Phil could sell anything to anyone. New Milwaukee, like most habitats orbiting Earth, was a moldering dump that smelled like rancid grease wrapped in locker room funk, but that was precisely why Phil had come. Suckers living in squalor made easy marks. The locals couldn’t get enough of his micro-transmat-powered Dust Zappers.
Phil’s smile was guileless when he reached the next apartment in the dimly lit corridor. His sales case felt light with only a single hand-vac remaining. Visions of a celebratory beer danced in his mind as he rapped his knuckles on the flaking apartment door.
The door creaked open at his knock, and a gravelly voice said, “Finally. Courier’s here.”
Phil strode inside, his smile faltering. Bare floors and deep shadows greeted him, a dirty pile of clothes the only evidence of life. The faintest scent-memory of sulfur slid over an underlying stench of decay, and Phil cursed silently.
Celestials. He hated dealing with celestials. Humans were one of the few races who could sense the spirits’ presence without mechanical assistance, their brains interpreting celestials as memories of scents. Sulfur meant demons.
Demons had little use for vacuums.
“Well?” the disembodied voice growled.
Phil steeled himself and slipped on wraparound glasses that revealed the spirit realm. The glasses were expensive, but worth every penny. He drew measured breaths as–he counted the shadows–twelve translucent demons snapped into view: dark, leathery, and muscle-bound. Some had horns, none were winged. Their brutish leader had the most hideous face Phil had ever seen, scars and warts vying for dominance under curved ram’s horns.
Of all the alien races to have a lark messing with pre-space humanity’s mythology, celestials were the worst. Most of Earth’s mythic creatures ended up being friendly aliens on vacation, and the galactic community had chuckled over the ‘accidentally created religions’ thing when humanity wisened up. Angels and demons, however, operated like rival mafias and hadn’t taken kindly to mankind’s awakening to their shenanigans.
Phil set down his case as twitchy demonic fingers caressed sheathed blades. Red eyes bored into his soul. Worried about what they’d find, he beamed his salesman’s smile and jumped into his spiel.
“Hi, I’m Phil Cozener with Paddy Flynn’s Fantastic Dust Zapper. Unlike other hand-vacs, the Dust Zapper uses revolutionary micro-transmat technology to whisk your dirt away, never to return. It’s a dream come true, I know. But wait, there’s more. Buy now and–”
The ugly brute cut him off, shouting over his shoulder. “Uriel! He’s got the code phrase. Soul-lock the mortal to the Key. It’s time to open The Devil’s Foot Locker.”
A curse sounded from the back before a small demon leapt over her companions. She went corporeal with a grimace, and slammed into Phil’s chest, claws piercing his shirt. He crashed to the floor as she produced a translucent medieval shackle.
“Woah, wait a minute!” he said, panic spiraling his mind deeper into his sales patter. “Did I mention the extended warranty? Today only–”
“Sorry,” Uriel whispered, shifting back into the spirit realm and slamming the shackle into his chest.
Phil bucked as her fist entered his heart, but his panicked scream cut off as an odd sense of tranquility settled over him, accompanied by the scent-memory of petrichor, the earthy scent of rain. His wide eyes met hers. Petrichor meant only one thing, and Phil spoke without thinking.
“You’re an angel.”
Ominous silence met his proclamation. Uriel paled and snapped her hand back.
“What’d the human say?” The brute growled, flexing muscle-bound shoulders.
A cheerful knock on the open door interrupted them.
“Hi! I’m Clarence from Custom Couriers, er, I mean, from ‘Paddy Flynn’s Fantastic Vacuums.’ Sorry, not used to code words. You have a pickup for me?”
Demonic eyes pivoted from Phil and Uriel to a bright-eyed young faun in the doorway. Phil twisted to look upside down at the kid, who scratched absently at a horn, unable to see the demons.
Understanding dawned on Phil. Couriers, code words, and disguised agents? This was a clandestine criminal meeting–no place for a salesman. The brute’s gaze flicked toward him, and Phil tried his winning smile, hoping to cut the tension.
It didn’t work.
“Betrayal!” shouted the brute, and demonic swords flashed with sickly green flame. “Kill them all!” Uriel leapt from Phil’s chest and transformed into a towering guardian of light; her sword rimmed in purifying white fire. Leather armor creaked as she snapped powerful white wings into the nearest demon, slamming him through the wall.
Phil rolled away, snatched his case, and scrambled for the door as the celestials clashed. He tapped his spirit-revealing glasses as he passed the confused courier. “Run, kid. Celestials.”
Clarence paled and bolted.
Phil bounced off a corridor wall and ran in the opposite direction. He slid into an open elevator, waited an agonizing two seconds for an oblivious old lady to exit, and slammed the button for the docks.
Uriel shot out of the apartment, her immortal soul wisping from a wound in her side. She was corporeal again, a bundle of old clothes under one arm. Her wings pumped for speed as she wove drunkenly toward Phil, demons close behind.
Phil mashed the ‘door close’ button, then dropped to the slightly springy floor to open his case. The elevator wasn’t leaving fast enough. He needed another way out. He plugged an adapter switch of questionable legality into the Dust Zapper’s micro-transmat unit and grimaced. This was going to hurt.
Uriel slid through the closing doors and slammed into the back of the elevator, rocking it. The elevator lurched downward, and the angel unrolled the bundle of clothes to reveal a very dead gnome. Stiff elfin fingers clutched a giant rusty key. Decay clawed at Phil’s nostrils.
“Take the Key,” Uriel gasped, pain tightening her face.
“No! I’m not part of your war. I sell vacuums!”
“Take the Key!” Fire burned in her eyes.
Phil took the Key. A tingle shot up his arm as something clicked in his chest where she’d put the ethereal shackle. Uriel sighed in relief.
A demon’s flaming sword pierced the elevator wall between them, and Phil nearly pissed himself. He scrambled aside. The angel shifted realms to spirit again, dropped the gnome’s body, and slashed through the wall. She was rewarded with a roar of pain.
Phil pocketed the Key and grabbed the transmat switch again as two more demons dropped through the ceiling. Sulfur melded unpleasantly with petrichor and decay. The angel fought above him like a caged lion, the clash of spiritual blades buzzing in a way that made Phil’s tonsils ache.
He eyed her and scowled. Nothing good would come of allying with a celestial, but he couldn’t leave her.
“Uriel!” he shouted. “Take my hand!”
She deflected a blade headed for Phil’s neck and shot him a suspicious look. His earnest expression must have worked its charm, because she ducked another blade, went corporeal, and took his hand.
Phil flipped the switch.
The Dust Zapper whirred for a full second, then pulled them violently through several hundred yards of space station. The pain was just as exquisite as he’d expected. He felt every bulkhead, pipe, and rat he passed through, their atoms sliding across his like a cheese grater.
They rematerialized in a dingy bathroom stall, breathless and shaking as they slammed into the stall divider hard enough to dent it. Grease and sewage coated Phil’s tongue, and he felt the overwhelming need to shower. He hated transmat jumps.
Uriel wavered, then vomited noisily onto the floor. Not much came out, but her body quavered with the need to purge itself. Phil’s gorge rose in sympathy, and he shoved it down.
A fist knocked on the stall divider. “Puke and rally, man! Woohoo!” A stall door slammed open, and their neighbor stumbled out of the bathroom. Raucous cheers greeted his return to an apparent party outside before the bathroom door slammed, muting the noise.
Uriel shifted back to spirit form while Phil slumped onto the toilet. One more sale, then a beer. Was that too much to ask?
“What” –Uriel shuddered– “was that?”
Phil smiled at the hand-vac that had saved them and closed his sales case. “Micro-transmat jump. Illegal for travel, since you can’t predict your destination, but it works great for vacuums. Transports dirt several hundred yards away in a random direction.”
Uriel puzzled this as she examined her wounded side. “We were at the edge of the station. We could have ended up in space instead of” –she waved disgustedly at the dingy stall– “here.”
Phil grimaced and rose. He’d intentionally ignored that possibility. “You owe me some answers, but not” –he waved vaguely– “here. Can you look human?”
Uriel nodded, then shifted. Her daunting angelic form materialized into a wingless, short brunette in coveralls who might look at home in an engine room. Her knees buckled, and she stumbled into Phil, smiling weakly. “Moving between realms is taxing. I just need rest.”
“And you’re injured.”
“Celestials heal quickly. Comes with being immortal.”
Phil popped the stall door open with a snort. “Must be nice. I need a beer.”
Off-key covers of ancient rock‘n’roll washed over them as they stepped into a bar packed with people. Most were human, though Phil spied a few yetis, some cackling griffins, and a massive ogre-bouncer looming by the exit. A drunken cheer focused Phil’s attention on a hefty blonde kid who reeked of booze and social awkwardness.
“Dude! You had a chick in there? Rock on!” The kid saluted with his pint, sloshing beer as he slapped Phil’s shoulder. Uriel tried to protest, but Phil just guided her around the drunk, ignoring the kid’s lecherous grin. Phil elbowed their way across the sticky floor to a booth in the back.
He made a quick signal for two beers to a green-skinned nymph waitress, then focused on Uriel. She kept twitching, uncomfortable in her human skin.
“Alright, angel,” Phil said over the roar of the crowd. “Tell me about the Key and this Devil’s Foot Locker it unlocks. They sound like your kind’s typical shenanigans.”
Uriel stilled and returned his stare. “You don’t like angels, do you?”
He arched a sarcastic eyebrow. “Celestials fight, and we mortals die. What’s not to like?”
“Don’t you dare lump angels with demons. We are nothing alike. Angels are all that stand between mortals and oblivion.”
Phil snorted. “Yeah, that worked out great for the gnome. What happened to him?”
“Heart attack. I was going to escape with him and the key two days ago, but then, he died. Belal’s fear tactics were too much.”
“Ah, charming fellow.” Phil could imagine that face scaring someone to death.
Uriel glanced around nervously. “We need to keep moving.”
“Not before I get answers. You avoided my first question, celestial, so let’s try another. Why the demon disguise?”
She pursed her lips and her eyes narrowed. The crowd’s volume increased as the band started an old favorite and Uriel raised her voice. “Two centuries ago, I infiltrated Belal’s crew on Éireann because they were closer to finding the Key than we were.”
“Okay, and the Devil’s Foot Locker that it opens?” Two centuries undercover? Holy crap. Phil fingered the Key in his pocket as he glanced around for the waitress.
Uriel cocked her head. “Humans really need to learn their history. Millennia ago, angels won a major war on Earth, capturing over a million demons. We trapped them in a trans-dimensional prison called the Devil’s Foot Locker, aptly named for its size and contents. Human mythology translated it as Pandora’s Box.”
Phil slammed the Key onto the table, making Uriel jump. “This thing opens Pandora’s Box?” Curious partygoers glanced their way.
Uriel nodded. “We call it the Devil’s Foot Locker, but yes.”
He finally caught sight of the nymph waitress sashaying through the crowd, two gloriously frosty pints in hand.
“Bloody celestials.” He flashed Uriel a cold smile. “Congratulations, the Key’s yours. Keep humanity out of your war.” A snap of his wrist flung the Key at Uriel. She shrieked and twisted away. The Key rattled off the booth’s backrest to land under the table as the angel crashed into the waitress, tripping her in a flash of green legs and flying beer. Phil yelped and lunged to catch a pint before it hit the table’s edge. He saved the glass, but lost the beer. Its contents sloshed over him and the table.
“What the hell?” he yelled at Uriel.
The waitress scrambled up and dabbed a towel at Phil, apologizing profusely while glaring daggers at Uriel. He normally would have appreciated the beautiful creature’s attention, but he just thanked her, kept the towel, and ordered two more beers.
Uriel slid back onto the bench, her feet tucked up beside her. Anger and fear battled across her face.
“Get over your prejudice and listen. I need your help. Celestials can’t touch the Key. It pulls us into the Foot Locker as a fail-safe to keep us from using it. After making the Devil’s Foot Locker, we gave the Key to human Guardians, who promptly lost it. Fast forward a few thousand years, and Belal tracked the Key to that gnome’s antique shop on Éireann. He soul-locked him to it and kidnapped him as our courier.”
Phil dropped the soaked towel on the table. “And you soul-locked it to me. Great.” He retrieved the Key, now sticky with lost beer. “What’s soul-locking do?”
Uriel’s response was forestalled when the band stopped mid-chorus and the bar lights came up. A mechanical voice announced a security alert and a video flashed across screens behind the bar. Phil swore quietly. The video was of his and Uriel’s transmat departure from the elevator, and it ended with a grisly shot of the dead gnome.
The lights dimmed, and the band resumed its off-key covers. The blonde kid from the bathroom glanced blearily between the now-blank screen and Phil. “Hey! He’s that guy. From the elevator.”
Phil flashed a winsome smile. “Nope, not me. I was helping my girl in the can, remember?”
More attention shifted toward them, and Uriel muttered, “Time to go.” Phil agreed.
They slid out of the booth, but were too slow. The ogre-bouncer pushed through the crowd to grab Phil by the lapels, lifting him off the floor.
“Hey, big guy,” Phil said, clutching meaty wrists and laying on the charm. “I think we’ve had a bit of a misunderstanding. Whaddaya say we discuss it over a nice cold beer and some swamp water? I’m buying.”
Lips twitched around upturned tusks. “Ain’t stupid. You bad man. Kill little gnome.” Phil blanched at breath that had never known a mint, and considered his options.
Turned out that Phil didn’t have any options. Twenty minutes later, he found himself shackled to a table in a Station Security interrogation room, the Key and his sales case laid out on a side table. Uriel had gone spirit again and lounged unhelpfully in the corner as Phil fended off incarceration.
The elderly officer across from him exuded an aura of joint cream, stale coffee, and grandmotherly displeasure. Having failed at charming the blue-haired old biddy, Phil switched to a more novel approach. He told the truth. Uriel glared throughout his recitation while the officer arched a disbelieving eyebrow.
“The devil made you do it?”
“No, no, the devil actually did it. I’m innocent.”
She sighed. “Insanity pleas are so much paperwork. Can’t you just confess? You fill out one simple form, I file it, and we’re done.”
Phil deflated into his chair. That was why Officer Blue-Hair hadn’t taken his spirit-revealing glasses. She was one of the rabid minority of humans who refused to believe in celestials, despite all evidence to the contrary. He sighed, and switched tactics again.
“I’d like my phone call now.” He extended a cuffed hand.
Officer Blue-Hair grunted and passed over a station communicator, making no move to leave. Phil smiled gratefully, because charm never hurts, and dialed the only local number he knew–Ryan, his ship’s AI.
“Yo,” a dry voice answered.
“Really? That’s how you answer a call from Station Security?”
“I figured it was you, though getting arrested in under four hours is a new record. Congratulations! Have you considered a new line of work? I know a charity that–”
“Not now, Ryan, this is serious. They’re trying to pin me with murder.”
The bureaucrat piped in, “And artifact theft, illegal transmat use, and soliciting without a license.”
Ryan sighed electronically. “I knew it would come to this. Your wicked ways have caught up with you. They’ll sell me for scrap, you know, once you’re gone.”
Phil didn’t have time for Ryan’s melodrama. He drew a calming breath, then caught a scent-memory of sulfur. His hands tightened on the plastic communicator and he glanced at Uriel. She looked briefly alarmed, then vanished through the wall. Of course, the coward wouldn’t face her own problems.
“Ryan, listen carefully. Find Paddy Flynn. He should have a lawyer on retainer around here.”
“Paddy’s on New Milwaukee, unloading cargo two berths down. I was having the loveliest chat with his AI. Did you know that she gets annual ceramic shielding touch-ups? When’s the last time you spent money on me? Oh right, never.”
“Ryan, please. We can discuss maintenance schedules later.”
Ryan sighed again. “Keep your shirt on, and don’t drop the soap. I’ve sent Paddy an urgent request to spring you from the clink.” Knowing Ryan, that’s exactly how he’d worded it.
“Thanks, Ryan.” The sulfur intensified, and the hair on Phil’s arms tried to stand up and walk away. Belal the brute slid through the door, eyed the Key on the side table, and sneered at Phil.
Officer Blue-Hair scratched at her nose and pestered Phil with more questions. He practiced his right to remain silent as Belal took his ease, lounging in the corner Uriel had vacated and fingering his sword.
Ten minutes later, a knock at the door preceded a grim-faced sergeant. Behind him strode a small creature in a green suit and dashing wire-rimmed glasses. The creature’s shock of unruly red hair barely reached the sergeant’s elbow.
Paddy Flynn: entrepreneur, shyster, and leprechaun. Phil would have hugged the little cretin if he weren’t chained down. Paddy’s charming smile put Phil’s to shame, and his high-pitched voice oozed honey.
“Phil, buddy, whatcha doing here? I thought you were in Olympus System working the demigod circuit?”
“Yeah, thanks for that challenge. Rich people don’t buy from door-to-door salesmen, but you know me. I made it happen. Afterward, I thought I’d try something closer to home. Why are you here? Sol is a long way from Éireann.”
“Working a business deal.” Paddy flashed a perfect smile at Phil’s interrogator. “My dear, would you please remove those unsightly shackles? We simply must be going.”
She spluttered, but the sergeant forestalled her protests. “Mr. Flynn paid the fine. Mr. Cozener is free to leave.”
Fine? For murder? How much had Paddy bribed the man? A smirk twitched Phil’s lips as his cuffs rattled free, but it died half-formed. If he knew Paddy, the leprechaun would demand repayment–with interest.
Phil gathered his effects and sales case, but the sergeant dropped a beefy hand on the Key. “The fine covered your release, not stolen goods. This is…evidence.” The sergeant grinned greedily, and Phil pasted on a grateful expression.
“Thank you! I was afraid the curse would kill me before I got rid of that thing. The last guy to carry it died under mysterious circumstances, you know. Perhaps you’ll have better luck.” The sergeant suddenly looked less confident. Phil smiled. “Enjoy!” Let him deal with homicidal demons.
Phil couldn’t help whistling a cheery tune they left security. “Thanks, Paddy, I appreciate you helping me out.”
The leprechaun whirled and punched him in the leg. “You bumbling idiot! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Phil backed away in surprise, bumping into the grimy corridor wall.
“What I’ve done? You don’t know what’s going on here! I’m lucky to be alive!”
Motion caught his eye as Belal followed them out. Phil was about to warn Paddy when his boss glanced at the demon through his wire-rimmed glasses. The demon nodded respectfully and Phil’s stomach clenched.
Paddy tsked. “I’ve always liked you, Phil, but you weren’t supposed to be here. That faun Clarence was our sacrificial lamb after the gnome died. Unfortunately, it’s too late to let you walk away.” He looked back at Belal. “Shall we?”
The brute drew his ethereal sword, thankfully not flaming at the moment, and pointed it at Phil’s throat. “Docks. Move.”
Phil moved, thinking how nice it would be to have a guardian angel. He glanced around the sparsely occupied corridor, but saw no sign of Uriel. “What are you doing, Paddy? You dabble in a lot of shady stuff, but celestials? You’re smarter than this.”
“I secured the Devil’s Foot Locker decades ago, stealing it out from under the angels’ self-righteous noses. I helped Belal hunt for the Key because the two artifacts together are worth a fortune. Belal agreed to pay me an even trillion credits. What would you do for a trillion credits?”
“I wouldn’t open Pandora’s Box!”
“Opening the Devil’s Foot Locker will create glorious chaos.” The leprechaun chuckled darkly. “My kind thrives on chaos.”
Phil cocked his head. He’d never seen this side of Paddy. “Why do you need me? Just take the Key and the Foot Locker and get rich. It’s not like I can stop you.”
Paddy grimaced. “That’s not how soul-locks work. You’re the Key’s Guardian now, and only death can separate you. If I took the Key, it would return to you.” Phil frowned, but didn’t interrupt. “Demonic prophecy says that the Key’s Guardian will open the Devil’s Foot Locker and forfeit his soul. The eternally damned will be a trifle…murderous when they’re released.”
That didn’t sound promising.
They entered an elevator and Paddy punched the button for the docks. The Key suddenly appeared in Phil’s hand, still sticky with beer. Belal rumbled happily like a garbage disposal around a spoon.
“The Key has returned to its Guardian. Victory is near.”
They rode in silence as the elevator clunked downward.
It chimed at the lowest level, depositing them onto the circular corridor of the docks. Cargo doors along the corridor’s interior curve faced a wall of windows. Wide-spaced gates in the windows connected docked ships via long tubes. Africa’s coastline was just visible on Earth far below.
Paddy pushed Phil forward. “The Devil’s Foot Locker is in Cargo Bay Three.”
Phil stopped abruptly. “Wait, what? You have it here? You’ll kill everyone on New Milwaukee the second you open it!”
Paddy gave him a calculating look. “No, the second you open it. Better to lose a station to the demons’ wrath than an entire planet.”
“Oh, you’re so magnanimous. ‘All hail Paddy Flynn, savior of humanity, destroyer of the galaxy!’ You’re as bad as the celestials.”
Paddy rolled his eyes. “Humans. Despite your prejudice, I think you might have liked the angels. You share an annoying sense of self-righteous indignation.” He pushed Phil onward and addressed Belal. “Give me time to clear the station before he opens the Foot Locker.”
The demon grunted which Paddy seemed to accept as agreement. They stopped in front of Cargo Bay Three, Paddy keyed in a code, and the door rattled upward.
The clash of spiritual blades made Phil lurch back, the electrical buzz raising his hackles. Uriel stood atop the Devil’s Foot Locker, resplendent in holy fury as she spun and slashed with wings and sword at ten leathery demons. She and her enemies wisped immortal souls from numerous wounds, but Uriel was maintaining her own. Barely.
The Devil’s Foot Locker she fought upon was larger than a proper foot locker, perhaps six feet by three. It gleamed a burnished bronze, deeply carved with gothic depictions of angels binding the forces of Hell with fire and lightning. An intricate lock beckoned, and Phil felt a slight tug from the Key in his hand.
“Destroy her!” Belal roared and leapt into the fray.
Phil turned to run.
“Stop!” Paddy pointed a small but deadly-looking laser pistol at him. Without pausing, Phil swung his sales case into the leprechaun’s hand with a crack of bone and plastic. The case popped open, and both pistol and Dust Zapper clattered down the corridor. Phil dropped the case and bolted after them. He didn’t care about the weapons, but Ryan’s docking tube was in the same direction.
“Ryan! Start the ship!” he yelled when he saw the gate.
“Ah, the prodigal son returns–and looking for a quick getaway. Why am I not surprised?” Ryan’s dry voice sounded tinny from the cheap wall speaker near the gate.
Phil’s snarky response became a grunt when Paddy tackled his knees. Metal decking imprinted Phil’s cheek, and stars flared behind his eyes. He spun with a punch, but the leprechaun ducked and bit him on the thigh. Phil screamed. They wrestled across the floor, and Phil tried to shake the little cretin loose.
“Get off!” Phil hammered at Paddy until he finally let go and rolled away. The Key that Phil had forgotten he still held left a deep gash on his boss’s cheek.
Phil scrambled for the Dust Zapper while Paddy went for his pistol. They came to their feet together, hand-vac and laser pistol pointed at each other. Paddy shook his head.
“Idiot. You went for the vacuum?”
Phil grinned. “What can I say? I wanted to make a clean getaway.” Paddy rolled his eyes, exactly as Phil had hoped.
Phil thumbed the adapter switch he’d left plugged in, and tossed the vacuum at his boss. Paddy’s eyes widened in surprise. He caught it awkwardly, then disappeared with a whoosh as the micro-transmat activated.
Phil drew a deep breath. Considering their position on the station, chances were high that Paddy had ended up in space. As the leprechaun had wanted to open Pandora’s Box, Phil’s remorse was limited.
The sounds of sizzling combat drew his eyes to Cargo Bay Three. Judging by Belal’s taunts, things weren’t going well for Uriel. Phil glanced toward the gate.
“Ship’s hot and ready.” Ryan lacked his usual sarcasm. He’d seen what had happened to Paddy.
If Phil wanted to run, now was the time. Leave the celestials to their war. He took two steps toward the gate before Uriel’s scream of pain echoed down the corridor. He flinched and paused.
If Uriel was human, would he just walk away? He searched his soul. No, for anyone other than a celestial, he’d already be charging back into the fray. But what could he do? He was a salesman, for God’s sake, not some bloody hero.
Phil gripped the Key until it hurt as maniacal laughter echoed through the empty corridor. He couldn’t leave Uriel to die. Well, she probably couldn’t die, but an eternity of torture would be worse. He glanced at the Key, then at Ryan’s camera.
“Stay saucy, I’ll be right back. I have an angel to rescue.”
“Um, Phil? Behind you.”
A hint of sulfur made Phil’s nose twitch. He spun to find three of Belal’s bruiser demons approaching with drawn blades.
“Where you going, little human?”
Phil looked pointedly at their blades and said, “Back to the Devil’s Foot Locker with you, obviously.” He raised his hands. “Take me to your leader.” Phil laughed at his gallows humor, though the demons didn’t get it.
They prodded him into the bay where Uriel lay pinned to the deck. Demons piled on her limbs and wings while Belal stood over her, sword poised above her heart. He saw Phil and straightened with an ugly smile that made his scars swallow a couple of warts.
“There you are. The time has come. Open the Devil’s Foot Locker, human, and release my brethren.”
Phil stopped short of Uriel and her captors. Blood pounded in his ears, but he put on his most beguiling smile. “Sure, sure. No point in fighting the inevitable, I suppose. Can you move Uriel aside? It feels weird walking through you guys.”
“What are you doing?” Uriel yelled, echoing his thoughts as the demons dragged her out of the way. Fists cracked across her jaw, but her incredulous eyes stayed on Phil.
He approached the Devil’s Foot Locker and stopped beside a madly grinning Belal. A sub-audible chant rolled out of the demons in a harsh, guttural language that twisted Phil’s bowels. The Key vibrated in his hand, pulling insistently toward the intricate lock on the box’s front.
This was a really bad idea.
But, he didn’t have any better ones. Phil raised the Key ceremonially, as it felt appropriate to the moment, and spoke with his best preacher’s voice.
“Keys lock and unlock, capture and release. As it was designed, so shall it be.” The chanting rumbled deeper, louder. “May the forces of Hell never forget the name of Belal, quavering in fear at the grandeur of his…failure.”
Phil spun with a yell and stabbed the Key into Belal’s chest. The demon’s eyes bulged. Belal didn’t disappear immediately as Paddy had, but went one-dimensional and turned sideways as the Key dragged him into the Devil’s Foot Locker. Belal vanished like a nightmare upon waking.
Silence filled the bay.
Phil turned to face a rapt audience. Wide demonic eyes were riveted on the Key. He waved it slightly, and they followed it like cats watching a terrier. Phil’s winning smile returned in full force.
“Congratulations! Like your friend Belal, you too can experience the exclusive opportunity for an all-expenses-paid, one-way trip into the Devil’s Foot Locker! It sounds too good to be true, I know, but wait, there’s more…”
He stepped toward the nearest demon, and they all scattered, disappearing through the walls within seconds. Once he and Uriel were alone, Phil dropped his smile and sagged in relief.
Uriel rose stiffly. “For one terrifying moment, I thought you were actually going to open it.”
“What happened to ‘oh, my hero, thank you for saving me?’”
“Humans are so arrogant. I had them just where I wanted them.”
“Sure you did.” A smirk stole its way onto Phil’s face. He glanced around and spied a trolley. “Come on, let’s get this thing out of here.”
Phil was securing the Devil’s Foot Locker in his ship’s tiny cargo bay when Ryan chimed. “Paddy’s calling, and he seems rather upset.”
Phil tightened the last ratchet, plucked the taut strap like a harp string, and headed toward the cockpit, Uriel at his heels. “Put him through, audio-only.” There was a click. “Heya, boss! How was your little jump through the station?”
“You’re dead, Phil. You dropped me in the hydroponics tank!”
“Could have been worse. Algae is better than hard vacuum.”
“It turned my hair green!”
“Goes with your aesthetic. Sorry, can’t talk. I have an ancient artifact to dispose of and a new job to find. Oh, and–I quit. Sell your own vacuums.”
“Dispose? You can’t dispose of the Devil’s Foot Locker. It’s worth a fortune! Listen, we can split the money–”
Phil signaled Ryan, and the call cut off. “Undock and head in-system.”
Uriel crossed her arms. “What’s your plan?”
Phil dropped into the captain’s chair and eyed her thoughtfully through his wraparounds. Engine vibrations changed subtly as Ryan pushed them away from New Milwaukee.
“We’re going to drop the Devil’s Foot Locker into the Sun.”
Uriel frowned. “You can’t destroy it or the Key. They’re as much spiritual objects as physical.”
Phil shrugged. “We don’t need the Foot Locker to burn up, just be irretrievable.”
“I can and have walked on the face of the Sun. Celestials aren’t bound by the laws of nature.”
“As spirits, sure. But what if you turned physical to carry the Devil’s Foot Locker off the Sun’s surface?”
A light dawned in Uriel’s eyes. “Our bodies can suffer as mortals do when we become corporeal.”
“And no mortal can survive the Sun’s fury. The demons will forever know where the Devil’s Foot Locker is, but will never be able to touch it. It’ll drive them nuts! Besides, I like the irony of it sitting in eternal fire.”
Uriel looked impressed. “That’s…a good plan. You will make a worthy Guardian of the Key.”
“Glad you approve, and that brings us nicely to my next point.” He held up the Key, its rough edges beginning to feel familiar in his hand. “What kind of pay goes with being a Guardian of the Key? Surely you don’t expect me to protect this thing from the forces of Hell out of the kindness of my heart?”
Uriel pursed her lips. “The ancient Guardians considered it an honor and served with devout piety.”
“Yeah, times have changed. Not sure if you know this, but ships don’t fly for free.”
Ryan piped in. “We most certainly do not! In addition to my ceramic coating, I could use an engine purge, my hyperdrive has developed a flutter, and don’t get me started about the state of my plumbing.”
Uriel looked bemusedly at Ryan’s wall speaker, then shook her head at Phil. “The Archangel Counsel will throw a fit if you ask for money to do your duty, as they see it. They’re ancient, and don’t like change.”
Phil’s smile returned. “Just to be clear, you’re saying that I need to sell myself to an inhospitable bunch of old farts?”
Uriel scowled at his irreverence.
“Challenge accepted. I can sell anything to anyone.” He jumped up and moved to his small galley. Two of New Milwaukee’s finest brews opened with a satisfying pop, and he handed one to Uriel. She eyed the bottle dubiously, but materialized and took it, sniffing at the gloriously fresh beer. Phil raised his bottle in salute.
“To the Archangel Counsel’s deep pockets, and their unknown desire to pay me handsomely.” They clinked bottles and drank, Uriel with a dainty sip while Phil downed a healthy chug. “God, I needed that.”
“It tastes like…donkey sweat.”
Phil snorted on his second sip, spraying beer while Ryan said primly, “That sounds horrible. I don’t want to know how you’re familiar with the taste of donkey sweat.”
“Oh, I definitely want to hear this one!” Phil dropped into his captain’s chair. “Ryan, give me a ten-minute warning before we dump the Devil’s Foot Locker. Until then, let’s introduce Uriel to one of humanity’s better traditions: tall tales over a cold beer.”
Ryan chirped affirmatively. Uriel’s expression became thoughtful. She took a deeper drink, grimaced at the taste, then began. “No kidding, there I was…”