Komo got tired of holding the map and threw it away as soon as Az and River weren’t there to chide her for it. There were too many wonders here to be bound by searching for any particular attraction. Everything from makeup shops to specialty stores for pants for many legged species to simple remote control orb kiosks was new and interesting. Excitement at every turn!
Komo was starting to get hungry, but she tried her best to fight it. “No, Komo.” she mumbled, loud enough to make everyone around her think she was crazy, “Komo promised Joyride and Jizzette Komo would meet them at the food court in an hour. Komo isn’t going to be that one jerk who shows up to a restaurant and already ate!” Her resolve was genuine, but quickly melted when her eye fell on a mirzejkrukatczh shop kiosk. Plain krukatczh tasted like any other insect, but once it was made into mirzejkrukatczh, it was a delicacy renowned the world over. Her mouth watered. She eagerly wobbled over to it and got in line. “Just a little snack isn’t too much for Komo,” she reasoned, one again accidentally speaking it aloud. “Komo will still be hungry in an hour, definitely!”
“Who the fuck is Komo?” Komo looked down to see a gruff, bright pink, two foot tall, ten foot wide, scaly fellow with seventeen antennae spread seemingly randomly across qixs flat top. Qixs original language and voice sounded like the harp of an angel guiding a weary soul to rest. The translated voice, as projected to Komo’s mind, sounded of an equally lilting saccharine tone, wholly surprising for both qixs appearance and choice of vocabulary.
“Komo am Komo,” Komo politely replied.
“You think you’re real funny, don’t you, nine legs?” qex spat, glaring at her. She did not realize qex was glaring, of course, since qixs countless tiny eyes were buried inside qixs pores.
“Komo’s not trying to be funny. If Komo was, Komo would have told rude qix a joke.”
“Oh yeah?” qex growled.
“Yeah!” Komo bubbled. “Here’s a joke. Knock knock!”
“Komo can’t tell, Komo’s depth perception is horrible! Komo only have one eye!”
This was not, of course, a very good joke by Earth standards, or even by Komo standards. But it must have been hysterical by Squiz standards, because the squat little Squizzian qix suddenly changed qixs tune and let out such a guttural, booming belly laugh that it put even Komo’s booming alto to shame. “That’s fucking hilarious!” qex screamed, slapping qixs singular knee with what Komo thought was a long lose but must have been a handless arm located just above qixs breathing mask. “Maybe Komo isn’t so bad after all.” Qex turned back around, realized qex was holding up the line and was in fact next, and hopped as fast as qex could on qixs one foot to the counter to make an order.
Komo marveled at the floating hologram projection menu board floating above the kiosk worker’s head, her beakish jaw agape at the rotating, perfectly realistic, blown-up 3D images of each option on the menu. They all had numbers by them, too, which must have meant something. Maybe how tasty they were? If so, they must all be pretty damn tasty, as the numbers were all very high. She didn’t have much time to ponder before it was her turn in line, and she eagerly skipped to the counter with the grace and poise of a three legged, injured, pregnant, crack smoking milk cow.
“What can I help you with?” the cylindrical man behind the counter asked. Even in the translated voice in her mind, his lack of enthusiasm was immediately apparent.
“Worker look like those cardboard tubes Jonesy and Jillette throw away in the bathroom trash,” Komo cackled. She was referring, of course, to empty toilet paper tubes, though she did not know their name or function. The tall but slender grey fellow did bear more than a passing resemblance to a toilet paper roll, albeit one with stick limbs and simple eyes crudely drawn on. The rest of his face was obscured by one of the mall’s breathing masks.
“How very original. I’ve never been bullied for looking for a roll of toilet paper before. Oh wait, yes I have, to the point it’s become my own personal hell. Order something or beat it.”
“Komo will take… that one!”
“The one with the krukatczh.”
“They all have krukatczh. Everything here is mirzejkrukatczh. Come on, lady.”
“Uh… Komo will take the one second from the left, then.”
“This one?” he asked, pointing a limp, twiggy finger at the hologram of a dish containing krukatczh in a bowl of boiled oeverul.
“No, Komo’s left.”
“Who the fuck is Komo?”
“Komo is Komo.”
Mr. Tube was getting visibly agitated, but tried to keep his cool. “Does ‘Komo’ mean this one?” he asked through gritted teeth, motioning to the dish she had in mind—fukiyazo krukatczh with Feronian meat-cheese sprinkled liberally on top.
“Yes! Yes!” Komo squealed. The TP man instinctively shuddered and covered his ears.
“Very well then,” he replied, keying the order in on the system. A floating glass screen like the ones in EntertainmentSingularity dinged pleasantly with each tap of his pointy finger. “That’ll be… 27 tokens.”
“Tokens?” Komo asked, tilting her head confusedly at an unsettingly sharp angle.
“Yeah. Are you going to punch in your creds, or use a cube?”
“Komo doesn’t have those things. But Komo will be your friend--”
“Then Komo should get the fuck away from my store before I call the police.”
Komo’s neck glumly shrank down as she sadly strode away. “Komo never heard of tokens before,” she grumbled under her breath (in other words, at a normal being’s usual speaking volume). She wandered up to a kiosk selling adorable plush Chxchxchxs, but the shopkeeper also told Komo she would need tokens, tossing a wadded up receipt paper at her as she left. It didn’t hurt her smooth metal-like skin, much too light to feel in lowered gravity, but it did hurt her feelings. “I guess there’s nothing Komo can get without tokens,” she moped, hanging her head lower with each lumbering step.
“Not necessarily, friend,” a smooth male voice called out. Komo glanced around and couldn’t see anyone, but her oversized hexagonal ears pinpointed the source with great accuracy. Whoever it was, they were calling her over to a dark hallway between two boarded up stores. Exciting!
Komo eagerly rushed towards the voice. “What does dark hallway person mean?” she asked, eagerly. This close, she could make out the figure—a very basic humanoid android without artificial skin or any visible combat attachments. The face was clearly missing some parts, with blank sockets where eyes should be and a very blunt, wooden-puppet-like jaw that lacked expression due to a lack of lips or facial muscles. He sat in front of a massive assortment of cardboard boxes printed with an alphabet Komo had never seen.
“We’ll get to that. But first--you look like the kind of girl who loves doing laundry.”
“What’s a laundry?”
“It’s what you call a load of clothes to be washed,” he explained. “Does your ship have a machine for laundry?”
“Um...” Komo tilted her head back in thought. She had been given a full tour of the ship during the first few minutes of their journey to the space mall. She remembered a foyer and dining area, a kitchen, two stand-alone bathrooms, six living quarters, an entertainment area, the mechanical room, and two small storage spaces, but nothing for washing clothes. “No, crew’s ship doesn’t.”
The robot gasped. “Well, you’re going to lose all your friends, then!”
Komo shrieked, nearly overloading his hearing system. “What? No! Why? Komo just made friends! Komo can’t lose them!”
“Yeah, would you want to be around someone stinky, who got stinkier every day?”
“Komo doesn’t have a nose.”
“Oh no, that’s even worse! Then you have no idea how stinky your clothes are! If you can’t wash your clothes, Komo, they’re going to keep getting dirtier and sweatier and nastier and stinkier until nobody can stand to be around you.”
“That’s okay,” Komo bubbled, exhaling with relief. “Komo doesn’t even wear clothes!”
“Uh...” the man creakily stood up, wandering behind the pile of boxes. “Hold on a second.” Komo heard him rummaging through something, but she couldn’t tell what. He stepped back around holding an extra large t-shirt with the image of a naked Jeocolepian on the front, performing an unspeakable action on herself. A similarly inappropriate slogan was written on the front in Feronian. “Here, have a shirt,” he lilted, tossing it to her. It fluttered slowly to the ground.
“Yay!” Komo shouted. She extended her neck and head, lowering nearly to the ground, and used her middle arm to stretch the shirt across her ear. It barely fit onto her right ear, not quite making it halfway across. “Komo has clothes!” Komo squealed with glee.
“Yay! But wait, oh no! Now they’re going to get stinky and you’ll lose your friends!”
“No!” Komo shrieked, loud enough the entire section of the mall outside the hall went silent for a moment. The man’s hearing systems were miraculously back to nearly full capacity after an emergency reset.
“I know. It’s horrible. You just made these friends, and now they’re going to leave you because your shirt smells like sweaty ear grime and only gets worse. They’re going to try to be nice about it, but it’ll wear on them as it gets worse and worse and worse, until they have to kick you off the ship and abandon you on a planet somewhere where—what are you afraid of?”
“They wear down if Komo uses them and then they aren’t all the same size anymore and it’s really scary because they’re grinding down with use just like everyone Komo loved when humans came to Komo and made us work for--”
“--anyway, they’ll abandon you on a planet somewhere where EVERYONE is a COLORED PENCIL!”
Komo burst into tears, her legs crumbling under her. “No! Komo doesn’t want to be alone again!”
“Then Komo is going to need an all in one laundry machine.”
Komo sniffled. “If Komo has one of those, Komo won’t have to be alone again?”
“That’s right! Just wash your clothes in it and you’ll smell good as new! It’s like a miracle—other laundry systems are too big to fit on a ship. A washer and a drier? Good luck fitting both of those on a bridge! But mine is designed to wash and dry in the same exact unit! The drying is all electric, no gas needed--because what ship has that?--and even better, it doesn’t need a water hookup, either! It uses tiny beads to buffet your clothes dry, released at the start and taken back into the machine at the end. Even better, it uses incredible laser technology to bleach your clothes without needing bleach! It’s the first laundry machine to do that, ever! That’s why we call it the LaserBleach! And even better still—it comes with a friend! The hyper advanced AI, BleachBuddy! BleachBuddy will teach you everything you need to know about laundry, and maybe a thing or two about yourself.”
“Komo doesn’t have any tokens, though,” Komo said sadly, “so Komo can’t afford a LassoBeach or a BitchBuddy.”
“Well, you just might be in luck,” the man lilted with a wink. “We’re holding a contest for just one day—today ONLY—to give away a FREE LaserBleach system to ONE lucky individual here in this mall.”
“Wow!” Komo squealed. “That is lucky! How does Komo enter?”
“I just have to put your name into the drawing. I’ll write it down for you, don’t worry. I’m your pal. In fact, you’re just in time! The drawing is in fifteen seconds!”
“Oh no! Hurry and put Komo’s name in!”
“I will! I will!” the android frantically replied with comically poor acting. He rushed behind the pile of boxes, made a few sounds, and then returned to Komo. “Well, the drawing happened,” he said, deadpan.
“Oh no! Komo lost--”
“And Komo WON!” he shouted. He quickly shut off his hearing systems just before Komo predictably wailed victoriously at a volume rivaling a nuclear explosion, re-enabling them only after her beak lips were closed again.
“Komo’s getting a laundry machine!” She blurted happily, skipping in a circle. “Komo’s getting a laundry machine!”
“Of course Komo is! Tell you what, Komo—I’ll have it delivered to your parking cubicle, right outside your ship. It’s too heavy to lug through the mall, but you and your crew should be able to pick it up to get it up inside the ship, right?”
“Of course, silly,” Komo replied. “Jafar is super strong, and Jazzhands could probably pick up a really big chair with their brain.”
“Fantastic! Where did you park?”
“C-347,” Komo replied, beaming with pride at remembering.
“Alright, Komo. Congrats on being the luckiest nine legged son of a gun this side of Archonia. We’ll have your brand new LaserBleach with Bleach Buddy ready at your ship by the time you’re done shopping, guaranteed.”
“Yay!” Komo shouted, this time permanently damaging his hearing systems beyond repair. “Thanks so much, creepy robot man!”
Komo skipped happily away before coming to a sober realization. She had no idea how to tell time, and she had no idea how long an hour was. Panicked that she’d miss regrouping with River and Az, she hurried to the top floor as fast as her nine scurrying legs (and the mall’s lifting tiles) could take her.
“We’ve got a problem, Reol,” Az blurted, panicked.
“Eh? Did we miss clearin’ one of your little friends off on the system?”
“Negative. I ran a quick search for ‘River’ just to make sure nobody in here was on to us. River interacted with one of the shop owners, and that son of a gun just made a call to someone in ES HQ, some Lady Beb person--”
“Bah, screw that hag.”
“You know her?”
“Everyone does. She was the Princess of some big shot economic powerhouse planet. Xambria, I think. ES gave her an honorary position to get on their good side, and she takes it serious as sin.”
“Well, she’s called reinforcements in. ES is sending agents this way as of… two Earth minutes ago.”
“Nothin’ to be done about it now, then. Just keep your wits about ya’ until you’re ready to meet up with your pals. She’s a card, ain’t she?”
“She speaks like… a stereotypical Russian villainess in a spy movie. It’s like she’s a parody of herself.”
“That’s because she is, pal. Somethin’ possessed her years ago, controls her from the inside out and does a real shit impression of her. It’s an open secret. Her kingdom never liked her to begin with and don’t dare speak up, and ES don’t give a shit what’s in her little chair at HQ inside her body as long as it keeps those billions of tokens flowin’. Speculation ‘round these parts is she’s inhabited by a Quidian, real nasty liquid fella what gets inside ya and makes ya’ their puppet. I ain’t a fan. Youse light fellas can do that shit too, yeah? Demoniacal possession or whatever?”
“...we are capable of inhabiting physical bodies and controlling them entirely, yes,” Az hesitantly replied.
“Well why don’t youse just use that on the bad guys? Wouldn't that make you almost unstoppable?”
“I vowed millenia ago I never would again.”
“Damn, even your tragic backstory has a tragic backstory, eh? Well not to worry, pal. Old Reol’s got your back now. Youse ain’t gotta raise a pretty little non-physical finger unless youse really wants to. We’re gonna get that clunker of yours tricked out like you ain’t gonna believe. Enough anti matter caches to jump around in hyperspace like a frog on cocaine, fuel cells to last ya’ for a long while, and of course, we’re BOOMcoast, we’re gonna get you saddled with enough artillery to nuke a small planet outta’ orbit.”
“We have time for that!?”
“You doubtin’ old Reol? Just tell me where youse parked and I’ll take care o’ the rest. You gotta catch up with your friends anyway, don’tcha? Unless my sense o’ time is way more fucked than I--”
“C-347,” Az blurted, quickly darting from the chair. “You’re right, I’m almost late. I’ll meet up with them and tell them we need to expedite things and get out before ES starts snooping around. But Reol, I can’t thank you enough--”
“You don’t have to now. Youse needs to go get your little friends. We can have a proper-like goodbye back at C-347. Now, you hussle, so Reol can hussle!”
River hadn’t been keeping close track of time, but he was pretty sure that between copying everything from his drives to Beach’s and Beach backing up his entire collection to an omnidrive, he had used up close enough to an hour to warrant heading for the Food Court on the top floor. With the weightless swagger of an incredibly wealthy man in low gravity, River skipped blissfully through labyrinthine halls of space palm trees, neon holograms and a cornucopia of species and life form types he could have never dreamed of before. When he got back to the lifting tiles, the rest was easy—it was just a matter of taking the “up” tile to the floor above, hopping off before they became THAT floor’s “down” tile, and switching to the new floor’s “up” tile, on and on until reaching the 20th floor.
A massive purple hologram of the 3D letters to spell out “FOOD COURT” floated over the lift tile area, beckoning him. Odd that it was written in English—River wondered if this one hologram projector used some sort of expensive and illegal neurological mind reading tech like the brothel’s, or if “FOOD COURT” had become universally known slang. Perhaps Earth malls were the first to have a Food Court. The overall design of this mall certainly seemed based in ancient Old Earth mall culture, so it would make sense.
The thick haze of competing aromas was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. He could vaguely make out the smell of pizza, but every other scent was entirely new. It was overwhelming, really—the culinary/olfactory equivalent of suddenly seeing a totally new primary color. Large 3D holograms of various menu items, along with their token costs, hovered over each built-in restaurant. Though they were high definition and rotated slow to show every angle of every dish, River saw very little he could understand in terms of Earth cuisine.
He wandered starry eyed through the space, scanning dozens of restaurants and food kiosks lining each wall. This floor was smaller than the rest, much of it taken up with storage and staff areas, but it was still the biggest food court River had ever seen. Hundreds of tables in the center were inhabited by such a myriad of species, it dizzied him to glance over them. Each table and stool were connected magnetically to an anchored cube on the ground, and while River wasn’t sure how to operate them, it seemed from looking around the spread that they could be raised and lowered as needed to accommodate any sized being from fairy to giant.
Since he was early, he decided to track down the pizza place on his map and test out his new black market token wallet cube. He hadn’t had to get in a fight since gaining super cyborg strength, but tearing a living football open seemed like it was in his wheelhouse if it turned out Beach had cheated him. ‘PEZA,’ the hologram over the pizza joint announced. “Close enough,” River chuckled to himself. There was only one other person standing at this particular restaurant, and she was off to the side, presumably waiting for her food. No line--score!
River approached the cashier, trying not to stare at his toothpaste-like blue blob body. “Welcome to Peza, home of peza. How much peza you like?” He had two eyes like hollow black voids and a vague mouth-like indentation, but it did not move when he spoke. His original language sounded like a cross between gurgling and buzzing.
River tried not to stare, instead glancing up at the menu hologram. 10 tokens for a slice, or 15 for two slices. Assuming the value reference points Beach had given were accurate, this was about as much as River would expect to pay for a whole pizza back on Old Earth—but, then again, on Old Earth it wasn’t an ancient, extra-planetary delicacy. “Two slices, please,” he replied. Remembering Beach’s instructions, he took the cube from his pocket, rubbed it across his moist lips for a quick DNA confirmation, and presented it to the blob man as it began to glow green. “CURRENT BALANCE: ONE HUNDRED MILLION,” the cube’s robotic voice whispered in River’s mind.
The blob man pointed a finger-like gloppy protrusion at a flat black rectangle attached to the counter, not much higher than the steel of the counter itself. River followed his lead and held the cube over this spot so that it almost touched. “SPEND 15?” the voice asked. “SQUEEZE QUICKLY TWICE TO ACCEPT, OR LONG SQUEEZE TO CANCEL.” The cube was rock hard to the touch, but sure enough, its sides took on a slightly softer quality in anticipation. Careful not to crush it to bits with his cyborg strength, River cautiously squeezed it twice in quick succession and it flickered green to confirm. “PURCHASE CONFIRMED. NEW BALANCE: NINETY NINE MILLION, NINE HUNDRED NINETY NINE THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE.” The cube turned black, and River slipped it lovingly back into his inner jacket pocket, zipping it safely in.
“Thanks,” the blob man added, unenthusiastically. When River stood awkwardly at the counter in silence for a moment, he pointed to the other side of the counter, where the girl was still waiting for her food. River again took his hint and strolled over next to her. He stood silently and stared through the small window behind the counter, hoping to catch a glimpse of some other wacky new species flipping dough or the like.
“You aren’t from around here,” a rich, alluring female voice said softly. There was no mental overdubbing—she was speaking perfect English.
River glanced over at the girl standing next to him. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead as well, but it’s clear she was referring to him. He tried to follow suit and not let his gaze linger, but he couldn’t help himself once he caught a glimpse. He was no empath or aura reader, but he could feel an horrifying mix of danger and allurement swirling around her like invisible flames. Her dark, mysterious eyes shone passionately behind thick framed rims, a half-closed window to a warehouse of shadowy secrets. She was short and full figured, but toned in a way that made him question if he could beat her in a fight if she jumped at him right then and now. Her jet-black hair was pulled into a ponytail, crimson streaks subtly glowing throughout. He gulped. “I’m from Jeocolep,” he replied, rather unconvincingly. He had no idea how far Jeocolep was from this mall.
“Mmm, so you are,” she replied coyly, eyes still staring straight ahead. “The Jeocolepian everyman. Except for your single thumb, white sclera, silver hair, shorter stature, and the presence of a nose, that is.”
“You got all that without looking at me, eh?” River replied, suavely. He was good at hiding panic.
“I’m not looking at you right now. I’ve had plenty of time to look at you before this. I assumed you were doing the same. It’s not often one human comes across another in space.” She tore his mask off in a single swipe and tossed it aside, guessing correctly that it was only for show. "And if you're human like me, you'll be just fine without this. Our lungs have ascended beyond the need."
“You aren’t human, and neither am I,” River replied. “Your skin is too pale. Not grey enough. How are you breathing, or rather not breathing, as the case may be, if you aren't a cyborg too?”
“You think all the survivors stuck with that old translucent skin that shows through the color of underlying machinery? A skin change is trivial. Your knowledge is way behind.” She tilted her head very slightly and locked eyes with him, sending a shiver through his metal spine. “400 years behind, one might say. I’m impressed with your dedication.”
River swallowed hard. The blob man walked over and handed her a pizza box. River hoped desperately she’d leave now she had it. She didn’t.
“Fate is a funny thing,” she continued, her voice now a sultry but venomous whisper. “The universe is nothing but an endless web of chaos, each one of us traveling along different interconnected strings with each decision we make. But it seems like some people are drawn together inexplicably, their pathways flowing in the same direction until they meet and merge, rushing violently further and faster into that delicious chaos, like currents in a...” she bit her black-painted lip and paused for emphasis, “...river.”
“If you’re with ES,” River said, under his breath, “you’re about to see why they call me the Angel of Death.”
“Oh my god,” she replied, her voice now a hushed squeal. “You’re really committed to the part. I’m freaking out.”
“I am?” River blurted, suddenly very confused. The blob man handed River a small pizza box. As soon as he grabbed it in his right hand, she stepped around and grabbed his left, lacing her fingers with his and guiding him to a dimly lit, clearly unused hallway at the end of the court. She took him around the corner so nobody could possible see them from the food court proper. He readied every muscle in his body to fight back and flee in a panic if needed.
“It’s so hard to find people like us out here,” she giggled, tracing a line down his neck and chest with a black painted fingernail. His artificial heart kept its steady beat, but adrenaline coursed through his body nonetheless.
“Human, you mean?”
“Not just human,” she replied, pressing her chest and waist against his, pinning him to the wall. “Human and… enlightened.”
“You’re a River cosplayer,” she blurted, confused and suddenly frustrated, “how do you not get what I’m referring to?”
“Wait… do you not know about The Currents of Enlightenment?”
River stared blankly.
“You’re not alone,” she said, stroking his cheek gently. There were tears welling up in her eyes. “There are thousands of us. We have a whole base. We’re—you know. We support him. River. All of us. Just like you.”
“You mean, you—you think OS—er, ES did the whole genocide thing and that River was a poor, unwitting scapegoat?”
“Hahaha!” she cackled, struggling to keep a hushed tone. “All that, and funny too. You know well what I mean. What WE mean.”
Oh no. Oh god no. “That the Fall of Man was a necessary purge, and River actually saved humanity?”
“Not just humanity,” she replied, her eyes blazing, biting her lip with euphoria. “The universe.”
River exhaled slowly, trying to avoid getting physically aroused as she moved her face closer and traced a finger along his inner thigh. “W-well said,” he replied, feigning a chuckle.
“I’ve always wondered what it’d be like. All of us in TCE have. You know? To meet him. To hear his insight, straight from the Angel himself. To tell him about how we’re carrying on his philosophy and work, how we idolize him, how he’s the icon uniting us, giving us hope...”
“I’m sure he’d be shocked,” River replied, dropping his pizza box.
“Hopefully he would be,” she dreamily crooned, her hands exploring his hips. “And what I really, truly, always wanted, more than anything… if we’re talking heart to heart...” she moaned, pressing her chest harder against his, “...was for him to be alive out there somehow, and to meet him, and have a moment with him just like this, and get out all these intellectual and physiological and spiritual obsessions I’ve had with him my whole life in a night, or maybe many nights, of raw, physical passion.”
“Hm, indeed,” River replied, sweating hard. ‘Don’t do it!’ he told himself. ‘She thinks you’re Space Hitler! She wants to fuck Space Hitler! Don’t do it!’
“I know that’ll never happen,” she continued, wistfully. “There’s no way he survived that brave jump into hyperspace. He’d have been found immediately. And there’s no way he’d have survived all this time. But, god, seeing you now…” she grabbed him by the back of his hair and pulled him so close his lips almost touched hers, “...this is so close to the real thing. God, I know I’m making a fool of myself, but I’ve never been this turned on before. If you’ll have me… and if you’d be willing to stay in character for this old Enlightened cyborg girl… I’ll turn your universe upside down... River.” She brushed her lower lip lightly against his, staring deep into his eyes, daring him to accept.
“I…” his lizard brain told him to kiss her hard and proceed to have the time of his life, but the logical debugger and fugitive part of his mind told him not to fall in love with space fascists. “I’m sorry. You’re lovely, and I share your sentiments, but I’m actually here to meet someone.”
“Oh my god,” she blurted, peeling her body from his. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even consider maybe you were, you know, seeing someone--”
“N-no, no, it’s not like that,” he stuttered, picking up his pizza box, “I’m just meeting friends, but I’m already probably late. If I had the time right now, I’d be so, so totally down for, uh, universal upside-down turning.” He immediately wanted to kick himself for not just taking the out and saying he was married, but at least it was honest.
“I see,” she sighed. “I’m sorry, I just… I can’t control myself when I think about him. I’m sure you understand. You must idolize him as much as I do or more, to have such an accurate getup, right down to keeping the old translucent skin… and the replica OS flight suit.”
“R-right. Yeah, you understand--”
“It’s amazing. Only a truly Enlightened one would even know about that suit. In every picture they released, he was wearing the regular staff uniform. You’d have to know exactly the ship he stole and exactly what would have been regulation to have on board to be able to even come up with that idea.”
“I’m, uh, I’m glad someone recognizes the effort I put in,” he nervously replied, stepping slowly back towards the food court.
“In fact, there are no pictures of those suits out there. I’ve looked. I’ve spent hours on SpaceNet looking, spent so much on FTL connections on file sharing sites to get massive Old Earth pages, we’re talking pictures bigger than a MEGABYTE, only to come up short every time...” She looked him up and down again in awe.
“I just winged it,” he replied. “Made a guess, thought it looked good. Designed it myself from scratch, y’know? Alright, hey, nice meeting you, but I really do have to--”
“But it’s not a guess,” she continued, blocking his exit again. He couldn’t even process that she had moved before she was in front of him—the thought of her being an assassin crossed his mind and made him even woozier with panic and arousal and guilt. “I was so young when the Fall of Man happened and I was turned ‘borg, I didn’t remember anything about what OS costumes looked like before they were ES… but I know now because I own one. I finally won one in an estate sale, I spent five thousand tokens on it.”
“Oh wow,” River replied, unconvincingly.
“You’re lying to me, for some reason,” she replied, locking eyes with him again. “You’re hiding something.”
“You’re actually mega rich and bought an original too, didn’t you~?” she teased, giggling. River audibly exhaled. “Trying to be all modest and pretend you made it yourself on the cheap. It’s okay, I’m not a gold digger, sweetie.”
“You sure got me,” River laughed, petrified. “I spent even more than you did for this one. But you know us River fans, haha.”
“You meant what you said?” she asked, her voice suddenly deadly serious. “That you really are just meeting friends? And not that you’re married? Or that you just dislike me? Or don’t think I’m--”
“How could I possibly dislike someone as beautiful and Enlightened as yourself?” River replied, straightfaced. She was beautiful, that part wasn’t a lie. It was the whole ‘turned on by genocide’ thing that was the problem.
She bit her lip, then broke out in a half-sad grin. “Well that makes me happy. I’m glad I’ve still got it after 400 years! It was nice meeting you. My name’s BTR. I hope I didn’t cause you too much trouble! I got ahead of myself when I saw what looked like River in the flesh.”
“I’m Jor-Jordan,” River stumbled, realizing too late his Jeocolepian alias wouldn’t work in this situation. “And no worries. I, uh, I do wish I’d had time to follow through on your… idea. Maybe next time we run into each other in the food court, eh?” He knew damn well he’d never come back to this mall, but this seemed like the best way to save face and slip away unmurdered.
“Then goodbye, Jordan!” she giggled, skipping out of the hallway. River closed his eyes and sighed as she faded out of sight, then jumped as he felt a playful bite on his ear. Suddenly, she was right next to him again. He braced himself for assassination, but instead she placed a cube (slightly smaller than the token wallet) in his hand and closed his fingers around it. “And in that case,” she whispered, directly into his ear, “I’ll take a raincheck on our little... River romp.”
River’s hair stood on end. He turned to look at her, but this time she was gone for good. He had no idea how she’d managed to do that, but was impressed/aroused/horrified in spite of himself. Once he was confident she wasn’t about to pop out of nowhere again and jump him, he leaned against the wall to regain his composure and try to stop his head from spinning. The one human woman he might ever encounter outside of ES--she’s totally his type--she’s begging him to do it on the spot--and she’d want him even more if she knew he wasn’t just cosplaying as River, but WAS River, because she loves River--but only because she believes he’s Space Hitler! River groaned and sofly banged his head against the wall. Once the blood went back to his head, he pocketed the cube for future inspection and emerged to look for Az and Komo among the sea of tables and chairs. They all saw each other at once, rushing to meet each other and then shuffling over to an empty set of tables to strategize.