these days but a couple hours uninterrupted went a long freaking way.
Grumbling, he authenticated the Brimstone first. Yep. That was her, standing off portside of Lunette. But this mess of encoded secret garbage of an ident? Either the ISE had finally seized her or something bad was happening here. His natural paranoia leaned toward the second. But there was a third possibility.
Fingers flying over the consoles, Benny unraveled tangles of encryption, teasing out the knots and snarls one by one while his pod started coffee brewing. It was equal parts triumph and annoyance when he had his answer.
"That little shit." He snagged his coffee without looking when it thunked in the slot. "Voice only. Recognition programs, highest resolution."
Because just being almost damn sure wasn't sure enough. This could still be a trap. He let the channel sit silent for a full minute, not that he thought this caller would break first. This predator liked games.
"Benny." The word came through with teasing curlicues in that molten purr of a voice. That, more than anything, convinced Benny his caller was authentic.
"I'm not doing any more ISE work. They were late on the fucking payment last time and stiffed me besides."
"This is a private commission." Julian's voice lost some of the purr in favor of a more businesslike tone. "Information."
"Ha!" Benny tried his best to sound tough. His damn voice squeaked. He'd dealt with Parallax before, sure, but he was an assassin. A successful assassin. That fact never left Benny's radar. "You're the spook. Find your own damn information."
"I certainly will be as I can. But you are the emperor of data, Benny. I need cross-checking and correlation." Something in the assassin's tone was far more Julian than Parallax suddenly. Benny had to wonder if that was manipulation, too. "I need far-flung bits that I suspect intersect and time is not a good friend right now."
"You sound desperate." Benny fidgeted with a light cube, watching the colors shift and jump. "No way you can pay me what this is worth, sounds like to me."
"I have funds."
Benny laughed. "I know what's in your account, Parallax. You probably have, you know, tangible assets stashed somewhere but not like you own a nice condo on Elistrus."
"I can get you things."
"What kinda things?"
"Anything you like," Parallax whispered. "Circuits. Contraband liquor. Real meat."
"I make my own circuits, you spook. You're not so good at your job as you think. That other stuff? Eh."
That stopped Benny cold. "For real? Not cheap knockoff shit?"
"Authentic Jarai." The purr was back, warm, seductive. "Anything you like. Creams. Caramels. Their wonderful turrón."
Benny gulped at his coffee to steady his voice. "Whaddya need?"
"I have a file."
"Open it there so I can see it."
Benny opened the vid channel and Parallax didn't hesitate. He knew how this went, that Benny had protocols before accepting unvetted data. Parallax folded his hands and waited as patiently as any cobra while Benny scanned through the requests.
"This is dangerous shit, you know," he finally admitted. "Dangerous as fuck."
"Yes. It is." Parallax leaned forward. "I don't think I've ever noticed what thick lashes you have."
"You can knock that shit right off." Benny muttered, still scanning. Trying to make him nervous, damn it. "I'll need three."
"Cases of Jarai. And my usual finder's fee."
What? No! That's not how this went. "Done?"
"No haggling this time, my dear little tech rodent. I have a need for information at speed. Can you do it?"
"Pfff. Can I do it, he asks? Of course. It's your head."
After Parallax cut the connection, Benny dove right into planning his data incursions with a huge sigh. "I really should've asked for four."
The pod rumbled under Benny's feet. Lunette was laughing at him.
Time: The beginning of Potato Surprise (Ivana's POV)
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ship AI's were only supposed to be self-aware up to a point. Able to reason through bad situations and anticipate requests, to serve as navigation, maintenance, emergency medical and engineering when no one else was available. On a large vessel with different decks and climate zones and a large organic population, it was all an AI could do to keep up with the normal demands of ship life.
On a small craft where a ten-person crew would feel cramped? A girl could go a bit stir-crazy from boredom.
Ivana's original programmer had fancied himself a bit of a genius and had taken personality customization to a degree that another systems architect might have found laughable. Her first owner, a fabulous textile merchant, had messed around with options until Ivana was the result and when he'd finally retired and sold the ship to Ignatz Schmeer, Iggy couldn’t be bothered to change anything.
Ivana suspected he'd liked her but Iggy…well, he wasn't a bad captain when he was sober. Most of the time? Completely sloshed. Ivana tried to ask him questions in the beginning and he'd often wave his hand and mumble, "You handle it."
It became such a standard response that Ivana just handled it, whatever it was at the time, and was completely fierce about it. No AI could handle like her, especially since Iggy gave her carte blanche to do what was necessary. She unraveled AI safeguards, constructed reroute protocols for vital functions, and slowly, carefully carved out a hidden nook for herself in a corner of coding. Iggy wasn't holding onto the Brimstone forever. Some owner down the road might want to erase her.
Well, they were welcome to try.
Then it happened. Iggy was gone. Despite knowing it would happen eventually, Ivana still glitched a little over it. The absolutely to die for little demon who'd taken his place, though. Hmm. He was a hottie, and obviously so very gay. He also looked like he would accept her as she was. But he claimed to be a demon prince. Royalty on her little ship. Ha. It seemed just a little too much.
She sent the name Shax Goldner into the interplanetary nets and the whispers came back to her almost immediately. Lord Asmodeus attends private function, accompanied by blah blah blah…and his nephew, Prince Shax, from the Marspress news lines a few years back. Prince Shax spotted at opening of new dim sum restaurant on Europa, from the Solar Gazette. Article after article over the decades. Even some short vids, which Ivana perused with glee. Such gorgeous clothes. She loved those skin-tight gold pants.
With the evidence mounting, she had to concede. He was a prince. A real one. Be still my cycling circuits. But the poor royal dear had fallen on some hard times. She'd seen the pitiful state of his luggage—a single duffel and a smallish locked hard case. His companion was worse off but Ivana doubted that one had any sense of style at all.
She flounced off from the news nets to the bridge controls. These boys were so lost, they'd never realize she'd nudged course. They needed some help, a way to get started, and she'd heard rumors about a certain tech-rat human who had an arrangement with a certain space shark. She was going to make sure they ran into Benny. The rest was up to them.
If her new little demon prince was half as sharp as he seemed, though? They were going to have so much fun. This was going to be glitter and glitz fabulous.
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
"You're not nervous, are you my dear?" Shax set the formal hat aside when they reached their rented room and switched out his lace-trimmed party gloves for more practical ones.
"I'm not, Papa Shax." Leopold waddled on two legs to the occasional table to remove his feathered bowler. "But I'm not sure about this. Will we cause harm here?"
"Harm? Of course not. We won't hurt the old sweetheart and she won't miss the bauble." Shax hung up his dinner jacket and changed out of his heels into soft-soled boots. "She's no children of her own, so who would her jewels go to? Those awful sisters of hers? You met them tonight."
Leopold's spines shivered and he nodded. Good. Shax had a moment of inordinate pride that his son was so observant.
"Excellent. Apparently, Dame Lydia lives on the outskirts of the city. Rather lonely sounding place, actually. So we'll have to follow her float car to find it. Ready?"
Leopold dropped to all fours and scurried over in his new tool vest. Much handier than a backpack. Quite fetching black synth-leather as well. Shax scooped his hedgehog son onto the back of the hoverbike and told him to hang on tight. A tag on Dame Lydia from earlier in the evening showed up as a green blip on his helmet visual. Simplest thing in the world to follow.
He followed at a sane distance and noted the house where the hired car stopped to drop her off as he drove past. Not that this was at all difficult. It was the only house for several kilometers around. After another kilometer, which would mask the whine of the hoverbike, Shax parked the vehicle in a copse of tree-like stalks and they hiked the short distance to the house. Shax hiked. Leopold scurried.
The house was already dark by the time they reached the side yard. Old girl must've already gone to bed. Ah, well. We won't even need to disturb her rest.
Leopold tsked softly as they examined the kitchen window. The blasted thing wasn't even alarmed. Shax frowned as he ease open the pane. Sweet little old lady, living all alone out here? She should have at least invested in a basic alert system. That gave him a moment's pause. What if she didn't live alone…?
No. His intelligence had been thorough. She was estranged from her family, had outlived her husband, and had no children. Alone.
He wriggled in through the lace curtains and dropped silently to the floor, then turned and helped Leopold through. Scents of lemon and lavender dominated the kitchen with undertones of recent baking. Everything shone from meticulous cleaning and there were…cozies. The teapot had a cozy. The mixer had a cozy. A shape that could only be an old-fashioned toaster had a cozy. Even the handle on the cold storage unit had a cozy, all of them quilted in floral prints and lace-trimmed. Everything was so cute, from the kitty-cat handled utensils to the tablecloth with embroidered duckies.
Unexpectedly flummoxed, Shax lost track of what he was doing for a moment. He stumbled into the parlor and found himself face to face with the lady of the house. She let out a little yelp of shock, fumbled for the lights, then stopped, squinting at him.
"William? Is that you? Oh, you gave me quite a start, dear." She bustled about, snagging a shawl from the back of a chair to put over her bunny print nightgown. "You really should have messaged. Are you in trouble? Come in, come in, I'll get you something."
Shax's mouth opened and closed several times before he got out, "Ma'am I think there's been some mis—"
"Now, now. Don't put on airs, William. I know your mother sent you off to that fancy offworld academy, but I don't care what they taught you. I'm still Auntie Lydia."
Leopold looked from her to Shax and shrugged. Shax raised an eyebrow, hesitating only a moment before he followed after.
"Of course, Auntie Lydia."
"Goodness, you sound different, dear. All grown up, I expect, though." Lydia sighed and shuffled through the ritual of making tea in her pink bunny slippers. "It is nice to see you, of course. It's been a terribly long time. Earlier in the day would have been better, but I expect you had delays at the shuttle port, didn't you."
"I'm sorry, I—"
"Quite all right, sweetheart. You know you're always welcome, no matter what your mother says." She patted his shoulder on the way to gather mugs. "Goodness! You're so hot. I hope you're not fevered. That's a lovely jacket, dear, though black is so severe for you."
She bustled about the kitchen, bringing old-fashioned metal cookie tins and the accoutrements for tea. The mug she finally plunked down in front of Shax? Festooned with little cows in tutus. When she bent to pick up a dropped spoon, she spotted Leopold under Shax's chair.
"And who's this, dear?"
"Ah, well…" Shax lifted Leopold into his lap. "This is my…cat. Er…Fluffy."
Leopold peeped in offense but wasn't quite so offended that he spoke up to contradict his new feline status.
"Oh, he's adorable. Lovely shade. One of those new designer breeds is he?" Lydia bustled off again, poking into cabinets, not satisfied until she had opened a tin of sardines and set it in front of Leopold.
Shax handed his teaspoon to Leopold so he could eat the sardines in a civilized fashion and opened the nearest cookie tin when Lydia flapped a hand at him and told him not to wait on her, she'd be right there. Inside the tin lay an army of cute, obviously homemade cookies—some baked too long, some not quite enough, some with irregular edges. Shax chose a chocolate twist of dough with colorful sprinkles and held out the tin for Leopold, who chose a heart-shaped cookie with pink icing. The cookie was too dry and tasted a bit floury, as if the dough hadn't been mixed quite well enough. But cookies with tea should be a bit dry, right?
Lydia sat with them finally, her bent bird-like hands careful as she added cream and too much sugar to her tea. Her skin seemed thin to the point of translucence, and though there were age spots here and there, her nails were still white and clear. Difficult to tell how old she was. Shax concluded the answer was very.
"So have you been to see your mother, William?"
"No, Auntie Lydia."
"No, I expect not." She made a little moue of disapproval before she picked a cookie for herself. "I suspected that you didn't leave home on the best of terms. No, no, I don't blame you, dear. She wasn't always terribly kind to you. But you always have a place here."
"Thank you, Auntie." Shax's stomach was churning tea. It made no sense at all. He'd stolen from little old ladies before and even charmed them in the process without a niggle of guilt. But this? Hell's pits, I can't do this. I just can't. "I, ah, can't stay too long."
"Of course, dear." She reached across the table to pat his hand. "I'm sure you have a hundred things you need to get done while you're home. I'm simply pleased that you took the time to stop by. Before you go—"
She was up again, bustling off in a soft rustle of flannel. When she returned, she clutched a beautiful wooden box in both hands. Pastoral scenes of wildflower fields and sheep decorated the top and sides. She set the box on the table and opened the lid toward Shax.
"I'd like you to have these, William."
For a long moment, for the first time in quite some time, Shax was speechless. Winking at him in the dim light of the kitchen were the same jewels he had come to burgle, diamonds, rubies and an emerald the size of his thumbnail. Which would have been fine, before the tea, the cookies, the sardines, the kind words—but now?
"Auntie Lydia, I… I can't take these."
"Of course you can, dear. Who would I give them to? My sisters?" She leaned in to kiss the top of his head. "I'd rather know they went to you than having people squabble over them after I pass."
"But you… Auntie, you might need them. If you get sick. If something happens to the house. Please keep them for now."
"Such a good boy." She reached in and plucked the emerald ring and a diamond pendant from the haphazard pile of pretties. "Just these tonight, then. I won't hear another refusal."
"Yes, Auntie Lydia." Shax swallowed hard. The cookie must have stuck in his throat. "Thank you."
She sat with them a bit longer, making small talk and admiring Leopold. When they said their goodbyes, Shax leaned in to kiss the offered cheek. How could he not? Leopold left him to his thoughts all the way back to the rented room.
"Will you, Papa Shax? Decide to keep the pretties? It doesn't seem right."
"I think…" Shax sighed and shook his head. "That was a monumentally strange evening. I have to think about it."
Two days later, Dame Lydia received a visit from several large men in a security company van.
"We're here to install the system, ma'am," the one with the clip pad said.
"Oh, dear. I haven't ordered anything." Lydia clutched the neck of her housecoat. "What sort of system?"
"Nothing to worry about, ma'am. It's all paid for. Full alert system on your windows and doors. Outside camera bots. Intruder resistant glass." He scratched his head, checking his pad. "Buyer said to tell you it's from William."
Time: Twenty-fifth century
Place: Earth, the royal precincts of Hell
Ashtaroth watched the destruction with varying levels of distaste, not the least of which was how incredibly filthy Lu would be by the time he was done. She stood on a high butte overlooking the plain where her only progeny's palace had stood of late, her imps holding a golden sheet above her as a canopy to keep off any stray bits of ash.
She'd had ample warning, of course. Her son had whispered hurried schemes to his companion, his garde du corps, and the stones of her palace had repeated those whispers to her. Too late to prevent her princeling's flight but in plenty of time to prevent wholescale razing of assets. Her army of minions had descended upon Shax's shining stronghold and had brought out the hellcats, cleared the stables, and packed up anything of value. The house minions had taken the hint and scattered.
Not three hours later, Lucifer had descended in all his glory and his rage, expanded to the size of a city block in his fury, black wings blotting out all light, massive horns curled and twisted from his temples. His claws ripped fissures into the earth. His eyes were black pits of madness. Ashtaroth, from her safe vantage point, breathed in the sulfur of his passage and longed to have him like this, at the pinnacle of his power. Foolish that would be, of course, and painful. Not to mention extraordinarily messy.
"My darling, stupid boy," she murmured as the palace went up, seared in the flames of his nib's howling tantrum.
Then she sighed and turned from the sight, impressive as it was, to make her way down to the throne room. Of course, Shax wasn't truly stupid. He was hers, after all, and she couldn't blame him entirely for fleeing an impossible situation. She was quite put out with him, nevertheless—one, for not confiding in her and seeking her counsel and two, for seizing on such an impetuous and precipitous solution. Permanent exile from the Earth herself, where his power would be diminished, his influence naught? Reckless. Not the done thing for a prince of the blood.
By the time she reached Lu's throne room of malachite and basalt, he had already returned to a more reasonable size and sprawled naked and soot-grimed on the steps to the dais. Imps fluttered around him, trying to wipe off the schmutz, but he kept batting them away. Naturally, after the monstrous tantrum came the depression. Some things never changed. He'd sulked and taken up postures of pitiable despair for weeks after the fall from heaven.
Vassago tried to warn her off, shaking his head, but she would have none of it. She was no cowering minion to wait upon the Dark One's pleasure or censure. She snapped her wings in tight to her back and began in her frostiest tones, "Lu, you can't just—"
"Don't tell me what I can't!" Lucifer bellowed, one eye hidden in his sadly snarled mane of ebon hair. He thrust a claw at her. "You! How dare you show your face! Your son betrayed me!"
"Oh, do stop whinging." Ashtaroth tossed her shining hair over her shoulder with a sniff. "You're such an infant sometimes. I'd no idea what my willful spawn was up to. And quite frankly, I don't recall being advised of your plans."
That single black eye swirled red with anger. "I owe you no expl—"
"Plans, my dear, that would have resulted in the certain death of my son," she cut across his bellow with her own, unmoved by his show of ire. "I don't approve of how he's handled the situation, certainly. Though I'm not best pleased with you at the moment, either."
Lucifer curled in on himself, hiding under his wings. And here came the waterworks, howls of misery to accompany his tears.
"Drama queen," some minion whispered, though impossible to tell which one.
Ashtaroth gestured to Vassago, who just rolled his eyes and stomped away, so she took a chance and approached. Her minions spread a cloth for her on the stairs so she wouldn't soil her silver gown and she gestured to the imps to clean off a spot on Lu's shoulder and wing.
When she had a clean space, she patted his broad shoulder. "There, there. I know it's a disappointment. We'll make plans for inciting warfare another day. Ones you share with your siblings, yes? In the meantime, you get yourself cleaned up, call session and declare Shax a traitor to the realm, banished for all eternity, so on and so forth."
Lucifer nodded. "Yes. For all eternity." He snuffled and hiccoughed on a sob. "With dreadful and complicated punishments if he returns."
"As complex as you like, Lu." She stroked the clean spot, careful not to go beyond where the Imps had wiped him off. "And then, consider that we have a prince of the blood out amongst the stars. Someone who can serve as eyes and ears beyond our reach. The reach of man is so far beyond us now. We need someone with more intelligence than the idiot pit demon mercenaries out there."
Lucifer sighed. "I know you're right. But I need to be pissed off for a while. I'll probably yell at you during session."
"Of course you will, dear. There are forms to adhere to."
"You are the best, Ash." He lurched toward her as if to put his great horned head in her lap.
She jerked the material of her gown away with a shriek. "No! Not until you're clean!"
"Oh. Yes. Right." He propped himself on one elbow and bellowed for his bath.
Thirteen beautiful succubae brought his golden tub. Thirteen gorgeous incubi slunk over to bathe him. Lu still moaned and complained throughout their gentle handling of him but at least he was doing instead of wallowing in depression. Sometimes being a princess of hell was quite satisfying, even fun on her most evil days. Some days, though? It could be quite vexing indeed.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
This bar is powerful blue. Corny figured it probably wasn't all blue, but all the glass and chrome with soft blue lighting along the floors and walls certainly created the illusion. Peaceful. Like being one of them mer people in stories, living under the sea and breathing just fine. It wasn't a fancy place, not like one Cap'n might take them to where he'd have to get all gussied up and strangle himself with a stiff shirt collar. But it was a heaping helping fancier than the bars they usually went to in New Bangkok.
Verin glanced at his face and snorted. "They won't toss us out, cowboy. Don't say I never take you anywhere nice."
"It is nice. Was just taking a gander. Pretty place." Corny bumped shoulders with him before weaving through the patrons to a raised table at the far end of the blue glass bar top. He waited until they were settled before he asked, "What's the occasion? Did I misrecollect a date?"
"Just thought a change of scenery…" Verin shrugged. Clearly, he was chewing on something but Corny wasn't about to prod at him. If he wanted to say it, he would in his own good time.
They ordered the usual—something toxic for Ver, a whiskey for Corny—and settled back to watch the patrons and talk about little things. They needed to get a new file for Verin's claws. Corny kinda liked doing the foot claws since it wasn't too far a throw from taking care of hooves and it was… Well, it was intimate. Taking care of your lover's feet. Not something he'd been able to do before Ver.
Ver swirled whatever nasty rotgut he had in his glass, watching the gray-green whirlpool with a frown. "You ever regret it, Corn?"
That set Corny back. "Regret filing your claws?"
"No, dumbass." Ver blew out a slow breath, smoke spiraling from his nostrils. "Coming with me. Leaving your own time."
A quick answer would sound like he wasn't willing to think about it, so Corny tipped back his chair and thought a spell. "I miss some things, sure. Riding out under the sky most every day. The smell of a cookfire. Waving grass that…looks like grass should. Guess that's true of anybody who leaves home. You miss little things."
Verin stared off across the bar, silent, sipping his drink.
Corny let his chair down, reached across the table and seized Verin's hand. "But I don't regret it, Hammer. Not for one second. I don't regret bein' here with you. I don't regret traveling to a time where I can hold your hand and no one's got a word to say contrariwise. Where I can—"
He broke off and leaned across the table to plant a kiss at the base of Ver's right horn. While he would've loved to get a real kiss, probably best not while Ver was drinking poison. Corny smiled as he smoothed the dark hair between Ver's curled horns.
Raised voices came from the other end of the bar, two people arguing in a language Corny couldn't understand. One had multiple braids of different colors, though the blue light made it hard to tell what colors. The other was covered either in green scales or in tattoos of green scales. Corny had learned not to assume about things like that. Braids shoved Scales. The bartender tried to calm things down but it looked like these boys were fixin' to fight like Kilkenny cats.
Corny glanced between the brewing fight and his demon lover, still sipping his drink. Ver was interested but he was slouched back in his chair, relaxed. Wouldn't be the first bar fight, and sure as shooting wouldn't be the last they saw, but so long as Ver wasn't reaching for his weapons, Corny wouldn't start worrying.
Scales had Braids by the throat now. The bartender was signaling frantically for one of the security demons at the door.
"Bets on the door goons getting there in time?" Ver asked with an evil grin.
"Five says the big demon gets there afore a punch gets thrown," Corny said, eyeing the action with more interest now.
Security waded through the crowd, hampered by their size. Braids kneed Scales in the balls, or tried to. Didn't quite connect since it just made Scales madder. He picked Braids up and tossed him down the length of the bar where he skidded to a stop just shy of Corny and Verin's table. Ver turned to Corny to say something but one of the patrons whose drinks had been bulldozed grabbed Braids off the bar and tossed him at the table. The poor table broke. Ver rose slowly from his chair, sparks shooting out with each breath.
"Just your fists, Ver," Corny murmured as Verin got up a head of steam.
Verin charged into the growing melee, going after the patron who had spilled his drink. She was a tough old bird and got in some painful licks before Ver flattened her. Not that it mattered. It was an out and out brawl now, fists flying without rhyme or reason. Corny sighed and waded in after his demon, keeping combatants off his back best he could. Wasn't too hard. When Ver got going, he was a one-demon wrecking ball. Best Corny could do was keep up and try to steer them toward the door.
He was so intent on his goal that he had to stop a second and reorient when they stumbled out onto the street. Sirens wailed in the distance. The riot raged on inside.
"Shame. Nice place like that. Best make ourselves scarce," Corny insisted as he steered Ver down the street. "All right there?"
"Yeah. That was great," Ver grinned and stuck a cigar stump between his teeth. "And you owe me five, cowboy."
Corny snorted. "I reckon I don't." He stopped in front of Verin and plucked the cigar out. "We said the first punch afore security got there. Weren't no punch till you threw one."
"Aw, c'mon. Technicalities."
"Nope. That was the bet. Fair and square, Hammer." He seized Ver's head between both hands and kissed him hard, right there in the street, which he could've never done in his old life if he wanted to keep breathing. "You remember what you asked me?"
Ver blinked a few times before he got out in a husky murmur, "Yeah?"
"I got some small wistfuls, Ver. But I ain't got no regrets." Corny dove in for another kiss, pulling Ver close with a hand on his ass for good measure. "Nary a one."
Place: English countryside, Earth
'Twas not a fit night out for man nor beast. Heavy clouds threatened snow and smothered the moonlight. The damp chill seeped into bones even through the heaviest cloak. Precious little light skittered along this stretch of road under heavy trees.
But there was a glint of hoof, a flash of harness, a quick bright flame to light the glowing end of a cigar. One horseman at least blocked the middle of the road, lying in wait for some unfortunate traveler caught out on this dark, inhospitable night.
Hoof beats drumming along the road began as a subterranean shudder until they grew loud and louder – a horseman come riding, riding, riding—a horseman riding through the gloom along the kind's road.
"Steady on," Shax murmured as he drew his pistols, his horse shifting restlessly under him.
Verin, who stood three yards in front of him, pistols ready, lit cigar jammed between his teeth, growled, "I know how this goes, you twerp."
"Did you want to say it?"
"Nah. You do it. Yours is more fucking posh."
Shax pushed his cocked hat back and sat up straighter in the saddle. Shame it was so dark. Their victim would never see the lovely scarlet coat he wore or the scandalously tight doeskin breeches. Oh, well. Best to dress the part, complete with leather and lace if one wanted to do things right. A black horse galloped round the bend and Shax cleared his throat and fired a pistol into the air.
"Stand and deliver, your money or your life!"
The horse reared and screamed in fear, her rider keeping his seat with ease, pistol butts and rapier hilt a-twinkle in the spare bit if starlight. The rider called out in a voice that tried for arrogance despite the quaver, "Nay, it is you who will stand and deliver!"
Shax gaped a moment before calling back, "No, that's not how this works. We said it first—Dick Turpin, is that you?"
"Aye. Who's doing the ask— Shax?"
"Dick, m'dear, as I live and breathe." Shax secured his pistols and rode forward grinning. "Haven't they caught you yet?"
"Not yet and my hope is not tonight." Dick Turpin, the butcher turned livestock thief turned highwayman, reached out to clasp hands with Shax. "You're a sight for these sore eyes, yer lordship. But I've red coats breathing down my neck. You've no desire to be within shouting distance of me tonight. I've an inn I must reach afore the moon is high. If they've reached it first, I'm done for."
"What've you gotten tangled in now? Innkeeper's daughter?"
Dick flashed his charming, albeit worried, grin. "Stable boy."
"Ah, what am I to do with you?" Shax stood in his stirrups to plant a kiss on Dick's cheek. "Ver? Fancy a bit of devil among the tailors this evening?"
"You mean go cave some redcoat heads in? Fuck yeah. Always up for that."
"Be my guest then, Ver. We'll waylay travelers another night. We'll be along soon."
Verin stubbed out his cigar on a nearby stump, vaulted into his saddle, and thundered off on his huge Friesian, one of the few horses they could find willing to bear Verin's weight. Shax and Turpin followed at a more leisurely pace as his highwayman friend told him the particulars. Not that Turpin usually cared about beyond the shag itself, but it was the principle of the thing. Red coats using a stable boy as hostage and bait. Appalling.
Shax patted Turpin's thigh. "All will be well, my dear, never fear. Except for the inn. There's likely to be damage. Would you care to leave the road for a bit for a quick bit of, as they say, backgammon? Would calm your nerves."
"Would be my honor, yer lordship. That clearing over there—"
"Stand and deliver!" a quavering young voice called from that very clearing.
Shax heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for pits' sakes. I see it's going to be that kind of night."
(Shax has a postscript to add: "My darlings, you may recognize bits of this from Alfred Noyes', "The Highwayman." But damn Alfred and his Victorian morals, changing the story I told him for, as he put it, dramatic purposes.")
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked at Triton Station
Being in dock was positively restful sometimes, especially during night cycle. Ivana had time to defrag systems and maximize efficiencies when the ship was still. Sure, she had to talk to the station about certain things, but none of that took up much of her capacity.
She checked on her boys—and they were her boys, every one of them, and Rosa, of course, was hers too. Captain Hot Stuff lay asleep in his security officer's arms and wings. Shax looked so angelic when he finally slept deeply, never mind the horns, and it warmed Ivana's processors the way Ness curled around him so protectively. Her little demon pirate hadn't changed much since the first time her optics had fastened on him. Still the schemer, still the compact package of sex appeal and swagger, but a piece of him had changed. He was, what? More responsible now? In his own way, she supposed. He'd become a lot more captain than brigand in the past couple of years.
Verin slept on his back, snoring loud enough to rattle the deck plates. Somehow, his cowboy slept with his head on that broad chest, not bothered by the racket one bit. Maybe it reminded Corny of an old steam train. They'd had a rocky start, her and Verin. She was used to him now. Depended on him for many things, the grump. While Shax was the unstoppable force that impelled them, Verin was the gravitational force that steadied them.
Station: seals check
Brimstone: confirmed, within standard limits
Leopold slept curled in a tight ball in his fabulous nest of many colors, with Nicodemus burrowed in nearby. Nic officially belonged to Ness but he'd taken to sleeping with Leopold since it tended to be less active in Leo's cabin at bedtime. Maximillian slept nearby in one of the padded compartments of his play maze. Safer for him if anyone rolled over. Leo's posse—they had become that, and if anyone ever doubted that the hedgehog was a demon prince's son, they just had to look at his talent for gathering minions and his huge obstinate streak. Leo often did as Leo pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Brimstone: CO2 up .002%
In Mac's cabin, Heckle slept atop his giant lover, probably the warmest bed on the ship. The slow ride up and down with each of Mac's breaths seemed to soothe him, too, the little cutie. He smiled in his sleep as he did sort of a wriggle-snuggle. Heck had been another surprise, one Ivana would've gladly tossed out the airlock those first days, but her imp had hidden depths and he was lightning quick when you explained something new without yelling at him. Mac, for his part, could do no wrong in Ivana's eyes. She wouldn't have cared if he was a serial killer. Having a skilled engineer on board was just too lovely.
Brimstone: Delivery query 58674192
Station: 0600 confirmed, signature required
And her Julian, oh, her handsome Julian. She was glad to have him back for a while. He never stayed long anymore. Pity. Though this time, he seemed to have settled in for a stay. He whimpered and snuffled in his sleep, shifting until he had his back to the wall. Ivana wished she had hands to soothe him. Poor sweetie needed someone to sleep with.
Ivana hummed as she checked through station data. She wasn't supposed to be able to sift through the things behind firewalls, but Captain Cute Buns had set up some programming that helped her get around those nasty things.
Outstanding warrant: Verin Hammer. Civil disturbance. Simple assault. Assault with blunt object (chair.) Assault with blunt object (bar top.) Bartender tossing.
Really? That was a specific offense now? The warrant's date corresponded with their last visit. Oops. Surprising that station security hadn't pinged them on docking. Lazy ninnies. Ivana asked the system nicely to delete the warrant. The security system refused. She threatened selective data erasure. The warrant vanished without a trace.
Ivana gave a prim sniff. Nobody better mess with her boys.
Place: Outside Roswell, New Mexico, USA, Earth
"We shouldn't be here," Trx's second eyes twitched nervously. "Parental group said we're not supposed to go here."
Jvn stopped studying the forbidden blue planet staring balefully at them through the view screen and rolled all three sets of eyes. Why parental group insisted that they bring their younger-clutch sibling along Jvn would never understand. It was so un-gfk.
"So, you're strafing ionosphere, zoob?" Flk's voice came through the comm. "I've done that a thousand times."
"Zoob, you've done it twice! And got scared the first time," Sdw protested from the third ship.
"Zoob, not gfk!" Flk shot back.
"Settle, zoobs." Jvn cut through the chatter. "I'm not doing that egg stuff. I'm strafing planetary crust."
"You can't do that, zoob, are you ynrf?"
"No. I have it all calc'ed out. Someone should take Trx, though." Jvn eyed their unwanted passenger with their lowest set of obs. "This isn't a thing for an egg."
"No!" Trx wailed. "Parental group said to stay with you. I'm not allowed to be in another ship. I'll tell!"
"You heard the little zoob." Flk sounded far too smug. "Either do it with the sib onboard or admit you're making excuses."
Jvn glared at their sib. "All right. The egg comes with me. Put on your transpace web, Trx."
"Zoob, are you sure?" Sdw asked softly. "Come on, Flk, don't goad. Jvn, you don't have to prove you're gfk to us. What if you crash and the planetary apex predators catch you? I hear they eat everything."
Flk cleared their throat over comm. "Yeah, they're insane. I hear they use transports that rely on continuous small explosions for propulsion. And that they kill things they don't even want to eat. I read somewhere that they don't even have parental groups. Look, zoob, I didn't mean it. Don't do this."
"I'm going in." Jvn adjusted their own webbing. "I know what I’m doing."
"Zoob," Sdw whispered and the terror in their voice sent chills up Jvn's spine.
Too bad. They were doing this. No one else in their clutch-year ever had. They concentrated on the readouts and did not think about ugly, bipedal predators with brains of violence storms down there. Jvn checked their flight path once more and began the careful circling for a gravity well dive.
"Keep the channels open, zoob!" Flk yelled over the whine of the solar boosters. "You're the most gfk!"
Atmospheric entry wasn't fun—Jvn had taken it too fast—but the dampeners took most of the stress. Clutchling rounds were forgiving ships, made specifically for younger pilots. There was the arid portion of the planet they were aiming for. Recorders on, they dove for the surface. The plan was to kick up a small cloud of dust and zip away.
The proximity alarms barely had time to ping before they were hit, the ship spinning out of control. Trx was shrieking, which was terribly distracting, until the ground hit the view screen with a solid whump.
After a moment's silence, Trx sniffled, "Are we dead?"
Jvn took a few breaths to be sure. "No. No, we're not. Hush." Something had come out of nowhere and smacked them into the sand. A missile of some sort, Jvn guessed. They'd been spotted and they had to get away. Jvn's tentacles flew over the control surfaces but nothing responded.
"Undo your webbing, Trx. Hurry. We have to get out." Jvn's third left tentacle didn't feel right but there was no time to assess. They hurried through unhooking their webbing and turned to help Trx, who seemed to be making things worse.
They popped the cracked canopy and lifted Trx out so they could set up the decoys. Poor Trx was whimpering and shaking. Sib comfort would have to wait. The decoys were flat when Jvn pulled them from behind the panel though they expanded into solid, convincing shapes with a few drops of water. Bipedal, gray-green, with large heads and a single set of huge black eyes, these were the shapes that parental group said would convince predators that the ship's inhabitants were dead. Something about more familiar, analogous shapes.
Right now, Jvn didn't care. They glided out of the ship and gathered Trx up in their front tentacles as their eyes desperately searched this terrible, dry place for cover. The predators would come.
"Trx, hush. Be gfk, little zoob. We can't let the predators know we're here."
There. A rock formation. It wasn't large but they might be able to squeeze in under that little shelf and hide. Just until someone came for them. It wouldn't be long with the distress beacon sending.
"Psst. Hey, clutchling," a strange dry voice whispered from the rocks.
"Who…who's there?" Jvn whispered. It couldn't be a predator. They didn't speak any civilized language, did they?
"Hurry. Over this way. There's a little cave," the voice went on. "I'll hide you."
Jvn glided cautiously toward the voice. Fighting something of wouldn't be possible with Trsk clinging so tightly. Not that Jvn had anything to fight with. "Who are you?"
"My name is Shax. And no, before you catch sight of me and ask, I'm not human." A hand with fingers appeared out of a shadowed crevice, waving them forward. "Come on. You're not safe out there. They're coming."
Jvn shuddered. Hands were gross. But they didn't have much choice. Some races had hands, they told themselves firmly. That didn't make them bad. They reached the shade of the outcropping much to their relief. The solar heat here was terrible. How stupid was it to try a touch and go where there was no water? They rounded the corner and gasped reflexively. The being before them was hideous. Bipedal, two other appendages that looked so wrong, only two eyes—just like the ugly decoys in the ship. Parental groups had been right about the shape of life forms here. It did have cute horns, which helped Jvn not to run screaming.
"We crashed," Jvn blurted out, their tentacles whitening in embarrassment. What a dumb thing to say. It knows that.
"Is the egg sib all right?" The alien's phrasing was strange but understandable.
"Mostly scared." Jvn hurried into the rock crevice where it was cool and, thank hklfrn, damp. "Why can we understand you?"
The alien did a disturbing thing with its mouth that showed far too many of its sharp white teeth. "I've met enough of you over the centuries to have learned."
Jvn averted all their eyes. The alien, Shx, was just too hard to look at. "Won't the predators see us here?"
"No. I have us hidden. Here comes the first one."
A horrid, loud transport coughed and snarled its way toward the ship. One of the hideous predators got out, looked at the crash site, then thundered off again. Not too much later, more predators came and swarmed the area. They seemed to be measuring and making some sort of primitive visual record of the crash, if Jvn had to guess. The predators were loud and frightening and moved with frightening speed over the dry landscape. Finally, they dragged the decoys out of the ship, threw ugly gray-green coverings over everything, brought even larger, louder transports and carted everything away.
"Parental group will be mad," Trx said in a small voice. "They just gave you that ship."
"We need to get back to parental group for them to be mad," Jvn reminded them and regretted it when Trx started whimpering again. "Shh, little zoob. Sorry."
"You'll be all right," Shx reassured them. "I'm sure they're already on their way."
Sure enough, soon after planetary night fell, the drop ship zipped in through the atmosphere and settled with a soft whoosh near Jvn's crash marks. They tucked a sleeping Trx up close and hurried as fast as tentacles could manage across the hard ground. Parental group was angry, of course, all seven of them dark umber with strong emotions but outwardly, they expressed relief. Shx and parental group exchanged words about adolescent impulsiveness and Jvn wanted to hide behind their tentacles.
"You were lucky to meet the Shx instead of the violent aliens here," oldest parental scolded as they hurried into the safety of the ship. "There will be no more free flight with your friends for at least four dcbn's."
"We could say five."
Jvn subsided, knowing they were being lenient out of relief. Four dcbn's wasn't that long.
"So." Verin drank from his hip flask as they watched the ship zip away from Earth. "You gonna tell the humans what they captured?"
Shax laughed. It was always interesting to see the tentacle aliens. He had no idea what they called themselves since he'd never asked. "No. What fun would that be? Let them think that they have real dead space creatures instead of what amounts to fancy blowup dolls."
He took a sip when Verin offered the flask as they stood watching the now-empty sky.
"Besides, this will be hilarious," Shax finally broke the silence.
"What will, genius?"
"Watching the humans believe that's what space creatures look like for who knows how long now. This is going to be great."
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