Chapter 2: The One That Got Away
Lord Cyan, dark Mord of the Sith, second to none but the Emperor, was seated behind his desk at the gala cruiser, the Unleaded, when Lieutenant Riffenstein entered. It was a dignified office, almost worthy of the Emperor himself, may he travel a thousand light-years, though its Art Deco beauty was cramped by leaning towers of paperwork on every remotely horizontal surface. The Evil Empire, like most new organizations, was comprised of traditionalists. When made alive to the fact that he could leave the forms and reports to his senior officers, Lord Cyan had claimed that there is no such thing as delegation in an equal-opportunities concern, and put a chokehold on the unlucky officer behind the plan.
Recently, his inferiors had gone over to transmitting him the paperwork on holoscreens instead. These had been pushed into the back of the room, where they hung cluttering up the air and occasionally generating enough static to kill flies.
Lieutenant Riffenstein, a tall black-haired man in an impeccable grey uniform, was used to the sight, but still his salute seemed to be directed more at the paperwork than at the man half-hidden behind it.
"Ah, Lieutenant", Lord Cyan said, the mask giving his accented voice a slight breathy reverb. "At ease."
Riffenstein removed a stack of paper, as respectfully as he could, from a chair with a woven purple-shell seat and a back carven with languorous maidens in the tradition of planet Jugendstil. He sat down and was at ease, or as much so as you can be while watched by a hulking black-robed man who looks at the world through a samurai helmet with air conditioning.
"Milord..." Riffenstein swallowed, and this was only the good news, "the enemy ship, the Nimbus, has been searched. Captain Corelli will fly it to our base on planet Scintillant, where it will be restored to mint condition and join our glorious Imperial fleet. All the hated redshirts have gone down fighting or become our prisoners. More the latter than the former, in fact. Very few seemed prepared to lay down their lives for their captain. These fools of the Democratic Order of Planet..." he made the name seem a particularly long sniff "... have no honour."
"A flaw inherent in democracy", Lord Cyan observed, shifting in his chair. "Take away the sheepdog, and a sheep owes allegiance only to its own instinct."
The Lieutenant raised his eyes to stare at the gently sparking screens behind the desk. He had grown up in the Chrisormada Systems, where government orders had long since wiped out all alien species, chlorinated the gene pool, and made it impossible to breed, or breathe, unless you were smart, loyal and subservient. And Lord Cyan gave him the creeps.
For one thing, it was impossible to know if his sayings were platitudes or sparkling pieces of brilliant strategy until you were a good walk away from him.
"You will... you might be happy to know, milord, that the cowardly Captain Brannigan was taken without battle. As of now, he is being taken aboard the Unleaded for questioning..."
"I am, indeed, happy to know this", Lord Cyan averred, steepling his black-gauntleted fingers together with a slight metallic clicking. It reminded Lieutenant Riffenstein of insects. "After a fashion, Lieutenant, I was happy before you were. After all, I was with the troop that found him."
Riffenstein swallowed. His throat felt dry, lacing up... only nervousness? Maybe if I leap for the door he will slip on some paperwork or something, and I'll get away with a nice public execution.
"But, milord... there is a slight problem. The Captain's second-in-command, Lieutenant..." he fumbled with the piece of paper "... Kif Kroker, too, was taken prisoner. Briefly questioned." He lifted his eyes towards the blinding screens. "You have the printout of the interrogation right there, milord... yes, there, behind the screen that says HOLOSCREEN OVERLOAD PLEASE ELIMINATE THREE. It... he answered our questions, the ones you gave us, freely..." and no wonder, milord, because why did you want us to ax the prisoners those pointless questions, he did not say "... but when ordered to enter the Unleaded for further interrogations, he escaped by... scarpering up the wall and onto the ceiling, milord." Riffenstein frowned. He did not care for those alien shenanigans. That kind of thing would have resulted in a prime-time auto-da-fe in the Chrisormada Systems, and that was only for the ones who saw it happen. "Private Dempsey shot at him, but missed. He headed off in the direction of the escape pods. We have plotted his trajectory as headed for the Earth, but the pod is not of remarkable celerity."
"Say again?" Lord Cyan axed. Surely his brows must be creasing behind the mask, if indeed he had brows.
"It's slow, milord", the Lieutenant sighed. "If allowed to use a fast-travelling vessel, a pilot might be able to intersect..."
"Lieutenant Kroker shall be allowed to escape", the dark lord interrupted. The light of the screens created an unholy halo around his polished flanged helmet. "This is most according with my plans."
"Milord, I don't understand..."
Lord Cyan pressed a button on his desk. With a torturous creak, a drawer moved open. The gauntleted hands moved out of Riffenstein's view for a moment, then returned holding two bright objects.
"The capture of Captain Brannigan is most fortunate", the dark lord scraped. "Even if he can tell us nothing of import, he will be in our possession, like... oh, this priceless Red Fauceted Emerald."
Lieutenant Riffenstein looked closer, then averted his eyes. "It is truly beautiful, milord."
"And... Lieutenant, what would you do with a Red Fauceted Emerald?"
Present it to the Emperor with my daily oath of allegiance, Riffenstein thought. But no, it was one of those trick questions.
"Give it to my girlfriend, milord?"
"Indeed." The bloody-coloured emerald slipped back into the drawer with a disconcerting little plonk. "You would not sell it, for merely having a priceless jewel makes you rich. Captain Brannigan is a jewel in the Imperial crown, now. We will say to the scum of the DOOP: 'We have one of yours", and they will know humiliation, and fear, and mind-numbing shame. He will kneel before them and beg them to pull back their troops, because, like all the best jewels, he will be on a collar."
Around now, a mad barking laughter... but there was nothing, just a little wheeze of satisfaction.
"Whereas young Lieutenant Kroker..." the other gauntlet unclosed, revealing a small aluminium-coloured coin. Riffenstein recognised the bright profile of the Emperor, and was not far from saluting. "Lieutenant Kroker is like a coin. He is of no affective value to the DOOP. He must be put into circulation if he is to be of any value for us."
Riffenstein did indeed salute. It seemed worth it.
"Live to tell the tale, milord?"
Lord Cyan inclined his head, and the blinking points of light seemed to gather on the lacquered helmet like a smug teethed grin. It was so disconcerting, Riffenstein looked up and, once more, found himself staring at the screens of interrogation forms. An awful lot of them seemed concerned with some quite unknown delivery company on planet Earth.
"Yes, Lieutenant", Lord Cyan said, and his voice seemed to come from a galaxy far, far away. "Live to tell the tale... I suppose."
Stars floated past the little windows of the escape pod like the spores of a coral reef.
Kif huddled up in his tin pan, far from the ground. It was mightily uncomfortable, but after an adult life of sleeping on a bunk on board the Nimbus, he was getting used. In fact, the pod was rather less claustrophobic.
But cloistered phobias were started to grow in his mind. Kif leant his receding chin on his knees, crouching a bit so as not to hit his head on the metal, and stared at the storm of lights, hoping for the little swirled ice-cream ball of the Earth, and knowing deep inside that there was nothing to stop him, nothing at all...
This gnawing sensation inside him. Was it guilt? There had been a crowd of men in the corridor, all of them, for some reason, being questioned about their connections on Earth by inquisitors holding holoscreen clipboards. There had been the Captain, his Captain, growing red in the face and shouting abuse, like it was Kif's own fault that he had gone into the fray unarmed and outnumbered ten to one.
Dash guilt! Dash it to the ground! Yes, he had escaped, what else could he have done? Died with them? He was going to get help, and perhaps the vengeful arm of the DOOP would, untraditionally, not be too slow this time. For that matter, it was unlikely that his comrades were going to die any time soon. The Evil Emperor, it was well known, liked a bit of a show. So did Captain Brannigan, come to think about it. Oh yes... the two of them would get along like a house on fire.
A black hole, wreathed in whorled glitter, drifted past well clear of the pod. Kif tore his gaze from it, but his thoughts were walking down a dark narrow spiral staircase.
But then there had been the dark lord. Oh, Lieutenant Kif Kroker had been around, always at the edge of things, holding his brave Captain's medal collection or some such, and had met a couple of evil space lords while Brannigan was fighting them or, occasionally, having a drink in their honour. The black robe and mask -laminate, by the look of it- had not scared him... well, no more than usual. But there had been something familiar in his manner of walking, not quite military, more like a disinterested slouching. Something familiar in his voice, the microphones in the helmet not quite hiding a very vague accent which was not that of any system that Kif had visited...
It was as though they had let him escape! Two guards had been holding either of his arms, but they hadn't counted on his tendency to kick and bite and slip. As he scampered across the ceiling, that pasty-faced Private had shot at him, and the laser had flown so wide it might as well have been a suicide attempt. Nobody had run after him. Nobody had opened the master panel and simultaneously released the pods, which was what Kif himself would have done under the opposite circumstances. There had actually been a soldier by the pods, apparently cleaning them out, but he had walked off whistling without even seeing Kif, who crouched in the ceiling of the narrow walkway almost touching his helmet. So... either, the Nimbus had been boarded by Brannigan clones, or there was a darker scheme in the works. Only just.
His lymphal system seemed unable to slow down. It raced, and there was a vague pain in his stomach... not even a pain, just a nuisance. He had been on the verge of exhaustion when he crawled into the pod, and had eaten some of the dry emergency biscuits in the boxe in the glove compartment, even though they tasted worse than usual. Might they have been poisoned? It would be the Evil Empire's style, all right, slow torture, causing him to break down and become an easy prey... but then, why let him go to start with? Why had they axed him about Amy? Had they tricked him into eating a tracking device, so they could follow him to Amy and... no. He loved Amy, but that was obsession talking. If the Evil Empire wanted pretty, vapid twentysomethings, wherein lay the horror?
To pass the time with something else than harrowing speculations, he took out the box of Biscotti Biscuits and smelled the remaining ones. They... smelled too much. Sharp, almost chemical. He ate one anyway, almost without thinking, and the strange itch in his bubbly stomach subsided somewhat. In the tunnel of space, a yellow sun glinted out behind a planet gleaming like a cup of green coffee with cream.
The coin was put into play. No telling whether it would land face down.
Chapter 2 ½: 1988
Yancy, with three days' worth of stubble and hair that looks like it's been in butter, sits down on the side of the bathtub and splashes his face. In a few moments, he will realise that the cold, clear liquid is in fact industrial-strength aftershave.
"Just a word to the wise, Phil", he says, his voice cracked. "Never become a Survivalist."
Fourteen-year-old Phil leans against the cool bathroom tiles. Some of them crack behind his shoulderblades.
"Why'd I want to, anyway?" he mutters. "Surviving is all fine and dandy, but I want to..."
"Dad let me follow him and the guys up to Fort Mount over the weekend", Yancy explains, his voice going indistinct as the aftershave reacts unfavourably with his facial orifices. "I'm sure none of you dweebs noticed I was gone, anyway. It was... quite the experience."
"Really?" Phil's head is full of dreams at this little waystation in the country of the past. He wants to discover lost cities in the jungle, though Mom keeps telling him that the jungle is really old Miss Murigen's garden that hasn't been tended to for a while. He wants to become an astronaut and fly around space, or are those the ones who write the Time Magazine horoscope? And of course, he is going to live forever, or at least until mankind has made contact. But... surviving? Becoming like Dad? "What did you do, then?"
Yancy throws his army surplus jacket on the cork matting in the hall and goes to pick up a cleanish shirt from his laundry basket. His rugged, flushed face wears the mask of boredom that it slips on whenever he is talking to his brother. "Nothing much. We ran around the forest for a bit, got mud in our boots, then we chucked handgrenades at the statue of Lenin what Corporal Tim got from the Winter Palace Russian Roulette, then Sergeant Colon taught us how to use NBC protection suits, then General Simone baked us some cookies and put them in tins..."
"Eh, hold on", Phil interrupts. "Why would a General get a wuss-job like that? You're lying!"
"Well, she's female, isn't she?" Yancy replies, sounding vaguely as though this might be heresy. "I mean, not our fault if the America of today lets her kind rise to a high position in the Army, but once the Bomb drops, they're going to damn well know their place, right? And if she wants to play with the boys, she's got to play by the boys' rules."
"And then what?"
"And then what? And then we tested sleeping in the bullet-proof jackets, then Dad shot a hole in the door after Corporal Tim was locked out, then we watched a film with bare naked ladies in it and General Simone went into the kitchen and cooked primavera linguine and put it in tins. Of course, we have our own underground clam beds, because the sea-life will be the first to die from the nuclear waste."
Phil glances out the window, into the grizzled autumn wind. Yes, Dad's safely out of hearing range. He is hunkering in the worm-carven rocking chair in the lee of the verandah, creaking slightly with the wind. His eyes have the steel-grey, faraway look of peace that they always carry with them from Ft Mt. It is a picture of harmony, all but for the double-barreled shotgun cradled on his lap. Knowing him, the safety catch is off.
"Will you listen to yourself, Yancy?" he mutters. "What's with all the duck-and-cover all of a sudden? You said it yourself, those guys Dad hangs out with are nuts."
"Just because they're nuts doesn't mean they're not right", Yancy murmurs, heading into his room and slamming the door. "This Survivalism idea has an incredible staying power."
"Yeah, until the sun burns out", Phil Fry retorts, but he is unable to hold cynicism for very long. Cynicism is for old people. And if Dad and Yancy are right about the Bomb, then going to live in a bunker in the forested mountainside with tinned cookies and tinned linguine... it sounds like an adventure! "Think I could come?"
"Not till you're fifteen!" comes his brother's voice from behind the laminate door. "Dad said about the bare naked ladies and all, the filthy liberals in Congress would be down on us like a ton of bricks and put us all in the horrible PoW camp out of 'The Cage'!"
Phil stays by the stairway railing, head full of thoughts and smudged dripping hair. It has been raining into his room again. More tiles are missing from the roof for each year. If Dad is right, the roof probably won't hold out against the Bomb.
And a real adventure... with Dad...
Yancy, now shaven and with hair slicked back, slouches his way down the rickety staircase. He shouts: "Hi, breeding material!" at Mom in the kitchen, and she tweets some happy answer. Door slams. The cold steamy scent of outdoors, and the rain sounds to have stopped. Phil pads downstairs as well.
Dad is half-asleep, but if so, it's the half-sleep of a tiger. The dim sun is coming out in a jag in the clouds, great swollen mushrooms of clouds, and when his son's shadow touches his eyelids, he jerks awake and hefts the gun. Fry backs away a bit, slipping in a puddle on the dilapidated verandah floor.
"Dad... don't you want to come inside? You can get some sleep if you want... Mom has been making your bed every half an hour since you left..."
"Sleep!" Yancy J. Fry Sr. growls between his teeth. "Sleep is for the weak!"
Well, that sounds... right. The sky is cracking a little more, and there is blue behind the cover, like faint nylon behind the torn wool inside a jacket. Phil stares into it and remembers to look away when the sun goes black and he's starting to get prickling sensations behind his nose.
"But really, Dad..." Dad, you seem so far away. Dad, I want to do something for you to be proud of. Dad, I want to come with you next time, because I don't care if what you're doing is nuts, like Yancy said, or great and heroic, like Yancy said, but I want to be with you. "Should I get you a cup of coffee or something?"
"Yes... yes." Dad seems to relax a fraction. The white-painted rocking chair rocks back, one of its rungs warping dangerously. "A cup of coffee, Phil. Hold the milk and sugar."
When he comes back, half an hour later, trailing black suds on the floorboards and nursing a watery burn on his thumb, the sun is almost shining, and Dad smiles. He takes the cup carefully, puts it on the flaking fretsawn railing, and empties a little black vial from his chest pocket into it. Pale red swirls spread on the semisolid surface.
"Nutmeg extract", he says, teeth almost clenching with satisfaction. "I pity the Commies who try to drink my coffee... they are going to come down with a horrible stomach flu and nightmarish hallucinations, you mark my word."
"Aren't you going to drink it, Dad?" Sometimes, thoughts travel so slow. "Uh, Dad... why would the Reds want to steal your coffee?"
"BECAUSE IT'S PROPERTY, DAMMIT!" Dad bellows, swinging his shotgun around. He misses the cup on the first try, but gets it on the backhand. Shattering white porcelain and red and black fluid, and then a strange look on his face, not really shame, more like sadness, like something inside him is shattered and cut as well. "I... I'm sorry, Philip. But..." He has a little cut on his upper lip. It twists as his face returns to something more familiar. "But this is a war we are fighting. We must give up all that made us human." Another shattered glint in his eye. "We must become as fierce as they!"
"Does that mean I get to come with you to Ft Mt, Dad? That is Fort Mount that I'm talking about."
"Are you fifteen?
"Uh... no. Please, Dad..."
Dad smiles at him, and Phil finds himself grinning back. Dad will take care of it, right? Dad takes care of everything. When he has to, he will take his wife and his sons into the bunker, and they will stand by the windows and watch the burning forests...
"Philip, it's 'sir'. Just because we are related, I don't want you to get too familiar, understood?"
Easy to slouch, sometimes. Easy to drag your feet until your gym shoes are waterlogged with the rain on the grass gone to seed, all those little points of light.
Phil drags himself over to the fixed-up tire swing and threads his legs into it, giving a little skip. Swinging... so soft, maybe like Mom used to cradle him when he was a kid. But he's not a kid anymore, and the maple branch is curving and complaining.
Dad doesn't love me. He doesn't love me, that's why he lets Yancy come along to the Council of Survivors, and not me. Or Mom, but she's not very good at putting things in tins anyway. And I'm doing bad in school, and I don't even think you can say "doing bad in school", and the sky is another country... can't get into it without good grades, can't walk it. And I'm bored out of my head in this desert place, and Biggs is heading off for the Academy this year...
He kicks the ground again, long legs, at least that's one good thing about puberty, though it seems to screw up everything else, such as acne and dreams. Damn... stupid... sending the tire into a spin, and it's nauseating. Little spinning flecks of water on the grass. Beautiful like a green galaxy. Why is the rope squeaking like that? Now, no getting off at this speed, so let's just hope the branch holds...
And when Ilyena comes to disentangle him from the tire and rope, he remembers swivelling lights.