Fan Fiction

Son of the Ashes, Part 6
By Christina Nordlander

Chapter 6: The Eagle and the Star

When Fry woke up the next morning, the sky was a warm blue, like nothing had ever exploded in it, and Dad was out in the corridor, shaving from the sound of it, and singing a bit tunelessly:

Long live Jagan!
Victory is ours!
We shall crush the enemy!
We shall rule the stars!

There was... was it an anomaly? He was sitting in his room. It was his room. The proportions were a bit wrong, and it was cleaner than his room had ever been since he was born, but the bed was uncomfortable, the window headed out on a road with spindly lampposts, and when he walked up to it he could see the crown of a maple. And behind the door, Dad was singing about ruling the stars. His brain felt like it was going to start bleeding.

"Father?" he said, still a bit uneasily, as the door came open. It didn't creak. He shuddered.

Yancy finished shaving and slapped some aftershave on his face, then leant on the stairway railing while pulling his black pants on. In their old woodworm-infested home, that would have been suicide.

"You up already, Phil?" he said. "I was thinking of letting you sleep in... after all, yesterday was a very taxing day for the two of us, and I've got business at the palace. Diplomatic business. I don't reckon you'd find it very interesting. Long live Jagan... victory is ours..."

The aftershave was rather like benzene in smell and general components, and it was making Yancy blush, showing up a scar along his cheekbone. It looked old, only visible where it distorted the skin a little. Dad put his hand to it, like Fry's gaze had actually hurt, and Fry looked down. Maybe it was another trauma.

"Well, what is it now, son?" he almost growled. It was not a growl directed at Fry.

"I just don't like that song", Fry said, chilly shame rising inside him. Why? "It's so... so... very aggressive." And megalomaniacal, and intimidating, and shallowly cheerful in a creepy way which frightens me. But he was going to feel light-headed if he tried to say all those big words.

"Well, that just so happens to be the point", Dad said, still happily, through his teeth. "Are you going out? You should be able to find something to amuse you while I'm at the palace. Be sure to check out the concert hall, it's culcher."

He marched down the stairs, adjusting his helmet. Fry slipped into the sticky dress uniform and tagged along.

"It's just the whole 'crush the enemy' bit!" he panted. "I could see why that would be a bit... threatening... or something!"

"Best thing to do to the enemy, in my book", Dad muttered. They walked out on the driveway, and Dad locked the door behind them. The sky was a little dimmer today, the heat was almost pleasant, and Dad stretched himself in it. It was the first time Fry could remember him actually enjoying warmth.

"Yeah, but..." Strange, but the thoughts actually moved now. Like quicksilver. It must have been those banquets with all the political kajiggering. "People will get worried, sir... Father. Like... if they're fighting you, and then you start singing that song, not many are gonna surrender, because they'll think you'll just crush them... but you and the Emperor, you were saying that everyone who could be of use to the Empire was welcome to join..."

"Ridiculous", Dad said. Maybe it was a reflex action.

They went off separate ways. A few seconds later, Fry heard footsteps behind him, and heavy breathing through a mask.

"I do believe you're right, son", Dad said. "How about: 'We shall use the enemy?' That has a nice ring to it."

Losing the Nimbus. Losing the Halo, with all its crew. Captain Brannigan and Lieutenant Kroker were likely cooling in their unhallowed graves by now. Losing even Hedonism-bot... well, he would probably be able to find some carnal pleasure in being made into Imperial scrap metal. Glab had collected all the obituary files, heavily black-lacquered on the edges, in a lagoon in her paperwork, so she would never be able to take her eyes off it. Dempsey had laughed when he saw it... he could truly be a shallow man, when he put his mind to it. No, not shallow. He was spiteful and cruel, with a mind like a razor-sharp Slinky, and she might marry him or bury him, she had not decided yet. He could certainly be useful. At any rate, she needed the obituaries. This had started as a simple contest for galactic dominion, but it was going to turn into revenge action any time soon.

Even so, the General Secretary felt she didn't deserve what had met her when the latest of many, many taxing holoscreens unscrolled in her office.

"I've had it up to here with your diplomatic trapclap!" the bald, wrinkled old scientist whined, one frail talon of a hand waving vaguely in mid-air. "Just tell me whether my great-great-yadda-yadda-uncle, whom we sent almost alone to a certain death in enemy territory, is all right!"

The General Secretary clasped her hands, letting her embroidered sleeves trail across the folders.

As for Hedonism-bot, she felt truly sorry for that incident. The robot had never been meant as an assassin. He had been instructed, or rather cajoled into, playing a diversion while the laser cutter of the Halo –yet another strike at the heart of the budget– did its work. Something must have inflamed him with holy rage.

"We are positive that Philip as alive and well, like your other employees, Professor", she said, trying not to make her voice too smooth. "After all, the Lord Cyan gave his word that they be treated as honoured guests."

"And why would you trust de word of de Imperial dogs, you DOOP dog?" blurted a very angry, dreadlocked man in a suit. "We don't have to take your word for it! Show us de mon!"

The General Secretary had to keep her slim, apple-green hands still by conscious effort. She knew a Bureaucrat when she saw one.

"You will see de mon... the man within a second, sirs", she said conscientiously. "I have arranged an interview with Lord Cyan. If you want, we may make it a three-way."

"Oh my, yes", the scientist man replied, momentarily mellowed.

She dialled Lord Cyan's number. Once the black-helmeted face condensed on a new square of green light, superimposed in a terrifying fashion upon the heads of the men in the dingy Planet Express office, she got to her feet, grabbed the screens with a slight yelp from the static tingling along the edges, and respectfully moved them until they formed an isosceles triangle with her desk.

"Careful", the Professor complained. "This sort of thing gives me such motion sickness..."

"Milord", the General Secretary said, standing back at the desk. "Before we proceed, these gentlemen wish a few words with you."

"And these gentlemen are", Lord Cyan said with more than usual gruffness, "an absent-minded professor and" it may have been to his credit that he hardly skipped a beat, "a Jamaican accountant. What do the two of you want?"

"To see Fry, you... masked scavenger!" the Professor erupted.

Glab looked on in dismay as intimidating helmet and Slurm-bottle-bottom glasses eyed one another impassively; sparks almost flew between the two screens. Lord Cyan had met his match in diplomatic indiscretion. It was truly quite unseemly.

"And see him you shall", Lord Cyan eventually intoned.

He rose from his desk. A few moments later, the inanimate screen blacked out and started showing quite a colourful display of tropical fishes.

It was almost scary, how quickly you could get tired of New New New York. Not bored, just tired, as though all the glitzy surfaces scraped important layers off your brain. And he was warm, and afraid of getting lost in this "Marble Madness" maze of a city, so Fry ended up gravitating back towards the house. "FYRY MANOR" it said on an etched brass plate that he hadn't noticed, on the picket fence, not quite where the old runny sign saying "INTRUDERS WILL BE SHOT" used to be... on the real house. It worried him, but then again, most things had done, the last few days. What it all boiled down to was: 1) the door was locked, and 2) he didn't have a key.

He walked back to the palace instead. Dad was supposed to be there, and... he didn't want anyone to think he was a wuss, but it was the day's truth, he felt bad when Dad stayed away too long. Maybe it was ironic retribution of some kind. It should be. Also, he hadn't seen his friends since the banquet, and he really had to do something about their situation. On top of that, Jagan's Ego was an impressive place, and had air conditioning, he was pretty sure. Maybe he would catch Leela during her break, if imperial shoe-minders got breaks, and they could go for a walk along those really nice terraces up there...

A Cracktrooper among the bored-looking guard at the gates aimed a raygun at his face, so close he could smell the power-cells.

"Who goes there?" he said, as though he didn't really care. "Friend or foe?"

"Er, definitely friend, I think", Fry said, but the problem with talking into a gun is that everything you say sounds like lies, and not even very good lies. "Hey, just let me past, right. I'm not a DOOP scumsucker or anything, I just want a look around..."

"I get it", another Cracktrooper cut him off, with the drawl of someone who's going to make a joke. "So, kid, how do you think his imperial majesty has managed not to be assassinated so far?"

By being a just and merciful ruler? Fry didn't quip. Something stopped him before fear had a chance. The gun was put away, but the gates remained shut. For some reason, that made it worse. He wasn't even a threat.

"Go play on the highway, kid", muttered a heavy-set guard, sweat lanking his hair up like gel. "By-the- way, that's a spiffy uniform you've got. Who died and left it to you?"

"Yes, isn't that the question?" Fry said, drawing himself up and trying to let all the gold tassels speak for themselves. "Because, as a fact, it's about who didn't die..."

The gates smashed open. The guards leapt into various terrified salutes as Lord Cyan... no, Fry corrected himself, Dad, even if he was wearing that dumb Power Rangers mask... strode past, grabbed Fry's arm and dragged him into the coolness of the palace. Fry fancied he could hear the soldiers gasp as the gates banged shut.

"Why didn't you tell them who you are, Philip?" Dad demanded as they stopped outside a scratched, nondescript door sidling up against a wall of glimmering frescoes.

"I was going to, Father."

Dad seemed to relax, with a sigh that sounded frightening with its steely reverb.

"They should suffer", he said. "We Fyries are... pillars of the community, that is community in a non- Communist sense, in the very heart of the Empire. There are certain... laws. Did one of them pull a weapon on you?"

"No!" Fry almost yelled. The helmet was no better than the barrel of a raygun, in some ways. It didn't matter who was behind it.

"Good. For them." The helmet sagged a bit in the sparse light from gold threads running along the corridor walls. "Even so, they denied you access, and taunted you. Name their punishment."

Fry stared at his feet. His reflections stared up from the toe-caps of his jackboots.

"Get them off the hook this time", he said, and it sounded so pleading. He couldn't see why he was embarrassing himself like this for those rude idiots. "A warning, or something. It's not like they even knew who I was."

Dad opened the door and led him into... a technology room? It didn't look like it belonged in Jagan's Ego, but then again, few things did without an industrial-grade make-over. Fry sort of liked the technology here in the Empire. It was still outlandish, of course, but in slightly lesser degrees, and it had dignity. It didn't go all over the top with cartoony colours and blinking lights... not that that kind of thing was wrong, really. It just didn't make much sense in or out of context. And it was cool in here. Gentle fans were spinning his hair cold and sleek.

Scientists and nerds were seated at rows of stately computers, a bit like what the computer ed would have looked like back in school if Principal Zagadka had ever got that grant. They rose and saluted the two Fyries as they went past, and Fry waved at them, a bit relieved. He didn't want things to happen to them.

There was a holoscreen. And, in one half of it, two familiar faces warped in a scary way, a bit like at the end of a TV show when the credits go off to one side to make room for a preview.

"Fry!" Hermes exclaimed, temper apparently stretched to the limit. "Cut all bonds with de Evil Empire this instant and come back here, preferably in top physical condition!"

Fry didn't want to look at his father. He didn't want to look at the screen, either. The net effect made him feel like he was doing the opposite of going cross-eyed.

"Why, Hermes, that is highly uncalled for and undiplomatic", the Professor scolded, then turned to the screen. "Fry, you childish old fossil! What did I tell you about playing the renegade with strange empires? Tell them you're going home, and there's no way they can stop you less'n nailing your feet to the floor!" He wagged a liver-spotted hand at the screen. It broke through for a few moments, with lots of electrical discharge and the general effect of a melting mirror.

Fry shuddered. On the second half of the split screen, the green lady –some kind of DOOP bigjob-ette, wasn't she?– buried her face in her three-fingered hands.

"I'm very sorry", Fry realised he was telling Yancy, and all those bits of him not doing the talking were watching in a nightmare fascination. "They don't mean it, I promise. Please, don't kill me."

"Kill you?" Even shredded through that mask, the voice was horrified. "Kill... kill my own son?"

The holoscreen gasped in doppler.

"Well, this is going to the archives!" Hermes said cheerfully, then seemed to notice the sharp glares from the Professor and the General Secretary.

"No, Fry!" The Professor's voice rose to an agonised keening. It was horrible to listen to, also embarrassing. "Haven't I always been as a father figure for you?"

"Please, Professor..." Fry leant close to the screen, until all he could taste was electricity trying to earth itself on his tongue, and whispered: "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but he is my father. We screwed up and fell out... well, it was mostly me, really... a thousand years back, and now I've got another chance. I don't care about the war. A week ago I didn't even know there were hostilities between the DOOP and the Empire. Well, I didn't know about the Empire at all. But they're not evil. They're just like us, except I feel more at home here, but that's not really your fault, Professor. You've helped me so much since I landed here in the future, you've saved my life. But he... Yancy J. Fry Sr.... he gave me my life. How can I be a renegade? How can I be a traitor? He's my father."

He opened his eyes when something stung him on the face. Electricity was earthing itself on his tears.

Professor Farnsworth cupped a hand behind his ear.

"What's all that blubbering?" he croaked.

"They... well, they have things I don't agree with, but if I stay here..." Fry gasped for breath and kept whispering. "My father listens to me. And the Emperor listens to my father, when he's lucid that is. I can get all the violence stopped. Also, the DOOP tried to assassinate my father, then me, out of pure spite. Who's the real renegade? I mean in a moral sense, not in the actually joining the opposite side sense, but you get my point."

"I'm sorry, Fry." The Professor slumped. "I didn't catch a word of that."

"Whom did you call a renegade?" the General Secretary demanded.

Fry turned around, grabbed a coat hanging from a hook and draped it across her side of the screen, then turned back to the warped view of the Planet Express office. Twisted owls flew past the window, and the sky was glassy blue. Professor Farnsworth looked close to tears. Hermes didn't.

"You are aware dat, with de recent declaration of total war on de Empire and the proclamation of martial law, that makes you a despicable foreign devil?" the Bureaucrat said as though reading from an inner file. "Dat, in turn, means dat should you fall in our power, you will face a painful and degrading public execution as a war criminal!"

"So will you, should the opposite circumstances apply", Fry said and was awestruck with his own voice. It sounded... cold, he supposed, and diplomatic. He must be running on auto-pilot now... it was better than thinking about what Hermes had said. (Dad had to be smiling.) He had been through enough executions of war criminals the last few days, thank you.

It would probably have sounded a little better if he had stopped there, instead of going on: "And so on, and so forth, yadda yadda."

Hermes sounded like he was chewing his own rage up into little bits. "Dere must be a reason for dis, Fry. Dere is always a reason when likely young men go AWOL in de sugarcane fields of treason!" A new thought seemed to twinkle behind his square glasses. "Where are your friends? Have dey got any say in dis matter?"

Fry felt himself blanch cold.

"Amy, Bender, Leela and Dr Zoidberg are all alive and well", he let the icy auto-pilot clink along. The warm and pink parts of his brain screamed that he was lying... but it was OK, he was going to talk to Dad about them soon, and they would get it better. "They will be quite happy to hear from you." Those parts of his brain screamed that it was just plain wrong. "And the reason... Mr Conrad... the reason is loyalty."

"Loyalty, is it..." Hermes' eyes seemed to shoot sparks of fire. "Let me tell you something, Mr Fry! All your so-called 'loyalty' and 'integrity' and 'chastity' is not worth a nought in the files of the Book-Keeper of the Dead! You can take it and perform a physiologically impossible action with it! If we catch you renegades here again, so help me, Fry, you'll fry!"

"Worthy sentiments, Hermes, but please..." the Professor put a hand on Hermes' slightly bulging shoulder, and the Bureaucrat stepped back, looking a bit sheepish. "Fry... it's not true. Whenever you and your friends want to come back..." and his voice gave in for a moment, "we will receive you with open arms." It struck Fry that it was all cliché. He hadn't heard so much cliché in a thousand years.

"And fire!" Hermes muttered in the background.

Fry hesitated. "I... I'll miss you, Professor, Hermes. We'll all miss you." So it wasn't hesitation, after all.

Dad let him go, after that, with some praise to his negotiatory intransigence, whatever that was, so he could continue to trade poisonously sweet barbs with the General Secretary. Fry had winked and nudged him in the waist, and the mask had turned to face him.

"Did I ever tell you to... to disregard loyalty and integrity?" Yancy's voice asked. He sounded genuinely unsure.

Fry swallowed. "No, sir... Father... you always told me those were very important things.

His father nodded, as though a point had been made. "Go off and find your friends."

He found three of them in the kitchen. Amy was doing the dishes again, jewelled over with sweat. It was hot down here, far too hot for human or other beings, but Bender was enjoying some rest, his many-jointed legs crossed on the table, cigar in mouth, and Dr Zoidberg was seeing to the slops. Well... "seeing to". It must have occurred to Bender that loosing Zoidberg in a kitchen was, by and large, a great strategy of waste disposal.

Fry flopped down on the chair next to his robofriend, unbuttoning his shirt and concentrating on not letting his hair dribble sweat into his eyes, because that burnt.

"If the mistress of the kitchen personnel saw you do that, she'd go nuts", Amy declared miserably, looking at his reflection in the stainless machinery by the sink. "It's got to be fifty degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit here, and I still have to wear this..." she twanged the ribbon in disgust "... stupid faux lace apron!"

There was choking silence.

"So... how do you feel about your job?" he asked, with the vague feeling that this was not a smart thing to say.

Amy's sudsy hair bobbed as she curtsied. "Very well, thank you, sir."

At least things won't happen to her, Fry thought. Then a thought struck him. "Are you being sarcastic?"

"No sirree!" Bob, bob.

"Me, I like it here", Bender scraped, inhaling the smoke. "As a cook, I have a higher rank than the kitchen personnel, and get to order them about!"

"You've got to be happy you go the cook job!" Fry said, a bit gratefully. He still couldn't get rid of the feeling that they were talking from different levels. "So, what does that occupation entail? Excuse me... Zoidberg... do many waste disposal officers use a straw?"

"Why did you come here, anyway?" Amy muttered, her voice echoing in a disconcerting way as she scrubbed the inside of a deep pot. "Just to act all uppity?"

"No!" He hadn't meant to scream. "I mean... there are complications. I... I don't think you can get back to Earth. Not in a while. Sorry." He felt like a dirty rotten liar, even though he'd just told the truth.

"The HELL?" He hadn't wanted to see their eyes bulge like that, either. Bender's eyes actually whirred halfway out of their sockets.

"You know... war and all... I just phoned the Professor and Hermes... and they said..." He didn't want to talk any more. His stomach felt all fluttery, like he was starting to get sick. Surely he could do something. "Apparently, martial law has been declared in the DOOP-controlled systems." It did sound slightly sinister. "If you go back to our solar system, you're going to end up in front of a firing squad. Again. Only last time it was an axing squad. Er."

"No!" Amy's cute face scrunched up as her eyes welled with tears. "What will my parents say?"

"You said, 'you'", Dr Zoidberg said, fixing a frighteningly intelligent stare on Fry. "You don't mean, 'we'. Does this mean that you can still go back, fortunate son kid?"

Fry swallowed again. Breathing in here was like drinking soap. "Er, no. I've got the loyalty to my father to think about. I feel at home here, really. I mean... I've got to talk to him about giving you jobs you're better at, well, obviously not you, Bender... or Zoidberg... but there's got to be a machine for washing the dishes, like a dishwashing machine... and I've got to see Leela... you can't go back I'm sorry."

Bender stood up, arm extending with a rattling noise, eyes flashing.

"Out", he said. "Out! GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN!"

Fry ran, skidding on the suds... ran, ran up through the hallway, because if anyone had heard that, Bender was going to suffer... they were all going to suffer... his friends, didn't they see he was doing his best to help them, he didn't expect any gratitude but at least they shouldn't act like it was all his fault... at the very least...

He slowed down when he realized he'd reached the servants' living quarters, but the words thundered through his head just the same. Now, was he just going to knock on every door to see if Leela was there, or what?

Running footsteps getting closer. He poked his head around a corner and...

Something smacked him hard on the head. Fry fell back on the floor, feeling his nose in case it was bleeding. Leathery objects tumbled all around him.

"Gee, Fry! Is it too much to ax that you look where you're going?"

It was Leela, white-robed, smelling chemical from bootblack, more haggard than ever... more beautiful than ever, flicking her tangled ponytail back over her shoulder while picking up a few sleek shoes and a stiff brush. He tried to focus on her, let the anger seep away, slowly... oh what the hell, he was still angry.

"Would you mind?" he shouted and hated himself for it. "I haven't had a brilliant day here!"

Leela gave him another of her Looks. His anger went away. In fact, it ran screaming.

"Not a patch on mine, I suppose", she said. Not raging, just so tired her voice was like wire. "And it's only the first day." The wire went sing-song. "The first wonderful day of a wonderful life..."

"I'm happy you think so." He could only take so much sarcasm in one day.

"... as the glorious exalted Emperor Jagan's lowly shoe-cleaner... oh, will you look at that?" The brush had left a stringy black smudge, rather like mascara, on a silvery marble flagstone. "Sure, I'll get that out", Leela went on, starting to wipe it with the edge of her robe. "But then, it's going to be hell to pay because I'm not looking clean enough... oh, it'll be hell to pay anyway."

"Here, let me help you", Fry said, and it still hurt to look at her. "There's got to be something in my pockets to wipe with... there always is. Here."

He handed her a clean, rather elegant hanky. Leela took it, stared at it, then started wiping. More bitterness.

"You know, you could just say 'thank you'", he muttered.

"If not for you, I wouldn't be doing this", Leela said without turning her head. "I suppose we're quits."

She spat on the cloth and rubbed harder. Somewhere in Fry, a red droplet had caused something to overflow.

"If not for me, you wouldn't be doing this, because you'd all be dead!" he yelled. "Give me some slack, just for once! Even cleaning shoes has got to be better than dancing the headless fandango! And if you disagree, well, I'm sure I cold talk to my father about that!"

Leela looked up at him, her eye limpid. A big tear crystallised in it, and she wiped it off her cheek with the handkerchief, leaving a gray smudgy streak. The letters "C. F." were monogrammed in the corner.

"I'm sorry, Fry", she said, and it helped, for that short gap between anger and remorse. "I really am. It's true, your father saved our lives... for you... but I can't think anymore!" She kicked at one of the Emperor's shoes, and it floated across the frictionless floor until it hit a wall, turned over and showed the eagle-and-star mark stamped on the raw rubber sole. "I'm sad and overheated and degraded and slept about three hours last night! I want to get out of this place... or at least, get a better job. There's got to be something... I can fly a plane, I can shoot, I don't particularly feel like fighting the DOOP but I'm as much of a traitor sitting here, shining up the oppressive jackboots of tyranny..."

She leant on him, putting her head on his shoulder so he couldn't see her face, and the jagged words turned into jagged breathing. Fry patted her back, trying to comfort her, trying to be able to think about anything else than palpitating melty warmth. His head felt like it was going to explode. Where was he? Oh yes. Talk to Yancy. Get her moved to some better job. Do it soon.

"It's OK, Leela", he murmured. "Surely they've got machines that can replace you and do the shoe- cleaning a lot better in no time..."

Leela drew herself up, her unibrow a totally straight line. The monogrammed handkerchief slipped between her fingers as she briefly bent down to pick up the shoes.

"And good day to you, master Fyry", she said, with a voice that caused the temperature to drop at least twenty degrees, and strode off.

"Who's the girl?" Dad said, where he appeared as a dark column in a light-well at the end of the corridor. He couldn't have seen anything except Leela's back and ponytail.

"Just some girl", Fry said. His gaze was running away from that helmet again. "Er... Father... I've been talking to my friends."

"The servants", Dad corrected.

"My friends." But he didn't really have the guts to stress the point. "Bender and Zoidberg... that's the 'bot and the weird lobster guy... rather like their jobs, but Amy and especially Leela are unhappy. If I remember right, Leela wants to be a pilot or a soldier, and Amy wants to be... Idunno, some kind of a supermodel, I think."

"And why are you telling me?" Impassive voice. "I may be the Emperor's right hand man, Phil, but I have virtually no influence in palace internal affairs. I am a warlord. The chief of the palace employees would be more useful, or maybe some administrator..."

"But all those people listen to you!" He was whining again. It was the heat. "Nobody here listens to me!"

They walked past a number of guards stationed by the throne room. At first sight of them, salutes snapped.

"It's all in your bearing", Dad said, almost sounding softened. "Anyway. I'll see what I can do."

But some days went by. There were rather more motorcades through New New New York, rather more soldiers around, ceremonies in the Hyperdrome celebrating the imminent victory... ceremonies so glorious they could take your eyes right out of your head. Dad had said something about how war was the purifier of nations. Well, maybe he was right. The war sure did have a lot of glamour, at this end of it.

"So, have you declared martial law or not?" Fry asked his father one beautiful peach-coloured evening, as they sat at a rickety table under the swing maple, having a smoke and watching the sunset. Planet Scintillant had sunsets... well, they lived up to the planet's name. If you were really lucky, you could catch a glimpse of the Eagle windhovering by, reflecting every single stripe of mint green and scarlet in its wings.

"Declared martial law?" Yancy looked puzzled for a moment, then stubbed his cigar and laughed. "Planet Scintillant, like the Empire, is always under martial law, son! Until we have won freedom from the DOOP, we give no pardon."

There was more diplomacy, War's quiet shallow sister. Meetings with the governors of annexed or allied planets. Yancy demanded that Fry attend all the meetings... no, "demand" was too soft. He didn't seem to consider the possibility that his son didn't enjoy small mothball-flavoured drinks and conversations with painfully long words. Only, the words seemed to get shorter and more tolerable as they went on. He must be learning, or just deadening. There were also weapons inspections and plans for building mobile battle stations... now that was interesting. He was being groomed. He didn't mind. Dad sent him to borrow books in the library at the outskirts of Jagan's Ego, and the nice lady at the counter smiled and handed him a dictionary on top of the pile.

"But it's... it's still all about killing people, isn't it?" Fry said, one night in the starry blue darkness at the concert hall. It just sounded stupid. "Of course, I mean, all war is... but the DOOP is a great many people..."

They were there with Captain Lilybulb, officer of the palace guard, rather a nice guy in a rotund, gruff way, who wanted to hear his daughter perform in the New New New York Soprano Choir. Once your ears had got used to it, it was glorious. An aria version of "Rule The Stars"... well, that was scary, but Fry felt a twinge of happiness whenever he heard "we shall use the enemy".

"No mercy for the shadow", his father said, and it sounded like his lips didn't move, though Fry couldn't understand why. "We gave them chances... so many chances. But they would crush us to the ground. Tread on us." Leela's eye glittered before Fry's inner eye for a moment, but it might have been that all his nerves were overwhelmed by the needle-thin beautiful voices and the twinkling spotlights. "All we want is freedom. Freedom of trade. Freedom to set our taxes as we would. But most of all, freedom from their VILE PERNICIOUS COMMUNIST..." he slumped in his chair. "Their ideology. They would force us to march in lockstep with them forever. But freedom, the choice of the individual, is what the glory of Scintillant is based on."

"America", Fry filled in. Dad didn't seem to notice.

"The day they give us our freedom, we will stop fighting." It seemed to be heading towards some kind of conclusion. "Until then... give us liberty, or give us death! This is no war. It is a rebellion."

"You mean... a revolution?" Fry suggested. He was holding a half-drunk bottle of beer. It felt like the water-tight compartments in his brain were starting to soften.

Dad flinched, as though fighting against an impulse to, well, fight. Fry tried again.

"You're the rebels? But... I thought you were the Evil Empire? I mean... it's just a way of speech... analogy..."

Dad put one gauntleted hand on the back of the chair in front of them, and held it down with the other, as though it was all he could do not to slap Fry. Those gauntlets... best to keep quiet.

Long live Jagan! Victory is ours! We shall use the enemy! We shall rule the stars!

"I must never have noticed it", he said slowly. It was a novel line of thought. "But they are a bit... Idunno, liberal. Sending ships everywhere to control people and not interfere... not interfere, indeed!" He had another gulp of beer. It felt cold in his throat, lovely warm the rest of the way.

"And perniciously miscegenated", Dad filled in.

"And perniciously miscegenated. Whatever that means." He looked closer on the stage through his theatre glasses. "You know, Dad... this is culcher! I never got much of this back home... except that time I became a famous holophonist."

"You are an artist?" Heavy hand on his shoulder. "My word... Captain? Did you hear? My son plays a musical instrument! Truly an egregious heir of the Fyries!"

"Oh, Dad..." Fry said, but it's amazing how hard it can be to be righteously embarrassed when you feel like you're flying and melting into the sky. He had another sip to cool down his cheeks. "Want a beer, Dad?"

"No, thank you", his father said, putting a hand over his glass. "Alcohol tarnishes the soul."

"Yeah, but it also removes tarnish!" Fry quipped, and Dad and Captain Lilybulb laughed. He didn't know when last he'd felt so... good. "Seriously, this hall is the tops. Does the Emperor come here often?"

"As you may have noticed", Dad muttered, "the Emperor is more one for instant gratification."

"As opposed to the deep-felt inner peace you get from hearing songs about crushing the enemy", Captain Lilybulb chuckled in a snarky fashion. Fry was starting to really like the guy. "Not enough cheap thrills for him."

"The Emperor wants cheap thrills and instant gratification, eh?" Fry shouted, waving the bottle around. There was a commotion on the stage. "Well, I'll show him! I'll write an opera! I've done it before, and I'm going to do it again!"

And so he did. An hour after he had started writing, Yancy suggested he make it a regular play.

Some days went by.

Polishing shoes was not really an intellectually demanding job. Once you had learnt to distinguish between the kind of leather that could take the hard brush and the kind that just needed wiping, and how to mix the different colours of shine, and which kind of boots should be chalked, it was plain sailing. Of course, it was still demeaning, and the chemical smell stuck in Leela's hair and her very skin, and she was woken up before the sun so she could get the Emperor's shoes ready for the day, and she was beginning to get sick at the sight of her own boots, but you had to be able to see the silver lining. There was the hope of revenge, for one.

Also, she learnt things, and she clung to all the information she absorbed like a Magnasian limpet-bird clings to bits of metal and bolts. She followed the Emperor to diplomatic meetings, where he would sit around listlessly or occasionally order the execution of someone. Even when she was seated under that hated, hated table, its top pushing her head down between her shoulders, she could hear the scruffy sounds of paperwork and the hard taps of the eagle-and-star seal.

There was a great deal of paperwork. The Empire was a bureaucratic order of planets, and the sole duty of Emperor Jagan –Jagan the Jerk, as she had started to refer to him in the confines of her head, but carefully, as though he might have spies there too– seemed to be to read reports and put his seal on them. It came as rather a shock to realise that everyone in the palace, nay the Empire, even Lord Cyan himself, obeyed everything that had the eagle-and-star stamped on it. It made her think.

So, as she would be busying herself with shining up one of his eternal, accursed, eagle-and-star- marked red leather boots, she would hear the seal above her head, and one day, as she was allowed to leave the throne room to get a less bristly brush, she saw a distant winged speck of gold turn high above the skylight, to the rhythm.

The Imperial Spacey flew again, to conquer Glamora. This time Lieutenant Riffenstein was in command. Lord Cyan had taken leave to spend some quality time with his son. In the higher echelons of the Empire, no one found that strange.

Lieutenant Riffenstein would not stay in command for long, Lord Cyan mused, as the bright colours of the holoscreens flickered on his helmet over and over again. Pacifying planet Glamora would have been a routine mission, if someone hadn't screwed it up.

The screen almost warped in order to accommodate the throne room in the Glamoran royal palace: a Gothic cathedral of a cave, encrusted with strangely luminescent crystals in notes of purple. Glamora was an ancient culture, so stratified and hierarchically pyramidal it made the Empire look like an Anarchist love-in in California. Therefore, they had been assured that if the Princess could be swayed, she would sway her people. They had underestimated the Glamorans' love of pageantry and empty gestures.

The record wound to the end and looped with a tinny noise. The white-armored Cracktroopers were standing in square formation again, around the very petite, very straight, red-robed girl to whom the Lieutenant was presenting the writ.

"I beg your pardon", she almost whispered, but in a straight voice. "I have not got a pen."

Lieutenant Riffenstein gave her one. The holocamera zoomed in somewhat, groggily, as she felt the nib with a manicured finger.

"Not very sharp", she said, almost absent-mindedly, and got a new nib. "I suppose you want me to sign in my own blood."

Guns were cocked.

"We are a small planet", the Princess went on, eyes narrowing as though she were bored of looking at the peace enforcers, "but my people shall fight to the death. The DOOP will protect us! They will trample you in the dust!" Sharp-nibbed pen went into jewelled bodice. "Fight for me, my people! To the death!" She collapsed, deep-purple hair flowing all over the place, and the palace guards in their winged ornate armour turned on the Cracktroopers...

He should not indulge in it. Small defeats, that was how they got to you, in the end. For too many planets in the galaxy, the hated, hated DOOP still meant freedom and protection from the responsibility to govern their own lives. If only there was a way to make them show their true, hammer- and-sickle branded faces...

Lord Cyan pressed the Pause button as the door clicked open behind him. He spun in the chair, and was flustered to find that it was Philip. He was flustered, but his heart warmed. The boy was wearing his uniform like he had earned it, and he was starting to get a tan. He had the cheekbones of a Fyry, so much was for sure, and all that reading had put the intelligence of a predator in his eyes. If only he hadn't stepped in now...

A woman killing herself for the honour of her unconquered people. If Philip got those wide, innocent eyes on it, it would seem wrong.

"What do you want, Phil?" he asked, standing up and extending his arms slightly to block the screen with his robe. "I'm quite busy."

"I'm writing that play like you suggested", Philip began, blushing slightly. "It... it's going quite well really, Father, but now I'm stuck. I realise I don't know half about this conflict. I need more material to give a more balanced view." Yes, he had changed. "I need to see the enemy."

"That is fine, son, but you really should leave me now..." Strange, but he didn't want to say it. Philip was... there was so much between them, they were all tangled up in the barb wire swirls of DNA. Whenever the boy walked away, the world went lonely.

"What is it on the screen?" Lord Cyan had to step to the side, now the boy asked outright, and Philip pushed Play. The carnage ticked on.

"I don't want you to see this, Phil..."

But he watched impassively, to the very end.

"No offence or anything, Dad", he said, and somehow it felt good, being called "dad" by him. It was like having your heart dipped in warm porridge. "Can I have that scene in my play? You don't think that would be offensive, do you?"

"No", Lord Cyan replied, as his boy grabbed the frozen screen around the edges and dragged it through the doorway.

There was an altercation with a Cracktrooper in the doorway. Words were heard: "... step through my screen again, I'll have you fired!" And, hidden by his mask, Lord Cyan smiled.

Tamsin was still around the house every now and then, though Fry was given to understand that it was in her professional capacities. She steamed some clams for them that evening, in the softly green- curtained kitchen, and went away as they ate. "Champagne Supernova" was playing on the stereo in the next room, and the clams were really quite delicious. The newly printed stage-script was lying in a corner of the table, eagle-and-star seal stamped neatly on the front.

"What I don't understand", Fry said, chewing in between, "you're obviously the... main guy around here, aren't you? So why do you take orders from a creepy stoner like..." he had learnt, by now "... the exalted Emperor Jagan?"

Dad actually chuckled. He'd been doing that a lot lately. "The Emperor is a useful figurehead. And when you're my age, son, you'll realise that what a powerful man needs is someone to take the fall when the chips are down." Fry speared some fries on his fork and jammed them into his mouth. They were golden with wonderfully sizzled fat. "In fact, speaking of nothing in particular... this is sort of a delicate question, but it needs to be popped. Have you got a girlfriend at all?"

All of a sudden, the glorious sunset between the curtains drizzled into Old New York grey sky. Fry tried to swallow. "Dad... do we have to..."

"Well, find one!" Dad said, glaring out the window as though following Fry's gaze. "Because, what my father said to me, and his father before him... what is important is to carry on the Fyry genes. I have found you, but we can't stop at that. It's time, to put it bluntly, that you get married and have a son."

"But Dad..." Oh, how he wished this kind of conversation would have stayed in the 20th century. "I'm an irresponsible male in his middle-to-upper twenties! That is not going to happen... yet!"

"You are a Fyry." Dad reached across the table and wiped some tarnish off his épaulette. His face was less expressive than the mask. "I remember seeing you hug some palace floozy, on your first day here... who was it? Does she respond to your feelings?"

"No", Fry whispered into his food. It felt easier than lying or telling the truth.

That hand grabbed his shoulder until he was forced to look up. "Let me tell you something about women, son. They respond to your feelings. If they don't, there's something wrong. After all, we're here to take care of them, aren't we?"

Something wasn't feeling quite right, but Fry had had a glass of whisky to go with the clams. He was prepared to let those doubts slip away in the clouds.

"Well yeah..."

"And you in particular, being the heir to generations of Fyries!" Dad went on. "In short, not to put too fine a point on it, they like power. I remember my wife..." but something diluted in his eyes. "If this... lady friend of yours... is so negatively predisposed towards you, you should really encourage her to think otherwise. She's not fallen completely under Jagan's spell, has she? After all, he understands the power equation, too..."

"No!" Fry called out. The word seemed to burn in his mouth. Leela...

The long line of the Fyries... carry on the genes...

"Well, you are now the official playwright laureate", Dad said ominously and patted the laminated cover of the script. "Perhaps that tender, esthete charm will succeed where raw power hasn't. If you excuse me, son, I'm going for a walk before it gets too chilly. My legs are acting up."

Once the door slid shut, Fry rubbed his eyes. It was nothing he had seen, just the idea that he needed to rub his brain as well. What right has he to talk about Leela like that? But every right. He's my father. It was easier to sit back and feel invigorated by the music. Facing it.

It was asking him...

"Where were you when we were getting high, Father?" he whispered, and hoped it was the drink talking.

The white-armored Cracktroopers were standing in square formation again, around the very petite, very straight, red-robed girl to whom the Lieutenant was presenting the writ. The make-up artists and stagehands had worked wonders. Looking at the stage was like looking into a Fabergé egg.

"Young lord, I will not kneel", the bejewelled Princess said in a firm voice, putting the pen to her bodice...

... and a figure in a dark cape and lustrous dark helmet snatched it away, as the background music reached a syrupy frenzy. "No, milady! The Empire watches over its own!"

The Princess looked up at her savior, her eyes enormous with make-up and wobbling. "I see now that the only future for my people is with the Empire. Can you forgive me?"

"Forgive you? Love, there's nothing to forgive!"

Then there was the wedding bells, and the sword-duel with the evil and sexually perverse General Secretary Glab of the hated DOOP, played by a green-skinned, somewhat mannish amateur actress known only as Mary-Jane. She was doing quite a good job of it, only rivalled by the actor Branagh – another one picked up in audition– behind the black robe and mask.

Lord Cyan seemed quite pleased, and had already made a note to have the play performed in every major city governed by the Empire, and also made into an educational film. Captain Lilybulb was captivated by the glitz and high-falutin language, even though the utter political inaccuracy was beginning to bother him.

"No two words about it, your son is a talented propagandist, milord", he said to the dark shape next to him. "He really made some beautiful changes there. Now, where did he go?"

"Off to follow my advice", Lord Cyan muttered, as the visor of his helmet kept watching the glorious moral victory of the Empire.

She should have gone to the play, but she hadn't, because who would know if the Imperial jackboots would get dusty on the way? She should have run off somehow, if only for a moment to salve her integrity. Now, she knew it was going to be hard.

"Hey, darlin", the Emperor said as she walked past, trying to look busy, and to call his voice lascivious would be about as informative as calling water wet. He was sitting on the throne only by default, and from his movements as he beckoned her he seemed to briefly have forgotten how many appendages he had. "You know, you've been doing a lot of hard work lately, darlin. Why don't you relax a bit? Come over here and melt the crystal mirror with me."

She had to keep the spite under control. Her tongue liked her head where it was. But it was hard, so dang hard it made her sick.

"That was either a visitation to some kind of drug abuse or a visitation to some kind of sexual practice, sir", she said stonily, "and I will never, never want to know why! Besides, it's too hot for drugs now." It was true. Heat was tightening around her head like a tourniquet.

"Did you say 'sexual', darlin?" She wished she hadn't, now. Some kind of mercury-like chemical wormed down the side of the table as Emperor Jagan got to his feet, rather shakily. "It gets lonely at the top. Why don't you and I... darlin... go somewhere private?"

Leela backed away, staring at the floor. Might as well. "You repulse me!" she hissed.

"No, you repulse me!" Emperor Jagan called out as she strode into a corridor. His hair was falling in front of his eyes again. "Now come back so I can fondle you!"

Footsteps, trimly booted ones, were coming from the other end of the marmoreal twist of the corridor... and they had succeeded, they had made her into a nervous wreck. She almost screamed when a man walked up next to her, but it was Fry. Fry with his hair slicked down and wearing what looked like a tux made out of silver cotton-candy, none the less. She could have hugged him, but her arms were full of shoes again, and her back screamed at the thought of them clattering across the floor and she would have to bend down and pick them up...

"Leela!" Fry said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I was hoping you'd be at the concert hall... they're putting up my play there! My play!" His eyes were glowing. "But what's the matter... Leela... you look like you're going to cry?"

"Forget about it", she muttered, blinking until she could hardly see him. "I'm sorry I couldn't come, Fry." She waited for him to say it didn't matter, but he was Fry... not the most sensitive guy in the universe. "I'll go some other time. Right now... I need to go for a little walk. Want to come?"

"Certainly." He had... changed. It wasn't just the clothes and the smart new haircut, the one that made him look even more like his dad... maybe not even the new confidence. He took her arm, as well he might, and promenaded her in the direction of the gleaming sky outside a colonnade. "What are you doing tonight?"

"Cleaning boots. Sweating. Dodging his imperial majesty." She managed to keep the bitterness out of her voice, all the way down to the final sentence. Maybe he was looking at her, but she kept her eye down.

"It is rather hot, is it not?" Fry agreed. She heard a small tinkle as he unbuttoned his shirt.

She had to nod, and then couldn't hold the whining back. "It... it's sickening, Fry! I spend all that time crouched under that table..." and why was he clutching her arm like that? "... and it's like I'm being poisoned. It's like fever." She leant against an almost mirroring pillar, and her dress clove to it, but at least she could breathe in the cooling blue sky. "I want to get out of here, Fry, I'm suffocating here..."

And a silver-shrouded arm put itself around her shoulders. "Then let my love keep your cold."

Eye stared into eyes.

"Excuse me, Fry?" she hissed. "I think you may have misunderstood me. I was not attempting to seduce you. I'll see you around."

She stalked off, clinging to the shoes for dear life, and heard Fry cry out behind her: "Well, I was attempting to seduce you! I happen to be the son of Lord Cyan, you know! I could make things a lot better for you if you'd stop being so damn... emancipated!"

It was hard to walking with warm, sticky tears clouding up her eye. After a while, she had to crouch, even though her spine felt like it was growing spines everywhere, and pick the shoes up anyway.

Sound travelled long in the corridors. Two voices, one of them young and rather arrogant in an unsure way, the other drawling and arrogant enough for two, twisted into her ears...

"Have you seen my darlin around here?"

"Your... darlin."

"Yes, the Leela girl. Purple hair, a bit deformed, but I am certain my subjects can inform you that I..." frightening laugh "... have some very twisted tastes."

"You haven't..."

"If you find her, good luck to you. She has nice soft hands. Shame about the eye, but it's not the eye you want, I am given to understand..."

The heat was getting to her. Whilst fighting dizziness, Leela had a vision of Fry tottering out of the palace, face in hands, shuddering with sobs... and then lifting his head, a new darkness in his look, and striding on as though he knew his goal.

The very same evening, a banquet was held in honour of the two stars, Branagh and Mary-Jane, still in the costumes of their roles. The Imperials needed little excuse for banquets, these days. The Emperor wanted to show off the amberglass ware taken from the royal palace of Glamora.

The man who called himself Branagh sat in silence next to the alien who called himself Mary-Jane. He was choking in his tacky black robe and body armor made out of metallic-sprayed knitting, but that was a small price to pay for still being able to wear a hat. And what a hat, even though he hadn't been allowed into the palace until the helmet had been plastered with a garish red-and-white sticker saying REPLICA. His eyes would be quite invisible as he glanced around the throne room.

They had been seated by quite a nob table, for actors. Most of the people around them were officials and the leisured classes... but looking towards the throne he recognised that wimp Fry, still wearing his tawdry uniform, pink-cheeked from a power trip and stretching himself whenever he got looked at by a burly, brown-haired man who looked very familiar. Nobody else was around, so maybe they'd all been executed. Quite a shame. Quite.

Mary-Jane emitted a high-pitched squeak. It was quite a good impression of a female, actually... but Branagh felt a muted tap on his shoulder, and spun around.

A cute, snub-nosed Oriental face looked back into his mask, between a bulge of black hair trapped in a fishnet and a deep cleavage... Mary-Jane was bending so close to the table he was almost rubbing his face in the glistening amber plate, no wonder... oh, and yes, wasn't that chick his girlfriend?

"First course, mister actor sir", Amy Wong said, curtsying pneumatically and ladling something indescribably and briny-smelling onto his plate. "Oh, and... not to be too forward, sir, but you might want to take that helmet off. It'll be hard to eat otherwise."

Now, that was not anything that Branagh was planning to do, but his heart had started racing. He was not going to die here! This called for a certain... let's call it... Branagh's Law.

Rakishly placing an elbow on the back of his chair, he cocked his head and put his other arm around Amy's waist. A small noise sounding a bit like "hegh!" was heard from Mary-Jane.

"I am ay sharacter actor", he said, letting his voice ooze like molasses under the gate of the Garden of Earthly Delights. "I live the role of the glorious Lord Cyan. I don't take my helmet off for anyone. But for you, my dear, I'll make an exception."

Amy backed off, giggling under her breath. "Why, Mr Branagh... please don't! Not while I'm in service! Anyway, I used to have a boyfriend... and I seem to be making your partner jealous!"

Ah, things were turning out a bit of alright. Branagh nudged Mary-Jane. "Well, I do apologise, honey. But surely, you can't blame me for being captivated with such an adorably cute face every now and then?" Mary-Jane hid his heavily made-up face under his sleeves.

Now that put a bitter taste in your mouth. Branagh hazarded to poke his helmet up, just enough to poke a greasy chunk of what appeared to be a deep-fried piece of toast into his mouth. For a moment, he wondered if the mask would make him choke on his own vomit.

"Who cooks this thing?" he shouted when his vocal chords disentangled themselves.

"Second cook Bender, sir", Amy said, curtsying in fear. "He's a robot, sir... hasn't got any taste buds... I'm sorry if you don't like it..."

"Delicious!" Branagh called out, loud enough for even the creepy Emperor to turn his head. "Why, Mary-Jane, you must have some too..." He tore off another gobbet, well above bite-sized, and shoved it into Mary-Jane's slitted mouth. "The flavours in this... dish... are driving me to distraction with their tastific goodness! Please, allow me to compliment the cook in person!"

"It's down that way", Amy said, waving a hand vaguely in the direction of a corridor. After all, actors belonged in kitchens and suchlike areas. Branagh strode off, and Mary-Jane tagged along, sleeves trailing. When he turned around by the doorway, he saw Fry leaving the table, but taking the opposite way.

In the soapy-smelling kitchen, a bending unit in a white hat looked up from the meticulous task of sticking bats on toothpicks and placing them in drinks. He wiped his grippers on a towel, making them gleamed with lard, then turned to face them. His pupils flickered out thin.

"Since you're dragging a wimpy alien in a ceremonial outfit around, I presume you're not Lord Jerkass", he said in a conversational tone of voice. "So, you must be that actor guy who never shows his face and... whatserface, Mary-Sue?"


"We want a favour of you", Branagh said, going for the straightforward approach. "As second cook to the palace, you would have a certain authority, now wouldn't you? Can you take me and... Mary-Jane to the communications room?"

"Who wants to know?" Bender asked, pupils narrowing again. "And don't give me any of that Branagh crap. I'm taking no lip from you."

The man who called himself Branagh raised his hands to the helmet.

"Before I take it off", he said, trying to keep his voice steady, "I want you to know that whatever bounty is on our heads, the DOOP will pay you the double if you help us stay concealed."

"DOOP, eh?" Bender mumbled. "Double, eh? Show us."

The helmet came off. Greasy blond hair flopped into the eyes of the man who called himself Branagh, but he could see Bender wrestling with his double loyalties... or more probably, his desire to screw up the Empire and his desire to screw up the two men before him.

"OK, I've seen enough of your ugly face", he said, after shaking off the throes of soul-searching. "Take it on again. I'm taking you to the communications room, on the condition that... now, I quite like it here, but my friends have moral problems with being part of an aggressively expansionist repressive government and all the menial work. So, promise that the DOOP will save us along with you, or you'll get that helmet where your sun of choice don't shine."

Zapp Brannigan and Kif nodded, briefly stunned but grateful. Unbeknownst to them, far off, a young man was entering the dressing-room of the concert hall and helping himself to a robe and a ring.

The servants slept in rows of windowless rooms, more like cubicles than anything else, along dingy corridors in the lower levels of the palace. Each had a rickety bed to sleep on, and not much else. Amy, who slept a few doors down from Leela's place, had been griping about it to absolutely no end. "I don't have to take this sort of thing!" she'd shrilled. "I'm rich!"

Leela didn't really mind, though. It was clean, not too stuffy even though the air smelt of wet plaster, and the night was her own. She got to let her hair down, stretch out on the rather soft mattress, let her eyelid glide shut and drift into sleep. It was some kind of a healing process.

That is, when she didn't have to take the shoes with her so she could polish a few pairs before lights- on.

The healing process had almost started. She was dead tired. All the revulsion for the Emperor had sunk down among the oily black muck at the bottom of the River of Dreams. The air had cooled after the day, though she still couldn't put the blanket on, too clammy... she pulled it up anyway, to her waist, as some kind of weak defence. Her nerves were still on edge, but she would have to relax... and sleep... she needed the sleep. She needed cold. What was it Fry had said? Fry. She rolled over to her belly and punched the pillow: she would have gone mad long since if she hadn't had that vent. Surely she'd been mad at Fry in the past, but that had just been because he was an idiot. Now, he was turning into a jerk. It was the dark side of... something. She was far too tired to think. She wished Lord Cyan, Yancy or whatever was his name, would stay off Fry's mind.

Footsteps in the corridor. Leela leant on her elbows and saw the shadows of feet –damn boots!– pace past in the gap of light under the door. OK. Her head sunk to the pillow, which was starting to feel very comfortable. Just some late-working kitchen-hand going to bed, or maybe a guard... but no. No. The feet weren't lurching or marching. They were stalking. Scraping off into the distance... then they returned. The two-pronged shadow appeared under the door again, and this time it stayed.

There was a knock on her door, harder than bone. The knocking hand was wearing a ring.

So, the Emperor was trying things, was he? Let him try. After the events of the afternoon, she had moved her bed so the headboard was wedged against the door and would block it. If that wasted weirdo wanted something, he was going to have to push the door open with 140 pounds of cyclopic muscle on the other side.

There was a tinkle of very weak metal. The gap of light warped as the door began to sag.

Or he could just have a go at the hinges.

Biting her lip until it hurt, Leela backed into the deepest shades of the room, feeling her pupil dilate until it felt like a window into her brain. Adrenaline was coursing throughout her nervous system like a river of icy steel. The bed squeaked as it straightened out. The door fell back and revealed a robed outline in the pallor of the doorway. (There was a muted clunk as a hacksaw dropped to the floor.) Finding her. Stepping forward...

... and getting his droit de seigneur from a set of knuckles in the midriff.

The man in the tacky purple robe doubled over on the floor, drawing breath in something between a scream and a wheeze. Leela paused to slip a boot on her foot, then pulled back for the kick...

"You know, if I'd been the real Emperor, you'd be in a lot of trouble!" Fry whined, getting to his knees.

Leela slumped to her bed. She didn't want to look at him. She didn't want to look away either, so she compromised by letting her eyelid slide halfway down. The yellow light crystallized on her eyelashes. Fry looked like he was made out of jewels.

"If you'd been the real Emperor, you'd be a dead freak now", she sighed. Sarcasm was dragging its scaly tail into her voice. "Did your mother never tell you that... what you just did... is... wrong?"

"No, but..." Fry cut himself off. She could just about guess what he had been going to say.

He drew a deep breath, then balled his fists around his stomach region. The signet ring glistened on his finger. Knocking on the door had scraped some gilt off the seal.

"I... I thought you wouldn't object", he whimpered.

He sounded so miserable, so awkward, so Fryish, that she found herself rising from her bed and almost ruffling his hair. Her hand had other ideas, and slapped him.

"Yes, because I just so happen to enjoy being victimized by perverted, full-of-themselves jerks!" she shouted. "What's your problem? Since when did a 'no' stop being a 'no'?"

"You never said 'no' to me!" Fry complained, stretching his neck as though daring her to hit him again.

Leela looked down. The boot she was wearing wasn't part of her ordinary pair: strong, steel-bolted, capable of surviving a walk through lava. It was garish and had, she noticed as she tore it off, an eagle-and-star seal on the sole. It made her want to spit.

"A lot of women are turned on by power..." he went on when she didn't say anything.

She had to laugh. "Yes, you'd know, wouldn't you?"

"Dad told me..."

This time she just grabbed him by the collar, looking him straight in the space between his eyes.

"That's your father talking, Fry! You're treating people like things!"

"But Leela..."

"You never bothered to ax if we wanted to join the Empire! You made that decision for us!"

"Leela, please..."

"You live in the luxury hoarded from conquered planets! You promote an ideology of oppression and megalomaniacal expansionism! You would lie down on the floor if your father said 'rug'!" She paused to breathe. "But if you ever claim that Emperor Jagan means anything to me... you will pay."

Fry curled up tighter, and after a moment she heard him sobbing. She had to put her arm around his shoulders, and he was warm.

"I... I thought you might like me better", he sniffed. "Because Dad... Dad said... Dad said a lot of things, and I believed all of them. Oh Leela, Leela, I'm... I'm so sorry. Can you forgive me? Please forgive me... I didn't mean to..." The words came out like they cut him. "I know, there's no excuse for what I've been doing. I didn't think. I didn't think at all. But he's my Dad."

"I forgive you", Leela said. It still sounded harsh. "I know it hasn't been easy for you, Fry. It's been very hard... and you've probably suffered enough for it. As for Lord Cyan..." She sighed. This was going to be hard, too. "I can't ax you to be disloyal to your own father, Fry. Just... just remember that..." From what you told me, his vision of the world was skewed back in your day, and if anything it's changed for the worse. He's a madman. He's dangerous. He's bad for you. There's nothing as bad as talking to the strangers you know. She couldn't say that.

"Sorry about your door, too", Fry said as he stood up. He managed to smile. Try as she might, she couldn't answer it.

He walked through the corridors, and by the junction he was surrounded by guards.

He was put on a court-martial, which was the traditional Imperial procedure when someone had impersonated the august and sacrosanct Emperor for tawdry motives. The replica ring was judged to be destroyed, being a possible device to be used by plotters. Because Fry's father was an influential man, the trial was held in private. Because Fry's father was an intimidating man, the defendant was judged innocent.

Because Fry's father was also a very, very angry man, he grabbed Fry by the porphyrogene scruff of his robe once he'd left the throne room as a free man. This particularly torrid day, he had taken off his helmet and gauntlets. Fry almost wished he hadn't. One vein was throbbing almost to bursting over Yancy's eyebrow.

"Where is your sense of duty?" he hissed. The anonymous executioner's axe would have been a more merciful alternative. "Where is your honour? You have brought utter, utter shame down on the head of the Emperor!"

It took enough energy just trying to stand without tottering. His head felt light and full of memories he'd rather not carry around, thank you. Leela had been witnessing against him. She must have known he was going to get away with it, otherwise she couldn't possibly have witnessed. Right? She had been standing with her back against him, so the only thing he'd recognized was her purple hair.

"Dad", Fry said wearily, trying to reason with him. "Please. The Emperor is sitting on his throne in this very moment, doing crystal meth!"

"That is not the point! Philip, after your behaviour last night..."

Fry leant towards the deeply carven door ajar on the throne room and looked through the gap. "He's asking the Minister of the Interior for a glass of water to drip..."

"... not to mention your disregard for the poor girl's feelings..."

"Dad, the Emperor is impossible to bring shame on! Look at him, will you? Out floating in Crystal Tokyo!"

Dad slapped him, not hard, but it did get his attention. Far too softly, in fact. What was he thinking? I... I tried to assault Leela. Something in his head was hurting.

"You have been proclaimed innocent of the charge", Dad said finally, heavily, like that meant anything. "It is not up to me to judge you otherwise. Think on this: next time you fool around like this, you will be demoted to the rank of Private. Front service in the Empire is not easy, son. It might teach you to think with something other than..." a slow, grim smirk "... your privates."

"Why don't you just disown me?" he asked, and it sounded so stupid and bitter. "Wait... you wouldn't, would you? Got to keep the Fry genes coming."

I, I. I tried to assault Leela. Something here. Some kind of excuse. The genes. Keep the gene pool clean.

"It's your fault!" he burst out. It sounded too loud. His head was shattering now. "OK... OK, it was my fault too, but I would never have done it if not for you and your... and your corrupting me!" It felt good to be judgmental. This is like something out of All My Circuits. "You told me women like men with power! You told me I shouldn't take 'no' for an answer, and let me tell you something, Father... a no is always a no!" Pause. "Why did you slap me like that? It didn't hurt."

"I was taking aim."

This time, Fry staggered back. It felt like his eye was coming out on the side where the blow had struck home. It wasn't about his head, now. The world hurt.

"I am a merciful man", his father said. "That was mercy. A less merciful man would not take so kindly to his son trying to mate with a degenerate, deformed freak!" Leela. Leela. Think of her name. Try to stand straight. "Nor to the infamy committed against his imperial majesty. Next time, on my word as your father, I will not be as forgiving. Remember your pledge of allegiance."

The world twisted and brightened horribly... "Sir! I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United..."

"What was that? Your allegiance to the Emperor."

Red pain. Gold starburst of shame. Hands pressed against the throbbing bruise on his cheek, Fry turned and ran.

Fry's breath caught like a burr in his windpipe, but he still couldn't stop running until he was well inside the picket fence. The noonday sky might as well have been red, the blue in it burnt him. He had to crouch on the shell-strewn gravel path, because his heart thumped like it was going to kill him, and a lot of it wasn't exhaustion.

This was the open, field-like garden west of the white house, with a locked front door. There was a small mailbox here. He rattled the lid, then went over to the north side.

He was facing the north side of the white house. There was no door here, and all the windows were barred. He tried to open them, but they were stuck hard. He kept walking, one foot trailing slightly and aching from the run, east.

He was behind the white house. In one corner of the house there was a small window which was slightly ajar. With great effort, he opened the window far enough to allow entry, and climbed through.

He was in the kitchen of the white house. A table seemed to have been used recently for the preparation of food. A passage led to the west and a dark staircase could be seen leading upwards. But it is not my house. It's a bit like a dream. If I still had my keys, they wouldn't fit in the lock. A bottle was sitting on the table. The glass bottle contained: a quantity of aftershave lotion. He drew a deep breath, then went west.

He was in the living room. There was a door to the east, a wooden door with a certificate with strange alien lettering thumbtacked to the west, which was locked, and a round carpet in the centre of the room. Blue carpet, with a rather familiar eagle motif embroidered on it in gold. There was a report from the Minister of War here, dated 06/23/98. On hooks above the mantelpiece hung an American musket of great antiquity.

His footsteps echoed as he walked over and read the note on the door. His knowledge of the alien alphabets was still rather shaky, but it seemed to translate as a graduation certificate from the Jrulm University of the East Arm. The paper was a bit rumpled and yellowing around the edges.

His footsteps echoed...

Fry twisted around and almost screamed when he saw a shard of himself mirrored in the glass of a photo on the mantelpiece, so wild-eyed, wearing a tattered robe that flapped like a torn moth... all superimposed on a smiling photo of himself as a kid. Or was it his brother? The colours had darkened with age... no, please, not now. He forcibly bent his attention to the floor. By all logic, and logic was sorely needed now, the rug should have muffled his footsteps, but behind that muffle there'd been a deep, rickety echo...

He knelt on the floor

I pledge allegiance to He's my father... he has to be my father... he looks like him, he talks like him, something is wrong, he must be my father or what have I done? I pledge allegiance to... Dad, Yancy J. Fry Sr., how can you be cryonically frozen when a goddamn nuke is exploding over your head... not possible... I'm sorry, Dad, I just want IpledgeallegianceIjustwantproof... I just want the truth.

grabbed the crested rug and dragged it. With a great effort, the rug was moved to one side of the room. With the rug moved, the dusty cover of a closed trap-door appeared.

He reluctantly opened the trapdoor to reveal...

Darkness. A small cellar, more of a concrete-reinforced hole in the floor than a room. Stuffed with junk... he saw clothes, and boots, and guns, and several tattered notebooks, and a far gleam that might be some kind of a knife or maybe an Elven sword. It wasn't a paranoid man's shelter. It was a mausoleum. It smelt of mothballs, and aftershave, and death.

And, because above all he was a Fry, he stepped into the dark.

A key tinkling in the lock.

"Phil? You in there, Phil?"

Fry's mind surfaced when he heard the voice. It was a familiar voice. A good voice. He ought to remember it.

"'ey, Phil, I'm sorry I got so worked up and hit ya... I'm really sorry about that. I mean, what you did wasn't right... but then again, neither was what I did."

True. You could say that.

"But... I forgive you, because you're my son, and a father and son has got to stick together, right? So, please tell me you forgive me too."

Fry raised his head slowly, so slowly the room floated into view like a sunrise. The air was still wonderfully summery, but he had hunkered up as though he was deadly cold. He had to answer, really, but he couldn't get one word out.

"Phil? Are you there?"

He bobbed back to life when he heard boots scraping on the doormat, and kicked the rug back across the trapdoor... he had closed the trapdoor, right? He pulled the rug up again, looked under it, yes, good... had to smooth it out, it wasn't lying in the exact way it had been, the beak should be pointing more towards the mantelpiece, but he didn't have time and there was a draft of balmy air from the garden and boots creaking in the hallway...

When Lord Cyan stepped into the hallway, he was met by his son, ginger hair still dishevelled, faux purple robe hanging skewed from one shoulder. The handprint on his cheek had faded, but blush was running down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry", he said, so slowly. "I... I know you did the right thing, Father. I just overreacted."

"Can't blame you for that." Patting his shoulder. "I was a bit too harsh with you too, all right. Sowing your wild oats and all... now, can you forgive me too?"

But Fry had turned to face the blue shadow sky. His eyes were nothing but reflections.

"I'll always forgive you, Father", he said. "On my word as your son."