She’d visited Planet Express just once before, delivering Yancy to his first career position after using up all her credit with Ipgee to get him placed there. Leela had no idea why she’d done it, except that, perhaps after the suicide booth incident, she’d felt sorry for him. She’d not been past the reception that time.
The building was no different to how she remembered, perhaps a little the worse for wear. Planet Express might be one of the more successful delivery companies in the Sol system but that didn’t seem to translate into actual care for its facilities, of which there seemed to be very few. In fact for such a large company it seemed to do very little actual work, Leela thought, as she examined the endorsements behind the secretary’s desk.
“Sorry for the delay,” the secretary said, holding up a phone in one of her hands. She waved Leela over to the desk. “Mr Conrad will be with you in a moment so if you’d just like to start filling in this paperwork for him. It’s just standard forms, liability, insurance, that sort of thing.”
She handed over two small clipboards. Leela returned to her seat and swiftly filled in the forms. She was just about done when Hermes Conrad arrived in the reception.
He paused and looked at her, his expression as inscrutable as it had been the few previous times they’d met. “Ms Turanga.”
Leela handed over the forms as she stood up. “Mr Conrad. I’m here about Yancy.”
“Yes, unfortunately young Mr Fry is indisposed right now,” Hermes said. He perused the forms for a moment.
“The squits or somethin’. He’s making his prayers to the white throne. It’s a shame your journey here was wasted,” Hermes said, entering his own signature on the forms. He slipped the clipboards into his case and gave Leela the briefest of smiles. “If you want to arrange another visit...?”
“No, I’m here now. I can still carry out interviews of his closest colleagues.”
“I see. In that case I hope you like flyin’, they’re already runnin’ late for a delivery.” Hermes held the door open for Leela with another brief smile. “This way.”
Hermes led her through a cluttered loading dock, pausing to indicate the stairway up to the employee areas. “You might find your boy up there with our doctor.”
“I’ll look in on him afterwards.”
“I expect you’ll be wantin’ to look at our facilities as well? We’re fully compliant with all city employment facility codes.”
“The, uh, facilities will be on my list of things to check, yes,” Leela replied, looking about the loading dock. It seemed to be unusually sparse for such a busy company. “My primary concern is with Yan- Mr Fry’s interaction with his workmates and their opinions of his behaviour.” Hermes opened his mouth to speak, but Leela held up her hand to silence him. “I’ll interview you when I return, Mr Conrad. I don’t want your opinions as his employer to influence my questioning of your employees.”
“If you say so.”
They stepped out into the hangar, giving Leela her first real view of the company’s spaceship. She stared up at the sleek red hull towering above her, overcome with a momentary sense of awe. Some day, she thought, a ship like that could-
“Hey, hey Hermes!” Leela’s train of thought was interrupted by the heavily accented voice echoing around the hangar. A man in a scruffy jacket and pants emerged at the top of the ship’s gangway, brandishing a chunky wrench in Hermes’ general direction. “Number two motivator coil needs replacing before it burns out. Tell the Professor-”
“Find the money for it and you can have as many coils as ya like,” Hermes replied as the man descended to the hangar floor. He lead Leela over to the gangway. “Ms Turanga, this is our pilot. Veklerov McDiarmid.”
“I am very pleased to meet you,” Veklerov answered, holding out a hand. “I don’t believe I recognise your species,” he added, staring into Leela’s eye with obvious fascination.
“I, uh, don’t know what it is,” Leela replied, feeling a little flustered by the sudden attention Veklerov was giving her. She blushed and looked away. The pilot smiled and released her hand. “I was abandoned here as a child.”
“An orphan of the stars, hmm? How romantic.” Veklerov turned to Hermes, all business. “Now Conrad, you and I know that engine can run on just single motivator but the reason we have redundant coil is because of your own favourite regulation set Seven Three Twenty Six Space Flight Redundancy-”
“Oh don’t you go quotin’ regulations at me, McDiarmid. I know the regulations like a greensnake knows sugar cane and I know they also allow for the elective abrogation of sub-section seven in emergency situations.” Hermes glanced at Leela with another brief smile. “Losing a delivery boy is an emergency in my book. You can have the coil at the start of the next financial year, and not a minute sooner!”
“Assuming we haven’t exploded by then.” Veklerov muttered once Hermes was safely far away. He turned back to Leela with another, more confident smile. “So then, Sirochka... can I call you Sirochka?”
“I’d prefer Leela if it’s all the same to you,” Leela replied. But then she frowned. “What does it mean?”
“Cute little orphan. It seemed appropriate,” Veklerov said, lowering his gaze just a little. He gestured toward the ship. “The others are already on board, if you wish to interview them it will have to be during the trip. It is only a few hours, you won’t need to pack or anything.”
“Assuming we don’t explode?”
The pilot lead her up the gangway. As they approached the airlock Leela felt an unaccustomed flutter in her stomach, enough to make her pause on the threshold. She gazed up at the scarlet hull, staring at her face reflected on its surface, until Veklerov put a gentle hand around her arm.
“Come, Leela,” he said, guiding her inside the ship. The interior was dim and cluttered in a way Leela felt she wouldn’t have tolerated, but she could see a certain insane order behind the apparent randomness. Veklerov lead her up through the cramped galley to the bridge, just as apparently messy as the rest of the ship. Leela examined an open floor panel, pipes snaking from it across the floor to another access panel in the wall, and felt a vague disquiet.
“I’m not quite so sure about this now.” She turned to Vek, already strapping himself into the pilot’s seat as he activated the ship’s systems.
“Have you not flown before?”
“Cruise liners, passenger ships, that sort of thing. I’ve piloted sims and flown atmospheric, never in space.” And never in something so decrepit, she didn’t add.
“It is a great adventure,” Veklerov replied. He tapped the intercom on the flight column and leaned forward. “Crew to bridge for take-off please. So...” he turned from the column to Leela again. “You are here about the boy Yancy, eh?”
Leela nodded. “He’s shown signs of incompatibility with his assigned career. I’m assessing him for a career chip re-assignment.”
“Oh, my brother, he used to be a street sweeper, he tried one of those. After two months they came back and told him he’d be a mobile highway pollution monitoring and displacement officer. Then they gave him a new broom.”
“I’ve already heard all the stories, Mr McDiarmid.”
“Please, call me Vek.” The pilot leaned back as his remaining crew entered the bridge. Leela nodded to the young Asian girl – Amy, was it? - and then drew back in surprise at the sight of a cigar-smoking bending unit following behind.
“You really have a bender on your crew? What use is that?”
“I bend food into interesting shapes,” Bender replied. He pulled the cigar from his mouth-parts and examined it for a moment.
“You’re the cook? Well now I’ve heard everything.”
“Beats staring people to death, eyeball.”
“Ignore Bender, he’s got a bad personality patch,” Amy said as she ushered Leela toward the couch. She sat down with her and grinned. “I’m Amy. You must be Leela. Yancy said you’d be coming today.”
“That’s right.” Leela held up her clipboard and brought up her first interview form. “I’ll need to ask you a few questions.”
“Do I have to fill in any forms?”
“Oh, no, I do all that. You just have to answer as best you can.” Leela looked over the bridge and decided to put the clipboard down. She could see Vek looking at her with an odd expression on his face. “Perhaps after we’re on our way...”
“Amy, radio.” Veklerov frowned at his console and let out a growl. “And Amy, note in the log, number two motivator secondary coil off-line until repaired. Make sure you add that it was all Conrad’s fault in case they send the inspectors around. I’d have this whole ship stripped out and rebuilt if it were mine,” he muttered. He ran through a final check and activated the launch ramp.
Leela felt her stomach drop as the ship tilted back, and then a rather odd sensation as the gravity pumps came on-line, tugging her back toward the floor. She swallowed and looked over her shoulder at Vek, who just smiled and held up a thumb before concentrating on his controls.
“Well that was an... experience.” Leela shuffled on her seat in the tiny galley, nursing a hot chocolate drink and a stiff neck. They were cruising toward Neptune at a fraction of the ship’s capable speed thanks to some sort of Solar System speed limit, that Veklerov had cursed every minute Leela had remained on the bridge, but Leela thought it was quite sensible compared to the take-off. She didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about that. It had been very loud.
“I think Vek might have been showing off a bit.” Amy, seated opposite Leela, knocked back the remnants of her coffee and clunked her mug down on the table. She sat back to give Leela an appraising look. “How well do you know Yancy?”
“Aren’t I supposed to be axing the questions around here?”
“I guess so. I was just curious is all.” Amy watched Leela as she pulled out a clipboard and brought up her basic questionnaire program. “He mentioned you a couple of times last night. We had a date,” she added.
“I see. So I expect you’d have a fairly good relationship with Mr Fry?”
“More casual, sort of... he’s nice, as a friend maybe, you know?”
“I think so. And you get on with him at work?”
Amy nodded. “Yeah. I mean, as far as I can when he hates being here so much.”
Leela nodded, making a few notes. Interviews were just one of the many parts of her job she hated. The sanitised interrogation, peeking deep into people’s private lives without much of a care for how they felt about it. She continued through the form, entering in Amy’s increasingly ditzy answers as best she could and ignoring the nagging feeling at the back of her mind that she could be doing something different with her life.
An hour. It was meant to be a fifteen minute interview but with Amy’s constant digression on every subject under the stars it took an hour, and she still wasn’t finished. With a loud sigh Leela placed her pen on the table and gave Amy a tight smile. “I think that’s enough for now.”
“Oh. Well... ok, I guess. So that was the interview?”
Leela stifled a yawn and nodded. “Yeah, most of it, and it took a little longer than I expected.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll just put it down as overtime. Now, where...” Leela’s voice trailed off when she saw Vek entering the galley. He winked at her and smiled before turning to Amy.
“Engines doing all right?”
“They’re fine,” Amy said brightly. “I ran a check an hour ago.”
“Are you absolutely sure about that, Amy?” Vek folded his arms and tilted his head toward the door a little. It was so obvious that Leela almost thought she’d imagined it and had to stifle a quiet laugh.
Amy’s face fell for a moment, then brightened again. “I guess I could have another look. See you later, Leela,” she added as she skipped from the room. Leela watched her go with a vague disquiet. She turned to Veklerov and put on her most professional smile.
“Please, I told you, call me Vek.”
“Vek,” Leela conceded. She cleared Amy’s forms and brought up a fresh set. “This won’t take very-”
“You have the most incredible eye,” Veklerov said. He raised an eyebrow and smiled. Leela had to squirm to overcome the sudden tingling sensation in her lower back. “It’s like staring into a perfectly still pool.”
“That’s nice of you to say so Mr... Vek, but I’m afraid I have an interview to complete.” She held up the clipboard, as if that would somehow shield her from his advances. Vek smiled and nodded his head.
“Of course.” He took out a packet of cigarettes and tapped one into his mouth. With that lit, he leaned back in his seat and put his feet up on the table. “Fire away.”
“All right then...”
“Do you smoke?” He offered the cigarettes across to Leela. She examined the box for a moment, with its slim golden band around the top to match the filter marker, and shook her head.
“But you used to.”
“When I was young. Sometimes when I get stressed...” she stared down at the forms. Veklerov put the packet back in his coat with a friendly nod. “I don’t like to.”
“It’s a terrible habit, I agree.” He stubbed out the cigarette and smiled that same disarming smile at Leela again.
“Ok, your relationship with Mr Fry-”
“I know these. Let’s see, form number five hotel three one five india two sierra slash four november three?”
Leela ran her eye along the form’s reference number. It matched up perfectly. “Yes! How did you-”
“I have a brother in the central bureaucracy. I asked him to look up the forms for this sort of thing and filled in a copy. Here,” he said, handing over a data chip. Leela took the chip and slotted it into her clipboard. The form cleared and re-loaded with a complete interview. She looked up at Veklerov. He was staring at her across the top of a large coffee cup. “All you have to do is sign.”
“I... this is highly irregular,” Leela replied, glancing across the form again. It all seemed to be in perfect order.
“Yes, but easier, wouldn’t you say? Leaves more time for us to just talk instead of-”
“Mr McDiarmid, I am here on official business.” Leela stared down at the form, frowning as she tired to sort out the jumble of feelings in her head. “Still... it would save time.”
“Of course it would! Now, how about we go up to the bridge and enjoy the view for a while?”
“I have to interview Bend-”
Veklerov held up another data chip and grinned. “I have Amy’s too, based on very close observations taken from the Professor’s personal files.”
“I already have hers,” Leela replied, reaching for the chip until Veklerov tugged it out of reach. He winked at her curious frown. “What’s the game?”
“The greatest there is,” Veklerov said. He pressed the chip into Leela’s outstretched palm with another wink which, frankly, was starting to annoy her, and then turned to leave. “We’ll be landing in ten minutes, by the way.”
“Oh. Anywhere interesting?”
“Just Titan, we’re delivering a few cases of factor six sunblock to a Wormulon research station there. You can watch the landing if you like.”
“I’d like that,” Leela said, standing. She left her clipboard on the table and followed Veklerov from the room. “Though, why would anyone on Titan need a factor six sunblock?”
“Well... originally it was a zero point zero zero zero to some immense power fraction with a six on the end, but all those extra numbers made the package too big for our budget rate. I guess they didn’t want to pay for a bunch of nothings,” Veklerov replied, deadpan. He shrugged. “Come on.”