“It’s rather like putting jello in a mould, or a monkey’s brain into a dolphin skull. At first the sticky tasty goo retains its original shape but then, after a while, the pressure of the new container forces it to adopt that new shape. And then it’s as if it was never the old shape in the first place, yes...”
Leela, Yancy and Amy clustered around the conference table, staring at the complex diagrams Professor Farnsworth had displayed on the holo-viewer as he pointed, apparently at random, to different parts and equations. Fry was lying in a cot a short distance away; though he hadn’t recovered as fully as last time, he’d insisted on sitting in on the explanation. Leela hadn’t even bothered trying to talk him out of it.
“You see it’s all to do with quantum states and waveforms. The combined waveform that defines your existence is just one possible state out of an infinite number of other states.” Farnsworth held up his ubiquitous pen and stared at it, as if wiling it to change shape. “In moving from one universe to another you’ve created an observable quantum superposition, which is physically impossible, as I explained to young Yancy, here.”
“I don’t remember it much,” Yancy muttered. “Just that it didn’t sound too good. I was never much on science at school.”
“Yes, that much is obvious. Atheismo himself would have trouble educating you. Anyway,” he continued, before Yancy would work up a good comeback. “There is no solution to this problem except that you leave the universe as soon as possible because each moment you stay increases the probability of your waveform collapsing. The risk is greater for Philip, given that he is dead in this universe. You might not suffer anything more than a permanent headache. He may well disappear entirely.”
“He’s a scary evil duplicate of the Fry in this universe and ever since you’ve arrived, the combined quantum waveform that describes him has been trying to collapse into a shape more compatible with this universe. In his case that would be a very, very old corpse somewhere over in Montana.”
“I don’t think he’d be very happy about that.”
There was a thump of feet hitting the floor. Fry shuffled over to the table, holding his blanket around his shoulders like a robe. He sat down next to Amy. Grey was fringing his temples and a dark brown stubble was starting to show over cheeks that seemed taut with age, and something else that Leela couldn’t quite define.
“A few days, perhaps. I ran a few simulations of the result. It wouldn’t be particularly painful. It might even look quite pretty.”
“Yeah, for you maybe,” Fry shot back. His voice sounded hollow too. Fry glared at the table, unable to look at anything else. “So, if I stay, I die. What if I just go into another universe every so often?”
“No, that wouldn’t work. The effect in any particular universe seems to be cumulative.”
“It’s a cloud?”
Farnsworth choked on his reply, turning pink with the effort of holding back his frustrated rage. “No, you... you chimp-brained ancestor! Cumulative!”
“He means, you can’t wind it back by going through another box,” Amy said. Fry turned sad, tired eyes to her. He almost seemed to be pleading. “And you can’t come back.”
“If you leave now I believe you should be restored to your former condition, primitive and ugly as it might be...” Farnsworth peered at Fry through his thick glasses and almost seemed to relent in his distaste. “But it has to be now.”
I’ve modified the, uh, modifications I made to your scanner, Leela. They should be able to give you a good idea of how long you’ll last in a given universe before your waveforms begin to collapse. It should also be able to tell you when you reach your own universe again. Now...”
He stood, and with uncharacteristic tact, left without a word. Leela watched Fry for his reaction but all he did was stare at the table, his eyes narrow. She could feel the bitter anger emanating from him, surrounding him like a cloud.
Yancy caught her eye and motioned toward the rail. She followed. For a while, they stood together, leaning against the rail and staring at nothing much. Leela ran her eye over the ship from bow to stern, taking in its unique lines for one last time. If things were a little different, she thought sadly.
“I guess this is goodbye,” Yancy said. He turned on the rail and frowned at Leela. His face had that familiar Fry look, tempered by what others might call more intelligence but that she knew was just cynicism. “Again.”
“I guess so.” She turned back to the ship. It seemed lonely, sitting there without a pilot or a mission. It seemed this was one universe where they wouldn’t make everything better in the end. In fact they were having a pretty bad run so far, screwing up two and nearly getting killed in three.
His jaw clamped shut and he turned away again. Leela could see the question he wanted to ask. Was it fear?
“She lost everything, Yancy. She’s like you.” A frown as he looked at her again. She pressed on, forcing herself to speak on. “When you’re so used to being completely alone it’s hard to admit that you might need someone else to be there.”
“I don’t have any problem admitting that, Leela. I know I need someone. I just don’t need someone who might decide to kill me in the middle of the night, or go crazy over something that isn’t even important.”
“Then you’re not going to have much luck with women.”
Yancy snorted. But then he smiled, just a little. It was the first smile she’d seen on his face since they arrived. Leela reached out and touched his arm.
“At least say you’ll talk to her, Yancy.”
He nodded, an emphatic promise that Leela knew he’d keep. If she knew anything about the Frys, it was that they could be trusted to keep their promises. Or... well, occasionally trusted. And who knew, maybe something would come of it. “Oh that’s just weird,” she muttered.
Leela smiled and raised her eye skyward. “Nothing. Just thinking.”
“Right. Well. I guess you’d better get going,” Yancy said. He was looking back at the conference table. Fry and Amy were locked in an embrace, the sort that would be hard to break at the best of times. For once, Leela found she didn’t want to barge in.
And then it was over, and Fry was walking toward them with a determined look on his face.
“I’ll see him downstairs.” She squeezed Yancy’s shoulder. “It was nice to meet you.”
Yancy watched Leela all the way to the stairs before turning back to face his brother. Up close, Phil’s face looked even more worn and tired. His back was ram-rod straight and nearly immobile but his shoulders were hunched. The overall impression was of reluctant age.
“Yancy... huh.” Phil leaned on the rail and stared at the ship, adopting a surprisingly similar pose to Leela’s a moment earlier. His breathing seemed a little ragged and when he spoke, his voice sounded... old. “This isn’t how I imagined leaving.”
“I guess you never imagined being in this situation in the first place.”
His brother shook his head and sighed. It was an unusual sigh, filled with the sort of longing Yancy was just starting to experience. “No.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Yancy said. “You look like crap.”
Phil laughed and shook his head again. And that was a strange thing too, so completely unlike the Philip Yancy had known all his life.
“I’m old, Yancy. I know it’s... it’s odd but, I feel old. I feel like I’ve lived an entire life, like I’ve experienced things, I can’t remember what they were.” He looked at Yancy, eyes shining with grief and surprising wisdom. “A few hours ago I would have refused to leave, you know. The only reason I’m leaving now is because I see the logic of it. I understand that I can’t just stay here and let my life end in a happy moment. Leela needs me around, even if she doesn’t want to accept that right now. I can’t let her be alone.”
“Huh. You sound kind of like dad after he’s been on the grain whiskey.”
“Tell me about it... don’t worry,” he added with a wry grin. “I’m not going to start on about my essential fluids.”
“You won’t be stuck like this, will you? I mean...” Yancy waved his hands in Phil’s general direction. “You know. Old.”
“The professor says my quantum thingummy will reset once I travel to the next universe. I’ll be your dumb little brother again”
Phil suddenly turned to face Yancy, though with a stiff sedateness that added a surprising amount of dignity to his movements, and pressed his hand against Yancy’s shoulder. For some reason the strength of that grip surprised Yancy, especially given the way that hand looked. Slender, and a little dry looking. Old.
“Yancy. Promise me you’ll look after her.”
“Leela already gave me the lecture about being alone.”
“She’s the one who’s alone, Yancy.” Phil’s voice seemed hollow, and Yancy could almost believe he could see the years layering across his brother’s face as he watched. “I’ve got this lifetime of knowledge that I don’t know how I got and it’s all about being alone. I know she needs you. Promise me.”
“Okay, okay, I promise. Now can you stop with the crazy Holy Grail melting face thing? It’s creeping me out.”
Phil smiled, an expression that seemed to carry far more weight than Yancy would have expected. He let go of Yancy’s shoulder and backed away. “I’m sorry.”
“Just so you don’t turn into a pile of bones in front of me.”
“No, Yancy. I mean I’m sorry. For everything. For all of this.” He touched Yancy’s shoulder again, then wrapped his arms around Yancy without any warning and pulled him into a hug. “I love you, bro.”
Then, he left, shuffling across the conference room to the elevator. Yancy looked away and fought the urge to follow him.
“I love you too, Phil,” he whispered.
The professor was waiting at the great door of the warehouse when Leela arrived. He was examining a line of footprints that trailed from a shallow puddle on the road – some sort of leak in the cavern roof. They lead into the building, between the stacked boxes, and in the same direction the scanner on Leela’s wrist was indicating they go. She stopped at the footprints.
“I hope there aren’t more of you travellers out there. I’m starting to regret ever making these universes.”
“It’s not fair, you know,” Leela said. Her heart wasn’t really in the rant. She was tired. “This isn’t exactly the dignified exit I was hoping for either.”
“Oh, we all face that problem one day, Leela...” Farnsworth smiled his idiot smile and shrugged, then glanced over Leela’s shoulder. “Ahh, here comes your friend. Now you two run along before your bosons decide to re-arrange themselves. It’s unfortunate, you know,” he added with a sad shake of the head. But then he turned to wander away. With uncharacteristic anger, Fry grabbed the Professor’s arm and turned him back.
“Oh, well, the possibilities of your situation. You see, the ‘quantum doohicky’ as you so crudely described it is a two way process. Just by being here, you’ve altered the quantum state of this entire universe. Given sufficient time your own presence would alter it to the point where the function of your own quantum waveform would be compatible.”
“You mean, if I could stay longer, I could... stay longer...”
“Yes, that’s precisely what I just said. Unfortunately your wave function is simply too incompatible with this universe for the effect to, uh, have its effect, as it were. So, you see...”
He frowned and wandered off. A Farnsworth to the end, even if he did look too much like Fry. Leela waited for Fry to make his way down from the upper levels. It was almost painful to watch, the way he moved, as if his body were in its sixties already. His back was stiff and hunched and his legs seemed about ready to collapse yet, oddly, he was breathing normally when he arrived. He looked at her, sullen but expectant.
“Okay. Come on then,” she said, aiming her scanner into the twilit warehouse. Fry grunted and followed her in until they reached a cluster of boxes that the scanner said were their best choice. Leela passed over the box with its lid missing and plucked the lid off another random box nearby, which the scanner claimed was just as good a choice.
She helped Fry through, then took one last look around the deserted warehouse before following.
Fry woke, feverish as heat burned through his skin. He remembered collapsing as he arrived and the pain that had washed through his body as he had made the transition from one universe to the next. To look at him now, it was as if nothing had changed. Fry held his hands up to the light. They were young again, which gave him a little cheer. Not much, though.
“She loved me,” he whispered. It seemed too painful to admit. He stared at the box they’d just left, forever closed to him now. “Do you understand that?”
“I’m sorry, Fry.”
“Am I going to lose everything I love?”
“Yeah, well we have other problems to worry about right now.”
The tenor of Leela’s voice jolted Fry from his melancholy long enough to look around the room, to really examine it. Nothing had been touched here for a long time. A thick layer of dust stretched across the entire floor, disturbed only where they’d landed. He looked up. There was a huge hole blasted in the ceiling and part of the wall, a clear path right out of the building. Greyish skies rolled across the gap, cloud cover that never quite broke to reveal the sky beyond. Beneath the cloud, the city of New New York stood silent and deserted.