Stars drifted past the window of the tiny, cramped guest cabin Leela had been assigned for the trip. It was opposite the one Fry was in – the one he was sharing with Amy, where they were probably... she turned over in a hammock barely large enough to accommodate her, physically acting out the mental effort to put those thoughts from her mind. The hammock rocked back and forth as the ship manoeuvred, swinging her up and away from the bulkhead and then toward it again, just close enough that she feared thumping against it if she didn’t pay attention.
The result was that she couldn’t rest, as much as she needed to. Nor could she work out how Fry managed to sleep in such horrid quarters. Perhaps she should see her way to getting his cabin upgraded a bit when they got back. Assuming they ever did.
Leela rolled onto her other side and stared at the door. Why Amy? Why now? She flipped herself out of the hammock and stood up, ignoring the irregular sway of Vek’s manoeuvring as they came in to land, and made her way out of the cabin and into the corridor.
It was cramped, like the rest of the ship, narrower, and shorter, ending against a truncated medical bay that also included the laundry facilities. No passengers on this ship. Fewer liabilities, more cargo space, yet they still had just two tiny tiny little packages in the cargo bay. Some things just never changed, she thought, shaking her head at the madness of it all.
She soon found herself in the galley. There was no separate mess for the crew, they either ate in the galley or their cabins, which couldn’t be too good for crew cohesion. On the other hand, having to spend any length of time with Vek... she grabbed herself a cup of the ship’s gut-rotting preprocessed freeze-dried non-baconated coffee-style beverage and sat down facing the door.
Almost on cue, Amy entered, humming a tune to herself. The song died in her mouth when she saw Leela and a frown creased across her pleasing features. “Oh. It’s you.”
“Yes.” Leela stared into her cup and then at Amy again. The intern seemed to put whatever she was thinking to one side for the moment as she resumed her short journey around the galley, for her own refreshment.
Leela tried to put her own thoughts in order again but the presence of Amy kept overwhelming her. She tried to ignore her but she was humming again, and when she passed close by Leela could smell-
“Laa laa can’t hear you!” Amy rattled her cup against the machine and started singing a noisy and annoying song.
“Come on, Amy, how long have we been...”
The words caught in Leela’s throat. For a blessed moment she’d forgotten they were in a different world, with different people who only looked like their friends. Amy slowly put down her cup and turned to look at Leela.
“I’m not your friend, Leela.”
“In my universe we’re best friends,” Leela said, reasoning that a little bit of truth-stretching wouldn’t hurt right now. “We talk about our problems, we don’t hide them from each other.”
“What’s to talk about? Why should I talk to someone who treats Phil the way you do?”
Phil, Leela noted. Not Fry. Did he have anything to say about that? “We’re under a lot of strain right now.”
“Yeah? Well maybe when you’re gone that won’t be a problem for us.”
The ship rocked and swayed forward in the silence following Amy’s outburst, then shook violently as it came to a halt, just enough to rattle the plates in the galley. Leela tried to absorb what Amy had said, tried to fashion an understanding that her mind simply refused to comprehend.
“When I’m... Us? What? Amy, what are you talking about?”
“Oh, didn’t he tell you? Well I guess he’s just returning the favour!” Amy grabbed her drink and stormed out of the galley before Leela could even understand what she’d just heard.
The door opened again. Leela looked up, hoping for Amy back to her usual happy self, or even Fry in a sour mood would have done, because bitter Fry was better than none at all but, no. It was Veklerov. He closed the door and stood across the table from her, half-smiling. Leela was heartened to see him recoil slightly when she glared at his face, but then he rallied quickly and grinned as he sat down.
“So, Sirochka, how are we now? Headache going away, hmm?”
“I told you to stop-”
“Calling you that, yes, I know,” Veklerov said, nodding. He pulled out a sealed packet of cigarettes and offered them toward Leela until he was sure she didn’t want one. With a shrug he pulled the packet back and tapped a cigarette out.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Leela said once the filter was in his mouth. Veklerov paused, frowning at the question, and examined his lighter.
“Twice a day,” he said after he’d lit up. Veklerov snapped the lighter shut and slipped it back into his jacket. “It is a bad habit but I keep it up anyway. It helps to maintain a particular image when dealing with certain clients... and sometimes I admit I enjoy it, too.”
He leaned back and took the cigarette from his mouth, trailing a line of smoke through the air as he held it up in front of his face, turning it so that the narrow gold band around the filter revealed a small crest, the same stylised dog’s head she’d seen everywhere in this universe. Leela found herself watching the smoke and sniffing with just a hint of familiarity creeping into her mind. The smoke that would normally have her in a coughing fit by now seemed only mildly irritating at worst.
“You sure you don’t want one,” Veklerov asked, a little bemused at her attention. “You seem interested, if nothing else.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“You used... ahh but, Neena used to, of course, when she was younger.” He smiled again, and a little broader still when he saw Leela’s reaction to that revelation, and tucked the cigarette back between is lips. “This is like the drink, isn’t it? The one she liked and you never heard of before?”
“I think I’d rather forget,” Leela replied, resisting the urge to rub her forehead as the hangover made itself felt again. She lifted her cup to take another sip of the coffee only to find it was already empty. “She never told me.”
“We all have our secrets,” Veklerov said with another more knowing smile. He looked away to finish his cigarette; with his feet up on the table and one arm bent behind his head he looked more like an idle playboy than a pilot. “She told me so the first time we met,” he added. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s the one that stole those two packets from my locker this morning.”
“I’m... she’s not a thief.”
“Well someone took them.”
Leela closed her eye. The headache was asserting itself again but she’d had no idea where to look for a cure on this ship. When she opened it again she found herself looking into Veklerov’s lazy stare.
“You have the most wonderful eye,” he said. Leela just snorted, which seemed to surprise him even more. “I mean it!”
“As much you meant it last time, I’m sure.”
“I... see. Well, we’re making our delivery now. You can go along if you like,” he said, with a coy tilt of his head. “Or we can stay behind to, ah, work out the timing of this little competition.”
“I’m ready whenever you are,” Leela replied tartly. Vek’s only response was to take another drag on his cigarette. He stood, with the little white stick hanging from one corner of his grinning mouth, and left the galley without another word. Leela sat back then, her mind racing. She’d never seen him smoking before. Nobody had ever mentioned it. Maybe Amy could tell her? Maybe, if she could convince her to listen instead of just ignoring her. And what was that about Fry?
Leela was still pondering the question when she entered the bridge. Fry was at his usual seat by the radio, though Amy was nowhere to be seen now. Leela perched on the auxiliary station opposite and turned to watch Fry. She’d never had the chance to just watch him at his job before. Normally she was too busy piloting or thinking about manoeuvres and routes to notice, but he seemed to be pretty good at what he did. What little that was. Maybe she should have appreciated him a little more from time to time... but, then, she had, hadn’t she? There had been times when she’d done things for him too. Hadn’t there?
Fry turned toward her, half-smiling until his eyes found Leela. He stopped with a visible jump and stared at her, blinking furiously. Then he scowled back at his console. Leela tried not to roll her eye as she turned to survey the bridge. There was Veklerov, calmly examining the control column and apparently ignoring most of it.
He looked up and smiled at Leela. “You have met Wormulons before, I assume?”
“More often than I’d have liked,” Leela replied with a grimace. There was no sign of the Slurm factory outside. Perhaps they weren’t on the same planet. If Vek drank the foul gunk it might be worth telling him how it was made.
“Strange creatures,” was all Veklerov had to add to the thought. He completed whatever check-list he was running through and sat back with a sigh. “So, Philip Fry, now you come into your own eh?”
“I guess,” Fry muttered. He spun around in his seat, pausing a moment to look at Leela again before he stood up. Leela tried to think of something to say, something that might re-assure him or bring him back, or just get him to explain what was going on but the words failed her. She stared, mute, at Fry until he turned away with another, darker frown and walked off the bridge. The hatch clanged shut.
“So, you and me, alone again Sirochka,” Veklerov said as the sound reverberated away in the too-dry atmosphere of the bridge. He smiled until Leela’s silence seemed to sink into his mind. “It is no matter, you two will be leaving soon.”
“I don’t know...”
“Oh, you think you will stay?” Veklerov chuckled and shook his head. He hauled himself from the seat and walked over to sit by Leela’s console. “I wish I could believe it.”
“No you don’t. Besides,” she said, turning a fraction away from Veklerov so she didn’t have to look straight at him. Veklerov leaned forward to keep her face in view. “I was talking about Fry.”
“Philip is staying? How interesting... and you would just leave him?”
“No! I need... he...”
Leela stopped. Of course she didn’t need Fry, she could travel home by herself if she wanted. It wasn’t a problem. She’d been alone for most of her life, what was one more universe of loneliness? She had a hard time imagining that journey, nonetheless.
“I would not force you to leave, were I him.”
Vek stood up again. For once he wasn’t wearing the annoying smile Leela had come to associate with the man and, in fact, his entire posture had changed. He looked almost defeated in some way.
“I would not force you to leave,” he repeated, firmer than before. Leela turned to face him, tried to work out where this side of the man had come from. “He doesn’t know what he’s giving up.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“Leela, I am a broken man, I have a much wrong about me, but I’m no liar. I meant what I said before.” He lifted his hands a little, palms up, as if offering something to her. “I mean it now.”
“All that crap you span to Neena about her eye...”
“I meant all of that,” he said, crouching before her, almost kneeling at her feet. He took hold of Leela’s hand. For some reason, she didn’t immediately shake it free again.
“I’m getting older, Leela, and, in this profession...” he paused and stared out of the window at the brightening grey-green sky of the world outside. “Chasing around space is a job for the young.”
“What are you saying?”
“Just that I’m slowing down, that I’m not as quick to react as I should be. Pretty soon I’ll have to quit, or I’ll get people killed, and then what will I have? No ship, no life...”
“But, you’re barely even forty, that’s no age,” Leela exclaimed, with just a moment’s thought on how fast that boundary was rolling toward her. “Vek you’re not making any sense, I could- I mean you could fly for another eighty years.”
“As the captain of a garbage scow or a cruise liner, perhaps,” Vek replied with a shake of his head. He righted himself and paced across the bridge to the far windows, where he stood, legs apart, arms folded behind his back as he stared out over the dull scenery. “And what a life that would be eh? Flying the same damn route every month, entertaining old women and stupid fat men in private dinners, growing fat and old without any excitement to look forward to.”
“Well, when you put it that way...”
Leela walked over to Veklerov’s side and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her with a weak smile.
“You’re saying this whole angry Russian thing, it’s just an act?”
“Maybe. You’re right,” he said, turning back to face Leela. “To reject a man like me for the way I’ve behaved, you are right. I have not been a good man. But I wouldn’t be so stupid to give someone like you up. Not twice. Not again,” he repeated, reaching out to take Leela’s hand.