Leela stared up at the red-hulled ship and tried to work out, for possibly the hundredth time, just what she was doing there. There wasn’t any reason for her to be there, not after the way she’d dealt with Veklerov the previous night but, for some reason, she hadn’t been able to stay away. Oh she knew the logical response was to just treat him the way she’d treated Zapp... should have treated Zapp...
But that was the problem. He was like Zapp in that he knew precisely how to goad her and it seemed that long association with the Leela of this universe had given him enough personal knowledge to do that with terrifying accuracy. His first response to her being even slightly hesitant would be-
“Hello, Sirochka! Having second thoughts are we?”
And there it was... Veklerov descended the gangway toward Leela, his face almost split in half by a broad grin. From the look of him you wouldn’t think Leela had nearly pushed his crotch up past his neck.
I hate it when I’m right, she thought, with a wistful shake of her head. “I’m not, I was just taking a closer look at the ship.”
“Ahh. That is good. I would hate to think you are unadventurous.” He stood over her, hands on hips as he looked around the hangar. “I assume you are fully recovered from, ah, last night? No little headaches?”
“None at all,” she lied. It didn’t matter that her head was still pounding, giving him even a hint of weakness would be fatal. She didn’t dare take anything to numb the pain either, in case it affected her flying. “I’m fine. You look like you might need a few hours in a cold bath.”
“Ahhh, you are quite the tease,” he said, though with just a fractional hesitation that told Leela she’d got to him. “But if you are fine, then all is well! I shall forgive you your inopportune behaviour last night. I am sure you were merely acting out of frustration.”
He laughed, though it seemed a little forced. Leela could taste bile in her mouth but there was no backing out now. Not without losing face. “Where is Yanchovich?”
“Yancy? Maybe he-”
“Ahh, there he is! Excuse me, Sirochka.” Veklerov pushed by Leela and waited at the bottom of the gangway as Yancy and Neena crossed over toward the ship. He held up a hand in greeting as they approached. “Neena, what a pleasing surprise! Yancy, I gave you a job to do.”
“I’m afraid Mr Fry won’t be available for work with you today,” Neena replied, her voice officious and loud. She flashed a small pile of paperwork in front of Veklerov’s face as she continued. “My duties require that I perform a more in-depth interview with Mr Fry at the Assignment centre, which will take up most of the day. I’ve already apprised Mr Conrad of the situation.”
“You bureaucrats, all alike. Now how am I going to deliver this package?”
“I assumed you weren’t delivering one,” Neena replied tartly. “Not when you had your little ‘jaunt’ planned.”
“I cannot take ship out without a signed docket. Bureaucracy at work.” Veklerov said, folding his arms. He stared at Neena, then at Leela, with that annoying grin slowly spreading across his face. “That means, if I go up, it’s because I’m delivering something. Of course this is all a very convenient reason for you to back out now, isn’t it,” he said, turning to look at Leela. “If you want to concede that I am the better pilot-”
“No chance,” Leela shot back. She saw Fry walking across the hangar, a scruffy piece of paper clutched in his hands. “Fry can take Yancy’s place. Can’t you, Fry?”
“What? Go up in that thing again? With him?” Fry shook his head. “No way.”
“Come on, Fry, we’ll need the money if we’re going to survive until we get... back...” Leela’s voice faded. Fry was looking at her with a strange, confused expression that was completely different from the confusion he normally displayed. He frowned at the paper in his hand and then handed it to Yancy without a word. Fry looked up at the ship, then at Leela. He seemed to come to a decision.
“Okay. I’ll come,” he said, to Veklerov’s evident delight.
“Excellent! I shall prepare-”
“Ohh no, this time I do it,” Leela said, folding her arms to match Veklerov’s pose. She glared at the pilot until he held up his hands in a sort of mock surrender.
“So be it. See you on the bridge, Sirochka.”
The four of them watched the pilot as he retraced his path up the ship’s gangway, whistling a jaunty tune and adding the occasional Russian lyric.
“We’d better get out of here,” Neena said. She grabbed Yancy’s arm and backed away. “Thanks for, well, everything, I’d love to stay and chat but we’ve got... uh...”
“Plans,” Yancy finished. He fidgeted nervously and looked between Fry and Leela. “It’s not what you think. Whatever you think it is, it’s not, okay?”
Leela rolled her eye toward the ceiling and shook her head. She gave the pair a wry smile. “Whatever you say. Neena, We’ll talk when I get back, all right?”
“Sure...” Neena backed away, stopped, smiled nervously and then turned. Leela watched her and Yancy’s backs as they walked across the hangar floor. Something tickled at the back of her mind, a vague worry that tore her gaze away from the pair and brought it to rest on Fry.
“She’s hiding something, isn’t she,” Leela said. Fry shrugged, refusing to look her in the eye.
“I have to go and... I have to go and do someone, I mean, something,” Fry said and then he was also backing away, holding his hands up at waist height as if getting ready to defend himself. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Leela nodded, not quite listening as she tried to work out what she was missing. Had she said something wrong? Had Neena said something wrong? She glanced up at the ship again, briefly wondering what she’d got herself into this time.
“Fry, wait a moment.”
He stopped by the door, shoulders hunching slightly. It was almost a repeat of the previous night except, this time, he finally relented and turned to face her again. “What?”
“Look, we need to talk. When you get back, we’ll talk, all right? On the ship, just you and me.”
“And Veklerov,” Fry added. He looked ready to say something more but then seemed to satisfy himself with just a nod. Leela tried to smile. He didn’t return it.
She waited until Fry was gone before she finally allowed herself to relax. Leela lowered her head into her hands, massaging furiously at her temples as she tried to drive the headache away. She’d never known a hangover to last so long. In fact, if she thought about it, she’d had a headache ever since they got into this universe. Maybe it was something in the air.
Leela turned to walk up the gangway and then stopped. Something was niggling at the back of her mind again, a sense of intrusion that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She looked around the hangar, half-expecting to see someone else there and then up at the roof. Most of it was shaded and silent. The owls were congregating at the far end, away from the runners and the machinery that moved the hangar doors. They seemed to be a little agitated but that was probably because they knew the ship would be leaving soon. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being watched, though.
Any thought of intruders was quickly forgotten as Leela made her way into the ship and found the sort of mess that only a man could leave behind. Not counting Amy’s apartment, her treacherous mind added. Leela stared at the first open panel she came across for over a minute, first as she tried to work out why it had been left open, then what exactly was going on within it. A few minutes later found her buried up to her elbows in the guts of the ship as she tried to trace the changes. She didn’t hear Veklerov’s approach until he was almost on top of her.
“I don’t know what the hell you’ve done here,” Leela muttered without looking up. She heard Veklerov snort, amused, or insulted, she couldn’t tell.
“It’s bypassing the lateral thruster rate limiter, makes landing easier.”
“It’s also illegal,” Leela said, quickly dragging her hands out. She stared at them, trying to hide their shaking nerves. “Not to mention dangerous. You’ve stripped off the coil housing and almost the entire conduit shield. Have you any idea of the amount of radiation those things put out when they’re active?”
“I figure the only people who go past when it’s active aren’t meant to be on board anyway.” Veklerov stared at his nails, tutting and muttering under his breath. “You’re stalling.”
“I’m not...” Leela stood up and pushed past the Russian before he could goad her into another outburst. “I am not stalling, I am trying to find out how much of a mess you’ve made of this ship.”
“I wouldn’t have to do these things if that idiot Professor and his performing monkey gave me the parts.”
Which was a sentiment Leela couldn’t help but agree with, though she probably wouldn’t have called Hermes a monkey. It was rude. Leela found herself nodding and grit her teeth at the thought that she might have anything in common with the man behind her. She made her way through the ship, Veklerov following behind, making a note of all the small and not-so-small changes.
“She must roll a bit when she’s fully loaded,” Leela mused as they passed the oversized cargo bay. Veklerov muttered an agreement and stood to one side, waiting by the access ladder to the upper decks with a salacious grin.
She made him climb first.
Leela couldn’t quite hide her feelings as she looked around the bridge. It was a mess. Worse, it was laid out wrong. The scanners and radio consoles were combined, the control column was completely different and, to top it all, there was no drinks machine. She stood by the command chair, staring at unfamiliar dials and indicators with what felt like a lump of lead sitting in her gut.
“So are you satisfied with your ‘inspection’, Sirochka?”
“For starters you can stop calling me that,” Leela replied tartly. She noted the look on Veklerov’s face, that odd, annoying smile again. “And don’t think you can charm your way into my pants either. I already know where my parents are.”
“Ahh, so the dear star orphan told you how I took advantage of her, did she?” Veklerov leaned against the empty console, where the scanners would have been, and grinned. “Told you how I seduced her with lies and spectacles and left her abandoned and alone, vengeful and betrayed, no doubt.”
“That’s the gist of it,” Leela replied. She sat down and carefully wrapped her hands around the strange steering yolk. “You don’t seem to be denying it,” she added, looking up. Veklerov shrugged.
“If I deny it, you’ll just think I’m lying.”
“So you’re saying it’s not true?” Leela ran her fingers along the console. Where hers was just soothing charcoal emptiness and minimalist instrumentation, here there were dozens of archaic toggle switches and indicators attached seemingly at random. At first she’d thought they were just for show but an experimental shifting of one activated some system deep in the ship; she had felt a dozen or so tumblers thumping into place beneath the deck. Half the labels were hand-written on tape, stuck haphazardly around the dash. The altitude indicator was analogue. Where her control yoke was functionally plain, here was something with about a dozen auxiliary levers attached, and a gaudy, striped fluffy cover wrapped around the grips.
“I’m saying she had unrealistic expectations.” Veklerov took a step toward Leela, his hands held out, palm up and that annoying smile fixed permanently on his face. Leela would so dearly liked to have rammed her fist into that stupid grin right then, but it wouldn’t have achieved much.
“What’s unrealistic about expecting a man to give a damn? Servos... “ She ran her fingers along the console again, looking for anything familiar. “Inverter pressure... auxiliary plasma feed... main field backlock? To hell with it.”
Leela stabbed at a random button on the console and was rewarded with the re-assuring sound of the main computer powering up. She leaned back, grinning at Veklerov’s obvious discomfort. “Piece of cake,” she said, casually flipping half a dozen more switches in what felt like the right order. For a moment everything seemed to be all right, until the main power shut down, plunging the deck into relative darkness.
“Piece of cake,” Veklerov repeated with just a hint of sarcasm. He leaned across the console, ignoring Leela’s narrow-eyed glare. “You forgot primary injector matrix interlock.”
“I didn’t forget it,” Leela retorted, pushing Veklerov away. “We don’t have one of those back home. You have so many of the ship’s functions manually controlled, I’m surprised you have any time to fly,” she added, running through her mental checklist and finding it woefully incomplete compared to the console before her. It wasn’t helping with her headache, either.
“I thought so at first but, it makes things more interesting. I thought you of all people-”
“Interesting gets my friends hurt,” Leela snapped. She grit her teeth but that just increased the pounding in her head. Her hands carefully traced over the unfamiliar console, seeking out what systems she could remember from the Professor’s interminable lectures on space flight. “I don’t like interesting.”
The ship was slowly coming to life and there was, Leela had to admit, a certain amount of pleasure to be so actively engaged in coaxing that life to the surface. She fixed a scowl on her face to be sure Veklerov didn’t get the idea that she was enjoying herself.
Besides, she was still right. The distraction of so much manual control could be fatal at the wrong moment, especially in a fight. “How’s Yancy on the main gun?”
“Useless,” Veklerov said, seemingly thrown by her sudden change of subject. He turned away, his attention drawn to something on the far side of the hangar for a moment. “Useless. I put Bender up there if I absolutely have to use it. And your friend Philip?”
“Actually he’s pretty good, I-” the ship shook itself as the main power came online, giving Leela a simultaneous feeling of pleasure and dread. “I’m surprised this piece of junk can even fly,” she muttered as she watched a series of ancient analogue dials plink to their stops before settling into what she supposed was their standard operating range.
“It was worse when I first got here. I had to figure out most of these things for myself, the Professor hadn’t labelled them properly.” Veklerov squatted down beside Leela, one hand resting on the back of the seat while he pointed at the console. “This here was originally labelled as the engine coolant flow, and this one, the relative velocity indicator, was labelled as the core temperature gauge.”
“I can imagine that caused a few headaches.” Leela absently fingered the two dials and then ran her hands over a few of the others. There were so many. “Some of these look a little different.”
“Yes, I brought a few more of the ships functions through this console to make them easier to monitor.” Veklerov pointed at a set of crudely labelled analogue dials and switches. “Main computer interface breaker, gravity pumps, inertial dampeners, propulsion systems regulators and...” he flicked one of half a dozen small vertical indicators until its needle rose from the bottom of the scale. “Atmospherics. It does that sometimes.”
“I suppose you’ve been making your modifications to...” Her voice faded as she turned to look at Veklerov. He smiled at her. Leela didn’t smile back. “You’re trying something.”
Veklerov touched a hand to his chest, his face a picture of innocence wronged. “Oh, why so cynical, Sirochka?”
“I told you to stop calling me that.”
“Sure, Leela...” Veklerov stood up and walked away, whistling. He stood by the bulkhead, humming tunelessly whilst Leela completed her examination of the controls and then turned to look at her again. “What I said-”
“After last night, Veklerov, I’m surprised you would even want to talk to me. I definitely don’t know why I’m talking to you.”
“You have spirit,” he replied. “Lee- Neena has no spirit in her, she lives in her little blank apartment with her little blank life, goes to her little blank job and never does anything exciting with it all.”
“Maybe she’s just never had the chance.”
“I gave her a chance,” Vek shot back. “She rejected it!”
Leela turned in her seat and glared at Veklerov. She could almost feel her face turning red from the anger boiling in her gut. “Is that your excuse for taking advantage of her?”
“I gave her what she wanted! I gave her hope and an adventure, why should I be blamed if she was too timid to-”
“Shut up! This was a stupid idea,” she said, launching herself from the seat. Leela turned to glare at Veklerov, her hands balling into fists before she could stop them. “How I ever let you talk me into this... this...”
She stopped, dumbstruck, as Fry walked onto the bridge with Amy in tow. Was that his hand quickly letting go of hers, or just the light? Why did she care? “Fry, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Wha...” he stared at her with that same confused expression he always had when she asked him even slightly hard questions. Leela squeezed her eye shut and shook her head.
“You told me to come,” he whined. When Leela opened her eye he was turning away again and Amy was giving her the most vicious look she’d ever seen. Moreso than even the crazy version of her with the laser rifle.
Leela felt her shoulders give way just a fraction. She looked at Veklerov but he was just smiling again. Fry and Amy were locked in some sort of discussion for the moment, leaving her isolated as she tried to work out just where she’d screwed up this time. Last night she had the excuse of being drunk. Now... the headache flared up again, forcing her eye shut. Leela stumbled toward the couch and flopped down on it. There was no point in trying to hide the pain now. Things were so bad, her discomfort would simply be lost in the noise.
There was a rustle of cloth behind her. A familiar sound. She looked up and found Fry standing behind the couch, looking down at her with his head tilted to one side slightly. He wasn’t smiling, but he didn’t seem angry either. Not as such.
They fell silent, staring at each other, each unable to really say what they wanted. “You’d better go sit down,” Leela said, more to break the silence than anything else. “We’ll talk later.”
Fry nodded slowly and then turned away, slouched as always with his hands in his pockets, as he stepped back up to the main deck. Leela turned away before he reached the spare console – Amy was sat on the radio console, for some reason. She stared out of the window and braced herself for the launch as the ship reared skywards.