"Armageddon": An experience most seasoned hitchhikers say it's better not to be around for
'What have you got there?' Aziraphale asked, squeezing past Crowley and plopping back down in the seat. 'They only had the one sort of wine, and it's labelled "Genuine French" - do you mind?'
'Hmm?' Crowley said, absently picking up the glass. The wine really was genuinely French by the time it touched his lips. He fiddled round with the strange thing he'd found a bit more.
'Why is it speaking to you?' Aziraphale said. 'Is it one of your new designs?'
'No,' Crowley said, pressing random buttons and wincing as previously inconceivable musical forms poured out into the pub.
'Give it here,' Aziraphale said, leaning over and twitching it from Crowley's hands.
'Hey! I was poking at that!'
Aziraphale started pressing random buttons in his turn. It had a language selection option, he saw, but when he poked at that button he didn't get quite what he'd imagined. An enormously long list began scrolling up the screen, with the calm voice reciting each in turn. It took quite a long time to get back to English. Aziraphale frowned. He didn't know any of the other languages, which was strange as he prided himself on his linguistic abilities.* He poked at other random buttons, and found himself looking at something far more interesting.
It was an index.
He read down it, and after a bit of random button pressing, found he could select individual entries.
'It's a book,' he said, his voice gaining an unfortunately squeaky quality at the thought of finding what appeared to be something entirely new to read. 'It's some sort of electronic book -- and it appears to be set at a very slow reading pace.'
'Huh,' Crowley said, irritated that he hadn't been the one to work it out. 'Stupid sort of thing.'
Aziraphale stopped pressing buttons randomly, and began pressing things in order. Under "Options", he found he could switch off the calm narrator, and read silently. With a feeling of triumph he selected "yes".
'Quiet mode enabled,' the narrator said in a sadly disapproving tone, and shut up.
No longer hampered by someone reading the text out to him, Aziraphale began to read quickly. After a moment, he peered round and saw that absolutely no one, not even Crowley, was paying attention, and he began to read at his real reading speed, the text flickering past on the little screen. He discovered that animals were classed as either "Things you would like to eat" or "Things that would like to eat you"; that it was unlikely that the Altairian dollar would ever recover; that angels were a psychotic religious reaction to the harsh material realities of coming down off really good drugs; that bikinis were a very stupid fashion and how was the writer to know you weren't supposed to telekinetically unhook the bra parts anyway; that Brownian motion was the great untapped source of energy that would revitalise the galactic economy; that bubble-wrap popping was considered therapeutic on 94.39346 of civilised worlds including those that had not yet invented plastic; that cornflakes combined with milk formed an indissoluble bond when set and could be used for repairing household items that one fell on while paralytic with drink; that comet-riding was no longer as fashionable as it had been; and that, after extensive field tests, it had been determined that chocolate was in fact not better than sex.**
He was halfway through the Ds when a voice said, 'Excuse me. Could I have that back please?'
He looked up, distractedly. The man who spoken had courted death by tapping Crowley on the shoulder, as he couldn't reach across to Aziraphale. Crowley was giving him one of the long, cool looks that meant he'd got his second wind after a spot of refreshment, and could go on spreading misery and evil all the way till lunch. The man didn't seem to notice this, and was smiling in what he seemed to think was a pleasant manner, although Aziraphale had seen similar expressions in the illustrations for the "Things that would like to eat you" section of his new toy.
Angels, like demons, have remarkably good memories for faces, and as his mind began to reluctantly accept that there were other visual stimuli in the world than text a niggle of recognition worried at him. There was the unlikely red hair that wasn't quite the shade of any other red hair he'd ever seen, and the fixed, unblinking expression of the far too blue eyes.***
'Mr Cortina?' he said, 'no - Mr Prefect, isn't it?'
'Er. Do I know you?' the man said in confusion.
'Didn't we meet some years back? I'm awfully good with faces, and I think --'
'So am I,' the man said, and gave the impression he was trying to peer over Aziraphale's shoulders, 'you're that nutter!'
Crowley sniggered into his wine.
'He does know you, Aziraphale,' he said.
'You said you were an alien,' Aziraphale said accusingly.
The man grinned insanely. 'Did I? I was probably drunk, I usually am. Can I have my, um --'
'Your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?' Aziraphale said, clutching it tighter. 'Can I have it for half an hour, or so? I'll be finished by then.'
'Don't be so bloody silly, it's millions of pages long,' the man snapped.
'Some of the entries are very short,' Aziraphale wheedled.
'Look, I'd be happy to loan it to you, but I'm in a bit of a rush,' the man said. 'You see, the world's about to end.''
He seemed vaguely alarmed by the way that both Aziraphale and Crowley stared at him.
'And you think this device is going to help prevent it, is that it?' Crowley said in one of his more predatory tones. The man blinked and took a half-step back.
'No,' he said.
Aziraphale and Crowley exchanged looks. They could tell when someone was lying. This fellow at least thought he was telling the truth.
'It can't be now,' Aziraphale said.
'You mean, because we'd be given fair warning?' Crowley said.
'And I've left my halo in my other suit,' Aziraphale muttered.
'My book? Please?' the man said. 'We've only got a few minutes.' A look of frustration crossed his face. 'Please,' he said. 'I don't like this, I've got fond of this place. But I need that, and I need to get my friend safely away.' He waved at a tall man wandering round in a dressing gown and pyjamas.
'What about everyone else?' Crowley said.
'I can't save everyone!' the man whispered. 'You're on your own, sorry.'
'You can't save anyone if Heaven and Hell are going to war, Mr Prefect,' Aziraphale said gloomily. 'Fancy another drink, Crowley?'
'Who said anything about Heaven and Hell?' the man said. 'It's a Vogon construction fleet.'
'Not legions of angels?' Aziraphale said.
'Or demons?' Crowley added quickly.
'Give me my book, you pair of feathery morons!' the man screamed, and grabbed the book and ran out the door after his friend, who seemed to have sprinted off, yelling.
'Are my wings showing?' Aziraphale asked, worried. He hadn't brushed them for a few years and he hated anyone seeing him at less than his best.
'Come on,' Crowley said, standing. 'Let's see what's going on.' He led Aziraphale out to the pub car park.
They looked up at the unpleasant yellow monstrosities hanging in the skies.
'Not angels,' Crowley said.
'Or demons,' Aziraphale agreed. 'Temporal creatures.'
'Let'sss sssort thisss out,' Crowley hissed.
There was a certain amount of excitement caused in the car park when the two Londoners suddenly threw off their human appearances and got to work, but it was a day of general excitement, and most people already had their hands full running and screaming, and couldn't pay attention to everything that was going on.
It was all over by tea time, anyway.
* * *
*Which he really shouldn't have - being fluent in all human languages was, after all, a requirement of his job.
** Except for the really expensive kinds of chocolate.
***Of course, after six thousand years of Crowley guilelessly meeting his gaze in an attempt to appear innocent, this was an expression Aziraphale didn't find too much out of the ordinary.