River, until recently, had lived a rather droll but successful existence.
It started out simple enough. He was born, as all humans, on Earth. The idea this need even be specified is, quite frankly, absurd. More specifically, he was born in the good old United States of America. He had good grades through middle and high school, got into a nice University when he graduated, and started working for the government-funded organization OuterSights right out of the gate as a debugger for their proprietary internal systems. It seemed like things were going horribly smoothly--getting paid six figures out of college and dedicating one’s life to a good cause is an admirable way to waste one’s twenties--but several years into his tenure at OS, all during the same bloody week, things got a bit... unusual.
The first weird thing was the small box, shielded with radiation on all sides but protected from it within, which appeared in the middle of the old conference room. There was a camera inside it, and many men spent many hours in their little VR goggles interacting with it as if whatever was inside was alive. Since OuterSights focused on researching space phenomena, River’s mind danced with thoughts of a secret alien inside the box. Sometimes when he walked by this room, his head was filled with a horrific, primal shriek of pain, expanding and quaking inside his skull with such pitiable fervor he found himself shedding a tear. But, when he worked up the courage to ask a supervisor about it, he was allowed to wear the headset and found himself looking in all directions around a perfectly empty box, and was forced to relent. He had named the potential thing in the box Box Boy, however, and would greet it each time he walked past, just in case.
The second oddity was when he realized a program he was debugging was intended to alter the genetic makeup of a virus of some sort. Considering the spacey nature of OS, River theorized that this virus must have come from the stars, and again taking his concern to a supervisor, these suspicions were confirmed. But, he was assured, they were studying it to understand the nature of extraterrestrial microbiological threats, to ensure that Earth’s scientific defenses were ready in the event of an unwelcome little visitor from a meteorite. Logical enough, he thought, and carried on as usual.
The third, and perhaps most peculiar happening during this period, was when River was inexplicably offered an experimental medical procedure to be transformed into an ageless cyborg, though the HR department phrased it slightly differently. He was advised under the table in a classified briefing that an impending experimental weapon attack from Russia would pose a great threat to anyone who had not undergone the procedure, and, in no hurry to die, he followed through. He would immediately regret this decision.
Upon awakening, River found his skin turned a sickly greyish-blue, his hair and beard replaced with silver facsimiles, his muscles inexplicably enhanced to the extent it required relearning his body. His lungs no longer functioned--breathing was irrelevant. An artificial heart now pumped artificial blood at a steady speed. What he was advised would be a simple cybernetic lung and immune system strengthening surgery had become a full body mechanical do-over. Only his eyes “looked right” to him in the mirror. He sat motionless for hours, staring at the monster he’d become. He had agreed to it in the fine print, he was told. The details, of course, were classified.
But River hardly had any time for his newfound dysphoria and depression to grow before he discovered he had accidentally been given access to a top secret folder in his OS’ intranet. Valuing his life less than ever before, he decided to go against his perfect employee reputation and peek through the documents, morbid curiosity overtaking him. In these documents, he came to know three things:
1. That the thing in the box was, in fact, alive, and was being tortured every day;
2. That the space viruses were not, in fact, being studied to protect mankind, but to whittle its numbers to a manageable level in a proposed event referred to casually as “the wipe;” and
3. That he, River, along with his entire department, had been considered an essential enough employee to have his vitals replaced with a cybernetic facsimile, one of precious few working class individuals deemed worthy of being secured a spot in the new, post “wipe” world.
River hastily copied this folder in full to a removable drive, told his supervisor he was heading home for the day due to a stomach ailment, and, as the room was empty and it seemed the proper thing to do, programmed a simple task to shut off the radiation barrier on the mysterious box and force open its lid, set to occur about the time he should have been out of there, safe and sound somewhere. His tracks were swiftly followed, and while he was not aware of it, he had been inexplicably made wanted for corporate espionage, hacking, sexual harassment and assault, stabbing a coworker, poisoning one sandwich, stealing another sandwich, and conspiring with the Russian government and middle eastern terrorists.
The hours since his escape were spent driving deep into the mountains--not in his own car, but a borrowed car from a trusted family member. He had brought along his laptop and petabytes of removable drives, containing everything from emergency contacts to his favorite shows to watch in whatever cave he’d end up living in… and, of course, the stolen documents, in no uncertain terms detailing the conspiracy to wipe out the vast majority of the world population. He pulled off somewhere along the way, near a road sign he thought he could remember again, and buried a copy of the evidence in a weatherproof box deep down, just in case he was caught and had the originals confiscated. He ditched the car by the side of the road within walking distance of the run down, no-questions-asked little motel he would find himself sheltering in. As the sign outside and the kindly old woman inside informed him, they even offered free color television.
And that, dear friends, brings us to the present…
River now lay atop filthy sheets on a lumpy bed, unfamiliar-feeling arms outstretched, his still-human eyes combing endless pareidolia patterns in the cigarette-stained popcorn ceiling. A fuzzy rerun of The Carol Burnett Show blared on an ancient discolored tube television, the funny voices and distorted laugh tracks a fitting background cacophony to his dissociation. He usually enjoyed this show, ancient though it be, but tonight he hadn’t even acknowledged it was playing… though subconsciously, it did soothe him.
None of this felt real. None of this could be real. “Where do I go from here?” he kept thinking, but the thought kept echoing through his mind like a skipping record with no answers to be conjured. It was too nightmarish to even process what had happened, let alone what could and should happen next. “Good thing I don’t have a real heart, or it’d have stopped by now,” he thought, smiling slightly in spite of himself.
After that brief self-levity, River stared numbly above in silence for so long it felt like time had stopped entirely. The flickering red haze on the stained ceiling from the neon sign outside had faded from annoying to comforting… it let him pretend, in his nearly shut-off dissociative state of mind, that he was just a passer through in the 1980s, waiting for a pretty girl he met at a local diner to show up to his room for some fun. This temporal illusion faded quickly when the red glow turned to a blinding green and the entire motel rattled wildly like the busted coin-operated bed he lay atop used to.
“Fuck, it’s them,” River mumbled under his breath, leaping to his feet in a panic and stuffing his pockets full of all the removable drives from his bag. They’d have to come in through the lobby first, he reasoned, so...
River glanced at the TV, and then at the oversized window on the outward facing wall. Sorry, Tim Conway.
With startling ease, River tore the TV set from the cable and the wall and hurled it through the window, leaping through the makeshift exit before the last shard of glass had rained to the floor. Outside he found himself staring up at a crimson spaceship nearly as large as the hotel itself. Blinding green landing lights eerily pierced through the chilly mountain night. A hatch on the side opened, a ramp slowly emerging from it to the ground. And with the poise of a goddess, strolling regally down to the gravel below, descended… Carol Burnett.
River froze in place, stammering. Carol approached him, smiling sweetly, but something was clearly wrong. She appeared hazy, fuzzy, like a poorly connected public access broadcast on an old TV. “It’s alright, River,” she said, her voice as staticy and distorted as it had been on the broadcast inside, “I come in peace.”
“You’re Carol Fucking Burnett,” River replied.
“Do not be alarmed.”
“Carol Fucking Burnett just came out of a spaceship.”
“I have taken the form that I deemed would be the least startling to you.”
“You deemed it wouldn't be startling to have a distorted Carol Burnett come at me from a spaceship!?”
“This was the most recent calming force in your mind,” the voice replied, “but perhaps I’ve misjudged the details.” In an instant, Carol Burnett transformed into Char Aznable from the original Mobile Suit Gundam animated television series. “Perhaps,” Char said, his voice changing suddenly to a unique and androgynous tone, “I should use my true voice, and take a form you are more willing to follow into deep space.” River pinched himself to see if he was dreaming. He was much stronger than he realized, so it hurt horribly, but no, he was awake.
“Aznable. Yes. But we’re not going to get anywhere if you merely keep repeating the names of whatever forms I take. Call me Char or Aznable or Carol or Burnett or whatever you fancy. You couldn’t pronounce my real name anyway.”
“What is your real name?” River asked, his curiosity starting to overpower his fear. At this point, several curious motel-goers were peeking out of their curtains in terror and awe at the spectacle unfolding, though none had the guts to go outside.
“Az,” the being boomed proudly, a self-satisfied smirk spreading across Char’s face.
“That’s… that’s a syllable in 'Aznable,' which we both just said. How is that unpronounceable?”
“As a part of another word, certainly. But I would bet many credits you can’t pronounce it on its own. It is inexplicable, the simple but godlike combination of phenomes a mortal tongue could never utter. Why, it is only through our telepathic link now I am able to project the word into your mi--”
“Az,” River blurted.
“Well, shit,” Az replied.
“I stand corrected," Az continued. "Now then, River, I strongly advise you to come with me.”
“First I get turned into a robot, then I get abducted by aliens--”
“No abductions here, my dear, unless that would fulfill some sick fantasy of yours, in which case I would be thrilled to oblige. You are free to stay here if you wish, I’m merely attempting to repay my great debt to you by offering you a one way ticket away from the dozen other ships like this which are currently en route to do much less pleasant things to you.”
“Your debt to me?” River asked, instinctively stroking his faux beard in confusion. “Did I suppress some E.T. shit from my childhood, or--”
“You gave me my freedom from those same abominable humans,” Az replied. “The least I can do is offer you the same. I followed your wavelength here to--”
River’s face lit up, a stupid grin spreading across his grayish blue face for the first time all week. “You’re Box Boy!” he squealed.
“Please, refer to me as Az,” the being sighed. “I despise boxes, and I am no boy. I tried to correct you each time but the radiation shielding dulled my telepathic abilities. I am a genderless psionic lightform being referred to by your wretched scientists as a Kirlian. Though yes, I am eternally thankful for your camaraderie. You heard my screams and you freed me. Your heart is pure, your intentions are just… and I want to repay you. Please, I implore you--at least take a look around.”
River cautiously approached the massive vessel, climbing the ramp with an equal blend of awe, excitement and trepidation, following his cosplaying nigh-omnipotent savior through the doorway of the small decontamination chamber and then through the next into the ship as both doors closed behind them. “Whoah,” River uttered, slack-jawed as he looked around the ship’s bridge, “so this is a Kirlian ship…”
“Oh, uh, no, actually,” Az corrected him, transforming into Captain Kirk and plopping down in the large spinning captain’s chair at the bridge’s center. “I stole this from OuterSights. Kirlians normally don’t use ships. Since… you know… we can travel at the speed of light. I have grown quite fond of it, though. So easy to role play my favorite Earth media as such. Reminds me of why I wanted to come here to begin with… ah, memories.”
“I didn’t know we had ships,” River replied, playing with the oversized projection screen across the windshield from the controls on the arm of another chair.
“You also didn’t know you were debugging the program that will likely doom your species, or speaking to rogue Kirlian royalty whenever you'd walk by the box. Observation is not necessarily your strong suit. It’s alright, we all have weaknesses. Except me.”
“Box,” River coughed under his breath. Az pretended not to hear.
“Well,” Az boomed, rising and motioning around the bridge, “this is, of course, the bridge. You’ve found the Captain’s seat, the other two major seats, the projection windshield… that’s about all there is to it, I’m afraid, quite primitive compared to the Muzian model it’s clearly ripped off of, but it’ll do. There are also of course living quarters for up to six crew members, a kitchen, a couple of bathrooms, a recreation area--”
“What kind of weapons does it have?” River interrupted, starry eyed.
“Um… about that. I might have actually, ahem, stolen the only ship without those.”
“What this ship does have is a state of the art cloaking system. It didn’t appear to be compatible yet with the weapons rather crudely thrown on the other SW-Z models, but in a firefight against multiple ships of the same kind--or heaven forbid, against one from an advanced society--you would be… what’s the Earth term… shit out of luck, anyway. Since we are now two unlikely friends on the run from an evil government, the ability to go completely invisible, physically and on radar, seemed a bit more prudent.”
“I’d feel a lot more prudent if I had guns, Az.”
“I don’t want to hear it from someone who apparently doesn’t know what prudent means even though they speak the damn language natively. Oh, also one last thing. You’re the Captain, congratulations.”
“I’m the what!?” River shouted.
“It’s only logical. I’m far too egotistical to make a proper leader. And since I owe you my life, you’re the only other living being I could stomach subordination to. That, and I want to go on a space pirate adventure but it’s no fun if I’m in charge.”
“We aren’t space pirates, Az.”
“Aren’t we? We stole a ship, which seems quite piratey to me. And soon, we shall be in space. And space pirates need a Captain and a crew… so you are the Captain, and I am your first officer and best friend.”
“I just met you, Az. You’re not my best friend.”
“On the contrary, you are never going to see anyone from Earth you love ever again, so I am in fact your oldest and dearest friend by default. For what it’s worth, that’s actually a great honor for you. And quite exciting for me, as I usually don’t get along with others.”
“Hmm, I can’t imagine why.”
“It does truly boggle the mind. An unrelated note: the feds are almost here.”
“Then why are we sitting here?!”
Az shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the Captain.”
“I have no idea how to fly a damn spaceship, Az. I debug Earth programs.”
Az quickly shifted into Dr. McCoy from Star Trek: The Original Series. “Damn it Az, I’m a debugger, not a spaceship pilot!” they chuckled, copying the voice. “That’s you right now, River. You slay me. It’s got a GUI, Mr. Debugger. ‘SW.exe.’ It’s not rocket science. I mean… I suppose on a conceptual level, there’s some of that at play, but--”
River plopped down in the Captain’s chair and opened the executable. “I’ll be damned,” he mumbled incredulously, “there’s literally a ‘launch into space’ button on the menu.”
“It’s the navigation beyond that that gets tricky, but we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
“Do you mean cross--”
“Did I stutter, Captain?” River exhaled silently, clicking the launch option. “Prepare for take-off!” In a surprisingly smooth motion, the ship rose to the skies, and just in time--as at least a dozen identical, weapon-toting ships of the same model appeared on the horizon, a stray missile just barely missing the ship and obliterating a random tree on the motel property in a fiery hellstorm.
“Oh shit,” River muttered, seeing them on the rear camera. “They’re closing in fast. There’s no way we’re getting out of this alive, Az. We aren’t even gonna make it to space at this rate.”
“Not to worry,” Az replied, plopping down in the first officer’s seat and taking control of the mouse. “There’s another reason I chose this particular empirical example of this model.”
“And what, oh god-like one, might that be?”
“This one was also loaded with a cache of anti-matter.” Az returned to their own voice and cackled hysterically as they set the destination to the furthest location in the system’s memory, clicked the “JUMP TO HYPERSPACE [EXPERIMENTAL]” option, before River could even process his own panic, the sheer g-force from the resulting shift knocked him unconscious.
When he came to, River was greeted by a spanning view of outer space outside the windshield. After a fuzzy moment of trying to remember how he ended up here, it all clicked, and he realized maybe this was turning out to be a little bit kickass after all. He let out a victorious “Woohoo,” but when he locked eyes with Az (back in Char form), he knew immediately something was wrong.
“I’ve got good news and bad news and worst news,” Az sighed. “Which do you want first, buddy?”
“Uh… the order you listed them just now seems fine,” River replied, swallowing hard.
“Good news. Uh, we survived, clearly, and got away. We’re so far away there’s no way they’ll possibly find us. Oh, and while you were out cold, I took the liberty of connecting the ship to SpaceNet, since we’re out far enough we can get access. That’s great, yeah?”
“Y-yeah,” River replied. “What’s SpaceNet?”
“It’s the internet of space, genius. The bad news is, ahem, we escaped because we kind of... somehow... unexpectedly... jumped 400 years ahead in time. So everyone you loved? Dead. Sorry. Okay, not everyone--I’m right here!”
River didn’t reply.
“Okay okay, so uh, that’s the bad news. Now, the worst news…” Az booted up SpaceNet and navigated to its primary search engine… “Ah, here we go. Promise me you won’t drama queen too hard?”
“I promise,” River sighed, trying rather unsuccessfully to suppress both the inevitable panic attack and the mental slideshow of family and acquaintances that were now rotting in the soil millions of light years away.
“Here we go, then… and translate to, Earth languages, English… and… done.” With a click, and a grueling wait, an article appeared on along with an incredibly slowly loading low-res photo of River’s face, his photo from his employee badge, front and center, but his eyes colored red and an ominous aura added over the photo. The headline:
“400 YEARS LATER: REMEMBERING THE GENOCIDE OF HUMANITY AND ITS ESCAPED PERPETRATOR”
“After setting the bioweapon payload to detonate, River escaped on a stolen ship with a rogue Kirlian into the deepest reaches of space, never to be seen again. The tragic death of 95% of humanity led the Galactic Peace Alliance to officially make themselves known to Earth, and band with the heroic survivors at EarthSights (formerly OuterSights) to rebuild what the Angel of Death has destroyed…”
“Yeah, looks like... welll... the whole wipe out humanity thing went precisely as planned… and they blamed you for it… and it… well, it worked really well. Those bastards are heroes now and pull the strings of the GPA now the whole aliens thing is out of the bag. And now--”
“I’m Space Hitler,” River barely managed to utter, staring blankly at his likeness on-screen.
“...yeah,” Az nodded. “You’re Space Hitler.”