Fan Fiction

Son of the Ashes, Part 3
By Christina Nordlander

Chapter 3: The Alien Lieutenant's Woman

And it swivels... Kif was strapping himself into a supine position in the pod, rather unsuccessfully. He had long feeble wrists, which had made it easy to slip out of the grip of the guards, but which, more importantly, made it difficult to fasten the wrist-straps. The designers should have used elastic. No helping his legs, they were going to dangle free, and if he didn't come down with whiplash now he never would. Nothing but sickening velour, still smelling of the plastic smoke of the Nimbus, between him and the cold metal. The stars danced outside, and some of them, a large constellation of bright yellow points, looked a lot closer. He had been successful in aiming for New New York, then. With his luck, it would be the last thing he saw.

The bullet of the pod tore through the Earth's lacerated ozone layer and drew manes of flame through the atmosphere. And yes, now he spun... he dangled... he slipped out of the straps and hit the back wall with an impact that would have pulverised the bones of a human. As it was, Kif felt like vomiting, but his stomach was empty.

The nausea, revolving slowly somewhere between his two digestive tracts, actually managed to keep him occupied and sane by the time that the pod slipped into the bay, skidding like a flat stone on the blue-scummy polluted waters and millions of reflected lights. But it was getting worse when the young Lieutenant clambered through the hatch and let the waves slosh himself towards the quay. It felt... heavy... and yes, urgent. If he closed his eyes and his ears, he fancied he heard the squelching noise of something soft burrowing in other soft things. He preferred to put it down to post-action trauma.

Amy. He was on Earth, and that meant that Amy was here, unless of course she had gone to her family on Mars, in which case there was nothing he could do, really. He could feel his pristine love for her leading him on, like the snowy flame of a comet. And of course she was at the top of his mind, even more than usual, because the Imperial guards had axed him about her, but he had not... given them any information... to hurt sweet, sweet Amy...

He was hungry again. That would account for the nausea. He reeled up next to the bright yellow light of a van selling Tofu Green, but hardly even felt how bland it was.

Then the glitter of a queerly-shaped building, somewhat like a cone with a globe on top, perhaps it had looked futuristic when it was built. Shadows in the bulging windows. A spicy smell of rocket fuel and... take-away food. Shadows. The distinctive silhouette of a soft-figured woman with waves of shadow hair, retroussé nose... beckoning at one of the others by the table, laughing...

The dizziness in his stomach beckoned.

The rubber band snapped close.

Zapp Brannigan's body was amorphous with pain. His muscles felt twisted with agony; his lungs ached too hard for him even to howl. He was not entirely sure that he would be capable of begging for mercy, but when it became too much to bear he flung himself at the feet of his captors, feeling the cold bright metal floor as a distant relief.

"You win, you creepy saddists!" he whimpered into a fleck of misting breath where his mouth touched the sweet plating. "Are you proud? See how your barbarous methods have reduced even the great Captain Brannigan, the pride of the Democratic Order..."

As he managed to twitch his gaze upwards, he noticed the pitying looks.

"As a matter of fact, we have not been torturing you", said a young Imperial woman with a clipboard, sounding a bit anxious. "You have, as a matter of fact, only been walking through the corridors of the Unleaded. You must be aware that, as Imperial cruisers go, it is quite a big..."

"Just... walking?"

Lord Cyan nodded, the chin of his helmet clanking against his breastplate. Zapp winced, then found the strength of defiance.

"Walking! You call this a walk? Curse your subtle mind games! How long is this corridor, anyway?" It felt as though he had to pause for a breath between the very letters, for the love of Oprah!

The Bureaucrat looked at the cruel spectre of fanatical persecution. Lord Cyan looked at the Bureaucrat.

"It is highly unorthodox..." she began. Then, her lips creased in a faintly hollow smile. "But, since the prisoner seems in no condition to walk further..."

The guards stood back. With the care of a priestess uncovering a sacred artifact, she handed that Evil Imperial dark lord a tall, round, matte black box, its grey plastic lid sealed shut. She wiped her hands on her blazer. So much Brannigan could make out, but then his face sunk back to the floor. His hair hung like a stinging yellow mist on his eyes, and a life's supply of sweat was dripping out of his uniform.

"Get up, scum", Lord Cyan said. Gauntleted fingers were positioned, somewhat clumsily, to pry the lid open. Brannigan did not like his tone at all. "And kneel. You know, if you had been a little more... cooperative... we could have let this... session... wait until we had reached the de-briefing suite. And you could have got a drink of water. Some rest."

"Will you stop making those pregnant pauses?" Brannigan hissed.

"No, Captain... but you will."

... glaring light...

"Those were some of the best nachos I have eaten today", Leela said, spraying some Cheez-A-Way on her wrist computer. "But will you look at the time! I think we should all go to bed."

Fry leant back in his comfortably creaky chair, hands folded over the stomach balling slightly under his greasy white T-shirt, looking into the flickering striplights and letting digestion do its work. He didn't look at Leela, because he didn't have to. Her silhouette was always there on his brain anyways, like that of a hawk is on the brain of a chicken: a rangy yet full-figured body, a springy purple ponytail... or did purple really come into the silhouette thing?... and that one limpid eye. He had a whole ball of feelings for her, for the hyperactive kittens that were his hormones to play around with. But as of now, he preferred just feeling her close, smelling her sporty perfume (Obsession for Mutants, or so Bender claimed) and knowing that she was breaking her fingernails trying to scrape nacho cheese out between keys.

"Your Captain said it", Professor Farnsworth said in his friendly absent-minded fashion, beaming at his employees. Light cascaded off his inch-thick glasses and the ridged dome of his head. I guess he has been like a father for me, since I first woke up on the first day of the rest of my life in the future. Mom and Dad were right, younger relatives are there to take care of you. "It is past lights-out! Begun from my property, slaves... er well, I mean trusted associates."

Scraping of chairs, the grotesque slurping of Dr Zoidberg trying to vacuum the nacho shards off the tabletop, the clonking of Bender getting his feet off the table and straightening his many joints... and, behind all that, a knocking. Not even that. It was more a faint scraping, beginning somewhere on the door but ending on threshold level.

"Did you unisex guys hear that?" Amy gasped, her fine Oriental face scrunched up as though she couldn't really decide to be interested or scared. A little flake of nacho dangled in her swaying black hair. "Think it might be rats?"

"Let them come!" Dr Zoidberg shouted bravely, one claw to his chest. "Zoidberg eats rats for breakfast!"

The white-frocked crustacean clattered towards the sliding doors, flicking a switch. The doors slid open, though tentatively so, since a body was wedged against them in the shadows of the staircase. Red uniform, a green head as hairless as a helmet, long three-fingered hands crooked with some inner tension. Fry shuddered.

"Oh no! It's that little scary freak... Amy, your boyfriend! Kif Kroker!"

Amy was already by his side, cupping his head in her hands and, hopefully, doing her best to nurse him back to health. Fry kept watching, in case there would be nudity involved.

"Stand back!" Dr Zoidberg bellowed. "After all, one of us is a doctor!"

"Yes, me", Bender said, square pupils locked in a concertingly familiar sneer as he eyed the stricken alien. "Amy, my condolences, but your fiancé is sinking... sinking... gone. Now..." a sharp rattle as he reached inside his stomach compartment "... to see if he's got any organs."

"No!" It was Amy who screamed, but it was Kif who jolted out of her grasp and half-crawled, half-scampered across the carpeted floor, noisome at the best of times. Fry had been informed that Kif's species could actually crawl on the ceiling, like flies and the guy in "Battle of Olympus" for NES. Right now, it looked like the redshirted alien had problems holding on to the floor.

"No... no! Amy..."

Kif stood up straight, but only by default. Yes, he looked like he was hanging by his feet, dangling slightly. He had a colour known only to chameleons on drugs, and his large eyes were almost fully closed, veins throbbing in his eyelids in a scary fashion. His little slot-like mouth was bubbling. His body was bubbling. Amy was trying to get closer, but had to shield her face against the light. Zoidberg was shouting for everyone to duck and cover, but that was Zoidberg for you.

"Amy... I came for you..." Kif whispered, his fingers twisting together in a sickening fashion. "I have... a... distress call..."

And from that moment, the world split into about equal parts of "Star Wars" and "Alien". And Fry didn't like any of them one bit.

"Help me, Amy Wong and co-workers. You are my last remaining hope."

The miniature man shivered, collapsed, rewound with a static noise and started again. Even though he was made all out of white light you could make out a heavy-set body, a skimpy skirt, the remains of an arrogant cast to his terrified face.

"Help me, Amy Wong and co-workers. You are my last remaining hope."

However, it was by this point that Kif needed acute medical attention.

"What is this abomination of nature?" the Professor exclaimed, holding said abomination in a couple of tongs. When he dangled it, because there is nothing wrong with a bit of drama, it writhed slightly. To his disappointment, Zoidberg hardly even gave it a second glance. Of course, the lobster had likely had more repulsive things for classmates, but still...

It was vaguely snake-like, about the length of a long kitten and the girth of a piece of kalamari. When Professor Farnsworth lifted a withered hand behind the worm-thing, in the faint light of the red-room, he could see it distorted through the crystalline body. It cast its own light, bluish or perhaps neon white, and it was evidently still alive. A few slivers of green skin clung to the scaly hide. Its rudimentary head resembled nothing so much as a large eye, resembling nothing so much as a camera lens, and in the shadows it still emitted, very faintly, rays of lights forming the shape of the pleading DOOP Captain.

"Hand it to me, Professor", Dr Zoidberg said, rather self-importantly, opening what appeared to be an oversize film box. "The light in here will not harm it, but it does not take well to the air."

"What is it?" Professor Farnsworth shrilled.

"Well, Professor... you know about the brainworms?"

The Professor nodded impatiently, as the gruesome thing slithered into its box and was heard to rattle around inside for a while. Early in the 30th century, the brainworms had held the galaxy in a state of fear, until they were reduced to near-extinction by the immigration of the more adaptive brain slugs.

"Well, then you should know that this thing..." rattle rattle "... is not like a brainworm at all." Dr Zoidberg beamed, as much so as was possible with facial tentacles. "They are largely unknown in our solar system, but are known to be used for purposes of communication by the Evil Empire. They call them Tapeworms."

"Oh my yes." He had read about this, had he not?

The lobster physician was in an infodump mood. "The Tapeworms are highly sensitive to light. They are also primitive beings, which can regrow themselves out of one single segment, or square, which is no thicker than an old plastic film scroll. When swallowed by an organic being, one such segment will need short time to grow into a developed Tapeworm..."

"I understand!" The Professor gestured again. "What for?"

"Do excuse me." Zoidberg grabbed a vat of developing fluid and gulped it, sticking his tentacles in his mouth one by one and sucking them. "All this talking was making me thirsty. As I was saying, the Tapeworms are sensitive to light. When they are exposed to a view, they will transmit a holographic image of it... and this is where the split segments come in. Every Tapeworm grown from the segment, or square, of another member of the species will share a bond with it, as is common among lower organisms. By default, it will feel the light impulses inside its parent's body, and instinctively reproduce them..."

Professor Farnsworth gasped for breath in the sullen air. "In short, when Captain Brannigan used a Tapeworm to record his distress call, the one inside young Kif transmitted the message? What a load of jargon! It seems highly plausible."

"And a good idea it was, too", Dr Zoidberg averred, as the two scientists walked through the makeshift sickbay. "Of course, up until the point that the parasite ruptured his abdomen. However, he is a hardy young specimen, and will likely..."

"Then, to more important matters!" The Professor's white frock flapped in a dramatic gesture. "Let us take this to the DOOP!"

The Democratic Order of Planets was the Democratic Order of Planets of time. It went back to the first contacts with alien species, to the first dust-clouded steps on other planets. Before it, there had been war. After it, there was bureaucracy.

In glassy domes of light, in orbiting gardens of otherworldly glory, in offices stacked with paperwork, the fates of worlds were made and unmade. Human, Trisolian, Wormulan, Decapodian, Omicronian and robot could meet as equals, rather than as enemies or as preys. Fates of worlds were made and unmade. Trade arrangements, mighty in import and lack of interest, were struck.

But now, a shadow had fallen upon the pride of galactic compromise. A shadow of dark helmets, a white noise of tramping jackboots. The Evil Empire had arisen, and it would take a lot more than fuzzy teddy bears to placate it.

The Emperor was unseen, hidden in his paradisiac world of Scintillant, where he reputedly owned a palace the size of a city, a city the size of a continent, and more concubines than most men have hair lice. But he was, figuratively speaking, the moving hand inside the black-plated gauntlet that was Lord Cyan and his élite army of Cracktroopers, pale of panzer like squadrons of silver beetles. And Lord Cyan was a foe of a kind with which the Democratic Order of Planets was unused to deal. He was not remarkable of intelligence, or charisma, or bravery in the field, or even by having the powers of an ancient group of mental warriors. He had decent skills of organization, but the trait that made him a formidable enemy was a kind of rage that seemed to power his every move. He was always polished, even diplomatic. Perhaps that fury had never been released, but the mere idea of it erupting was enough to drive flotillas of Imperial ships to the heart of the enemy. It was merely a low-burning flame on which you could melt cursed rings.

His name, it was said, had been given him by his conquered enemies and meant "the stranger". Now, that was evidently an urban myth, since everyone who'd gone through a normal education could tell you that it meant "a light sort of bluish-green, a bit chemical, like turquoise blue but less saturated". Howsoever, he seemed a stranger no matter where he went. From his general shape, he was most probably human, but, it was said, even his Emperor shied away from the aura of strangeness around him. He did not seem to belong, and this strangeness and his eternal, internal wrath made him dangerous.

With his aid and abetting, the Emperor would soon swing the galaxy a starry trinket at his wrist. Planets and systems would slip out of the DOOP and, soon, yield more soldiers and sharper ships to darken the skies. It had already begun.

Darkness. Shaking, rattling, rolling across the folds of it.

"Here ya go, mister! Express package!"


"The message from the late Captain Brannigan... that's 'late' as in 'former', not as in 'dead'..."

The darkness grew thicker.

"Sorry, sir, high priority package from New New York..."

... glaring light...

It was a dim, dingy office. Even the word "office" seemed too good for it; there was no tendency to order, let alone cleanness. There were windows, the grimy glass slightly warped, jellied street light entering between the slats of the blinds, tenderly polluted summer air seeping through slacking stretches of insulation. There was a desk, and a desk lamp of a dispirited green-lacquered model, old-fashioned even for the 1960s. If it had been lit, it would have given off solar heat, as well as an enigmatic stench of burnt rubber. But it wasn't.

In the pleasant cool of his jar, President Nixon's head swivelled towards the earpieced headguards by the door. He gave them a grin which he judged to be imperious.

"You may leave me, minions. The prisoner has had time to... mellow. He will crack any moment." A string of bubbles rose through the translucent blue, slightly salty water as he laughed maniacally.

Swivelling again, he bashed his grizzled brows on the glass slightly, causing the jar to edge itself across the desktop. The subject would see him... oh yes, it would. "We know you are concealing something from us, friend. Oh, yes you are. But... do you want it to die with you?"

He glowered for a while, and then, as the door squeaked shut:

"Er... light for me, men."

The desk lamp came on, filling the room with the boiling heat of suns. Even Nixon blinked slightly, much as the water in his jar was attuned to the salt levels in his eyes. Then what must it not feel like...

Wound on a little executive's toy rack, a cliché but good for his purposes, was the Tapeworm that had lately been taken out of the stomach of that unfortunate DOOP Lieutenant. The President fancied that it was trying to twitch.

"Now, my maggot friend... I do believe you had something to show me."

And the Headman watched as the flickering images formed and melted...

A few minutes later, he was carried into the opulent, yet confusing Möbius Office by his headguards. At one wink, a holoscreen flickered alive.

"Give me the General Secretary of the DOOP!" he barked, far from displeased.

A frail, elegant female being gleamed into view, the strangely twisted strip of office still visible through her jade skin and stately jewelled robes and the office behind her. For all her natural grace, General Secretary Glab seemed more troubled than ever. Nixon's sight, made sharp by the fact that it was about the one sense he had left, took in the paperwork on her desk and the carefully lined models of warships, hanging stiffly in mid-air.

"What news, Mr President?" she asked, fatigue speaking and slurring her voice.

"Unfortunately, madam, the prisoner died during interrogation..." the President began, utilising the slight bubbly quality of his voice to make it into what he regarded as syrup.

The General Secretary hushed him with a restrained gesture.

"Though I trusted in your methods, Mr President, I have no need to know them in detail", she said, her gaze briefly flickering. "What is the message from..." another flicker, towards a bulging folder on her desk. It was closed with a black seal of mourning, which had then been half-torn as an afterthought. "... our mutual friend?"

Had the President had lungs, his breath would have hitched. As it was, slight perspiration caused his jar to overflow, if ever so faintly. The Tapeworm is dead. I was the only one present at the final unwinding, and I recorded nothing. I can feed her any lie; there will be no verifying nor disproving. You may not know this yet, young lady, but Richard Nixon knows how to tip the balance of this puny galactic war. Then again, what reason had he for concealing the truth? It was quite straightforward. His last great failure had involved lies and tapes.

Trying to unwind... relax, even, by concentrating on the General Secretary's narrow carven-jade neck, he spoke:

"As might be reasonable in the context, Captain Brannigan is requesting a rescue team. There is a condition, however..."

"Fry! Wake up, Fry! Don't make me roll up your eye visors!"

Beached out of sleep, Fry gulped for air and instead got pillow. Once he had finished gagging, he grabbed it and tried to sock it to the assailant. Bender bent out of the way, daintily pushing his antenna back into position.

"Sorry, Fry", he said, dragging him across the plank floor all the while, "but we're needed at Planet Express with immediate effect. Emergency mission, apparently."

Fry managed to get some protesting noises out, in between his head banging on the floorboards. Not that he was totally against that. It might drive the dream out of his head...

"Come on... it's still dark!" He needed to whine, some things inside him felt very sore. New New York was a storm of stars outside the windows of Robot Arms Apartments. "At least let me get my clothes on, right!"

The toy-like robot, his closest friend and sometimes enemy, leant back against the wall for just as long as it took Fry to discard his pajamas and pull his pants on, then grabbed him again... his arm, this time, and dragged him down the escalator.

The summer air was sultry and not really fit to breathe, but Fry's lungs had adapted since their first faltering breaths in the 30th century, and he relished the clear streaks of cooler, past-midnight air. Now, as for dreams...

Weren't they all about his brain trying to discharge all the impressions got during the day, or something? He reckoned his brains might have plenty to discharge. In fact, earlier tonight, by the time the creepy glowing snake-thing ripped out of poor Kif's stomach and started twisting on the floor, holograms still coming out of its head, he was pretty sure he was going to have bad dreams every night of his life. For some reason, he had been sure those nightmares would not involve a man in a black mask calling to him across a room full of frozen statues, and... a sword duel above the clouds?

It was a relief, again, to get slapped up the stairs and into the still somewhat nacho-heavy, yellow-lit air of the Planet Express HQ. The others were there as well. Leela, stolid stalwart Leela, looking stunning as she combed her long orchid hair out. Amy, clasping the back of a chair as though to stop herself from shivering. Dr Zoidberg, dejected tentacles boding nothing but misfortune, large eyes set squarely into the flagstones. Hermes, armed with a clipboard, blinking slightly against the strip lights, and even Kif, his fiancée's other arm around his slanting shoulders, seeming healthy apart from a bandage creasing his uniform skirt and the expression of someone who had abandoned all his hope in a bin by the door. The Professor, too, his nephew, funny to think really, turned towards a holoscreen, switching it off while he was watching. It had been facing him, and Fry only got the briefest impression of a gala-dressed female of Kif's species. Wasn't she one of those DOOP bigwigs, or something?

"Good news, everyone!" the Professor exclaimed, in the face of all sanity. "As you all heard tonight, Captain Brannigan, many-times-decorated officer of the DOOP, has been taken prisoner by Imperial forces."

The frowns deepened, except on the face of Kif, who seemed close to vomiting.

"Now, that is good news", Leela snipped. She had been saying something along those lines when the hologram first appeared. But her pupil went all over the place... it seemed to be weighing on her mind. "I pity the Imperial troops, though."

Kif gave her a stare that mixed, possibly, rage and agreement. He then faltered again, and Amy firmly motioned him onto the chair.

"That is not, however, the good news", the Professor droned on, cheerful as ever in spite of the late, or early in fact, hour. "The good news is that the General Secretary and High Council of the DOOP, in collusion with Earth President Richard Nixon, have, after a high-priority meeting..."

"Please to dispense with the formalities, old man!" Hermes said. "I can deal with those myself. As is the situation, lest Captain Brannigan be used by his captors, be it for prestige, blackmail or extracting of intelligence..."

"Not very much prestige", Leela said under her breath, "and very little intelligence indeed." She seemed to find a sort of grim enjoyment in this situation. Best not to think about why.

"Let me continue, cyclops!" Hermes exploded. "It is evident that a rescue team is much needed, and it is a great honour for this concern that it has been chosen solely amongst us present!"

"It is the dried frogs' truth, Hermes", Professor Farnsworth said, amiably. "To cut to the core of the matter..." Kif winced again "... the intelligence we have informs us that conditions for a rescue attempt will be most favourable before the Imperial cruiser, the Unleaded, on which the prisoner is held prisoner, reaches planet Scintillant. Therefore, speed is of the essence. Leela, as captain of my ship, you will head the expedition. Besides, Hermes found some protocol claiming that to a ranking officer, it is demeaning to be saved by an inferior, or some garbage like that. Knowing your virtuous character, I knew that you would volunteer, and took the liberty to volunteer you myself."

"Sir", Leela said flatly. Her expression did not change, but she blinked a few times, possibly thinking that nobody would notice.

"Kif has already volunteered, as the rescuee is his commanding officer, and he knows the risks involved." Kif nodded, miserably, but he made no run for the door, as Fry would have done in his situation. It was possible that he was too badly injured. "In her position of only-other-person-ever-so-distantly-able-to-fly-the-ship, and Kif's fiancée, Amy will come along. After all, the message was for her."

Amy gave a faint smile, a fraction from being a grimace. Leela opened her mouth, a look of consternation on her strange beautiful face, but bit shut.

"We have no idea of what injuries the brave Captain might have suffered", Professor Farnsworth went on, "but knowing the sadistic mindset of the Empire, they might be as gruesome as to make you all vomit in terror. Dr Zoidberg will go with you in order to wipe up in case of vomiting."

Dr Zoidberg put a claw to his chest, presumably where one of his hearts was, and beamed. If he had been carrying a boombox, he would likely have turned on a track of patriotic music.

"And finally, Bender shall go, since when it comes to jail-breaks, he is, I believe, the bot."

Bender grinned electronically and mimicked lifting a door off its hinges. He then strode over to the back door, lifted it off its hinges, and slung it into the wall with a mighty SLAM. Fry felt the need to applaud.

"And finally... Fry." Fry nodded attentively, trying to put off the moment when the realisation would reach his brain. "Are you all willing and prepared to go off to save Captain Brannigan from the claws of Lord Cyan the Fiery, Dark Lord of the Empire, into the claws of the DOOP?"

"Professor", Leela said urgently, "the message, there is something..."

"Then it is decided", said Professor Farnsworth, spreading his hands in a solemn manner. "You six shall be the team of... Operation Forbidden Passion."

"OPERATION FORBIDDEN PASSION?" Leela shouted, and Kif buried his face in his hands.

"It was my Captain's last words as they led him away", he murmured, sounding to all the world as though he was going to get beaten up for this. "He said..." and he mimicked a barking military voice, testosterone oozing from it, "'KIF! When they get the rescue mission, be sure to name it Operation Forbidden Passion!' Alright, those were not quite his last words. Those were: 'If you screw up, you'll never work in this galaxy again!'" He collapsed in helpless sobs.

Amy's soft, tan hand slipped onto the nape of his neck, stroking him until his shaking subsided.

"There, there", she whispered, giving him a hug. "We'll have your Captain out in no time, honey."

"My point exactly", Kif replied in a small voice.

"Well then", said Leela, drawing herself up and wiping her mouth as though some memory was leaving a bad taste. "While we lag here, a fellow officer is suffering excruciating tortures! You go ahead to the ship. Bender, stay here. I'll need your stomach compartment to pack a few things."

As their footsteps died away, leaving the office empty and silent except for

the humming of the lights, Hermes turned to the Professor.

"You gave no reason for Fry to leave with them, Professor", he stated.

"There is a very good reason indeed", his employer said, turning towards the panorama windows as the sleek green ship cut into the air, trailing a river of smoke and stars. "Oh yes. Surely the General Secretary told you?"

"But... Professor, you had a reason for everyone else..."

"Oh my, yes. It would look quite strange to send my great-great-many-times-uncle off alone, would it not? Especially considering his tendency of getting hurt or lost." The Professor's voice took on an almost paternal tenderness. "I feel quite sad about what I had to do."

"When there are forms to fill in, I will put him down as 'the delivery boy'", Hermes said firmly.

"Do so." The aged face was already far away in thought.

Unhelmeted, Lord Cyan was sitting in his tall dark chair on the main bridge of the Unleaded. Stars simmered across his eyes, leaving little glittering traces.

It has begun.

Bubbling electronic music was playing behind him, almost below hearing level, and he was no longer young, and the air conditioning in his helmet always made his ears whine. It was... yes... The Buggles. "Video Killed The Radio Star". To most of his crew, that music would seem as alien as he himself, and well it might. His strangeness evoked their fear, and their fear was his weapon.

Come to me. Come closer.

When Lieutenant Riffenstein entered the bridge, the man in the chair let out a frustrated hiss and slammed his helmet down on his head. The Lieutenant only caught a glimpse of dark brown hair, and then the helmet turned around and focused him.

"Milord, the DOOP will try to intercept us before we reach Scintillant", he said. "The loss of a Captain will be hard for them to stomach. Shall I give orders to prepare for battle?"

A dark hand opened slowly, every joint of its plating catching starlight.

"The despicable Reds will use fraud, not force", said the Dark Lord, shimmering notes in his voice giving the impression of his mind being light-years away. "We must play their game, until the point when we turn the tables on them. If we want the bass, we must let it swallow the bait."

"The bass, milord?"

No answer but the filtered breath. It put Lieutenant Riffenstein off his nerves. Some of his comrades, fellows that was, in the Glorious Imperial Army had claimed that Lord Cyan had grown up in a world ravaged by nuclear war, and that he wore the helmet in order to conceal a face burnt with radiation. Strangely, others said that he needed the breath filter since his lungs were unused to the everyday background pollution of 31st century atmosphere. He was a strange man if both were true. A strange man indeed.

Before Lord Cyan, the galaxy spread out like a star-spangled banner.

And Phil, I know that you are out there.

Chapter 3 1/2: 1989

"The Wall is down?" Yancy Sr. booms in the stairway, trying to kick frozen mud off his boots. There is a layer of snow outside the windows... not really a romantic view. As the industrial districts are none too far away, it looks like chocolate ice cream. "THE WALL IS DOWN? Why not give freaking Gorbachev a flaming ticket to the White House already? In the Air Force One? You want to know what I think about this, Ilyena, Yancy?"

"It is a conspiracy, sir?" Yancy snaps back. Yancy is attending business school now, and can be awfully clever when he sets his mind to it.

"Once Commies, always Commies, they're all the same." Slam, slam, tlink. He is going through the kitchen now. Fry sincerely hopes that he's just after a whisky. There was the time he found a can of Cuba Cola in the fridge door, and went on to call Mom a traitor. He doesn't want that to happen again.

He, Phil Fry, now known as "Fry" to all his buddies, is folded double on his bed, face covered with Mom's home-made acne plasters, the ones that are made with plantain leaves and help about as much as a nuke on the surface of the sun. He is holding a photo, torn out of the school yearbook, of brown-haired pretty Michelle, and sniffling in what is hopefully a romantic fashion. Snow has been blowing in through the window-frame again.

"And the Government is working with them, isn't it, Dad... sir?" Is Yancy making fun of him? No... no, Yancy agrees with Dad, but he's not nice to him. Screw you, Yancy, he doesn't have it easy, you know.

Fry feels the other way around, when his hormones aren't bouncing him all over the place. He wants Dad to be happy. He wonders if there's some way to make him happy without dropping a bomb over Moscow, or is it Berlin?

Don't think about that. There's no helping some people. They'd feel better if they could settle down and drink some Cuba Cola, actually. Now, think about nice things, like Michelle... the prom...

"Why, yes!" The shouting is subsiding, but the walls in the house are still so flimsy, if you lick your finger it goes right through. He'd have to put his head under the pillow if he didn't want to hear. "The corruption goes all the way up to the President, and what is he doing? Sitting on the nukes like a moulting old hen! It's all in this 'democracy'..." and come on, all the teachers say it's such a good thing, so why does Dad pronounce it like it's some kind of sexually transmittable disease? "Inherent in it. The people are nothing but sheep! They will be an easy prey to the wolf of Communism... which is, in fact, some kind of a bear..." Stomp, stomp up the already-fragile, warped staircase. "This entire hassle has angered up my blood! I'm going back to Fort Mount, and I'm taking Phil with me!"

"Not me, sir?" Yancy asks, a bit sharply. He's been alternating between admiring and making fun of the guys up at Fort Mount, but no matter what, he prefers not to be left out.

"No, Yancy." Some kind of sad heaviness in that voice. Possibly he is patting Yancy on his shoulder now. "It's time that he learn his responsibilities. You... stay here. See if you can find some women. Once the Bomb drops, genetical variety will be of the... I'll go get Phil."

Almost envy that Phil guy... now wait a moment...

He manages to get into a sort-of upright position, even snap off a salute, when Dad barges into his room. He is entering winter, too, or at least that gloomy greying bit of autumn when the ground is sticky with dead white fruit. His stomach is tugging at the uniform buttons, strange really, since he never seems to stay for a full meal. His hair, same colour as Yancy's, is starting to go grey. How old can he be... not over forty? There is some sort of eternal stress in his eyes, like he's staring straight into the bursting sun and is too proud to blink or squint.

"At ease, Phil", he commands. "Now then, are you doing anything enjoyable tonight?"

"Not really... sir", Fry mutters. He doesn't want to hurt Dad. "Well, apart from the winter prom. I'm going with... you know Michelle?" The photo has slipped onto the floor and caught between two boards. His fingers are glassy red with cold. "She's a very pretty girl with chestnut-coloured hair and... and a B+ in chemistry..."

"She will be a valuable addition to our pure-bred American gene base!" Dad huffs and slaps him in the back like set his spine straight. "But tonight, son, you are coming with me up to the bunker! There, eh? Are you not proud?"

"Very much so... sir", Fry replies, and tries hard not to make it a lie.

An incredibly bumpy ride up the broken road snaking the hills. In Sgt Reefer's army van, mind you, since Dad's license was recalled only the other year. And Reefer can't drive. He mutters about the Viet Cong every time the van -scratched, mouldy green, an eagle holding thunderbolts painted on each side- crashes across a pit. Strangely enough, he is playing "Video Killed The Radio Star" on the radio, so loud you've got to wonder if it's a drug to him. He claims that it took him through 'Nam with his sanity in one piece. The air conditioning smells of bitter cold, the kind that puts wedges between your atoms and forces them apart, and out there are peaks and cliffs and pines in the same poisoned grey, like the world is painted by a depressed artist.

Having to cite the Pledge of Allegiance in front of some masked nutcase with a semiauto... and that makes his stomach flutter, but then again, so would dressing up for the prom. (Now, can you say "I pledge of allegiance to..."?) Then being introduced to what is apparently the Council of Survivors: mostly people Mom's and Dad's age, none wearing the same uniform, the women with their blouses unbuttoned to show off nylon corsetry and gulping cherry-flavoured beer, the men brushing mud out of their beards when they put the snuff in, and sometimes elbowing one another in solar plexus and talking about how life will be so much better once the Bomb drops.

A disloyal thought: I wouldn't want these people to repopulate the Earth. I wouldn't even want them to repopulate New Jersey.

Dad seems out of place, even among these people. He does unbutton his jacket, but he seems to feel the cold. He urges them into the bunker... he's the only one showing any kind of energy. There is... is it apathy? Fry hears someone whine: "Now the Wall is down, bet we won't have a nuclear war after all." He laughs until the iced air aches in his lungs. It was a joke, right?

For some reason, whenever anyone mentioned the bunker, he's imagined a log cabin, preferrably with a rag rug on the polished hardwood floor and a roaring fire reflecting in a glass-top coffee table, maybe even hot cocoa and a cuckoo clock, though he does know the limits to wishful thinking. It ain't. It's, for all the world, a concrete cave, the entrance of which is a set of crampons in a cold chimney that leans, so you end up more sliding on your back than actually climbing down. And the floor is stained with snow melt. Fry stares at it for a while, hiding his cold cramped hands in the sleeves of the army supply cardigan and wondering why radiation won't enter when the water does.

It's almost five o'clock, and he is hungry. He gets what a fantasy writer would possibly describe as the Lembas of the poor: flat, hard rusks which according to General Simone will last forever. (He suspects that is because not even bacteria regard it as edible.) And canned beans. Now, there is a lot to be said for canned beans, but he doubts he is going to say it. His watch is ticking on, kind of slowly, maybe the cold wet is getting to the screws or whatever inside it. At least he explained to Michelle he won't be in tonight, and she'll understand him... he did phone Michelle, didn't he? Oh no.

"Er... Bomber Harris..." he murmurs urgently, pulling at the greatcoat of the first man who comes into view. "Yancy... my brother... told me you had one of them mobile phones you can carry around..."

"You wish, city boy!" the man grumbles. "I sold it to some yuppies for two barrels of catfish... and they think they won the bargain! America will do better without them!"

"But..." Gather hope. Michelle is probably sitting in front of her mirror now, doing... well, the stuff girls do when you're not looking. He lets his mind shy away a bit. Straightening her eyelashes, or whatever. "Surely there must be a... well, shortwave radio or something..."

"Are you thinking of alerting the feds, city boy?"

"No... please..."

"You know, in about ten years, the world is gonna blow, right? Computers and all! Hell on earth! And you want everyone to know about the one safe place in the mountains..."

"Harris, let my son down."

"Thank you, sir."

Michelle is taking on her dress. Blue, she said. There's no blue down here, just fuzzy green stains on the walls, so when the Bomb drops I doubt we'll need to stock penicillin. She's swirling it a bit in front of her mom who's always looking at me like my fly's undone. What am I doing here?

He sits on a run-down couch, mostly springs held together with yarn. He yawns, not really from tiredness, mostly because the air here is not fit for breathing. He watches some inane William W. Johnstone adaptation film, and the ensuing not-quite-arthouse discussion. And General Simone goes into the kitchen -concrete, tan flower-patterned cork carpeting- to cook up the tinned dinner. And sometimes in the world outside, the one that has Christmas-card streets and Russians who own nightclubs and hardly ever ritually devour their victims, a pretty brown-haired girl is waiting for her date...

Fry sidles up to Dad, who's already at his second Foster's. His eyes are going just a tad vacant, but he seems happy, shame, happier than he ever does at home. He's unbuttoned his coat, and the ambience is running a bit high... the bunker is almost room temperature, with the burnt fumes issuing from the kitchen. Evidently, General Simone thinks benzene is an indispensable in cooking.

Let's say I'm making this easier for him. He wouldn't want me to be unhappy, would he? It's important to him... I'm ruining it...

"Dad... if I start walking back to the city, I think I can make it to the prom. And Michelle might be waiting for me already..." He hardly even hears the last words, himself.



"It's 'yes, sir'."

Strange how the little things topple the big things, isn't it? Just one snowflake to make an avalanche...

"Well, 'sir'..." He doesn't like his own voice much. Is it breaking again? It feels like drinking burning gasoline. "Sir, I take that as a yes. I'm out of here."

The beer is slowing Yancy Sr. down. His son is almost at the crampons, flaking with rusts in a red puddle on the floor, before he is able to stand up or even bellow:

"That is not going to happen, you hear that? What if the Russkies are dropping the Bomb on us tonight? She's doomed, son."

Strange how the white waterfall of the avalanche can take you over the edge...

"Oh, get real! You don't seriously believe that, do you? What are the chances in hell?"

He's already climbing up that slippery chute, like some kind of twisted Santa in camou, and the raw air is making his hair flop into his face. Choking shampoo fumes... oh yes, he washed it earlier today. And he snuck into Mom's cloth cupboard thinking that he could sew himself a tuxedo. And that hair has to rub against the rusty trapdoor now, as he pushes it open into the wintery sky, and the air hurts...

"That's 'what are the chances in hell, SIR'! You come back immediately, young man!"

Now... New York is over that way. There, where the enormous stars are showing the way. And walking along the road shouldn't be so hard. It's a bit glazed, but that just means you can slide downhill. And he doesn't think the pines are going to attack him.

Tinkling scraping as the trapdoor moves again. His father's... the commander's voice. "I said for you to come BACK!"

Then a bullet sparks off the asphalt behind him, and he dives into the roadside snow. Blind, for a moment. Wet snow in his mouth. Having to crawl... how ironic, this isn't a some kind of a wargame, madman! If he dies out here, blood all over the snow, how is he going to explain it to Michelle?

Voices flail behind him:

"I SAID... Reefer, why are you firing at my son? Cut it out!"

"Sorry, Yance... I was thinking, maybe I could take out the air pumps in his Nikes or something..."

Darkness, cold inner darkness, like someone's taken a piece out of a jigsaw puzzle inside him. He hurries down the trail of lampposts and tries hard not to think.

Michelle is waiting outside the gym hall of Aconite High, all clean and dry and beautiful, and that almost makes him want to stay out of the light. No, he didn't crawl all the way down the hills, but he's been so splashed by cars and dowsed by mini avalanches from the firs that he might as well. No tux. No combing. A head cold that might be deadly. And the commander doesn't like him anymore.

"Michelle!" He's so hoarse he has to shout again before she notices, and then she skips and looks about to run. A half-rotten leaf slides down in front of his eyes, and his fingers tangle up when he tries to brush it off.

"... Fry?" she manages, eventually. "Whatever happened to you?" From her tone of voice, it is not likely that the dance will ever happen.

"Michelle... you've got to help me." He slumps to her feet. It seems easiest that way. "Sir, I mean Dad, hates me, and I'm tired... let's go inside..."

She does agree, after a fair amount of begging, on the condition that he go into the boy's room and get the mud out of his hair. After all, women like men in uniform. They, supposedly, look dashing.

And I sure dashed, he thinks moodily, on the dance floor, briefly oblivious to the warmth on her shoulder under his arm. The commander can tell you, I sure did.