“They call themselves the Masters,” Pratt said, bloodshot eyes narrowed with hate, “but I call them devils. Part machine, part man, they lord it over us with their science and their control of the metals.”
He walked around Fry and Chan, who were rooted to the spot. Pratt continued, “Every baron of a city, every duke of an island bows down to them. They control the markets, the metals, the lords in their fancy clothes and the priests in their temples. Only we – the pirate brethren – do not bow down to them.” He thrust the bottle at Fry.
Fry looked at it, took it, and gingerly took a swig. He swallowed a mouthful, gagging at the powerful taste. “Nice,” Fry said. He handed the bottle back.
Pratt smiled approvingly, and said, “But that’s not why I hate ‘em, Fry. Guess why?” He looked at Fry expectantly.
“Um…why?” Fry’s throat was dry.
Pratt guffawed long and hard, and then started to cry. “They take children, Fry. Children to do their diabolical experiments on; children who don’t survive.”
Pratt wiped his tears with his dirty sleeve. “They took my children. It killed my wife. She cried herself to death.”
Fry had a mental image of Leela, children taken from her, sobbing in her bed and him unable to help. He shivered.
Pratt’s voice hardened. “I wasn’t giving up. I went after them. I had a group of men from my town with me – my first pirate crew.”
“We tracked the bastards and their prisoners to Old Laffer island, where they kept some prisoner pens.” Pratt took another long swig of from the bottle.
“Broke into the pens, got out all the prisoners and burned the damned bastards’ fortress to the ground. They were tough, I’ll grant you – half my men didn’t make it back.”
Fry hesitated, then asked, “Your children?”
Pratt looked at the red-head. “Dead before we got there.” He finished off the bottle of whiskey in one long gulp without offering Fry any more. “I’ve been sailing the seas ever since then, fighting these devils and their lackeys at every chance, and I won’t rest until every single one of them is dead, and mankind is free.”
Pratt looked at Chan. “I can see your pain, too, man. What’s your story?”
Chan wrung his hands. “My…my big sister. The Masters took her when she was twelve. My father tried to fight…they killed him right in the street like a dog.” He looked up at Pratt. “I remember it like it was yesterday.” Chan took a deep breath. “The hardest part of my mother was…seeing Mei again.”
Pratt grimaced. “Your sister is one of the ones who survived, huh?”
“Guess that made your mom…happy?” Fry axed, although he was pretty sure it hadn’t.
Chan covered his eyes with his hands. “She saw her at a market fair in the big harbor town of our island. She was fifteen then, and had the basic metal…things…they have. She didn’t even look at Mother, I heard. I ran off to sea after I saw my mother come back from that trip.” Chan started weeping quietly.
Fry put his hand on Chan’s shoulder. Children! He was angry at these Masters, angry as he’d been at the Infosphere. He looked up at Pratt. “So now you pillage and kill, Captain Smiling Pratt?”
Pratt shook his head. “Don’t approve of me methods, eh, Fry? I told ye you weren’t like us.” He leaned in close enough for Fry to smell the whiskey on his breath. “I understand, ye know. You remind me of myself, long long ago.” Pratt grinned. “But not a lot of killing left, Fry – not of real people anyway.”
Pratt stepped back, and gave an incongruous laugh. “The end’s coming for those devils, for sure, and this here ship’s carrying it.”
“What do you mean?” Fry asked.
Pratt took a long look at Chan, then at Fry, and said, “Let me know tomorrow if you’re with me, Fry. If you are, I’ll see you on the main deck at six bells.” The pirate captain strode past the pair and climbed up a ladder to a hatch.
Fry watched him go, and was startled to see Levar emerge from the darkness. The second-in-command scowled at Fry, and said, “What the Captain didn’t tell you, softie, is that I was one of the children he rescued on that first raid. I’ve been following him ever since.”
Suddenly Levar had a dagger out and the point pricked Fry’s neck. “The Captain has high hopes for you, but I don’t see why, and I don’t trust ye myself. I won’t hesitate to slice you open and toss you to the fish if I think you’re going to betray the Captain, softie.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Fry stuttered.
Levar studied both of them, then vanished back into the gloom.
“I’m really starting to have regrets,” Chan said.
“The cyborgs were defeated by the human resistance,” the Professor said, firelight glinting off of his thick spectacles, “but not destroyed. There were many of them left, and they had terrible weapons remaining.”
“So what happened? And how did they get here?” Amy axed.
“Hubris,” the Professor said. “Hubris and fear. The forerunners of the Academy of Inventors – the smartest, most brilliant scientists left in the world – presumed to speak for humanity and cut a secret deal with the cyborgs. If they would leave without using their doomsday weapons, we would give them a way out.”
“The wormhole!” Leela said.
“Exactly. It was built by those human scientists, with the cyborgs’ help. That’s why it doesn’t show up on the DOOP charts; it’s been a closely-guarded secret of the Academy for almost a millennia. Good lord, DOOP didn’t even exist back then.”
“And all these people? They’re humans from Earth?”
“Oh my, yes; descendants of the people the cyborgs took with them,” the professor said.
“You let them take prisoners with them?!” Leela gasped.
“I didn’t do anything, young lady. And they weren’t prisoners – they were breeding stock.”
“That’s horrible!” Leela said.
“So for a thousand years the cyborgs have been on this side of the wormhole, waiting for some kind of pursuit – and nobody on our side even knew it was there?” Amy was somewhat amazed.
“The oldest members of the Academy have been custodians of the secret for ten centuries,” the Professor said. “I doubt even Wernstrom (grrr!) knew of the matter.”
The Professor straightened up and his voice got stronger. “As the oldest member of the Academy of Inventors, and the only one here, this falls to me. It is my responsibility to protect these people from the gamma ray burst.” He smiled at them. “Good news, everyone! You’re going to help me on this mission of mercy!”
The traditional groans greeted the professor.
Kif was the first to speak. “How to we protect a whole biosphere from an astronomical event?”
“A diamondium shield, large enough to shadow the planet, and charged with a strong enough forcefield, would stop the majority of the dangerous gamma rays. We just have to build it ourselves.”
Leela was stunned. “Your – your talking about something tens of thousands of kilometers across! We couldn’t possibly build something like that ourselves!” Her mind’s eye was visualizing a giant crystal lens the diameter of a planet, with powerplants the size of cities to drive its forcefield. Leela shuddered in awe.
“Of course not, you nincompoop,” the Professor said crossly. “Who said anything about building it ourselves? We have to get help.”
“Help!” Hermes exclaimed. “The locals are living in wooden huts with sailing ships.”
“But the Cyberians aren’t,” Kif observed. “That’s who you mean, isn’t it, Professor? Getting the Cyberians to help us.”
“Correct, Lt. Kroker. After all, the Cyberians appear to live on this world too, or at least have an interest in it.”
“Those machine-desecrating, human-parts-using maniacs?” Bender said incredulously. “You want to ask them for help? Last time we saw them, the only help they were interesting is givin’ us was a laser enema.” He bit off the end of cigar and lit it with his finger. “Well, good luck with that, meatbags – I wish you luck.”
Leela ignored the robot; while she couldn’t argue with his point, they did not have much of a choice. “I guess we have to try. How do you suggest we approach them, Professor?”
“Carefully,” Amy interjected.
“My young intern is correct, loyal employees. We must find the stronghold of the cyborgs, and fly there emitting the Academy’s identifier beacon. Hopefully they will remember the parley signal and allow us to communicate before blasting us.”
Leela rubbed her chin. “So…how do we find their stronghold?”
“I suggest we make contact with some of the locals. They may be able to put us in contact with the cyborgs. There’s a seaside town not too far down the coast of this island – we can start there.”
Leela nodded. “Seems as reasonable as anything else in this crazy place. Something we can start on in the morning.” She stretched, trying to wring the tension from her shoulders. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to turn in.”
She started toward the ship’s ladder, and then stopped for a moment. “Amy,” she said quietly, “do you still have the tracker the Professor built?”
Amy frowned, and reached into her pocket. She pulled out the device, with its still-blinking green light and directional display that pointed straight at Bender. Amy walked over to Leela and handed it to her, a question in her eyes.
“Thanks,” Leela said, looking at the green light with a strange expression on her face. “I think I’ll keep this under my pillow.”
The starship captain went up the steps to her cabin.
Fry awoke with a start at six bells. Mornings had never been his thing, but months of working a steady job for Leo Wong had started to get him in the practice of early rising.
“Not this early,” he grumbled to himself as he slid out of his hammock. Funny, he thought. My hammock here’s just like mine on the ship. With all the manual labor I’ve been doing, you’d think I would be sleeping better. But I miss her so much –
Suddenly, Fry remembered his dream. Leela, crying without end on her bed. Our children – our children! – red-haired and one-eyed, being dragged away by shadowy horrors. My impotent fury – his blood ran cold. His dream made his decision.
Fry headed topside, avoiding the chow line. His stomach was twisted up, and he couldn’t bear the thought of food right now.
On the stern deck, by himself, Pratt waited quietly. “You came, Fry,” was all he said.
Fry stopped a few feet from the man. “I did. I wanted to hear more.”
“Do you want to stop the metal devils?”
“Just because they’re metal doesn’t make them devils, Pratt.” Fry shook his head. “But if they’re hurting people – then yes, I want to stop them. But I’m not willing to see other people die needlessly, Pratt.”
Pratt grinned. “There’s no need for that with me plan, sonny. No one will be hurt – except them.”
“What is your plan?”
“All in good time; first I think I should teach you a few things.” Pratt opened a case lying on the deck with a foot, and pushed out a sword. “Pick it up,” he told Fry.
Fry, expecting a trick, slowly bent down and picked up the sword. Like the one he had the day of the raid, it was lighter than he expected. Looking closely at it, he realized it was made, not of metal, but of some thin slice of ceramic. “Cool!” he said.
“On your guard, Mr. Fry,” Pratt said dryly.
Fry tried to remember the sword-fighting techniques his worm-enhanced body had used, and took up a stance. Pratt came at him in a rush and the two clashed blades for a moment.
Then Pratt was behind him somehow, and his sword point was pressing against Fry’s kidney. “Got you, Fry.”
Pratt came around and grinned at the red-headed man. “Now let me show you how I did it.”