Fan Fiction

The Mute and the Norm
A Futurama alternate-universe story by Christina Nordlander Dawson

Futurama is the property of Matt Groening and 30th Century F*x. I only own the characters you don't recognise, such as Rosa.

This fanfiction is based on episode 3ACV09, "The Cyber House Rules", written by Lewis Morton, and uses a few lines from it.

The song lyrics quoted are the property of Eminem.

Thanks to Kenneth White and Venus for some much-needed constructive criticism.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. - Oscar Wilde

"You know, doing this jigsaw puzzle of a pacifier factory makes me want to have children with you all the more."

Leela blinked again. The lighting in Adlai's house was not glaring in any way, but designed to make you aware of everything inadequate or out of place. He was holding up one greyish jigsaw piece that looked no different from the other nine hundred and ninety-nine jigsaw pieces. Her new eyes were tired; she hadn't been any use for jigsaws in a long time.

A child?

A thought came, but by the time it was fully formed, it felt sentimental. This had stopped being a childhood crush a long time ago. She'd had boyfriends and transient interests before, but most of them had turned out to be despicable, inadequate people. Adlai was perfect. If the bond between them still felt a bit stiff, maybe that was because she wasn't used to perfection. She wanted to know what a child with his genes would be like.

"You want to have... a natural child? With me?"

"Natural?" Adlai laughed. "Yes, that's acceptable. Heck, it's more than acceptable! It's adequately satisfactory."

So a few nights later, Leela padded across their ordinary bedroom, picked up the Nihilanth Home Pregnancy Test and licked the stick. It tasted like an emery nail file. She waited a few seconds without breathing, and then the window lit up with a chemical pink.

"Adlai!" she whispered, trying to control her voice.

"Wstfgl?" He sat up at his side of their bed.

"We're going to have a baby!" The female symbol had wobbled and stabilised in the window. "It's a girl! Adlai, it's a girl!"

It seemed to come through, and about time. Adlai's eyes blinked, big from the darkness.

"But Leela", he said, "this is quite good news. I've always wanted a little girl."

"Your very own place in the statistics." She was joking with him because happiness was threatening to burst her skull.

She looked at the pregnancy test again. The female symbol morphed, with a few false starts, into an N.

"It's healthy!"

At least so far, her caution whispered.

She didn't know how far she could trust a test, not while her daughter was still a clump of splitting cells, but even that worry was something she'd never felt before.

"Come to bed, Leela." Adlai pushed the auto-fluffing button on her pillow and spread his arms for her. "You're getting overly excited." But he had a wet quiver in his eyes.

That night, Leela went to sleep with her fists pressed against her lower belly. She didn't have any dreams, but in the morning she knew that something had continued unfolding.

She didn't know if Planet Express had a policy for pregnant workers, but she'd decided to change her mode of work as little as possible, at least until her state was a lot more advanced. However, anyone with an eye in their head could see that her friends had made Professor Farnsworth agree only to let her fly missions with nearly no risk of getting eaten, sucked through a black hole, put in a coma or chased by aliens across the surface of a planet. It was a bit dull.

"Because", as Dr Zoidberg had explained, "impregnated females are more deadly than the males. We're saving the lives of thousands of murderous creatures this way!"

"Leela has another organism that lives inside her?" Bender said. "I can't believe you've gone through that kind of invasion of privacy! I'll never do that."

She was almost one month pregnant with her daughter -they'd decided to name her Rosa, after Adlai's mother- when she sat down in the meeting room, glanced out at the crisp morning and was met by the Professor's grin.

"Good news, everyone!"

"Cut it out", Fry said. "You shouldn't shock Leela like that."

"I'm not made of glass, Fry", she muttered.

In fact, she felt thicker and more sluggish than usual, and Fry tended to worry her. He was always helping out and caring, but there was something raw in his eyes whenever he looked at her, and it it wasn't all about her pregnancy.

"Leela?" the Professor said, looking around. "Ah, Leela. I just didn't recognise you with those two eyes."

She blinked, and tried to forget for a moment that she even had one.

"She's had them for months, Professor", Amy admonished.

"Well, once a freak, always a freak", Bender said, stretching his legs with a creak. "Anyway, what's the good news?"

"Oh, my new invention? Yes. Please follow me into the Room of Dramatic Inventions, formerly known as the employee lounge."

He lurched ahead, beckoning them to follow.

Leela winced as she stood. She felt dumpy, and still you could barely see anything around her waist. She didn't look forward to eight more months of this.

The invention, shoved unimpressively into the least cluttered corner of the lounge, was about the size of a suicide booth and made of a thick, semi-transparent material that revealed nothing in particular. It had a door and doorknob, and that was about it. The only other distinguishing feature was the light, a flickering golden.

"Spectacular", said Bender and yawned, something quite impressive in a robot. "Now, if you excuse me, I've got something even more interesting to do, like staring the other way."

"It's full of shiny things", Amy said.

"'Shiny things'", Leela mimicked, then squinted at it. In fact, it was. The misty walls were in two layers, and between them little spheres of bright bounced like slow 3D Pong balls. At first they made her think of fireflies, but there was something right-angled about their movement...

"Chronotons", she murmured.

"Chronicles?" Fry axed with a hint of sharpness. "But hasn't horror ensued every single time you've used those?"

"Oh my, yes." The Professor beamed at them. "But not this time. The Time-Tomb is designed to be of immense use in medicine, etcetera, etcetera. You simply get in and let the Chronotons age the injured part up to when it heals. In fact, with the mass-manufacture of these devices, the entire medical profession may become obsolete. Isn't that right, Zoidberg?"

Zoidberg sniffled and stared out the window.

"Hear that, Leela?" Amy whispered and elbowed her, very gently. "This'll be something to tell your man!"

Leela snorted. She would have preferred if her co-workers didn't talk about Adlai. They seemed to tolerate him, a few steps short of accepting him.

"... and the experience is pleasantly invigorating", the Professor finished. He tugged at the doorknob, and the door came open with a click and a hiss of ozone. "Anyone want to try it? I'll set it so it opens right away. It'll only take days off your life!"

"No way!" Fry backed, arms held out. "Me going into some weird time-thing? Forget it!”

"Me neither!” Amy said. "I was with you until you called it a 'tomb'."

"Not a fleshbag", Bender said, knocking his chest compartment. "Also, I'm a jerk."

"Only hours!" the Professor lamented. "Please! I need a test on a sentient subject before I can patent it, and someone ate all my hyperintelligent Guinea pigs at the Nobel Prize gala!”

"I'll do it." Leela stepped forward.

It was worth it to stop this whine-fest... and besides, he wouldn't harm a pregnant woman, would he?

"Splendid!" The tears on the Professor's cheeks visibly dried. "Please get in..." His gaze fastened on her face for a few seconds, "... Leela. I'll open the door after a couple of minutes, but to your body, hours of rest and healing will have passed, and you will feel like a completely new alien."

"This had better be safe", Leela muttered, getting inside and leaning on the back wall of the booth. The Chronotons gave off an almost audible hum as they bounced against her reflections.

"Let's just say, no sentient beings have ever been harmed by it."

His voice grew deep, subwoofer deep, as the door clicked shut, and Leela felt the light slide over her hands and arms like expensive skin lotion. Her friends still moved outside, but slow like ballet robots. "Now let's hope the door doesn't snag like when I tested it on that monkey." Her boot had crushed something white and twiggy, a skeleton tail. "Oh dear, what's happening now..."

The light subsided. Somewhere in her slowed brain, Leela had a presentiment of the open door and tried to reach for it, but she had to grab the door-frame or collapse.

"A pregnant woman!"

It was a male voice, almost shattered, and she realised that it was Fry. Adlai probably wouldn't have come here. "You could have killed her! You could have killed her baby, too! I can't believe we let you do this!"

"As you can see, there's nothing wrong with Leela", the Professor said. "We got the door open before..."

The others turned towards her as her functioning eye got used to the lighting – the windows were dark, criss-crossed with the pulsating glow of the traveltubes.

"Leela!" Amy yelled and took her hand. "We made it! How are you feeling?"

"Like I've slept for a week without brushing my teeth first. What's the time? And no funny jokes about..."

For the first time, she looked down at herself.

"Leela", Bender began. "Your chest compartment is stuffed! You're gonna have to..."

"Someone, get her top off!" Fry shrieked. "She's going to get the vapours!"

"I'm fine", Leela said and fingered the burst seam on her tank top, but her knees sagged and she was lucky to land in the couch. "I'm fine."

Clawed pain tore through her like Zoidberg through a packet of wet potato chips, and she hunched up and put her arms around her enormous belly as though it might just rip and cut out the middleman.

"Just, just, someone phone Adlai." At least now she wouldn't have to wait any more. The pain was gone, but she wasn't sure how long it would last. "Do it now!"

"Don't panic!" she could hear Zoidberg scream. "We'll have that thing out of you in a moment, but don't panic!" His pincers were snipping too close to her abdomen.

Another period of meaningless time passed. The hum of the hovertaxi lowering itself to the pavement. The Taco Bellevue hospital, terrifying with its floodlights. The Borg Memorial maternity ward. A nitrous oxide pill, white light, Adlai holding her hand and telling her not to worry, agony, an epidural pill, Adlai, Adlai...

... it was over.

The midwife, a fembot of the same figure as an old fertility idol, unscrewed the forceps from her arm and screwed on a plastic paddle. In a clear gap past her head, Leela saw a young human woman half-sitting up in her hospital bed, eyes bloodshot, hair almost black with sweat. She waved at the girl to tell her it wasn't so bad, and saw her wave faintly back. She still wasn't used to her reflection.

"Congratulations, Miss Leela. It's a girl."

"Just like the test said, then", Leela grunted. Anger had flooded back with all the other emotions. Tears were running out of both her eyes, and she hadn't expected that.

Something pink was placed down on her chest. Leela grabbed it out of instinct, and a very small hand clutched her little finger back.

"We're very sorry", the midwife-bot said, put a cold metal hand on her forehead for a moment, and wheeled off.

Leela felt herself smile. Her arms felt like enervated spaghetti, but she had no problem lifting her daughter up to the pastel dawn light. She smelt of soft soap, cleanness, and had a thin mat of dark hair on her head. Rosa Atkins gulped in air and screamed.

Time returned when she sensed a new presence next to her bed. After a moment, Leela turned her head to see Adlai, folded almost double under an invisible burden. His eyes were pink and he kept sniffling, the way people do when they're trying to pretend it's just a cold.

"But I'm all right", she said. Her voice was hoarse, her whole body felt stretched-out, and bits of her felt like they were bleeding. "Look at me, Adlai. There's nothing to worry about. I did it! Look at me!"

He wasn't looking at her.

"Your..." He grabbed a tissue from the dispenser on her nightstand before he could continue. "Your... look at her..."

"It's Rosa", Leela said. Her voice sounded stupid. "Our daughter."

She looked at her again, and saw a single reflection of herself.

We're very sorry, Miss Leela, it's a Cyclops.

They'd had to wade through more red tape, and some personal questions, than should be necessary on your way out of a maternity ward. On at least three occasions she had heard Adlai explain that the child had inherited its single eye from her mother, who had been a Cyclops before her cosmetic surgery. Oh, and due to a temporal mishap there had been no chance to discover the foetus' handicap. He sounded like he was repeating something he had learnt for a test. His voice was robotic. In fact, many of the robots they met showed more emotion than he did.

The next few days she wasn't capable of doing much except lying in a heap of pillows and breastfeeding Rosa, and Adlai spoilt her in every way possible and never said much. Eventually, something had to give.

Rosa had had her daily bath and was asleep in the bedroom. Leela was standing at the worktop, boning a sleek silvery swordfish for the birth party tomorrow, while Adlai sat at the table reading his pension fund statement. Evening was falling purple over the clean garden. Her body was still twice its old width, but health-wise she could feel it building back to normal, cell by cell. Soon she would be able to start working out again.

"Leela, we need to talk maturely."

His tone made her tense up, even before the words did. She wiped her hands and turned around.

"What is it?" she axed without wanting to find out.

"No-one could be more moderately happy than I about becoming a father", Adlai said. "You must be aware of how much I love little Rosa." He paused. "But, as I'm sure you have noticed..." he smiled with effort, "she's inherited your former... quirk."

And there it was. Adlai was too considerate to say "deformity", but if he had, it wouldn't have hurt as much.

"Well, is that a surprise?" She hadn't meant to sound so sharp. It had to be the delayed stress. "You're the doctor here. You just changed my face, not my genes."

Adlai nodded, only enough for the shadows on his face to shift.

"Then what did you expect?" Her voice softened again, but only because she forced it. "When we decided to have a child... you must have been aware that there was a chance this would happen."

She went back to the swordfish.

"I was aware", Adlai replied after a sigh. "That is why I mean to make this suggestion..."

"What?" But her brain was working too quickly. "No. No, I don't..."

"I can give her the same surgical treatment as I gave you." He was talking like an upmarket used-car salesrobot, being convincing. "In fact, the operation will be even easier on such a young child, since her cranium hasn't finished developing. I will give her a paraffin eye, like yours... she'll grow up to be such a normal, down-to-earth good-looking girl..."

"No." He only noticed it by the time he had finished.

"No?" When she turned around, his eyes were blanks, screens with nothing behind them. "Why not? Like I said, it's easy, you know it won't hurt a bit..."

Leela forced herself to laugh, in case that might soften things up. Her laugh didn't sound like it would. "I can't believe you want to perform unnecessary surgery on a baby, Adlai. She's not even a week old."

"It's a hundred percent safe... it won't hurt her."

"It won't help her either!" Leela snapped. Then, because Adlai still looked oblivious: "She's completely healthy. She's not handicapped by it." Just talking about her made her want to run into the bedroom and check on her. "She's got no business in an operation theatre."

Adlai sagged.

"She's not normal, though." He almost whispered it.

"No, she's not. And?" Leela had to turn back to the chopping board and scrape out the remaining fish entrails, until she could breathe again. "Don't you think your norm is a bit rigid? Some people would say one eye is enough."

"I wouldn't expect you to say that, Leela." He was smiling.

It was the first time she could remember his face and his voice making her sick. She could keep reasoning with him, but frankly, how did he deserve it?

"This is my last word", she said and sounded calmer than she felt. "I'm not allowing it, Adlai. You are not going to perform beauty surgery on an infant. Not while we share custody of her."

Adlai opened his mouth, but the evening had darkened before he spoke again.

"Fine." She hadn't noticed how tense she had been. "You have a point... it's not for us to decide, at this stage. But when she gets older... if she wants the operation then, will you still refuse to let her have it?"

"Of course not!" (She was going to ax herself later: had he known that she would fold so easily after that?) "When she's... maybe ten years old. Or six. Let's say six." Time for her to give a bit, as well.

Adlai nodded and stretched. "Makes sense, I guess", he said, in reply to nothing in particular. "We'll let Rosa decide. It is her problem, after all." He smiled at her, his normal smile, almost mischievous now. "I let you win this argument, Leela. That means you owe me one. Well, I'll be in the living-room reading The Necronomist..."

Leela sloshed the bones and entrails into the garbage and went to the bedroom. She was barely inside when Rosa started wailing. She must have stomped. She had promised she wouldn't stomp.

"I'm sorry, Rosa, I didn't want to wake you up... daddy just said something that made me angry. I got so angry..."

She heard Adlai's firm footsteps in the hallway, and then they were both trying to soothe her with lullabies and comforting little noises. When she finally stopped crying, Leela put her back in the crib, wide-eyed and soft. Over her hung a silver gyroscope. Leela gave it a nudge, and watched Rosa's pupil follow it as it spun.

It wasn't until they went to bed that she remembered why she had thought of six, of all ages. That was when she'd been tall enough to reach the stained mirror in the Orphanarium bathroom, and see what it was that everyone pointed at.

The pristine house bustled and filled up with discount Nihilanth baby products and the smell of grilled swordfish as their respective friends filed in to see Rosa. Leela had invited the Planet Express employees and her former colleagues from cryogenics, and they brightened things until she could see where the darkness was.

Terry, wild-eyed as ever, rushed up to Rosa's crib, scaring her nearly to tears with the flap of his lab coat. He cried:

"Welcome! To the world of tomorrow!"

"Quite a nice model", Bender said, jolting back when Rosa tried to grab the embers of his cigar.

Bender seemed to have a soft spot for children nowadays, and not just in case their parents could pay ransom. Fry told her he'd had to let his adopted children go shortly after she became pregnant... and shortly before she had Rosa. Thinking about it hurt her brain. She saw Fry hold the baby up at face height and bury his face in her blanket. She hadn't seen him so happy in a long time, a happiness almost indistinguishable from sadness.

"You almost dropped her, Fry", Amy said, taking Rosa from him and tickling her stomach.

Amy Wong had been promoted to deputy captain for the duration of Leela's maternity leave, being the only other employee who could fly the ship without crashing it into giant TV screens. Leela wasn't sure it was a good idea, but she didn't want to spoil this moment. They sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and eating deep-fried sea gherkins that Ipgee had brought. Today Leela's friends let Adlai sit next to her and their daughter so they could congratulate him and joke and bask.

Then, later that afternoon, Adlai's friends came around. They were a quiet set of people who reminded her of an army detail that had gone undercover but still thought in lockstep, even if they managed not to move in it. They were physicians, lawyers and heads of corporations, each of them the kind of person whose number you'd be happy to have. They had confidence-inspiring middle-class names and dressed in olive and grey. Some of the looks they gave her made Leela forget that she had a new face.

"Well, aren't we enjoying ourselves wholesomely?" said a woman whom Adlai had presented as Elaine, junior executive of one of Momcorp's New Jersey subdivisions, exactly half a minute after entering. "Can we have a look at your nice, normal daughter, Adlai?"

"I'm positive she is fully adequate", mused Pat, the Taco Bellevue's genetechnician.

For the first time, the lighting got a headache-inducing glare. Adlai's friends gathered around the crib, obscuring it. Not one of them made a move to touch the baby.

"She's growing hair a bit early", Elaine said. Her voice had the smoothness of a critic pointing out a flaw in a work of art.

"She takes after her mother", Gabriel added. Was he some kind of jurist?

"Babies are cute", shoulder-padded Wynndie from the Rachel & Leah Institute said at last, with what sounded like a mental exertion. "That's normal."

The circle broke. Leela felt new oxygen rush to her head. She should probably be concealing it.

"How about we withdraw to the living-room for some coffee and a game of Virtua Cribbage?" Adlai said, spreading his arms to them. "A friend of Leela's left some deep-fried..."

"Oh, thank you very much, Adlai", Gabriel returned, as heartily. "I would love to stay, but I have to be off..."

"Duty calls, and so forth", chimed Declan, one of Adlai's surgeon colleagues. He was the one who had offered her a figure-restoring operation on the way out from the hospital. "Look forward to seeing you back at the hospital, friend."

"I've got to think of my own young children", Wynndie said. Something was hollowing out behind her tasteful eye-shadow. "I certainly don't want them to catch anything..."

Adlai tensed up. Leela shot him a glance with as much support as she could muster, but he sagged back almost immediately. This was up to her.

"Out", she said. She still felt weak. She had to repeat herself before they heard. "Out of my house, Mrs Wilson. And those of you who share her views can follow her."

Hats were taken. The robotic coat-hanger wove between them as subdued jackets and coats were grabbed.

"We've obviously outstayed our welcome." Wynndie's voice filtered up the stairway. "His fat girlfriend probably wants to relax in the bathtub with a lot of drugs and half-chewed bites of fruit. I must say, I always thought Adlai had better taste than that..."

She heard the click of their heels on the porch, then the swish of the door. Adlai grabbed her shoulder, as if she'd tottered. She hadn't, but the world felt a bit distant and small.

She looked up into his eyes and couldn't see anything except her own reflection.

"That was rather uncalled for, Leela. I can't say I disagree with you... but please, don't do that again."

She was silent, so he went on:

"It's just normal civility. That's all I ax."

"I see." Rosa was still asleep, only a step away, so the following words turned into a poisoned whisper: "And what she just said about our child? Is that it?"

Adlai leant forward and hugged her. She was not in the mood for returning it and not strong enough to back away.

"My..." He broke himself off and started again. "Most of those people are my friends in name only. I rarely even see them nowadays..." A sudden dart of his eyes, and he stopped again. "You're right, Wynndie acted a bit abnormal there... and the others weren't much better. But you've got to keep up the pretences, haven't you? At the very least?"

He pulled Rosa's mini-quilt up. It was supposed to have holographic images of strawberries on it, but Leela just got a headache trying to see them.

"You realise that this isn't the last time, don't you?" he went on. "Rosa didn't choose the way she looks..." He still couldn't say it. "But people will still hurt her, the way they used to hurt you. I don't want that, Leela."

She blinked at him. He had used to trip her up, on the scratchy gravel of the playground. For a moment that was hard to forget.

"Don't mention it again."

Adlai laughed miserably. The handsome bully was gone, replaced with her handsome boyfriend.

"I wasn't going to. No... that's precisely what Wynndie would want me to do." He put his arm around her neck and gave her a soft kiss. "Why don't you go and make the robot make you a cup of tea? I'll see if I can upload some more Eminem tracks to her mood music thingy..."

Out in the average cork-matted hallway, Leela turned around and saw Adlai standing over the crib, shoulders hunched. He had forgotten the silvery mp3-player for a moment. The light was still on him as he looked down at his daughter.

The next couple of days passed, yes, normally: Leela staying at home with Rosa, changing her diapers when their self-cleaning layers ran out, feeding her; Adlai improving the lives of the gruesomely disfigured. There should have been a warning. When the terror came, it didn't seem to follow or prefigure anything.

Leela was yanked out of flickering dreams by a sound far worse than any nightmare:

Well I'm Slim Shady, yes I'm the real Shady, all you other Slim Shadies are just imitating

Rosa must have yanked the headset cord out of the player in her sleep, and now the intelligence-raising classical music was gently rapping, rapping at the doors of perception...

So won't the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up?

Leela strode over to the crib and plugged the cord back in. The pale light from the street pooled under the window. Adlai's side of the bed was empty... but now that she listened, she could hear the toilet flushing. What had she expected? That he'd eloped with Wynndie? She sniggered at herself and crept back into the warmth of the bed that was so much softer than the one back in her apartment. She tried to soothe her nerves by listening to Rosa's breaths, short and wheezy like those of a little animal.

The window wobbled, then shattered.

By the time the shards tinkled onto the floor, Leela had emerged out of the bedclothes and landed already in a defence position, the draft stabbing through her nightdress. A dark shape stood outlined against the less dark sky. A gloved hand swept teeth of glass out of the frame; the other clutched something that glistened.

"Just stay where you are, girl. I have a gun."

Leela rolled under the first ray, so close she felt the chemical stench when it burnt the air. When the burglar squeezed the trigger again, she kicked the gun out of his hand, and the ray ricocheted off the shelf, two feet from Rosa's head. That distracted her, but not enough. Her bare foot contacted cloth, a mask, and sent him flying off the façade.

Leela grabbed her daughter out of the crib. Rosa started screaming, but even through her screams Leela heard: voices that weren't Adlai's, the slam of a door, footsteps too close for outside. She skidded across the hallway in chaotic darkness, but she had to know the house well enough. She found a door, pulled it shut behind her and locked it. The air that engulfed her smelt of wallpaper paste and Torgo's Executive Powder. It was all right. This must be the room across from the stairway, the one that was meant to become Rosa's room when she got older. It was all right. Her fingers found the old-fashioned manual light-switch, but didn't flick it. The moon was shining through the uncurtained window. Since it was full, it had advertisements projected on it. This month it was the Martian Anti-Occupationists' turn.

"Co-ee? Miss Leela?" It was a woman's voice, maybe familiar. It was far off in the corridor, still, but she heard doors opening increasingly closer. Rosa chewed a little, but she had stopped screaming. Perhaps the smells of the room had calmed her, or perhaps she understood that it would be bad. "We know you're there. We'll get to you eventually."

Apart from heaps of soft gifts from the party, the girl's room was bare. No phone, no nothing. Her wrist-jackometer was lying on the nightstand in the master bedroom. She could almost see it. Damn! Nibbler would be of use in a fight, but he was asleep in his box under the stairs, and he was a heavy sleeper. There was the window, of course. She might have been able to climb down one storey of house once, but not carrying her baby, not by moonlight and in this tubby new body. Besides, there were at least two of them inside. How many more in the garden?

Where the hell was Adlai?

In the grey strip of light, she saw Rosa's mouth widen to a square hole, almost the size of her eye. Leela felt her hands clench around her, but she forced them to soften. She huddled up and whispered a lullaby in her ear: "Quong vaj Ocht". "Sleep, little warrior."

The mouth closed, and she could hear above her heartbeats.

There were voices down the corridor, but she couldn't make out the words until the woman spoke up again:

"If you come out now, we promise we won't hurt your man."

It took as long as it took her to unlock the door, with fingers so sweaty the sensors had trouble registering them. The light was on. Four dark-cowled figures surrounded her as soon as she stepped through the door, and there were a couple more thronging up the stairway. She saw at least two guns.

"Don't attack!" she yelled, holding up Rosa to their sight, even though they could have heard her a mile away. "I'm holding a child!"

One of the thugs laughed, not a particularly unpleasant laugh, as if only he got the joke. No-one made a move to hurt her, or anything else.

"Where is Adlai?" she growled when anger injected her with strength.

"Don't worry", the woman said, her voice raised only to be heard over Rosa's yells. "Your man is safer than he deserves to be. He won't interrupt our little agreement."

That voice... or perhaps it was just her choice of words.

"Wynndie?" Leela had to gulp for air. "Let me guess, the rest of you are Adlai's worthless, successful friends, aren't you?" It didn't matter which faces they hid. "Adlai told me to be civil to you, so if you've hurt him, I promise I'll only break one of your..."

"Our names are immaterial", one of the men interrupted. It sounded like Franklin, headmaster of the St. Seiya School for Middle-Class Boys. "But yes, we count ourselves as Adlai's friends, and we're doing him a service."

"Now give us the child", Wynndie continued. The phaser sight of her gun moved across Leela's torso, almost tangible. Rosa stopped screaming to reach for it. "We won't harm her."

"What will you do with her?" She didn't know how she managed not to shriek.

"She'll be treated perfectly acceptably", Wynndie explained, in a soothing voice to those hard of understanding. "Firstly, we will cleanse her of her deformity, naturally. She will be put in a foster home and raised normally until she is old enough to move out. She will have to be sterilised, of course, but apart from that, there will be nothing stopping her from leading a completely normal life."

"Why do you think I would do such a thing?" Leela axed. Her arms that held Rosa felt like brittle stone. They were immobile.

"Because if you don't, she and you will both die."

Then this was it. Leela had faced death many times on various missions, too many times for someone still in her twenties, and some of those had been close calls. She'd liked to think that when the time came, she'd go proudly and somewhat flippantly, like it wasn't much worse than taking out the trash, ideally giving Fry and Bender time to escape.

Not now. She'd known it all along: when she had Rosa, she couldn't fight.

The floor felt sticky under the ball of her foot as she took the one step forward.

"Now wait a little..."

The voice, too familiar but she mustn't think, echoed at the bottom of the stairs. Leela had nowhere to put Rosa down, but it didn't matter. Right now, the safest place in the universe was probably in her arms.

Whatever the thugs were, professional fighters they weren't. All eyes and guns slipped from Leela while they peered down into the shadows, and that was all she needed in order to deal Wynndie a crumbling kick to the gut. She punched the other woman over the balustrade.

"It's Adlai!" one of them yelled, and she saw guns sink. By the time Franklin turned back to her, she already had one.

"Leela?" she heard the pale voice again. He looked so small in his pale blue-striped pyjamas. There were still three of them standing. "Leela... you shouldn't have endangered... Don't do anything, Leela!”

"Adlai", Leela said and couldn't hear any emotion. "Your friend. Are you going to kill him now?"

The others turned around to face her. She was sure they were smiling under their cowls.

"He told you to stop fighting", one said. The little glow in the phaser sight was holding both her pupils. "Didn't you hear? None of us seriously thought that Adlai would try..."

His voice trebled into a squeal, and he collapsed on the landing, clutching his leg. Adlai ascended the last few steps. The shadows made him bigger.

"I keep this gun downstairs in case of burglary", he made conversation while he stepped over the wounded man. "Now, I see there are three of you standing..." His gaze moved from one of them to the other. "... and I have... twenty power-cells left. I could ax whether you feel lucky, but really, I don't see much of a point."

"You used to sympathise with us, Adlai", Franklin wheezed. "We thought you would see sense, once we showed you the errors of your ways."

"I've seen them." Something in his voice was too tired for an action hero line. "Leela? Is Rosa all right?"

"She was scared."

She looked up again, and what did he see, in the eye that wasn't working?

A few capacious minutes later, Rosa was back in bed and the attackers were disarmed and unmasked. Except for Wynndie, Gabriel and Franklin, Leela didn't recognise anyone, but the others were printed from the same template: impeccably human DNA, beautifully average faces between their early thirties and middle age, stylish hair, suit collars visible when their hoods came down.

"A few wounded", Adlai said, leaning on the balustrade. "No-one dead, though I'm none too sure about the one who fell from the second floor. Well, Leela, give the police a call."

"Not the police", Gabriel pleaded. "If we go to court, it will be a scandal. All of us here are pillars of the community."

"Let it crash in, then", Leela mumbled, but made sure it was loud enough for them to hear. "Is this what you call normal behaviour?"

She had a cut on the sole of her foot, from the splintered glass, it had to be. She hadn't felt it until now. Her fingers slid on the wrist-jackometer buttons as she dialled.

"Quite normal mob behaviour", Wynndie replied. She sounded like she thought that reasoning with them would work. "Most animal behaviour in the face of a threat to the larger organism of the group..."

Leela's untied hair whipped in her face as she turned.

"How can you call that normal?"

"But she's right, Leela", Adlai said. His voice sounded faint. "Make that call, please."

"How noble of you, Adlai", Gabriel said. Leela had to look at him when he talked. "And of course you realise that our trial will implicate you?"

"Lie all you like", Adlai said, placing all the words like Virtua Cribbage pins. "It will be my word against yours."

"No matter", Wynndie butted in. "We honestly thought you would see sense. Evidently we were wrong. And quite frankly, Adlai, you have been punished enough."

Leela leant forward and punched her, harder than you were probably allowed to hit a prisoner. She had wanted to since the party. She would keep telling herself that.

Wynndie blinked. It was Gabriel who spoke:

"We are not alone, you know. Someone else will deal with your daughter. They might not show as much consideration as we tried to."

"Call the police, Leela", Adlai said, his voice etching the words in her brain. "Call them..." Gabriel's protest cut him off, "... or in case you don't want that, I have a better alternative." He indicated Leela. "I'll leave you alone with her for a few hours."

Leela didn't know what her face had looked like, but ten minutes later, she saw the police drive off while she sprayed on a new pane of glass. She flung herself onto the bed and just wanted to sleep, and didn't want to sleep because that would mean taking her eye off Rosa. She had suggested letting her sleep in the bed between them, but Adlai worried that one of them might roll over and hurt her. Instead, she'd hovered the crib right up to her side of the bed, within reach.

"Leela, there's something we need to talk about", Adlai said, turning his nightlight to Dim.

"We can talk about this tomorrow." Only now did she realise how sleepy her voice sounded. "Now we need to get sleep."

"No, Leela." He sounded close to tears, like only once before. "Right now, when I came up the stairway and saw your face... You were beating up Wynndie, not that I mind that... but I saw the look on your face when you noticed me. You looked shocked."

Leela opened her mouth and broke down in a giggle. The fatigue had hit her like wine.

"Well, wouldn't anyone? In that situation?" It sounded realistic enough to her. What he said just brought up something she'd forgotten almost before she noticed it.

"You didn't think I would try to save you."

Leela felt her eyes widen.

"What are you saying?" Good thing Rosa was wearing the headset, or she would have woken up. "For all I knew, they could have... killed you, locked you up somewhere..."

"No." His normal, normal voice had a new tinge to it, but a tinge of what? "I know your face, Leela. I made it myself. You thought I would just stand there and let them take Rosa from you... if I hadn't even axed them to, which you could also believe. Please don't lie to me, Leela."

She was shaking with all the things she was holding back. "Well, why wouldn't I?" Wrong thing to say. She glanced around the shadows of the bedroom as if there were words there. "They didn't want to hurt you... Adlai... they said they were your friends?" Another memory forced its way to the front, and it had sharp edges. "Is it true that... Gabriel said that you..."

"It was in my youth. Mistakes were made." She knew that was the last she would hear of that.

"Well, Adlai... if I ever doubted you, I'm sorry. I was stupid."

"I love my daughter."

Adlai cut her off in mid-yawn. His voice was almost broken.

"I don't... I don't care whether she's normal or not, but I will do anything to make sure this never happens again. Can't you believe me, Leela?" His hand was fever hot around hers. "I promise."

Nothing more shattered that night, but Leela woke up a few times and looked over the side of the crib for Rosa. She didn't know if Adlai did as well.

A few more days passed, and Leela celebrated Rosa's second week. Quietly in her head, because Adlai thought celebrating too often was silly. She would miss those little milestones when the big ones overtook them.

It was a cloud-studded day with the tang of rain in the air, and Leela had left the perfect home and gone for a walk. The last few days had involved witnessing against Wynndie and her people, watching footage of the displaced children, changing Rosa in the courthouse unisex toilet. She never went to court without Rosa. Adlai said she could trust the robot maid – heck, her friends would probably have jumped in to babysit if she'd axed them. It was only the last couple of days that she'd stopped feeling that Rosa wasn't safe if she wasn't looking at her. Even the sleek Adlai had started stumbling into bed. She probably even needed to get away from Rosa, only for a moment. Her emotions needed to rest and order themselves.

Familiar streets grew around her. Her feet took her to the Planet Express building without consulting her brain.

Seeing her friends again was perhaps not quite as great as she must have been hoping. They cooed when she told them how Rosa made little singing noises when she was fed, and growled about the attack on the house, and in turn they told her about adventures. Now and then, she caught a glance as if they – not disliked her in any way, but didn't recognise her. Particularly from Fry, that look hurt.

Amy was doing well as captain, and that was something else Leela hadn't expected. She had a new hairstyle, sleeker, and had taken to wearing boots that could crush gravel with the best of Leela's. Seeing her stomping around the hangar, laying into the malfunctioning hover-dolly with a wrench, Leela got a feeling of what it might be like in fifteen years with Rosa.

She ended up in Hermes' office, checking the files for accidents during Amy's deputy captaincy.

"You look like a nervous wreck", Hermes said, amiable as ever. "What's de matter with you?"

"I wish I could say, Hermes..." Her gaze fell on a photo standing at an impeccable angle on his desk. "You have a son... Dwight, isn't it?"

"No, dat is my wife", Hermes said, pointing. "Dat is my son Dwight. He's a likely boy, obnoxious and self-serving. He'll make an excellent Bureaucrat one day."

Leela squinted at the dreadlocked teen on the photo. There was some harmony in Hermes' voice that she recognised.

"When you had Dwight..." It hitched in her throat. "Did you feel like... like the world was too evil for him and needed to be fixed? Like you were the only thing there to protect..." When she blinked, she still saw the glare of the phaser sight. Her eyes watered.

"So I did, actually", Hermes replied. "But I got over such dangerous delusions in time."

She would have stayed longer, and Fry even axed her to go with them to O'Zorgnax's for lunch, but she'd left Rosa for too long. When she headed for the door, she caught her toe on the edge of the rug and was close to banging her head on the doorknob.

"Are you OK, Leela?" Fry helped her up. "You aren't sick, are you?" It was like she'd never stopped being pregnant to him.

"It's the lack of sleep", Leela mumbled. "But I didn't see..."

"No wonder, that." The Professor leant forward, creaking slightly, and shone her in the eyes with a small lamp as bright as a neutron star. While Leela blinked, he explained: "The surgery made your seeing eye a lot smaller. They had to cut off many visual nerves. Ironically, your sight now is only 87% of what it was when you had one eye."

"Aww", Amy said. "I thought she'd decided to be the clumsy cute one, now I'm the bossy captain..."

Leela blinked again. She couldn't remember Adlai saying anything about that. Surely it wasn't his job to make anyone less healthy? Didn't the Hippocratic Oath say something about that? Perhaps she should stop by the Taco Bellevue and have a talk with Hippocrates the head doctor.

"Oh, Leela!" Fry called when she opened the front door. "I totally forgot... I want to give you this."

He pressed a lumpy cloth item into her palm. Leela squinted at it. It was a rag-doll, obviously made by Fry, which meant a vase-shape in a baggy pink dress. Its hair was a tangle of purple yarn, and it had one googly eye.

"For your baby", he went on. "Because little girls like playing with dolls, right, and we had a lot of velour left from when we foiled a conspiracy in the DOOP last Tuesday. I wanted to put peas in it, like a Beanie Baby, but Amy says they're endangered, so I put in some Brussels sprouts and..."

"Thank you, Fry", she said. She smiled, but it didn't come easy now. "It's beautiful! Rosa will love it."

She almost got run over when crossing the road, because she was staring at the doll and trying to stop her eyes leaking. She was lucky to have a friend like Fry. Sometimes, if only Adlai could be a bit more like him... stop there. But the doll was adorable, in its heartbreaking lack of skill, rather like Fry himself. Rosa would be happy to have a doll that looked like mommy.

She stopped, in the middle of the street. A driver cursed and barely managed to swerve over her.

It didn't look like mommy, did it? The purple-haired reflection in the display window across looked just like any human woman. Something let go inside her, and she dropped the doll and had to bend over and pick it up.

It wasn't like Rosa cared, after all. Didn't she love mommy, and daddy, anyway? And if you're the first thing an ostrich chick sees when it's hatched, it will think you're its mother. That doesn't make you an ostrich.

Maybe Rosa already thought, in her pink half-formed mind, that she looked like mom and dad. Maybe it would take until she was six and looked in a mirror for the first time...

The white façade rose above the hedges and saved Leela from the thoughts. She sprinted the last bit, and clutched the doll as the smooth oak doors slid open. That little bit of exercise made her heart beat painfully.

The house was silent. That didn't ought to have worried her. Rosa was asleep, that was all. But since the birth of that innocent child, nightmares had grown hedges across the world. Leela felt like shouting and waking her up.

Adlai was just coming down the stairs, and smiled when he spotted her. He was wearing his work clothes, she registered.

"I'm glad you came, I was about to go out", he said. Then his eyes went to the doll. "Oh... Leela, there's something I have to tell you."

She didn't even need the tone of his voice to know.

"It's Rosa, isn't it?" The doll fell out of her hand again, and this time she wasn't strong enough. "Is it Rosa? What's happened? Is she ill? Is..." Worse thoughts: "Have they...?"

Adlai stepped up and grabbed her wrist. It felt like he wanted to steady himself as much as her.

"Don't worry, Leela." His smile softened. "Nothing's wrong with her. She's all right. She's perfectly safe."

Those words were wrong.

"She's not here, is she?" She didn't bother to control her voice any more. "Where did you take her? ROSA!" The house shouldn't have been so empty. It made her voice echo. "ROSA!"

"I told you she's safe." Adlai put his arms around her, and Leela let him, because otherwise she would kick him. "Will you please listen to me? I left her to be cared for. It's OK... the people who care for her will treat her normally. We might even go and check on her sometime. The important thing is, she's safe..."

"Where is she?"

He finally let her go, or she would have stopped breathing so she wouldn't have to smell his aftershave lotion.

"I can't really tell you, can I?" Adlai spread his hands and made a pathetic little laughing noise. "That would defeat the object. You'd be off to find her before I could say 'eye'." His voice wheedled down. "I'm sure you can see why this had to happen. You're a sensible woman..."

"No, I can't!" She backed away through the hallway, until he was just a pink and white blur. "I really can't see the logic in... in putting our daughter on someone's doorstep." Her voice must have understood, it sounded very clear, but her brain was still working it through.

Adlai sighed. "Do you remember what happened that night?" Did he think she'd forgotten? "There are some... people out there... and as my daughter, she would be doubly exposed. I won't have that on my conscience, Leela. Better that she gets to grow up in anonymity. She'll be safe, and she'll learn to deal with..."

It made sense. Everything Adlai said always made perfect sense.

"But she had us!" Leela heard herself plead. "We protected her! You protected her!" If she closed her eyes, she could still see him hesitate in the stairway, as if time had never moved on. "How can you leave your own child?" Her eyes widened. "She is your child, isn't she?"

Adlai inclined his head. "I must say", he began. He cleared his throat. "I must say, I find it very hard to look at an... abnormal infant and think of it as my flesh and blood. I'm not abnormal."

If she managed to refrain from punching him, it was for Rosa's sake. Not for his, not any more.

"I'm going to her", Leela said as the front door slid open. The wind slapped her in the face and muffled his voice. "And once I have Rosa back, I'm getting Nibbler and my stuff. You don't deserve her."

It started raining as she jogged down the sidewalk. Not a dramatic, lashing rain, just a stodgy drizzle, as if whoever controlled the weather was a kind of Adlai.

He hadn't wanted to tell her, but he had, just by being the man she knew. (Too well. Would she keep hearing that mild, sensible voice months from now?) He was average, and the average person has a place in their heart for pointless sentimentality. There was only one place he could have left Rosa.

She was going back to the Cookieville Orphanarium. Except it was the Bender B. Rodriguez Orphanarium now.

How much time had passed? She'd only been out for a couple of hours. Even if he had taken the car, it would have taken about twenty minutes to get there. Where was Rosa now? She must have been taken up from the doorstep, but on a day as chilly as this, she might have caught a cold. That meant the Infirmarium, ruled by the kindly iron fist of Dr Kadowaki. And Mr Vogel would be making a note in his ledger, and he was no idiot, he would recognise her distinguishing feature...

Leela stopped. Bending over, she could see her reflection in a puddle, crinkled hair hanging up through the mud. This wouldn't do. Rosa would be taken home by her real mother: not Leela the remade girlfriend of Adlai, but Turanga Leela, space captain and the last of the Cyclopes.

She'd come several blocks down the road, but when a taxi came the other direction, she hailed it.

"Taco Bellevue Hospital."

It was a long trip, and she suspected it would be longer on the way back, but there was no choice. She sat straight in her seat, shoulder blades aching, watching the colours of New New York distort in the long streaks of rain on the windows. The driver leered at her on the way out, and she didn't react. She was beautiful.

White corridors with agonising abstract paintings. Bland air-conditioning. The electronic snitch as the receptionist-bot put her credit card between the teeth of her artificial smile.

"My name is Turanga Leela and I need phaser surgery, it's urgent..."

There was dark white in front of her, densely textured. It seemed to take minutes for the strip of gauze to unroll, but by then, Leela had already noticed that she only had one eyelid to blink with.

She blinked again when the gauze fell away onto her shoulders. The world tilted like a film of water, and centralised. The shiny hospital ward. The gleam on an IV stand like a single slash of a knife. The unsmashable hand-mirror on the nightstand. The nurse standing at the door. The tall, handsome doctor.

"Good afternoon, Leela, honey", Adlai said. He touched the cuff-link buttons on his surgical gloves, making them dissolve into slips of aseptic mist. The nurse turned away and got very interested in the wainscoting. "I thought you would have been expecting this. After all, I am the leading surgeon in this field."

There were no words left. He got to read all the rest in her eye.

"By the way, the operation was successful", he went on, rubbing his palm on his coat. "Once again, you are... what I'm sure one would call a prime specimen of your kind." Disgust was naked in his eyes before he looked away. "This is how you looked at our reunion, remember?"

The memories flooded her until she wasn't sure she was sitting up straight.

"You", she began. "You, you gave her away! Why did you even bother having her? You couldn't change her, so you gave her away! Well, I'm going there right now, and then you'll never have to..."

"But first", Adlai interrupted. He smiled as if he wanted to make her feel better. "I've been wondering about you, Leela, the way you seemed so perfectly human, apart from..." His gaze slid. "I took the liberty... quite excusable, I think, under the circumstances... to take a tissue sample, and I nipped down to genetics while Pat was out for lunch." He took a folder from a chair and leafed through it. "Interesting. You will remember, Mr Vogel always told us you had to be the offspring of indigent alien nobility, but your DNA is in fact..."

"I'm going to the Orphanarium." She must have bitten her cheek or tongue. She could taste bloody iron. "I'm taking Rosa back. You don't..."

Adlai took a step towards her, but he didn't try to restrain her. He took a few closely printed papers out of the folder and handed them to her.

"When you are done, could you please give these back?"

The only things in the printouts that she understood were the numbers. Leela's eye felt haggard when she looked up at him. Her face was still masked from local anaesthetic. She didn't even have the relief of showing him what she felt.

"Why?" she managed. "So you can frame them and put them on the wall with your statistics collection?"

"No", Adlai said. Her eye swung towards the door. The nurse had left. "So I can mail it to Citihall and get you your slip."

"Slip?" She felt strong enough to stand. It was everything above her mouth that was distant.

Adlai bent over the papers. He spoke like she was another Rosa:

"As I assume you will remember, Mr Vogel always used to say that you had to be the child of indigent alien nobility, but your genetic profile says otherwise. You have a definitely human genome, but with some serious defects." She just wanted to listen to his voice, his soft voice that she'd used to love. A perfect manicure touched one of the columns. "This is the defective combination which causes cyclopia...”

“Cyclopia?” It felt like a dream, a dream where she was floating.

“... on the foetal stage, the head fails to develop properly, resulting in a failure of the brain and face to divide..."

"What does it mean?" She shouldn't have axed. Ignorance was her only hope now.

Adlai looked into her eye and flinched. He had never done that before. If she'd been able to inspire that fear, she would have done it back when he and the others bullied her on the razor wire-girt playground.

"Don't you see, Leela? You are a mute." With patience: "A mutant. A defective individual caused by faulty genetic material. Which, according to the Neuer Nuremberg racial laws, makes our cohabitation not legally binding. I didn't want to send the papers until you woke up, because once you get the slip that strips you of your human rights, you have only one hour to get to the sewers, after which..."

"Does anyone else know about this?" Leela heard herself ax.

Adlai jolted, only a fraction.

"No. I will never speak of this to anyone."

And she realised that he meant it.

"Rosa?" The anaesthetic helped. Her voice was dead, flawless. "Will you throw Rosa in the sewers, too?"

He blinked away a blank film. "No, I don't think..."

The IV stand was heavy, and Leela brought it down almost quicker than her own eye could see. It tilted back and stood oscillating as Adlai slammed into the floor. Because of what he had said, she didn't hit him again. With some difficulty, she rolled him over on his front so he wouldn't choke.

She found her clothes and wrist-jackometer and got dressed, without too much haste. In the first bathroom she came across, she shredded the papers as fine as her nails could stand and flushed the shreds. Down the sewers with them. The urinal cake emitted a burst of citrus. It wasn't symbolic of anything.

She hurried through the corridors and out through the vestibule. A couple of nurses stared at her, but they didn't stop her. It was just the deformity.

Adlai would have gotten rid of her tissue samples and wiped the files already; he didn't leave things lying around. He would probably call Citihall once he came to, but it would be his word against hers. And they were both normal, respectable people.

Except she wasn't. She was a mutant. If she kept thinking it, would it get through? Mr Vogel had used to tell her that her parents were all kinds of things... noble, brave, spiritual aliens. Not that she'd believed him, but what else was there?

Her shirt felt clammy, she wished she'd got a new one this morning. She'd cleared out all her things when she'd moved into his house, but she would have some spare tank tops and stretch-pants in her locker at Planet Express.

She stopped to scratch herself. It wasn't the shirt, was it? It was the skin underneath.

A mutant. A defective individual caused by faulty genetic material. No, she would have felt something. She hadn't felt dirty before those words. They had marked her.

The rain had stopped, and the sky was fading to purple in the east. It was a slow, chilly walk down the hill. A kid took a look at her, then screamed and tugged at his mother's coat. She crossed over to the other sidewalk.

She found a taxi, but when she told her destination, the driver squeaked:

"No way! I'm not driving you all the way out there! You're just going to eat me or rape me or something!"

There was no way she was walking first to Planet Express and then to the Orphanarium on the same night. Even on its own, it was going to be a longer walk than she wanted to think about. It was going to be dark before she got there, and she would feel ill when she saw those barred windows, the tetanus-inducing jungle gym... But come on! How could she think that? Her daughter was in there.

A defective individual caused by faulty genetic material.

No, not tonight. One night wouldn't hurt Rosa. Anyway, she was too young to remember. She was going to sleep at her apartment, and maybe show up in the morning to see her friends and tell them. They'd be happy to see her back with her normal... her old eye, particularly Fry. Oh Fry, why did she feel like she'd betrayed him?

And what will he say? When he realises you're not the beautiful, enigmatic last of your kind, just a mistake of nature that belongs in the sewers with the other refuse?

It was Adlai's voice. Adlai's handsome, handsome voice. If she'd had a pneumatic drill, she would have ripped it straight out of her head.

It was past rush hour. Hover-lampposts were flickering alight around her. Maybe she'd wait a couple of days before getting Rosa out. A few days to relax, and fix up a corner in the apartment for the girl, and scrub Adlai off her skin. Scrub it clean. How could it be clean?


What's with the eye?

One-eye! One-eye!

Cleanse her of her deformity...

You're better than normal, you're ABnormal...

One-eye! One-eye!

She couldn't walk fast enough to break out of their rhythm. She'd used to run and lock herself in the bathroom. Something smelt like rotting garbage, close, too close.

One-eye! One-eye!

Nice depth perception, One-eye!


One-eye! One-eye! Stupid as a French guy!

One-eye! One-eye!

"... get out of MY HEAD!"

She wasn't running any more. She was falling. Darkness grabbed her, but it was soft.

Leela shook her head. She must have passed out, for just a second. She remembered running down the street without looking, and then her foot hadn't connected with the asphalt. The world was clammy darkness, her sinuses had shut down, but there was a circle of brighter dusk above her, shattered by stars.

She'd read in one of Amy's issues of The Factoid Tabloid that people in the stupid ages had used to believe that if you were standing in a well, you could see stars above you, even in the daytime. In 2983, an experiment had busted that myth, and at the same time proved that the quack of a duck does echo, but... maybe there was a deeper truth to it, like a metaphor. There was the rot in the sewers, but if you looked up, there was the deadening purity of the galaxies. Mom. Dad.

She wasn't lying on the pavement or drowning slowly in the ooze. There was cloth around her, rough but warming. Before her eye got used to the dark, she walked her fingers over it and felt hemlines, a hooded cloak.

Two shadows stood outlined against the deeper shade. They weren't the ones from the nightmares. They reached into something older, like signs from a language she had forgotten.

"Thank you..."

Her voice was so weak she could barely make it out, but it made the figures start. They scurried out of the pool of vague light. The bigger one, still cowled and cloaked, kept behind the smaller as if to shield it. She kept expecting them to look back -she would have, to see what she was fleeing from- but they ran as if one look would trap them and send them back.

She crawled on hands and knees and found the slippery edge of the pavement. The sludge didn't reflect well; her mirror image was nothing more than a shadow.

Even the echoes of their footsteps faded.

"Well, thanks for saving my life!" she yelled. "Not that I know why you bothered! I'm just a filthy, ABNORMAL MUTANT!"

Her cry died away in many shades of echoes.

She stood up, supporting herself with one hand on the tacky masonry wall. She felt faint in a way she couldn't remember since the birthing, whether it was from the operation or the shock of the fall. Once she got out of here she would have time to feel awful. There had to be a ladder somewhere.

The echoes of footsteps returned, then stopped. She spun around, hands springing into the defence position, and saw their faces.

It was late, but Leonard Vogel had paperwork to catch up with. When he heard a grating metal sound outside the window, from a manhole cover being slotted onto the asphalt, say, he didn't look up. It was a bad neighbourhood.

He did have to get up when the doorbell rang.

When he raised his gaze from the doorstep, he looked into the face of a young woman. His eyes weren't as good as they'd used to be, but she was dirty and frazzled, and there were flushed trails down her cheeks. He recognised the strength in the straightness of her back. The purple hair and fist-sized eye just helped.

"Oh... Leela! Am I happy to see you! I didn't think we'd meet again until the 3026 reunion..."

"A girl called Rosa." She grabbed the stucco wall as she caught her breath. "Nonhuman female, black hair, one eye. She'll have been left here today... yesterday. I am going to adopt her. As per now."

"She is, but..."

For the first time in their lives, he couldn't meet her eye.

"I'm afraid our regulations don't allow single parents to adopt. I seem to recall little Adlai Atkins used to show some interest in you... and my acquaintance Gartor is looking for a green-card relationship..."

There was a foetid smell and the whisper of coarse cloth. Two other shapes had joined Leela on the drive, big with shadows.

"How about..." The one with the genial male voice produced a slip of paper with the Citihall seal just visible amid stains. "Name of Turanga Munda and Turanga Morris."

Leonard Vogel didn't have much experience of this kind of moment, but he smiled at Leela, and her smile exploded back at him.

He led them to the dormitories, quietly, and before he left to get the forms, he saw her bend over a crib and pick up a smaller piece of shadow. Rosa reached out a small hand for her mother's face. She wasn't old enough to laugh, but she didn't cry.