Komo hadn’t been able to locate Reol, but that was alright—they instantly spotted one another when they--along with most of the entire complex—fled outside in response to the massive sonic boom from the exiting MS-186.
“Shit!” Reol shouted, pounding his tiny fist on the ground. “Komo, do you see the ship?”
Komo’s neck extended to its full height, putting her at a surreal ten feet tall. “Komo see it! Komo see it!”
“Kickass. Alright Komo, listen up, you gots to get old Reol over there as fast as poss—” But, before he could even finish his sentence, Komo had processed his request and flipped his tiny, orb-like body high into the air. She caught him on the tip of her beak like a trained seal with a beach ball, stretched her neck backwards as far as possible, then let go, snapping her rubbery flesh forward like a catapult. Reol pressed his nub-like limbs back for maximum aerodynamics as he rocketed through the air, soaring over the diverse alien crowd and various parked space-clunkers while flying directly for the doors to the crew’s SW-Z.
The security system recognized his biosignature—of course it did, he installed it—and lowered the ramp, opening the doors just in time. “Bangogoalie!” Reol cheered, soaring through the doors and harmlessly bouncing off of the table in the foyer/dining room. Komo skittered along after him, cramming herself through the entrance just as he finished getting the ship ready to fly.
“It’s faint, but I’ve got a lock on those bounty hunters’ wake,” Reol explained, hurriedly launching the ship. “If we’re okay to burn through a lot of caches, we can keep up enough to trace their path. And the Captain ain’t exactly here to tell me I can’t, so here we fuckin’ go.” Komo went careening down the hall as the ship lurched into hyperspace, tearing an artificial path identical to their target’s through the fabric of reality.
“And what did they tell you dese bad guys was, exactly?” Reol asked.
“Uh…” Komo paused for a moment, her massive head drooping to the side. “A Felonius and a Quieresan, Komo think.”
Reol seized up, his pupils dilating. “Komo, you don’t mean Feronian, do you—”
“Yeah!” Komo chirped. “That’s it! And an Aquarium!”
“Alright. Well, let’s pray to whatever’s out there that Ol Reol’ don’t have to fight it. Also--we’re taking a brief detour. ‘Dere’s somebody on Gaboria I gots to talk to.”
“But River is in—”
“Look, Komo,” Reol boomed, turning the chair around to face her, “do you want me to get my big gun or not?”
Komo’s eye lit up. “BIG GUN!?”
Reol smirked, trying desperately to maintain for himself the confidence that Komo clearly had in him. “The biggest.”
“In that case, Komo love detours!”
“Don’t worry, though,” Reol continued, spinning back around and fiddling with the chair’s controls, “I gots a plan already to keep River and Az boy safe in the meantime.” There was no way this SW-Z could keep up with their ship, but by following its hyperspace trails, Reol had deduced the kidnapper’s ship was a late model NNA-ACE-RAR, which was all he needed to know. He navigated the ship’s computer to the Shadow SpaceNet login portal for less-than-legitimate bounty hunters and issued a local signal shown only to those in the general vicinity:
“late model NNA-ACE model, most likely RAR, carrying over two hundred million tokens worth of bounty. Pilots are Quidian and Feronian. Ripe target for the picking, too fast for my ship. Due qhrtz of my location, distance undetermined—still in this sector. -Boomy C.”
“That’ll distract ‘em for a bit,” Reol cackled. “Now then, we’re comin’ up on Gaboria, so brace yourself, you big beautiful creature, cause ‘dis is a pretty wonky atmosphere for a ship like this…”
“Goddamnit,” Mike groaned, reluctantly pausing Space Jam and checking the ship’s rear-view camera.
“Dare I ask?” Al replied.
“We got a tail, buddy. And I don’t think they’re riding our ass to watch Space Jam.”
“Perhaps it has something to do with this Bounty Bunch alert,” Al said with a nervous chuckle. “Late model NNA-ACE model, most likely RAR, carrying over two hundred million tokens worth of bounty. Pilots are Quidian and Feronian. Ripe target for the picking, too fast for my ship. Due qhrtz of my location, distance undetermined—still in this sector. -Boomy C.”
“Boomy C? That’s that son of a bitch, Reol!”
“I told you we should’ve iced him when we had the chance!” Mike blurted, so agitated his words were nearly slurring together. “Man, this is real grody, dude! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck--”
The ship behind the duo’s own reached out to them with a video transmission. “I suppose we’d best pick it up,” Al sighed.
Their dashboard was graced with the translucent image of a flamboyantly dressed humanoid male with a bright, unevenly dyed green mohawk and a pair of particularly unflattering glasses. "’Glibber glob hob slox,’ daddio," he said, menacingly.
“Red Nax,” Mike replied, gritting his teeth.
“You’re acquainted?” Al asked, unfazed.
“We used to post on the same Earthtaku message board,” Mike replied.
“I’m going to give you two options,” Nax continued. One, we fight, I kill you, then I take your cargo. Two, we don’t fight, but I still kill you and take your cargo. I recommend the second option.”
“Those sound like the same option,” Mike replied.
“Yeah, for you,” Nax replied, pausing to chug a glowing purple liquid from a glass orb, “but killing you without a fight is the easier choice, for me. And guess what, blob boy? ‘I like my fights like I like my women—easy.’” That last sentence was delivered in thickly accented Old English—Nax was clearly quite proud of it.
Al braced himself to go into his spirit form, but before he could a massive plasma cannon blast took a flaming chunk out of the left side of their ship. “’Right here, right now, cha-cha-cha!’ ‘Right here, right now, cha-cha-cha!’” Nax shouted repeatedly in Old English, more and more clearly shitfaced by the second.
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Mike spat, struggling to regain a steady altitude. “Stop abusing Old English, you… you… you ‘painted cunt!’”
“I don’t believe that means anything in Old English either,” Al commented. “Just speak Universal Delta when you’re in this quadrant, like a civilized person.”
“We’re not gonna’ survive this if we engage him,” Mike shouted, ignoring Al’s taunting as a second blow shook the ship. “We can’t win. And we’re not nearly far enough from this star to jump to hyperspace yet. We need to land somewhere.”
“We’re at The Edge of the Universe, Michael,” Al replied, his telepathic voice finally displaying some nervous shaking. “There’s only one planet here, Gaboria--”
“Then we’re landing there!” Mike screamed. “Hail ES, do a FTL call, fuck the cost. Tell them we’ve got the bounty but are under attack, and that we need pickup on Gaboria.”
“Affirmative,” Al replied. Mike dove sharply while killing the ship’s engines to send Nax helplessly launching far beyond them, then corrected and made a beeline for Gaboria. “A reply already. They’re sending one of their strongest through hyperspace now to secure them. Payment upon delivery.”
“Kickass,” Mike chuckled. “It’s all coming together.”
“Well, well, well, looky here, Komo--if it ain’t our friends in the NNA-ACE. But who the hell is that!?” Reol spat, bewildered.
“Which one?” Komo asked.
“Not the green one, the red one,” Reol replied. “Damn, that’s a fuckin’ CMZ. We ain’t gonna outrun or outgun that son of a bitch. We’ll just go to the—”
But, before he could process what had happened, Komo had fired her laser directly at Red Nax’s red ship, destroying it in a single, explosive blast. The mighty craft detonated like fireworks in the skies of Gaboria, raining down metal debris all over the gorgeous leafy forests beneath.
“Holy shit,” Reol muttered. “H-how did you know your laser wouldn’t burn a hole through the windshield?”
“Komo see heat,” Komo replied, her head bouncing excitedly. “Komo looked at the heat of the windshield relative to our speed to calculate the heat resistance, and Komo knows the temperature of Komo’s laser!”
“W-wow,” Reol replied. “B-Bangogoalie, then! Haha. Frightening, but damn impressive. Can y’ do it again?”
“Not without charging about a full day,” Komo sadly replied, her neck drooping.
“’Den I’ll need my big gun after all,” Reol replied. “Looks like they ain’t seen us yet somehow, even after that kill, so we’ll just sneak over to my buddy Jhrld’s house…”
“’What the fuck!?’” Mike shrieked in Old English, rather high in pitch.
“Yes, I saw it too,” Al replied. “But whoever it is, they must be an even more fearsome bounty hunter than Red Nax.”
“’There’s, like, always a bigger fish,’” Mike said to himself, thoughtfully.
“I despise you.”
“I hope ES gets their guy here soon,” Mike said, nervously. “This place is too hot right now, even for us.”
“But if that’s what it takes to be heroes—”
“Exactly,” Mike replied.
They landed cautiously at the planet’s one rest stop, nearly deserted at present. A single once-majestic pyramidal building, its grey metallic exterior worn with the winds of a hundred Gaboria years, loomed over a poorly maintained, pot-hole sprinkled parking lot for craft. Through the building’s one window, they could make out a sleeping cashier—a squishy, kitten-like Zanrian curled up on the counter. Mike sighed with relief. At least they didn’t have to worry about terrestrial attacks. “He said he’ll meet us here soon,” Mike said, closing the control panel on the ACE’s dashboard screen and walking River’s body out of the craft. His Feronian friend followed suit.
As if right on cue, a sleek black rectangular craft looking vaguely like a briefcase slammed down not far from the rest stop, crash-landing in the soft grassy soil with a shockwave that disturbed the forest for hundreds of kilometers. It unfolded in the middle, a humanoid figure launching from its center with a trail like a jetplane. The towering man landed with one fist to the earth in the center of the parking lot, his oversized black suit jacket billowing behind him like a cape.
“Senior Asset Retention Officer Greg G.,” he boomed in a menacing southern-US Old Earth accident, rising and dusting off his suit all-black suit. Al had no concept of ‘right’ in this context as an eldritch abomination with no eyes, but River’s body’s skin crawled at the sight. He was frighteningly tall, with a build more chubby than frightening, and possessed a soft and weak face that was hard to take seriously… but something about him elicited a reaction of absolute terror. There was something deep inside Mike that knew this man was hiding a horrifying power. “And you are?”
“I’m Liquid Mike, s-sir,” Mike said, forcing River’s body to take a bow, “and this is Big Al—”
Before Al had a chance to object, Greg clawed the poor Feronian in half without moving a muscle, from a distance that seemed impossible. Splurts of blood and unexplainable rainbow fluid erupted from countless schisms on the being’s body until a cloud of powdery smoke rose from it with a “hiss,” the halves falling dead. He hadn’t even had a chance to eject his spirit form.
“Apologies. I prefer to kill from a distance, you see. Doesn’t get splatters on my glasses.”
“Wh-what did you just…” Mike could barely form words, River’s eyes frozen in place at the wreckage of his best friend’s invincible Feronian body in scraps. “We brought you River and Az—”
“Feronians are illegal in Federated Planets territory,” Greg G. boomed, his lips curled into a shit-eating grin. “Your buddy was a Class X species… the ones that are too dangerous to be left alive and too smart to become easily controlled weapons of war. You’re lucky that you’re a Quidian, boy. Your kind make excellent tools… capable as all get out and too goddamned stupid to realize when you’re being used.”
“This ain’t Federated Planets territory,” Mike growled. “Bounty hunters do their research--I know about the old kingdom here and their "alliance" with you, we're well outside of those property boundaries. And if you think I’ll just run screaming because you say I’m allowed to live, you’re dead wrong. You ain’t never met a Quidian like me. You know what they say in your native dialect—‘early to rise, slow to compromise.’” Mike raised one fist high and posed coolly. River’s recent costume change made this look especially impressive, he thought.
“I’ve been speakin’ Old English since ‘old English’ meant the 1600s, you buffoon. But now you’ve aroused my curiosity. Go ahead, boy, stop posing like a fruity cowboy and show me what you’ve got. But you better not be relying on River’s cyborg enhancements to defeat me… it won’t end well.”
“’I’ll make you snack on those words,’” Mike shouted in Old English, leaping at Greg and readying River’s fist for a full-force punch to the jaw. His eyes grew big as a white light engulfed Greg’s right hand, then launched from it like a speed-of-light rifle bullet. Mike was torn from River at a sub-molecular level, each particle of his Quidian body slipping through the empty space between the particles of River’s human body. Mike crumbled to the pavement as River’s body fell to its knees, dazed. “What the fuck!?” Mike gurgled, now barely shaped in his humanoid blob form. “Wh-what are you!?”
“Just a good old human being like my boy River here,” he boomed, kicking River across the pavement. “But first, let’s deal with you, Mikey boy.”
“You b-bastard… you d-don’t scare me,” Mike blubbered. if you knew what I was capable of, wh-what they call me in my home-sector…”
Greg scoffed. “What do they call you, Flubber?”
Greg shook his head with disappointment. “Oh, right. That one was lost during River’s little apocalypse 400 years ago, wasn’t it? What a damn shame. Robin Williams’ smart home tries to fuck him. A film ahead of its time.”
“You know what wasn’t lost, and what I have a super rare, high-quality rip of?” Mike replied, smirking confidently. “Space Jam.”
Greg didn’t react. That shocked Mike. He was sure everyone loved Space Jam.
“Hey,” River shouted, awakened by the impact and finally rising to his feet. Mike and Greg turned in shock to face him. “Did someone say Space Jam?”
The lot fell silent for a moment.
“Well, aren’t I lucky?” Greg finally boomed, cackling and clapping his fat hands together. “Chuck said it must be a false alarm, but I had a good feeling. It’s been a long time, son.”
“Greg Gregola,” River replied, grinning and cracking his knuckles. “I have no idea what the hell just happened, but it’ll all be worth it to finally get to smash your face in. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“About 400 years. What were you doing when I saw you last?”
“I think that was around the time your owners turned me into an immortal cyborg. Or was it when you helped them frame me for mass genocide? That was such a busy week at work.”
“Why, you give me too much of the credit. I was just your humble manager back then,” Greg chuckled, “I didn’t do a single thing to ya’ before you turned rogue on us, boy. Don’t try to blame me for your sudden decision to turn traitor.”
“Yeah, that’s fair; sorry that I wasn’t down for that whole ‘kill everybody on Earth’ plan.”
“The planet was dying. We did what we had to do to. You really should come see Earth again, sometime—it’s a downright utopia now.”
Mike’s jaw dropped. These two powerhouses must have forgotten he was even hanging around; he was hearing some pretty earthshattering revelations.
“Hold up,” River interrupted. “Is Az alright?”
“They’re locked up tight in the blue blob’s ship waiting for me, never to see the light of day again,” Greg replied. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to avenge them. I already killed the Feronian and Mike is next—after you, that is. The future of Earth depends upon you dying here and now.”
River turned to face Mike. Mike braced for some kind of ultimate killing blow, but instead he saw only sadness and understanding in River’s eyes. Then the slightest hint of a smile, and a wink. In an instant, it became clear. Mike slowly formed into a puddle, creeping towards his ship…
“I’m sure you’re not wrong, Greg,” River replied with a shrug. “You know me, I can never keep my mouth shut. I tell it like I see it—and all I see is a few fat, overgrown weeds bragging about killing off a garden full of beautiful flowers. If you didn’t know I was right, you wouldn’t go to all this trouble to shut me up—you know if the modern civilians of your little utopia knew what actually conspired--”
“The objective data is on our side, boy,” Greg sighed. “You’d have known that if you’d actually read through the shit you tried to leak. We weren’t a planet equipped for billions.”
“…of dollars being hoarded by a few big-wig fuckwads and consuming everything on Earth like they owned the place. Finished your sentence for you.”
“Preach at me all you want, son. As one of those big-wig fuckwads now myself, I can say without a shadow of a doubt the Earth is the best it’s ever been—and that’s with the gutter trash properly disposed of, and us still around. But you never were one to accept objective fact when it went against your worldview, were you?”
“No, I guess I wasn’t,” River grinned. “But you may want to look up the meaning of the word ‘objective’ later. I think that blue motherfucker had a better understanding of our language than you do.” Mike froze, horrified that River’s quip would return Greg’s attention to his current mission, but River knew Greg was too fixated on their banter to think that far.
“You talk a big game, boy. But we’ve done enough talking now for a few hundred years. Let’s see how that new body of yours does—come at me.”
River crossed his arms. “Nah.”
“You’re a smart one, River. You know I know everything you’re capable of…”
“…while I know nothing of your new repertoire, correct.”
“I was doing you a favor, son. One movement from me and you’ll be dead. But if that’s the way you prefer it, I suppose I owe you that much after 400 years.”
“It’s only been 400 years for you, my dude. For me… well, it’s been a crazy week.”
“And it will be your last,” Greg replied, firing a lightspeed beam of white energy from his fingertips directly at River--but River vanished an instant before it hit.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Az said, taking the form of a gorgeous angel dressed all in black. They were high enough in the sky now that Greg couldn’t see them--even looking straight up.
“Az!” River shouted, tearing up with relief both at their being okay and at his own narrowly avoiding death. “Are you… holding me in the air? With physical wings?”
“Yes,” Az replied, soaring with River further into the distance. “At the moment, I am quasi-tangible. Well… fully tangible, I suppose, though it seems I can turn it on and off at will.”
“You don’t sound thrilled for someone who just cheated eternal imprisonment and found out their best friend is still alive. Also, I feel like this sort of tangibility is, uh, not something you’ve been able to do before.”
“You think correctly on all accounts,” Az replied, gravely. “This confirms my darkest fears.”
“Any chance you’d like to enlighten your Captain, who just managed to convince the guy who kidnapped us to release you with nothing but a heavy glance and a wink, I might add?”
“There exists a type of energy that does the opposite to a Kirlian’s form of the forcefield that the bounty hunters trapped me in. Right now, this entire planet is consumed with one such field.”
“Well hell, that’s a good thing, right!? Considering one of us is, you know, a Kirlian…”
“Stop for a moment, Captain, and ask yourself why, if we do not own the technology to do so, there would be such a thing in place here.”
River paused for a moment. “Is there a colony of Kirlians here?”
“Kirlians don’t make ‘colonies,’ River. And it’s not tech that would be passively on in the background somewhere—I’ve only heard of its existence before in rumors and in ancient legends. We didn’t even have such a thing in our home world. The technology—if it does exist—is from something beyond even the boundaries of this universe as understood by a Kirlian.”
“I’m still not getting your point, Az.”
“My point,” Az spat, “is that this is technology beyond anything even my race of literally god-like beings has witnessed in the dawn of our recorded history. And our job, River, is to record everyone’s history—everywhere. The rise and fall of planets, of worlds, of species…”
“That’s… wow,” River replied, his head racing. He was trying desperately to stay even headed, but for someone who didn’t even know aliens were real a few days ago, this was a lot. He paused for a moment to process all this. The birds-eye-view of Gaboria was oddly calming and beautiful—just lots and lots of blue trees and a sprawling palace made of interconnected, crumbling pyramids. “Sorry, g-go on.”
“Here’s the worst part. There’s no other species exactly like us in the known universe. Feronians are the closest thing in their spirit form, but while they can be affected by anti-Kirlian measures, their spirit form is already as ‘tangible’ or not as they desire—it’s a totally different set of principles. They would have no use for this kind of booster. Which means…”
“…the presence of such an energy booster means we’re absolutely dealing with another Kirlian?”
“Bingo. That Greg guy—he’s got to be possessed by one. Or, well… he’s somehow still in control, too, but he’s firing off tangible bits of the Kirlian as lightspeed bullets, and I suppose in theory the same could be done as swords, knives, etc. That’s the only explanation for all the data we’ve just gathered. It’s not something that should be possible, and yet…”
“I mean, if you have the same power enhancements, then can’t you just… out-Kirlian him?”
“That’s not the issue here, River,” Az replied. “Kirlians are neutral. We have been since the beginning of time as far as we’ve recorded it. Always watching, never interfering, no matter what. A chance to save an entire species from annihilation with one word? We’d keep our mouths shut.”
“As someone who grew up with Earth religions, the fact Deism is more or less applicable, at least on a Kirlian scale—”
“Don’t get philosophical with me, River. This isn’t an anthropology forum. I hate everything about Kirlian culture. Why do you think I broke off from them? I wasn’t exactly on official business when I got boxed, River. I wanted no part in their sick little world. What’s the point of recording the history of tens of thousands of civilizations and species if you’re going to let them all disappear anyway!? Who will be left to even give a shit!?”
“S-sorry,” River replied, still struggling to even process all this, “I didn’t realize it was quite so… terrible.”
“You’re fine. I’m just… not. I’ll get to the point. Kirlians have never, in the billions of years we’ve been active, sided with any cause. ‘Kirlians don’t take sides’ is something I had hammered into my head for millions of years, and while I broke free of it, I was… well, almost the only one. But between this and what Reol told me, I know this isn’t a case of one rogue Kirlian—somehow, ES has managed to ally with the Kirlians on the whole. I wanted so badly to believe he was just making that up to taunt me in our first encounter; I’ve been too frightened to ask him about it since, because deep down I somehow knew it was true--”
“So you’re saying that they have gods working for them.”
“You’ve never had to see everything we’re capable of, River. I have a moral compass more aligned with… well, the good humans, like you. I… I h-haven’t always… h…”
“Az, we’re losing altitude.”
Az landed in a small clearing in a blue forest, unable to maintain their tangibility despite the boost. “I’m sorry, I just… I can’t control my form when I’m this fucked up, especially not when I'm trying to get the hang of this tangibility thing...”
“What’s wrong, Az!?”
“Listen, River. What I’m about to tell you is something you cannot tell anyone else in the crew.” They shifted form slightly, retracting the angel wings. “You can walk away from me if you want, cut off ties, never see me again, but you cannot tell anyone else there. I can’t bear with the thought of anyone else alive having this knowledge aside from me, and… w-well, and you. You need to know, to decide if you’re even willing to have me at your side for the absolute hell that is to come—”
“There’s nothing you can tell me that would change our friendship, Az,” River replied, desperately hoping this was true.
“What they’ve accused you of doing, River?”
River’s heart pounded. “What, wiping out an entire planet’s worth of people?”
“Yeah, that. I’ve uh… I’ve done that. Minus the getting framed part.”
River took a deep breath. “I know it was for a good reason.”
Az looked at him, bewildered, tears in their eyes. “Wh-what?”
“I know you well enough. If you did it, it was for a good reason.” River slowly exhaled. “If you were in trouble, and I had the ability to save you, I would kill every last motherfucker standing in my way—even if that was everyone on a planet, or in a solar system, or a galaxy.” He had said this mostly to make Az feel better, but realized as he said it that it was one hundred percent true.
“Would it hurt you? To--to do it?” Az replied, their voice shaking through the for-the-first-time-tangible tears.
“I don’t think so,” River replied. “And even if it did, I know I wouldn’t hesitate—or have any regrets.”
Az broke down weeping and shifted into their true, original form for the first time in millennia and rushed at River, arms outstretched. River grabbed them and held them tight, astounded by the feeling of being able to physically, fully tangibly, feel them in his arms. He realized for all their bravado, they were no more of a god mentally than he was—and that they were just as desperate to get to cry in someone else’s embrace. While his abomination body was incapable of producing physical tears, River felt their phantom wetness soften his cheeks.
“I thought you’d hate me,” Az sobbed, gripping him tighter.
“I could never hate my best friend,” River replied.
They stood motionless, holding each other and sobbing for what felt like forever. “Promise me you’ll do it,” Az suddenly blurted, pulling back just enough to be able to lock eyes with River.
“Whatever it takes.”
“To do what!?”
“To… stay alive.”
“Alright, but you have to do the same,” River retorted, sniffling through a chuckle.
“Don’t worry, I’ve made it millions of years. For me, it’s not over until I say it’s over.”
“Big words from someone who just got rescued from a big lockbox thanks to your truly and the help of the blue blob boy who put you there to begin with.”
“I would have been okay to die there,” Az replied, sniffling. “Because I know you would have gotten away somehow in the end. You’re too stubborn and you have too good a crew, even already.”
“That’s no reason for you to die!” River snapped. “How do you think I would have felt if I found out I had made it and you hadn’t?”
Az chuckled through the tears. “That’s a feeling I know all too well. I don’t get along with Kirlians, and I’m chronologically immortal. How many friends, acquaintances, and lovers do you think I’ve seen fade away in… god, I don’t know, two million years?”
“I’m sorry, I’d—I’d never thought about that.”
“So yes, River, I’d be content with dying first for once if it meant I had the option of not having to lose somebody. If it meant I didn’t have to live through losing… y… you.”
“You’d throw away another however many million years for someone you’ve known for less than a week?”
“I’d throw away a billion years for my Captain,” Az replied, leaning on his shoulder, looking into his eyes through the tears, the first genuine smile of theirs River had ever seen spreading across their face.
In that moment, River realized something beautiful and terrifying—400 years in the future, with the might of the universe against him, his own worst fear had come true. He once again had friends that made him want to live—and family that he was afraid to lose.