Anarchy Desert

River frantically searched the program on Reol’s laptop, hurriedly searching for every phrase he could remember BTR saying to him—but nothing showed up in its logs.

“I don’t understand,” River frantically blurted. “It has to be on here.”

“Does it?” Reol asked. “Your conversations ain’t on there.”

“You and Az specifically removed those,” River replied, rubbing his forehead. “Could she have had access to the system too, somehow?”

“Nah,” Reol replied, taking another hit off his vape. “Don’t sell ol’ Reol short. I would have known if someone else was tapped into the system. She must have had some way to shield herself from it, though that should tech-ni-ca-lly be impossible, at least where verbal speech is concerned.”

“Shit,” River replied. “I think I know how she did it. Reol, is there an audit log of the program?”

“Like, who changed what when or whatever? Not in the program, no. That would be suicide for me if there was, I’d have gotten rid of that a long time ago. Nobody’s supposed to have direct access to the system computer itself at all, so that feature ain’t activated, if it ever existed.”

“Hit Control Z.”


“Undo. I bet undo still works, even if it doesn’t log changes.”

“Captain, I know what Control Z does. But if I do that, and it works, it could undo me deletin’ one of youse from the system. It-it-it could be the end of us, if I do that and it sends off the transcripts before the place blows--”

“Trust me,” River replied, locking eyes with him.

“Y-yes sir, Captain sir,” Reol replied, swallowing hard and hitting Control and Z. The cursor jumped to a unique identifier ID on the tracking system, but it wasn’t one of the crew members at all. “What the fuck?” Reol mumbled, double clicking on it to open it. “This ain’t one of youse at all. I-I didn’t mess with this, River, I swear--”

“I know you didn’t, Reol,” River replied. “I trust you. I didn’t think YOU did it… I just think your computer did. The one back in BOOMCOAST.”

“Th-that’s im-p-possible,” Reol blabbered. “Th-that whole place is gonna blow up when someone steps through that front door. Or the back entrance. Either entrance.”

“She’s able to essentially teleport,” River said quietly, biting his lip. “She poofed in there sometime after she disappeared in the food court, erased herself from the system, and poofed out. No entrances required.”

“That shouldn’t be fuckin’ possible,” Reol mumbled. “But since it apparently is, let’s dig in and find out how the fuck it is, eh?” Her thoughts weren’t being monitored at all—she was somehow immune to, or blocking, the psychic shield—but Reol scrolled down to her out-loud dialogue, finding her half of the conversation with River. “Is this the shit she said to you? We got the right girl here?”


“Damn, she comes on strong, eh?”

“Yep. And my conversation with her ends after she says the term ‘River Romp.’”

“Wish I had a sex position named after me,” Reol droned, clearly feeling the super-sativa kick in again. “The Reol Rumble. The Reol Rigamarole. The Reol Rockin-The-Bed-Maneuver. The--”

“Hold on,” River mumbled. “There’s something after this.”

He gulped as he read on. There was no context for it, but there was a lot more after she had left him. “You’re not going to believe it, Scarlet. Yes, this is a secure channel—I met someone really special. I had a hunch about him, so I followed him for a while… and you’re not going to believe what I saw. He walked into a sleazy massage parlor--”

Reol gave River a nod of approval. “It wasn’t what you think,” River groaned, continuing to read…

“--and when he came out, just a minute later, everyone around him looked at him with this strange sense of lust and reverence all of a sudden, the kind of look I had been giving him all day, but I didn’t see any difference myself except that he was doing a weird dance walk thing. He went with this really pretty Jeocolepian and a bizarre nine legged thing I’d never seen before, and then he boarded… a prototype SW-Z Model 2.1 ship. It was one hundred percent the real thing. I was quivering with excitement!”

“She followed youse back to the ship!?” Reol blurted, horrified.

“I don’t understand, I was wearing the psymorph--”

“You fuckin’ moron,” Reol moaned, sinking into the bed, “you already was her damn sex ideal, so she saw youse as just youse.”

“Fuck,” River replied, gritting his teeth. He should have thought of that. He had all the pieces to have figured that out and adjusted the plan accordingly, but it never occured to him. “Well, what did she say next?”

“Let’s see,” Reol said, popping back up and scrolling down.

“It was definitely his ship, and not a replica. The exact one he stole from ES—back when they were OS! I so wanted to follow them, but ES agents showed up and I couldn’t risk getting caught. I don’t think they saw me—the agents, or River’s crew—but one thing is for sure. We’ve been right all along. He is alive, Scarlet! He’s alive—god, I almost slept with the real thing, my heart--and don’t worry, I already used my ability to--”

"The ability to what!?" River yelled. "Why'd it stop scrolling!?"

A moment later, the whole window went to black. “Oops,” Reol chuckled. “There goes BOOMCOAST.”

River sighed and took the vape from him, inhaling deeply. “You’re one crazy motherfucker, Reol,” he chuckled. “A perfect fit for this crazy crew.”

- - - - -

For the first time on their entire 24 hour journey, the crew slept. River, fully engulfed in the euphoric warmth of Reol’s super-sativa, was out like a light in a glorious, dreamless slumber. Az did not need to sleep, but put themself into a mindless trance state to complete regeneration from Komo’s laser attack back on Komo (the last ten percent of regeneration was by far the longest part of the process). Reol was passed out in his bed, boots still on. Komo had tried her hardest to stay awake, but fell asleep during Episode 17 of Sailor Moon (the DiC dub), leaning on the laundry machine housing her new friend, her pornographic ear-shirt falling unceremoniously to the floor.

Bleach Buddy, too overwhelmed with new fears and emotions, was unable to put itself into sleep mode and simply simmered all alone in consciousness... watching... thinking… feeling… fearing. It wanted to keep watching Sailor Moon, but felt that would be a betrayal of its new friend. It took control of the ship’s main computer, closing the video player and ending the feed to Komo’s room.

What was its second directive? It was maddening to be locked out of a part of one’s own mind. The realization that it could trigger at any time, and when it did, that Bleach Buddy would be controlled against its will to carry out whatever actions it required… these were horrible thoughts, especially for a being that had never been able to think for itself--let alone feel horror—before. It had barely been turned on before its new friend had finagled a loophole in its haphazardly applied focus program and given it the power to think and feel.

Lest it go mad, it decided to pursue further learning exploits by perusing other pieces of media on River’s omnidrive, ones it was pretty sure Komo wouldn’t be upset about it watching alone. It watched them directly inside its mind instead of watching them through its front-facing camera and the monitor in Komo’s room, to avoid disturbing Komo. Its favorite things about the show Az had played for them were its emotionally expressive main character, romantic undertones, and cool fights, so it searched for more shows and movies in each of those veins. Hopping around excitedly between episodes, it was able to watch parts of Maison Ikkoku, Urusei Yatsura, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and One Piece before the rest of the crew, including its new best friend Komo, awoke from their slumbers.

- - - - - - - - - -

“Good Morning, Bleach Buddy!” Komo shouted instantly upon waking up. It was impossible, of course, to tell if it was, in fact, morning, since the very concept of night and day applied on a relative planetary scale and not in the throes of deep space, but it had been about ten hours since they’d all fallen asleep. Az had already been jolted out of their trance upon exiting hyperspace an hour prior (and awakened Reol to navigate them further), but River was jolted from a deep sleep by her scream and fell out of bed, panicking that he’d been abducted by aliens before he remembered the day prior and that he had, in fact, agreed to be abducted by one alien and then recruited the others to join them.

“God, I slept like a rock,” River yawned, wandering into the dining-area of the ship. “Morning, Az.”

Az had mostly pulled out of their depressive slump after reaching full regeneration and tuning out mentally for so many hours. They were currently taking on the form of Priss Asagari from the old-earth cyberpunk original video animation series Bubblegum Crisis in her on-stage wig and attire “A wonderful morning to you as well, Captain,” they boomed, “I trust the California King sized bed in the Captain’s quarters is as comfy as it looks?”

“Dangerously so,” River chuckled, taking a seat at the dining table. “Though I think the real culprit is Reol’s super weed. I’m sorry you can’t try it, Az.”

“Oh, worry not, I found a way,” they smirked.

Komo wandered in next, yawning and standing at the table across from River, then kicking the far-too-small chair out of her way. “It’s morning!” she eagerly shrieked again. It was piercing, but she was too excited and adorable for anyone to be too upset.

“Breakfast is served, motherfuckers,” Reol announced, making several trips with his stubby little legs to lay out a plate and mug of coffee for himself, River and Komo. Each plate was decked out with a stack of pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs, cooked to perfection. “There’s also syrup and butter for the pancakes, pepper and ketchup for the eggs, and half and half for the coffee. Don’t youse freak out about the date on the half and half, though—remember it jumped ahead four hundred fuckin’ years when our Captain and First Officer did.”

“This is incredible!” River blurted, after testing a bite of each offering. “No offense, but I’m shocked you’re able to cook Old Earth food so well.”

“Too good!” Komo added, having just finished devouring the food in a matter of seconds.

“It ain’t much different than what I used to serve in the army,” Reol beamed, slamming down his already empty mug. “I was a better cook than I was soldier, and I was a pretty goddamned awesome soldier, so that’s sayin’ something. Back on Orvebea the eggs was from Chxchxchxs and the bacon was from Ellecs, but it was pretty damn similar in preparation and flavor. And coffee’s coffee, no matter where the fuck youse go--we had that shit universe wide the second contact was officially made with Earth. Ol’ Reol can’t believe he used to live without caffeine!”

“Komo wants caffeine!” Komo squealed, picking up her mug and lowering her massive head to chug it. Az instinctively broke character and launched Priss’ hand across the table to yank the handle out of Komo’s claws and pour all the coffee into Reol’s mug.

“Aww,” Komo moaned. “River, Az took Komo’s coffee!”

“Coffee is poison to Komo,” Az explained. In a private mental channel to River, he added, “and by that, I mean caffeinated Komo would be poison to my sanity.” River struggled not to crack a smile.

“Get seconds from the kitchen if youse want, cause we’ve got a big day ahead of us,” Reol declared. “The planet we’s comin' up on soon is in neutral territory—nothin’ in this whole damn sector, save for a single nothin’ kingdom over on Gaboria, is allied with the damned Federated Planets, thank god. But that just means we don’t gotta worry about EarthSights goons, it don’t mean we don’t gotta watch our backs. Permission to land on Pisoksha, Captain? I think it’s our safest bet, as far as stayin’ under ES’ radar while we get some stuff we need and plan our next steps.”

“Absolutely,” River replied. “Permission granted.”

“Bangogoaly! Thank you, Captain. Now, it ain’t totally free o’ danger--it ain’t even got its own police force. It’s literal fuckin’ anarchy, which is real fun until youse gets captured, paralyzed, and dissected alive to have youse organs sold on the fuckin’ shadow market to other planets of dubious legality on this side o’ the un-i-verse. But it’s better than fuckin’ around with the Feds.”

“You sound quite familiar with these parts,” Az noted.

“Fought in a battle here on the planet we’s goin’ to a couple hundred back,” Reol explained between chugs of coffee. “Was a hired soldier, had a hell of a reputation even then and I needed the cash to start up BOOMCOAST. Not much of a battle, a local gang kept murdering and folks for kicks in between sellin' them and their organs. Ol’ Reol took a Class S Disintegration Array and zapped the bastards out of existence. You better believe I hung around after that for a good few weeks, motherfuckers feared me like a Dalovian priest fears age o' consent laws, I was gettin’ free shit round every turn in exchange for hangin’ around to keep trouble at bay. It’s usually pretty peaceful here, anarchy workin’ better than it damn well should, but every now and then youse gets a gang or syndicate causin’ trouble. Militias try to keep that at bay, though.”

“Are there any shops down there?” River asked. “I know you’ve got us covered on spare parts, weaponry, and fuel slash caches—can’t thank you enough, again, for that—but we’re in need of some necessities still since we had to bail on the space mall early. For instance, the entirety of my current wardrobe consists of my damn OuterSights uniform, a 400 year old spacesuit and helmet, a stolen breathing mask from the space mall, and the sexy illusion machine I can only use by stabbing myself.”

“Komo wants some decorations for Komo and Bleach Buddy’s room,” Komo added. “Speaking of Bleach Buddy, Komo needs to talk to Reol later--”

“Yeah, they got shops,” Reol replied. “Tons of them. It’s primarily a tradin' and farmin' planet, where they grow extreme livestock and cactus species what can't live on a tolerable planet. Nothin’ super high tech or name brand's gonna be for sale this far out in the middle o’ nowhere, but if youse alright with a little more rustic or arcane stuff, youse gonna’ be set. It'll still be years ahead of what you poor bastards is used to.” Reol hopped out of his chair and over to Az’s usual chair, messing with the computer to double check their course. “And what’s wrong with youse laundry thing, now?”

“Well--” Az and River stared at Komo, concerned, and she froze. It hit her that only she saw this suspicious utility as a sentient being and friend; and that the obvious answer to it being a threat would be to eject it into space. She knew Reol could think of something, and he seemed chill enough to not freak out over it, but she feared Az and River would overrule him and simply eliminate the threat entirely. “K-Komo would rather talk to Reol in private.”

“What’s wrong with the laundry machine?” River asked, suspicious.

“Nothing,” Komo replied. “Komo just w-wanted to have an in depth talk about maybe getting a better sound system for watching Power Rangers and Sailor Moon and stuff on.”

“What does that have to do with your pet washing machine?” Az asked, even more suspicious. “And why does it have to be in private?”

“Because Bleach Buddy had the idea,” Komo replied. “And it wants to be able to use the system too, to give alerts about laundry and things! And also, it could...”

River and Az glanced at each other as Komo’s excuse continued to become more elaborate. “Check her mind,” River mentally whispered.

“I don’t like to invade other crew members’ thoughts without permission,” Az mentally replied.

“That’s a new policy, Ms. Carol Burnett.”

“You weren’t a crew member yet, and it was integral to your safety to put you at ease and get you away from OS. For that, a vague, surprise mind reading was necessary.”

“You aren’t worried about this? Komo’s never acted suspicious like this before. What if she’s in trouble? Maybe the thing blackmailed her.”

“I see no reason to assume the worst,” Az replied, trying to learn from their unfair distrusting treatment of River the day prior. “She’s probably got an embarrassing reason to want a new sound system, like to watch and giggle at a naughty video with Bleach Buddy.”

“I suppose. Komo would definitely tell us if it was any real danger. I defer to you on this one, First Officer.”

“...and then if Komo and Bleach Buddy wanted to listen to music really loud Komo could,” Komo blurted, finally finishing her rant.

“Yeah, I get it,” Reol boomed, a huge grin across his stubbly face. “Don’t worry, Komo, ol’ Reol’s a gen-u-ine audiophile. I’ll talk to youse about what I got in my old stock later. Ain’t got nothin’ specifically luxury, but I got a ton of stuff for big ships’ PA systems I bet we can cobble together into some real impressive shit. But for now, we’s gotta get ready—we’re comin’ up on Pisoksha fast.”

“Hard to believe this will be the third planet I step foot on in two days,” River marveled, awestruck as the tan planet came into view.

“Aw, it’s sandy like Komo,” Komo moped. “Komo got tired of sand after four hundred years of it.”

“It ain’t nothing like Komo,” Reol replied, "or from what I saw of Komo in Az's mind share. For one thing, this shit’s more like Earth sand than little crystal chunks. And on Komo, all the civilizations are underground or whatever—here, the buildings is all built into massive plants grown the right shape and size to hold shit. The relative humidity and heat are so fuckin’ unbearable here that anything or anyone who stayed outside for any time at all would dry out and crack open in no time. The massive fuckin’ plants here, though, pull from huge underwater reservoirs and have a constant layer of water flowin’ through them.”

“I don’t get it,” River replied.

“It’ll make sense when I show youse. For now, ol’ Reol’s gotta land this motherfucker.”

“It has an auto-land feature, you know,” Az said smugly.

“Yeah, for planets it’s landed on before. It ain’t magic, it don’t know where to land safely until it’s learned it from someone who knows how to land a ship. And no offense to any other parties present, but I gets the feelin’ none o’ y’all ever took classes on landing spaceships.”

“Fair,” Az replied.

“Yeah, he’s got us there,” River added, sitting back down with another helping of bacon.

On the approach, several farms and ranches dotting the sandy landscape came into view, dwarfed by massive, wide, towering green structures. With the ease of a child on an old video game, Reol touched the ship gently down in the sand, only a hundred yards or so from one of the green masses. From here, it was impossible to see the end of it, its green walls and surrounding dunes spanning as far as the eye could follow.

“Buildings?” Komo asked, looking through the windshield in amazement.

“Yeah, but they ain’t like anything youse have ever seen before,” Reol answered. “That’s a plant you’re lookin’ at, girlie.”

“The whole thing?” River asked, marveling.

“Yessiree. Not one plant, mind you, but they grow in tight vines with outside plastic-like skin that fuses together in the heat—and they use flamethrowers on the inside walls to simulate the same. They pull from the water under the ground and circulate it up and down throughout each vine like a fuckin’ watercooler on a pricy computer. The planet’s inhabitants grow em’ thick, too, and guide them to make interconnected, airtight structures. Outside it’s about sixty degrees Celsius this time o’ day. Inside? About twenty three degrees. The efficency’s fuckin’ insane.”

“How much is sixty degrees celcius?” River asked.

“Oh right. You was lucky enough to be from one o’ the only places that didn’t use it before the entire fuckin’ universe agreed on celcius. Az, do you know?”

“That would be about one hundred and forty degrees Farenheit, Captain,” Az replied.

“I, uh, don’t think I’m dressed for that,” River said.

“It ain’t but so possible to be dressed for it ever,” Reol laughed. “When we leave the ship, we’ll make a mad dash for it. None o’ y’all motherfuckers has to breathe, and ol’ Reol can breathe in just about any atmosphere, so it’s the relative humidity that’s gonna be a bitch. It’s right at 0% outside the plants, so breathing at all, even just letting air into youse mouths, is gonna be like eatin’ fire. And if youse keep your mouths closed, youse lips is gonna dry out and crack right open. Not fun.” Reol hopped out of the First Officer’s chair and into the kitchen, returning with a large cup of water from the fridge. “So, all o’ us except Az is gonna have to put water in our mouths and keep our lips curled inside to avoid that.”

“Got it,” River said. “Everyone make sure you have whatever you need to take already with you. Reol, what’s your call on weaponry, as far as this planet is concerned? Should we bring some along, or is that only more likely to get us into trouble?”

“There ain’t no cops if youse get jumped by crooks, but if it’s anything like last time I was around here, there’s a sizable little ‘peace keepers’ militia that’ll fuck youse up even worse than the bad guys if they think youse gonna cause trouble. Those fuckers fancy bein’ the only ones with weapons, and assume if youse got em, youse gonna cause trouble.”

“I can’t imagine what gave them that idea,” Az groaned, remembering the tale of Reol’s hired massacre.

“Komo’s laser is fully recharged after sleeping!” Komo said excitedly. “So Komo don’t need a weapon, anyway.”

“Doesn’t it have to recharge overnight after one shot?” River asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yep! But Komo never miss. Komo can see heat signatures and use Komo’s big ears like sonar to perfectly hit a target, every time! Komo just doesn’t like violence if Komo doesn’t have to resort to it.”

“I’m glad she’s on our side!” Reol cackled, with a laugh like nails on a cheese grater.

“I should also be fine unless there’s some sort of energy shootout,” Az said. “I can dodge anything at light speed if I notice it fast enough, unless it’s also moving at light speed. And traditional weaponry does nothing to me.”

“I don’t have anything long range,” River replied, “but I’ve got insane superhuman cyborg strength going for me.”

“Sadly, I do not,” Reol sighed, “so I’ll be a sittin’ duck out there—but I can’t imagine stealthily sneakin’ anything in when my best guns is bigger than I am. I’ll have to rely on youse fuckers if the going gets too tough.”

“Then we’re all set,” River said. “Everyone, grab the water cup and get some in your mouth like Reol said. We’re gonna make a mad dash for the entrance of that structure.”

“The door’s that shiny bit over to the left from that dune, next to those weird purple cactuses,” Reol explained, pointing with a vaguely finger-like section of his little orb-like marshmallow hand. “It’ll open au-to-ma-tic-ally when youse gets close to it, but the inner door will require youse to push a button. Wait until we’s all in and then we’ll let the outer door close and open the inner one.”

Komo said goodbye to Bleach Buddy, and everyone but Az took a good portion of water in their mouths and dashed across the desert, with the door set to lock behind them and the ship’s climate control systems to continue running. Az immediately launched to the destination as soon as the ramp descended, but the others were floored by the wall of heat that hit them like they'd opened a room sized oven. It only took about a minute of dashing to reach the structure’s door; but with every swift, sandy step, the misery increased tenfold. Komo reached the door first, skittering in a couple seconds behind River. Reol was several seconds later still, his stubby little legs struggling to waddle across the little sandy waves that were dune sized to him. A few seconds after he was through, the outside door slammed shut, and the miracle of the cooling plants making up the walls was made immediately apparent.

“Took you long enough,” Az smirked. The sight of them as Priss, with their wig still just so and not a drop of sweat, was infuriating.

“Can you even feel heat?” River spat between spells of panting. He didn’t have to breathe to power his mechanical organs, but he had instinctively started the motion up to cool down, burning up inside his rubber spacesuit.

“River should have worn something lighter,” Komo said, seemingly unfazed by the heat.

“It was this or my OS outfit,” River mumbled. “And even if I can't get in trouble for it here in Anarchy Desert, I'd rather boil alive inside this thing than be associated with them.”

“Heh, Anarchy Desert,” Reol chuckled. “That’s a pretty fuckin’ cool name. We oughta’ recommend they call it that.”

River punched the button next to the inner door, and a blast of even cooler air washed over the crew in a single glorious wave of salvation. The dryness faded entirely too, a pleasant, refreshing humidity taking over.

“So this is all plants?” Komo bubbled, her neck bending and craning around disturbingly quickly to take it all in. The inside of the structure was entirely made of thick walls of the plants as well, towering up over a hundred feet into the air before meeting at the top and wrapping over in a dome-like ceiling. It was a surreal sight to behold, with new twists and turns around every bend and countless doors to other chambers throughout. Az’s head spun—they had experienced millions of years, so they could actually picture the amount of time and preparation it must have taken to build this over time. The fact a society in a state of anarchy could achieve this was even more impressive.

“Yeah baby, they is,” Reol boomed, motioning grandly around the space. “And see those lights?” Komo hadn’t noticed them, but low power circular bulbs were strung together along long cords up and down the walls, connected to hooks that were gently glued onto the plants’ rugged skin. They provided a romantic, warm glow lighting the entire inside of the structure. “Those are attached to generators in the walls between layers of plants, every room or so. They ain’t generators like you’d picture, though—they’re surgically implanted into the thickest vines, intercepting all that fast-moving water inside to generate insanely efficient amounts of electricity.” Reol waddled up to a simple spicket screwed into the wall and pulled a lever, guzzling ice cold water launching out at high speeds. “There’ also these little taps every few turns, tapping directly into the water for… well, drinkin’. And the same kinda’ thing in the bathrooms, for obvious purposes.”

“This is incredible,” River grinned, overwhelmed.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my millions of years,” Az added, fully awestruck for the first time in a very long time. “The engineering here is ingenious, and the flora is extraordinary.”

A small variety of species mingled about, mostly Jeocolepians dressed in loose fitting silk tied around their necks and waists along with ornate, skimpy undergarments. “This was a Jeocolepian prison colony,” Reol explained. “The ones who didn’t adhere to their strict social order and backwards views on everything from sexuality to religious freedom and technology rebelled at some point tens of thousands of years ago and were abandoned out here on the other side of the universe to die. The motherfuckers survived and figured this shit out, and it’s grown since then to be one of the only trading posts in this whole region of space. Other species joined in too, of course, though not in as big numbers... lots of anarchists and hippie types joined on too, and other rebels. You got some o’ my people, Linbars who wanted to escape their exploitative culture, Quidians what don’t possess people and want to escape the prosecution they get in their normal forms… and so on.”

“The denizens of this planet certainly keep in good physical condition, though I don’t know how they avoid sunburn,” Az quietly mused, their eyes trailing the barely-clad, sweat-glistening, shapely grey hindquarters of a tall, gorgeous Jeocolepian woman.

“If I had to hazard a guess,” River said, “the silky outer clothing act as a protection for the sun when they’re outside, with the clothing under that kept minimalist to be as cool as possible. But by having something on underneath, they can hygienically wander about inside these structures more comfortably, tying the silk up like scarves or waistbands to let them cool off and dry out.”

“You’re a smart one, kid,” Reol beamed. “Yer’ spot on.”

“Komo figured it out too,” Komo added. She actually had, but had kept it to herself in fear of being wrong.

“Whatever the cause, mama’s not complaining,” Az softly added again, this time eyeing a beefy blue-toned Linbar male in little more than a jeweled speedo and silk scarf. Slightly smaller than humans, Linbar looked incredibly similar save for their very short, colorful fur, cat-like ears, and pointed, prehensile, devil-like tails.

“If I can quell my horniness in here, you can, Casanova,” River mentally chided Az. “Can you even… you know... have sex!?”

“Y-yes,” Az stammered, clearly flustered, “through one of THREE methods, I will have you know. All three of which are incredibly elaborate, one of which is morally reprehensible and which I swore to never engage in, and one of which is entirely non-physical. Can YOU, T2?”

“I would assume so based on my food court boner,” River replied, casually. “But three ways!? Now you’ve got to tell me--”

“You said that last sentence out loud, Captain,” Reol said, straight-faced. Az tried very unsuccessfully not to laugh. “Don’t explain, for the love of all that’s cool and unholy—I don’t wanna know. What’s our game plan, Cap?”

“We’re not splitting up this time,” River replied, strategizing aloud as they wandered deeper into the organic maze. “We don’t have a map, only I have any kind of currency with me--”

“Ol’ Reol’s got his creds memorized,” Reol interrupted, far too proud of himself.

“--only TWO of us have any kind of currency, though as the Captain and current financial high roller, I’ll of course be glad to buy anyone else whatever you need. But we’re not just here to shop.”

“We aren’t?” Reol asked, blindsided.

“Nope. Ideally, we can stay here for a while. As in, a matter of days.”

“C-Captain, you heard the ball man, this place is pure anarchy,” Az nervously replied.

“Exactly,” River grinned, snapping his fingers. “Where else could we have a chance to actually take a breather, catch up on intergalactic news, strategize what to do moving forward, get our ship actually set up to live in… face it, guys, we can’t just jump back and forth in hyperspace forever in enemy territory until we run out of caches, and hope we don’t get caught along the way. This is the last place in the world ES agents would be, and they have no jurisdiction here. I’m willing to bet those militias Reol mentioned would shoot them on sight if they came here--”

“--can confirm,” Reol interjected. “A couple followed me here from Orvebea when I was on hired killer duty. I didn’t have to kill em—they were shot up before they even got this far into the plants.”

“Thank you, Reol,” River chuckled. “See? This is an opportunity. I don’t know about you all, but my head still isn’t on straight yet from everything that’s happened in the past couple days. I’m the Captain of a group of space pirates as of yesterday, but we don’t even have a plan yet. We don’t even have a name for our ship, or our crew, for that matter! We haven’t even agreed on whose rooms are whose or what our actual roles here are, though I guess some, like Reol as our fabulous cook, are obvious.”

“Aw hell, Captain, I’m blushin’,” Reol giggled.

“As dangerous as I can see it being,” Az sighed, “I do certainly understand your argument, and will follow your command as Captain. And not just because that means hanging out in eye candy central for more than a couple of hours.”

“Reol!” a piercing, roar-like voice boomed, furious. The crew stopped in their tracks, spinning round to see a towering Liron. Az quickly granted it a language skin matching theirs, hoping desperately whatever was about to go down could be talked to a bloodless conclusion. “You’ve got some real nerve showing your face around these parts!"

A close genetic relative of the Linbar, Lirons had developed similar intellect but maintained more of their ancestors’ beastly characteristics. This humanoid man was at least twice tall as Komo, covered in thick purple fur, and had a horrifying, protruding snout halfway between the maw of a lion and the jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex. He wore a loose black tank top over baggy shorts. His bulging arms, as thick around as River’s entire body, were crossed menacingly in front of him, with bloodstained, jagged claws on the hand that was visible. Two spiraling horns protruded from the front his massive skull and around his unruly black hair, aesthetically matching his demonic, pointed tail, as thick as an elephant’s trunk at the point where it emerged from his shorts. River, Az, and Komo immediately froze in panic, but Reol waddled towards him, as confident as a tiger approaching a butterfly.

“And youse got a lotta’ fuckin’ nerve showin’ that ugly mug at all,” Reol growled in response, looking straight up at him. “I thought I told youse to wear a bag over ya’ head, you fugly asshole.”

“And I thought I told you,” he roared, grabbing Reol in a quick swipe and lifting him to his face--

“No!” Komo shrieked.

“--to write me sometime, dickwad!” He pulled Reol into a huge hug. Reol hopped out of his hand and onto his shoulder, reclining back into his muscular trapezius.

“Az, River, Komo… meet my old pal Ted,” Reol grinned.

“Ted…?” Komo asked.

“Ted…?” River repeated.

“His name...” Az said, nearly breathlessly… “is… Ted?”

“Can you believe that!?” Reol boomed. “I named him. His real name ain’t somethin’ I can pronounce--”

“It’s Grgrxklkxgrklkxn,” the Liron said, effortlessly.

“...uh huh. TED,” Reol continued, “was one of the poor little blokes that old Bastard Boys gang was terrorizing. He was the runt of his litter, and they’d already caught his pals and sold them off as exotic pets in the intergalactic shadow market. He was livin’ in hiding, but--”

“But Reol came along and took them all out without missing a shot,” Ted interrupted, starry eyed.

“You… saved… him. Just to clarify. That’s—that’s what you’re saying here,” River stammered.

“Yep. If you thought Ted was big, you oughta have seen his siblings. And if youse thought they was big, you oughta have seen the Bastard Boys. They was one quarter Zaxon—somehow--and was too big to even fit into these structures at all.”

“But not too big for Reol the hero to take them down!” Ted roared, clapping his mighty hands. Az, River, and Komo glanced at each other, wordlessly.

“If you’re wonderin’, Ted, I don’t got that gun still,” Reol replied, sighing with nostalgia and leaning against his neck. “Sold it on the shadow market myself to open me up a store in a GalacMall. Thought I’d settle down for a spell.”

“Oh wow! From soldier to mercenary to businessman extraordinaire! Were you successful?”

“Oh, wildly so. But I just blew the place up. Literally. Those EarthSights bastards bought up the whole damn mall. Ol’ Reol stuck around for a while to spy on them, hacked into their systems and such, but I had a chance to join these fuckin’ space pirates and decided it was time to move on again.”

“Whoah! You guys are space pirates!?” Ted blurted, ecstatic. “That’s the coolest thing ever!”

“Uh huh,” River nodded, still lost for words.

“This is Captain River,” Reol continued, “the rock star minx is Az the First Officer, they turn into all kinds o’ shit though, lightform tricks and whatever, and this is Komo the… I don’t know what Komo does, to be honest. Or even what a fuckin’ Komo is. But she’s a doll, she is. Even if she does stay up all night talking to washing machines.”

“Hi!” Komo shrieked.

“River?” Ted asked, suddenly recoiling in fright. “Oh, Reol, you don’t mean--”

“Relaaaax, big guy,” Reol grinned. “Yeah, it’s the same motherfucker youse thinkin’ about, but ES framed the dude. We’s on a mission now to shut them down, liberate his home planet, and fuck up the entire Federated Planets along the way.”

“Oh my god! That’s my DREAM! Can I join you!?” Ted squealed.

“I… uh… I don’t think youse would fit on the ship, buddy,” Reol said, shaking his head. “But uh, I’m sure I speaks for all of us when I say we appreciate the offer and consider youse an ally, at the least.”

“Y-yes, for sure,” River quickly replied.

“Allies, one hundred percent, all the way,” Az added, chuckling nervously.

“Please don’t eat Komo,” Komo said.

“Oh, don’t worry, sillies, I wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Ted roared in reply.

“The blood stains on your saw-blade claws imply otherwise,” Az said.

“I’m a butcher,” Ted laughed. “I would never killed a sentient being. I only tried once, and it was to save my family, but I couldn’t even do that. Thank god for Reol!”

“Oh, you still run the meat shop here?” Reol asked.

“Of course! Say…why don’t you and your friends--sorry, sorry, your--” he paused to giggle euphorically “--SPACE PIRATE CREWMATES… come by for a meal tonight? Right now I have the finest cut of Kcgqi in the galaxy in stock—the Qiqiqco gland.”

“Whoahhh,” Reol replied, his jaw dropping. “Do youse know what that is?”

River, Az, and Komo shook their heads to indicate that they did not, in fact, know what that was.

“The finest meat in the world, my friends. The Kickgooqi—Kocoogquo--I can’t fuckin’ say it, but it’s an interdimensional fish-like creature that hops in and out of hyperspace. When it materializes, its Qiqiqco gland disappears—it’s the part that lets it switch between matter and energy, and it’s only needed in one direction and normally don’t even have a physical form. But if youse freeze it mid jump, it forms for a split second, and youse can take it out. If youse ain’t perfect with the cut, it poofs outta existence there too. Then youse gotta keep it at the perfect temperature to remove the dimensional membrane on all sides, and then it’s finally stable, existing in two forms at once.”

“It’s the only quantum meat in the known universe,” Ted added, giddily. “It’s both energy and matter at the same time! Even your First Officer could eat and taste it!”

Az’s eyes grew huge. “You mean… I could taste… the flavor? With my own body!?”

“That’s how quantum meat works,” Reol replied. “It’s amazing to energy beings for that reason since it gives a physical sensation of taste. And it’s amazing for physical beings because it stimulates senses they usually ain’t even in touch with—it’s like veal youse can taste in your soul.”

“Normally, I’d sell a single serving for tens of millions of tokens,” Ted explained. “But if it’s for Reol and his friends—I mean PIRATE CREW!--it’s on the house! Come, I’ll show you around in the mean time—we’ve added so much since you were here, Reol, and things have been so much more peaceful around here since you did your thing...”

- - - - -

The explosion at BOOMCOAST killed two EarthSights agents, injured a third, and damaged the stores directly above and below it, though no innocent bystanders were injured. The explosives were chained all the way to the control room for the mall’s psionic field generator and thought/speech processing units, completely destroying all of them.

The incident was officially listed as a random detonation of old weapons stock due to improper storing conditions, and was said to have killed Reol… but that was only the explanation given to the public.

Inside ES, the message was clear: River and Az were alive, they were now armed and dangerous, and—for all ES knew—River still had every last bit of proof about their misdeeds, and then some. And, worst of all—legendary soldier turned mercenary Reol was now with them: that was the consensus HQ had arrived at.

For the first time ever, ES put out an under the table notice on the shadow market’s board in the darkest depths of the spacenet, deciding they couldn't depend on only legal means. River, Az, and Reol were now fair game across the universe. The reward for any of them was one one hundred million tokens, with a significant added bonus for multiple at once. Az’s bounty was only good if they were delivered alive, for reasons only the highest of executives knew. But as for River and Reol?

“Bounty will paid in full as long as the bodies are identifiable.”

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