Groaning, the crew piled themselves into the newly-repainted Planet Express, both the sentients and the ship standing out in light and pigment blue. Most of them were unused to wearing anything but their casual clothes on work assignments, but hey, DOOP regulations on civilians had said maroon jumpsuits, so forth they went in blue jumpsuits. Personally, Fry couldn't see the point – the future has artificial gravity!
In any case, they were due in at six AM, and he couldn't help but wonder if these people ever slept. Ever. Since the mission announcement, somebody at DOOP headquarters had decided to subtly increase the level of DOOP very-important-entity patrolling over New New York City, and the roughly hexagonal web of patrol-frigate trajectories tended to cross through metric flight levels twenty and below over the Planet Express headquarters, so … having decided to accommodate himself there from December the eighth onwards, Fry hadn't been getting much sleep, and so he was nearly a dead man walking as he made his way, coffee-less and slightly stumbling, through the Planet Express' corridors. On the upside, though, he'd had a lot of time to think.
First around, since when had Kif been a commodore? Surely Zapp would have blocked that, given that a speed-rise through lieutenant commander, commander, and captain would have endangered his own position? Still, there were a lot of people in the DOOP command who liked Kif, and very few who liked Zapp, despite Nixon's precarious pretensions to the contrary. Even so … but he'd deal with that later.
Second, why were the entire crew being corralled onto the mission by Hermes? Hell, he was even corralling himself onto the mission, pretty surely not typical bureaucrat behaviour. Right back at the start, Amy had complained about having to leave the Solar System during the holiday season, but Hermes had quoted some sort of long DOOP regulation at her and she'd quietened immediately. Both refused to respond to any queries on the number, which Fry could still vaguely remember, so he figured it was some kind of classified call-up clause – there'd been something about Amy holding a reserve commission brought up during the training sessions.
Third, and he chuckled, a bit bewildered, at his own self-analysis, why had he been made chief officer of PE deck operations a couple of days ago? He knew it basically meant chief delivery boy when applied to a cargo service, but in a company where everyone else was a delivery boy or girl too, it was a big thing. Might have had something to do with Bender being given a navy lieutenancy and made ship safety officer – mission prep, and Bender was pretty capable; Fry was still confused as to why Leela had made a Stupid Ages fish-outta-water the deck chief. She'd abashedly muttered something about 'efficiency on duty' when asked, and quickly changed the subject; Fry hadn't wanted to press it, figuring that since Leela seemed to know pretty much everything there'd be a rationale in there somewhere.
Fourth … but no, he didn't want to think about that too heavily. He'd been obsessing about it for a while, and it was time to stop; anyway, it was his job to run tower communications while Leela brought them in, and it seemed he'd arrived in the nick of time, his console speakers crackling indistinctly as the bridge lock slid open ahead of him. Without even looking round, the pilot absent-mindedly waved him to his seat, concentrating fully on the packed skylanes ahead and above as she fought her way out of the bustling city traffic.
As he plopped down on the battered vinyl swivel chair, the voices finally resolved themselves. “… local time five forty-seven ante-meridiem, we gettin' a single freighter out of Sparta District, visual's not distinct. Freighter crew, this is Base Station SoHo, you care to confirm? This is open to CQ, we're not getting a net trace … hold on, just a sec, we have visual on you. Planet Express, affirmatory?” The voice was male, with a light Spacer Chinese accent.
Fry donned his padded headset, flicked the big switch marked transmit, and spoke in a clear tone. “Affirmatory, bravo sierra SoHo, this is Planet Express speaking, open net. All is nominal here, we're heading west. What's up?” Nothing for a couple of seconds, and Fry grew annoyed. Civil base stations weren't meant to be tardy. “SoHo, this is Planet Express. You got your ears on?”
“Affirmatory,” the voice came back – one Fry knew well, albeit indirectly: Hector Li, a poorer scion of the Wong dynasty. He'd been lured to the Big Bad Apple by promises of money and fame, and now he was working operations for the rather disreputable SoHo civil band station. “We got you, good buddy. Traffic updates you be wanting for the metro-New airspace?”
Fry replied in quick order, making a subtle point. “You always talk that way, Hec'? Yeah, sure, we could do with some traffic updates. Captain's wrestling her way out of the metro-New airspace, so border conditions, traffic intelligence, they'll be good.”
“Just a sec …” The sound of Hector's rapid-fire data entry came over the channel loud and clear. “Alright, what have we got … ? Yeah, we've got … we layin' eyes on a couple of bears, sky spies … Probably got a couple of bots in the bushes.” The neo-Asian operator's speech tended to be peppered heavily enough, even off air, with civil-band slang, that Fry doubted anyone could understand the man without several weeks of living with him.
“Yeah, let's just make that a touch clearer.” He flicked the 'transmit' switch down, repeated the pronouncement for the benefit of Leela and, to a lesser extent, acting weapons officer Bender – density of air police over metropolitan New New York was higher than normal, and it looked like there were some taps on the civil band. Bender nodded sourly, while Leela laughed.
“Right now, we are the air police. Speaking of which, they're probably laid on for us,” the pilot mused, keeping her eye on the sky.
“You could be right.” Flicking the big switch back up to 'transmit', Fry went back onto the civil net. “Sorry for the ears-down there, Hec, but we're with Uncle Echo,” the Earthican Aerospace Authority, “on this one. Hell, the bears are probably catching the bear bait for us. Can't say more.”
“Affirmatory, Planet Express. You cleared through to Midtown on Fifth now. You have nice day, 'cause we gone.” Hector's sign-off was short and to the point, and the net automatically passed Fry on to a similarly laid-back DOOP escort operator, this one female and sounding Australian.
“Hey there. If all's going well, I'm speaking to … Lieutenant Commander Fry? Chief officer, delta november four two six five, west-bound?”
Fry acknowledged. “You make pretty good guesses. That's me.”
“We're the Democratic Order of Planets,” the woman said, apparently serious, but with just that tiny streak of self-mocking humour running through her tone. “We've been guessing for six hundred years – you might think we'd have attained some degree of proficiency. Now, I think we need to direct your crew through to NB New New York, so if you'll come with us?”
Surprisingly, Naval Base New New York was actually in far-Northern New New Jersey, and as they crossed the border they transitioned onto the military net. From a purely technological perspective, the milnet was a scary place – intruder traps and alerts everywhere; several times, Shel, the apparently-surnameless Australian captain, had had to squelch fighter squadron scrambles as the Planet Express' mere presence raised alarms thanks to careless bureaucracy.
Still, they managed to be privy to the mission-specific audio announcement that came seconds after their transition. The bridge crew listened, a modicum of interest present, as Kif's soft voice came over. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Thirty-third, we'll be leaving at seven-thirty. Mission acquaintance procedures engage at six-thirty.” And indeed the sun was just rising, poking its glowing head over the horizon. “Mission acquaintance today … just a second. Yes. Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be having a couple of special guests.”
A few laughs, male and female, came distantly over the net-stream as Kif continued. “A special unit will be attached to the Thirty-third. Please greet the crew of the Planet Express, Turanga Leela commanding. They will be Delta November four two six five for the duration, and … just a moment,” the tapping of keys, “chief officer Philip J. Fry will be speaking for them.”
Acknowledgements came over for Fry and Leela, while Bender sulked a bit, having not been given what he considered his rightful five seconds of fame and muttering something about how nobody cared about the only guy who'd actually served. Still, he supposed that in the greater scheme of things it really didn't matter, what with his scoring of a promotion to lieutenant commander and all (with associated pay rise); he was at least getting part of the 'fame and money' equation.
“I'd like to keep things moving along here,” Kif continued. “Planet Express crew, you're due in conference room delta fifty-five at six-twenty – kindly make your way there. As for the rest of you: You know what you're doing. Get to it.”
Another tight salvo of acknowledgements, leaving Fry to reflect that perhaps, just maybe, despite all the combat experience the Planet Express crew seemed to rack up on a daily basis, maybe there was a reason that there was a specific field for people who liked to shoot things. They certainly seemed much more professional than, say, the Planet Express crew (at least in normal circumstances), although professionalism might not help if one was facing an unconventional threat. Like space insects … urgh.
Still, the sensor trace had shown a decidedly human-like astroframe – certainly not the kind of thing an insect race might build. If they were to see anything, it would probably be just another run-of-the-mill human race. Welcome it into the DOOP, score another place in the annals of history. Woop dee do … we're already in the history books several times over. Not for the first time he was having second thoughts about passively letting himself be brought along on this mission; not, though, that he had had much choice. Leela was the boss – whatever she said, went, with the possible exception of orders countermanded by Hermes.
Aw, come on, Phil, you know why you didn't argue with her, a voice said in the back of his mind. It was a particularly nasty voice, too; very … er, what was the word? He couldn't come up with the word, save perhaps 'laddish' as the British used to say, but it sounded like his brother in one of his more nasty moments. In fact, it sounded exactly like the more taunting tones of Yancy junior ('good times,' he muttered slightly bitterly to himself, getting an odd look from Bender). In any case, he put the voice firmly away – no way would he let an obsessive little inner voice, especially not his brother's, define whatever rationale he might have – and directed his attention forward, out of the cockpit window.
New New York Base was a larger, scarier-looking version of the South Street Spaceport, a hovering cylinder built of stacked contra-rotating docking and habitation rings (a ratio of about one to four, respectively). The near-flat ovoids of DOOP frigates were arrayed neatly around the rings, some being on external docking armatures, others in sheltered docking bays, and yet others weaving their way through the base's interior tunnels on the silent maglev rails that formed much of the DOOP's rather baroque landing infrastructure.
Wait, interior tunnels? Fry mentally revised his distance and size estimates – the documents the DOOP had sent over indicated the frigates were at least seven hundred metres long, and there were something like twenty-five of them to a ring. Still, it didn't help much with scale – and it was then that he happened to look up and notice the fourteen-hundred-metre monstrosity that was Kif's command battlecruiser, the Nimbostratus if he recalled correctly, sitting placidly on the upper pole of the cylinder with a number of its fellows.
He winced. If the combined masses of the bevy of battlecruisers, flocks of frigates, and invisible but indubitably innumerable (he took a mental deep breath) fighters docked to the base were ever to overcome the titanic anti-gravity field it was projecting, the resulting explosion would likely wipe out most of North America; he aired the question to DOOP control, and was answered with a bit of black humour that the amount of mass required to make the anti-gravity field shut down would make the reactor explode first … but that, yes, they were running at about three-quarters capacity. It was a busy day, what with the first contact expedition going out and all.
The conversation ended a scant few seconds before the Planet Express passed into the darkness of one of the shafts which followed an apparently illogical but (Fry had been told) architecturally quite sound. It took several seconds of cursing, fumbling and falling over by Bender to deploy the exterior lights, but when he pulled the slate-grey switch powerful beams stabbed out from the forward hull to supplement the dim but persistent glow of the maglev guide lights.
Remarkably, Leela hadn't reacted to Bender's admittedly non-imperative distress, and Fry had dimly seen out of the corner of his eye that the pilot had been keeping her eyeline directed fixedly out the front port, her posture straight-backed and cutting a rather majestic silhouette – when she could be seen at all (the corridor, after all, was only a few shades above pitch-blackness, even with the guide lights). He was rather surprised; normally she would have turned to snap something at the gratuitously and falsely clumsy robot about efficiency, although she seemed to have softened up as late, the attitude bringing with it a strange sense of constant distraction.
For that matter, he couldn't help but wonder what in the world she might be thinking about, having never known her to be the kind of person to obsess on the same topic for the weeks she'd been apparently doing so, her distraction retaining the same 'colour' and manner. Keeping a slightly worried eye on her, he entered a few commands into his console, bringing the beams 'forward' instead of 'below' and earning a quiet, absent-minded 'Thank you,' for his trouble; again, her mind seemed on something else, but the expression was sincere, at any rate.
Abruptly, the atmosphere was broken by Bender, who suddenly announced that some sound was in order and started pulling up windows on his console, his finger units a blur, before Fry could even make towards replying, let alone stopping him. Precisely one-point-five-seven seconds after Bender's stentorian intonation, the Fatboy Slim remix of some nineteen-sixties tune or other … 'Psyche Rock,' Bender loudly informed his fellow crew … sounded out across the deck, actually making the floor plates vibrate very, very slightly.
Again uncharacteristically for her, Leela didn't react, seeming lost in thought, but the tune intrigued Fry; it was maddeningly familiar: maddening in that he just couldn't place it – damn, of course! Applied Cryogenics! Corporate theme songs were always hard to place, but this was definitely the same song; of course, the Applied Cryogenics theme was somewhat less intense, more muzak-esque and tinkly, but the tune definitely bore a major resemblance and there was no doubt that the theme was a reworking of the Fatboy Slim mix.
Kinda ironic … not the word. Coincidental, or something, that I hear this just before every big turning point. When I met Leela … hell, when I met Bender, even. The Applied Cryogenics theme seems to play every time something major happens. I can't imagine why they don't get more turnover.
Abruptly, his cerebrations were interrupted by the ship's somewhat blinding passage into a large lighted cavern he surmised must be the base's central shaft. Even more ships were docked in here, and from the amount of traffic that was arriving and departing it seemed a corridor must have been cleared for them. Informational holographics, clearly visible in bright red and gold despite the ridiculously intense glare from the faux-ivory interior hull, laid out a sharp course, and the ship followed it, its pilot moving in an almost robotically efficient fashion – although, Fry observed, it didn't seem to be a side-effect of having other things to contemplate, more a sense of professionalism and wasting not a single joule of energy.
In a surprisingly short time (it must have been under a minute, total), the ship had covered the approximately two kilometres across the interior and was moving into the docking bracket, the clamps locking into the hull flange with a minimum of noise and disruption and allowing the crew to make their way through the new forward-most hatch into what seemed a ridiculously institutional waiting room. Fry looked around – it seemed in a dangerously weak part of the station, with only the room and comparatively weak glass window slabs between outside and the docking bay – but even as Fry watched, the outer cocoon closed over the window, bringing the full force of the ceiling's halogen lamps to bear and making everyone look an unpleasant pale vomit colour.
The man who stepped from one of the doors, however, seemed immune to the effect. He wore a non-standard DOOP uniform which looked curiously somehow classical, Fry thought – black dress shoes, pale blue trousers and a similarly pale blue waistcoat over a pigment-blue shirt. Topping out the ensemble was the embroidered white DOOP isogram on the left side of his chest, 'Navy Intelligence Command' in neat black letters below.
The clothes did not seem to make the man, though; he looked slightly Asian, in a Western-idealised Ken-Watanabe-samurai-lord sort of way, and had – just as non-standard as his attire – near-shoulder-length wavy hair, giving him a kind of handsomeness that would be striking when looked at directly but would not catch one's eye in a crowd. Perfect for Intelligence, I bet, crossed Fry's mind, although having a memorable face might be a bit of a disadvantage.
The man's voice, when he spoke, was somewhere between tenor and baritone, with a relaxed pacing but very precise intonation, as if he were crafting his words into shape with a sharp knife blade. A New New Hampshire accent was present, cut with just the hint of a Spanish intonation. “Captain Leela and company?” The answer was obvious, the question a formality, and Leela accordingly inclined her head slightly, standing, Fry and Bender following suit a second later.
“My name is Gabriel Cruz.” The man they'd been assigned to meet here, Fry remembered, and shared a glance with Bender. “Will you please follow me?”
Leela inclined her head at Cruz' back, the man already moving, and began a measured stride after him; Fry, used to her manner after eight years, recognised her slipping back into distraction, and caught up with her; she seemed not to notice him, staring at the deck plating and not really seeing it. He tapped her on the shoulder. “Leela, wake up.”
She flinched almost a full second later, looking up, then sideways to Fry, but apparently clear-minded and focused for what seemed the first time today. Shaking her head slightly as if trying to wake herself up, she looked down a moment more, then back at Fry again, a slight smile touching the edges of her lips.
“Thank you, Fry.”
Fry smiled back in answer, and was rather elated that she didn't lengthen her stride and speed up as she might have done in other circumstances; he was surprised to find that, today, walking with someone, anyone – but especially Leela – was definitely a much warmer feeling than walking alone. When he looked ahead, Cruz's blue-uniformed back was disappearing through a wooden door, presumably that of an office.
Gabriel Cruz had a particular way of speaking – he knew it seemed a nervous habit to others, but it was just the way he talked. It was interspersed with a lot of repeating the words 'um', and 'ah', and 'well...', and to those who didn't know him it seemed as if he wasn't confident in what he was saying. It typically took only a couple of minutes for people to pick up on the nature of his way of speaking – but, it seemed, today it wouldn't matter. He was feeling clear-minded and focused for what seemed the first time today.
The redhead – Fry – was the first to arrive, looking inquiringly at Cruz, who waved him to a seat and sheepishly, privately, began to regret his negative pre-judgement. Rodriguez, the lieutenant commander and sole acknowledged veteran, saluted silently and waited for Cruz' “at ease,” before moving to the seat neighbouring Fry's. In turn, Rodriguez was himself followed by the pilot, Leela, who seemed to exude an air of professionalism and competence; despite the inevitable civil-military divide, Cruz couldn't help but instantly like her for the air of calm she brought – even if she did seem somewhat distracted about something.
He leaned forward, into his desk, making eye contact with each of the crew in turn. Each met his gaze unflinchingly, and in each case he was the first to look away, moving onto the next member of the crew. Instead of the status quo, he felt he himself was being scanned, assessed for competence; it was a bit uncomfortable for someone used to being the person who made snap judgements. The judgement he could make here, though, was that the crew were up to standard – it was obvious; still, formalities had to be followed.
“You are the command crew of the ship provisionally designated Delta November four two six five?” He was answered by a terse nod from the Captain. “Captain Leela, Mr. Fry, Mr. Rodriguez? Pilot, first officer, second officer respectively?”
The answer this time came in the form of a synchronous nod, and Cruz barrelled on. “Captain Leela, you will give me your command code.” There was no emotion in the gaze she gave him.
“Captain Cruz, my command code is tango lima two seven bravo charlie eight six alpha alpha.” It was flawless. Most trained DOOP captains didn't complete their command codes without having to pause or stop; the civilian had simply recited hers from memory. Cruz found it impressive and said so; Leela acknowledged with a slight inclination of her head, while Fry seemed to look on with some amount of approval. The code, incidentally, also matched with Leela's file number and the genetic scan that had been conducted on the quiet when the crew entered the office.
Cruz let the edges of his mouth tweak upward slightly; an apologetic smile. “In modern times the unpleasant formalities are mercifully short. Now onto the neutral ones.”
None of the crew's expressions changed. Cold crowd; although knowing Rodriguez' record, he was playing along with Fry, who was in turn most likely following Leela's example, and she in turn seemed to be following the unwritten DOOP code not to express unless expressed at. Cruz figured some level of adherence to strictures had to be factored in, this crew having got as far as they had, and they were probably playing him for laughs.
Resolving to continue the formalities, evil plot or otherwise, he opened a drawer and removed three boxes from it. The crew remained straight-faced, not even looking at what obviously contained their insignia and instead keeping their eyelines locked on Cruz as he moved; it was beginning to unnerve him.
Cruz mentally made a pick and handed over the first box of insignia to Fry. Inside the transparent container were the collar pips of a lieutenant commander, small cylinders of golden alloy; the comparatively young man (twenty-eight, Cruz had heard) looked at them for just an instant, then looked up to Cruz and snapped off a salute. Rodriguez received the same, his salute somewhat less formal, following the matter of most veterans.
Leela was the last, taking delivery of the sleeve rings of a captain and maintaining an impassive manner through her salute and formal thanks. He suspected she was keeping a poker face, as the impassiveness didn't seem particularly cold, just … impassive.
“Captain Leela, may I … ?” He indicated Fry and Rodriguez, and the pilot nodded; Cruz turned to the two junior officers and spoke. “Mr. Fry, Mr. Rodriguez: you will now make your way to the logistics stores on Deck AF and draw for yourselves sidearms and uniforms. You will then return to Delta November four two six five and await takeoff clearance.” The two saluted, as impassive as Leela, and strode out; the captain herself made to follow, but Cruz spoke.
“Captain Leela, a word, if you will?” She nodded and resumed her seat, meeting Cruz' gaze again. Distraction was no longer present, and the impassiveness had gone too. “Ms. Leela, your officers appear competent, but,” he picked his words somewhat carefully, “it is customary to request a run-down of crew strengths and weaknesses before engaging in an operation.”
She nodded again, this time in understanding, and began to speak in a tone just as measured as Cruz' – although slightly more relaxed than her rattling-off of her command code. He got the impression this was the way she normally spoke to acquaintances or friends she didn't meet often.
“Lieutenant Commander Rodriguez, who I'm more used to calling Bender, is … didn't you serve with him at one point?” She gave Cruz an inquisitive look, but he shook his head no. “Bender is our information operations officer because he's practically a mobile computer, and one with impressive specifications. In addition, he is ...” she hesitated, “his character has not always been known as one of high quality, but he's got the requisite experience for the job.”
Cruz nodded in understanding – the 'but' was more of a 'so'; many of the DOOP's best information operations officers and analysts were high-level criminal hackers who had never been caught. A lesser but still significant complement were high-level criminal hackers who had been betrayed and thus had been caught and given the option to serve out their sentences in the military. If Rodriguez was a criminal, well, that wouldn't affect this mission negatively, and might even be useful against certain threat categories. “A satisfactory rationale, Captain. Please proceed.”
She had been waiting for his reply, and now continued in the same formal parlance: “His partner, as it were, Lieutenant Commander Fry, is in the position he's in because he's been a long-term member of Planet Express staff, has no criminal record, is … has proven his competence, and has preserved the lives of the Planet Express crew several times over. He's proven his character and integrity, and in short, his record is excellent.” Cruz caught the hesitation and change of sentence direction, and was rather proud that he also caught the slightly distant look in her eye – she seemed not to be looking at him, but through him, in the direction of the distant Deck AF logistics stores.
He also noted that she went to somewhat more effort to frame praise of the young man in the stuffily formal manner of speaking she was employing, had to employ; it seemed that, from her point of view, Fry was in some manner superior to Rodriguez. It wasn't all professional, either.
Good employee – lucky man.
OCV DN-4265 (callsign “Planet Express”)
Deck H docking ring
By the time Leela was knocking on the transparent bubble hatch that adorned the nose of the Planet Express, Fry and Bender had already got back, and were doing their best to look like military professionals without bursting out laughing. Personally, she thought some dignity was actually conferred upon Fry by the black-and-grey greatcoat and comparatively small silver sidearm; Bender just looked ridiculous, proving the principle that robots didn't work well with human clothes.
Bender was, however, the first to snap to attention, beating Fry out by just over a second and moving smoothly to the hatch to unlock it and let Leela in. She herself had brightened (darkened?) up the rather drab blue DOOP mission jumpsuit with a greatcoat in the same line as those of Bender and Fry, a silver DOOP ambigram and 'TURANGA LEELA' embroidered over an apparently superfluous equipment pocket. It had even come with a holster, out of which her newest standard-issue blaster was sticking.
Bender would later comment that 'the meatbag' seemed much more energetic than usual, positively bouncing up to the bridge; what Bender in his almighty wisdom would not know was that that Leela was bordering on delight that her crew had been approved by the DOOP administration, given the level of bitterness and bureaucracy seen therein.
As she slid into the pilot's seat, Fry and Bender themselves booting their consoles for launch readiness, she noticed that Fry was keeping one eye on her, in a fashion not so much lecherous as genuinely caring. She couldn't help but be touched.