Fan Fiction

Son of the Ashes, Part 5
By Christina Nordlander

Chapter 5: A Phoenix from the Ashes

Fry squirmed in his bunk, trying to get into a comfortable position without feeling like he was getting squashed against the ceiling. He had been given a nice bed, soft and wide, as comfortable as you could ask, but even on board a gala cruiser there are some sub-standard standards in lodging. And he always disliked sleeping on board a spaceship, especially in a berth that was cramped high up on the wall like this. He didn't want to wake up and hit his head on the cold, glassy smooth metal.

He's my father. Lord Cyan Fyry. It's a palindrome or something. A play on words. Yancy Fry.

He closed his eyes compulsively, but it was no use. He had been given the bunk of an honoured guest, in Lord Cyan's... Dad's private apartments. Even with his eyes closed and his fingers in his ears, there was no defence against the smell. A faintly bitter shaving lotion, the same he had used between having his first downy facial hair and... the slamming of the door.

He can't be my father. It's a trap or something. He is a master of deception, that's what the mission breakdown said. He's trying to turn me against my friends... messing with my mind somehow. Well he ain't gonna do that!

But the angles of his hands. The nose, the eyes, the colour of the hair even if it had grayed a bit. The voice. That look... could anyone except his father have faked that look?

Who except my father would want me?

Fry's eyes were starting to get sticky with tears, so he flashed them open. He didn't like the cold, it nestled in his eyelashes, and then it wouldn't be long till he felt the cold seeping in like he was being haunted by a possessed freezer, but what he saw was little better. He had dimmed the light down, but not all the way, and walking through the spacious suite had been almost more than he could take.

There were photos pinned to the panelling on the walls and framed on tasteful credenza tables. Photos of his brother Yancy, and Mum. Of the guys up at Ft Mt. He was on a few of them, himself, and so was a broad-shouldered brown-haired man, smiling, actually happy. There were posters of the Old New York skyline, and a muggy photo of an army squad lining up in front of a lush river in some holiday paradise. They were 20th century photos, you could tell from the quality and the lack of retouched faces. None of them were quite as frightening as the frightening portrait.

It was not much smaller than the sliding doors, and sported a deep gilded frame supported on each side by a curtain-wearing lady with long tangly hair and eyes like an astigmatic Japanese glamrocker. Whoever had designed the frame and painted the picture had apparently heard of 20th century portraiture tradition, but only in a very summary way. Still, there was only so much you could do with orange-ish hair, a receding chin and somewhat uncoordinated eyes.

It looked a bit like Grandpa Enos.

The portrait disturbed Fry. There was a little fluorescent light on top of it, glaring down to the point that he could see the structure of the canvas, and the colours were hideously off. Was his hair really that orange? Almost candy pink. And he had a stupid, stilted pose, arms stretched out a bit on either side like he was about to be levered into the air with chains...

He had come around to the interrogation chamber, only to see his friends hanging from the chains, panting with the effort to breathe. Well, all except Bender, who was lounging on the floor, arms hanging leisurely like stretched Slinkies from their manacles. None of them looked at him. In fact, they were too busy gracing the wall with their looks.

"Release them", he said to the pasty-faced young man... the one who had been leering at Leela.

Private Ambie, or whatever was his name, snapped off a salute and flicked a lever on the wall. With a rosary sort of noise, the chains slacked, dumping the prisoners not unkindly on the metal plate. Fry was delighted to see that before they were pulled back to the ceiling, the metal claws tenderly massaged the prisoners' shoulders. The guards cocked their guns.

Bender yawned and scrolled up his eye visor.

"Hey look! It's corpsicle boy!" Bender very, very seldom used a nice tone of voice. He sure didn't now.

"Aw, cut him some mercy, Bender!" Amy said. She then lopped towards Fry, clawing the air at face height as two guards grabbed her. "How dare you leave us here as prisoners while you strut around the ship like you're no commoner at all, you little..."

"Amy." Leela was smart enough not to jump the gun. She sat back in her corner, calm as ever. Fry tried not to look at her. Her tousled hair was hanging forward, covering her face, but her voice was bleaker than it ought to be. "It's true, isn't it? That man... he's your father."

"That's 'Lord Cyan' to you, blue-eye", the pasty-faced Private sneered.

Fry heard himself growl at him, and amazing, he shut up. It was a small bit of comfort.

"I would recognise him anywhere", he said. His voice was trembling a little, and he wiped his face with the threadbare jacket sleeve... it must have been the stress, his eyes were burning. The Cracktroopers seemed to regard him as a minor demi-god or whatever. Maybe they would go away if he told them to. Maybe they would release his friends and the DOOP officers. Maybe. Maybe he'd be better off not pushing his luck. "He is my father."

Amy was flung across the room, smashing against the wall. Fry winced.

"If you've hurt her, I'll have to bring it up with my father!" he hissed.

The Private gave him a skewed look.

"Rather good, that", he said cryptically. "But it needs some work."

Leela shook her hair out somewhat. He could see her eye now, but he imagined that all the purple around it would be like a tunnel. She was looking at him like she didn't want to see her friends or the guards.

"You thought he'd been dead for almost a thousand years, didn't you?" she wondered, sounding pensive. They'd obviously had plenty of time to think. "Still... you never told us about your father."

Fry squirmed and looked at the floor. Worry was rising strong in his stomach.

"We weren't on the best of terms when I... when I. Sorry, men. I guess he still, well, cared about me deep down. But for a few years, I was so very angry..."

He wasn't going to fall asleep with that stupid portrait staring at him, so Fry got up, barely got his feet on the ladder, and padded over to it, shivering whenever he had to step on the metal floor. There was probably some kind of logic in it.

He -the portrait Fry, that is- was standing on what looked like a crossroads in a mountainscape. They were pine-furry mountains, rising behind him like wings and separating the light from the dark. On his left, which was the right of the real Fry, in the shadows, lured a bunch of demons and monsters. One of them had only one eye.

Aha. It was... symbolic or something?

To his right, the gold of the sun stretched into the milkshake swirl of the galaxy. There were ships, moving like surfers on a beach of gold sand, and a glorious eagle. There were crowds of people with upturned hands, standing around gorgeous palaces and saluting... saluting...

Fry, if he was to choose the right way, of course. And the shadows of the stars somehow, just somehow, shaped into the wise forgiving face of a grizzled, dark man, his hands cupping the scintillating world.

Dammit, but sometimes allegory could be so hard.

He returned to ogling the one-eyed succubus. He found it better than the alternative.

Leela was attempting to get some rest, against all common sense. The floor was so gruelling, she found it hard to believe it was not actually convex. The light was pure white and burnt her eye to the core. And, of course, she was less than comfortable with Private Dempsey's look. He seemed so... disinterested, in a lewd fashion.

There were three guards. There were four of them, but only Bender and she would be any use in unarmed combat, and Bender had declared his intention, in no uncertain terms, of siding with the Empire if they were actually going to give him a job as a cook or an executioner. Amy was vegetating, hunkering by a wall with her arms around her shoulders, rocking slightly. Hard to tell whether it was the feeling of helplessness or the fact that she was cooped up with males and not wearing brand clothing. And Zoidberg was starting to smell.

It was possible that she would try to break out soon anyway, if only to get a chance to wipe that impassive look off Private Dempsey's face.

They were beyond all hope of rescue. Nope, scratch that. Being beyond all hope of rescue would have been preferable, by a small margin. When you're at the bottom of a well, and even if it's a miles-deep terminal storage shunt, the only way to go is up. But oh no...

"Get out of my way! Son of the Dark Lord coming through!"

... they did have a hope, and it lay in the hands of him.

The aforementioned hands positioned a tureen on the floor, with a slight clank. Leela quickened, in spite of herself. The sight of Fry in a large apron, a pair of large oven mitts and a large smile almost

put her off, but the little wisps of scent from the plates were just lovely.

"The officers' dinner dragged on", he said, almost apologetically. "And they're talking about lots of things like politics, and freeing the galaxy from the pernicious influence of the DOOP, and about how Lord Cyan having an heir will manipulate the power balance... I brought you some snacks. Do they feed you guys at all?"

"They gave us sandwiches", Leela said, trying to retain a modicum of dignity. In fact, there had been L- M-B-S Crackers, the cheap kind made from timber by-products, and Private Dempsey had been dangling a bit of melon bread over the prisoners and forcing them to crawl and jump... she wanted to get the taste off her teeth.

Man, but Private Dempsey did suck! He wasn't saying much for the time being, mind you. He was tapping his foot in a supposedly aloof manner which made him look a bit of a nancy-boy, keeping his raygun in plain sight and watching Fry as though being the long-lost son of a Dark Lord wasn't a patch on being one step up from toilet-cleaner. Leela half hoped that Lord Cyan would have a long-hard talk with him. Wait... she wasn't supporting Lord Cyan now, was she?

"And very good ones they were, too!" Dr Zoidberg exclaimed, ruining everything by patting his stomach.

"Well..." Fry pulled his oven mitts off with his teeth, watched them scarper off, and knelt down to arrange the little assiettes and jugs of food in more appetising arrangements. "What I've got here... pearl oysters, candied handlefish from planet Oceania II, cœur de filet Neptunien, unicorn jerky, peppered moth wings folded in interesting origami shapes, pickled Ganonean tusks, and a bottle of something that's either Lyh&Prrhins Table Sauce or human blood, I'm not quite sure."

Leela thanked him, trying not to sound unduly subservient, before handing Amy some of the delicacies and putting her teeth into a candied handlefish. It melted on her tongue. Amy briefly returned to the land of sentient life forms, as far as to ask for a napkin.

"Got any booze?" Bender groaned, taking a window scrape from his stomach compartment and scraping a thin film of rust from the lower edge of his head. "Because, ya'know, I haven't had any in a while, and I'm starting to get a bit, like, slightly sober..."

"Das Wahre Abbeizmittel", Fry said, smiling like a bad conjuror and pulling a little clear flagon from his tattered jacket. "I figured you'd want the hard stuff, so... here goes. It has to be mixed in a hundred times its volume of water before humans drink it. It has flakes of real gold in it." He glanced at the flagon as Bender upended it. "At least it did when I left the table. If you want wine, they've also got Château de Vinaigre 2803..."

"For shame!" Private Dempsey spat. Still reeling slightly from the sugar, Leela wondered distantly if he was referring to Fry's French pronunciation. "You, sir, are the son of Lord Cyan." She wished they would stop coming back to that. "We cannot stop you from feeding the prisoners, but we do not have to stand and watch you fawn to them like a common luxury waiter! Even to kick them would be below you!"

The two other guards inclined their helmets slightly. It was evident that Private Dempsey carried more influence than was morally right for such a guy.

"They are my friends", Fry said softly. She would have loved to think that his voice was dangerously low, the calm before the storm. Unfortunately, she knew Fry. This was the calm before the surrender.

"You might do well to stop pointing that out", one Cracktrooper said gruffly. "Let sleeping double loyalties lie, eh?"

Private Dempsey silenced him, then wrenched them a smile that said: the oaf is right, we all know that, but we civilized people can be a little more subtle about it, right?

He stepped up to the tureen and the rows of foodstuffs. Leela found herself staring at his white- enamelled jackboots... but her eye clamped shut at the tinkle of porcelain.

"Lick it up, if you want it", he smirked. (Eye still closed, but she was damn sure the twist on that voice was a smirk.) "Or go hungry. There'll be a pretty fine supper for you once we land on Scintillant, anyway." The first thing she saw was him glaring at Fry's poor blank expression. "As in, the last meal."

"Go ahead, execute them", Fry said. Leela found her breath hitching. "Execute them and see what my father does to you!"

It must have worked, because Dempsey gave it up for the time being. He grew against the horrible fluorescent lights as he came closer, dangling a misty folded moth wing between his bony fingers. "I saved this one for you, Leela. Eat it." If he took it any closer to her mouth, she would bite something.

"Cut it out!" Fry almost shrieked. The two others restrained him. For a moment, not much certainty about who was imprisoning whom. For a moment, the door was unguarded. "What did she ever do to you?"

The spicy moth wing shredded as Dempsey twisted his bootheel on it, then strode back to take up his post. Fry shrank back.

"Fry!" Leela called out. She couldn't help herself. Dammit, but she wanted him to show some backbone now...

"I'll be back later!" Fry called out, scarpering for it. His footsteps faded in the distant bright corridor.

Smacking the door shut, Private Dempsey went back to leaning against the wall, watching them with his frighteningly bright eyes. Slowly, because hunger can be tough sometimes, Leela turned to see if any of the food could be salvaged, but Dr Zoidberg was already there.

Fry looked at the artist's signature, but it was hardly legible, even in the best of light to the best of eyes. He did notice a caption on a tarnished brass plaque:


"Pi, er, otepon indeed?" he muttered, but it was rather rhetorical since he didn't understand the question.

He wasn't going to sleep at all tonight. Now and then, he could manage to stomp down memories between thick membranes in his head... maybe that was why everyone seemed to think he was a bit slow. That and the fact that his thoughts always went in every direction, like fireflies, and were all sparkly and weird. But he had spent the evening sitting at a shiny table watching Imperial officers and officials talking and drinking and talking. Most hadn't seemed particularly evil. Some had taken a lot of delight in the graphic detail of what they would do to the population of the planets who did not join them willingly. One, with his black enamel helmet tipped back, had seemed out of it. His eyes wandered everywhere, and he referred to the DOOP as "Russkies" half the time. If you want peace, prepare for war, he'd said. If you want war, you don't have to prepare anything.

He'd never got to ask...

The doors slid open for him as soon as he was mirrored in the photoelectric thingies. Into a deeply cluttered office, somehow familiar, not very threatening now, where Yancy was sitting by a very nice desk carved a bit like the frame of the portrait, writing something. He looked old when he hunched up, like he was some kind of allegory too.


"Yes, what..." He looked up. It was strange, it wasn't right... every time he saw him, the shock didn't seem to get any less shocking. So old. May he live a thousand years. "It's you. You know, Phil... I didn't wait for you so you would suck up to me." He had a strange accent... but not strange. It was the accent of a millennium past. It was like hearing yourself on a tape. "Call me Father."


Then Fry put his arms around him. How long ago? How long since they had touched even by mistake? It seemed like a thousand years.

After a few moments, Dad patted him on the back. They let go.

"I waited for you", he said. His voice was as composed as ever, but there was flickering moisture in his eyes. "A couple of years, it must have been... since first I heard the rumour that you were alive... thawed out. It was nothing but a rumour, but I swore that I would set eyes on my son Phil again, if I had to conquer the Earth for that purpose!" He laughed, somewhat hoarsely. Fry laughed with him... it must have been a joke. "In all likelihood, it was nothing but a rumour, but I lived as though it was true. The volunteers who joined with us were asked to give any kind of relevant information. Prisoners of war were thoroughly questioned, if they were from the Earth, if they had an ever so slight connection to Old New York. I found out your whereabouts, that way. And when I knew the names of your friends, it was an easy job, creating a decoy..." His hands, ungloved, clamped around a file. He sunk into some kind of... emptiness, like the words had kept him alive for a long time. Fry shook him by the shoulder.

"But I'm here now, Father!" he said, and was almost terrified to hear how his voice was breaking down. The world wobbled. "I'm back, sir... Father... and I'm not going to leave you again!"

No answer. Nothing at all for a long time.

"Er... Father?"

Dad lifted a haggard face.

"Don't ever leave me, Phil!" he almost shouted, and maybe he had heard, maybe not. "When I... when I woke up... in this world... this strange terrible hostile world... I thought I was alone!" He buried his face in his hands. Dad... no... Dad couldn't be weak, could he? Fry bit his lip until the world went back to straight lines. "I had lost my wife and my sons... so I thought. All my friends. New bedrock over the streets where I used to walk. Do you... do you know how it feels?"

His hands lay on the seal-encrusted files in front of him, balled up until they were trembling. Fry put his hand over them.

"Father", he said. "Tell me about it."

The night wore on while Fry talked about prank deliveries and party whistles and Löwenbräu and chips and eyes and the world of tomorrow. He had been expecting painful questions. "Are you in love with this one-eyed freak?" was one. So was: "One thousand twenty-five years old and still a delivery boy?" Or even: "What have I told you about drinking at work?" But Dad was just staring at him, not really emptily, more like he was seeing it all in one of those wobbly TV clip show thingies.

"... and then we were sent to your ship to rescue Captain Brannigan, but that creepy Lieutenant called our bluff. And then, well, you know what happened." The words were feeling a bit sour in his mouth. This would be a good time to bring up releasing his friends, actually. "Now... Father... if you don't want to go to bed or anything, can I ask..."

"I never sleep", Dad said. The human touch let go. "The bastards get you when you're asleep!" Fry couldn't stop laughing, and Dad glowered at him. "Remember, for all your sweet-talking, I have yet to ascertain whether you're league with them. What did you want to say?"

"Er... Father... how did you do it? Become a corpsicle, I mean?"


Didn't his own voice sound a bit weird? Like an immigrant from another country, he had lost his accent. Wait, did you spell "weird" with a Y?

"You know." He slouched in his chair, his body was very tired if nothing else, and Dad looked at him impassively. "Frozen. As in 'popsicle', except with a corpse."

"A pun, or a play on words?" Dad grunted and caught a paperweight as it was sliding down a precarious heap of paperwork. It was in the shape of a greenstone pine. "Oh well. It will pass the night, eh Phil?"

The world wobbled. Fry's eyes were about to give in...

"You disappeared", Dad said. His eyes had slipped far, far off. "The last person who saw you was your girlfriend, Michelle, who met you during your delivery as she went to keep her sick mother company. Mr Panucci couldn't tell where you'd gone. Nobody could. We found your doggy, whatsisface... Armin."


"Ah yes, Seymour." That face, still so strange, moved in a smile. "Spirited little scamp, he was. We thought he could lead us to you, but he kept barking up the wrong tree, metaphorically speaking... then he ran away." The smile faded. "Your brother got himself a job at Panucci's Pizza after you were gone. Then he met a nice girl and got married. He named his son after you, you know."

Fry swallowed, looking down. Something dripped on the floor. "I went to visit his grave, once. But... I never looked for yours."

Yancy half chuckled, not like he meant it. "Well, son, info-bombs away!" Sadness crept back into his voice. "When Yancy Jr. moved away and your mother was committed to the institute... not much more to say about my life, really. I was cast out of the Survivalist faction, like a dog. A dog!" But wrath didn't hold his face for long, either. "They said I was dangerously liberal and didn't give me their address when they moved somewhere. The bunker was deserted. Kremlin Joe moved uptown and got himself a luxury publishing workshop, I think. I... whiled my life away." His knuckles went livid around the scalloped edge of the desk. "I kept storing for the nuclear war. And every day, Philip, every day I went looking for you. I thought you were going to come back. You never were very successful on your own."

Like having those hands around your own heart. Fry whimpered. "Dad, I would have come... I swear... but I was... I was..." How can you put words on it? For all the world, he had been a frozen corpse.

"I ended up going to Fort Mount." He had twisted his chair around. No face to be seen. "I figured that since there were food rations and protection against the weather, maybe you were using it for a base. Ah, I tell a lie. Deep down inside, I guess I hoped you were going back there because you still cherished my memory, somehow." His one hand started to twitch, and he balled it into a fist and punched the desk hard. A paperback book slid off its pile of folders and thudded softly on the carpeting. "We had fallen out, but... some things you can never fall out of, right Phil? Your brother and his family came to visit me sometimes, every May. I still went to see your mother... she could hardly recognise me by then, but I loved her, Phil, I loved her like the day we first met. If I had lost you, I put the blame solely on myself. You were young... it's the privilege of the young to rebel against the old." He hunched up, like his shoulders were heavier than the rest of him. "I should have told you not to go."

"Please!" He would have taken the pain on himself to make it stop. "It wasn't your fault, Dad." I was weak and stupid. I failed you. Maybe it was mine.

"I put it off for a long time", Dad continued at last. "But once I'd got it in my head that you might be hiding in the bunker, it seemed the day's honest truth. I went up there... was it..." He counted on his fingers. "The year of 2006. Yes. Or was it '07? I didn't expect you to look the way you look... now." He managed a grin. "Still, I walked up that road, the same one as Sarge drove us... that one day... it was hard on me, you know." He put one hand to, supposedly, his heart. "God bless the medical profession in this decade. If I were still living in the twenty hundreds, I would be dead by now." He shook his head as though to clear his thoughts. "Once I got up there, my only thought was to sit down, but it was cold and muddy. Did I mention there was snow? I went into the bunker, calling your name, but it was in a worse state than ever. Whole chambers had collapsed, and one was crammed full of snow... the freeon from the freezers had leaked, the air was more freezing than above ground, I could hardly breathe. I had to get out again..."

Like he was mimicking climbing up the crampons in the chute, his hands locked on the desktop. His eyes fixed on something Fry would never be able to see.

"When I opened the trapdoor", he went on stonily, "I heard planes. War planes. I never saw the insignia... it was the Reds or the Nips or the towelheads, I don't care, I never stopped to ask. Then I saw the light. Phil... have you ever wondered what it would look like if the sky were on fire? If the sun had come trickling down the sides of the world? It hurt to look at. I thought I was dead, in that moment. I managed to run back to the trapdoor and jump the chute, only because I was convinced I was already dead. And when I ran through the chambers, I heard the rumble... it sounded like it would sound if this ship split around us!" He stomped the floor, and Fry jumped. "Only, this was the earth. Boulders tumbled down the chute... the concrete was cracking. I ended up cornered in the freezer room. There was snow all around me, suffocating me, and then I saw the light go out in the door and knew that the bunker was coming down."

He got up, almost dragging himself over to the wall, and turned up the thermostat. Fry murmured gratefully. It felt like there were icicles hanging in his stomach.

"There's little more to tell." Dad sighed. "I was trapped in there, in the rockslide and the ice. Nothing to breathe. Nothing to stop the cold. I blacked out and thought I was done for for sure. But I woke up... you know how you know for some reason that you've been sleeping, even if you haven't dreamt anything? So you've got to be able to sense time somehow? Well, I sensed a helluva lot of time when the light came back on. And there was warmth. I heard voices, strange voices, with a strange accent to them. I was lying on a table in some kind of a lab, naked like the day I was born. I thought the Reds had dug me out for interrogation, but then some guy walked up to me and told me welcome to the world of tomorrow. And they had rebuilt Old New York... it was New Old New York now. Like the bombs had never dropped. I saw flying cars and strange aircraft. Aliens and robots were walking on the streets. Everyone looking at me like I was a maniac."

He paused. "I suppose wanderlust is strong, even in this old soldier. When I heard the Earth Tourist Department made chartered cruises through the galaxy, I jumped on one. The archeologist who'd found me had given me a hefty sum to support myself on, on account of me being a valuable link to the past. I didn't use my real name, though... that might be why you could never have heard of me. After all, everyone I knew was dead, what was the point? I called myself Cyan Fyry. It had a nice ring to it." His hoarse voice was drawing to a close. "When we passed through these regions of the galaxy, Imperial troops hijacked the cruiser. They were hardly more than common ruffians back then, but they were led by a man with a plan. I liked them better than the society I had seen on Earth... they disturbed me less. When the Emperor found I had a military background, he made me an officer. I must have impressed him, for I rose in the ranks and ended up as supreme commander of the Spacey."


"Space Navy." He bent, briefly a shadow in his robes, to pick up the book. "Which brings us back to where we started. Only, now I've found you." One hand closed on Fry's ones, hard as though it was still wearing a gauntlet. "One era ended when I was frozen. A new era has started today. We shall be landing on Scintillant within a few hours, and then, son, you shall know what fate has more in store."

Fry managed to tear free and cover his mouth as he yawned.

"In that case, sir... Father... do you mind if I go back to bed? I think I need some sleep, after all."

"Certainly not." Some softness crept back into that voice as Yancy Fry got up and headed towards the sliding doors. "How do you like my room?"

"Quite nice, thank you. Father." He yawned again. "But the painting..."

"Ah." Dad stuck his head around the door. "I painted it myself, from a photo that was buried with me. The day I first heard that you were alive and working for Planet Express, I painted it, so I could look at it when the search felt too long and too hard. To tell myself that you would choose the right way."

"Which is the right way?"

Dad laughed somewhat. Had he ever seemed so untroubled? "See the caption on that plaque? It's Ancient Ancient Greek. Ποτερον? It means 'which?' Now, have yourself some rest, Fry." His smile at the door, the last thing before the light gave in. "Tomorrow is a big day."

Before Fry's eyelids closed for good -but ice and planes and nukes, oh my- he heard distant, slightly electronic music from the adjacent office. It was "I'm Walking On Sunshine".

"He shows affection to the prisoners, milord", Private Dempsey said, arm locked in a salute which was strangely devoid of any submission. "Especially the weirdo freak... Turanga Leela. Milord."

"So he should", Lord Cyan replied. He tried not to look straight at the boy. Even a Dark Lord had the right to feel creeped out. "According to my information, they are his friends."

"According to the information, milord, he is likely romantically attached to her."

"Duly noted", Lord Cyan said, but felt his blood go to his cheek. Curses, he had worn the mask of office for so long, he had forgotten how easily his face could betray him. "Did you come to my office for any reason other than to whine about the conduct of my son?"


"And what is all that about?" Lord Cyan said, somewhat milder, adopting a fatherly tone. It seemed to come a lot easier, lately. "You never used to call me 'milord' when we were out of earshot."

"Things change, milord", the Private said stonily. "Milord, I came here to ask indefinite leave of absence."

"Jealousy, Private?" He had to keep his smile under control.

Dempsey frowned. Sometimes, just sometimes, centuries of petty-minded wrath and lust for revenge twinkled under that face that had barely got out of its teens, like insects in amber.

"Matters of a woman, milord." The boy smiled, which did not help matters. "You know of whom I speak. And as usual, I will need an indefinite amount of time."

As Dempsey stomped off towards the hangar, Lord Cyan sat back and rested his helmet on his knees. He no longer heard the words of the song.

"Phil! Hands off everything, on socks!"

Fry squirmed against the dreams, getting his hands up in front of his face and feeling nothing but air.

"Philip J. Fry, I said for you to wake up!"

He swung his legs off the bed and crashed to the floor, and the future came back hard enough to hit him. Dad was standing in the door, robes billowing slightly in the air conditioning, but Fry's eyes wobbled like they were still frozen and turned to the painting.

"Are we already there, Father?"

"Not yet in half an hour", Dad said, almost giddily for him. "But you need to get yourself in order. And at any rate, I would like to show you something upon incoming."

The tattered clothes Fry had thrown on the chair last night had disappeared somehow, and been replaced with... ooh yes... a gala uniform. It was nicely eggshell-paint green, with more gold trimmings than a Christmas tree. Neither the Earth Army of Peace nor the DOOP had anything half as glitzy.

"No cap indoors", Dad said. Fry shook a bit of gold braiding off his ear.

A pair of jackboots were standing under the chair, so polished they looked like an oil slick. Fry touched them very carefully, in case their very existence would attract the wrong kind of women.

"And now, follow me to the main bridge."

Right on top of his heart was a badge of a very familiar, goldish winged thing, and there it was...

... with talons, one of them holding a bunch of sharp implements, wings spread against the sun of Scintillant, noble beaked head white like the white peak of a mountain.

Fry backed away from the huge stretches of iridium glass on the main bridge, but the thing seemed to watch him with eagle eyes, boring into his heart and detecting all unpatriotic thoughts. He felt like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

"What the hell is that?"

"The Eagle", Dad said with strange, open pride. "Since forty-odd years, it orbits Scintillant. The solar cells on its surface are used to power an extensive radar defence system and the surveillance telescreens."

"Just like the Telstar, then?"

Dad blanched for a moment, before his eyes swung back to the misty golden light in the windows. "Yes. Exactly like the Telstar."

The Unleaded turned slowly, like a lazy alligator floating downstream, and moved in on the little blue- and-green planet in the shadow of the Eagle. Above them, it scintillated.

"Your planet is one big city?" Fry gasped. He saw a world faceted with roofs... streets like veins in marble.

"Part of it is." Dad nodded slowly, carefully, like he was still wearing his helmet. "The rest is ice caps, forests, steppe and an equatorial belt of deserts."


"Whereas that..." a gauntleted finger traced the huge towered white grid as the Unleaded whooshed through the atmosphere, "... is the personal home of the Emperor, Jagan the Third, may he live a thousand years. Jagan's Ego, they call it."

He turned to give orders to the ever-present inferiors. "When we land, bring the prisoners to the throne room, but none too fast." He smiled again at Fry. "The two of us will take another route."

A few moments later, Fry took his first steps on the soil of Scintillant, or rather on marble flagstones which felt like hotplates and did their best to melt the soles off his boots. And he had a vision of millions of stars.

Fry's face had locked in an expression of big-mouthed fascination even as the gates opened, and it got strangely easy not to focus on Leela's look at him or Bender's mad cursing as the prisoners were lined and led away, forcefield collars around their necks linked with heavy black-iron chains. He couldn't understand why they blamed this on him. Maybe if he ran now he would catch up with them and explain... but WHOA!

"What is this place?" he managed to gasp, by the time the excited crowd thinned out. They had been waving flags, and some flags they were! He had never seen so many stars in one place. They were the work of an army of Betsy Ross clones.

"Only a few hundred yards from the perimeter of Jagan's Ego", Dad said, trudging next to him and unfastening the uppermost button in his uniform coat. It was summer hot, the sky was clear like an unpolluted sea. Fry had to blink to keep the sweat out of his ears, but he kept his eyes on him in case he was being ironic. "The city grew up around the palace... by the time I came here. Welcome to New New New York, Phil."

"New New New... You must be quite the bigjob here, Dad!" Fry exclaimed as they walked down 24th Avenue. There was moonwhite stone, and glaring glass, and so much to see... he would have to hold his head down by the ears, otherwise it was going to go spinning from his shoulders.

Dad muttered something. A teenage girl and her little brother snuck past, giggling at them and waving a flag with stars spread across it like spangles. Fry smiled back. People were so happy here. Surely it couldn't be a cruel and repressive society?

"I do what my country asks of me", he replied, finally. The heat was giving way to sprinkling, wind- blown fountain sprays with a hint of chlorine. "And here we are. We'll have to be on our way to the palace, to attend the fate of your... entourage. But I thought you might like to see this, Phil."

The chlorine spatters from the fountain just burnt in his eyes and made the heat worse. Fry took a piece of glossy paper out of his uniform pocket and fanned himself with it. Yeah, sure, look at whatever Dad wanted him to look at... no use fighting with him again, now he had a chance of making up... it was a photo of his house. It must have been in the pocket when Dad put the uniform in his room. White-washed walls, many-gabled roof looking most like a lemming rush of slate tiles, tangled jungle of a lawn, the jagged stump of his swing maple, gap-toothed picket fence...

Something caught him around hip height, making him fold over and knocking his breath out. It was a picket fence, as pointy and flawlessly white as a collection of vampire dentures.

Fry lowered the photo.

"It did take a while", Dad mumbled next to him. "But it is quite a decent replica, don't you think?"

It did have white plank walls and a many-gabled slate roof sloping onto a balcony with a French window. It also had a pristine gravelled path with little shells mixed in. It was the kind of estate that Southern belles would spend their lives working in coal-mines in order to buy back. Drops from the nearby fountains sprayed through the fence and twinkled on the velveteen lawn like green stars.

Fry spotted a tire swing oscillating slowly by a sleek rope from the foliage of a lush maple. If it hadn't been for the uniform, he would have run over and leapt into it.

"Home", he whispered. Dad seemed to understand what he meant. He patted Fry's shoulder vaguely.

"Home is where the heart is", he said sagely to the blue, blue sky. "And my heart belongs here on Scintillant. The Earth is gone rotten, son, and the DOOP is nothing but an ant-heap of the Kremlin. Until we win back America, this is our home."

Fry swallowed to get rid of a bitter taste in his mouth. It had felt so much better until Dad started talking about politics. Suddenly, the drops on his face felt cold. He had to look back at the house when the French window creaked open a fraction, revealing something white.

"Tamsin!" Dad called out. "He's here! The boy is here!"

A dark-haired woman in a white dressing-gown and apron stepped out on the balcony. From what Fry could tell, she was maybe in her thirties and quite pretty, in a Twilight Zone-ish housewife fashion. There was a little star gleam when she smiled.

"But honey, this doesn't look at all like..." she began, then shaded her eyes with an oven-mitted hand. "Good Lord, it's Philip! Isn't it you, Philip?"

"Stunned by her beauty, Phil?" Dad said, so he must have started to back away, and maybe he looked like he was sick. "Allow me to introduce the Lady Tamsin Fyry, my wife and the perfect housewife."

"Thank you, honey!" Tamsin Fyry called out from her sun-drenched pedestal.

Fry's hand found the edge of the fence, and he hung on to it as though the flagstones might knock him off.

"No... I mean, no!" he gasped. The air was too clean and mediciney, here. It was like having detergent dripped into your lungs. "Tamsin... you, you... Dad, you got married again?"

"Is there a problem, honey?" Her voice sounded a bit too shrill for his ears. "Only, I've got a plate of honeycakes in the oven, and if you don't mind..."

"My son." Stern, yet still fair. "You may call me 'Father'. I don't think we're on a 'Dad' basis just yet."

"Father..." Fry closed his eyes. It was all about the sun. "My Mom... why... don't you love her anymore? You said you loved her! Remember... Ilyena Fry, looked a lot like me..." He almost toppled when he let go of the fence and rummaged his pockets for more photos.

Dad just looked at him helplessly, and there was that need again, that skewed idea that if Dad cried he would have to shed his own blood, for some reason, because he wasn't worth it...

"It's been a long time", Dad said, bowing his head, thank you, bowing his head so Fry couldn't see the sadness. Then he chuckled, as though he desperately needed to find something amusing. "It's been a thousand years, for crying out loud! You could say that even the most devoted husband would have to put off mourning after that long..." He looked up again, no longer devastated, but his gaze went vague. "Put off mourning and think about..."

"Anything more you didn't tell me about", Fry whispered. It tasted so bitter, he couldn't stop himself. "Did you and Tamsin have any more kids, or a dog or something?"

"No, that is just it..." Dad began, then stood up straight. Sun streamed off his open, blessed face. "Tamsin, dear! Get yourself down here, statt!"

Tamsin nodded, curls billowing slightly, then put one dainty foot on the balcony railing.

"NO!" Fry screamed. It felt like the world was back to normal, even if that was what was normal in Hell. "Dad, tell her to stop or something! She's going to kill herself!"

"Isn't that the beautiful thing about women?" Dad said, still smiling. "They'll fall head over heels at your beck and call." The smile died slowly. "Just joshing with ya, kid. Tamsin, do take the stairs. Please."

Fry didn't actually resume breathing until the lovely Lady Fyry came out through the double doors, smile still plastered to her face.

"You can probably guess what I'm getting at", Dad said curtly. "Seeing how my... heir has returned, you are quite redundant as, so to speak, caretaker of the Fyry gene pool. The water has been siphoned into a new container. In other words, to end this metaphor, you are hereby sacked as my wife."

"But honey... Cyan... no!" Tamsin's perfect face screwed up in consternation. "You can't sack me! I'm your wife! You have to, you know, divorce me or something!"

"Then, so be it. Consider yourself divorced."

Fry bit his lip and hoped his face looked as much a mask as it felt. Tamsin reached out to touch Dad's shoulder, then turned back.

"Well then", she said, high-gloss back in her voice. "Remember, the laundry machine is all jiggery. You have to start it by putting the thingummy in the doohickey."

Then they walked off, towards the burning bright terraces of Jagan's Ego. It didn't really bear thinking about.

"I did that for you", Dad said, the one time during their walk. "I hope you can imagine what it took for me to do that."

She was so thirsty the sparkling marble walls of the pillar-hall looked almost drinkable, and the forcefield collar burnt like sun on her shoulders. It was a relief when they were led into the shadowy hallways of the palace -Jagan's Ego, how very appropriate!- but sweat had tangled her eyelashes, and there was heat burrowing under her hair. Unlike the others, Leela didn't bother to shout abuse at Fry as he walked off in front of them, shoulder to shoulder with the unbelievably black-robed Dark Lord. She just stared at his gold-rosetted back and hoped the dancing coloured lights would burn him.

A young woman, apparently the local version of a Bureaucrat, walked in front of them, chattering happily about the wonders of the palace. Leela couldn't care anymore. It was nicer to listen to than the heavy clanking of the chains. She did pick up, at one point, as they walked past a door standing ajar on a red-lit room. She stamped her boots down and looked around the corner to see attendants, heads protected with black cloth, feeding little bright glass capsules to sinuous strips of light in their cages. Her stomach swirled a little.

"And this is the imperial Tapeworm kennel", the woman went on. "As you can see, the caretakers are keeping them healthy and in top resolution by feeding them magnesium flashbulbs. Now, if you can help the green-skinned prisoners onto his feet, and we'll proceed to the throne room..." An officer, possibly that Riffington character, kicked Leela on the shin, and she stumbled along, blinking in the blessed cool air conditioning. One of the caretakers tossed a flashbulb into the air, and a Tapeworm lashed out and crunched it within unbelievable, metal-toothed jaws.

She would soon have other causes for concern...

"THE GLORIOUS EMPEROR JAGAN!" Another kick in the fold of her knee. The chain gang went down like tied-together dominoes. Sun was filtering into the sleek throne room through a skylight: not from glass, but from marble, so thin you could probably break it with one finger. Either that, or just rather bad Plexiglas. "MAY HE LIVE A THOUSAND YEARS!" The attendant drew a deep breath, then lifted an ornamented bullhorn again. "YOUR IMPERIAL MAJESTY, WE BRING YOU THE PRISONERS OF THE HATED DOOP!" A kick at the soles of her boots. This was getting old, though she was certain the man's toes would regret this. "Keep crawling, scum."

Leela kept crawling, or rather moved in an irregular butterfly swim, trying not to get too close to Dr Zoidberg's greasy flip-flops, her palms leaving a slightly greasy trail on the mosaic floor... black and white, glitzy in a rather shallow fashion. Tables for a banquet, covered in beautiful white table cloth, were assembled in the far end of the hall, one right before the slightly built man on the ornate throne, veiled in the beatific glow of the skylight.

Emperor Jagan was of indefinite age, probably mostly young, and wasted in all meanings of the word. His oily blond hair was braided and hung with jewels in a manner that couldn't have been in fashion anywhere, and nights of unrestrained debauch had done to his eyes what glamrockers usually only achieve with tons of eye-shadow. His face had a certain depraved cast to it that some flaky women would probably find charming. Leela found it charming for two seconds flat; then she felt the need to wash.

His legs were hidden under the flounces of the soiled table in front of him, but what was visible of his upper body was shrouded in a red robe and writhing with delight at regular intervals. An ostentatious eagle-and-star crest was embroidered in gold where it hung across his breast, and when he lifted a thin hand with painted nails, she saw it again as a signet on a heavy gold ring.

"Unchain them", he said. It was the voice of a man used to giving orders, and who might even care about whether they were obeyed or not.

Forcefields sizzled out of existence, and several heavy chain links dented the marble. Leela sprang to her feet, only to find herself ringed by dozens of Cracktroopers, rayguns watching her as impassively as eyes. Wasn't that typical? The sunstroke was going away already. She didn't feel quite crazed enough for a Famous Last Stand.

Fry was there, too, kneeling by the throne at Yancy's side, trying to look the same emblem of barely leashed vengeance. He didn't fully succeed, but looking at the two of them gave Leela the feeling that she was seeing double. It was frightening beyond comprehension.

"Your way has been blocked, darlin", the Emperor stated redundantly, giving a creepy little giggle. "If you value the life of your fellow scum, you would do well to kneel."

Zapp Brannigan, showing the discretion and common sense for which he was known, got to his feet groggily, smoothing the short skirt of his DOOP Starfleet uniform. Leela's gaze fixed on the mosaic, but from the way her friends groaned, she could tell he was stepping right up to the table. The universe trembled and unseamed with the clash of egos.

"'Emperor' Jagan!" the burly Captain exclaimed. Leela was willing to bet her life he was wagging a finger in the air. "You shall rue the day you brought Captain Zapp Brannigan, Space Commander, within these premises! The DOOP will blow your planet to smithereens and sow the vacuum resultant with salt! I have the right to a lawyer! And..."

"The ever-reliable Lord Yancy promised me two senior DOOP officers to be publicly executed at the ceremony of loyalty this afternoon", Emperor Jagan murmured, fixing his vague eyes on the prisoners. "That would be the fat Captain and the green, wimpy little guy. Take them away, and..." He shot Zapp a slitted smile. Leela could have punched him anyway. "The only rights you have are the last ones."

Zapp and Kif were dragged away, in various states of kicking and screaming, as Amy wailed and had to be restrained by the guards. The Emperor stretched his attenuated frame to reach a clear bottle on the table, and giggled. Leela found herself staring at the tablecloth as though hypnotised. Or it could just be hunger. Some of those stains looked tasty.

"Remain the would-be rescuers", he went on, gesturing as though to hazard a one-hand clap. One of the Cracktroopers shrugged unhappily and picked up an ostrich-feather fan. "Mission Forbidden Passion. How specious. The unpaid brigade of DOOP nobodies."

Bender took to shouting curses in binary. A Cracktrooper walked up to him with an electric cattle prod, and he collapsed back, drooling a neat puddle of oil on the mosaic of swirling stars.

Then Fry's father spoke, slowly, almost regretfully. No-one was watching him more intently than Fry, whose lips moved a bit with the words. "Yes, your imperial majesty. They are nobodies. You will be unable to use them to put pressure on the hated DOOP."

"True." The Emperor smiled. "Very true. We have no use for them."

The eagle-and-star ring caught fire as his hand descended through the sunlight.

"Kill them. Here and now. I want to see their blood on the floor before my throne." His gaze vacillated as some synapses in his brain struck a tangent. "And that reminds me. Where are the imperial masons? They were going to install some grooves!"

It felt like a longer walk to the table than the crawl before. She stared at her boots, at the galactic mosaic, at the points of light on her tangled purple hair hanging before her face. It was too cool, and the light was too clear, and the sounds were too high-pitched. There didn't seem to be any hope of passing out before... before.

"This is it, then?" Bender muttered next to her. "Of all the ways to go, this has got to be the worst."

"Oy, but there are worse", Dr Zoidberg complained. "Being boiled alive, for one..."

"Beheading", Emperor Jagan commanded. "For all, but for the lobster. Feed him, boil him, hand the carcass to the servants, and retain the juices." He pulled his robe close about himself, vainly. "My robe needs more Decapodian purple."

"Hear that, Zoidy?" Bender called out, gloating briefly winning over acute fear in his voice. "You live and dye on the Emperor's command!"

Leela's eye sunk mercifully closed, then opened when a shadow fell over her. It was no relief. The executioner's hood was just about enough, but it was the axe that took her breath away. Oh, yes. She felt the need to tell him that this would not be necessary. After all, she wasn't a giant sequoia.

"If you're going to execute me, put a shirt on!" she snapped instead.

"Sorry, ma'am", the executioner said. "Union rules. You know, this will be so much easier if you all kneel."

Leela buckled to her knees. Yes, it was easier. The floor was cold under her palms. She wondered distantly if there was any point in crying...

"Mercy", Fry piped up.

She opened her eye. Fry was rubbing his forehead in the floor, in submission or to keep cool she could not tell. He held up his innocent, stubby-fingered hands.

"Mercy", he repeated. "Me being Lord Cyan's son and all... can I ask a balloon? Or whatever they call it. I just want you to spare my friends. Your highness."

"Your son is getting ideas above his station", the Emperor said, not even bothering to look their way. "Well, Lord Cyan. I know full well how much you enjoy this, so... when you're ready."

"Your last word, your imperial majesty?" Lord Cyan asked. Leela could see nothing but darkness in his eyes. "Some of them might be more valuable alive. Your imperial majesty, some of them might be willing to swear loyalty to the noble cause of the Empire..."

The Emperor steepled his fingers under a thin, impeccable smile.

"Kill 'em all", he said. "Let God sort them out."

Lord Cyan nodded, then turned to the executioner.

"DAD!" Fry called out in agony.

"Executioner", his father intoned, "do your duty."

The giant axe rose like the moon. Leela's head whipped back on its own accord. Her neck could almost taste the steel already.

"Stop!" Lord Cyan said. "We do them in my order. The robot first."

"What the hell is your problem?" Bender shrieked as the executioner stepped over to him, raised and repeated.

There was a very heavy flash of steel.

There was a kind of splintering, screeching crash that made Leela's hackles rise and, once it was finished, a round of polite applause. Standing back from the shards of metal, tinkling as they cooled, the executioner lowered the axe handle.

"Screw all you meatbags!" Bender growled. "If I get sensory receptors installed, that's going to hurt tomorrow!"

The Cracktroopers gasped as he stood up, nursing a deep dent in his neck.

"My one regret is that I haven't got a life to give for the DOOP", he finished, dusting himself off.

"You seem to have totalled that axe, friend", Fry's father said, his voice twisted with a fraction of a smile. "And as we all know, it's a certain humane tradition that if an execution fails in the execution, the condemned shall be pardoned."

"What?" The executioner seemed taken aback. "I can see how that would apply to the 'bot, but how about the women and the..." shifty eyes moved inside the hood in Dr Zoidberg's direction, "... thing?"

"Packing another axe?" the Dark Lord axed, then turned to his Emperor. Leela looked at Fry for a while, but he didn't answer her gaze. Something was running glittering down his cheeks. "Is this all right with you, your imperial majesty?"

"I don't even know why I wanted to see them bleed", Emperor Jagan replied sulkily. "I am not particular to blood. Give them rooms in the servants' quarters. Treat them well, but keep them under guard." Hard hands clamped down on Leela's arms. "All except..." a wispy-thin finger beckoned her closer, and the Cracktroopers dragged her onto her feet. "What's your name, darlin?"

"Turanga Leela." She tried to keep her voice down. Now was not the time to bluster... what the hell, she was sick of those eyes moving down her body like wet snails. "I don't care if you're the Emperor, I don't care if your guards will gun me down as an example, but don't you dare tell me you like a girl with spirit!"

"Oh, but I don't, darlin", Emperor Jagan retorted. He slipped somewhat in his throne, laxly stroking blond tresses to the side of his face. "That's why I intend to break that spirit as soon as possible. You have no idea what you're heading for, darlin."

Leela felt the blood drain from her face. Lovely sharp shards of the axe twinkled under her boots, but the rayguns rose again once she thought about diving.

"I will rather die than to service your wicked desires and pleasures!" she said, and was quite proud that her voice didn't tremble. "We will all rather die!"

"Oh no, don't say that", Dr Zoidberg mumbled. Leela could almost feel everyone in the throne room turning on their Zoidberg-exclusion filters.

Then her gaze fell on the table before the throne, and she found herself gulping.

"This will be a lot worse for you all if you don't comply, darlin", Emperor Jagan explained. He seemed to be kicking something. "Gallagher, darlin! There's a new darlin to take your place! Isn't that a relief, that is?"

And then the pain started. And Leela had the feeling that the pain was not going to stop any time soon.

A blonde girl, beautiful in spite of a mad-eyed skittishness, crawled out from under the tablecloth. Fry winced and tried to turn away, and his father grabbed his shoulder... Leela's eye swung back to the poor Gallagher. Her opulent white dress was torn and tattered, and she had bruise-black stains on her hands and even her face.

"I'm sorry I failed you, master", she whispered, frightfully meekly. "Please give me another..."

"Your tender cares have started to bore me, darlin", her master rebuffed her. "I need some... variety. Go jump off a balcony or something, you."

"Good gods, what did he do to you!" Leela whispered, not that she particularly wanted to know, but the girl only swept past her in the sullen fashion of someone who had nothing more than her dignity, and really not even that.

"Silly Emperor!" Bender gibed from further left. "A woman's place is laying the kitchen table, not underneath it!" A Cracktrooper's elbow-guard caught him on the mouth display. "Eh, cut it out already!"

"Under the table, Leela darlin", the Emperor commanded. "If you don't, they will shoot. If you come out before I give my express permission, they will shoot."

She got so, trying to blink the image of Gallagher out of her eye. Emperor Jagan lifted his side of the tablecloth slightly, giving her enough light, even though she still had to crawl. Someone would pay for this. Oh yes, someone would pay for this and it wasn't going to be her.

"There's the bootblack", Emperor Jagan said. "There's the brush. Here's my shoes. Let the polishing commence."

"You look tense, dear", Dempsey said, moving her paperwork to the side without caring overly about order. "Let me give you some brain massage." He flexed up his livid fingers with a disturbing crackling noise.

General Secretary Glab sighed, despite herself. "Not now, Dempsey. I have problems." She had prepared e-mails of condolence to the families of the Planet Express crew. To have been part of that whole plot, even with the hope of it succeeding, made her feel sordid.

"That's what I was gettin' at", Dempsey smiled, returning to his place by her high-backed chair.

The role of a trophy husband ill suited him. But he was witty and could make her laugh, and such men were somehow waxing exceedingly rare, as the war went on and the trade with the Empire became more stringent than camel-dealing in the Soak nebula.

"Would you mind leaving the room, Dempsey?" Her inflection made it clear that whether he minded or not was immaterial.

Her long, tapering fingers clicked across the keyboard on her desk, causing part of the air to tense into a holoscreen. After a few seconds of standby images, the glimmer darkened into Lord Cyan's helmeted face.

"This better be important, you red hag!" he barked, obviously far past the normal thin line between brusquerie and being just plain rude. "I was about to go for a walk with my son around the palace premises, so be quick about it!"

"We sent you the Planet Express boy, milord", Glab said pleasantly, her train of thought going straight as a jet of light. "In return, you will refrain from executing Captain Brannigan and Lieutenant Kroker."

"No!" Lord Cyan growled. "In return, we will refrain from scouring the galaxy for him! Your two officers will lead no more ships against the free, democratic Empire! After their death, we will have a mutual deal!"

"Then so be it." She smiled. "And give my regards to your son, milord. I presume you expected to throw me off my guard."

The holoscreen twinkled out. Glab waited, counting to five under her breath, then dialled another number.

"Captain White?" she said, letting the stress to her voice show a fraction. "Make the Halo ready for takeoff. After hearing my orders to the end, you will set the course for the Scintillant system..."

The Grand Street of New New New York was all but empty as Fry and his father strolled down it. A few women were out strewing flowers, though they withered to a crisp in the afternoon heat. Even in the shadows of the towering buildings, the air boiled.

"Beautiful, innit?" Dad said at last. He still sounded stunned, and Fry understood him. Even if you'd been living here for a few years, looking out the window in the morning would be like getting a silicon injection through your eyes with an inflatable needle.

"It is beautiful", he agreed. "I'd want to spend my life here."

The streets were so clean you could probably eat your lunch from the soles of your shoes after walking down them. The windows were glossy dark and quiet like insects on the walls, but star- spangled banners flew from every single ceiling.

"Until we reclaim America", Dad said. Again, that vague unease... it didn't even seem to be an obsession. More of a distantly worrying idea. "We must burn a causeway through the galaxy, of course... and that means teaching the DOOP a lesson."

Fry had liked it more when they were talking about music. He leant his head back, because that was better than looking at Dad's face in that particular moment, and caught a little blinding sparkle that must have been the Eagle.

"I've met some guys in the DOOP", he said. Best not to mention that he'd been enrolled in their forces on a few occasions. "They... they didn't seem that bad." Do the Commies ever? a little voice started some kind of auto-track in his head. Do cancer cells look any different from normal ones? It took a bit of thinking to recognise it as Dad's.

Dad's real voice went on, outside, in the sun-gilded Oz: "Like all Communist collectives, they regard the populace as pieces on a gaming board." Fry's boiled thoughts started ticking up images of "Space Invaders", for some reason, and had to be tugged back by the collar. "They will send wave after wave of their own at us, Phil." Didn't that sound a tad bit familiar? "They are... a swarm. Eusocialists. They will be ready to die for their sickly ideology... and that I find heartening." He punched into a wonderfully marbled wall and didn't even wince, though his gaze flagged briefly. "We have the same aim in mind."

"Father... can we talk about something other than politics now?" He had a right to say this, he was a grown man and on equal terms... geeze, he sounded whiny. "Things have changed, really..."

"Do you need proof?" Dad wasn't really taller than him anymore, but he still bent somewhat when talking to him. His smile was utterly real. "Do you need any proof that the DOOP is a fortress of a collective, ready to sacrifice any individual for the greater glory?"

The Eagle twinkled over them again. Fry wondered distantly how fast it was.

"They sacrificed you. They sent you here."

"Dad, Leela and my friends will be OK, won't they?" Fry pleaded. He couldn't hold it in any longer.

Dad sagged. "So they will. The Emperor is..." His voice buckled a bit when considering high treason. "... a man of strange ideas. But as long as I hold any position of power, your friends will be well treated. If that will persuade them to side with the powers of right, so be it."

His tone swung to the other end as they kept walking through the glassy shadow.

"Now, where were we... ah, yes. Is Bazooka Joe still popular back home?"

"It's OK, you can put some pants on, lieutenant", Captain White said in his somewhat laid-back accent, swivelling where he lounged in his chair and stretching his own khaki-enveloped legs. "I'm not one to stand on ceremony. It's quite cold in space, I say."

Lieutenant Suzanne nodded gratefully and slipped into a pair of jeans. Say what you wanted about the DOOP uniform skirts... oh, blast it, there was nothing good to be said about them, except that they made it easy to look at the legs of guys. Unfortunately, the guys could also look at her legs.

The view from the main bridge of the Halo was nothing but breathtaking. They had a few hours to get to Scintillant, and the ship was running at warp speed, indefinitely. The pinpricks of stars had turned into long bright slashes. It was worth it, even considering the fuel costs and the risk of motion sickness.

"We are doing a good thing, Captain", she said.

The Captain nodded. He was dark-haired and a bit unshaven - possibly, she considered, in order to look older than his twenty years. The Halo was the flagship -though the actual flags had been scrapped upon showing a tendency to burst into flame upon entering the atmosphere- of the Democratic Order of Planets. It was fitted with some of the most cutting-edge technology in the laser- slicing department. And most of the crew consisted of young, bright new graduates of the weekend cadet school. Being over thirty years of age, the Lieutenant was one of the oldest crew members, and having served under such officers as Captain Brannigan and Admiral Pirk, she quite relished Captain White's carefree way of life.

Captain Brannigan... oh yes. She found herself stifling the thoughts, as though the feared Dark Lords might hear them from here.

"So I hope", he said. His knuckles whitened around the joystick. "Those ruthless Imperials... don't you worry, Lieutenant, we'll have Zapp and Kif out of there before you can say 'breach of diplomacy'. What the galaxy will be seeing on TV today is how the Empire failed."

"But Captain... we won't actually have to say that, will we?" She wished she didn't sound so worried.

"Oh no", the Captain replied, turning the ship slightly. Warp space wrapped around them. "The General Secretary was very adamant about that. We'll just... help matters, that's all."

Lieutenant Suzanne sniffed. "Between you and me, Captain, the General Secretary..." She sighed. "I don't know whether her young man is good for her. He seems to exert far too much influence."

Captain White chuckled. "So Dempsey's fooled you too, has he?"

In that moment, the honey-blond Cadet Barnadine rushed onto the main bridge, soles flapping. "Lieutenant, Captain... could any of you help me with the VIP, please? He's being very demanding." She looked unhappy. "What's he here for, anyway? Is he part of another cunning plan?"

The Captain shuddered. "Ah. The VIP. He creeps me out, you know."

"I'll go", Lieutenant Suzanne said.

And Scintillant crept closer...

The Ceremony of the Confirmation by Handshake was to take place in what Yancy called the Hyperdrome, a bit outside the city edge. It sounded like a made-up name, but nevermind. It was a set of bleachers, with awnings against the huge reddening sun thankfully, around a drawn-out arena of lush yellow sand, a bit like two Malibu Beaches stuck together. In the ancient days of the colonisation of Scintillant, it had been used for gladiatorial combats, and nowadays it held horse-races and football games.

"It may not be the Madison Cube Garden", Fry said happily, leaning back in the sultry shadow of the awning and sipping from a wonderfully frosty bottle of Eviaxton Bottled Tap Water. He hadn't been able to get any Slurm... the drinks salesman had glared awry at him and said that it was the capitalist lure of the Communist DOOP. He was still happy, though. "But I like it anyway."

Leela growled, and Fry felt ashamed. She had been allowed to wash herself off before they were led to the arena, but she still had black rims of shoe polish under her fingernails, and her kneecaps seemed to blush through the torn patches in her threadbare pants. He couldn't blame her... he had almost fallen apart after that kneeling session in the palace.

"I'm sorry, Leela", he whispered. Dad had gone up to consort with the Emperor, but there were plenty of Cracktroopers to keep them in place.

"Hey, this sand looks like it can soak up blood a treat!" Bender declared, upending another beer bottle and letting it slip into his mouth. It shattered in his stomach compartment, and the haggard Leela gave a jump. Fry hoped her nerves would ever be the same again.

"Mmm, you're right", Amy mumbled worriedly, lifting a flimsy pair of theatre binocs. "Back on the ranch, Mom would put out sand like this in the yard before the slaughter began!"

Fry tried to sink into the shadow. His stomach wasn't feeling well. Stupid heat.

They were sitting in a place of honour, a bit to the right and below of the gold-tassled Imperial canopy. By twisting the parasol a bit and looking up through the gap, he could see that Emperor Jagan fella, in dress uniform, receiving papers, some sort of forms, from a billowing black shape. Even at this distance... Dad. It hurt in his heart.

"What are we waiting for?" Leela said at least. So she wasn't broken. Her profile was aloof and strange-looking against the golden distance.

"Didn't your daddy say something about an ambassador from the Earth attending?" Bender suggested. "Hey look..." He shielded his sensors with his hand. "Wasn't that a DOOP ship pod? Over there?"

"What took you so long?" a breathlessly effete voice complained as a helpful VIP guided a couch-oid golden robot up the aisle. The bleachers creaked under the heavy footsteps of the couch. "Ah, the illustrious progeny of his lordship. Sitting here with the unwashed multitude... how decadent, yet how enlightening. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Hedonism-bot."

"Look!" Amy called out, pointing the other way. "The Egyptians have arrived!"

Under the Decapodian purple canopy, the Emperor was done leafing through the documents, splashed some wax on each and pressed his ring into it. And the afternoon sun glared on...

"Bots away!" Midshipman Cara exclaimed, on board the observation deck of the Halo, handing the spyglass over to Midshipman Brennan. "His pod seems to have landed all right... I guess it's too much to ask that he got himself a good denting."

"That little fella creeped me out", Brennan shuddered. "Not to mention how annoying he's been acting."

"Can I have the spyglass after you, midshipman?"

"Sure thing, Barnadine. Just let me check... oh yes... I can see the prisoners. They're cooped up amid those Cracktroopers... scary guys... I reckon we'll have to get a bit closer. Sorry. Barnadine, inform the Captain. The laser can't possibly work with sufficient precision at this distance."

Barnadine made to go. She needed a brisk walk through the ship anyway. Having spent a few hours in warp space had taken its toll.

She waited, unsure.

"Midshipmen, have you got any info on a kind of big bird-shaped satellite orbiting Scintillant?" It sounded a bit silly, saying it out loud like that. "I've heard rumors that it's actually a super-weapon able to take out entire battleships."

"Barnadine, you really shouldn't be listening to children's tales", said Cara, a bit pitying. "When you're a midshipman, like us, that's when you get to start listening to children's tales without looking a big dork." As Barnadine left, she put an arm around Brennan's waist and waited for her turn at the spyglass.

"HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY JAGAN THE THIRD, SURNAMED 'THE JUST'!" the air-horn blared. "THE FEAR OF HIS ENEMIES, THE IDOL OF HIS FRIENDS, SWORD AND SHIELD OF THE FREE EMPIRE!" Applause went up. "CYAN FYRY OF THE SITH, ADMIRAL OF THE IMPERIAL SPACEY AND LORD PROTECTOR OF SCINTILLANT!" Applause went up, rather more honest this time. Fry felt somewhat warmed by it, even though he didn't really need more warmth.

The Emperor minced down the aisle of the bleacher, followed by Yancy and the guard of honour. Three steps into the arena, he stopped dead, making the men behind him stumble.

"I got sand on my boots!" he exclaimed, trying ineffectively to kick his impeccable purpureal jackboots clean. His gaze whipped along the bleachers like a sliced wire. "You! Leela, darlin? Get out here and polish!"

Leela winced, but grabbed a kit by her feet and rushed down the steps. Maybe she didn't even feel when Fry put a hand on her arm.

The proceedings could, well, proceed. Dad climbed a little podium towards the middle of the Hyperdrome, adjusting a microphone on his helmet.

"It is an honour to introduce", he began once the feedback had died away, "the Earthican ambassador, extinctæ iamdudum prodigum famæ, as the poet said... Hedonism-bot!"

There was some half-hearted clapping, but a lot more muttering, as the laurel-crowned 'bot stomped out in the arena, balancing a half-eaten hotdog and a can of beer on his ample stomach compartment. The Emperor, still in the process of getting groomed, rubbed his eyes in disbelief, then hurried to the podium and waved the documents vaguely.

"I hereby declare this Ceremony of the Confirmation by Handshake underway", he said, his voice keening horribly through the amplifiers.

Yancy took the documents.

"I shall present the proud men and women swearing their lives to the glorious cause of the Empire!" he barked. "Ye may approach his imperial majesty! Fry, Philip! Leela, Turanga!" Leela shook the sand out of her hair and lopped up to the podium. "Rodriguez, Bender!" Bender clanked his way out of the seat behind Fry, and the sun hit them. "Wong, Amy! Zoidberg, John!"

He was walking on warm sand... it sifted into his jackboots until he could almost understand how the Emperor was feeling. And people, the entire population of the planet from the look of it, were staring at him. Their heads filled the bleachers like a plump cloud. Man, was it ever hot... and with his luck, he was going to stumble and look like an idiot in front of Dad and all the bigjobs...

On cue, he looked up. The Eagle flew up above the world, twinkling, twinkling, and something else twinkled with it. A golden angle standing in the sun. Back on the podium, Emperor Jagan glanced up and started to play with the crest on his ring.

"The Nimbus never had anything like this laser cutter!" Sergeant Gorkil, the munitions expert, exclaimed and stroked the lever on the huge silver tube, his face lit by ambiguous gaiety. "It maneuvres like a razor! I could slit the Emperor's throat from here..."

"Sergeant", the Captain said. Something was stressing him out of his mind, and he couldn't put his finger on it. Just a brief glint of light on the monitor by the monstrous weapon, gone before anything other than his limbic system could register its shape. "I can't say you wouldn't be right in doing it, but we have our orders."

"... or cut off his stubble, which is an altogether better way of using a razor", Gorkil went on seamlessly. "Anyway..."

"Captain!" Lieutenant Suzanne's voice came through the tannoy, perturbed. "To the main bridge! Unidentified vessel heading for us!"

Captain White rushed onto the main bridge, skidding before the towering shape gaining on them.

"A bird", he said. The universe seemed to have slowed down.

"An... eagle, is it, Captain?" the Lieutenant conjectured. "Like... the ones they used to have on Earth..."

"It's beautiful", the Captain said, squinting against the light. "Must be at least twenty metres across... twenty-five even... it's getting closer, isn't it?"

The heraldic eagle grew like a rising sun. Its proud head with its predator beak seemed to shift, only slightly, searching for them. One talon moved, making its bunch of oversize arrows glitter like stars.

"Oh God no..."

One arrow dislodged. In the echoes of his head, Captain White thought it might fall, as though there was a bottom to black space, but instead it spun and became a brilliant spot of light on the window.

There was an impact.

And as the flames shuddered through the doomed Halo, Captain White's last thought was that maybe Sergeant Gorkil had turned on the cutter in time.

Once Emperor Jagan let go of Fry's hand, he could let his gaze slip back into the burning blue dome of the sky. The two points of light had come a little closer, and there was a trace of white between them now, like one of them had started to skywrite.

Heir of Lord Cyan. Son of the second-in-command of the entire Empire. Well, who would have thought? He surely wouldn't have, a thousand years ago.

"Turanga Leela. You have been assigned the post as the Emperor's personal shoe polisher." A limp handshake. Leela kneeling, staring at the gleaming jackboots. She, like the people on the bleachers, muttered some kind of oath of fealty about letting the Emperor guide their fate.

The one little star of light reeled to the side and brightened.

"Bending Unit-22, Bender Rodriguez. You have been assigned the post as kitchen hand and cook." Handshake, kneeling, oath. Fry ducked.

"Amy Wong. You, and John Zoidberg, have been assigned the posts as cleaning staff." Amy started to protest, and guns gleamed.

It was too hot... was the sky supposed to have that colour? It was like looking up the barrel of a flame-thrower. It was all sun.

"Bring the prisoners before me!" the Emperor intoned, rather imposingly.

A knot of Cracktroopers dragged Zapp and Kif, sweating profusely and still coughing every now and then, into the shallow shadow of the podium. Amy shrieked and made a leap for them, but their hands closed around her arm. An axe gleamed.

"And now... anonymous executioner, do your duty again!"

Sky golden as the sand. Deafening roar.

The Eagle! he had the time to think. The Eagle has... done something...

When he got to his feet, the sky was fading back to blue, and the podium was a lot quieter.

The manacles were still there. Zapp and Kif were, however, gone.

"My son!" Tamsin gushed, hugging him, her cheeks sopping wet. "This banquet is in your honour! If only you knew how grateful we are that you are now part of the glorious, beautiful Empire..."

Fry tried to break free of her embrace as politely as possible. There was something so extremely wrong about being mothered by a woman no more than ten years your senior, possibly less.

"Why isn't it him doing this?" he whispered, gesturing towards the seat of honour to the right of the listless Emperor.

"He is Cyan, the angsty", Tamsin replied. "He would never rejoice for you, so I rejoice in his stead."

"The 'Democratic' Order has only begun to pay the price of its underhanded ways!" Yancy stated, lifting his brilliantly red glass of Château de Vinaigre. The banquet hall was lit like something in a fantasy RPG, all torches sparkling in barbarian ways off the plates and cutlery, the jewellery of the VIPs and the gold make-up of Emperor Jagan. "We may consider the war resumed!"

There was a general cheer and jingling of glasses. Everyone Fry had seen so far, from his uncomfortably carved chair at the end of the table of state, was human, wearing some rather streamlined equivalent of dress uniform or suit. For someone used to the multicultural, multispecies environment of New New York, this was like being in a repressive police state.

Amy and Dr Zoidberg, in lacy aprons, were serving tea to some guests at the next table. He felt bad about that. He wanted to talk to them, but Dad was going to be upset if he just ran from the table... the uniform was choking him... he'd wait until they came around to his place. He hadn't seen Bender, but Bender was probably alright; he'd been in happy robot-shock from the moment he had been assigned to the kitchen staff. He hadn't seen Leela, and that was worse. Sometimes, something brushed past his feet under the table.

The torches glinted off the lush oily finish of Hedonism-bot, too, lounging off to his left. Fry couldn't say he liked the guy, even though he was undeniably a 'bot of the world. You kind of had to be, in order to be a hedonist. Uneducated people didn't become hedonists, they were too busy enjoying themselves. But he was one of the very few non-humans at the banquet, and that made Fry feel almost at home.

"Of course, his imperial majesty is a man of utter classlessness", the reclining robot said, savouring the bouquet of his wine through a long plastic straw. "But I do concede that he knows to favour the pleasures of life. Eh! You, woman?"

"Yes?" Amy murmured, chewing her lower lip and trying to hide her dishwashing-worn hands in the apron. Fry tried to wave at her, but she was looking down.

"Tell the chef that I want my Omegan lark-tongues roasted on one side only!" Hedonism-bot commanded with a bone-chilling little trill of a laugh. "Of course, being undoubtedly a robot of refined taste, that would be redund..."

"Hey, Hedonism-bot!" Bender called, stomping between the tables with a tall white hat, an apron with a humorous slogan on it and a tureen. "I know it's not, you know, done that the chef serves the guests in person, but since I think hedonism is way cool, here you go!" The contents of the tureen slapped down on the plate with a greasy splash. Fry could feel his arteries scream at the mere sight of it. "It's a jumbo-size croque œuf au... au... aw, forget it, it's an egg-and-ketchup-on-toast." His square pupils dwindled a little in something like embarrassment. "It didn't turn out as tasty as I'd expected, so I deep-fried it. Bon appétit!"

Hedonism-bot, with extreme care, unrolled a metallic tentacle and felt the toast. It went slosh.

"The Glamora and Frigila systems shall be ours!" Dad bellowed, to incessant cheers. "And beyond!"

"To a liberated Glamora and Frigila!" clink "To freedom!"

"To freedom!" And the glass slipped out of Hedonism-bot's gripper and tumbled in a comet's tail of red, shattering into brightness on a dark puddle in the floor. Blood. Fry's eyes felt so big, he didn't know how there'd be a place for his mouth when he was going to scream. Grooves. The robot body shuddered, like a slow earthquake, as his stomach rolled up, well-oiled. Worms. The bowl toppled and shattered, in another nightmare puddle of crushed grapes, as a rocket launcher poked up and spun, just a fraction. Dad.

Fry leapt and caught Dad around the shoulder. Dad was still heavier than him, and he had to tackle him to make him drop, but the gun was a little too late. The rocket went over his head as he dove to the ground for the second time... everyone had ducked, right... and there was a universe-shattering thunder. Fry stood up, trying to shake the emptiness out of his ears, and stared into Hedonism-bot's impassive face.

"One for the road", the 'bot said laconically, swinging its rocket launcher towards him and reloading. Then, however, the Cracktroopers set in.

"Take him away!" Lieutenant Riffenstein called. "Certainly, this is the deed of the hated DOOP, no matter what excuse he has made up. Torture, until he confesses."

"Torture a robot?" Fry heard one of the Cracktroopers mutter as they dragged the helplessly flailing Hedonism-bot away. Everything had gone very clear. His life was still flashing before his eyes -it had entered a long slack- and his stomach whined until he was sure it was all just a nuclear red hole... but there was no rocket there, so it had to be Bender's cooking.

"He's a Hedonism-bot", his friend answered. "Surely we must be able to do something, like... take away his bowl of grapes or something? We're just lucky this isn't Masochism-bot."

For just about the second time in 1025 years, Fry's father put his arms around his son and held him tight, as though he didn't want the world to get up to him and hurt him.

"My son", he whispered. "If he had... if he had hurt you, what would have been the point of me? You're the one that's left, now." He lifted his head, outlined against the flaming torches. "Did you see that? How could anyone side with an Order that is prepared to kill a child to grieve the father?"

And of course. How could you answer that?

Chapter 5 1/2 : 31st of December, 1999

Yancy leans against the window, misting it with his breath.

There's no snow in the garden, just stripes of sludge outlined in the dark. It's cold, standing by the leaking window, but it's a dirty, sick cold that doesn't make him feel any cleaner. Dark already. Phil has left on his rickety bike, that mutt of his running next to him and barking what sounds like a pop song. Rather nice mutt, actually. What's his name again? Grandpa, Yancy Sr. Sr., used to have dogs back when this was just a converted farmhouse. That was another nightmare war. An accident at a base took Dad. Yancy would wake up in the morning when they barked and think Grandpa was home from Germany... but then, the dogs were rabid idiots that barked at everything. A man's home is his castle, the old man would say. And that never did him any harm, now did it?

Boy on bike and dog with wagging tail outlined against a shatteringly orange lamppost, just for a moment. Wet wind sweeping Phil's ginger - never red don't even think red- hair back, plastered against his scalp. The doggie's fur looks plastered, too. Yancy rather likes dogs, but the little guy is better off out running with Phil and getting leftover scraps and pizza cartons. It's another failed attempt at fathering.

Poor kid shouldn't have to work on an hour like this, on a day like this... but then again, that's his job. What was he complaining about? You've got to do what you've got to do. It would be nice living in a world where kids got that!

He's still able to see them, if only because he cut down the swing maple a few weeks ago. What was that for, anyway? Oh yeah, Canadians. Can't trust them, shifty bastards, run away as soon as to taste cold, hard steel. Red maple leaves. A snake in our bosom. Yancy looks down at the flag he stitched to his uniform sleeve, so long ago, but the room is dark, there's only the monochrome light from outside and the red looks black. Like dried blood. There was dried blood in the mud, back... back there... warm, he's never going to like warmth again, stifling in your throat, there were helicopters in the air and how the hell could they tell the difference between you and the VC bastards from above... I pledge my pledge my allegiance to to to he's back. Briefly, briefly, he's back. He clamps a hand around his wrist to stop himself from going back again. This is New York, it is the Nineties... looks at his watch. Yeah, still the Nineties. Now, where was I? And they're treacherous bastards who're always fighting when they're not running away at the taste of cold, hard steel.

Ilyena and Yancy Jr. are downstairs, watching the New Year's Eve special. He warned them about the Y2K, but oh no, they just have to sit there like sitting ducks waiting for the Russkies to take over all the electric equipment. If it were all up to him, they'd be in the bunker right now, but the roads are treacherous and there'll be no tomorrow once the lampposts start coming down... got to wait for Phil.

Phil is gone.

Yancy grabs his chest, like a knife in his heart, hurts like a goddamn knife, kicks the window open and leans out. If they've taken him... if they've taken his son... but then he flickers back, tramping along under the next cone of light. Thank God. For a moment there he thought he'd lost him.

He stumbles over to his bed, still a bit unsteady, and grabs the journal under the pillow. It's got a pen jammed into the ring binding. A habit he picked up in 'Nam, just to keep track of how many days he had to go, but it's turned out to be strangely soothing. He writes for a while, but his heart still isn't up to it. The pen wobbles like a seismograph for every heartbeat.

"I hate my life. Man, my parents really failed there."

Fry steps into the dim room. The New York City lights pool in through the windows and light a desk, a chair that looks so rickety his gaze might make it fall over... dark columns around the walls. His skin is prickling with the cold air. It smells of grime and neglect and a little bit like a freezer. He doesn't have to juggle the greasy carton anymore, it's almost cold after waiting in the elevator. He feels his shoulders sag a little. Nobody here. Just wonderful. A sucky end to a sucky era.

Not pillars. Pods of some kind, tangled to the walls with heavy steel piping, about the size of coffins, every one with a little window about the height of his head, misted blue on the outside. Now, this is getting a bit interesting... not quite as interesting as spending the evening playing arcade games, but what the hey. He wipes the closest square of glass with his sleeve, and even so shudders with the touch. Dusk inside, an icy light, and a frozen face. He stumbles back.

"Hellooo!" he calls out, without any real hope. "Pizza delivery for..." He has to look closer at the paper. Bad light. "I. C. Wiener? Aw crud. I always thought at this point in my life I'd be the one making the crank calls!"

He slides the carton across the table. He'll take it back to Seymour... poor guy would have to do the countdown without his master, according to his watch. At least he's still got the can of beer. He rolls it out of his pocket and puts it on the table to cool down a bit. Oh... and yes, a party blower. Sheesh! Like he's got anything to celebrate!

He sits down anyway. It's almost exactly midnight, and the chair is comfier than he'd expected. Kind of spooky, having all those frozen corpses around, but it's not like he's going to fall asleep or anything. Mmmm. The chair was balancing on its hind legs now, but that's just fine. Shadows scuttle in the corners. Dang, but this would be comfortable if it wasn't so cold. His jacket hangs unzipped around him and the lining is tattered in several places, it's not going to last another year. Is one of those ice coffins open or something?


Yancy loads the gun and puts it against his shoulder. Heavy, but... almost comforting. Even when the world takes almost everything from a man, he'll still have his gun, as long as there's any smidgen of liberty left in the world. Damn them, they're not going to take it! Ever!


He crouches behind the window, smelling nothing but weak snow and flaking wet plaster for a moment, and puts the barrel through the crack where the cold cold night seeps in. If those Russkies are coming down the driveway, he's not going to give without a fight.


It's going to be easier to hit, now the maple's gone... aw, is he trying to justify himself or something? He might well be. Phil used to love the swing tree. He'd be sitting in that tire for hours on end, pretending to be a spaceman or whatnot. He always did like space, Phil did. Yancy's gaze slips towards the sky, but there's just the polluted glimmer of the city lights on the clouds. Pale cones of car headlights roar past now and then. If They're coming... They might as well come from the sky, right? He's only got one gun. He really should go down and talk to his son and Ilyena. The TV still sounds to be on.


Well, there's no going back. The swing broke years ago, anyway. What good's a tree for a grown man? Private Blake would tell you you could get tapeworms if you climbed the trees. God, damn worms! Growing inside you... like the cancer of Communism, a red worm in the bowels of the earth... or was that if you fell into the river? Same goddamn difference. If you're in the tree, and they shoot, you fall in the river. And the worms eat you from the inside. It was so warm... the water was muddy and warm as fever blood. It's so warm.


Yancy is sweating. There's mist on the window, but he's sweating like he's going to melt and run between the floorboards. His finger's so sweaty he can't feel the trigger.


So, They are coming? He'll show Them.


He doesn't think he can wait all night. He's not young anymore... and what if Fry turns up? He can't be pointing a gun to the road where Fry's going to come riding, with that mutt running next to him. Right now, if anything moves, he'll either shoot on sight or die. His heart is jittering with a sound like rotors.


Oh well, maybe They aren't coming, after all. Yancy lets the gun drop with a heavy clunk, and wipes his forehead. Stretched out on the cold boards. His heart is slowing down... slowly... why does it hurt so much? Sometimes it feels like he's spent his entire life waiting for the apocalypse. And, of course, he could give it up, but that would leave him so empty...


A dog. It's a dog barking! Yancy gets up to the window, and the reflection of his shattered happy face shocks him. If it's Phil coming back... well... on a night like this, who can blame a father for worrying about his son? Sure, they haven't had the best of relations in the past, but... maybe you need to be a really lousy father to get a lousy son. Maybe he should apologise for that pair of socks for a Christmas present. Maybe try to sell some of the weapons stock in the basement to be able to send Phil to college.


A distant rattle. Light. Thunder. Purple and golden flowers snake across the sky, and there's a smell of gunpowder, and Yancy fires wildly without even aiming. "Happy New Year, you Commie bastards! Happy new fecking millennium!" He doesn't even know if he says it out loud.

The stress gets to him shortly after that. He crawls to his bed and blacks out. When he wakes up the next morning, the sky is icy blue, and Phil's dog is barking at the doors, and Phil still isn't back.