Fan Fiction

Son of the Ashes, Part 4
By Christina Nordlander

Chapter 4: ... And What Does He Do?

Fry hazarded to put his arm over Leela's shoulder as she hunched up, face brilliantly lit under the stars, muttering over the readings of the screens. Effortlessly, she hunched some more, making his arm to slip.

"According to the coordinates, if the cruiser is headed for planet Scintillant, we will intersect its trajectory within an hour", she said. It may have been nervousness, but the way she said "intersect its trajectory" caused Fry to break out in a sweat. "Better get cracking on our disguises."

"I'm not really sure about this, Captain", Amy worried, lowering her head to let Kif tie a bandana daintily around her fluffy black hair. "It's a bit... underhanded, is it?"

"Not to mention, bordering on treason", said Zoidberg melancholically, snipping meticulous rifts in his white frock using his pincers.

Leela sighed. "Well, that is the point. We are too few to take on a fully-manned Imperial cruiser all by ourselves." That sounded ominous. "We pretend to be common renegades, trying to side with them for glory and swag, and having done so, we find out the whereabouts of Captain Brannigan and procure his escape. We can't just run in guns blazing."

Fry cursed, not as silently as he had been planning to.

"Once we have found him", she went on, "then we run out guns blazing!"

Fry put his hands into the air and cheered. It seemed like the right thing to do.

His gaze swivelled to a screen hanging behind them, the bridge only faintly visible through the dark silhouette on it. He spun his chair around to see better. Cold nausea was worming through his stomach -please, don't think about worms, think about pretty butterflies- and it had nothing to do with the prospect of being taken captive by the evil Empire. Well, hardly anything.

Age: Unknown. (DOOP files on him go back no further than some five years. Word is that he is looking for an heir, which would set him down as "old enough to consider his own mortality".)
Full name: Unknown. (Has been referred to as "Lord Cyan Fiery" in Imperial transmissions.)
Family ties: Unknown. (See the "heir" thing.)
Favourite color: Unknown (presumed black)...

"Lord Cyan the Fiery", Fry muttered under his breath. "What kind of name is that, anyway? He sounds like a complete dork."

"That dork, Fry, conquered the Tiramisu nebula by threatening its total destruction", Kif said, slightly queasy. Amy was tenderly applying grime to his uniform pauldrons with a revolving mascara brush.

"How? Did he light it on fire or anything?"


"Then why..." Fry managed to bite shut. Leela, pulling down the visor of a stylish hoverbike helmet, was going to give him a Look. She was good at Looking. It was a wry, humorless expression, not in the least aggressive, just a suggestion that he quit while he be ahead.

Lord Cyan the Fiery. It worried him, like never a more dignified name. He could have stomached Lord Cyan the Merciless, or Lord Cyan the Bringer of Death, or even Lord Cyan the Light Blue, but... "the fiery"? It sounded like some silent-movie pirate with swashes to buckle and more epic woof than a Trojan dog. An evil overlord must surely pack a punch if he decided to call himself something that his enemies would change to "the flaming".

"Hey, the stupid human's got a point!" Bender exclaimed. "Let's slam helmet-face whatsisface into the wall and see if he spontaneously combusts!"

"Will you two stop fixating?" Leela said, hunching over the controls again and drawing a deep echoing breath. The off-white Imperial gala cruiser loomed overhead in the no-up-no-down-ness of space, as imposing and bulky as a city in flight. "It's probably just a misspelling or something."

Laser handcuffs slammed down on Kif's wrists, to the sound of a barely muffled "hegh!" Bender winced electronically, then readied the bolt gun and snagged a few more dents into his stainless body.

"All ready for mission... Trojan Hoarse-Throat?"

"Don't you mean 'Forbidden Passion', ma'am?"

"Right. Thank you, Amy. Thank you very much. Mission..." shudder "... Forbidden Passion?"

Three hands, one metal gripper and one shrimp-coloured pincer rose into the air. The handcuffs jingled.

"Well then", their fearless captain said, lowering the vidphone screen. "Imperial Cruiser Unleaded-95? This is Planet Express. Requesting permission to dock."

"Madam." Hoarse, somehow tingling voice. It reminded her of President Nixon, strangely enough... a male who had never been able to get his head around the fact that females were, in this day and age, more than walking furniture. "We ask only that the Democratic Order of Planets..." the faceless voice drawled on the name with obvious hate, in some kind of masochistic fervour "... withdraw from the Glamora and Frigila systems and leave them to us, the Empire."

"Thousands of hostages, milord", the General Secretary replied, putting the adequate strength on the appellation, "in exchange for one."

And the pleasantries were disposed with.

"A prominent officer", hissed the black lacquer vizard. "Are your Captains then so expendable, madam? Is the fleet of the DOOP gifted with so many men of Captain Brannigan's stature?"

"They are in plentiful supply, milord", Glab said, and continued, in the confines of her head: And even more better ones or, so help us, this war is lost.

The Imperial slammed a plate, mailed fist into his desk. In her own refined office at the DOOPHQ, the holoscreen wobbled.

"Madam!" Lord Cyan growled, in a fashion so very unseemly. "I do believe that your mulish pig-headedness condemns Captain Brannigan to death!"

The General Secretary dropped her smile. Smiling was hard on the slot-like mouths of the members of her species, at any rate. For that matter, she was puzzled by his insult. It referred to objects without her sphere of experience.

"On your head be it, milord", she mumbled.

But it was a less than pleasant thing to say. She wished, in a moment of indulgence, that Dempsey had been there. He had his ways to cheer her up.

"On my head or otherwise, so be it", Lord Cyan stated. You could have used his voice to cool a fusion plant. "Tomorrow, on the Imperial seat of planet Scintillant, we will have a small ceremony." The time for pregnant pauses was not now, apparently. "And it will culminate with the execution of Captain Zapp Brannigan, who is a human being, just like me and... me." Evidently, he had learnt the basics of psychological warfare, if only the basics. "We are not going to make it easy for him. The Emperor is a man of... refined tastes." There he went again... pregnant pause, while he folded his hands, in apparent contemplation of the Evil Emperor's refined tastes. The General Secretary made a show of sorting the paperwork on her diamondwood desk, biting her lower lip to repress the nausea. "I, however, am not. And between you and me, missy, I love few things as much as roughing up prisoners."

"How nice to find we have something in common", the General Secretary said. Her voice was brittle, bitter ice. "And in order to save the Captain, we would sacrifice millions of other innocents to your thirst for blood? Is that so?"

"In order to save your reputation, you would", Lord Cyan averred in a hideously self-satisfied manner. He had to be smiling, under that mask. If he had any face, he had to be smiling. "Just tune in the TyrannoVision at 5PM, galaxy main time, tomorrow." His voice had the cheerful glare of one who thinks obscenely obvious sarcasm equals fiendish headgames. "You will see him curse your cold heart and breathe his last. So will the rest of your galaxy. See him, that is. Where do you think the sympathies will go?"

"Milord, the Empire will pay for Captain Brannigan's blood with its own!"

Lord Cyan jerked backwards, back straight as a sky-snake. For a fraction of a second, the General Secretary entertained the illusion that her fervid threat had effected this change, but his hands were forlorn on the desk, and she had no longer any feeling of a face behind the mask.

It came so slowly she almost wondered whether the transmission was broken:

"He is here."

Lieutenant Riffenstein observed the six individuals approaching across the noisy, vast hangar, a frame of Cracktroopers marching on their sides. Five of them were a mixture of the human, the robotic and the plain weird. They looked a pick of purebred riff-raff, ragged and ruffled, all done up in mismatched pieces of clothing and nervously vacant expressions.

"Keep moving, scum", he muttered, before recognising the meek-looking green DOOP officer led handcuffed by the cute Oriental girl. Now, everyone knew that the DOOP had no standards and would gladly promote any creature that did not actually reproduce by splitting, but he had a good memory for faces, even when they were mostly eyes, and there was no mistaking Lieutenant Kroker.

Ignoring the mechanical contrivance and the lobster freak, his gaze slipped across a hunched-shouldered youth, rather handsome in a puppet-like way, button-nosed face crowned with a shock of peach preserve hair, expression too devoid even to be truly vacant. His face had the look of someone not quite bright enough to be anguished, but out of place, plagued by dreams held barely in check under his eyelids.

Lieutenant Riffenstein had a polished, feral, military face. It had nothing not to reveal as he made a careful mental note.

"State your business", he said stonily, removing his gaze to the captive.

"Well, sir, we captured this wimpy alien..." the mechanical effigy began.

Lieutenant Riffenstein turned away demonstratively until he was addressed by the woman in boots and a visored helmet. He didn't really feel more comfortable about wenches than he did about monsters and machines. The Empire -in practice, Lord Cyan- held the opinion that women belonged in the kitchen, if they were lucky. But she had the air of a leaderess about her, and she did look fully human.

"Lieutenant, I am Toshiba Lulu, captain of the Planet Express delivery service delivery ship. This..." a trim, businesslike hand indicated the flock, "... is my crew. Having taken off from planet Earth, also known as Sol III..." the Lieutenant nodded "... we intercepted an escape pod piloted by this lackey of the hated DOOP." Her voice was righteously incandescent.

Her captive nodded all the while, rather too fervently, until the other woman slapped him.

"Kif Kroker", Lieutenant Riffenstein offered, his world somewhat brightened by this swift and sure display of discipline.

"Indeed", Captain Lulu went on. "He told us that he had been serving on board the Nimbus, and had barely escaped captivity when you, Lieutenant, took it. Knowing this, we did the one honourable thing and set out to return him to your power."

"A loyal action", Riffenstein commended, letting his caution show. "Men! Frisk them. Your ship too shall be searched."

"You delivery boys don't half dress bad", one Cracktrooper muttered, patting the Oriental girl's garishly yellow blouse in a supposedly sanctioned manner.

"Only one of the many reasons we turned to the warm bosom of the Empire", said the Captain, ignoring the robot's snickering. "Our cruel, greedy employers pay us no more than suffices to fend off starvation."

"Still, your ship looks to be in mint condition", Riffenstein remarked.

"Oh, they care for the ship alright", Captain Lulu muttered. If he'd had any scratches on his skin, her bitterness would have burnt like iodine. "'Our crew is replaceable. Your packages are not.' And because we get no insurance, I have been unable to pay for plastic surgery after suffering a disfiguring head injury. Which is why I am wearing this helmet." The trooper lowered his hands.

"And you want to join the glorious Empire?"

"So we do", Captain Lulu said, clanging off a salute. "DOOP propaganda aside, what we have heard of you seems truly glorified. And I have no doubt that the Empire needs a delivery service. Allow me to present Aimée, Mender the Mending Unit, and... Dr Freakazoid."

"Yes, I am a doctor", said the lobster creature, beaming content that made Lieutenant Riffenstein want to be somewhere else.

The search turned up nothing of interest in the pockets of Aimée or... the boy, and only the remains of a decidedly off-season kipper in Dr Freakazoid's coat. The robot's stomach compartment held, inexplicably, Lieutenant Riffenstein's wedding ring and monogrammed pen, whereas Captain Lulu handed over a wicked-looking serrated knife.

"The prisoner was carrying it", she explained.

Riffenstein threw the cowering green alien a glare. The girl Aimée seemed loath to slap him, but Mender the robot more than rose to the occasion.

"Men", he said. "Take Lieutenant Kroker to the cell block." He hazarded a smile, not a millimeter more than was necessary, at the delivery team. "My gratitude. Your prisoner was the second-in-command of the Nimbus, and will be invaluable currency in our ongoing 'trade' with the hated DOOP. However, you must understand that I have no proof of your loyalty. You will be under constant guard until we reach Scintillant."

"One more request", the Captain said humbly. "We were informed that Captain Brannigan of the Nimbus is held in your very same cell block. Could we please come along? I, for one, would like to see him suffer." There was no mistaking her almost fanatical fervour.

The renegades, no, recruits, were taken down the streamlined corridors towards the prisoner's quarters. For the time being, Lieutenant Riffenstein looked away from the young man, who slouched along as though on his way to a haymarket. Notwithstanding the rest of the motley crew, a kid like that would never have been eligible for a place in the glorious Empire... but there were precedents.

"I don't feel well", the prisoner whinged.

Aimée mumbled what would have sounded, in any other circumstances, like an apology, before delivering a ringing blow across his skull. Lieutenant Riffenstein beamed at her. He would definitely have to have a lie-down after this. Kif bent over double and coughed.

"If this is not classified information", Captain Lulu began, "what is scheduled to happen to Captain Brannigan?"

"Lord Cyan, may he live for a thousand years, is engaged in negotiations with the General Secretary of the DOOP as we speak." He might as well tell them. It wasn't as though they would get to do anything with the knowledge. "Unless our demands are met, the luckless captain is to be executed tomorrow, on Scintillant, as part of the festivities of the yearly Confirmations by Handshake." He kept going, in love with protocol: "Every year, the Emperor appoints his new trusted servants at this ceremony, and they pledge him..."

"Lord Cyan", the young man interrupted hurriedly, a look of consternation on his face. "I've got a question about him, actually..."

"It sounds splendorous", Lulu gushed. "Will we be present?"

"Without doubt." He smiled at her again. They had entered the cell block: the light was dimmer, the doors closer by. "Unlike the cold, bureaucratic DOOP, the Empire looks to the little guy. And you, too, will be appointed places in the Emperor's service. Your men will be drafted onto cruisers, and as for you women... you might get jobs as cooks or something."

"I protest!" Captain Lulu huffed. "I am a spaceship captain and..."

"I protest!" Mender the robot cut her off. "My place would be in the kitchen!"

They eyed one another, then slapped. One of the faintly green-glowing doors was dragged open by the Cracktroopers, and Kif was flung inside. Muffled chiding was heard from the adjacent cell.

"Brannigan does not seem to be too happy", Lulu muttered with satisfaction, peering through the bars.

"You might not want to touch the door", one of the troopers warned her. "It's plutonium."

"You have more DOOP prisoners here?" Aimée worried, a look of cute concern on her face.

"We took many members of the crew alive", the Lieutenant explained, beaming at her. "Most of them will be exchanged on ransom. However, being a senior officer, Lieutenant Kroker will be executed by his master's side, to serve as an example to the cruelty of the DOOP."

"How..." the girl swallowed. "Cute."

He was not feeling well at all. Only one night ago he'd had a glowing worm tearing out of his abdomen, for crying out loud! And the Cracktroopers had not thrown him nicely. Kif clung to the steel wall before, carefully, crawling onto the floor of the unadorned cell. If his hearts were fluttering, who could blame him?

"Kif? If that is you, you cowardly little hypostate, get me out this minute or you will never work in this cell block again!"

Yes, the same pompous thick-headed voice, though faintly keening through the air conditioning and laced with pure panic. Kif groaned and curled up in a little ball. For a moment, it was so very tempting to forget about Mission Trojan Hoarse-Throat and just take that jackass with him wherever he was going...

"Eh KIF! We may be condemned prisoners, but it will be hell to pay if you ignore my orders again!"

"Sir." Kif got up laboriously and walked over to the wall from whence the yelling issued.

The plan was working smoothly. There was indeed an air conditioning grate, the drum apparently linking the whole cell row. Far too high to reach, of course, even for a tall human, but Kif scampered up the sheer wall, breathing moderately fresh air with a nice pine scent and trying to forget about his bandages.

Unfortunately, he was close to other things than air:

"KIF!" His ears would never be the same again. "FLIPPIN' HECK, GET ME OUT HERE OR I'LL DAMN WELL HAVE YOU DENOTED!"

His fingers and toes almost lost their grip on their reflections as he shuddered. "Sir, please, not that loud! I can hear you. Oh, and it's 'demoted'. Which is what the Imperials intend to do to us. Demote us... as they say, to glory. By which I mean, they'll kill us."


With an infinitely careful sucking noise, Kif detached one set of fingertips from the steel plating and pushed the grate open. A few inches inside, a sturdy grille blocked the passage, which he might have otherwise been able to squeeze through, but that would not be necessary. Inside the crawlspace, he could see broken squares of fluorescent light filtered through the slats of the grates. His hand slipped inside his uniform jacket and found the minuscule capsule, hidden in a fold in the bandage.

"Sir, that's what I'm here for!" He was terrified of whoever might be listening, and he was sure as hell he didn't want to waste breath comforting the Captain, but there were comrades of his in the other cells, and even if their lives were not in direct danger, he wanted to get them out if it was possible. "I went to Amy and her friends like you said... with your message..." He winced. He wouldn't have thought even Brannigan capable of that. "... and Captain Leela and Dr Zoidberg devised a plan. We call it Mission Trojan Hoarse-Throat..."

He reached with the capsule through the crude grille. The light shimmered strangely through the blue glass. "I'm almost certain this one's harmless, once the symptoms clear up", the lobster doctor had said. "Of course, since they're too small to attach labels to, for all we know it might be filled with the Fluorescent Death. Oh, just kidding you."


Kif crushed the glass pod in his hands. An invisible vapour, impossible to taste, smell, feel or even to smish, and therefore not really a vapour at all, raced down the air conditioning drum and throughout the cell block. As its tendrils divided through the slats, one might have fancied they seemed excited.

Kif slipped back down the wall, lay down on the harsh metal bunk, and waited.

And about fifteen minutes later, while wrecked with the pain and coughing of a debilitating Banoonian Throat 'Flu and the horror of hearing, in a dour Decapodian accent: "Out of my way! I am a doctor!", he had the singular enjoyment of watching his intrepid Captain trying to drape himself in a noble pose on the stretcher whilst fairly coughing his lungs out.

The infected prisoners were taken to the sick bay, which, as Team Trojan Hoarse-Throat/Forbidden Passion had noticed, was right next to the hangar, and left under the sole surveillance of Dr Zoidberg, after the human Cracktroopers rushed off to get paper tissues. And after breaking another capsule in the hangar control room, it would have been an easy task to fly the yellow flag of plague, open the port, load the ex-prisoners onto the Planet Express ship and blast for it.

However, it was at that point that Lieutenant Riffenstein ordered the capture and interrogation of the traitors.

"Talk! What is your name!"

The kind of question that didn't even bother with a question mark...

"Err..." He had thought of a name, hadn't he? "Err... Food."

"'Food'? You try my patience, boy. Or should I say... Philip J. Fry."

Strange how you feel so small, all of a sudden. Strange how the metal floor feels cold even through gym shoe soles.

"Where are you taking me?" Fry asked, and his voice too felt small and childish. The light was very bright in this corridor. You ended up seeing shadows at the edges of your eyelids.

The Cracktroopers kept their stony silence. Fry got the feeling that was the only thing they were good at.

"The personal quarters of Lord Cyan Fiery", that Lieutenant guy said, rather too self-satisfied.

Fry tried to reason. It was a novel approach. "Uh, if you're going to interrogate me, just so you know, I don't know much about anything..."

"Silence, scum."

He flinched as the black-uniformed man drew his arm back, but the blow never came. Instead, a soft soft smile... now he was in trouble.

"Here we are", the Lieutenant said, gesturing and allowing a narrow black door to open into narrow blackness. "His Excellency's personal intelligence office." Fry's gaze slipped onto the floor. "You are not going to leave the same as you were when you came."

"Sir..." His throat was dry, like he'd swallowed grit. He found himself peering into the icky dusk again, taking some comfort in the fact that he couldn't see any worms. "Don't hurt my friends. They're my friends."

"That is for Lord Cyan to decide." The bruising grips around his arms let go. Pushing, stumbling.

"Sir... if I'm going to die, would you mind answering a few questions? Why is Lord Cyan the fiery?"

Shove. Darkness. "That is a misspelling!"


It was dark, it was dark like someone was grabbing his eyeballs and dipping them into murky water, and someone else was in the room with him. He could hear a raspy respiration, echoing with metal, every breath like a controlled snarl. Stumbling forward, carefully, hands stretched out... ow banged his hip on a desk... and then warmth, and the suffocating folds of black robes...

"Gahrn! Get off me, you little milksop! I am not your mother!"

Fry stumbled backwards and slumped into a cold, less-than-comfortable metal chair. It was a relief, up until the point where it locked metal claws about his wrists and ankles. He would have found it cheesy, if it hadn't been so deadly... cheesy.

"Ah. Philip J. Fry." The voice was somewhat familiar, even with its steely reverb. "I have been expecting you."

Mood lighting came on, glinting off a black helmet. It reminded him a bit of the Veridians.

"I am deeply sorry for the restraints", the voice went on, dryly. "However, you ignored me when I asked you nicely. I was impelled to use force."

"Uh, sir..."

The memory stirred.

"Sir... when did you ask me nicely?"

The helmet muttered, not to him, something like "damn your lies". As Fry's eyes adjusted to the sickly light, he could make out a broad-shouldered, possibly shoulderpadded, shape in a black robe, evidently designed to billow dramatically. He couldn't get rid of the feeling that something about the size or the posture ought to be familiar.

He took a deep breath, deciding to relish the moment. The office, clouded with paperwork and misted with holoscreens, smelt of grime and hard liquor and fresh pine. That belonged to the memory, too.

"All that is immaterial", Lord Cyan continued. His voice was far from nasty, actually. It was the voice of a man accustomed to giving orders, not particularly sick orders, but at least he wanted them done cleanly and with regard to some greater plan. "All that matters now is... am I correct? You are in my power, and so are your friends." The voice became more wistful, more sympathetic, as though it wasn't really in synch with the words. "Within a few minutes' time, I will give you a choice. If you do not choose to my satisfaction, your renegade friends will pay."

Pure anger flared up in Fry. The air glowed red for a moment.

"Stay off Leela, Lord Flamer or whatever is your name!" But even in his anger, the strange puzzlement came crawling back. "By the way, could you..."

"I am almost grateful that you enanger me like this, Phil." Dull metal noises as the gauntlets came off. The hands inside looked small in comparison... angular, practical hands with a few scars... some stains of gauntlet oil. Remember. Did you call my son a Communist? Remember. Hands hanging a green spaceship up in the white nothing. "Once more, we do this the hard way." Hands tying the rope to the branch. Taste of maple gum. Those hands rose to the lower edge of that helmet, reflecting in its metal. "Don't you dare take your eyes from me, Phil, or I will have to use the neck restraints."

I pledge allegiance toIpledgeallegianceto hands

Like a dark sun, the helmet rose...

"Sir!" The door slammed open around the dark silhouette of an officer, and Fry let his gaze whip around. He could have kissed the guy, in a brotherly fashion. "One of the prisoners is being troublesome, sir. You might want to set an example."

"Pour encourager les... les... never mind." Suddenly seeming older, Lord Cyan let go of his helmet and flicked a switch on the table. Fry reeled out of the chair as the restraints unclasped and slid back. "I will go there. Guards!" He indicated Fry. "Have him come along. I am not letting him out of my sight again."

"My arms are hurting!" Amy whinged. "And I wish I didn't have to wear those pseudy clothes!"

Leela, her helm lying on a floor somewhere after the fray, managed to wedge her head in between her arms, pendent from two iron rings on chains from the ceiling, and close her ears against the griping. She was extremely uncomfortable, but say what you like about hanging in chains in an interrogation chamber, it gave you time to think.

She thought about Cyan Fiery. Was it not actually a title? Was it some kind of a name? Throughout her career as a delivery service captain, she had experienced weirder spellings than you'd find in an 0ld H1gh L33t dictionary, so... it was a way to pass the time. Cyan Firey? Cyan Fyree? Cyan F'hieRa? OK, so there had to be limits.

May he live a thousand years. That... made no sense. Wasn't that supposed to be the Emperor?

If she ever got out of this alive, she was going to let her arms hang down low for a month. And cut her fringe.

"You!" she shouted at the guards, who looked at her eye warily, as though it might change colour. "I demand to see your Lord Cyan!"

"He is here, troublesome girl", that Lieutenant muttered, sliding the door aside and saluting his gloomily-dressed lord. Fry was with him, terrified-looking but otherwise unharmed. Take it easy. Take their minds off Fry. "Milord, what would you have us do to her?"

She had been preparing an eloquent and defiant speech for this kind of thing, but heck, she just didn't have the time:

"Who are you, anyway?!"

"Lord Cyan Fyry", Lord Cyan said, affably. "F-Y-R-Y. A lot of people get it wrong." He gestured to one of the Cracktroopers, who had taken his helmet off. It was a young man, maybe even younger than Fry, with a pasty face, a head shaven all over and a general look saying NERD. There was no reason for her stomach to clench coldly, not at all. "Private Dempsey? Do your thing."

The trooper -Dempsey, remember that name- murmured a thanks and stepped up to her, not close enough, smiling lewdly. He did an amazingly good job at it.

"It looks Lord Cyan has handed you over to me", he said. Leela had met few men who did not shy away from her eye. His ice-coloured look made her gaze try to escape. "So... why don't I haul you down, and we can go somewhere I can teach you a lesson?"

"And what would that be a lesson in?" Leela riposted, her voice dripping malice until she could almost taste it. "ASCII?"

"Ah, this one is spirited!" Private Dempsey jeered, then disappointment backed away in trepidation from her slowly dangling boots. "Milord... please... could you deal with the spirited one? I don't like women with spirit."

"Now listen here, young lady..." Black helmet, height of her knees, coming closer. Come closer. And now...

Leela lashed out.

Say what you like about being strung up in an interrogation chamber, but nothing beats it for flying kicks. She swung back like a kid on some kind of a ride, arms stretched out like an avenging angel, touched the back wall with her right toecap, than blazed forth and caught Lord Cyan Fyry under the chin. The shock made her eye tear in sympathy. The helmet slipped off and bounced against the door, almost taking off Private Dempsey's nose in the process. Lord Cyan was briefly brought to his knees, cursing in some strange old-fashioned way and fumbling his way across the floor bolts. Revenge was made!

Now for Plan B. And when you are strung up in chains in an interrogation chamber, Plan B tends to be very expensive indeed.

What was it?

Leela blinked the eyelashes out of her eye and stared, oblivious, as the Dark Lord shambled to his feet. Clean-shaven, with grizzled brown hair in what had once been a crewcut. Pale from lack of direct sunlight, eyes alive with paranoia. Faintly aquiline nose, a strong chin, a few battle-scars and a few tired wrinkles, a subcutaneous panzer of sheer splintered madness but otherwise... the same expressive mouth, the same nervous glance, the same sensation of a mind not entirely at the same level as everyone else's.

"This is neither the time nor the place", Yancy Fry sighed, turning towards the stricken youth with his eyes. "But... I am your father."

Chapter 4 1/2: 1995

It's late. The TV has been turned off, Yancy Sr. is riled by most programs nowadays, and the only sound is that of Ilyena knitting. She has taken to the disturbing habit of knitting all jumpers with three sleeves. Her husband doesn't tell her to stop. Maybe he thinks it will come in handy in case of radioactive mutation.

"I'm going to bed", Fry says, trying to ease his body out of the couch. He's tired, dead tired with doing nothing. One spring stabs out of the cloth, with a comic "boingngngng" noise, an inch away from his crotch.

It has been a hard day, harder than most. Since the day he ran away from Ft Mt, he and the commander have been in a state of cold war, rather colder than whatever is going on between the US and Russia these days. Since he dropped out of college, they've hardly said a dozen word between them, and with his ongoing fight with his brother, that makes him feel all locked up. Yancy Sr. was there when he was taken to hospital for Coke-and-videogames induced injuries, and seemed rather concerned, but then he would berate Fry for being a waste of tax money. So not much use trying to fake an accident in order to win back his love.

It's cold outside, cold for May. The light reflects on the black in the windows and forms a shallow, shallow image of a perfect family. Yancy is folded double over the coffee table, scribbling vehemently at his thesis. His father is slouched in his recliner, deep in dark-draft thoughts. With the night around them, they seem to be living in a bunker.

"Did anybody hear me?" Standing up. "I said I'm going to bed!"

Yes, today has been a hard day of hard days. It's Yancy Sr.'s birthday. Fry did remember. He bought his father a pair of socks. They were very nice socks. He couldn't really afford much more, not having a job and all, and the commander tells him not to go to the benefits office, because then he will be brainwashed into Communism. (It has started to occur to him that this might be incorrect.) And the man, now, the man took the socks and didn't say one word.

So Fry has stopped talking to him as well. It works amazingly, up to a point.

"Then go to bed, you Kremlin scum!" Yancy Sr. hisses madly from his recliner, his gaze set on something else entirely. "Your old man's fifty-second birthday, and you didn't even bother to say one lousy word! I don't know what the hell you have been doing to the side, Ilyena, but that shiftless kid is not my son!"

Such is the stuff that parricide is made of.

"Yancy!" Ilyena shrills, the click of her needles stopping briefly. "I demand that you apologise to Philip! He hasn't got it easy these days! What with dropping out of college and that little hussy he's hanging out with..."

He slouches up the stairs. Shiftless? Why does everyone call me that? He lets the voices sift into a soft, nice drone. Back when he was a kid, he would lie in his bed in the mornings and hear Mum and Dad and Yancy talk about nice things with nice voices...

"... he is taxing me! He is taxing me, and any day now..."

... wait. They were probably talking about him dropping out of kindergarten and being a wussy, or something similar, weren't they?

Fry goes to bed, after checking the saucepan under the leak. He hugs the pillow a bit... it feels nice, it's nice to him. He looks at the skewed star rectangle of the window and tries to think about space.

But when he finally falls asleep, he dreams that he's back in the Ft Mt bunker. The air is cold, snow is drifting up by the walls, and he clambers up the chute shivering as though he's falling apart, but when he pushes the trapdoor open it is hot, the world burnt to terracotta, no snow, nothing cool even in the sky. The sky is a bronze bowl of runny sun, and on the sickening, gasping ground lies something in the remnants of an army uniform. White bones are visible through the rifts in the cloth. Face down, but he recognises the brown crewcut. Fry tries to breathe, but the nuclear heat is so...

... tries to breathe, but the darkness sticks on his face and it's itching cloth. His lungs squirm inside him. He's dragged off the bed, no pain when he falls, just swirling vertigo, and he can breathe again, but there's just cloth on his eyes.

"Pledge of Allegiance! Say it!"

The tone of voice that suggests that "... or you will be shot" is an optional ending. Might he still be dreaming? Better play this safe. He is being dragged upright, led down the hallway... oh no not the stairs...

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and the republic it represents..."

He manages to take the stairs by sheer luck. All small steps, but a giant leap of faith.

"... a republic indivisible, under God..."

"Nice touch there, son."

He called me his son.

"... with liberty and... and... justice for all! Sir!"

The cloth slips off when he's in the car, then it's replaced with sickening gasoline smoke, and the car is driving at a higher speed than it can possibly take. He blinks, like it's still a dream, at the points of light flickering past. It's like dreaming about being on board a spaceship.

"Ehh... sir... where are you taking me?"

If it's Ft Mt, then I swear I'll climb up the first pine I see and don't come down till Christmas!

"It's about time you get yourself a job, son", Yancy Sr. says, trying to tune in the radio. The knob falls off. But his voice is almost friendly, almost... "I'm taking you away from the house so's you won't feel tempted to go back. It doesn't really matter if you do, of course, because the door will stay locked till you can shove an occupation form under it. You've been sitting around on your lazy bodoms too long." They swerve around a corner, onto the sidewalk, and Fry holds on to his seat until his fingernails go through the padding. Sleep is acting up on him, much like coffee or pipeweed. His teeth are chattering, like there's still part of him asleep somewhere and dreaming about a bunker sludged with snow. "This is what my grandfather, Yancy Sr. Sr., did when I was your age, and you better hope to Heaven above that you find something better than the Reserves recruitment office!"

"But Dad, I have something better!" Yes, try reason on him, that's bound to work. "You know the sperm bank..."

"Quiet, you!" Another swerve. Yancy's face looks haggard in the splintery lamppost glare through the skylight, so haggard it's hard to recognise. He's so dark under his eyes he looks like a football player. "My son is going to work, not sit around squandering his assets! Here, get on out."

Fry sets one shivering foot on the cracked tarmac of the sidewalk. The air is spring moist to the touch, but he is still shuddering. No stars in the sky, just darkness like a big mouth waiting to swallow him. Which way leads home, even?

"Er, Dad... I'm sorry I didn't get you anything nicer for your birthday..."

He skips when the door slams shut. The car roars off under a broken light, leaving him coughing from carbon monoxide. Oh well, time to go and... look. For something.

So, not the sperm bank then. Anyway, Michelle has told him in no uncertain terms that she sees it as prostitution, which kind of makes sense in a wonky way, but nevermind. And not the recruitment office, thanks, because then he's bound to end up in Bosnia or Europe or some such godforsaken place.

He gravitates towards a light on the other side of the street, like some kind of an insect. First a light, then the tinny noise of a Victrola playing a folksy mandolin tune, and eventually the smell of cheese and flour and TV dinners. PANUCCI'S PIZZA, it says over the door.

Fry tries to smooth out his pajama skirt and steps into the light and warmth. The gruff-looking Mr Panucci looks up from a particularly vicious-looking slab of dough.

"Excuse me, sir... need some help kneading?"

And that was the start of a wonderful friendship. Well, employeeship. The times are awful, but that means getting away from Yancy and the commander. And Michelle treats him with a fraction more respect, now he's a potential breadwinner. Well, deep-pan-and-mostly-air-bubbles-at-that-winner, but after about a year, he's upgraded to delivery boy from pizza carton folder, and since Mr Panucci has no sons in America, maybe he will get to take over the business one day.

He stops going to the sperm bank. It isn't really that nifty, come to think about it, when you're working with food.

But for a few more nights after that, he still wakes up and finds he's thrown the quilt onto the floor. He doesn't want to wake up and feel that damp taste of cloth over his mouth.