Chapter One: Listening At Bar Stools
Nutter’s Tavern, in a small backwater planet on the farthest spiral of the Andromeda Galaxy, was reputed to be the seediest, dirtiest, nastiest bar within a hundred parsecs of civilized Space. The sort of clientele it attracted were more interested in starting fights, getting drunk, and starting more fights than in behaving. Fortunately for the tavern, and not so fortunately for a few unlucky patrons, the bartender was one Anathema Device. She looked harmless, but she was an Andromedan born human, and as such had been enhanced with several genetic upgrades that allowed her to live in the harsh climate of the planet not so affectionately known as Hell. They also gave her lightning quick reflexes which allowed her to end fights almost before they began.
She was wiping down a brown substance on the counter that seemed to be squeaking at her when the doors to the tavern banged back and Anthony J Crowley came sauntering in, reveling as he always did in the stares he was getting. Anathema sighed, reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle of Jovian whiskey, pouring the volatile alcohol into a special glass. It fizzled and popped, looking like it was boiling hot. She left the bottle next to the glass.
“Heya, Ana!” Crowley slid into the bar stool. Well, as best as he could with his hips. Crowley, like Ana, was human born, but unlike most of the population, who had come to Hell for varying reasons, Crowley had been born here. He had the golden eyes and red hair of the native populace known as Demons, and like the rest of the natives, he could stand very high heat without any problem. Cold, however, sent him into almost a torpor, which meant that for six months of the year, when Hell turned away from its sun and almost literally froze over, Crowley did his best to be as far away as possible. “How’s it going?”
Ana grunted and slapped the brown thing, which hissed at her and scuttled on tiny legs down the bar. “It’s going fine. What about you?”
Crowley slugged his whiskey and poured another, waiting for it to stop bubbling before he drank a bit slower. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Anathema blinked at him. “Oh, I dunno, maybe because the entire galaxy is talking about the former bounty hunter that refused to do a job for Lucien Morningstar and was subsequently blackballed from the Trade?” Crowley didn’t say anything, just stared into his glass. “Why’d you say no, Anthony? I know Lucien is as crooked as they come, but I’ve seen you take less than scrupulous jobs before. Hell, you’ve got a rep for it.”
Crowley sighed. “This was different, Ana. He...he wanted me to smuggle children.”
Anathema frowned. “But you’ve done that before. Lots of times.”
“Not like this. He wanted me to take them to...” Crowley’s breath hitched. “The Jovian mines. As slaves.” Ana gasped. “I know I’ve done some horrible things for money, and I can’t say I’m proud of them, but children...you don’t hurt children. I told him to shove his money up his ass, and the next thing I know, I’m blackballed. Which is part of the reason why I’m here.”
Ana sighed. “You want to know if I’ve heard anything. I haven’t. But I do need to warn you that Hastur and Ligur have started coming in here in the past few weeks, so unless you want your face rearranged, I suggest you find someplace to hide.”
Crowley grabbed the bottle and slid bonelessly off the bar stool, sauntering his way to a spot where he would be unseen yet still be able to overhear the conversations at the bar. He stared at his arms, which were covered in the tattoos common to most Hunters.
Crowley had the golden skin of a native Hellion, eyes that were a deep, deep gold with snake like slits, and hair that was redder than the sun. He was wearing typical Hellion garb, which consisted of a black robe that clung to every inch of him and was made of a material that refracted and absorbed the heat. He wore his hair long, in defiance of tradition, and kept it off his face by putting it in a complex braid. His feet and legs were bare and also covered in tattoos.
“Hastur, Ligur, hello!” Ana said a trifle too loudly. Crowley immediately flipped the hood of his robe up to obscure his face and scooted closer to the bar. “What can I get you gents?”
“Martian gin, and then you can go polish the other end of the bar. Me and Ligur is having a private talk, you savvy?” Hastur grunted out. Anathema poured the reddish brown liquid into two glasses and made herself scarce. Hastur looked around, his gaze furtive. Crowley strained his ears. “So, whaddaya think? The money’s the best there’s been in a long time.”
“Yeah. But how do we know this ‘Treasure that Talks’ is even real? How do we know ole Tyler isn’t winding us up?”
Crowley tried not to salivate. Tyler was R.P. Tyler, aka the richest man on Hell. Tyler was a ‘collector of oddities’, according to him, and he was forever looking for unusual additions to his zoo. Crowley himself thought the man was a slimeball of the highest order, but he had done quite a few jobs for him, and had been paid very well. Bounty hunters and smugglers such as him couldn’t really afford too many scruples. Except when it came to kids. You don’t hurt kids. He scooted closer.
“Nah, it exists. Problem isn’t that. Problem is, it’s in the Uncharted Zone.”
Crowley could almost hear Ligur gulp. The Uncharted Zone was a section of the galaxy that had been deemed too dangerous to colonize, due to rogue meteors, planets with deadly atmospheres, and other things. Only fools went into the Zone, and it was considered a Galactic Crime to enter without express permission. “Well, I guess that’s it then. No way we’re getting the permits.”
Hastur smirked and pulled two round discs out of his pocket. “Tyler gave ‘em to me. All we need is our biometric prints, and we’re set.”
Crowley drooled and wiped his mouth. He couldn’t imagine how much it must have cost Tyler to have those made, but he knew it had to amount to a pretty penny. Suddenly, what he wanted more than anything was to find this Treasure first. He stood, making sure his hood was concealing his face, then walked by the stool that Hastur was sitting on, limping exaggeratedly. When he reached the stool, he pretended to stumble right into him. Hastur yelped in anger as gin spilled down his front. “Watch it!”
Crowley slurred his voice and fumbled at his shirt. “Sorry, din’t see you, how’s it goin…?” His right hand shot out and snatched the permit discs off the bar, slipping them into a hidden pocket in his robe. “Wanna have a drink?”
Hastur shoved him. “Get off me, you worthless rabble!” Crowley stumbled towards the door, weaving rather neatly between the tables.
Once outside, he took off at a dead run for a transport to take him to the shipyards. He knew it wouldn’t be long before Hastur figured out the discs were missing, and he planned to be at least a thousand miles away before that happened.
Hastur wiped off his shirt. Stupid drunks, running into him and...”Ligur?”
“Please tell me you put the permit discs in the bag.”
Ligur shrugged. “Nope. Thought you had them.”
“That drunk! He stole them! HEY!” Hastur shouted across the bar, and Ana came over, looking unruffled.
“That man that ran into me, where did he go?!”
Ana shrugged. “Didn’t see anyone, sorry.”
“AARRGHH! Come on, maybe we’ll be able to catch him!” They ran out of the bar. Ana sighed and cleaned up.
Crowley ran up the steps of The Bentley. She was a small transport craft, built back in the early days of exploration, and he had lovingly restored her to her former beauty after finding her in a junkyard on Pluto. She was like him, sleek and beautiful, and like him, she loved going fast. Crowley slid into the driver seat and pressed the button. Bentley came to life.
‘I’m a rocket ship on my way to Mars!’ The AI sang out. Crowley smiled and patted the console.
“Hello to you too.” Crowley had, for some odd reason, become enamored with Earth culture, most especially with a band that had been around in the 20th century called Queen. He had spent hours in the Galactic Archives on Pandora(Andromeda’s sister planet) listening to their music, and had wired Bentley’s AI to respond with their song lyrics.
Earth itself was a deserted planet, with most of the populace scattered to the different galaxies. Crowley had been there once, on a job, and had liked it well enough. He knew that it had taken a long, long time for the other civilized races in the universe to accept humans, and there were still some species that reacted with hostility. (It wouldn’t occur to Crowley until later that most of these species lived in the Uncharted Zone.)
He pulled the discs out and slid them into a compartment on the console. He was an old hand at this. Take a disc that has another person’s biometric print on it, run it through a digital scanner, tap a few buttons, and boom, you’ve got yourself a clean disc. These hadn’t even been imprinted yet, much to Crowley’s delight. He typed in his bio code, hit a button, and the discs were imprinted with his genetic print, unable to be used by anyone else. He tucked them back in his pocket, buckled himself in, and took off.
Not ten minutes later, Hastur and Ligur came running into the ship yard. Hastur found an unfortunate worker and grabbed her by the throat. “What was that transport that just took off?!” She choked, and he eased his grip.
“B..Bentley! She’s called Bentley!” Hastur’s eyes went black and he dropped her. She took off.
“CROWLEY! THAT ASSHOLE!” Hastur spun on his heel. “Come on, Ligur. We’re going to catch that bastard, and when we do, the whole fucking Spiral is going to hear him scream.”
Crowley took a deep breath as he approached the Border. Behind him was Civilization. In front was the Uncharted Zone. He eased Bentley closer. When he was at the edge, he spotted the border patrol’s transport.
“YOU ARE APPROACHING THE UNCHARTED ZONE” came a computerized voice. “PERMIT DISCS ARE MANDATORY FOR ENTRANCE. PLEASE INSERT DISC INTO YOUR TRANSPORT’S COMMUNICATION DEVICE.”
Crowley slid the disc into the slot. The information was fed into the border patrol’s computer. Five minutes passed, and Crowley was beginning to fear he would have to make the jump into hyperspace when the disc was spat back out.
“PERMIT DISC VALID. YOU MAY ENTER.”
Crowley released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and eased Bentley into the Zone. Now all he had to do was call Tyler. He opened the comm channel and pulled up his number.
Tyler’s ratty face appeared on his screen. “Crowley? Why are you calling me?”
“Oh, just to tell you there’s been a change of plans. I’m going after the Treasure. Now, you can try and send others, but you an’ I both know that there’s nobody better than me at this job.”
“Weren’t you blackballed?”
Crowley leaned back and put his feet up. “Eh, maybe. Consider this my foray into freelancing. But, if you don’t want this treasure, I could always turn Bentley around...”
“NO!” Tyler’s shout was desperate, and Crowley grinned. Rich suckers were so fun. “No, that won’t be necessary. But there is a few conditions. I want it brought back alive and unhurt. This...if you do this, bring it to me, I will make you a very rich man. And you also have to beat Hastur and Ligur to it.”
“So it’s a race? Sounds fun.” Crowley said with a grin. He was pretty sure Bentley could outfly any piece of shit transport that they could acquire.
“Best man wins.” Tyler said before signing off. Crowley’s grin got wider.
The grin faded when he noticed several rather large objects heading straight towards him. “Bentley, evasive maneuvers!” The ship responded, dodging the first of many asteroids and meteors. Crowley strapped himself in and hung on.
Then an asteroid that looked to be the size of a small planet loomed in his vision. Crowley yanked Bentley to one side, but it was too little, too late. There was a horrid tearing sound, and an alarm began to wail. Lights flashed on the console. “No! No no no!”
Bentley spiraled down, her engines dead. Crowley could see a planet beneath him, and he braced for impact.
The ship crashed with a bang that rattled Crowley’s brains in his head. He was flung out of his seat, and collided with something very hard.
Crowley blinked groggily. There was something sticking out of his leg, and something red on his robe.
“Well, fuck.” He managed before passing out.
Aziraphale had been rearranging his books by color when he saw the light on the horizon. He blinked. The sun rose in the North here, and that light had come from the South. His tendrils twitched, and he made a soft trilling sound of confusion. He went outside and flew up a bit, scanning the planet. There. A small craft had crashed! Aziraphale knew what it was, had seen many of them fly over his planet, but none had ever landed here. He trilled in happiness. At last, he would have a companion! But what if the being was scared of him? Aziraphale’s fur darkened, a sign that the Celestial was fretting. But then the thought hit him. The transport had crashed! What if the being needed help?
He flew to the ship, trilling in sympathy at how banged up it was. His tendrils waved, and he landed. At first, he didn’t see anything, but then he spotted something red. Trilling happily, he lifted the debris one handed and gaped at the being that lay beneath it, dead to the world.
He scooted closer. Broken leg, and lots of internal injuries. He stroked his tendrils over the body, healing him. At least Aziraphale assumed it was a him. The Celestial didn’t really have a gender in the strictest sense, but liked to use him and he. The human(Aziraphale was also pretty sure of the species) was still asleep, and night was coming on fast.
Aziraphale scooped the human up and flew towards his cave.