“Well, we can mourn everyone you ever knew and deal with the fact that you’re Space Hitler later,” Az mused, as much sympathy in their voice as had ever been made apparent. “We can’t just float here forever. What’s our game plan, Captain? Perhaps we should check the computer and see if there are any recorded planets near us.”
River froze, his eyes hollow. “Uh…” this was a lot to adjust to for someone who, 24 hours of consciousness prior, was a debugger on Earth and thought aliens might not be real. “It seems like the chances of any nearby planets being in our navigation system are incredibly unlikely, since we had to jump through hyperspace to get here. It took us 400 years, there’s no way they could have gotten there and back so quickly.”
“Not necessarily, Captain,” Az winked, projecting the appearance of Data from the Star Trek franchise. “Hyperspace travel, to oversimplify, involves tunneling through the space time continuum itself. The two do not scale together--a properly calibrated ship could make the jump from Earth to here without an hour passing in Earth time, and succeed in a return trip with equivalent expediency. We were merely fortunate enough to encounter some sort of distortion in the continuum that sent our temporal trajectory amiss.
“As strange it sounds, with the distance we traveled and the relative speed in the hyperspace tunnel we rendered, being off by 400 years to our destination would be about the equivalent of us ending up approximately seven Earth miles away from our current position, in any direction. Space and time don’t scale directly, but looking at the projected endpoint for our jump, we should have been about 7 miles in that direction upon completing our jump. The odds were, no pun intended, astronomical.” Az pointed to the right of the spaceship, but the concept of direction in space still eluded River.
“Just our damned luck,” River spat, punching an empty spot on the Captain Chair’s throne-like armrest.
“I second that motion, but without the slightest hint of sarcasm,” Az replied with a grin, raising their index finger thoughtfully. “The odds of us encountering such an anomaly were positively astronomical, yes, but that is very likely what saved us, as I am certain our pursuing ships were loaded with enough antimatter themselves to make the jump easily and continue their pursuit… only to find themselves 400 years too early to catch you.”
“I guess that is kind of lucky, in a way,” River admitted, half under his breath.
“And it’s equally fortuitous,” Az continued, “that we didn’t end up crashing into a planet or landing thousands of years off target further! Imagine hitting a pothole in your car going hundreds of miles an hour--that’s the sort of outcome I would expect in this scenario. That we encountered an anomaly mid-course that was enough to throw us off time-schedule, but was small enough that we ended up within a single digit miles radius and a three digit Earth years radius of the target, is miraculous.”
“Well,” River replied, inhaling sharply, “if this was the predetermined jump-to spot in the ship’s computer, there’s got to be something of interest around here. I’m definitely not the first human to arrive here.” He followed the painfully intuitive GUI on the ship’s computer and found a single point of interest within a short distance--a planet labelled “KOMO.”
“Komo…” Az said, nodding pensively.
“You know it, oh godly one?” River scoffed.
“I had never heard of it before my fateful stint on Earth. Some of the men torturing me with different wavelengths of radiation during my… ahem... ‘boxed period’ mentioned it. Well, mentioned is the wrong word. They thought about it, and I was close enough to read their residual brain waves at moments, even through the radiation shielding.”
Az shrugged. “I said they mentioned it, not that they sat down at my bedside--”
“Box-side,” River ribbed them, struggling to keep a straight face.
“--nobody explained their evil plan in detail as a bedtime story is my point,” Az huffed, “but they have certainly been there.”
“Well, buddy,” River said definitively, an eager smirk creeping across his ghastly semi-human face, “I guess we’re going to Komo, then.” He didn’t notice, but an equally sincere smile lit up Az’s “Data” face in response to being referred to as a buddy. A couple clicks later and the ship was hurtling towards the strange, shimmering, byzantium colored planet. In spite of himself, and as much as he knew this entire scenario would cause an insane panic attack and breakdown once he had a chance to relax, all the trauma from the past week was drowned out in sheer adrenaline and excitement. From debugger to piloting a spaceship (well, “piloting” a spaceship) to a mysterious alien planet--as terrible unpreventable tragedies went, this one was pretty kickass so far!
The auto lander program worked flawlessly upon their arrival, touching down softly on what looked to be a flat top of a massive crystal, the same deep reddish purple color as the entire planet had appeared from a distance. “You’ll want to put this on,” Az shouted, psychically tossing him a full-face gas mask with a small oxygen tank attached on each side. “Temperatures are manageable, but the ship’s sensors indicate the oxygen levels here are well below--”
“I don’t breathe, Az. They replaced my vitals with machinery specifically so I wouldn’t have to breathe, so their bioweapon wouldn’t do me in.”
“I am aware,” Az replied, “but if I had been allowed to finish my sentence, you would have heard the part about protecting your eyes from what look to be sandstorms. I also recommend you wear this suit.” River caught the rubbery one piece suit tossed at him and glanced out the windshield as a cloud of particulates battered its surface with a sound like Earth hail. He sighed, slipped into the suit, and accepted Az’s assistance in activating the small machine on the suit’s back that vacuum sealed it to him from neck to toe.
“And the mask?” Az pestered, their arms crossed.
“I never thought Data would be bugging me about wearing a gas mask like a worried mother,” River grumbled, reluctantly sliding the oxygen mask over his head. “Is there any life here? Does the ship say?”
“We’ve got the same kind of sensors the Weather Channel would have, Captain,” Az replied, shaking their head. “I’d love to toss you a Tricorder and tell you to go to town, but we’re dealing with Earth tech from four centuries ago. Use your eyes and ears.”
River swallowed hard, nodded, and stepped into the decontamination chamber and off the ship. Az transformed into a conventionally attractive blonde woman-in-black in OuterSights garb, to buy time on the off chance the evil corp (now EarthSights) had left behind a settlement.
The massive crystalline plateau they now stood upon was among the largest of countless varied formations sprawling into the distance in every direction. A sun was visible in the sky, considerably further away from Komo than Sol was to Earth, but in the much weaker and less oxygen-rich atmosphere its effects evened out to roughly the same as an Earthling Autumn midday. The surfaces of the crystals shimmered in the sunlight, their surfaces reflecting many of the rays skywards and maintaining the planet’s rather chilly baseline temperature. River was frozen with awe, slowly spinning in place to take in the surreal landscape, his trance only broken when the heavy winds cast a cloud of particles at him, the impact stinging him even through the thick rubbery fabric of the suit. He had to center himself to keep from being knocked asunder, as the onslaught continued for nearly a minute.
“This isn’t sand,” he called to Az once it subsided, motioning them over to inspect the particles in his hand.
“I’ll be damned,” they telepathically mumbled. “It’s--”
“Eroded bits off these crystal things. Much thicker and harder than a grain of sand. Stung like a bitch.”
“Too bad you’re wearing that mask,” Az sighed, “or that would have been even more fun.”
River didn’t respond. He glared briefly, then turned and carefully lowered himself from the plateau, his footing unsteady on the rough rocky terrain beneath. They maneuvered the rocky land for nearly half an hour, pressing deeper as much lesser storms blew by them, but the terrain grew ever more complex and difficult to traverse with no indication of anything in the distance but more crystals.
“You can travel at the speed of light, yeah?” he asked Az. “Why don’t you have a look around?”
“I already did, while you were playing in that first crystal storm,” they replied. “And guess what I found?”
“Crystals. Though I will admit, I didn’t take the time to comb the planet carefully or fully. My ‘body’ can travel at insane speeds, but my consciousness, my ‘mind’ if you will, is only about twice as superior in processing speed to your own.”
“All that and modest too,” River jabbed, climbing up an incredibly wide, lumpy crystal. It was nearly six feet high, but a pebble compared to the formations blocking their path in any other direction.
“Point being,” Az continued, “light speed travel is marvelous for leaping between vast swaths of emptiness in the hollow depths of space, but if I am required to actually take any sensory detail in or navigate a complicated environment, I may as well hold back and travel alongside you like this where I can be of some assistance.”
“How fortunate for me,” River jeered, hoisting himself with his cyborg strength to the top of the formation.
“I will choose to ignore your unwarranted hostility,” Az replied, effortlessly floating to the top of the formation themself. “I do not intend to brag, merely to remind you what a tactical advantage you gain by having an invincible being such as myself on your--”
It happened so fast, River couldn’t process it. There was a split-second blinding flash of crimson light, and immediately River’s mind was filled with the same transmitted blaring shriek of pain he had occasionally picked up on when walking by Az’s prison in the OS building. River fell backwards off the formation startled, managing to land on his feet. Az floated down and crouched beside him, but only as a pair of shapely legs in heels and dress pants. “Az! Oh my god, Az, are you alright?”
“I’m alive,” Az moaned, their voice not nearly as clear in River’s mind, “and tickled pink to hear the genuine concern in your voice for me… but whatever that blast was, it took out about half of my mass all at once.”
“I thought you couldn’t be hit,” River frantically blurted. Any other time he would have said this with bitter sarcasm, but this time his panicked confusion was palpable.
“I’m a lightform, not a ghost,” Az explained, the legs and feet slowly transforming into a three foot tall version of Data. “I’m made of energy, so energy can damage me. It’s how they’d torment me in the box. Unfortunately, light based weapons move at the speed of light, so if they catch me unaware--it's not exactly like I can just jump out of the way. Whatever that weapon was, it’s among the most powerful energy in concentration I’ve ever witnessed. Normally such attacks would slowly distort my field and whittle me down. That destroyed half of me in one go.”
“Are you going to be alright!?”
“Yeah, as long as roughly a third of me exists, my entity remains stable and I’m still ‘alive.’ I can regenerate over time, but… If I get hit again here, it’s probably the end for me.”
“Well, why don’t we just sit here for a while?”
“Regeneration is an ‘overnight while River sleeps’ thing, not a ‘give me two seconds behind this rock’ thing.”
“Hmm. Noted. Well we can’t risk that--you zoom back to the ship at light speed, and I’ll sneak back--”
“We’re equally close to death, Captain. One more strike and I’m gone, but the very first blast from that thing would disintegrate you immediately. I’m not leaving you River. And… I… eh... couldn’t if I wanted to. My senses are all out of whack now. I can move along at your speed or a little faster using visual feedback, but until I regenerate, I’d be as likely to end up in this planet’s sun as back in the ship if I tried to jump to lightspeed. It would take long enough you’d be at a risk to wait for me--so I’m not doing it.”
“You really do consider me a friend, don’t you?” River asked, somewhat incredulously.
“I wouldn’t have made you the Captain if I didn’t,” Az replied, winking.
Their heartfelt moment was interrupted by a sudden and even more powerful crystal storm, forcing them to stay huddled behind the rock. As the wind and blinding spirals of crystal bits continued to rage, a large, bizarre silhouette approached them. Even if they tried to run in the storm, they were cornered. If River had an organic heart, it would be racing. As it grew closer, some details became apparent. Their attacker had four scuttling, omnijointed black legs on each side of its vaguely disc-shaped torso, with a single additional one in the center. From its center, a towering neck emerged, with a circular head atop and two huge, bat-like hexagonal ears on top of that. The details of its face were obscured by the storm, but a single, massive, crimson glowing eye in the center peered ominously down at them. From the tip of its prehensile claws to the top of its ears, it had to be at least eight feet tall--it would tower over them even if they stood.
“H-hello,” River said, shouting to be heard through the mask, as it closed in on them--only a few yards away now.
“♓︎⍓︎◆︎□︎◻︎♓︎⍓︎♓︎◆︎ ♎︎⬧︎♋︎🙰♑︎♒︎♓︎□︎◻︎⍓︎♓︎◆︎●︎🙰⬧︎♋︎♎︎ ♌︎❍︎■︎♓︎□︎◻︎❒︎⍓︎⧫︎ ❖︎♌︎■︎❒︎⬥︎♏︎ 🙰♒︎♑︎❒︎♏︎⬥︎⧫︎♏︎❒︎♏︎❒︎⬥︎,” the being screeched in response. As it edged closer, its ocean-blue, almost metallic-looking skin came into view, entirely unscathed by the blizzard of razor sharp shards surrounding it.
“I think something was lost in translation,” River gulped.
“One moment,” Az blurted. “You, there,” he said, pointing to the thing, “repeat what you just said.”
“Intruders should not be here!” the thing screeched again, this time in a heavily accented, vaguely feminine voice.
“Did you connect its mind to mine!?” River asked Az, only in his mind.
“Negative,” Az replied, making sure River and the creature could both hear. “I telepathically granted them an English--what would the Earth term be?--I suppose ‘language skin.’ They process the intentions of the words coming and going from their mouth the same as they did in their home language, but we are now able to communicate. It’s not perfect since it’s an overlay as opposed to truly learning, but--”
“Hello,” River said to the thing, interrupting again. “We’re sorry, we didn’t know that we should not be here. We’ll just, uh, be going now.”
“Komo will not let you leave,” the thing hissed in reply, its neck extending higher and looming over them further to its maximum height of twelve feet.
“The planet is alive?”
“Not Komo the planet. Komo the Komo.”
“Komo the Komo?”
“Komo am Komo.”
“I believe,” Az interrupted, “that it’s saying its name is, um, also Komo. I don’t think the Komo language has an equivalent of pronouns.”
“Yes!” Komo replied. “Komo is a name, Komo is a planet, Komo is a species. All are Komo. Good job. Now intruders die.”
“No no no no no no no no no,” River blurted frantically, waving his arms wildly as the lens-like crimson eye of Komo glowed brighter. “I think we should talk this out first. I’m River, the human, this is Az, the Kirlian. We’re unarmed, Komo--”
“River are waving River’s arms! River clearly have two arms! River lie!”
“We don’t have weapons, he means,” Az sighed.
“We found your planet in the logs of a stolen ship,” River hurriedly explained. “We will gladly leave if you want us to. We mean you absolutely no harm--”
“Stolen ship?” Komo asked, its neck comically drooping to one side in curiosity.
“We stole it from some very bad men,” River explained. “From an evil organization on my home planet, and the planet Az here was imprisoned on. Az disguised themself as an agent of theirs in case they still had men here, but--”
“Komo am very sorry,” Komo blurted, its voice shaking and its neck shrinking back to a neutral position. In this stance, it suddenly looked much less threatening. The storm started to die down right on cue, and the expressive purple beak-like lips on its face became visible. It looked… sad. “Komo thought intruders were with OuterSights, since Komo saw the ship land, and Az in the form of a bad person.”
“You’ve had a run in with OS--er, OuterSights?” Az asked, after exhaling a massive telepathic sigh of relief.
“OuterSights came to Komo out of nowhere. OS destroyed the underground Komo cities and ransacked the Komo technology. OS experimented on other Komo, and OS took a sickness that had spread harmlessly through Komo for generations and changed it with OS’ machines. The sickness got worse and worse each time OS forced it on the Komo until it finally killed all the Komo, and almost all the other life on Komo... except for Komo.”
“Then they left?” River asked, his blood boiling all over again with blind rage at his former employer. The men and women who signed his paychecks, who he’d gotten drunk with at the Christmas party--he’d probably french kissed one of the people who had done this atrocity, and they’d gone on to blame him for everything!
“Then OS left,” Komo confirmed, its legs buckling under it as it sat down in front of them and hung its head solemnly, its eye glow falling back to dim levels. “Komo doesn’t know how many years it’s been. Komo never knew why they did this to Komo, or why only Komo survived the sickness. They did not know Komo had survived, Komo hid or surely Komo too would have been killed. OS had a shapeshifting alien with OS that OS called a Kirlian that translated like Az has translated for Komo, but OS only told Komo the details required to force Komo to comply with OS’ experiments.”
“Well, I suppose I’m not the first ‘Box Boy,’” Az laughed. While they were trying to appear unaffected, through their mind link River could feel a deep fury building inside the usually cool and collected Kirlian.
“I’m so sorry they did that to you,” River replied. “Sounds like they took everything from you, just like they took everything from me. They wiped out my entire species, too--their entire species--with a further adjusted version of the virus. Then when I helped Az escape and tried to expose them, they made me the scapegoat for the entire thing and played the helpless victim, and the whole damn universe believed them. That was 400 years ago...”
“It sounds like River has it a lot worse than Komo,” Komo replied.
“Nah,” River retorted, “I wasn’t really around for most of it. We jumped ahead 400 years in time by accident, and Az has been with me since a few hours after it all happened. I feel worse for you, wandering around all alone here for hundreds of years with all your friends and family dead. How long do Komo live, anyway?”
“Komo doesn’t understand time,” it replied. “Komo only dies if killed.”
“Looks like you’re not the only immortal god around here, buddy,” River grinned at Az. Az scoffed and glanced away. “Komo, what kind of conditions do you need to live? Do you breathe air?”
“Not really,” Komo replied.
“Do you need a certain kind of fluid or sustenance to survive?”
“Komo doesn’t think so. Komo has to eat something to stay alive, but Komo feed on krukatczh for hundreds of years, hunting them with laser.”
“Basically space cockroaches,” Az explained to River in an aside. “They’re everywhere. Little bastards live through everything on every planet.”
“While on the topic of lasers, Komo is very sorry Komo hit Az with Komo’s laser. Komo hates violence, but Komo thought Az was with OS.”
“I’d have fired a laser at myself under those circumstances as well, I suppose,” Az replied. “So don’t concern yourself with it. Consider yourself forgiven.” Their words were kind, but it was clear their ego had taken a large hit from the encounter that had yet to recover.
“Komo,” River asked, returning to his questions, “do you want to stay on Komo?”
“What does River mean?” Komo asked, tilting its head again to one side.
“I’m the Captain of a ship,” River said to Komo, speaking aloud again. “I haven’t given it a name yet, but it’s the finest 400 year old ship in the world. We’re putting together a crew, Az and I, and--”
“Space pirates,” Az interjected, shifting to a three foot tall facsimile of classic manga character Captain Harlock. “A crew of space pirates.” Az switched to a private conversation with River. “What the hell are you doing?” he whispered, “that thing almost killed me.”
“I’m getting us another crew member--one, as you just admitted, who has a laser that apparently can kill ‘gods,’” he telepathically spat back.
“It could kill a Kirlian at close range with one shot, River!”
“Yep. So imagine what it could do to a normal species. That is exactly why it’s an invaluable ally. And it seems sweet.”
“It’s not a lost puppy, Captain. It’s an arcane, immortal, lovecraftian--”
“Glass houses, Az.”
“I hate it,” Az pouted.” I don’t like it at all.”
“And I like it a lot. Now are you going to cause a problem for me here because your almighty ego was bruised by a Komo, or are you going to let me be the damned Captain like you decided a few hours ago?”
“I defer to you, o Captain, my Captain,” Az replied with great distaste.
“--and I’d be delighted,” River continued, switching to speaking aloud to Komo and glaring at Az, “to offer you a position on my ship.”
“What kind of adventures do River and Az go on?” Komo asked eagerly, its eye suddenly glistening with excitement.
“We haven’t,” Az scoffed. “This is our first one. River’s only been a Captain for a few hours. It probably won’t work out at all, in truth.”
“Yes, this is our first one,” River answered bashfully, mentally threatening Az that he’d find a new box for them if they tried to sabotage this any further, “and I’ve only had the ship at all for a few hours if we don’t count the 400 year jump I was out cold for, but that just means you’re getting in on the ground level. Just be aware that it will be dangerous. OS has people looking for us all over the universe--”
“If Komo sees OS,” Komo growled, “Komo will disintegrate them on sight. Komo has no fear. Komo is a killing machine.”
“I thought Komo didn’t like violence?” Az asked, unintentionally slipping into its bizarre speech pattern.
“Komo doesn’t. Unless it’s against OS. Then Komo will shower in blood.”
“That’s what we like to hear,” River replied with a sinister grin. “So what do you think, Komo? We shouldn’t stay here long with these storms, they can’t be good for our old ship. If you want to come along, we’d be thrilled to have you on our crew--”
“And as friends?” Komo asked, starry-eyed.
“Y-yes,” River replied, slightly flustered, “and I’ll be your friend, too.”
“YEAH!” Komo screamed, so loud it nearly deafened River. “Komo have friends that aren’t dead again, for now!”
“For now?” River winced.
“Komo am being realistic. OS will probably do what they did to Komo to River and Az too when they catch up. First OS will drill long screws through River's wrists and ankles to hold River to a table, then OS will inject all kinds of horrible mind-altering drugs, then OS will get a cattle prod and a spray bottle and--”
“Then we just have to stay one step ahead,” River blurted, a chill racing through his spine. “Komo, do you know anything about this sector?”
“There is not much near Komo,” Komo replied, thinking hard. “Komo is by Komo's self in a remote region of space, from what Komo has heard. There is a warp nearby that OS mentioned, a few hours away. Komo never had ships to travel, but River’s ship should be able to find it. It would get the crew back into more inhabited regions of space, so River would have to be very careful.”
“A warp,” Az explained to River, their tone finally softening, “is a purposefully constructed, controlled hyperspace tunnel between two points that is quicker and safer than initiating one in the fashion we did earlier."
“Komo, welcome to the crew,” River beamed, extending a suited hand. Komo paused for a moment to try and figure out the gesture, but Az relented their grudge and whispered a definition of a hand shake to it. Its omni-jointed front leg lifted and shook River’s hand, its claws working in a remarkably similar fashion to fingers, and the three braved the storms to return to their ship.
“This is SO COOL!” Komo screamed upon entering the bridge. “Komo have never seen a real ship before! Wow wow wow!”
River plopped down in the Captain’s chair and played around in the GUI, feeling his way around and taking a rare non-panicked moment to familiarize himself with the software. “This must be the one program I didn’t do any debugging work on,” he chuckled to himself, and nearly salivated with the thought of cracking into it and having its way with the code when they eventually had some more permanent downtime. In the meantime, he managed to locate the warp in the charted space on the map, with a curious password-encrypted note attached to it. With a few simple cybersec tricks, he was able to unencrypt it without the password, though its contents were seemingly innocuous--”SPACE MALL.”
“Space Mall?” he blurted.
“What?” Az nonchalantly asked, glancing towards the bridge while giving Komo a tour of the ship.
“It says the warp leads to a Space Mall.”
“What the hell is a Space Mall!?”
“A mall in space,” Az replied.
“There are malls in space!?”
“Why wouldn’t there be?” Az asked. “Did you think your planet and species are so unique and so special that only you dreamt up the idea of large indoor shopping and entertainment centers?”
“Well--surprise!--there are Space Malls.”
“Shopping and entertainment center!?” Komo gasped, its neck bouncing up and down eagerly.
“Looks like at least one other species didn’t know about Space Malls either,” River smirked.
“If I had to hazard a guess,” Az said with a sigh, “we’re about to go to the Space Mall, aren’t we, Captain?”
“Hell yeah, we’re going to the Space Mall. Think about it, Az--we’re 400 years behind in everything from technology to fashion to knowledge. If it’s anything like an Earth mall, we might be able to get weapons for protection, clothes to blend in, tech for any purpose we could imagine, delicious food--way better than krukatczh, Komo--hell, we might even be able to catch a space movie.”
River and Komo were equally trembling with anticipation. It was such a wholesome and uplifting sight, Az couldn’t bring themself to mock them or list out the many reasons why this was probably a terrible idea. “Set a course there, then, Captain,” Az boomed, a grin across their Captain Harlock face. “We’re going to the Space Mall!”