The bridge was silent as the ship slowly ascended through Titan’s atmosphere, its hull streaked with the grime of the attack that precipitated their abrupt, if now leisurely departure. From her vantage on the couch Leela watched the yellow-brown haze passing by the forward ports, gradually clearing as they reached the upper atmosphere. She could see the rings of Saturn peeking through the clouds long before they reached space, and the faintest crescent of the planet itself.
Leela was transfixed by the sight, so much so that she didn’t even notice Vek until he sat down next to her.
“Does this happen a lot?”
“About one in every seven deliveries, I suppose,” Veklerov replied with a tight smile. “Usually it’s over payment. If I’d know my name meant that in Wormulon I would have stayed in the ship.”
He glanced over his shoulder toward the rear of the bridge and then out at the scenery again. The hazy atmosphere was starting to thin out now as they passed over the terminator into Titan’s night. Leela sighed.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He dropped his arm behind the couch and turned a little, to face Leela. She glanced back at the deserted bridge.
“Autopilot. Twelve step program,” Veklerov said, anticipating her question. Leela let out a quiet sigh of relief and smiled, just a little. She turned back to staring at the planet.
“It’s a wonderful sight. I never thought I’d... I’m sorry, you must think I’m terribly naïve about all this. I’m not used to looking at space so close.”
“Oh, no, not at all, I understand perfectly. The big black has a habit of drawing people. Stare into the abyss and sooner or later it sucks you in, you catch the wanderlust.” Vek slid away, dropping his arms into his lap. “It’s one of the reasons I became a pilot.”
“Oh, smuggling.” Veklerov smiled at her, a broad, unguarded smile that Leela wasn’t used to seeing. Most people tended to be just a little nervous around her. The badge, her eye... so many reasons. “So tell me, Sirochka, what of your species? You don’t know who they are?”
“Oh... no. No, I was left at an orphanarium on Earth as a baby. All I had was my name and a note nobody has ever been able to translate.” She stared at Saturn’s limb as it slowly moved off to port, the ship taking them up and away from the planet’s sphere of influence. “I keep telling myself, one day I’ll go and look for them. I mean, how many planets can there be?”
Veklerov stood up and paced toward the big main window. He stared out into the stars with his hands clasped behind his back. “There are many. A great many,” he said, turning to look at Leela. “But most are simply boring, barren lumps of rock.” He waved a hand toward the receding form of Saturn, girdled by its rings. “Some are old and placid, and others...”
The ship began to accelerate, well above the speed limit Vek had been cursing before. Saturn disappeared behind them in moments, dwindling to a tiny spot in the rear view, and then to nothing at all, whilst another planet brightened in the forward ports.
“Where are you taking us?”
“A scenic route,” Vek replied with just the hint of a smile. He sat down next to Leela. His hand resting on her shoulder felt strangely warm, with just the barest hint of pressure. “I can help you.”
“Help me? How?”
“I do not intend to work for a mere delivery company for my entire life. I have savings, other work. If I buy a ship, I could start my own company. You and I... but, no, it is too soon to speak of such thing.”
“What, Vek? What are you talking about? Are you saying you’d help me find my parents?”
“I could take you away from everything, Sirochka,” he said, standing up again. “I could take you out there, show you a whole universe of wonder.”
He held his hand up, guiding Leela’s eye toward the forward port. The face of Jupiter now filled the entire view, its great red spot hanging in front of them like a giant, crimson eye staring right at her. Leela felt her heart leap at the sight, and at herself reflected in the window, and the planet mirrored again in her dilated pupil. “My god...”
Veklerov reached out a hand toward her, smiling benevolently. “What do you say, Sirochka?”
“I don’t remember anything too clearly right after that point but, right then, he could have told me the entire universe was made of cheese doodles and I would have believed him. I was just completely overwhelmed, the promises, the spectacle of it all. I was such a fool to trust him.”
Neena hugged her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on them. She stared at the wall as she spoke. “When we got back I was still in the clouds at the possibility of actually going to look for my parents, but then I didn’t hear back from him for nearly a week. When I went in for the next interview with Yancy I... I...”
Neena closed her eye, squeezing tears from both corners. She groped blindly toward Leela and buried her face in Leela’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Leela said quiet, rubbing a gentle hand up and down Neena’s back. “We’ve all been there before.”
“This is different! Hermes said Vek had been spinning that line to every moderately attractive woman who spent more than an hour in the building. Veklerov never had any intention to start his own company, or help me, or anything!”
“At least he was a bit romantic about it,” Leela said as she tried to keep her mind off her own rather less flattering suitors. “Honey, it could have been a lot worse. That doesn’t explain why you’re still there, though. An intervention should have been over in just a few months, surely.”
Neena’s cheeks coloured just a little. She slowly returned to hugging her knees. “My first thought was to ask for someone else to deal with it but, then why should I have to be the one that caves in and runs away? So I stuck around, to prove he wasn’t going to crush me that easily.”
“For four years?”
“Yeah, I guess I sort of... it’s Yancy. After a while I just kind of got used to being around him. He’s just there, you know? Like some sort of marker reminding you where you are all the time. I felt safe knowing he was there.”
“I think I know what you mean.” Leela leaned back and looked away, her treacherous mind taking her through the events of the last weeks, Each encounter with her alternates was another reminder of how much she’d come to rely on Fry for that support and, now... She shook her head. Life was so unfair.
“At first I kept extending the assessment period, then just started making stuff up. You know how easy it is to do that if you stamp the forms the right number of times, right? I’m pretty sure he hated the sight of me after a while.”
“Don’t you think that’s a bit selfish? Keeping him stuck in that job when he wanted to leave so much?”
“Oh. Yeah... I never really thought about that. Think I should tell him?”
“No.” Leela took a firm grip on Neena’s arm. “What you can do is finish the assessment, get him a decent job and then think about telling him. Maybe.”
Neena’s face flashed up her guilt as she looked away. “I guess... we’re really hitting if off now, though. He, y’know, sort of likes me. Maybe I could take him to see my parents!”
“Hey, woah, let’s not go too fast yet. You’ve been on one ‘date’...” She looked up at Neena’s face and saw the quiet desperation she’d felt so many times in her life. “On the other hand, it can’t hurt as long as you’re clear about where you’re both at. Mom always gets the wrong idea whenever I mention men.”
“I’ve never had anyone do that...” Neena jumped up from the bed, bounding with energy and life and, even though she looked on the verge of breaking out in tears, she smiled at Leela. Her face seemed a little taut and fixed. “I can’t wait! Tell me everything you can about them!”
“Sure,” Leela said, returning the smile as best she could. “We can talk on the way.”
Fry found he was getting used to the idea of not actually working at Planet Express. In most ways his life was as it always had been, only without the constant interruption of having to ship packages to dangerous backwater planets where people tried to kill him. He’d even managed to find a cooler for his beer, now lurking in their customary spot behind the couch. All in all life could be a lot worse, if only Hermes hadn’t all but abducted Amy to help him audit the fridge for missing food. The bureaucrat was taken with strange ideas now and then but the idea of accounting for the snacks was a new one on Fry.
He cracked open another beer, put his feet up and settled down to the latest episode of All My Circuits just as Bender breezed into the room.
“Woah!” Bender rocked back on his feet when he saw Fry. He frowned, as only a robot could, and slowly walked toward him. “So you’re not just a sensor glitch then, huh? Figures. Hey is that All My Circuits?”
Fry nodded as Bender sat down next to him. Without thinking he passed another beer over to the robot, who hummed appreciatively.
“Do you know why Calculon hasn’t been on?”
“Calculon?” Bender downed the beer in a single go, then swallowed the can for good measure. “That dope hasn’t been on the show for nearly three years after the whole ‘evil rampage’ thing. They said he was some sort of, I dunno, were-car or something. Last I heard he was down in Bolivia working as a mixer in a coca-lite plant.”
“No Calculon?” Fry realised how upset he sounded. He cleared his throat. “It’s not All My Circuits without Calculon...”
“Doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to this robot.” Bender pulled out a stogie and stood up. “Well, nice talkin to you and all, meatbag, but I’ve gotta go do employed things for employed people.”
“Bender, you don’t do anything.”
“Yeah, but unlike you, I get paid for not doing it,” he said. The door closed behind him, leaving a slowly dispersing loud of cigar smoke as the only sign he’d ever been in the room. Fry sighed and put his head back on the couch. So what if there was no Calculon, he could get used to that, right? And so what if he was unemployed, he could just mooch off the Professor. Or Amy. No, that wouldn’t work, Amy would probably dump him after a week of that and, as for the Professor, who knew what price he’d ask?
“Lousy no good universe,” he muttered, staring at the television. All he needed to make things complete was-
The door burst open, admitting Leela and her compatriot in a giggling, chattering heap. They scooted past Fry, not even looking at him until they reached the far end of the lounge, where Neena stopped to stare at him for a moment.
“Does he know?”
“Yeah,” Leela replied with an airy shrug. “He knows. Come on, we’d better go see the Professor before he forgets what he wanted.”
They left him alone again. Fry frowned after them, wondering how Leela could be so callously dismissive about leaving him behind. He grumbled about women and reached for another beer.
A shadow fell over him while he was rummaging behind the couch. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the over-bright lamps. It was Yancy, his face oddly placid. Fry’s hand slowed a little, but continued seeking until he found refreshment. He grabbed two, ready to hand one to his brother but Yancy shook his head.
“Whatever you say,” Fry muttered, tossing one of the beers back in the cooler. He lifted the other and stared at it, hand resting on the top. After a moment’s contemplation he sighed and put the beer down on the table. “I can’t believe she’d do that to me.”
“Do what?” Yancy sat down on the couch, half-watching the television, half-watching Fry. “Leave you?”
“More like how she doesn’t seem to care about it. She’s not even talking to me.” Fry stared at the far door and grunted. “Now Neena knows, too.”
“Yeah, she just asked Leela if I knew. Right in front of me, like I wasn’t even there!”
“Oh, well that...” Yancy’s voice was cut off by the door crashing open. Veklerov flew into the room and passed by with barely more than a grunt to greet the pair. At the far door he stopped and stared at them.
“Yankovich, go check the primary buffer panel again.”
Yancy clambered from the couch, grunting with the effort of having to almost crawl across Fry’s unmoving form. “I checked that thing twice yesterday, it’s solid as-”
“Check it again! God in heaven, do I have to do everything myself around here?”
He exited the room at the head of a long train of Russian curses that echoed back through the short hall long after he was out of sight. Yancy turned his face toward the ceiling and shook his head. “Well I guess that’s my day started.”
“What’s got into him?”
Yancy pondered for a moment. “If I had to guess, I’d say he couldn’t find his cigarettes.”
“Right...” Fry stared at his beer. “Yancy, what happened last night?”
Yancy turned half way toward the door and looked at Fry, or at least in his general direction. For some reason he couldn’t meet Fry’s eyes again. “It’s complicated. I told Neena what you told me, she nearly freaked out, then we went back to my place and talked half the night.”
“Doesn’t sound complicated to me,” Fry muttered. He folded his arms and glared at the TV. “It’s not my universe, why should I care if you two are making out like rabbits?”
“Phil, this is why you need to listen once in a while. I said we talked. That’s it.”
“You just talked?”
Yancy sighed and shook his head. “That’s all we did. I slept on the couch,” he added, rolling his eyes. Fry frowned at his beer, trying to work out if he should still be mad or not.
“Leela never slept on my couch. This sucks! You’re getting what I always wanted.”
“Oh, what, are you jealous?” Fry and Yancy stared at each other until Fry had to break away and stare at his drink again. Yancy burst out laughing. “Well this makes a change! Yancy gets the upper-hand for once!”
“Yeah, rub it in some more why don’t you?”
“I’m sorry Phil but this is just...” he sat down on the table, right in front of the TV. “You don’t understand, do you. I’ve lived in your shadow all my life, especially after I got here. You, the... the big money-maker, saviour of the world and crap like that. You were always the one with the ideas, you always had all the luck. I think I deserve a break.”
All Fry wanted to do at that moment was have his brother disappear into a flaming pit, or at the very least get out of the way. Fry looked Yancy in the face and raised his beer in mock salute. Nonplussed, Yancy just stared at him.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Phil, but you’re being an ass.” Yancy stood up and backed away. “I’m sorry it isn’t working out between you and Leela but, like you said, this isn’t your universe. If you thought you’d have another chance with Neena-”
“That’s not fair, Yancy.”
“Sure, whatever. See you later, Phil,” Yancy said, turning to the door. He stopped. Neena was standing there, her eye skipping back and forth between Fry and Yancy while she fidgeted with her hair.
“Yancy, I need to ask you something.”
“Is it important? Because I really...” Yancy’s voice dried up when he looked at Neena’s face, half way through pointing to the hangar door. His hand dropped to his side. “Neena? What are you doing here?”
Neena moved a little closer to Yancy and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial murmur. “Leela was going to tell me where to find them.”
“Find...” Yancy frowned. He glanced at Fry and lowered his voice to match. “Find them?”
Neena nodded, sharp and curt. She was holding onto her free wrist with her right hand, pulling her arm down flat against her front as if afraid it would lash out by itself. Every now and then her fingers would give a nervous twitch. She looked at Fry again. “She won’t be able to tell me until she’s finished with Vek but she said Phil knows about them. That means he probably knows where they are. That means I don’t need to wait.”
They both turned to look at Fry. He was staring at the TV, trying to look like he hadn’t heard their conversation but it didn’t work. The silent attention made his ears burn bright red.
“Are you going to tell her?”
Fry scratched his nose and looked about with a thoughtful expression. He looked toward Neena and quickly discarded any vindictive thought he might have entertained toward her. “Okay, but you have to tell me something first.”
“Anything!” Neena almost leaped toward Fry. She knelt down beside the couch, staring at him like a hungry cat at a prime steak. “Anything at all.”
For a moment Fry fell silent. There were so many things he wanted to ask Leela right then, so many little revelations to be had but he couldn’t have them. Wrong Leela. He sighed.
“Why is Leela leaving me behind?”
“Leaving you... I- I don’t understand,” she said, looking at Yancy.
“Leela left a message for him on my machine last night,” Yancy said. “You were asleep at the time.”
“I figured she’d told you about it,” Fry added. He scratched his head and tried to think. “She wasn’t talking about it before?”
Neena shook her head. “No.” She rocked back on her haunches and touched Fry’s shoulder with a gentle hand. “I’m sorry, Phil, I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay, I can find out somehow.”
“Your turn.” Neena leaned forward again as she slipped her hand from Fry’s shoulder. At this range Fry could see his face reflected in her pupil, bringing back a flash memory of the last time he’d been this close to Leela’s face. That time, she’d been holding a gun in his mouth. He quickly looked away to break the image and coughed, nervous and tense for no real reason.
“It’s kinda hard to describe it.”
Neena’s hand tightened on Fry’s shoulder. She leaned forward until her eye was almost touching his face. The intensity of that huge, focused stare brought a sheen of sweat to Fry’s brow. “Draw a map.”
“I... sure,” Fry replied, leaning back. He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Just don’t kill me.”
Neena’s hand relaxed, along with her face, which lost its manic cast and settled down to her usual slight frown. She stood up, grabbed Yancy’s arm and dragged him back across the room to the table. “Can you come with me?”
“I have to work, Neena. Veklerov is going to-”
“Just tell him to take a hike. Better yet, I’ll do it.”
“I’m not sure-”
Yancy cowered back as Neena bridled, her face turning slightly pink from the combined emotions bubbling inside her. Just when it seemed as if she was going to scream at him, Neena relented, backing down in the manner of a cat; slowly, not quite relaxing the tension in her taut frame. She pulled the identification tag from her coat and held it up in front of Yancy’s face.
“Look, all I have to do is wave this badge under his nose and make something up. Don’t worry about it,” she said, brightening noticeably. Yancy looked at Fry with a nervous expression and swallowed. “If the worst comes to the worst I’ll just break his arm. Now let’s go!”
Neena grabbed Yancy’s arm and hauled him across the room. She practically threw him out of the far door before turning to look at Fry. Her grin was terrifying. “Bring that map down to the hangar in five minutes.”
She was gone before Fry could reply. With a loud sigh he put his beer down, lifted himself from the couch and made his way over to the dining area to look for some paper.