Time: A year-ish before Hell for the Company
The city domes of Barbary, even though they tended to be ruled by crime lords, had the good sense to include parks in their city designs. Trees and shrubs were better oxygen producers and air scrubbers than any mechanical system. New Bangkok had small parks at the center of every grid division, xeriscaped to conserve water.
Coffee perched on his knee, Shax occupied one of the benches in one of these parks, taking a few moments to absorb the scenery and not think for a bit. Madame Phoenix had let him visit with the Gem Bugs for a few moments this time. Emerald had zipped right to him and attached to his jacket, with the rest of her siblings following. They had progeny now, and had built elaborate crystal castles to house the potato eggs. Good to see them thriving, but he missed them some days.
Yes, there had been an incident when his original brood tried to sneak out with him. No, it had not been his fault. Mostly not. Madame Phoenix hadn't quite kicked him out of the city, and he was most certainly not depressed. Just contemplative. Yes.
"Hup! Hup! Hup! Hup! Hup!"
The tiny voices interrupted his not thinking. Puzzled, Shax leaned over to find a collection of small beings helping each other up onto the bench in the best acrobatic style. Thin or rotund, with fingers or claws, some with beaks, some with snouts, some with featureless faces, some in long coats, some in kilts, some in the very minimum city codes would allow, blue, purple, red and yellow—the only thing the creatures had in common was their size.
Pit minions. He blinked at them in surprise as they crested the bench seat. He'd seen pit minions before, but seeing them here was rather unexpected.
"Hello there, little ones," Shax asked when the last one clawed its way up. "What can I do for you?"
The possible leader, a scarlet, rail thin crow-beaked nightmare in a hooded coat, spread his arms and squeaked, "Hail, great prince of Hell! We beseech you for patience and come to beg a boon!"
Shax raised a hand. "Cutting you off right there. First, I'm not a prince out here. I'm a ship's captain. Note the jacket, please. And second, no one talks like that outside the seventh level."
Crow minion snapped his beak shut, his expression somehow conveying sulky. "They said we had to."
"The demon brigands we were traveling with."
"They lied. Or at least they're most likely morons." Shax sipped his coffee and regarded the delegation with a frown. "Pull up some bench, my dears. Tell Captain Shax all about it."
With some high-pitched grumbling and muttering, the pack of minions settled. "So, like, we were snatched from our pit, right? And working on this brigand ship."
"Mercenaries, dude. They were so mercenaries," a yellow one with branched horns corrected.
"What-ever." With a good approximation of an eye roll, Crow continued, "But those demons were only, like, fifth degree or some junk and they were so lame. Expecting us to clean up after them."
"Gross." A boar snouted one with scales wrinkled its yellow nose.
"Totally," a fuzzy pancake-shaped minion verified.
"I see." Shax found it both gratifying and disturbing to be the center of such rapt attention from so many little eyes. "So you struck out on your own?"
"We so skipped off that ship, Captain, but now we're stuck in this dump where the badges just want to hassle us."
That they sounded like late-twentieth century teenagers gave Shax pause. He didn't recall pit minions ever sounding that way. But then again, the pits were a much more formal working environment. Took a lot of discipline to keep all the human souls damned for greed cycling through. He'd never had any idea what pit minions sounded like in their off hours.
Shax leaned away to see the tribe better, one arm propped on the back of the bench. "Are you asking for passage?"
"We want off this rock. Yeah." Crow nodded.
"Blow this pop stand!"
"Hmm. Have you given thought to how you would pay for passage?" Shax should have said no right away. He knew that but they were so damn cute. "My ship is not a charity shuttle, I'll have you know."
"As if. Princes of hell don't do charity. We're not, like, complete noobs."
"I see." More and more puzzling. "And you have funds, then?"
"We do!" Crow jumped up and down enthusiastically.
"Plenty of green!"
"Cheddar, beans, bills!"
Shax kept a broom-shaped purple one from falling off the bench in its leaping enthusiasm. "How are you acquiring said funds, then? I know your previous employers couldn't have been paying you."
"Those doofuses? Nah." Crow put down his pack and pulled out a…something nearly as large as himself. "We sell these!"
It was black and sparkly. Shaped like a…what? A mutant butterfly? A spider with an ankle swelling issue? Shax allowed Crow to drop it into his palm. It was springy and bendable, capable of assuming different shapes.
"I'll admit it's quite pretty. But what is it?"
"It's a whatsit!" Crow enthused. "It can be, like, almost anything! Brooch. Ear cuff. Bracelet. Cup. Doorstop. Comm cover. Plugs leaks. Works as a scrubby thing. Can even be, you know, a sex toy if you want."
"Absolutely fascinating. What are whatsits made from?"
"That's secret," Crow said, his beak somehow managing smug.
"Like, proprietary information!"
"I see. Of course." Shax nodded as he handed the whatsit back. "I don't suppose it comes in other colors. Black is lovely sometimes, but a nice blue or gold, perhaps?"
"Black is the new black!" a feathered pyramid called from the back.
"Like so on trend!"
"Colors are so last week!"
Crow shot his cohorts a quelling glance. "We're working on it. How much to get us off this lame rock?"
Negotiations resulted in a price that was most likely exorbitant since Shax was going back to Amnesia anyway, though he didn't tell the pit minions that, and they seemed pleased, so he wasn't going to feel bad about some minor gouging. Happy faces all around. Except Verin, of course.
"You did what?" Verin didn't even bother to keep his voice down when Shax brought a pack or pit minions onto the Brimstone. They were hup-hup-hupping up the hold stairs while Verin yanked on Shax's arm to stop him following them. "Fucking little vermin pit minions? Did the rest of your pea-sized brain leak out your damn ears? I'm gonna fucking enjoy saying I told you so this time."
Shax managed to extricate his arm before Verin dislocated it. "Don't blow a gasket, Ver. They're so little and cute. And it's only to Amnesia. How bad could it be?"
By the time they reached Amnesia, the coffee maker was broken, Ivana was having fits about the stains in her kitchen, there was a strange and mysterious hole in the deck plates outside Verin's cabin, something noxious had gotten into the ventilation system that would require a full filter replacement, and the railing on the hold stairs had been bent into a new shape.
Shax made certain he had payment before he marched the pack of little hooligans off his ship, counting them carefully to be certain. Crow didn't even have the decency to apologize, though he tried to offer whatsits at a discount. Shax refused. Firmly. When they were gone, off to terrorize the port city, Shax plunked down on the bottom step in the hold, both hands fisted in his hair. His head hurt. He hadn't had a decent sleep in days.
With a huff of steam, Verin sat beside him.
"Well?" Shax snarled. "Aren't you going to say it?"
Verin actually patted his knee. "You look like shit, Shaxy. I'll save it for when it doesn't feel like I'm kicking a sick puppy. Their fare gonna at least cover repairs?"
"Yes." Shax heaved a long sigh. "I overcharged them for fuel costs. As long as there aren't too many more surprises, we'll still come out ahead."
An ominous creak overhead was the only warning before one of the loading arms crashed to the floor of the hold. Shax whimpered and put his head on his knees.
"Well, fuck. Ungrateful little troll fuckers," Verin muttered. "Not gonna say I told you so, Shaxy, but this shit? This is why we can't have nice things."