Fan Fiction

The Silver Blade's Sweep: Capitulum V: Obstructive Bureaucracy
By Jarmatus

or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The System

<What? No, no, that can't be allowed, it would make the playing field too level,> the mind said, with a mix of weariness, exasperation, cynical humour and sardonicism. The dark mist was just as impenetrable as ever, giving no clue as to what the consciousness was actually thinking, but the young woman was bored enough to ignore potentials and respond in kind.

<Do you want the technical details of the things they want sent out, Master?> she asked, with a tinge of satisfaction at her own increase in adeptness concerning the practice of the strange mindtone her employers wanted her to, well, employ, for lack of a better word.

<Gods no,> the mind said laconically. <No, forward those to the Speaker. That shard's been taking its duties and itself far, far too seriously lately. It's a pity I've forgotten the reference code for the humour archives.>

<Master, we're a hegemonising swarm. We're serious business – we don't do humour. Anyway, it's a lot to do with ambition, I think,> the young woman said more seriously, the levity breaking away a bit. <He's … well, it's, if you want to be anatomically precise … been lightening up a bit lately, but that's probably going down the metaphorical drain when the Thirty-third hits Diyuji-Diyu.>

<It's a good servant,> the mind reflected wistfully. <I figure it has a licence to be a bit dramatic.>

<Yes, I suppose so,> the young woman conceded. She didn't especially like the Speaker Shard of the Swarm's Multiplicity, the being responsible for interpreting and filtering the popular opinion of the ten billion minds therein and transferring it to the Master, but she had to concede that it was excellent in its areas of concentration – combat and theatrics. <I look forward to watching what the Speaker does with all those extra limbs. I don't think I've ever seen it in battle, save basic dueling-pole stuff.>

<I'm sure it'll be excellent,> the mind said, a little anticipation colouring its tone.

Fry sighed. Putting through a request for mission equipment was much harder than it should rightfully have ever been, thanks in part to the presence of several dozen of Hermes' colleagues on the Nimbostratus. When informed, the bureaucrat had just laughed and made a somewhat sardonic comment about how Fry was paying the price for violating the system too many times.

Of course, it was about ten PM, ship's clock, so Fry supposed he might just be being overly impatient from tiredness; he wouldn't put it past himself – over the last several hours, all they'd achieved was combat team assignments: big things in themselves, but useless without the proper requisitioned equipment. The big stumbling block was that the system kept rejecting the requisitions.

Attention! System does not recognise REQUISITION '(1) Heckler-Koch/OmniGlobal CSW-C7 personal accuracy weapon' OR REQUISITION '(2,500) Heckler-Koch/OmniGlobal armour-piercing multi-purpose round, 4.6mm' OR REQUISITION '(1) Trijicon Revised Reflex Sight Model 3003'.
file code local/cb/re:77438 [expand]

Apparently it was Leela's “sharpshooter” loadout requisition that was the problem, because everything else had processed just fine: Fry's own autorifle, as well as Bender's breaching gun and Amy's strange pepper-box 'compact defense pistol', had arrived neatly packaged and bubblewrapped, albeit with unsecured, mixed-type (thankfully pre-magazined) ammunition scattered on top of them and placed in what looked suspiciously like a reused Planet Express box with the logo inexpertly removed. If there was a point to be made, it was an oblique one.

As far as Fry was concerned, though, it wasn't just the mind of the sender that worked in mysterious ways, because the items the system wasn't recognising were ones he'd had to order in for his own “rifleman” loadout, so there was no logical reason for them not to be in the database under normal circumstances. Now that he thought about it, it looked like either someone at CB, Nimbostratus branch, was blocking him, or the entire local database had been horribly, pervasively corrupted on a gigantic scale in the fifty-seven minutes and miscellaneous seconds since the weaponry package had left the Nimbostratus.

Given that the local database in question was a full copy of the military database from CentBurNNY, was approximately thirty-seven hectoyottabytes in size, and had the quaintly charming two-way bit-rate of approximately one gigabit per second, Fry was, to say the least, unimpressed with the latter possibility. No, something was rotten in the state of Earthica, and Fry resolved to find it.

The obvious course of action was to go through Hermes. Within a few minutes, the bureaucrat was sitting there in the reddish, oppressive dark and the equally oppressive and pervasive warmth, peering intently over Fry's shoulder at the only non-red patch in the entire room: the equally annoying green form which marked the masses' only entry into the otherwise-impermeable (imHermeable?) military requisitions database. Fry figured that since the bureaucrat was just that, a bureaucrat, he should be able to fix problems caused by other bureaucrats. This seemed to involve a lot of retyping which Fry suspected Hermes was putting him through purely for sadistic enjoyment.

“Tick that box there, mon, and submit the form.” Obediently, he did so, letting the block of data snail its way through the supposedly-instantaneous radio network for fifty seconds as it bounced around between nodes, then finally arrived at the Nimbostratus and sent back a reply. It was identical to the previous, save for the fact that the file code had been incremented by one. Hermes, however, seemed to find it interesting, standing up to get a better look – standing up was something Hermes almost never did unless he was forced to.

“That's the ticket. Click 'expand'.” Fry followed this instruction too, a little hint of sardonicism creeping into his mock-fascinated silence – or it would have crept in, if it was possible to inject more than one feeling into a silence without doing anything in particular. Hermes just looked even more interested, staring at the top of the new file.

Specifically, he seemed to be staring at the block of bright blue text that headed up what was basically several hundred neatly-sculpted paragraphs of arrant hexidecimal nonsense. Fry couldn't fathom what Hermes could see in it – probably a bureaucrat thing, but one that spurred Hermes to boot up another terminal and run a questor through the DOOP network searching on one of the character strings. Seconds later, an Operational Intelligence file appeared in mega-size on the holo at the other side of the room, and Fry ducked out of instinct before sheepishly realising his error – big sharp things had always been somewhat frightening for him, rationally enough, but a fear of non-solid big sharp things was not going to get him anywhere.

The file was headed, in neat sans-serif, 'Sali Anura', bringing a groan from Hermes. Under the name, in the basic statistics section, was the numeric string Hermes had looked up, and which was sitting on Fry's screen, quite distinct from the rest if one had a closer look. It was a CentBur ident, which prompted Fry to ask a question.

“That's … illegal, isn't it? The CentBur's a sub-body of the DOOP Congress, and DOOP naval forces are part of the Executive.” And indeed it seemed this Sali Anura was a member of both the Navy and the Central Bureaucracy (or the General Government Transactionary Interlink, as the file somewhat archaically called it). Not worrying too much about what amounted to a minor violation of a code he didn't see as especially important, Fry continued, “Anyway, what does the name 'Sali Anura' mean to me?”

Hermes waved a hand absently, still looking at the file. “In order: no, mon. She's an acting base commander--”

“So it's a she,” Fry interjected. The apparently-young woman was Amphibiosan, and as such shared the near-complete lack of visible gender distinction that most members of her somewhat amorphous species displayed – or didn't display, depending on how you wanted to think about it.

“--as I was saying,” Hermes continued significantly, “she's an acting base commander. Anyway, she needs some level of bureaucracy clearance to file emergency requisitions for her staff and such like, mon.”

Fry dismissed as irrelevant his own slight suspicion that Hermes was tacking on the 'mon' for his own private amusement, and said, “You didn't answer my other question. What does she mean to me?”

Hermes fixed him with a reproving look. “She's the acting base commander over at … Jericho Seven? This' new. I wonder if that was a special filing on Kif's part.” All he got for his apparently deep and meaningful statement was a look from Fry, just as reproving as his own.

“Hermes. I come from the Stupid Ages. What does she mean to me?”

“Let me put it in terms a Stupid Ages emigrant can understand,” Hermes said neutrally, levelly. Fry suspected he was just that tiny bit annoyed. “She's the current top banana … banana-ette? … where we're stopping off on our way to the final destination. Is that simple enough for you?”

“Clear enough,” Fry responded, keeping a facade of blissful ignorance. “Doesn't answer why the top banana at the halfway house wants to cut me – or the captain,” he inclined his head in the direction of the bridge, where Leela was keeping watch, “out of the supply line. Far's I know, that's a war crime.”

“No, mon. 'War crime' only applies when you do it – when you do anything – to the enemy,” Hermes said laconically. “This, mon … this is what we in the trade call a 'denial of service'. It's above the intellectual level of the average Stupid Ages emigrant, you understand – or should I say, you don't.” He erupted in uproarious giggling (if there was indeed such a thing) at his own joke, rocking back in his chair and holding his somewhat voluminous stomach in paroxysms of mirth.

Fry fixed him with a slightly mocking glare, and was about to start an argument (all in good fun, of course), when the ship's synthesised voice, a strange blend of Bender and Leela (badly reprogrammed by the former) that was actually nowhere near as horribly grating and atonal as the description implied, sounded out over the intercom. “Lieutenant Commander Philip Fry to the bridge for the twenty-two o'clock watch. Begins at time plus five minutes.”

Fry stood, glancing at Hermes. “Well, you can, I don't know, play with your toys,” he waved a hand at the stacked, arrayed control panels in a suitably dramatic fashion, then thumbed himself in the chest, “but I have work to do.”

“Yes, yes. Look, I'll see if I can force your requisition through. I and Sali go back,” he hesitated a moment, “a long way. Purely professional,” he hastened to add, “but I know how she works, mon. Besides, she only has level-forty authority.”

Fry paused, silhouetted in the light of the door for a moment. “Thanks, Hermes. I appreciate it.” Hermes simply nodded back at him, plopped his own fat Jamaican posterior down in the permanent swivel chair, and got to work, tapping away at the keyboards like he'd been there all his life. Even as Fry left he could see the curving banks of screens lighting up with ludicrous amounts of data.

As newly-appointed beta watch pilot in the process of taking over from Leela, Fry wondered why he'd failed to notice what the ship's bridge looked like late at ship's-night. Throughout the day, the ship tended to run the lights on an automatic dimmer switch, meaning that at any given time the lights in a given part of the ship would brightness-match the assumed natural light for that part of the ship assuming a theoretical north-south heading.

Right now, the bridge was almost completely dark – the only interior lights were the dim pale-canary-yellow station backlights, which were only there to let people know who was where in the otherwise theoretically complete darkness (in practice, some light tended to overflow from the outer hull spotlights, which came on at about eight PM every ship's-night).

Things had changed a bit since takeoff sixteen hours earlier. For example, there was now a stack of large novels sitting on the flat upper surface of the communications station. Presumably they were Leela's, as Fry didn't have a taste for large novels, Bender exclusively read e-books, and Amy's fare was more slim, blue-covered and spiral-bound engineering texts (at least since the pre-mission prep had started).

Moving as quietly as he could, trying to maintain the illusion that he wasn't there, he looked through the stack of novels. A lot of classic literature, curiously enough, plus a couple of science-fiction novels (odd choice for the future, surely?). A relatively small component of fantasy. A ridiculously small complement of romance novels – only two in a stack of what must have been a couple dozen books.

His browsing was interrupted by Leela's voice from the pilot's station. “Welcome to the bridge, Fry. You're not as ninja as you think.” He couldn't see her face, but there was definitely a smile in her tone, one almost to physically brighten the room. Not that it did, of course, but it could have.

“Everyone has to practice sometime,” he ventured, to be met by a quiet chuckle.

“True enough. You can take over as beta watch pilot, but do you mind if I stay on the bridge? I just feel like hanging around. Thought about handing control over to the autopilot earlier; decided I wouldn't be sleeping tonight.” Her voice was still quiet, and there was a slightly, well, Fry supposed 'light' was the best word, tone to it, as if while she was saying relatively unimportant things – hey, since when was anything Leela said ever unimportant? – she was actually contemplating the deeper structures of the universe, or something of equal cosmic impact. It would be unwise to put it past her, he knew.

In any case, he was surprised at the question and the deference, intentional or otherwise, therein. Who would he be to say she couldn't stay on the bridge? “Sure, you can hang around. It's not going to be the greatest of epic scenarios, though.” This remark garnered another quiet chuckle.

When he next glanced back, some three minutes later, Leela had made herself at home at his station, feet up on the backup communications console. She appeared to be working her way in a studious fashion through a tiny novella, the only detail of which Fry could see being the title, and that only partially: … ilver Blade's Sw … and nothing more. The cover artwork kind of implied it was something from the distorted mind of Antonio Calculon (sr.), what with his prominent featuring and all, and said cover art was – apart from the suspiciously sharp portrayals of Calculon senior in a rather trendy business suit – in the kind of electric-mucus surrealism that seemed to be all the fashion these days.

Fry figured it wasn't much Leela's fare – more Bender's really – and was soon proven right. Approximately seven minutes later by the ship's clock, Leela tossed the little green book aside with a groan. “I can see why Calculon Productions disowned this … thing – it must be the most arrant crap I've ever seen. Anything need doing?”

That, of course, brought the whole matter of having an obligation to fulfil back to Fry's mind. “Yeah, I kinda … well, you know how your rifle hasn't arrived yet? Something to do with that. I'm supposed to put through a call to a number on Jericho Seven, and … so yeah.” He kind of had to let it trail off, since he'd worked himself into a verbal corner. Leela seemed to understand, keying the thirteen-digit phone number into the comlink as he rattled it off, and after a couple of seconds the bland 'ringing' tone played out across the bridge.

The duo waited, their collective patience unmatched. It seemed someone at Naval Base J-Seven was trying to pull the 'it's after dark, go away' trick. Unfortunately, at seven PM Jericho Seven time (as the system succinctly informed its rapt attendants after a couple of rings) the excuse just wasn't convincing enough, and a bit more waiting yielded a bored voice and an equally bored-looking Amphibiosan (over webcam). “Yeah, hi. Base Jericho Seven. Our default link is down, so we're rerouting calls every which way.”

Looking up the tag, though, as Fry had managed to do with one absent hand on the keyboard, yielded the name 'Sali Anura'. Apparently this was the very woman herself, but Fry decided to verify the identity in question – after all, the office in the background didn't look like the kind of quarters an acting base commander might accommodate herself in. “Ma'am. Lieutenant Commander Fry, logistics for DN-4265.” This last, of course, was completely untrue, but it sounded impressive in context. “Who am I speaking to?”

Captain Sali Anura. I work base command for Jericho seven. Hello, Mister Fry.” This, of course, brought into question exactly what Anura was doing in what appeared to be a cinder-block garage, and Leela raised a question along those lines via instant messaging over the compact intranet:

>> TLEEL77 if she's pulling that many duties at once, how does she still have time to block off pe logistics requisitions?

Fry opted for a slightly less direct approach. “Captain, I've been trying to requisition part of the four-two-six-five team loadout for the last ten hours. No luck. Ma'am, with all due respect, what's the deal?”

Ah yes. That.” Anura's bored expression remained perfectly intact, although her tone didn't seem especially unfriendly; on the other hand, it didn't seem all that friendly, either. “Mister Fry, I received orders from higher authority to block all logistics requisitions from Planet Express,” Fry took due note that she used the ship's better-known name, “until further notice, and, as such, I did so. It'll have been logged with CentBur – or rather, it'll have been done so when, firstly, my grasp of causality words ties itself up a bit,” and at this she smiled slightly, “and, secondly, it reaches Earth. At any rate, the blocking isn't anything personal.”

Fry appreciated the honesty, but still … “So what is the blocking about, ma'am? No better way to take away a boarding team's operational efficiency than to disarm it. Could just as well order us to run in screaming 'Leeroy Jenkins' and waving daggers … actually, lemme think about that, the daggers might enact a positive efficiency-factor counterbalance.” Fry was slightly amazed at how many syllables of technobabble he'd just used in one sentence, but all Anura did was stare at him in incomprehension. Rather, she stared at him in incomprehension for precisely one point three seconds, then got the joke and laughed uproariously.

Point taken, Mister Fry. I don't like the system either, frankly. Thing is, though, command tells me to jump, I say, 'How high?' Such's the lot of a base commander. You do that or you find yourself down in the dark matter pits, shoveling ten thousand pounds to the cubic foot … or whatever.”

“I've worked some with dark matter myself,” Fry ventured. “Stopped just before Momcorp went into receivership,” and he didn't outline any more details of the situation. “Pretty stuff. Anyway, ma'am, what's the point? Why give us an auto-rifle, a breacher, a pepperbox? We requisitioned all of this from Nimbostratus supply, running it by your station, and we pretty much got everything we wanted.”

He totally failed to notice Anura's slightly distant look, which was an excusable error in itself, since he was trying to fix a problem that had taken up ten hours of his time; even if he had seen the look he likely would have thought it of no consequence.

The young woman mindswore profusely, eliciting a tone of exasperated amusement from the non-clued-in expanded consciousness about her. This quickly changed to alarm, then indifference, in the space of a couple of seconds after she related the fact of Fry's receipt of several firearms which he should rightfully never have got his greasy solid hands on.

The mind, however, stopped being perturbed within a couple of milliseconds, its prevalent neurothreadal response: <What harm can four people do?>

Expanded, it amounted more to: <What harm can four people do, even taking into account that they're supposed to be the best combat team in the DOOP (off hearsay) and are pretty definitely the most famous? And that that fame could hurt us if we hurt the famous?>, but the gist and answers were the same: <Not enough.>

The distant look vanished, and Anura was all business (mixed in with just that tiny bit of sardonic pleasure) again. “Mister Fry, you took receipt of an Amawei automatic with fifteen box magazines, an Amawei breacher gun with twenty-five shells and underslung plasma picket, and a Uralleis pepper-box pistol with a hundred salvos?”

“That's correct,” Fry said. “What we're missing is the Hec-Koch OG,” Heckler-Koch/OmniGlobal, “RSW-M7M3, which if I said it in the phonetic alphabet would take a ridiculously long time to say, plus a couple of clips for it.”

Not really, no,” Anura said, somehow managing not to sound absent-minded in the face of the fact that she was tapping away on a large computer terminal. “Look, I think we can bend the rules this one time. Your gun will be shipped over posthaste and I'll go talk to CentBur about what constitutes idiocy.”

She smiled up and abruptly cut the link, leaving Fry staring at the screen a little dumbfounded and Leela with a perfect opportunity to make a cheap shot about how Fry just couldn't tear his eyes away from where the young Amphibiosan woman had been. After waiting a couple of seconds, eyes squeezed tightly closed so as to non-verbally reprove whosoever made a negative comment about his honour, he opened them and looked around.

Leela had gone back to reading a novel – not the Calculon one, which still lay against the wall, but a reprint of Stephenson's Snow Crash. She'd gone back to reading a novel, fer Chrissake. Hell, Bender would have taken that opportunity. Pretty much anybody I know, but apparently not Leela. That's amazingly awesome in a way I can't quite pin down.

As promised, the gun – with several banana magazines attached, and a small note in neat cursive script reading 'Compliments of Jericho Seven' – arrived in a rounded white case a scant few minutes later. Where the other shipping boxes had been hastily-reused standard shipping boxes with no safety precautions, this looked to be the kind of gun case a professional assassin might use. Bender was struck by a mental image of Leela in active camouflage for just a second, but then realised the impossibility of having a mental image of something invisible and shunted those frames to one side of his processing space.

Another (laminated, sealed) note attached to the case looked to be a promotional for the gun manufacturer, with another note – this one in monospaced teletext-style lettering – read 'Sorry, we're obligated to attach this. Sue us when you get here. – Jericho Seven'.

H&K OmniStellar MVSW-R9
The Heckler and Koch OmniStellar Multi-Vector Special Weapon, revised build nine, is the finest versatile-applications military tool on the market today. One of the most prominent examples of the compact selective-fire gauss-gun on the market today, it chambers 7.62mm rounds of several types, all professionally and carefully milled by our factories along Dao Vallis …

… and so on and so on in the same vein. All I really got out of that was that it's a weird-ass compact chambering seven point six two. And that it's some kind of assault rifle … why the hell are they giving the team sharpshooter an assault rifle? Huh? Answer me that, meatbags.

His gaze was abruptly torn away from the case by the arm that was opening it. Said arm belonged to the woman whose name and service number were engraved into the case – specifically, Leela. Bender had no idea what the hell she was doing down here, seeing as there had been no loading alert, the package had come through the loading lock just seconds before, and there was no way in hell she had legitimate business which would take her through the docking bay. It was one of those times that Bender wondered if the only human he didn't call 'meatbag' was a psyker – it would definitely explain a lot.

She also seemed to have the package keycards, which rightfully should have been attached to the package. They looked like they'd been 'graved on the fabricator that sat proud on one side of the computer core, which kinda explained how she knew the packages were here, what with Fry having to have sent through the necessary 'graver data. Which obviously opened the way for Bender to assume Fry had told Leela the package had arrived, and through that allowed him to think about how he wouldn't put it past Fry simply to try and logic-loop him for sadistic enjoyment, make him wake up attached to the loader electromagnet like they were probably plotting to. Goddamn meatbags.

It took him a second to realise he'd said that out loud, and that the look Leela was giving him wasn't so much an angry/neutral/amused one as an I'm-going-to-dump-you-into-boiling-lead-ass-first-again-on-another-weak-pretext-only-this-time-it'll-be-entirely-for-schadenfreude one. “Something to say, Bender?”

“No, ma'am,” he said, adopting a suspiciously crisp and dutiful appearance. “Nothin' to say, ma'am.”

Leela gave him an accordingly suspicious look and continued about the business of assembling what appeared to be a rather small gauss rifle with telescopic stock and dinky little telescopic rangefinder-sight. The robot noted with some relief that at no time did her hand go anywhere near her wrist computer – this lasted precisely fifty-seven point thirteen seconds, at the end of which he only just managed to avoid falling into one of the boiling-'lead' heatsinks inside the hull, and that avoidance through quick reflex.

“Goddamnit!” Restoring himself to his feet, he glared at the suspiciously innocent-looking pilot, who was feeding ominous red rounds into one of the grip-loading banana magazines that the gauss gun took and staring resolutely at what remained of the wall targets at the other end of the cargo bay. “What the hell did I do to deserve that? I was … being dutiful! And stuff!”

“Oh, I'm sorry, Bender.” Leela's tone said she wasn't sorry in any fashion whatsoever. “You must have tripped the, um, motion sensor Quantum installed a while back. It has this way of dropping objects into lead tanks.”

“I. Am not. An object.” Bender thumbed himself in the chest with enough force to dent it slightly, and winced. That would be hell to knock out, and he resolved to 'relieve' Leela's bank account of the costs. Which would be as high as he could possibly make them. “Who the hell is Quantum anyway – ?”

Leela pointed upwards in the middle of Bender's sentence, in the vague direction of the bridge where Fry was keeping watch. “Oh, right … hey! When did the meatbag get a callsign, huh? Huh? This is discrimination of the worst kind–”

“– the kind against you,” Leela finished. “That line stopped being even vaguely amusing after the, oh, I don't know, the one-hundred-eighty-third time. It's old meme, Bender, and it was forced in the first place. Drop it or I'll drop you. Into boiling lead.”

Bender pressed on, undaunted. “You didn't answer my question. Why does Fry get to have an awesome callsign like 'Quantum'?”

“Because Fry is awesome and you're not,” the alpha-watch pilot and self-styled top banana (a term Bender figured he'd made popular) of the Motley Crew (a name Bender had daubed on the inside of the cargo bay in greenish sticky stuff of dubious provenance shortly after takeoff) replied shortly. “Now, hush for a minute while I …”

She left the sentence unfinished, leaving Bender to grumble a bit and ignoring his pointed comments about how she had the hots for 'the meatbag' (newest, most original name for Fry), while she checked the still-tiny gun's integrity, locked in the clip and turned off the safety. His grumbling was abruptly cut off when she raised the gun to her shoulder, sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger. With basically no recoil whatsoever, a burst of red bullets, one after the other, whipped from the barrel with no sound other than the hum of electricity and the hiss of displaced air. More importantly for EVA operations, the wheat-coloured gun had no muzzle flash whatsoever, ensuring a pretty foolproof way of staying secret on the nondescript, similarly-coloured hull of a battleship.

In the time it took Bender to realise this, the bullets had made their expedient way down most of the cargo bay, and he only just managed to return his attention to his surroundings in time to see their rather impressive impact. When the zealously-cleansing sphere of eldritch flame cleared, there was literally nothing left of the target save a pile of soot. Bender stared, dumbfounded, while Leela – who had apparently been forewarned – simply looked at it with some satisfaction.

“What. The hell?” Bender managed to get out. Leela gave him a here-comes-the-science look, then launched into a highly technical explanation which came down to the basic principles of deployment of matter/antimatter explosives in a tactical arena. Just like old times, I guess, tho' I don't think I've ever heard her soundin' like the Prof.

Saving the explanation to memory just like Zoidel had advised him to, he tuned out a bit, making gestures of agreement and understanding, and going 'yeah' at critical junctures. He did that kind of thing for one minute and thirty-five seconds; in short, until Leela wrapped up that particular thread of conversation and dismissed both him and herself from the cargo bay, grumbling about how she really really needed caffeine right now.

Which was when Bender remembered. “Hey, eyeball!” Leela turned to give him a dirty look, but he pressed on, courageously and perhaps in a foolhardy manner. “The firestorm is cool and all, but how the hell does it work in EVA environments? It's a firestorm, and you need air to have fire.” All he got in reply was a sardonic glance.

After a couple of seconds, she said, “I'm too lazy to explain right now. Go bite your shiny metal ass and read the deployment manuals, huh?”

Cursing, the robot stomped off. Too lazy to do a favour for ol' Bender, huh? Goddamn meatbags.

“Something to say, Bender?” The pronouncement echoed back along the corridor in exactly the same tone Leela had first uttered it, and it caused his head to whip around while he frantically searched his auditory data for inadvertent verbal contemplating. No such. Nah, meatbags bein' meatbags at ol' Bender's expense.

“Hell no, meatbag. Go get your weird-ass boost from your weird-ass protein … thing … whatever.” Grumbling, he continued stomping off down the corridor, knowing he was quite obviously ad-libbing and covering but really not caring. 'There is no plot! We must act!'. Indeed [/british_accent]

And it was then Bender completely forgot about his merciless embarrassment at the cyclops' hands, realising he was even more embarrassed at the fact that he'd just suffixed a bulletin-board code tag to a thought. The memory stuck with him – when he related it some time later, he'd tend to explain that that had actually embarassed him more, for whatever reason, to be met by speculation that he had his priorities completely mixed and that he should probably hand in his commission.

Leela, meanwhile, was in an extremely jovial mood despite her somewhat sarcastic manner. For some reason she just felt good about herself. Perhaps it was the mercilessly thrashing Bender with boiled lead and sesquipedalian verbiage; he'd been an annoyance all mission, alternating between stiff martinet (which was incidentally way out of character for him and did a fine job of keeping her off-balance) and master of the crude innuendo. Ha – 'hots for the meatbag indeed'. Excellent or not, my relationship with Fry isn't like that.

A refreshing dose of reasonable certainty and disregard of past events injected into her day, she stopped in the middle of an intersection and tried to figure out exactly where she was. She seemed to get lost a lot after the overhaul, which had streamlined the PE ship's profile a lot and changed the interior layout to fit a bunch of milspec equipment – oh yeah, and someone had put on a looping playlist of Jasn al-Ifn's first album. Leela wasn't a great al-Ifn fan herself, and the instrumental 'Into (and Out of) the Rabbit Hole' was getting old as hell, although she'd kinda got disenchanted with it after trying to learn the lead guitar part on an acoustic and failing horribly.

That aside, she was still having trouble figuring out where she was. Either the galley was that way and engineering was that way, or … It was a four way intersection, and each corridor seemed to stretch out to the other end of the ship – she didn't want to find herself walking around a maze of corridors when all she really needed was to get to the damn galley and break out an MRE. Fry had been telling horror stories about the things before the mission, claiming that back when he'd been in DOOP GROFOR on Spheron it had all been rice and black-bean burritos; he'd backed it up with a meal pack that for some reason he'd put in the freezer (and, amazingly, it had kept). This time around, though, it had cycled out to chicken noodle soup, which Leela at least found palatable, if not particularly pleasant.

After a while circling through the corridors, she found herself at the computing-engineering interlink corridor, a cramped little cylindrical thing painted in blindingly blinding red and yellow danger-stripes. Looking down, she could see a very distinctive hairstyle coming in her direction, and felt a twisting sensation as the local gravity switched off and she had to grab for a handhold; Amy floated up out of the tube sedately, although her posture stiffened perceptibly (if that was even possible in zero gravity) when she saw Leela, confusingly enough.

“Captain Turanga,” was the formal acknowledgement, said in a somewhat cool tone.

Amy tended to switch between 'Captain Turanga' and 'hey, Leela' as acknowledgements – the former only when she was angry at something. Since there was nothing to be annoyed about in Engineering, Leela correctly deduced the ire was directed at one of the crew – and from Amy's tone she deduced the ire was directed at her, although she couldn't for the life of her fathom why. The engineer continued in the same 'I don't have time for this' tone, “Engineering status is nominal, all links up.”

Leela went down the 'bluntly casual' path. “Excellent, Lieutenant. … There's something on your mind, isn't there?” Nothing came from it except a positively smouldering look, and:

“With all due respect, ma'am …” Amy drifted off, coming gently to her feet as she entered the corridor's gravity field. Leela looked at her, bemused, and was certain she heard (no doubt through deliberate action on Amy's part) a mutter of: “Like you'd want to know …”

Jeez. Is it that time of month? She couldn't stop the uncharitable thought, and equally she couldn't help but wonder who the hell had planted a bug that far up Amy's behind. Normally the engineering student was pretty easy-going, even somewhat removed from the world – but right now she was the utter opposite of those qualities. It didn't seem like her at all.

Heading down through the interlink herself – once Amy was safely out of sight – she found the galley right next to engineering, paradoxically enough. The damn thing seemed to move about all the time, and given the new equipment arrangement that wasn't entirely impossible – the DOOP goons had said something about streamlining supplies for requirements, but the pilot hadn't paid any attention past that part.

<Well, they're coming,> the Amphibiosan noted. <Well on course to Jericho Seven. They should be there – er, here – in a few hours. Anura fobbed them off.> The latest mist around her was a kind of dark blue with points of twinkling white light here and there. She still didn't know who half of the people who were employing her were, but they certainly had a nice interior decoration sense.

<In a manner of speaking, you are Anura,> the answering voice pointed out. Biological-wise, said voice was correct, but the essence of Sali Anura had fled the Amphibiosan body months ago, and was now confined in a mindprison somewhere within the Swarm. Still, the young woman, nameless except for the name of the body that that mind had possessed, didn't take kindly to the remark.

<I'm so not Anura! She was, like … I don't know. Weak and stuff. Anyways, she didn't have any devotion to the cause whatsoever.> The vocabulary of the young woman, or more correctly the mind that had taken the young woman's form as part of a complex interwoven train of ulterior motives, was liberally peppered with the kind of verbiage a Stupid Ages emigrant might employ – she supposed that renewing her old vernacular might have been a side effect of the transition to full Swarm.

The voice that, again, answered her, wasn't that of the Master Shard, who sounded old and Chinese as far as the once-human young woman could determine. This accent was that of a British male, perhaps in his late twenties – nobody knew who had 'donated' that voice to the Swarm, but it worked well enough. <Remember, though, that Anura never even knew of the cause until the last moment, and she was one of the ones who refused to yield. In any case, agreed, but we had an operational objective to attend to?>

<Yes,> the mind said sourly. <Bug the Planet Express crew when they come along, plus … wossname … Kroker. The amphibian guy. Look, I'm not overly comfortable with this business of bugging Fry. I don't even see the rationale.>

The British-voiced mind took on the kind of tone which suggested it had had this discussion innumerably many times before. <Firstly, 'Sali', you agreed to give up all personal considerations when you became a Shard. When we gave you a new body after that positively tragic,> its voice dripped with sarcasm, <freighting accident. Secondly, even if you feel like violating the Way, we're not going to harm Fry or his companions. It's a reconnaissance thing.>

<True enough, I suppose,> the young woman said, a bit of hope colouring her mindtone. <Look, if this is for preserving the Swarm, I'll go along, but I'm not going to harm Fry in the course of affairs.>

<I really don't see what your problem is,> the other mind said, seeming genuinely confused. <Last time you met, you were fairly unpleasant to him.>

<Yes, well … let's pass over that, shall we?> the young woman answered testily, then was distracted by a sensation outside the perceptual. The other mind looked keenly over her shoulder at the sensor window standing out on her laptop screen, and couldn't help but make a comment: <Ooh. They're here – that 'few hours' passed pretty quickly.>

<They arrived sooner than expected,> the young woman said, all business. <That's probably Leela's fault. Now there's one I don't feel bad about turning over to you,> she said archly.

The other mind got as close to laughing as it was possible to do in this realm. <God, you're a jealous bitch, aren't you? Anyway, I'm going to put my drama hat on and go tell the Speaker,> it continued, eliciting a sympathetic groan from the young woman. Despite their at-times-frosty relationship, both shared a hate of the Speaker of the Swarm and its compatriots – the Master of the Swarm at least had an excuse for its own arrogance, namely that that was just the way it rolled; the Speaker, however, seemed to adopt that manner for trendiness' sake, and none of the other Strangershards liked it.

Indeed the DOOP squadron's early arrival time – eleven AM ship's time, December 24 (the day after departure) – was Leela's 'fault', as she and co-conspirator Fry had been swooping the Planet Express out in front of the big, lumbering cruisers and frigates, showing off as if their lives depended on it and forcing the DOOP ships to a higher rate of speed in the process. The scheduled arrival time had been late in the evening, but Leela had figured if she was going to waste Xmas Eve off Earth she might as well do it on another planet, and at any rate she certainly wasn't going to do it on a cargo freighter.

So here they were, making a turbulent planetfall above the comparatively tiny naval base which was the only human mark on the surface of the dusty, rocky world of Jericho Seven. Amy, still inexplicably irate at Leela, was manning Engineering and issuing very shortly-stated status reports, Bender was leaning back in Fry's chair with his feet up on the console – “you shouldn't be doing that,” she told him, a bit uncertainly, to which he just scoffed – and Fry himself was up in the gun turret whistling along to an al-Ifn bit, completely unaware that Bender was casually relieving him of his gilt lieutenant-commander's insignia (again something the latter probably shouldn't be doing).

Abruptly, Anura's call icon popped up on the wraparound, and Leela automatically thumbed it up, a perceptualism of the young Amphibiosan acting base commander's face appearing on her contact lens. Far, far below, the DOOP vessels were pulling out of their steep dives, atmospheric maneuvering flippers changing angle smoothly and gracefully in a way the Planet Express, for all its agility, would forever be unable to imitate, instead having to opt for sharper, cruder vector-outs. Still, it comforted Leela somewhat that the DOOP ships had to make planetfall to restock on the new antimatter fuel after a twenty-eight-hour high-speed vector, while the PE could just sit in orbit and have it shipped up by tiny drones. It was all about size.

Their retrofits must be horrendous, too, she thought with some satisfaction, keeping her eye on the trajectory the contact lens' downlink was constantly redrawing for her. Start to pull up here, don't burn the top of the ship off – a basic summary of the intricately intriguing grid of vector points which dotted everything outside the forward windshield. The ship's AI was feeding in data from ground control, taking up bandwidth to the level that Anura's call was slightly fuzzy in definition – unfortunate but unavoidable.

Captain Leela! It must be, what, thirteen hours since last we spoke?” Anura was ridiculously jovial. Leela's sense of being able to read people told her it was patently fake, but she didn't think the quality of fakeness was directed specifically at her. Maybe the base commander had had a rough day.

“About that, yes,” Leela acknowledged. “Where do you want us to land?” As she spoke, some of the controls auto-adjusted, and she reset them to recognise the fact that they were landing. It didn't work, and she frowned down at the control panel as Anura kept babbling on. “… anyway, our electromagnetic pulse field is being annoying. Oh, and you'll probably be wanting to land on Runway One. Sending coordinates now.”

“Yes'm,” Leela acknowledged, until … “Wait a minute, electromagnetic pulse field? Can you please, please turn it off? The ship is handling like we're about to drop out of the sky.”

Oh yes,” Anura said quickly, her voice dripping with sugary sweetness. “So sorry. It must be running interference, and so it keeps tripping itself.” The tone only served to annoy Leela. Okay, lady, now you're just doing it for the schadenfreude.