Episode 4: GalacMall 2800C


Parking cell C-347 opened up into a long, winding, industrial hallway with hundreds of doors lining each side of its labyrinthian walls, each adorned with a similar letter-number marking on the front. Arrows carved from an unfamiliar red stone were embedded every few yards in the concrete-like floor, guiding the crew towards the main entrance.

“Things are going to be a bit different in here than you are used to communication-wise,” Az said softly. “For one thing--”

“Whoah,” River blurted, “I can hear you… with my ears!?”

“Correct,” Az replied. “I am able to speak verbally in a method indistinguishable from matties--er, physical species. It takes great effort, since I have to telekinetically create each vibration manually and synchronize the mouth movements of my ‘body’ to it, but I’ve finally gotten quite decent at it over the past couple thousand years or so.”

“This is weird,” Komo nervously added. “Komo doesn’t like hearing Az out loud. It feels... dirty.”

“Get used to it, you two,” Az growled, adjusting their voice to the feminine snarl expected from their current Jeocolepian form. “I won’t be able to communicate with you mentally either, so you won’t be able to call for help. The coolest thing for lower lifeforms about these space malls is also the most frustrating for those like myself. There’s a powerful psionic field projected through this entire building that acts as an advanced universal language skin--no matter who you talk to, you’ll hear them in your preferred language, and vice versa.”

“So it’s the same as what Az does?” Komo asked, her neck drooping to the side in confusion.

“Not quite. What I do essentially adds a buffer in your mind so you understand a given language and automatically process your verbal intentions through that ‘skin’ of sorts. When you speak English, Komo, you are actually speaking and understanding English. If you spoke to a man here who spoke Feron, for instance, he would still be speaking Feron, your mind would just understand it as Komo, or English… whatever your most comfortable language is. And anything you said to him, he would hear in Feron. The software is incredibly swift, but there’s still a slight delay in processing, where you will hear what they say in their original language for a moment before the overwhelming psychic imprint of the words in your main language kicks in to drown it out. And, after that, you’ll see their lips moving still to the original words they’re speaking. It’ll be like watching an old dubbed Godzilla movie. Incredibly disorienting.”

“Software?” River asked, stroking his silver beard thoughtfully where it stuck out at the bottom of his mask. “You mean, the whole thing is done by computer?”

“That’s correct,” Az replied. “Hard to fathom since psychic phenomena are fully in the realm of the occult in Old Earth science and mythology, but enough species communicate as such that it’s never been much of a mystery to the rest of us. Brainwaves are able to be intercepted and manipulated via computers like packets on a network or music on the radio.”

“It sounds like it’d be easier to just talk to Az in Komo’s head,” Komo grumbled.

“Komo ca--er, you can’t. The generated field here is too strong. It totally blocks out my mental links with you two. I couldn’t maintain a connection on your wavelengths no matter how hard I tried.”

“I suppose this also means,” River gulped, “that we’re technically being monitored at all times.”

“Thankfully not. In neutral territory like this, privacy is important and is taken seriously. Each word is individually translated, and a series of complicated keys and encryptions ensures that while you will receive the words in the correct order from the correct person, the actual words in the database are all scrambled in no particular order and then deleted as soon as the translation is heard.”

“I still don’t like it, but I guess I don’t have a choice,” River sighed.

The sprawling parking hallway ended in a massive pair of automatic metal doors that majestically spread when the crew approached. As soon as they stepped in, River and Komo were breathless--this place was incredible!!

The accessible floors of the cube rose twenty stories, visible through abundant cut out balconies in the same spot from top to bottom. The place was absolutely packed, the dull roar of idle chatter in thousands of languages filling the air. Mercifully, one had to be in close proximity for the translator field to do its thing, so the overwhelming cacophony of speech was not doubled up on top of itself.

River’s jaw dropped behind his mask as he froze to watch the passers-by. He had worried he’d seem out of place here, but he fit in perfectly with the chaotic mixture of species and beings roaming the halls. A creature resembling a tangled mass of hundreds of PVC pipes rolled eagerly by to his right, blowing air through its different pipe holes as it rolled by to steer to its destination. A swarm of floating orbs chattered idly amongst themselves as they zipped erratically about in formation to his left, moving only at 90 degree angles in bursts of two to four feet. They went close enough by his head River could make out some of their conversation, much to his excitement:

“We should totally see Earth Cop 9.”

“No way, fuck that shit, man. Old Earth movies are so played out. When are we gonna get Nyarkelz Cop? Or Feron Cop?”

“Nyarkelz don’t have cops because they can’t move, idiot.”

“Yeah? Well that would make a unique premise for a cop movie then, wouldn’t it? After all--”

...and then their conversation drifted out of range. River wasn’t sure if it was a disappointment or a relief to realize how similarly mundane and cheeky the conversations of such bizarre species were to his own. He snapped out of his dumbfounded stupor and quickly walked after Az and Komo, but found himself bouncing airily with every step.

“Careful, Captain,” Az playfully warned, turning back to face him. “The gravity in here is quite low.”

“I noticed,” River replied, adjusting his balance and indulging in the light, bouncy sensation.

“It’s quite simple, really--”

“It’s easier for species adapted to very high gravity to have a nice floaty time here than to risk grounding and killing species from planets with low gravity by turning it up too high,” River interrupted.

“You--you figured that out on your own!?”

“Not exactly rocket science, Az.”

“Not bad,” Az grinned, their voice growing hushed. “You’re learning fast. There are kiosks offering heavy shoes of various weights, if the change in gravity is too disorienting. But remember--here, I am not Az. I am Jeroa Fleuqaij, the beautiful and ferocious Jeocolepian maiden. And you, my dear, are not River, but Joreo Ghikizan, the insufferable Jeocolepian Earthtaku and cosplayer extraordinaire.”

“You’re right, my bad,” River whispered back. “But why am I named after a sandwich cookie?”

“Joreo is the most common male Jeocolepian name. ‘Joreo Ghikizan’ is the ‘John Smith’ of Jeocolepia.”

“I have worked with a couple John Smiths,” River marvelled.

“And I’ve worked with many Joreo Ghikizans.”

“Where should Komo go first?” Komo said to herself, eyes scanning the stores. In lieu of names, descriptive holograms floated above each store entrance providing a quick, animated look at what each store offered in terms of products or services.

“Where do you want to go, Komo?” Az asked.

“Komo wants to find the Food Fort crew were talking about on the ship.”

“Do you mean Food Court?” River asked.

“Yeah!” Komo shouted, piercingly. All activity and conversation in a two store radius paused for an awkward moment to turn and look at the overly enthusiastic towering alien before realizing there was nothing exciting accompanying the outburst.

“We’ll need to locate a directory kiosk,” Az mused, resisting the urge to blow their cover and float blazingly fast over the crowds to find one. “Ah, most fortunate! There’s one!

Az guided them to a large touchscreen kiosk nearly identical to the one that had spat out their masks. They selected “ENGLISH” as the language of choice and in a moment, it spat out three extra long pieces of paper, each double sided. A list of stores in a tiny sans-serif font detailed an accompanying map of ten floors on each side.

“Looks like the food’s on the top floor,” River noted.

“We’ve got lots to see before that, then,” Az nodded. “We’ll head that way, Komo, but we’ll stop and check out other cool stores along the way.”

“Cool stores!” Komo shrieked, again causing a minor uproar. One floating being with massive, droopy ears connected to an octopus-like torso passed out and fell to the ground with a splat.

“Whoah,” River whispered, his eyes nearly bulging from his head. “Is that--”

“That’s a Char Aznable cosplayer,” Az replied. “To think, you made so much fun of me for--”

“What? No, Jeroa, I--I don’t even see who you’re talking about. Look in the entryway of that store.”

Az turned their head, as conspicuously as possible, to look exactly where the Captain was looking. In the dim, smoky storefront of a place with a floating pink heart hologram above it, stood Char Aznable from the Gundam franchise.

“It’s Char Aznable. We’ve established that. I’ve taken that form before. I’m not the only Gundam fan in the universe.”

“I’m talking about the naked human lady, you demigod dolt,” River griped through gritted teeth. “And she doesn’t look to be a cyborg or an android--is it possible!?”

“There? In that storefront, under the heart, leaning seductively on the entrance?”

“Yes!”

“That’s Char Aznable.”

River clenched his fists, breathing heavily, trying to deal with the confusing mix of frustration and arousal. “The joke’s over, Jeroa. Very funny.”

“I could say the same to you, Joreo. Hey, Komo, come here.”

Komo lowered her middle arm and looked up from the map, skittering over to stand directly between her crewmates. “Yes, Jazzy?”

“For the love of--Komo, my name is Jeroa, you--”

“Komo,” River interrupted, motioning subtly to the storefront, “what do you see standing in front of that store with the big heart sign?”

Komo squealed a horrible, piercing squeal, unlike anything they’d ever heard. “Komo can’t believe it! Komo isn’t alone!” she bubbled, trembling.

“I should hope we would count as treasured company of yours before Char Aznable,” Az mumbled.

“Komo doesn’t know who Char is, but that’s another Komo! Komo isn’t alone! Komo isn’t the last of her species after all!” Komo started to leap towards the storefront, but River reached out and grabbed two of her back legs in one hand and pulled her back to him with his cyborg strength.

“Something is wrong here,” River whispered in a panic. “Komo, that’s not another Komo. We all see it differently. Something dangerous is going on.”

“Describe exactly what she looks like,” Az said, looking at River. “That might give us a clue.”

“She’s…” this time the girl caught River staring and winked at him, swinging her enticing, curvy hips seductively. “She’s, um," he started, swallowing hard, "she's very hot and very naked. Tall, thick, glasses, gorgeous cascading black hair down to her--”

“Your ideal woman?” Az cut him off, as if this was a revelation.

“How did you know that!?” River snapped. “I thought you couldn’t poke around inside my mind in here--”

“I can’t,” Az replied, panic in their eyes. “It was just a guess, but it confirms my suspicion--that’s a brothel of some sort and they’re drawing in clientele with a one way psymorph device.”

“A one way what now?”

“It’s a bit of invasive telepathic technology. It interfaces with the minds of those in a certain radius and creates a specific image based on automated psyche readings. In this case, it seems to be projecting what we consider to be--well, for Komo it’s probably just projecting her a friend, but for us, it’s conjuring an image of our ideal sexual partner--”

“Your ideal sex partner is Char Aznable?!” River snickered.

“Th-that’s irrelevant,” Az blushed. “The point is, that thing shouldn’t be working inside this psionic field. It would have to create its own. If my theory is correct, here--Komo, can you do me a favor?”

“Of course, Jersey!” Komo eagerly replied.

“It’s J--never mind. Komo, you have impeccable distance sight with your eye, correct?”

“Komo can zoom in from hundreds of yards away!”

“Alright then--I want you to go as far back as you can in that direction...” Az pointed a red claw back the way they came “...and then lift your neck up or whatever you have to do to zoom in and see if that other Komo is still there. Try to go a couple hundred yards away, if you can.”

“Aye aye, Jizzo!” Komo called out, zooming through the crowd. She got so far down the hallway that Az could just barely make out her extended neck as a speck over the crowd in the distance, then she skittered back with equal speed. “The other Komo is still there!”

“That confirms my fears,” Az replied, gravely.

“Can’t we just… y’know... not go to the whorehouse?” River asked.

“It’s not about the brothel. Joreo, those devices normally have a range of about a hundred feet. Even if they found a way to signal boost it, inside the mall’s psionic field, it would stretch about ten feet. This means…” a look of abject terror came over their face. “...they’re tapping into the psionic field of the mall directly, which means in the 400 years since I was at one of these things… they’ve changed the software.”

“So the whorehouse hacked into the main mall system that’s connected to our minds?” River clarified, raising an eyebrow.

“Hacker whores!” Komo bellowed. A couple of random bystanders spun round defensively before realizing they weren’t the intended insultees.

“Yes,” Az replied, “but that’s not the issue. There shouldn’t be any way to identify whose mind is whose from the software, let alone individual location like this. For them to be able to hack it for such a purpose, and interface it with the mall’s application programming interface, that means all the data is stored, unencrypted, and constantly interfacing with our minds. Which means…”

“They are monitoring everything we say,” River gulped.

“And think,” Az added, petrified.

“We have the benefit of the doubt for now,” River reasoned, trying desperately to calm himself down. “Think of what it would take to monitor everything people say and think in this entire establishment in real time. They have no reason to suspect us or target us. The chances of them flipping through our logged conversations and thoughts later seems microscopic. The manpower it would take to run such an operation would be insane. They would have to specifically be hunting us and know to look for us in the logs from this exact mall at this exact time.”

“A valid point,” Az replied, exhaling. “And if they do, we’ve already said and thought enough incriminating things about our identities since entering this place to doom us. Leaving now after just entering would only draw further suspicion and increase the chances of that rare disaster occurring. There’s no reason to suspect that EarthSights has any presence here... we’ll enjoy our time here, shop around, relax a bit, and just passively keep an eye out for any suspicious ES-looking characters who might recognize us and call in a tip.”

“Komo understands,” Komo replied, nodding seriously. “Komo will be more quiet, to not draw suspicion.”

“With you,” Az smirked, “I think being quiet would be the most suspicious thing of all.”

“Should Komo scream, then--”

“No!” Az and River blurted simultaneously. “Just,” River added, “just, uh, be how you normally are.”

“Okey doke!”

“We’ll split up,” Az decreed, not entirely out of a desire to get a break from Komo. “I’m sure we all have a variety of stores we’d like to hit up, and for the time being there is no reason to believe we’re in any danger here. We’ll meet in an hour in the Food Court on the top floor. Sound good?”

“Hell yeah,” River replied. Komo nearly shouted with excitement before remembering her promise, and conjured every bit of her willpower to nod affirmatively instead.

-------

As many crazy places as Az wanted to go, they decided to prioritize doing what it would take to prepare the ship for its coming adventures. (They had a feeling River and Komo would indulge in more leisurely activities and that if they didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done--that, and only Az had access to funds at the moment, having memorized the credentials for their Token Wallet.)

Their first stop was on the fifth floor--a weapons emporium the directory indicated was called “BOOMCOAST.” Certainly a good first impression, Az thought, smirking. They weaved through the crowds, taking care to move at a pace a Jeocolepian would and to keep their telekinetic field activated around their projected body so if they were bumped into, it would seem like bumping into a normal mattie. They even begrudgingly rode the elevator tiles, a series of square stone tiles that magnetically lifted shoppers between levels, rather than simply zipping up and over at the speed of light.

The entrance to the store certainly stood out. Instead of a neon hologram for a sign, a crudely painted black doodle of a lit, round, cartoon bomb occupied the eyecatch space above the entryway. Where most stores in the vicinity were well lit, this place was dim and dingy. This was good, Az thought, grinning wider. This was the kind of shop where you’d find expertise, not hollow showiness.

Az found themself the only customer inside. The room sprawled back as far as they could see through endless dark aisles of parts, missiles, bombs, guns, lasers, and some things even Az didn’t recognize. A solid steel counter blocked off potential customers from browsing. Az sauntered up to the counter and leaned on it, glancing about confusedly for the owner.

“Get the fuck out, toots,” a deep, gruff voice called. Az didn’t recognize the snippet of the original language it was being automatically translated from, but it must have been an aggressive dialect judging from the English tone and slang the translation server attributed to it.

“That’s no way to treat a potential customer,” Az playfully scolded.

A small, round, aqua-colored being about a foot tall leapt onto the counter. It had no torso--it was basically a bald, squishy head with stubble but no chin. Its legs and feet were entirely ensnared in oversized surplus combat boots, and two stubby mitten-like hands with no fingers clenched into fists at its side. It wasn't wearing a mask, Az noted, so it must be from a planet with a low oxygen levels like inside the mall. Its eyes were narrow, yellow, and distrusting, piercing through Az like a tiger looking at a rat despite the rather opposite size difference.

“You ain’t a customer,” he spat, standing on tip-toes to reach the same height as Az’s chest, trying not to stare at their voluptuous figure. He had no nose, and his lips were disturbingly large and fleshy for his face. “No perfect little Jeocolepian minx like you goes weapon shopping. It ain’t in their culture. It’d be like a Plantasian chuggin’ booze. Youse a shapeshifter or a cop or a spy, or all three.”

“You are quite perceptive,” Az replied in a seductive, hushed tone. “A shapeshifter, I am. A cop or a spy, I most certainly am not.”

“Yeah? Well I don’t want ya here, so git,” the angry little orb hissed. “I got weapons back here that could take out this whole floor, and I’ll fuckin’ use em if you piss me off. I got nothin’ to lose.”

“I need add-on weaponry and antimatter caches for an SW-Z model hyperspace jumper, version 2.1,” Az blurted, straightfaced. They knew this would either get them viciously attacked, or catch the old weapon-obsessed coot’s interest. Thankfully for them, it was the latter.

“You’re shittin’ me,” the little fellow uttered almost breathlessly, his eyes widening. “Youse gotta be yankin’ my chain. That ship’s--”

“--four hundred years old Old Earth tech,” Az cut in, finishing his sentence, “No, I’m not joking.”

“Anti-matter cores?”

“Two.”

“Accuracy rate in hyperspace jump?”

“Ninety-nine point seven. Abysmal, I know.”

“Number of living quarters--”

“Six. The first officer’s is larger, but the Captain’s is largest and has a bathroom. Curved glass screen at the front of the bridge, utilizing outdated hologram projection technology to superimpose a graphical user interface for the ships’ computer in augmented reality over the windshield itself. Inefficient as sin, utilizing one half cache for one hyperspace jump, and a full cache for a round trip.”

“My god,” the little being mumbled, his jaw on the counter. “You really are flying a damned SW-Z, aint’cha?”

“A perfect reproduction,” Az smoothly explained, rightfully assuming this was more believable than the dangerous truth. “I’m a collector, you might say. There’s just one thing that I’ve had difficulty locating for this piece, since they weren’t used in any model before 2.0 and soon became irrelevant once future models implemented deep space technology in the New Earth period--”

“Weapons.” The critter sighed deeply, barely able to reach his stubble to prod it thoughtfully. “I thought I’d never see someone askin’ about them. SW-Z 2.1, huh... there’s just one problem.”

“Yes?”

“The cloaking system included on that model takes up the expansion ports weapons were used for in the 2.0 model.”

Az knew this, of course. “I was under the understanding that only the prototype had this restriction.” More like, they HOPED that only the prototype had this restriction, and that later weapons would be compatible--and available.

“You don’t know as much as you let on, toots,” the little guy scoffed, eying them suspiciously. “The 2.1 never made it out of the prototype stage. I’d think someone building a replica should be aware of that much.”

“So there’s no way to mount a 2.0 model’s weapon system to a 2.1 unit?” Az was growing increasingly nervous, realizing they hadn’t thought this plan out as well as they should have.

“Not without tearing out the cloaking device. And at that point, you may as well just build a fuckin’ 2.0.”

“Well, now I feel like a fool,” Az laughed, growing increasingly panicked.

“You ain’t no fool,” the man growled, “but yer’ hidin’ the truth, that’s for sure. No collector would make that gaffe. Ya’ clearly knows the ship inside and out, but nothin’ about it.” He paused to let the gorgeous Jeocolepian lady speak, but Az was tongue tied. “‘’Dat leaves us with three possibilities. One, youse been sent by Alron and youse prankin’ me. Two, youse tryin’ to get me to help you put weapons on a stolen ship, which would means youse a space pirate. Or three--you's a spy.”

“Haha, you got me! You know old Alron--”

“Can it, toots. Alron ain’t even a real name. I made it up in my fuckin’ head as an idiot test. And ya’ didn’t pass it. That makes you an idiot. The only question is--are you gonna’ be a dead idiot?” Az prepared to shed their disguise and lightspeed jump, but the little man kicked a button on the back of the counter and an electromagnetic radiation shield spread across the entrance, the ceiling and walls, and under the title floor. It wasn’t visible, but Az could sense it--any more powerful and they would be struggling to maintain their form just from its proximity. Phasing out of here was not going to be an option. A moment later, a steel door slammed shut beyond that, blocking any potential physical allies from coming for help or even seeing what was happening. Az instinctively connected to the being's mind and gave them an English language skin so they could continue their conversation now the translation field was drowned out. “Youse ain’t gonna fool me, Kirlian.”

“What gave it away?” Az chuckled, trying to hide their terror.

“Jeocolepian babes do have long fingers with sensual red claws, but they don’t phase through solid steel countertops, asshole.”

Az glanced down. In their nervous stupor, their projected fingers had indeed sunk into the counter. Oops.

“It’s game over, pally. EarthSights sent youse, yeah? Snoopin’ on old Reol’s weapons business. Tryin’ to shut down the ports on the harbor of BOOMCOAST.”

“If you think I’m with EarthSights, sir,” Az growled, transforming into the titular Alita from the classic Old Earth series Battle Angel Alita and striking a battle pose, “you are sorely mistaken.” Their mask, no longer fitting their telekinetic field, fell to the ground with a dull plop.

“Yeah right. All youse Kirlian bastards work for them now. Spyin’, sneakin’, documentin’ things that shouldn’t be illegal but is, what to gets folks like me vaporized.”

A wave of shock and fury jolted through Az’s being. It had to be a trick. “You’re lying. There’s no way a Kirlian would--”

“Where have you been the last 400 years!? Everyone knows youse motherfuckers are ES and the Federated Planets’ most dangerous little lapdogs. They been cozy to try to redeem their reputation, ever since that Az fella’ went rogue and helped River escape, on that--”

“On that SW-Z 2.1?” Az asked, looking gravely into Reol’s eyes. They could feel the power in the room shift. The time for secrecy was over.

“Uh uh. Aw, hell no. You gotta be shittin’ me--”

“First Officer Az, Space Pirate extraordinaire, at your service,” they grinned.

“Wh-why’d you do it!?” Reol blurted, their tiny heart racing. The radiation barrier wouldn't affect Az unless they jumped into it, there were no other anti-lightform weapons within reach. He knew Az could jump to lightspeed and swipe him before he could possibly make it to any lasers in the back. “I know maybe now ain’t the time, but damn it, before ya’ kill me, I’m at least askin’ what every other sentient being in the known universe has wished they could fuckin’ ask ya’ since day one. Kirlians never got involved in human affairs before that, nobody did--why’d ya help that guy wipe out all life on Earth?!”

“Are you an EarthSights sympathizer?”

“Of course I ain’t, fuckwad. I don’t trust those fascist bastards as far as I can throw em with my tiny little arms, and the Federated Planets ain’t worth shit, neither. That don’t make me okay with mass fuckin’ genocide.”

“Reol, if the truth is what you desire, I will grant it to you, and I won’t hurt you. But I must warn you--it will turn your world upside down.”

“Try me, toots.”

Az approached him, placing Alita’s head directly against his so their telepathic field and actual being itself were directly overlapping his brain.

“Youse don’t gotta do that,” he mumbled, blushing. “The psionic field is nullified in here anyways--”

“This way, I can show you my memories directly,” Az softly replied. “Close your eyes, and open your mind.”

Reol swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He was terrified, but he knew any ES/FP skeptic would murder to have this opportunity. One of the two most notorious and controversial villains in the history of space, one of the catalysts of the fall of Old Earth, a being who vanished for four hundred years--and they were here! Now! With him! About to show him the truth!

“I understand your excitement and trepidation,” Az softly chided him, “but you must calm down to open your mind.”

It took all the willpower in his tiny little body, but Reol inhaled deeply and tried his best to reach a meditative state. He came close enough, and his mind was suddenly filled with not only memories, but experiences. His body froze as he lost all control, living through a whirlwind journey through Az’s recent memories, feeling every emotional and physical sensation along the way. He felt the panic upon being found and captured by OuterSights, the horrendous pain of being electromagnetically tortured for hours on end and confined in a tiny metal box, the relief of finding a single person with the mental prowess and empathy to tune in to their wavelength and the joy of being saved by him, the thrill of their escape together and then the shock and anger upon realization of the truth and of their being framed. Everything whizzed through Reol’s head in a matter of seconds, but it felt to him like each moment happened in real time.

When they reached Az arriving in the parking garage, Az released their hold on his mind. Reol was trembling and weeping, his fists clenched in rage. “If you think I’m playing a trick on you,” Az pleaded, “or manipulating my memories, I can explain further--”

“No need,” Reol softly replied, his gruff baritone shaking. “I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve crossed paths and swords with those bastards before. It’s totally in their character. I just feel like a fuckin’ tool for not seeing it sooner. This changes everything.”

“You can’t tell a soul,” Az insisted, placing a robotic Alita finger to his lips. “It would give away the fact we’d been through here, and--”

“We?” Reol interrupted, his pupils dilating. “You mean--Th-The Angel of Death is in this mall right now--”

“An unfair moniker, as I’ve just demonstrated, but yes, River is the Captain of my Space Pirate crew. And, uh, Komo is here too.”

“This is bad,” Reol said, glancing nervously back and forth as his thoughts paced. “This is very bad--”

“He’s harmless right now, Reol, and even once we have the might to back us up, he'd never hurt an innocent--”

“I know. That’s the problem. ES ain’t harmless, they sure as hell don't mind roughin' up innocents, and they own this damn mall chain now.”

“What!?” Az blurted, slipping and shifting Alita from the neck down into the Jeocolepian form in shock.

“They bought it twenty years ago with a shell company. GalacMalls ain’t owned by GalacMall LLC no more. It’s owned by Lovely Days, which is owned by fuckin’ EarthSights. All those little privacy laws and encryptions youse used to rely on? Kaput. ES is the law now, bub. They’re monitoring this whole place, every word that’s thought or said in that psionic field out there--”

“That’s preposterous, nobody could have enough man-power to actively listen to every single being--”

“Az. Buddy. Pal. Use that big ol’ demigod noggin’ o’ yours. They don’t gotta. They just wait for someone to say or think a trigger word--like ‘River’, or ‘Az,’ or phrases about being careful what you say and think inside the psionic field.”

“We’re sunk, then,” Az gulped.

“Not necessarily you ain’t. Not if old Reol’s got somethin’ to say about it.” Reol hopped behind the counter, motioning for Az to follow him, and led Az through a dark. meandering series of aisles in the vast, musty, warehouse space. At the very back, a small, well lit office came into view. Reol guided Az in and shut and locked the door behind them, then sat at a small, old school desktop computer with a chunky photon-hologram display, remarkably similar in form-factor to a CRT monitor and PC tower from Old Earth.

“I don’t trust anybody--the only way to get the truth is to look in someone’s mind.” Reol explained, frantically clicking from window to window in such a whirlwind even Az had trouble following. “When those fuckers bought this mall, I installed a backdoor in the psionic field translation units before they ever got a chance to mess with it. They wiped the software, but this backdoor is physical, baby--little wires, digged through the walls by yours truly, leading right to here, and thems idiots didn’t know to look for them or suspect a thing, they just installed the new software and moved on along.”

“So you can monitor everything said or thought here, too!?” Az squealed, salivating at the thought.

“Not only that. Data travels real fuckin slow-like across the light years of space, and the nearest ES/FP probe ain’t anywhere near here. It ain’t economical to just send stuff in real time like ya’ would on a given planet’s internet… so the logs get sent every hour, on the hour. We’ve got fifteen minutes til’ the next one gets sent, and unless you’ve been here since the turn of the last hour--” Az shook their head, “--okay, good. We’re home free then. I can let you take the digital steerin’ wheel, find you and your friends’ tracking numbers in the system by finding some of your thoughts and conversations in the database, and your new pal Reol can erase any trace of you bein’ in this mall and stop trackin’ everything else youse all say and think for the rest of your stay.” He turned back on his little stool to grin at Az, clearly very proud of himself. “They only do actual maintenance once an erum, and we ain’t even halfway there. I’ll get rid of the custom filter before they do that and they’ll never know.”

“But if you get caught, Reol--”

“Hah! Let ‘em try me. Ain’t been caught for twenty years, and I’m armed heavier than a Class S Gunmetal 777-RX. They keep tabs on me for my weapon stockpilin’, but I ain’t never done nothin’ to get on their radar for any illegal shit. And if they do catch on? They know I’m a crazy motherfucker, and that I could--and would--take out this whole mall and everyone in it including myself before I’d let ‘em book me. I’m untouchable, baby.”

“I don’t believe it will come to that, but that is a relief to hear,” Az replied. “Now then, show me how to efficiently browse this data… and promise you’ll forgive me for snooping on others’ interesting tidbits once this immediate crisis is averted.”

“What do ya’ think I’ve been doin’ for twenty years!?” Reol boomed, followed by a laugh like a chain smoker’s cough. “Just remind me once we got this shit outta’ the way, I do have a couple ideas for that antique ship o’ yours…”

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