Location: Triton Station
"Eyes on the chip, ladies and gentlemen, eyes on the chip," the man with moveable holo boxes exhorted his audience as he shifted the shells around on the light table. Every now and then, he would lift one to show the location of the chip, then begin shifting them again.
Papa Shax had warned him about shell games. He'd also warned Leopold about wandering into this part of the station. It was nice that Papa Shax worried but he was the son of a demon prince, after all. Hives of scum and villainy should be like a second home, shouldn't they? Besides, Leopold had felt contrary that morning and didn't want to hear where he could and couldn't go.
Finally the grinning human stopped. "All right, young man. Where's the chip?"
Leopold pointed to the man's left hand.
The man's smile slipped. "No, no, my spikey friend. You misunderstood. Point to the box you think the chip is under."
From a diplomatic point of view, Leopold knew it was a bad idea, but he persisted, pointing again to the man's left hand.
"That's not how the game's played, son." The man's smile became more a baring of teeth. "How about you run along now?"
A bright pink head with waving antennae popped up over the man's shoulder. Maximillian clambered the rest of the way up the man's back and plopped down onto his left hand. The man screamed and shook his hand violently. Max flew. The game chip fell from his hand and clattered to the floor, uncommonly loud in the sudden silence as Leopold scrambled to let Max land on his head.
The surrounding crowd muttered in anger and derision while the game man hastily packed up his table. But where was Nicodemus? Ah, there. A white whiskered snout peeked from around a table leg. Nic risked a glance up at the furious game man, then scurried to Leopold with the credit chit in his mouth.
"You little shit! Give that back!" The game man lunged but Nic was already wriggling into Leopold's backpack.
Leopold held up a paw. Amazingly the man stopped.
"It was in your hand. Not under the holo shells. You, sir, were cheating." Not that Leopold had anything against cheating. Papa Shax did it all the time and was good at it. Unlike this man.
The man let out an infuriated shriek and made a grab for them. Leopold dropped to all fours and zipped around behind a pair of large disgruntled looking men who were closing the circle around game man. He did wonder how people could still be fooled by such an ancient con but perhaps it wasn't common among spacers. The novelty of it here must have been how game man had gotten away with it. All quite fascinating.
Not quite fascinating enough to ignore that it was time to leave. Leopold ran as fast as his stumpy legs could manage. They wouldn't keep him ahead of his pursuer for long but he only needed a few seconds of distance and game man's erstwhile audience was providing an angry distraction. Papa Shax often said in a tight spot, play to your strengths. One of Leopold's strengths was breaking into things.
Another was ductwork.
He spotted a vent within a few yards of running, and had his tools out and the cover popped off in less than thirty seconds. It wasn't the best solution—foreign matter in the air ducts could lead to criminal charges on a space station—but it was the best he had. If he kept to the corridors and promenades, his bright pinkness would give him away at every step.
In the way of underground creatures, Leopold's sense of direction in tunnels and ducts was unerring. He had them moving toward the ship connectors in a couple of turns. Brimstone wasn't one of the huge ships who had to stand off from the station, but it wasn't small enough to fit into a berth in Triton's docking bays. Those were for shuttles, small corsairs and the more modest private yachts. Mid-sized ships like theirs gathered along the outer station rings, snuggled close and connected with docking tubes. The transparent kind Corny hated so much.
He peeked out through the vent holes when they reached the one nearest the Brimstone. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the station's business day and the corridor was crowded. Not a good idea to be seen crawling out of an air duct by all those people. Leopold backtracked to a spot where three sweeper bot access ports and recharge stations sat in a neat row along the duct's outer wall. These were usually in less-trafficked access corridors and as long as at least one sweeper bot was there for recharge, the accompanying port would be unlocked for techs to scoop up the bot for scheduled maintenance. The ports could be opened from the inside—for maintenance crews working in the ducts—but required a mag tool to be opened from the outside.
Leopold spent quite a bit of time studying duct specs. Everyone needed hobbies.
"All three ports have bots. Hello, little sweeper bots. We won't disturb you." Leopold patted one of the docked sweepers as he pressed his ear to the middle port to listen.
Nic popped his head out of the pack, squeaking urgently.
"I think you are right," Leopold whispered. "There is a human out there. He does not smell washed."
Carefully, he started to push the lift door of the left-hand port up.
"Ha! Knew you'd come out here, you pink freak!"
Leopold slammed the port shut as game man tried to seize him. The metal door caught the human's fingers and Leopold winced since the howl of pain wasn't a good sign that game man would be calming down soon. He raced over to the right-hand port and tried again with the same result. Grabbing hands, slamming door, though game man was faster and didn't get his fingers caught. This went on for a few moments, until game man decided on a different tactic.
The center door creaked and scraped up. Game man had found a way to pry it open.
Leopold scrambled back, desperately trying to think of another nearby inconspicuous way out of the ductwork. With a triumphant cry, game man lunged through the port up to his waist and caught Leopold's back foot. He peeped as he fell on his side, scrabbling for purchase on the polished metal.
Nic and Max swarmed from the pack, trampling over Leopold so Nic could chomp into game man's index finger and Max could spray the irritant he stored in his side spiracles. Some of Max's defensive weapon landed on game man's nose and some in his eye. Again, the human howled in pain. It wasn't really a good sound for him. While game man wiped furiously at his stinging eyes, Leopold jumped on his back, slammed the middle door shut on his waist and herded Max and Nic through the right-hand door. He'd just gathered them into his pack and was making his way to the main corridor when security turned at the nearest cross-corridor at a run.
"What the hell is going on down here?" the larger security human bellowed.
Leopold pointed back to the access corridor. "Back there in the ducts. He was trying to climb in. I think he is stuck."
"Damn it! Not again!" shorter human swore before both security officers raced toward the ports.
It was both amusing and disturbing that apparently this had happened more than once, but Leopold didn't stop to think about it too hard. He ran full out to the docking tubes and stood on tiptoes to put his comm against the door pad by the Brimstone's. The iris lock clicked and cycled open and he only stopped to catch his breath when it had cycled shut again behind him.
Papa Shax was in the kitchen with his coffee, sleepy-eyed like he'd just woken up. "Well hello, my dear. You look as if you had furies after you. What have you been up to today and do I need a bribe for the authorities?"
Leopold pulled himself onto the bench beside his demon father, shaking his head. "Just looking around. No bribes for our walk today." He stole a bit of his father's cinnamon roll. "Shell games are stupid."