“Are crew there yet?” Komo bubbled.
“Not yet,” River replied.
“Are crew there yet?” Komo asked again several minutes later, craning its neck around from behind River to face him.
“No, Komo, we are not.”
“Are crew there yet?” Komo asked Az, sticking its head straight through their own lightform head, its purple beak lips sticking out where Jeff Bridges’ mouth was a moment prior.
“For the last bloody, infernal, blasted time,” Az boomed, moving several feet ahead and turning to face Komo, “As was explained to you, thirty five seconds ago--We! Are! Not!” Their face was practically trembling with annoyance, with Jeff’s teeth gritted and his eyes nearly bulging from his head.
“The Dude would never go off like that,” River mumbled.
“The Dude was not trapped in the world’s smallest starship with a Komo that I am beginning to believe secretly contains the transplanted brain of a human 3 year old,” Az growled in response.
“Komo’s just bored,” River sighed. “We’ve been flying for two hours and we haven’t even reached the warp yet.”
“That’s just how space travel is for matties,” Az sneered, settling back in their chair.
“You’re just still pissed that Komo almost killed your ‘god-like’ ass,” River chuckled. “And what the hell is a mattie?”
“A term of endearment for matter based lifeforms,” Az coolly replied.
“It sounds like a slur.”
“I neither confirm nor deny this,” Az quickly said. “Perhaps you are on to something, however. While I’ve been occupied with the laborious task of regeneration, and you with playing on your new 400 year old computer, Komo has had nothing to do.”
“Yep. Too bad we don’t get TV up here.”
“Wait a moment!” Az beamed, their frosty visage suddenly thawing with the excited sparks of realization. “River, where did you put your jacket?”
“Uh… the one I was wearing when you abducted me?”
“No,” Az replied, straightfaced, “the furry pink one.”
“Smartass. I threw it on the back of one of the dining room chairs on the way to Komo.”
“Brilliant!” Az shouted, taking on the angelic blue form of Whis from the Dragon Ball franchise and moving so quickly to the small dining area behind the bridge that they seemed at first to have simply vanished. “You may have forgotten these, but I haven’t.” Before River could even turn to face them at the table, they returned holding two massive handfuls of removable media drives. River’s eyes lit up--that’s right, he’d stuffed them in his pockets before running!
“Do you know what’s on those?” River blurted excitedly.
“I do, because they were conveniently labelled!” Az teased. “You are such a geek, River, it’s honestly quite adorable.”
“Komo,” River called, the massive enneapedal alien shuffling excitedly over to him. “Do you want to watch some ancient Earth shows?”
“OH MY GOD!” Komo shouted. “Komo has no idea what Earth is, but Komo loves shows!”
“Earth is my planet,” River replied, his voice suddenly wistful.
“Was,” Az corrected him. “Now you’re Space Hitler.”
“You know,” River said, clenching his fists, “that little Whis cosplay suits you, Az.”
“Because of my equally angelic, androgynous beauty?”
“Because you’re an annoying sidekick to a far less powerful being and never know when to shut up when talking to them.”
“Hmm, equally valid,” Az mischievously grinned.
“I’m trying to think what Komo might enjoy,” River mused, wandering over to the expansion ports along the right wall of the bridge and carefully inserting the drive labelled ‘MASTER MEDIA ARCHIVE VOLUME 12: LIVE ACTION, KIDS.’ “To be honest, I’m not even sure what all is on these. Each drive is a petabyte of media I torrented from huge archives way back when.”
“You copied things you didn’t even like?” Az asked, curiously raising an eyebrow.
“I’ve always been something of a preservationist,” River explained, plopping down in his Captain’s Chair and using the armrest controls to navigate the contents of the external drive. “Lost media always fascinated me--how hundreds, or thousands of people could witness, say, a movie, how it could become a part of cultural consciousness for decades or centuries to come, and then, it’s just gone… it’s mind-blowing. I guess I always thought maybe, if I backed everything up, then someday I might be able to bring back something that was otherwise lost, y’know?”
“Well, 400 years and a planetary apocalypse later, and I dare say you’ve most likely done so on a massive scale,” Az replied. “I’d be lying if I wasn’t a bit relieved at the thought of some of my favorites being within my grasp once again.”
“Here we go!” River celebrated. “This should keep Komo entertained for a while.”
“Power Rangers?!” Az blurted, incredulously.
“Komo knows nothing of our culture and its understanding of English is still only through your little mind hack thing. Kids media makes sense to start with.”
“But the original Sentai series are so much better--”
“Az,” River stated firmly, glaring, “we’re showing Komo Power Rangers.”
“Very well,” Az huffed. “Just know, Komo, that what you are about to witness is an incredibly inferior version of a brilliant Japanese series--”
“W-what’s Japan?” Komo asked, slightly frightened.
“Shut your weeb mouth, Az, and take Komo back to its new room, Living Quarters 2. I’ll have the computer stream it to the monitor in there.”
“POWER RANGERS!” Komo shrieked excitedly, skittering after Az as they floated down the hall. Komo was rapt from the first moment, and its excited hollering and commentary could be heard even when Az closed the door behind it (and as a dull rumble still when the hallway door to the bridge was closed as well).
“It’s really quite remarkable,” Az said as they returned to their chair on the bridge, “that you preserved all of that, with no foresight as to what was actually going to happen--that you did it ‘just in case.’”
“You never know what tomorrow brings,” River said solemnly. “I didn’t think it would be a bioweapon apocalypse and my sudden designation as Space Hitler, but we don’t get by too long without some kind of unforeseen tragedy. It’s a part of life.”
“I almost envy that in you,” Az replied, their voice suddenly soft and wistful in his mind.
“How so?” River asked, his mind racing with concerned curiosity.
“That mindset makes things precious to you humans, as wretched as you act in spite of it--present company excluded, of course. It creates meaning from absolutely nothing. A day spent doing nothing is still a precious gift, because one day you will be without a day at all. Friendships, romance, all of it is as fleeting as your own life… and you accept it. The natural order of things, you call it. And you find purpose, therefore in all things, big or small--”
“The natural order is broken,” River gravely replied. “I’m ageless now, but everyone I cared about--my mom, my dad, my grandfather, Chuck at work, my D&D group, my niece--they’re all gone. And it’s not because I jumped 400 years--it happened right after I left. Humanity as you admire it has ceased to exist. It’s all ageless wannabe-god machine-hybrids that look like me, now.”
“Yes, but you still remember the times before it all went to hell. You learned the value of things, the beauty in that which is fleeting. Kirlians appreciate nothing. They observe, and observe--god, do they observe. They analyze and they document and they take great fucking pride in being some impartial uninterested third parties to the collapse of the bloody universe around them, and daring to give a shit about anything or anyone is considered a form of weakness, of insanity--”
“You aren’t like that, Az.”
“I try not to be,” they replied. “I hate Kirlians. I hate our real name, which is even dumber and impossible to pronounce syllabically because a normal name wouldn’t be posh and elitist enough. And I hate that I think like them--”
“You don’t, Az.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not that we’ve had a lot of time together, but…” River leaned back in his chair and minimized the projection window, gazing mindlessly at the gorgeous field of stars silently whizzing by. “You were the one who reached out to me and forced yourself into the position of my best friend. You were the one who cared enough about this ‘mattie’ to risk your own life to save me. And don’t play coy, I’ve seen today that you aren’t as invincible as you let on; the risk was--and still is--real. You care more about me after one favor and one day flying around in the middle of nowhere than most humans I left behind ever did, even the ones who called me their friend. The dogma of your species doesn’t determine you, Az. You are your own being, and you are truly magnificent.”
“I’m not crying,” Az replied, clearly crying.
“You’re more willing to open up than I am, even,” River continued. “To be honest, I envy YOU for that. Just… it’s hard to get attached when you realize any second, you and everyone you’ve come to know and love up here could get blown up in a single blast and it’s all over: or worse, if I was the only one to survive--”
“But that’s why it’s precious,” Az replied. “And nothing is certain. I could tell you what’s going on across a planet from a quick lightspeed jaunt, but I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. And I can tell you that I can truly envision a world where we’re safe and sound, ES is toast, and maybe--when justice is served--you’re ruling Earth as you rightfully damn well should after what they’ve done to you, sir.”
“I don’t know about that last part,” River chuckled, lightening up a bit, ”but I definitely want to see those bastards at OS--sorry, ES--fall. And I’ve got just the thing to do it.”
“Go on, Captain?”
“That’s why I made sure I grabbed those drives, Az. I have an entire drive with the full filesystem of top secret clearance information from the OS days, hundreds of pages I haven’t even had a chance to read yet, all detailing in those bastards’ own words the atrocities they’ve done.”
“Oh,” Az replied, their Whis face going blank.
“You don’t sound ecstatic.”
“Well, that’s because the only drives in your pockets were the ones labelled as media archives.”
River’s heart sank. “I’m sure you just missed one--”
“Kirlians don’t miss,” Az replied. River swallowed hard.
“Shit, Az. You don’t think I left it in my laptop at the motel--do you!?”
“I wouldn’t know. But I will say this. Carol Burnett saw you walk through that door with nothing but your work uniform, that awful and unfashionable tan jacket, and whatever was in those pockets.”
River frantically patted around his pants pockets and the single pocket on his chest. Even through the tight rubbery space suit, he was certain there was nothing there.
“I-I-I made a backup,” he stammered. “I hid it in a safe place. I--I buried it next to the side of the road, a few yards out from a road sign, a sign for--”
“It’s on Earth,” Az said, looking sadly into his eyes.
“But if we could just sneak back--”
“You are banned from Earth, River. And they are now a crucial part of the Federated Planets. And I know what you’re thinking but if I tried to go back to sneak it out for you, they’d shoot me down the second I entered the atmosphere.”
“They can’t get away with it,” River growled, clenching his fists as a sordid slideshow of every face he ever knew ran through his tortured mind, along with the reality that their death was slow, painful, and rewarded. “We have to do something. We have to go back and--”
“While I share your righteous indignation, Captain, there is no way, as we are now, that we could even land in one piece, let alone creep around the mountains digging up 400 year old removable media.”
“Then we’ll just get to where we can,” River declared, a spine-chilling, steely, ambitious fury in his tongue. “We’ll put together a crew. Bide our time. Build our influence and power. Build an entire damned army if we have to. But one day, we’ll go back to Earth. We’ll crush every last ES crony and watch the life fade from their cold, dead, ‘immortal’ eyes. And you know what, Az?” River’s piercing eyes, the last fully human part of him, burned with a righteous rage and ambition that made even Az shiver. “Just like you said, I’ll make the whole damned planet mine.”
“He may not be Space Hitler,” Az thought, just to themself, “but I think he could live up to that Angel of Death moniker after all.” They smiled, for the first time in the journey truly convinced beyond a mere hunch that this man could, in fact, become the fearsome space pirate Captain they dreamed of serving alongside. That spark they’d seen in him really was capable of growing into a roaring, glorious flame.
“Holy shit,” River blurted, suddenly snapping back to reality. “What’s happening?”
Az glanced casually at the windshield at the frantic blur of colors and vague streaks seemingly coming endlessly at the ship at a speed even they couldn’t process. “I suppose we’re in the warp now,” they calmly replied.
“I didn’t pass out this time,” River marvelled. “I didn’t even feel any difference.”
“There’s a difference between a constructed and maintained warp tunnel and one that is forcefully created and navigated by hyperspace thrusters,” Az explained. “These are open at all times, a controlled wormhole, with every detail throughout perfectly calculated and constructed to be as comfortable and safe as possible.”
“Uh…” Az lifted a blue finger as if to speak, then lowered it in defeat. “In truth, Captain, I could not tell you. It’s a process done by species I have no experience with and can hardly fathom how they exist and operate.”
“So how I feel about you… is how you feel about them.”
“Oh, it’s not even close, River. We are becoming friends. You understand the basics of how I move about and transform, my abilities and weaknesses, and we communicate remarkably well given the many millennia age gap and the difference in our home cultures. I could never chat about the merits of Sentai over Power Rangers with a Zaxon. I don’t even understand how they communicate with one another. To be blunt, I don’t want to. Their existence horrifies me. I have never encountered one directly or even known the location of one and I am thoroughly content to let it remain that way. And you know what? I’m nearly certain, if I ever fathomed a means of communication with one, that they would know of a species or being who they feel that way about themselves.” Az grinned as Whis morphed seamlessly into Qui-Gon Jinn and adjusted their voice to a rough facsimile of Liam Neeson’s. “There is always a bigger fish.”
A soft “wow” was all River could muster in reply. The idea that there were known species out there that even his arcane new light-being demigod friend couldn’t grasp put his overconfidence in check and sent a shiver through his metal spine. They sat together in thoughtful silence for a good while until Komo burst through the hallway door to drag them back to reality.
“POWER RANGERS IS AWESOME!” Komo shrieked, prompting Qui-Gon to instinctively cover his ears (though this, of course, did nothing to shield Az from the vibrations).
“Oh yeah?” River asked, grinning. “What did you like about it?”
“The Power Rangers were so strong and cool and they’re all friends and they fought this MONSTER!”
“An apt summary,” Az chuckled, noting also Komo’s new use of ‘they.’ Maybe consuming media that was processed with the language-skin but not beamed directly to the mind as such was an intuitive way to ease into actual understanding after all.
“Who’s your favorite Power Ranger?” River asked.
“Komo likes the Pink Ranger!” Komo bubbled.
“And why is that?” Az inquired.
“Because the Pink Ranger is a strong, kickass, spunky and beautiful girl, just like Komo!”
River nearly choked on his own spit, and Az slipped and let their form shift into a twisted mess between Jeff Bridges, Whis and Liam Neeson. “WHAT!?” they shouted, in perfect unison.
“Komo’s a girl?” River mentally whispered to Az.
“We’ve been calling her ‘it’ this whole time,” Az noted, nervously.
“What did River and Az think Komo was?” Komo asked, tilting her head curiously.
“We--um,” River vocalized, struggling to get his throat clear, “we weren’t even sure if your species or planet had genders, or sex, or even the concept of such.”
“Komo isn’t sure what sex is,” Komo nonchalantly replied, “but Komo is a girl. Did River and Az think Komo was a boy? Or a zon? Or a qix? Or--”
“N-no,” Az stumbled. “It’s just… a surprise.”
“It doesn’t matter, Komo. You’re a girl, and that’s great.” River switched to talking in his mind to speak just to Az, adding, “and it feels a lot less dehumanizing than calling her ‘it’ like we have been.”
“Why didn’t we use the term ‘they, anyhow’?” Az whispered to him. “I’m a genderless being of light and you never called me ‘it.’”
“I guess because your chosen forms always look like… you know... ‘people’ to me,” River replied.
“Space Hitler,” Az coughed.
“Komo want to watch more!” Komo shouted, scurrying excitedly between the bridge’s control chairs.
“Would you like to watch Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger?” Az asked, speaking as one would to manipulate the decision of a toddler. “It’s got the same ranger suits, but it’s so much better, and far, far cooler! It’s all in Japanese, but there are sub--”
“Komo only like Power Rangers,” Komo dismissively replied, turning her head away. Az melted into a puddle on the floor, despondent.
“I’ll gladly put on the next episode for you, Komo," River laughed, "but I think we’ve nearly reached our destination.” Sure enough, the visual tempest around the ship had subsided, signaling their emergence through the other side of the warp. No sooner had they been jettisoned from the wormhole did the Space Mall come into view--a massive metallic cube, floating in an otherwise empty section of space. A different advertisement for products and services within the mall was holographically rendered on each side of the cube, changing every several seconds to another. River noted that the images had no text--guess that’s one way to bypass intergalactic language barriers.
“Just navigate into the vacuum stream and the rest will be automated,” Az instructed, pointing to a long, ribbon-like protrusion of red light spiraling from the bottom of the cube outwards. It was wider at the start, forming a massive 3d funnel. River nervously and carefully manually maneuvered the ship for the first time using the joystick and throttle on the armrest. Hitting the massive funnel shape was trivial even for a new space driver, and immediately the ship lost control and was sucked into the red beam as if it were a roller coaster track. River exhaled with relief and returned the ship to autopilot. The ride slowed down as they neared the inner half of the spiral and were queued in behind a massive black double-decker spaceship unlike anything any of them had seen, with countless ships of various sizes and shapes and colors ahead of that one. A couple more ships arrived behind them as time went on, the train slowly spiraling in towards the entrance at the bottom left of the cube.
When they finally slid in through the enormous square entrance door (nearly fifty times the size of their ship), the ship was placed gently on a moving platform and taken automatically into a sorting elevator, where it was placed in a parking cubicle and sealed in on all sides. “CONNECT TO OUR COMPLIMENTARY LOCAL SPACENET TO CONTINUE--GALACMALL 2800C,” a hologram in front of the windshield directed, scrolling through tens of thousands of languages nearly too quickly to catch one's own. Nearly all of them were composed entirely of characters River had never seen before.
“I’ll take care of it,” Az said, opening the list of SpaceNet networks and selecting “GALACMALL 2800C” in the network list. A simple text web page quickly loaded, detecting the computer’s default language, and loaded a prompt asking about desired atmosphere. Az searched for and selected ‘Jeocolep.’ “It’s a very distant planet with an atmosphere nearly identical to Earth’s,” Az explained. “Komo and I will be fine with whatever, but I don’t want to say Earth directly and risk raising any flags with ES. We don’t know their influence here. Since by an odd coincidence none of us NEED to breathe a certain kind of atmosphere, we could have chosen anything, but this won’t look suspicious when they see a humanoid species like you walking around. ”
“Logical,” River replied, impressed.
“ROOM ATMOSPHERE COMPLETE. IT IS SAFE TO EXIT YOUR VEHICLE. REMEMBER YOUR CUBICLE NUMBER: C-347.”
They exited the ship, walking up to the entrance hatch for the mall itself. A large kiosk next to the door caught River’s attention. “It dispenses breathing masks,” Az explained. “You input your species or home planet and it creates a miniature atmosphere inside a half mask for you. They can be swapped for fresh ones during lengthy visits at one of many identical kiosks inside.”
“Neat. Too bad I don’t need one,” River replied.
“Too bad you do, I think you mean,” Az teased him, selecting “Jeocolep” and dispensing a size 17 mask, judging it to be the perfect size for River. “Nothing would raise eyebrows like a partially-biological humanoid walking around without a breathing apparatus. You may as well run about shouting, ‘Look at me! I’m a cyborg who doesn’t have to breathe, from the planet Earth! I’m probably Space Hitler!’”
River sighed and put on the mask. He was shocked with how comfortable it was, fitting around his nose and mouth and sealing tightly to his face without putting any pressure on it. Though its shiny black appearance looked industrial and brutal, it felt silky smooth against his face, almost like another human’s skin. This thought sent a brief twinge of loneliness through him, but that was quickly drowned out by the excitement of a space mall.
“Why is Az getting a mask?” Komo asked, needlessly loudly.
“Because,” Az replied, telekinetically lifting it to their projected head and aligning it perfectly with their newly projected form, “for the purposes of our shopping and entertainment leisure, I shall be masquerading as a Jeocolepian.”
This form was nearly human, but slightly thinner and taller at about seven feet. A mane of red, fur-like hair cascaded down their back like a cape. Their face was quite human aside from the eyes being two piercing, oversized black orbs with blood-red pupils. They had similar digits to a human’s as well, with the exception of claw-like black fingernails and an additional thumb in place of a pinky. River immediately understood why they’d taken this form--the last distinguishing trait was a perfectly gray skin tone. “If anyone asks,” Az instructed, pointing a black claw at him, “you’re an Earthtaku on the way back from a convention, and that’s why you’re wearing that stupid old Earth spacesuit and novelty ‘human eye’ contacts. And why you dyed your hair. And got cosmetic surgery to make your hands more human-like.”
“Earthtaku?” River asked, cringing.
“Like Otaku, but for Old Earth culture. Hence the use of the term Otaku. It’s a thing through the known universe, get used to it.”
“Aha, I knew we were special!” River boomed.
“Yeah, special because you were so far on the outskirts of the universe that it took forever for other intelligent life to find you, and that you were unable to find it even with relatively complex technology. ‘The Hermit Planet,’ many call you, because you’re the first planet in millenia to develop an advanced culture entirely without the influence of any extraplanetary civilization. Do you know how rare it is to develop computers and telescopes and to still not meet any of your neighbors? Most sentient species develop with the loving care and help of more established and ancient races. You crazy sons of bitches just did your own thing and everything from your attitudes to your media reflects it, especially your incredibly racist and inaccurate portrayals of alien life and the way you constantly divide yourselves along completely arbitrary lines and meaningless factors and fight amongst yourselves. Pre-disclosure, or ‘Old Earth,’ media is an entire field of study throughout the universe now... and there are lots of obsessive fanboys.”
“So you hadn’t discovered us before the bioweapon hit!?” River asked incredulously. “How were you on Earth then?”
“Oh, no, we discovered you around the times of ancient Greece,” Az replied, “and you’d had some forays into space, finding Komo apparently at least, but always in secret and never in the regions where you'd have had to interact with any sort of intergalactic authority. There were rogue actors who would sneak to Earth for fun--totally unlike myself--but on the whole the intergalactic community was fearful about making ourselves known to you, afraid it would spark a mass religious panic or a war or just hysteria in general. There was lots of egg on lots of faces when you bastards wiped yourselves out anyway. Anyone in the Federated Planets who voted against disclosure was shamed out of their position after that happened. That’s when they said fuck it and came down to help. As far as anyone in space believes, it’s thanks to you Earth is a part of the space community at all now.”
“Lovely,” River huffed. ”Also, you’re a total Earthtaku.”
“I m-most certainly am not,” Az stammered. “I appreciate Old Earth media, but I actually visited there, and I acknowledge humanity in all of its flaws as well! I am merely a cultural enthusiast.”
“Uh huh,” River snickered. “Sure.”
"AZ IS AN EARTHTAKU!" Komo screeched. "HAHAHA! EARTHTAKU! EARTHTAKU!"
With that, Az silently opened the door into the space mall, eager to cut the conversation short.