“Jeroa took Komo and Joreo to a mall without giving them money!” Komo chided Az, so frustrated she actually remembered their codenames properly.

“That won’t be an issue next time we go shopping,” River replied, grinning mischievously. “You’ll never guess what I--”

“You sold a football man Shrek 2 and got rich,” Az interrupted. “I know.”

River frowned, crushed at the lack of praise for procuring the economy of a small country with few old flash drives of torrented media. “How--”

“I ended up doing reconnaissance while you were wheeling and dealing and Komo was getting kicked out of food stands. This whole place got bought out years ago by ES. They’re tracking everything we say and think. I took us off their radar--so we can drop the ridiculous codenames, by the way--but I picked up a call from your new friend to an ES agent. He realized once you left that those drives would only have survived if they’d jumped through hyperspace, confirming your identity and very alive status with EarthSights. They’re sending agents to look for us. Of course, our advantage is that they don’t know that we know.”

“Shit,” River spat, his heart sinking. I make a hundred mil, almost fuck a hot fascist, and now the bad guys are closing in. What a day. Do--”

“Almost fucked a fascist!?” Az blurted.

“You know, I ran into another human—well, cyborg—at the pizza place… she thought I was a River cosplayer, was really into that, works for a group of sorts that’s, uh, pro-River--”

“Pro Space-Hitler-River, and not Pro Framed-For-Mass-Genocide-But-All-Around-Great-Dude River, I assume,” Az growled.

“W-well, that seemed to be the case, yes. And she pulled me aside and rubbed all over me and tried to… um… initiate carnal relations right then and there, but I stayed firm--”

“I bet you did,” Az scoffed.

“--stayed RESOLUTE,” River snapped, “and left without any such satisfaction.”

“I see,” Az nodded. “That’s, um, quite a story, River.”

“Back to the issue at hand,” River said, “do we even have enough fuel or antimatter caches to get away this time, if we DO make it back to the ship alive?”

“Komo’s gonna die,” Komo sobbed.

“We do now, thanks to your ingenious and omnipotent friend,” Az replied.

“You’ll have to introduce us some time,” River retorted. Komo stopped crying to laugh, and Az glared at both of them. “I guess this means we’re ending our mall adventure at the one hour mark after all, eh? At least you got that pornographic ear-shirt, Komo. Very classy.”

“What’s pornographic mean?” Komo asked, suddenly concerned.

“If we make a mad dash back to the parking cell, we should still be able to get out no problem,” Az replied, choosing to ignore her. “Again, they don’t know that we know they’re here. I’m nearly certain they’ll expect us to hang around a good while and blow some of that hundred million your treacherous little lost media buddy gave you, and maybe fuck some space nazis or whatever else you’re into now.”

“Negative,” River commanded. “We don’t know how close they are. If they’re already here, or arrive before we’re well and gone, they’ll see us running wildly towards the exit and immediately crack down on us. We have the advantage—they don’t know where we are; they think we’re going to stick around for a while; and they will likely pause first thing upon arrival to track us through our thoughts and dialogue using that system you got into.”

“I see what you’re thinking,” Az replied, grinning. “We should, with any luck, be able to stroll right out casually while they look fruitlessly through the tracking system and check expensive stores. Well thought upon, my friend—this is why you’re the Captain.”

They made it to the second floor unscathed, but as soon as the lifting tile to the first began lowering, a sudden chill of impending doom spread over them. A cluster of men with black suits, hats, and shades passed by them on the “up” tile. The men were fully focused on the floor above and didn’t even glance in their direction, but River and Az could make out a large “ES” embroidered in regal letters on the back of their suit jackets.

“Unfortunate,” Az mumbled. River gulped. Komo struggled to contain her trembling.

On the ground floor these agents were present, but were spread relatively thin. “Those guys on the lifting tile must have been the entire search party for the rest of the floors,” River softly reasoned. “Whatever team they had nearby seemingly wasn’t a big one.”

“While that is to our advantage,” Az whispered back, “I can spot a couple on this floor at this very moment, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover to get back to the parking on the other side. You haven’t changed in 400 years. They’re all looking for you specifically, since I can transform and they have no idea Komo exists-but if a single agent notices you, it’s game over.”

“Game Over is bad,” Komo moped.

“I have a plan,” River added. “Az, put me inside you.”

“What!?” Az blurted, unwisely loud.

“Form a disguise around me. Some fat space lifeform, like the blue blob guy at the pizza place.”

“One cannot simply wear a Kirlian as a suit,” Az bristled. “It’s not even possible. I can phase through things, but I could not fully overlap with a living being without possessing it. Were that to happen with us I would simply exist directly inside of you, the opposite of your desired outcome. If I formed a hollow opening for you, I would have to synchronize it just perfectly with you in real time, and that’s not something I would be capable of doing—at least, not without an abundance of practice.”

“Damn,” River spat, gritting his teeth. “Well, they’re going to have people stationed in the parking hallway for sure. I can’t go there looking like this.”

“River’s gonna die,” Komo sobbed again.

“Well, you’re pretty smart for a mattie. Keep that big brain of yours running and maybe you’ll think of something. In the meantime, walk between-slash-behind myself and Komo. My current form is tall and she’s practically a giant. They could still recognize you from behind, but it improves our odds significantly.”

“Good call,” River replied. Komo nodded and skittered into formation, the three trying their best to look natural in this tight formation. They passed unnoticed by the couple agents Az had spotted prior, and then a few others who were too distracted looking in stores--so far, so good. They had made it all the way back to the brothel when inspiration struck. “Az, Komo, I’ve got it,” River quietly declared, a devious grin creeping across his face.

“I had the same idea a mere moment after,” Az replied, smirking.

“Komo did too,” Komo added. They chuckled, assuming she was joking, but she continued, “River is going to buy that disguise psymorph thingy from the hacker whores.” They tried to conceal their amazement, realizing all at once that Komo’s innocence and ditziness did not equal a lack of intelligence.

They wandered over towards the brothel, Az and Komo pausing to marvel at the floating hologram heart as a cover for River slipping over towards the being they all still saw differently. River froze in his tracks, his blood running cold as he realized the naked woman was gone and replaced with the likeness of BTR from the Food Court, fully clothed, no less. She clearly wasn’t the real thing—she showed no signs of recognition towards River and moved awkwardly, as one would expect of an illusion from a totally unrelated species’ psymorph suit. He decided that he didn’t dare mention this to Az, and vowed to get a nice joint once they were out and safe. “Excuse me,” he said softly, standing directly beside her.

“Fifty for a handy,” a voice like a cheese grater in a trash compactor in both its original and translated forms whispered, “or a hundred for--”

“I-I’m not here for that,” River quickly interrupted, trying not to dwell on the fact his new subconscious sexual ideal was a genocidal fascist who jumped his bones in the Food Court. “I was wondering about your psymorph device.”

“Yeah? It’s illegal to buy, not own, sweetie. If you got a problem--”

“Quite the opposite. I was wondering what you paid for it.”

She glanced back and forth, making sure no ES agents were in immediate proximity. “You ain’t with those damn men in black tryin’ to bust me for being, ahem, more than a massage parlor, yeah?”

“Do I look like a man in black?”

“Nah, you look like a space pirate. Not that it’s any of my business. I love space pirates. Handsome little devils with deep pockets. Alright, sweetheart, I’ll tell you. These babies go for about a hundred thousand tokens in the black market. I paid ninety grand, got a damn good deal used. I can tell you where to go if you’re looking for--”

“Better idea. I give you a hundred fifty thousand tokens here and now and you give me yours.”

“This is crucial to my unique business model, kiddo,” she grumbled, “and A-21 ain’t exactly on the way home. That ain’t even--”

“Two hundred fifty thousand tokens,” River blurted, grabbing his token wallet cube, “right here, right now, and you give it to me this instant, no more questions, or the deal is immediately off.”

“You’re trying to slip past those ES agents, aren’t you, sweetie? Well, I can’t resist a pretty face, and I’m not in a position to judge. You got yourself a deal. Step inside.” River gave Az a thumbs up and followed her inside. Sprawling massage booths behind decorative screens spanned as far as the eye could see. The woman led River to the desk just inside the entry and had him scan his cube on a flat black rectangular receiver just like at the pizza place, charging it in her records as “group full body massages for a group of five hundred Jeocolepean businessmen.”

He did the necessary steps on his cube, and in an instant the mirage of BTR’s enticing-but-tragically-fascist form melted into the ether, a blob person like at the pizza place standing in her place. River tried not to react in a rude fashion, but his expression gave him away. “Yeah, I know. Not many thirsty businesspeople of any sex or orientation wanting to poke a Quidian. I’m used to it. I’ll miss this little psymorph, but hey… everything has its price, and I can borrow one from the girls in the back.” She extended a blobby purple appendage and dropped a flat, quarter-sized, diamond-shaped device in River’s eager cyborg hand. “The tiny spike in the back has to stab into your body. It’s unpleasant, especially for a blood-based species, but it’s smaller than a needle and not very long, only a couple millimeters. Punch it into yourself somewhere and its field will encompass your entire body, going to work affecting the minds of everyone around you. You’ll probably have to do your neck, since the rest of your body is under that rubber suit.”

“Got it,” River replied, cringing at the thought of plunging its barb into his skin. “Right now it’s tapping into the mall’s neurotracking system, yeah? It’s still going to work when we get to the parking section?”

“Yes. Right now it’s like you said: it’s working in tandem with the neurotracking program to effect everyone here within any range. Once you’re into the parking hall, you lose the added range of the mall’s system, but within 30.5 meters of the device, you’re still golden.”

“And if those agents aren’t in the tracking system, if they’re exempt from the mall’s psionic tracking and suppression fields given their status--”

“The Psymorph’s own psionic field is on a different wavelength than the mall’s suppression field and will work for anyone exempt to the mall’s tracking system within the field’s normal 30.5 meter range—so if those ES agents are exempt from the mall’s fields as well, they will still be affected by its built in psionic field.”

“Fantastic,” River replied, “I can’t thank you enough.”

“Pleasure’s all mine,” she replied, with a hearty gurgling buzzing chortle. “I’m Liquid Delilah. And you are?”

“Some might say I’m an angel,” River coyly replied, winking. He stepped away from the counter and stabbed the device into the side of his neck, just above the cutoff of the his spacesuit, and cringed with pain. Nothing changed from his perspective, but Az and Komo went wide eyed when they regrouped, so it must have done something.

“I’m resisting the urge to pounce on you right here and now, Mr. Aznable,” Az said softly, their projected Jeocolepian face flushed.

“It’s like there’s another Komo,” Komo said, wistfully.

“Glad to know it works,” River whispered, sighing with relief.

“What did it run you?” Az asked.

“Two hundred fifty thousand tokens,” River replied.

“Enough to buy a mid sized house in the suburbs of Old Earth,” Az groaned. “Next time, leave the negotiation to me.”

“A quarter of a million... out of one hundred million,” River winked.

“Fair,” Az grinned. “I’d hazard a guess that the parking hallway is going to be swarming with agents. Do you have a game plan?”

“I always have a game plan,” River smirked. When they stepped into the parking construct—which was not swarming, but sprinkled with ES agents--River walked slightly ahead of them, head held high, strutting like a runway model. Az tried to contain their discomfort at seeing their best friend turned anime crush sashaying through a parking garage like a catwalk--and their nervousness at this very bold strategy--but it seemed to be working. Nearly every agent they passed glanced at River, recoiled upon seeing their sexual ideal, and turned away a moment after, trying not to gawk and to seem fully focused on the mission.

“This is all fine and good until they start talking and realize one person saw an android babe while another saw Buck Thunder,” Az whispered into River’s mind, thrilled to be out of the mall’s psionic fields.

“They don’t seem to be congregating and are too few in number to be in pairs,” River mentally replied. “They’ll probably compare notes later and realize something was up, but by then we’ll have hyperspace jumped to the other side of the universe.”

“I hope you’re right,” Az replied.

They re-entered cell C-347 and found no ES agents lurking in wait. “Looks like we’ve made it,” River sighed, relieved.

“Crew can’t go yet!” Komo blurted. “Komo’s laundry machine isn’t here yet!”

“You don’t have any money,” Az suspiciously replied.

“Komo won it,” Komo replied, “and Komo’s not lucky! Komo never wins anything! Komo isn’t leaving without Bleach Buddy!”

“Komo,” River firmly replied, grabbing one of her many legs and guiding her towards the ship, “those guards could catch on to us at any time—it would just take two of them discussing what they saw when we walked by to realize how suspicious we were and come to take us down. We’re leaving.”

“I’d prefer staying a bit longer as well,” Az added, glancing around the ship. “It doesn’t look like Reol’s here yet. We’re going to be strapped for fuel and caches if we go without him.”

River was opening his mouth to discuss staying longer when a pair of armed men in black slipped through the door to their cell. “Freeze!” the stocky, middle aged one shouted.

“Hands up!” the nearly anorexic, young adult one added, with a voice like nails on a chalkboard.

“Well now, shame on you, boys, harassing poor little old me,” River replied, sauntering up to them. He knew that whatever their idea of sexy was, he was it still, and made the correct assumption that his voice would be altered in their minds to match it. “What did I do wrong to catch the ire of such… handsome men in uniform?” They instinctively lowered their weapons slightly at his approach, unable to fathom harming the vision they were given in his place. He wasn’t sure what their weapons were, but they looked like some kind of gun he’d never seen before—like something out of an old video game—and he didn’t want to find out what they were capable of.

“Th-th-the—you look like a total babe to him,” the stocky one babbled in reply.

“And y-you look like Ricardo Montalban to h-him, m-ma’am,” the skinny one barely managed to utter.

“Sounds like you boys are all mixed up from working such long, hard hours,” River replied.

“S-sorry, s-sir,” the fat one gulped.

“B-but ma’am,” the slender one replied, “y-your ship is a SW-Z Model 2.1, which is the exact one w-we were supposed to be on the lookout for.”

“Mmm… well,” River replied, tracing his own body sensually with his hands, “do you know what I think two strong, handsome men like you should be on the lookout for?”

“What!?” the two men blurted in sync.

River reached forward with both hands, grabbed the gun-holding arm of each crony, and squeezed with all his might, twisting with the motion. He hadn’t been in an altercation since his surgery, but his superhuman strength proved more than sufficient. With a sickening crack, he mangled their forearms and made them unconsciously drop their weapons. One managed to pull the trigger before it stopped working: it fired at the ceiling, exploding upon impact. A small crater formed in the concrete. River roundhouse kicked the men, sending them flying backwards, where they slammed into the cell’s concrete wall. They immediately slumped over, shattered arms dangling like wet noodles, the force knocking them out entirely... but the scuffle had made enough noise that every agent in the whole parking structure must have been on their way now.

River grabbed both their guns and raced back towards the ship. “I should probably feel more remorse for that,” he said, joining Az and Komo in a mad dash up the ship’s boarding ramp. They reached the top, only to find that the door wouldn’t open.

“Use your key or something,” River spat, desperately fumbling with the smooth outside of the door. There was no visible handle or button or the like.

“If I had a key, don’t you think I’d be using it?” Az replied. “It should open automatically when someone nears the top of the ramp. I can phase inside and see if--” but before he could finish that thought, the door to the decontamination chamber opened and they rushed inside, rushing through the main door as soon as it opened as well. River tore the psymorph diamond out of his neck as soon as the door closed behind him, wincing as hot blood trickled down his neck. Az breathed a sigh of relief and shifted from their Jeocolepian form into that of Chargeman Ken from the notoriously terrible animated shorts of the same name from 1970s Earth. “Jeocolepians are too tall, it’s exhausting,” they sighed.

“Ain’t smart leavin’ a fuckin gen-u-ine antique like this unlocked,” a gruff, bass voice chided them. Seated at the dining table was a round little light-blue fellow wearing cargo boots, little more than a face with hands and feet. When he spoke, smoke billowed from his mouth. “Got youse a hookah set up here. Somethin’ to take the edge off. The shisha tastes like fuckin’ gummi worms n’ shit. 99% pure super-sativa from Plantasia. We’ll be flyin’ while we’re flyin, baby!”

“That’s an Orvebean,” River shouted, recognizing the species from the war serial he’d watched at EntertainmentSingularity. “They’re weapons and tech experts--watch out!”

Az stepped over to him, shaking their head. “Hold up, Captain. River, Komo, this is Reol. He’s that new friend I told you about. The fact I’d given him a language skin to talk to us directly like this should have been a hint.”

“Hi Reol!” Komo shrieked. “Komo is Komo!”

“Uh, I’m River, the Captain,” River said, gawking in spite of himself.

“Pleasure to meet’cha, Mister Death Angel,” Reol chuckled, “though I know youse actually ain’t a bad guy after all, Az taught me everything. I’d shake ya’ hand but I’m too fuckin’ short. Az, get us out of this joint before they lock this damn garage.”

“Done and done,” Az replied, jumping over to their chair on the bridge. They selected “Exit Garage” on the mall’s SpaceNet site, and the same sorting elevator process from entering the cell was repeated in reverse, dropping them out of the bottom of the cube to go where they pleased. “Where to, Captain?”

“Az, this is my first conscious day in space. I have no idea what my options are. And we can’t just take this little orb dude away from his store--”

“Fuck the store,” Reol spat, leaping on top of the table. “I brought all my good shit along in an OmniBox. And the rest? It’s rigged to go out in a big old BOOM if any ES fucks try to snoop around in there, which they will as soon as they see ol’ Reol’s gone. Those motherfuckers are about to see why I call it BOOMCOAST, baby!” He let loose an uproarious, gravely cackle. “Now, my recommendation, as a fella’ who’s been around the block a time or twos? I think youse ought’a jump into space where nothing’s happenin’, we’re talkin’ the middle o’ fuckin’ nowhere. Backwater planets with no whorehouses or casinos or nothin’. And it’s gotta be far away from here. Antimatter caches ain’t an issue now, so I recommend youse jumps right over to—ah, just let me drive.”

Reol waddled over to Az, motioned them away, hopped up in the chair and quickly input a set of coordinates. “Hold on to your pretty little assholes!” he shouted, and the ship lurched, tearing a whole in spacetime and heading directly for the galaxy Reol recommended.

River braced himself to pass out again, but this time the jump didn’t phase him after the initial turbulence, even though it was a makeshift tunnel. “This is way smoother than the last jump we took on our own,” he mused.

“You’re welcome, oh Captain, my Captain,” Reol cackled. “Your new buddy Reol made some upgrades. Caches, and antimatter systems in general, have made a few advancements in four fuckin’ centuries. Funny how that works, ain’t it?”

“What the bloody hell is that?” Az blurted. River glanced out the windshield in a panic before realizing Az was referring to the small black cube he was currently fidgeting with.

“Oh, this is a cube the girl in the food court gave me.”

“The Space Nazi,” Az added.

“Y-yeah,” River replied. “Her.”

“So you didn’t have sex with the hot nazi cyborg, you just got her number to do it later. Really upstanding of you, Captain. That’s a contact cube, you absolute buffoon, it could be tracking us right now, she could be sending a whole army after us--”

“Don’t worry Az. She thinks we’re actually the bad guys, but she’s a bad guy, so she considers us the good guys along with herself, and is therefore against the same bad guys we are. So if she knew we were good guys, she’d probably be a bad guy, but due to the misunderstanding--”

“We are not going to ally with a fascist cult because they worship you and one of their followers is hot,” Az grumbled. “Give me that thing.” River reluctantly handed it over, and Az quickly ran a few light scans on it, passing it through their hand several times. “It’s static, thank goodness,” they added. “No tracking capabilities in either direction. Just a set of coordinates that we will never, ever go to. Still, with all due respect, Captain, what were you thinking, bringing this thing onto the ship!?”

“Hey, we all make mistakes.” River wandered over to the table and took a deep puff off of Reol’s hookah, exhaling rings of colored smoke. “You didn’t ask me before you invited chainsmoking Jigglypuff over there. No offense, Reol.”

“Offense taken,” Reol bellowed, grinning ear to ear, “but it just makes me like you all the more. Youse my kind of motherfuckers. Though I, uh, I got no idea what the fuck a Jigglypuff is. Unless you mean titties. I’ve been compared to titties before. Got mixed feelings about that.”

“And Komo didn’t ask us before trying to bring a suspicious, free laundry unit onto the ship,” Az deflected. “Thankfully, we left before it arrived, so the threat is nullified.”

“Oh, the laundry thing?” Reol interjected. “Nah, that shit was outside the ship when I got here. I went ahead and installed it. Saved youse the trouble. Ya’ ain’t got a laundry room, so I just took a guess where to stick it.”

“Bleach Buddy!” Komo squealed, racing down the hallway to search for it.

“How much did you do to this ship in the past, what, half an hour!?” River asked, incredulous.

“Not a whole lot. Ol’ Reol just turned the ship’s lock function on, upgraded the cores in the antimatter engine, plugged in the fuckin’ laundry machine—it was plug and play, to be honest with ya’--and filled youse storage spaces near the engine room up with all my compatible stock, which to be honest ain’t a whole lot.”

“You carried all that yourself?” Az asked.

“How many times do I gotta say it—OmniBox.” Reol exhaled another plume of colored, sweet smelling smoke and waddled over to an unused chair on the bridge, picking up a cube of the same creamy color and doughy consistency as River’s new omnidrive. “Pocket dimension shit. Really cuttin’ edge. Everything worthwhile from the ol’ storefront’s either in this little baby or, if it’s compatible with this old girl, is in this ship’s storage.”

“How much do we owe you for all that?” River asked, nervously.

“Oh, nothin’ much. Just seventy five million tokens.” When River casually presented his token wallet, Reol burst out laughing. “Holy xezmeole, Captain, I’m fuckin’ joking. I didn’t know youse guys was that loaded, damn! Ya’ don’t owe me shit—as long as I can tag along with youse.”

“I got us a mechanic, tech, and weaponry master,” Az mentally whispered to River, proudly.

“Uh uh,” River firmly replied, much to Az and Reol’s surprise. “This whole thing is too suspicious. You wander into his store, tell him all of our secrets, then it turns out he has access to ES’s entire neurotracking system, and half an hour later he’s loaded our ship with millions of tokens worth of weaponry and supplies and conveniently wants to join us?”

“Those are all good things, River,” Az replied.

“Too good,” River replied. “In the event that my suspicions are incorrect, I apologize in advance, but this is all just a little too good to be true. And why would such a big shot shopkeep with full access to every word that’s said or thought in the mall throw that all away to join a bunch of space pirates he just met? It’s just too good to be true. It reeks of an OS—er, ES trap.”

“And the hot cyborg girl who ‘randomly’ bumped into you in a food court, worshiped the very ground you walk on, and tried to talk you into public intercourse doesn’t,” Az snarled. “If anyone from the day’s antics is a Juralien, it’s her.” Being glared at disapprovingly by the poorly drawn youthful face of Chargeman Ken stung more than it should.

“What’s a Juralien?” Reol asked dazedly, the high starting to kick in. “Is that those statue guys what just stand there and look creepy and travel around in spirit form--”

“It’s a reference to one of Az’s shitty TV shows,” River replied.

“You’re thinking of a Feronian,” Az added.

“ Az,” River continued, “if she wanted to kill me, she would have done it, or teleported onto the ship.”

“Oh, she can teleport too,” Az added, “that’s certainly not suspicious or dangerous at all.”

“I know I fucked up, all right?” River snapped. “I didn’t sleep with her. I gave you the cube. I took it when she gave it to me because I wasn’t exactly thinking straight after the cute girl who tried to bang me walked away and then teleported back to standing beside me. Yes, maybe I, after losing literally everyone I ever knew or cared about all at once, let the fleeting idea that some form of physical intimacy with someone from my nearly extinct species, all of whom are presumably allied with ES except for her, get the better of me. Yes, maybe I didn’t think through the implications of her and her group being obsessed with me when the image the universe has of me is as the horrific genocidal maniac who wiped out the rest of our species. And yes, perhaps at some level deeper than conscious thought, I held onto the cube when I shouldn’t have because part of me still wishes that I could have that with somebody, and that in a worst case scenario involving ES, it might be better to have bad allies than no allies at all. But that’s all over, done with, subconscious and purged from my damn mind now. You’re getting way too hung up on this one thing that’s already over with, done, and escaped from.”

“Only because you’re refusing to give me and my new friend the benefit of the doubt that you insist I give you for a far shadier scenario,” Az replied, crossing their arms. “And for the record, I didn’t invite Reol to join our crew. He did that of his own accord. But you know what else he did of his own accord? Upgrade our ship, bring us a surplus of supplies and weaponry for our ship, bring along a vast inventory of additional parts for other ships for bartering and/or future upgrade purposes… not to mention, release me from the light-cage he had me in and give me unbridled access to ES’ entire neurotracker system. What makes more sense, River? That he’s in it for the long con and did all that for kicks before mowing us all down on the bridge after we let him join us, or that he has a reason for hating ES like we do and, upon realizing the horrific truth about what happened four hundred years ago, jumped at the opportunity to join the man at the center of all the intrigue and work with him and his new Kirlian friend to stop the real bad guys?”

River fell silent and hung his head, instinctually breathing heavily though his lungs had ceased to serve any useful function. “You’re right,” he finally said in a weak, low voice. “I’m sorry, Reol.”

“Nahhhh, don’t be,” Reol droned, clearly feeling very good from the Plantasian sativa now. “I’d be more worried to follow a Captain who blindly trusts every motherfucker that pays him a compliment at face value. And if youse don’t trust me, no biggie, I got other places I can go. Probably.”

“No, you’re fine,” River softly added. “You’re a part of this crew now. Not because Az wants you to be or because you snuck onto the ship and begged, but because we need you, and you’ve done a lot for us.”

“Bangogoaly!” Reol exclaimed. “That’ what ol’ Reol loves to hear, oh Captain, my Captain! Now sit yer’ metal ass over here and let’s get toasted to celebrate. Even in hyperspace we got a good while before we get all the way over to the goddamned other side of the un-i-verse.”

“I’m actually going to go check out my room for the first time,” River replied, no life in his voice. “Maybe catch up on some sleep. You guys enjoy. And don’t let Komo get high. I don’t think any of us could handle it.” He plodded back towards the Captain’s Quarters, pausing only to gawk at Komo sitting in her room blabbing nonstop at what from that distance appeared to be a regular washing machine.

“Yer’ awful rough on youse best friend,” Reol mused.

“I needed to be, in this case,” Az huffed. “It’s not like him to be so reckless. He could’ve gotten himself killed. After all we’ve done to protect him, if they got him less than twenty four hours after he made it into space, I’d never forgive myself. And he knows that, so why can’t he--”

“You’d act irrationally if you was in his shoes too, pal,” Reol replied, exhaling another plume of colorful smoke. “Think about it. I don’t know how he’s still goin’, to be honest, with all the crazy shit he’s been through in just the past twenty four hours. That he went with youse to Komo after learnin’ the truth instead of jumpin’ into the sweet, deathly embrace of space means he’s stronger than just about any sentient fella’ in the universe.”

“He’s fine,” Az sighed. “You can see it in his eyes. He’s like me--he loves the thrill of the adventure. He’s doing what most humans, for most of the Earth’s entire existence, have dreamed of doing. He’s the Captain of a growing band of space pirates up against an evil organization. It’s the stuff of pulp sci fi novels, anime, video games, and dreams.”

“You say he’s like you, but you’re sittin’ here feelin’ fine, while he’s slumpin’ back there lookin’ like death warmed over. Youse talkin’ about some look in his eyes, but I ain’t seen nothin’ in them when he walked off but surrender, terror and despair. Ol’ Reol’s seen that look before. It’s the look of a man comin’ home from war to find his homeland razed, nothin’ and nobody left standin’. The thrill of the battlefield wears off when there’s nothin’ left to fight for. The adrenaline of the fight takes over for a while, that feelin’ of adventure gettin’ ya’ higher than this kush ever could. But the rest catches up to ya’. The faces you ain’t never gonna see again. The smell of your planet you ain’t never gonna smell again, drowned out by the scent of burnin’ corpses and gunpowder. The--”

“He wasn’t on Earth when it happened, Reol.”

“Yeah, thank god. But that don’t make it any less impactful. Everyone he knew died, and he can’t even take solace in the fact they lived long full lives while he was flyin’ around in the future. They suffered horrible, terrible deaths, almost as soon as he’d run off, and every sentient fuckin’ being blames HIM for all of it. He’s got nobody and nothin’, Az. Youse the closest thing to a familiar face in his century he’s got, and before this you was only as a screamin’ voice he heard in a box at work sometimes. Now that it seems like you’re turnin’ on him too? He’s got nothin’. It’s all catchin’ up to him. I know a thing or two about PTSD, pal. It ain’t even BEGUN to set in yet for that poor fucker. And no amount of excitin’ space adventures is gonna drown it out entirely.” Reol paused to take another hit. “Maybe he was a fuckin’ dumbass. We both know that girl was sketchy as hell. But think about it, pal—he thought every other human was either dead a part of ES now. Dude’s already gotta be too screwy to let himself get psycho-logic-ally close to anybody; askin’ him to logically resist a one in a billion shot at physical intimacy too is askin’ him to be more than human. Which—I get it—you is, but youse gotta remember that he ain’t.”

“I should go talk to him,” Az sighed, removing Chargeman Ken’s helmet and approaching the hallway.

“With all due respect, your omni-potence, I think youse done enough talkin’ at him to last for a while. You keep an eye out for trouble on the bridge and whatnot. I’ll go chat at him for a bit if he’ll let me. We ain’t so different, him and I—this here’s his first war, but it ain’t mine. And who knows, maybe he’ll come to trust ol’ Reol a little more if I lay it all out on the line for him.”

Az nodded and watched Reol quietly waddle into the distance. “Reol?” he asked, breaking the silence.


“Can you come over here first? Just for a second?”

“Uh… sure thing,” Reol replied, confusedly waddling back over. Az phased a finger barely through his head, closing their eyes and focusing deeply for a moment, then put their hand back at their side.

“I didn’t feel nothin’ that time,” Reol said. “Maybe it don’t work if it ain’t yer’ head.”

“I wasn’t trying to transmit memories or the like,” Az said, their speech affected. “I am unable to procure a buzz from physical substances.”

“So youse reached into my brain to nab the buzz itself from me?”


“Uh, alright then, pal. Enjoy, I reckon. Glad I could, uh, be of assistance and whatever.” Reol plodded on down the hall to River’s room. Az took their seat on the bridge and sat in silence, watching the visual spectacle of hyperspace dance in front of them. Even with this pleasant, warm, high sensation and the distraction of the beautiful abstractions on the other side of the windshield, the bridge felt cold and lonely with the Captain’s chair unfilled.

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