Fan Fiction

The Silver Blade's Sweep: Capitulum VI: Darkness is Light
By Jarmatus

(or, Welcome to Jericho Seven – Enjoy your Stay)

The only real word that could be applied to the Planet Express' manner of landing was 'saunter'. The little freighter practically sauntered in compared to the lumbering, yet somehow graceful, whale-like Nimbostratus and its pseudo-royal guard of tiny Swordmaster-class mag-cannon frigates, all bedecked in their wheat-and-chartreuse militaristic splendour. Landing the bigger ships on this world also appeared to be a nightmare in progress (Leela had to duck and weave between them several times) but a little gunning of the freighter's ventral thruster strips – two more products of the wide-ranging DOOP overhaul – saw it swivel gracefully and plant itself in the exact centre of one of the freight platforms that lay beside the main landing field.

Cyan lights (clashing rather horrifyingly with the red of the desert and the yellow of the sky) sedately winked around the edge of the landing disc as the base computer performed some complex feats of networking to link up with the Express-class freighter's systems and pop a nice, cleanly cut window of text and queries up on Fry's console screen. The recently-returned occupant of the chair grumbled and swiped his identification card through the system. And again. Finally, the network accepted it, and the disc clunked and began to turn, moving the Planet Express into a more space-efficient orientation.

Without warning, a subsonic boom sounded from under the craft, and suddenly they and the platform were rushing down through a metal frame embedded in the layers of rock at terrifying speed – local radar said it was hitting five hundred miles per hour three-point-seven seconds in from initiation. Most likely it was a magnetic platform similar in operation to the maglev rails that military and civil stations were so fond of – no doubt the DOOP ships had onboard equipment of this type, fastened into ports in the earth (or, more appropriately, the jericho).

Finally, the waves of cyan emitters slowed, and Leela's short-range radar told her they too were slowing, coming to a complete stop little less than a minute later. Fry was now off in one corner of the cabin, blinking like a confused child but, remarkably, not making any inane remarks and quickly resuming his seat, whistling in a suspiciously casual manner … and reattaching the little neoprene rank insignia … thing … that had, until a couple of seconds ago, been adorning the collar of his battledress jacket. Leela narrowed her eye at this – under normal circumstances, it shouldn't have come off under up to a hundred pounds of force, but she supposed with Fry anything could happen. Of course, perhaps she was being too maternal.

A male voice rang through the comms channel. “Planet Express, welcome to Jericho Seven Base. You're on sub-level nine four one. Open locks and proceed out for decontamination and quarantine.” Leela felt a slight tinge of anxiety at this last – DAQ procedures had always been a stumbling block for her, since one of the scans was a DNA sample, and … so, yeah. This should be fun.

With some trepidation, she disembarked, Fry right behind her adjusting his camouflage battledress jacket in a habit he'd claimed he'd picked up from The Show That Wasn't To Be Named. Far as Leela was concerned, it was stupid to perpetuate illegal doctrine, but who was she to interfere with Fry's tics and ingrained tropes of motion?

The process was remarkably short and painful, and Leela took an immobilisation pulse a while in as the badly-calibrated scanner read her unorthodox DNA; to add insult to injury, the sub-basement systems were apparently entirely automated, or at the very best run by a skeleton crew. Fry eventually saved the day by desperately ripping his hand out of his own DNA sensor (sustaining a rather nasty cut in an admittedly rather honourable fashion) and pounding on the reinforced-pseudowood door until running footsteps could be heard. Someone poked his head in, and Fry quoted a hexadecimalised auth code at him at very high speed. Then again, slower. Sometimes working in or with the DOOP was an annoying thing, as the codes tended to be up to thirteen characters long and had to be said in DOOP phonetics. And if the computer or person didn't understand your accent it was back to square one. This seemed to be going pretty smooth, though – hurried words were exchanged, too fast for Leela to understand, and footsteps strode briskly across the cement floor.

Leela's pupil tracked a hand as it reached up to the DNA scanner in front of her and tweaked a switch, letting her fall ungraciously to the floor. On her face. She only just managed to close her eye in time, but was still grateful to whoever had pressed the switch. Rolling over and sitting up, she got a good look at him. Young Asian man, spiky hair, stubble, very dark eyes, wearing a nametag that said 'KUANG, ELIOT SY' in big monospace. When he smiled, like he was doing now, he showed an array of teeth so white they nearly glared, even in the low light of this room. He didn't, however, seem to be breathing, which unnerved Leela somewhat. Still, he didn't look like a bad guy, so Leela smiled back and reached out for the hand he was offering. Fry's expression changed slightly from an anxious 'are-you-okay', now that the danger seemed over, to a gentlemanly 'touche'.

“Thanks for the timely rescue … Eliot Sy?” she hazarded, pronouncing the last as 'sigh' because she somehow didn't think it would have been 'see'. Nobody would give a kid a name like 'Eliotsie' … would they? Apparently not, because the young man spoke at this cue, his voice suspiciously close to the norm as far as voices went and imbued with a strong British accent.

“Nope. I'm just Eliot. SY stands for Sun Yang. Middle names. I'm from Hong Kong.” He smiled again. Leela figured he did that a lot. “Captain Turanga?”

“Finally someone gets it right,” she said sardonically. “Everybody else is all like 'Captain Leela', but it's backwardsed. Weird world. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” her eyes flicked to his collar for a moment, “Agent Kuang.”

“As am I yours.” He inclined his head the slightest of increments, the equivalent of a salute; Leela figured the kid had to be out of the main-line chain of command, since his uniform was in staff black and not line silver – and if one looked closely one could see the blue-and-white tac flash of Naval Intelligence, which was what had prompted her to call him 'Agent'. It was also what made her wonder why he was down here in the sub-basement of a fairly minor backwater military base, and she said as much. He just laughed and mimed shooting her with an imaginary gun.

“If I told you, I'd have to kill you … sorry.” The young agent smiled – yet again – and gathered his words for a moment. The general sense was that he was picking them rather carefully. “I'm actually just passing through: I'm supposed to be accompanying a DOOP squadron through here – three-three, Lagrange's Last Guard they call themselves. F'that matter, I'm with the Planet Express right now: do you happen to know where it is, or where the captain or first mate are? Both are supposed to be on base.”

Leela and Fry exchanged glances. Fry merely raised a sardonic eyebrow, whereas Leela was for obvious reasons held back from doing so. Kuang glanced between them, and himself ended up raising an eyebrow. “Oh … well, then, I see how it is. Doubly pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am, and,” he turned to Fry, “you would be the hon'rable lieutenant-commander Mister Fry, is that correct?” He pronounced 'honourable' in that weird way that Asian detectives of the early Stupid Ages had always been portrayed as stereotypically doing, but he carried it off so well that even Fry had to smile, extending his hand to the agent.

“That … would be me, yeah. Second banana of this operation. I'm just here to stop Bender taking the seat.”

“Wrong rationale, Fry,” Leela countered. “Anyway, I'm not here to defend you from your own plays for sympathy.” In any other context it might have started a serious argument, but it was so obviously playful and self-parodying that even Kuang was in on it immediately, smiling a bit. He didn't bother to try and get into the rhetoric interplay that looked imminent, instead waiting a couple of seconds then starting his own little conversation thread.

“Ma'am, sir: off-duty, I'd be stereotypically going off to get drunk right now. Probably come back sloshed a while later and start drunkenly trying to order you to come down to the bar.” He showed his teeth in a slightly disturbing fashion. The disturbia didn't seem deliberate, though, nor did his rather odd manner. “Not an alcohol guy, mostly. Right now, all I have to offer is stimulatingly intellectual conversation.” A self-mocking tone. “Care to partake?”

Leela waved a hand, 'speaking' for herself and Fry. “No, sorry. Got a base commander to meet with. Sub-basement two. Which reminds me, why do you have so many sub-basements? I mean, come on. You don't need a thousand, surely?” Kuang launched into a highly technical but mercifully short explanation which basically came down to the simple fact that the numbering of floors was decided by how many metres their roofs were below ground level, to produce the illusion of size. In truth, the floor they were on was closer to number fifteen than nine hundred seventy-one. Typical DOOP obsession with size, I suppose. People like Zapp … was, she amended mid-thought, tend to do that to an organisation.

Saying his goodbyes, the agent excused himself, apparently towards the purpose of wandering in his supposedly-usual solitude through the sub-basements' corridors. As he walked off, Leela's eye was drawn to the autorevolver sitting pretty on the back of his patently fake light-brown leather belt – she could have sworn the gun hadn't been there before, but there was really no way to tell, given that she wasn't (wasn't!) the kind of person who would have been staring at his butt through the conversation. Well, she knew people who were, but she wasn't. She knew that much. She knew she knew that much … or at least she thought she knew she knew. Well, at least she knew she thought she knew she knew. And if it was going to be all about prejudgements, she knew she knew she thought she knew she knew she thought.

At any rate, she was, despite her reasonably energetic appearance, tired – a couple of sleepless shifts on kaf pills did that to you. Not even any real coffee, although there was a machine for the stuff in the galley. Anyway, a couple of sleepless ships – uuugh, shifts – on kaf pills kinda tended to mix one's thoughts up a bit. She had to see an Amphibiosan about a sphere, but she promised herself she'd catch at least twenty winks after that. Or blinks. If the term even applied. Whatever. Sometimes she envied Fry for his boundless energy.


“… eee.” It was Fry's particular squeal of terror, and it was pretty easy to see why. He'd been standing in front of a combat shotgun when the electrotrigger had spontaneously zapped – again, pretty easy to see why, as the entire rack was running up its charge meters and one of the wires had been plugged into the electrotrigger port by some completely incompetent technician, activating the auto five-minute timer (a completely ridiculous device that was thankfully being phased out by the armoury upgrades that Jericho Seven was apparently on the back end of).

She moved past the shock-frozen Fry and took the wire, plugging it into the systems electrical port the way it was supposed to be. Still, she couldn't resist snapping him out of his shock by shaking him a bit, then giving him the evil eye as if it was his fault – because it was just such guilty fun to do that to Fry, guilty being the operative word. Also fun. She couldn't fathom why the former, but for obvious reasons nobody could give the evil eye quite like her; something she, in her crueler moments, was quite proud of.

The two headed for the nearest cargo platform, Leela tapping in an improbable array of commands at an improbably high speed to accelerate it to an impossibly ludicrous rate of movement as soon as both were safely aboard. As the Planet Express' cavernous temporary accommodation vanished below the cement wall, Leela's earpiece started taking calls, and one of them was from Kif – auto-priority.

Command to Captain Turanga. Please respond. Command to Captain Turanga. Please respond.” The tone was somewhere between worried and annoyed – the former was normal for Kif, but the latter was most definitely not. The tone lacked (what was it the motivational speakers used to say, way back in the days of yore? Ah yes) 'assertive natural authority', that one term that had spawned so many mocking, non-mocking and noncategorical derivatives over the many centuries since its own spawning that it wasn't funny.

“I'm here,” Leela said, assertive natural authority in her tone. Or so I heard, one small part of her mind snarked. And was promptly ignored. “Something parking your linkin, Command?” Over to one side, Fry gave her a look that plainly said 'that may be the most nonsensical musical reference I've ever heard you make' in not as many words, but refrained from actually saying it. Kif, however, after the customary salutations, actually said as much, safe as he was (for the moment) from Leela's unjustified wrath, and continued on in what could have been called a foolhardy manner had he not possessed said safety.

“ … at any rate, everything I told you about Sali Anura? Disregard.” His tone was weary and, to her ears, disillusioned with something. From what she'd been able to gather from a taciturn Hermes, most of the Thirty-third Squadron command had some sort of history of rivalry or friendship with Anura – among others: Hermes the former, Kif the latter (although it had apparently never gone beyond friendship). Anura had 'mad b-crat sk1llz', as one commander's email had now-notoriously phrased it, to rival those possessed by the equally-notorious Hermes, although Anura didn't appear to have the inclination or ability to burst into random musical numbers.

She's … completely different. It's like a major personality change. She knows everything she's always known, it's just … placed differently.” Suddenly Leela could see the source of Kif's disillusionment. Major changes in character were just as devastating in life as they could be in pretty much every work of fiction, ever; if one of Kif's oldest friends had suddenly become someone completely different, that would be pretty traumatic. As it was, all she ventured was a sympathetic “Ah,” not venturing any further into that on her own accord.

Kif seemed to knot up whatever it was he might be feeling and place it behind a neat little mental barrier. “At any rate … you'll have to ad-lib your way through. Forget everything I've said to you of her, because it's no longer relevant. It's like someone else is walking around inside her body.” Only the words were bitter; the tone was cool, neutral, the one she imagined the aged-beyond-his-years commodore might use when executing someone.

“Acknowledged,” she said quietly. Anything further might break what might be very fragile composure on Kif's part, and as diminutive and polite as the Amphibiosan might normally be, she didn't want to make him angry, because she really didn't think she'd like him when he was angry. No, right now the best demeanour was all-business.

The link was cut without further ado, leaving Leela (almost) alone with her own thoughts and the management of a lift platform which was whistling merrily up its assigned shaft. Of course, not all the whistling was coming from the airflow – faintly through the displaced air could be heard Fry. Whistling 'Into (and Out of) the Rabbit Hole', of course. Finally, Leela's nerves, frazzled by lack of sleep, repressed worry, repressed other things that weren't of any significant concern at the moment, and a bunch of unrepressed concern about Kif's tone during their terse two-minute conversation, gave way.

“God damn it, Fry! Will you stop whistling that ridiculous goddamn tune?! For the hundred-millionth goddamn time?!” From a somewhat distant point of view she was kind of shocked at how angry she could get with little to no provocation on little to no pretext. Closer to home, though, Fry's face crumpled a bit and he retreated into his own little corner of the platform, making her almost immediately feel horribly guilty. There were some times it was fun to torture him, and times when it was completely serious and horribly inappropriate.

“Sorry,” she said softly, in turn retreating to her own corner. If Fry had heard her, he did and said nothing to indicate it. Just because it's been a long day, that doesn't excuse my behaviour. Maybe I should stop and think before being such a bitch to him next time.

Finally, after what had suddenly lengthened itself into a near-interminable period, the lift clunked to a stop at sub-basement two, unhealthy yellow light filtering in from the open shaft hatch above. Pushing her guilt, her doubts and her personal thoughts back, Leela stepped off the lift, Fry following a few steps behind in the manner of a true professional. Once again Leela envied him: Damn. Why is everyone so much better than me today?

There was a maze of rather skeletally-constructed corridors to wend their way through, the low-level force barriers barely holding the loose, rocky soil back with the aid of a few rows of familiar-looking cement blocks. Leela got lost and separated from Fry a couple of times thanks to the utter lack of directions, but eventually the two bumped into each other at the brightly-lit intersection outside Anura's strangely baroque and pseudo-corporate office. Looking through the peephole showed the Amphibiosan captain tapping away in an insectoid kind of fashion on the keyboard of what must have been a ridiculously old flip-terminal – the aesthetics were right out of the nineteen-eighties, or at least that was what Fry said when he had his own look through the tiny aperture, all animosity apparently forgotten.

Stepping back from the flimsy and badly weathered plywood 'airlock' (it was labelled such, but it couldn't reasonably call itself that), Leela knocked on it lightly, feeling a totally irrational fear that the entire tunnel complex would come crashing down around the base staff's collective ears if she made too much sound. There was a flicker of motion inside as the Amphibiosan meticulously cleaned up her desk, then unsealed the 'lock' with the touch of a button, allowing Leela and Fry admittance.

Despite her taunting manner over the comms, the young captain didn't look so bad in person. She would probably have been in her early-to-mid twenties, although it was hard to tell with Amphibiosans, and carried the air of one pulling way too many duties with way too little time and funding; knowing what she did of the DOOP, Leela didn't find that overly hard to believe.

“Captain. Lieutenant Commander,” Anura nodded to each. “Feel free to seat yourselves,” and they promptly did, the alien woman watching them with an undefinable expression, but not one that looked too happy. Again, the ire didn't seem particularly directed towards them.

“Captain … Turanga. We've spoken,” Anura said, cueing Leela to nod in acknowledgement. The tone wasn't especially happy, but nor was it especially resentful; perhaps one developed a kind of tired neutrality after long enough ARMFOR service, a little corner of her mind speculated. Turning her yellow gaze on Fry, the woman said in the same tone, “Lieutenant Commander Fry. I don't believe we've spoken, but it really is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Turning her gaze back to Leela: “Checking in? Your arrival has been logged, but I'm trying to find accommodation for a couple of your staff; I'm having some luck. Accomodating the viscountess on base may pose a slight problem, though, as we don't normally cater for nobility of the Trinew Empire.”

Leela had heard of the Trinew Empire – the faction of Martian citizens that claimed all land not under Earthican sovereignty. It was, if the old files had it right, the only one of its type to have achieved international recognition (a permanent observership in the General Assembly), as well as the only one to run naval and marine forces, although the latter were mostly of two types: out-of-work mercenaries looking to make a quick buck and disappear, or overenthusiastic patriots who didn't know the first thing about defending themselves. Better could be said for the naval forces, though, which were mostly souped-up instances of the old but reliable Multivector Shipping Swordmaster line, Quinquebuild design (the just-released Undecabuild line filled out the ranks of the Thirty-third Squadron, for comparison). The Planet Express had had to face off with them a couple of times when freighting through Trinew aerospace, and it hadn't been easy. Or pretty, for that matter. Apart from the military, Wong Enterprises had a couple of branches there and were in pretty tight with the government, but that was about all Leela knew about them.

And as far as she knew, they didn't count a junior member of the Trinewi ruling elite among their ranks. She didn't think anyone had the kind of pocket change needed to buy one of the Empire's peerages – not even Amy, rich girl or otherwise – and quite definitely nobody was in line for one. The Fry line was the oldest one about, and even Fry's innumerable great-etc-nephews and -nieces hadn't had that kind of money – otherwise Farnsworth would have been swanning about in delightfully old-fashioned luxury, instead of swanning about in snarkily old-fashioned economy.

So who was the viscountess? Leela voiced the question, and Anura answered it with a hint of puzzlement. “Baroness Olympus?” Anura employed the alternate form of Amy's name, pronouncing it 'ae-may'. “Heiress to the Viscountship of Tharsis?” Tharsis falls within the Wong estate, so apparently Amy's grandparents did have that kind of spending money. I'll have to ask her about that some time. Soon.

Fry didn't even look surprised; such lack of reaction was uncharacteristic from him, and Leela herself was surprised by his lack of surprise for a split second before compensating surprisingly fast. “Her Ladyship will be staying onboard the Planet Express, Captain. We have orders. Sorry,” she said lamely, unsure what she was apologisng for.

Anura was unperturbed. “No problem, Captain. Looking at things from the other angle, do you have space for Lieutenant Kuang aboard your vessel? Some minutes ago he tendered an email saying he'd sleep on the bridge if he had to, as he heard it was quite spacious, but that his pulling PE duty, quote, isn't optional and so, square bracket, you, unbracket, might as well decide now, unquote.” She didn't even blink or take a breath during the entire thing, and Leela decided that Anura had probably been an orator of some sort in a previous life. As far as the question went, though, Kuang was fine to bunk on the Planet Express – admittedly, it would involve accommodating him in Amy's bunkroom, but that didn't matter much. Or did it? She shuddered at the very thought. Poor guy.

“We have … space, of sorts, for the lieutenant. Anything else urgent, Captain?”

Anura apparently did have more to say. “The lieutenant will be requiring use of your communication facilities.” Fry's eyes unglazed, as he sensed this concerned him. “We have a … liaison of sorts. She's in the same deep-black Intelligence line Agent Kuang is – in fact, I do believe she's his direct superior. She's also linked into our chain as Commodore Kroker's s-three.”

Leela wondered why: (a) the Powers That Were had seen fit to assign two officers of the deep-black line to the Thirty-third; even having one was almost unheard of, seeing as how officers in the deep-black chain of intelligence command were answerable only to their operations chief and the DOOP President in that order, and (b) why exactly Anura was calling Kif 'Commodore Kroker' when they supposedly had a history. It could be excessive professionalism, or it could be that change of character that Kif had spoken of. Questions c and d were also important, those being why a freelance agent would need Leela's permission to access the network and why a freelance agent would want to use an unsecured network anyway.

Nevertheless: “Yes, we can accommodate Lieutenant Kuang and whatever equipment time he needs.” Why hadn't Anura asked these questions via email or comnet, rather than summoning them down here? It all seemed rather pointless, really, like the plot of most Calculon Productions novelisations or the musical thread of any Jasn al-Ifn song that hit three minutes. Or a blunt sword if one wanted to use less pop-cultural analogies.

Anura, however, seemed to be a mind-reader. “Excellent. Now, Captain, Lieutenant Commander: I didn't ask you down here for no reason. I'm to divulge certain information which isn't for public transmission,” she held up a hand to forestall inquiry, “that is, transmission over the communications network or via email.”

She leaned forward, gazing intently at Leela, then at Fry, and steepled her fingers. “Captain, Lieutenant Commander, you do understand that this is classified under the Democratic Order of Planets defence charter, section,” and she recited a lengthy string of numbers and phonetic designators. Leela was familiar enough with the code, having had it quoted at her concerning the non-disclosure agreement she'd signed to come on this mission in the first place at Hermes' urging, and nodded her assent, signalling Fry to do the same.

“Excellent. Now then. It is the belief of the military command grid of the Democratic Order of Planets that the non-H-congruous system of Diyuji-Diyu, designation bravo-tango-delta-tango four three five seven nine, harbours a sizeable contingent of sentient forms not corresponding to those currently registered in the DOOP databanks. Officially, you're going in on the pretext of a system survey mission; unofficially, your rationale is to establish a pact of some sort. By force, if needed.”

<Oh, bloody … that was stupid,> the 'young Brit' mind said fiercely. <You weren't supposed to use war terms; it'll frak over the perception of a diplomatic rationale.>

<Come on, Jet,> said the mind possessing Sali Anura's body. <It's not fun if they don't fight back, and I figure we should at least roast their asses with a couple of shots before heading out onto the open plains to crush them, see them driven before us, et cetera.>

Anura seemed to stiffen for just a split second, catching Leela's eye, then relaxed. She knew a couple of people who did that as a nervous tic, so it was nothing big, although for a second there she'd thought the Amphibiosan was having a seizure of some sort. Not that, in light of what the impassive captain had just said, Leela wasn't wishing a seizure of some sort upon her.

What the Amphibiosan was asking her to do was chillingly inhuman, although she suspected it wasn't so much of a request as an order. Summary: either force them into line or terminate them with extreme prejudice … and here was a staff captain telling her to do it with no hint of emotion on her face. Leela picked her words carefully, trying to hide the incredulity and anger she felt at the ruthless mindset Anura was displaying. “Frankly, Captain Anura … I'm not sure I'm going to sanction that.”

“It isn't up to you,” Anura replied, her tone just as neutral as ever. “When you attached yourself to this mission – by illegal means might I add – you were asked to sign a contract. You did. That contract included taking your orders from the command grid during your service as a DOOP crew on a DOOP vessel. Captain Leela, fame does not equal authority. You will follow the orders I am transferring to you from the DOOP command grid.”

“Understood. However, whether I fire is entirely up to me –”

“– debatable –” Anura cut in, but Leela steamrolled over the top of her, really starting to dislike this woman.

“ – entirely up to me. And Mister Fry, since he's the Planet Express' bridge weapons officer.” She glanced to Fry briefly. He was looking slightly ill at the magnitude of what he was being ordered to do. “So firing authority is entirely at the joint discretion of myself and Mister Fry. Moving on, who else knows?”

Anura made an impassive 'so-so' gesture. “Commodore Kroker, ships' captains, obviously. Yourself and Mister Fry as of a minute ago. Crews are to be informed only when you reach Diyuji-Diyu. This applies also to the crew of Planet Express.” Leela didn't especially appreciate a ground-pounder telling her what to do, but she'd quoted the correct codes and the orders did likely come from DOOP Command. If they didn't, she would personally see Anura court-martialed and cashiered.

“This is … understood. Thank you for informing me of this, Captain Anura, so I might establish the exact boundary conditions under which I'm serving early on in the piece.” Leela stood in the kind of way that evinced complete economy of motion and not an erg of energy wasted, the kind of way she moved when she was angry and getting more so. “Am I dismissed, Staff Captain?” She said it in a manner that emphasised the other woman's equality of rank and implied she didn't care if she was dismissed or not. Anura nodded in the same emotionless way she'd been acting and speaking all the time, waving Leela, and, once again, Fry, out of her office.

Once she was safely past the plywood door that separated the clinical evil occupying the commander's office from the relatively calming tunnel complex, Leela kicked a wall as hard as she could. All she got for her trouble was a bunch of pain in her right foot. She didn't even exclaim, instead cursing under her breath at what bastards people were. The 'under her breath' only applied for a moment, though – as soon as she and Fry were safely out of Anura's hearing range, she switched to her normal speaking voice.

“She's irredeemable, Fry. Did you see her? She's totally beyond saving in any way. What kind of person gives that kind of order … ? If there are sentients in Diyuji-Diyu, she's saying we have a week, maybe two, to either ally with them or wipe the system. Scratch that. She's saying we have a week to ally with them or indefinite time to wipe the system.” At least she knew why she was getting angry this time: she prided herself on open-mindedness, and the DOOP were effectively ordering her to aid in the devastation of a sentient race, for political or economic reasons no doubt. “She agrees with them, goddamnit! She thinks it's a good thing to further the cause of humanity by killing anyone who gets in the way! It's insane!” Leela paused for breath, and Fry seized the opportunity to interject.

“Leela. Remember this. I'm not going to fire unless you order me to. Nobody else. Hell, I'ma fire on anyone who tries to make me fire. Who isn't you, obviously,” he finished.

“Yeah, well … the rest of them, the DOOP that is, they've been taught to respect the chain of command over the existence of sentient life,” she said sourly, her rage cooling to a slow burn. “And … thank you, Fry. You may be the only sane man on base.”

“Always happy to help.” The cliched line was simultaneously sardonic, honest and immensely reassuring in a way that couldn't quite be pinned down. Fry shouldn't normally be expected to be the rock of sanity, but here he was being calm and collected right after Anura's cold, clinical evil. Where it had been disturbing in Anura, it was calming in … well, it would have been calming in pretty much anyone else, but it was calming in Fry's case. It was impossible to fathom how he managed that.

A bit of aimless meandering later saw them out on the inhospitable surface. The atmosphere was breathable, if slightly heavy on carbon dioxide, and there was dirty rain falling from the dark brown afternoon clouds blocking out the unhealthy mustard-shot-with-cream yellow of the sky. All around lay a circle of low, possibly terraformed hills in the kind of dead Venetian-red that seemed to mark out this planet.

Still, it didn't seem quite so dead when a figure in a suspiciously familiar uniform was scurrying across the landing plain, moving under the monolithic cruiser's bow with ease. From here, that person looked distinctly like Eliot Kuang, but was admittedly a black dot so details weren't all that pronounced. As whoever it was got closer, details became obvious, though, making the person obviously not Kuang: firstly, whoever it was stood about five feet, and Kuang was taller than that. Secondly, Kuang didn't have a blaze-orange (a shade whoever-it-was shared with Fry) bob-cut of hair, and thirdly Kuang wasn't female – at least, this person looked female, and this was confirmed at closer range. In fact, this woman looked 'almost exactly not quite unlike Gillian Anderson' Fry said; Leela didn't recognise the name and took him at his word.

As the woman drew within earshot, she shouted something, but neither of the duo could hear her over the wind which was whipping between the monolithic warships. As such, the duo became a trio at about halfway between their respective starting points – even here the woman had to raise her voice a bit, introducing herself matter-of-factly: “Case officer Spirit Anderson. Working with Kuang. Liaison with your crew for this mission.” The name was pretty improbable, even Fry had to admit. On another note, it was pretty obvious how she knew who she was talking to, and had all the preparation that Kuang hadn't appeared to – of course, knowing these people's trade, Kuang quite likely had known quite well who they were and memorised their DNA to boot, but Anderson was more open with it. It had also been quite obvious, even at a distance, that she was carrying a Mateba Six on her waist – identical to Kuang's. “As far as command authority goes, I'm one of Kif's lot. Liaise with him, at any rate.”

The voice was imbued with a strong Australian accent, breaking the trend of Americans and naturalised Americans who had been every DOOP citizen, civil servant, soldier and officer Leela could honestly say she'd met during her career, save Kuang. For some reason, the change was unsurprising. Maybe it was because DOOP intelligence officers weren't supposed to have any sort of identifying tic – save, it appeared, the uniform. Anderson's black uniform had some sort of intricate gold threading on its dark blue collar, and the design definitely looked familiar, but for the life of her Leela simply couldn't remember where she'd seen it before.

“… we should get out of the wind,” Anderson was shouting. “The dust'll erode your faces away. Anyway, we're all of us due in the communal hall right about …” A shatteringly loud siren sound that seemed to come from the ships. “… now. Come on!” She beelined at a surprising speed towards the gigantic structure, Fry and Leela in tow, giving both cause to reflect that the small woman moved ridiculously fast.

After an interminable couple of minutes, Anderson was slipping in through a corrugated-iron door, which only served to enhance the impression that the Jericho Seven military base was still under construction – even though, when asked, Anderson cheerily informed them it had been in service for thirty-seven years. Perhaps nobody cared enough to finish building it, she speculated. After all, it was a backwater base on a backwater world.

The neatly-arrayed standard-issue wooden tables of the communal hall were pretty much deserted, although people walked in every now and then, mostly making their way out of the tunnel complex. As of the trio's arrival, there were a couple of people chowing down, a couple of people working, and a particular robot officer who was doing neither. Most of the first two types were wearing or leaning on their helmets, which mercifully had had those idiotic fins removed but otherwise looked much the same as they had during the Spheron War. Anderson cheerfully greeted a couple of people by name – one Will, one John, one Catherine … the list wore on, although admittedly only through seven entries. They were all officers, none of them near Leela's captaincy or Anderson's unspecified pay grade, the command authority level of which was apparently just as cheerfully menacing as everything else about her.

Finally, they wound their way around to Bender, who was leaning back on a wooden chair with his legs up on a table and looking utterly bored. He was, however, unconsciously executing the sequence of movements which said loud and clear through a bullhorn 'I'm surfing the local net for porn and banking data. Do not disturb'. Of course, Anderson disturbed him, cheerfully kicking his chair over. While he was still in it. Fry raised an eyebrow, but grinned anyway; the grin was wiped off his face by the fact that as soon as Bender stopped cursing, got up, and actually saw who the newcomer was, he stood tall and snapped off a salute. Nobody, nobody anywhere, could make Bender salute … except, apparently, case officer Anderson.

She smiled (in what was either a menacingly cheerful or cheerfully menacing manner) and returned the salute. “Stand down, Lieutenant. I'm on unofficial business for the duration. It is, however,” and she inclined her head, “a pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise, Ma'am,” and again another shock for the other two, as Bender never, ever called anyone 'ma'am', save perhaps Leela. Or people who were giving him money. Anderson wasn't Leela, nor did she appear to be paying him. Major authority indeed. “Meatbags, this is R–” Unseen by Leela and only just caught out of the corner of Fry's eye, Anderson shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and Bender smoothly extended the alveolar approximant. “–rrrrita Anderson?”

“Spirit,” Anderson corrected, smiling. Such was the manner of her emotional restraint that Leela, who by now had turned her attention more towards the Anderson-Bender verbal interplay, couldn't see any emotion in the smile whatsoever; just a polite smile. Where Kuang had been more emotionally open, Anderson was as closed as the vault at Fort Knox; it was the same kind of cool Anura had been displaying, and Leela resolved to watch this woman more closely.

“Meatbags, this is Spirit Anderson,” Bender … well, orated. There was no other word for the way in which he said the case officer's name – a dramatic mix of deference, dread and awe. Leela, however, simply nodded, turned to Anderson, and said, “We've met. To what do I owe the honour, Miss Anderson?”

Anderson maintained the polite smile, in what was possibly a unique manner considering that it completely failed to look at all fake. “I'll be tagging along. I'm Kif Kroker's liaison with ONI deepblack; as such, I wear the insignia of a lieutenant commander.” The implication was that the young woman's authority level was much higher than that, which was an implication none present had trouble believing. 'Case officer' was, from the respectful reactions that everyone from Bender to the base marshal forces evinced, not just a rank up from 'agent' but also the essential key to the kind of authority that could topple emperors and empresses. Most of the PE freelancers had met several DOOP agents in their time, but Anderson was the first case officer, which also said a lot.

Speaking of agents, Kuang chose that moment to silently appear behind Fry and watch the scene over his shoulder with keen interest. He was the only one who didn't evince a reaction to Anderson's air of impenetrability, and Leela – who seemed to be the only non-agent aware Kuang was there – got the feeling there was a kind of camaraderie there between emotionally-binary (EITHER cheerful OR unemotional) data-ghost Anderson and stereotypical young Asian hacker Kuang. A data ghost and a hacker … how appropriate. I can probably think of a tagline for a movie with that premise if I put my mind to it.

At any rate, Leela suddenly became aware that the rest of the DOOP officers were nodding understandingly at Anderson's concise laying-out of her own authority. It looked like they were going to be taking orders from an Anura mindtype, but at least this one wouldn't be coldly geared towards the elimination of a sentient race. Hopefully. Oh God, I didn't plan for this. Anderson looked to be more a robot-by-choice than a robot-by-propaganda, though, if Leela was any judge of the scant data available.

It was at this moment Kuang chose to drop a heavy hand on Fry's shoulder, digging in his short nails. The latter's judgement might have been adversely affected by the amount of time he'd spent awake, but whatever the case he turned, quick as lightning, and almost delivered a half-spinning backfist to Kuang's stomach – the younger lieutenant only escaped thanks to Fry's deliberate slowdown once he saw who his potential target was. Fry, the older of the pair, said tightly, “Don't … just … don't do that.”

Kuang merely studied the unclenching hand that had barely missed him with some interest. “Well, that could have been, like, a major bummer.” He seemed to affect an American accent almost as well as he carried off the Asian stereotype. The overall impression was of a man with a preternatural level of control – the ability to just 'switch cool on and off' seemed to be a major trait in DOOP agent selection, although Kuang didn't do it quite as well as Anderson could. Some of the PE crew could probably match Anderson for composure, on that note – Bender was a definite candidate, although submitting his name for agent consideration would have been a terrifically bad idea and, strictly speaking, cheating, since he exhibited the ability to regear his emotions threading at will.

Anderson made herself seated on Bender's restored chair, while the lieutenant-commander himself took the opposite seat with no hint of complaint. By now, the hall was about half full, and the big old digital chronometer gathering dust halfway up one wall read 1930. Apparently this was the last general meal period and/or social gathering and/or fighting venue of the day on Jericho Seven's rather relaxed schedule; most of the noncoms and officers gathered about were still tapping away on PDAs, wrist computers, or (uniformly bulky) field terminals. For no apparent reason, Anderson got up again and headed for the canteen, Kuang seemingly pulled along by an invisible force some seconds later.

Bender spoke quietly, maintaining his overly dramatic tone. “Guys, there's something you should know. Spirit Anderson isn't a person–”

“–oh, I think she might disagree with you on that–” Leela put in dryly.

“–isn't a person, damnit. Spirit Anderson is an individual meatbag, sure, but it's not her real name. Last time I met her, she was working under the name Vanessa Wilson, but everyone called her Ree for some weird-ass reason. She was intel ops chief for Zapp's idiots, so she's been going east, not north. Anyway, the only name Spirit, or Vanessa, or whatever the hell,” Bender waved a hand, “really seems to keep is 'Sealhound'. I don't know the big joke, but rosters that have our Queen-admiral Weirdy Weird McWeird ap Weird-ass, alias whatever, on them, always have an entry for someone called Sealhound, too, so I'm figuring Spirit Anderson or Nessa Wilson or Ree or whoever the hell either has something to do with 'Sealhound' or is 'Sealhound'. Point is, apart from that name, she's a non-person. Hell, I only recognised her i-code. She looked completely different last time.”

“I-code?” Leela asked, her interest piqued. Bender had never mentioned the term before; nor, for that matter, had she heard it from anyone other than the surly robot.

“I'mgoingtotellyoulaterbecausethey'recomingbacksothisconversationneverhappeneduntilfurthernotice,” Bender said. Obviously he said it all very fast and without so much as the robotic equivalent of a deep breath, as Anderson and Kuang were returning from the straggly lines outside the somewhat non-standard makeshift canteen with laden plates. Apparently case officers and agents had larger menu choices than the standard grunt, because Anderson's plate was heaped with … potato bake? It looked like potato bake … and Kuang's was covered in something gelatinous, multicoloured and amorphous. At first glance, it looked like … Andalerian pasta? The man had strange tastes in psychotropic dinner foods indeed, it seemed. Bender didn't deign to remove his feet from the table, creating an awkward gap in conversation where everyone tried not to talk about the feet. It wasn't until Anderson directed an unemotional gaze at the soles that Bender promptly removed them from the surface of the table; despite his nominatory disrespect for the strange case officer, he seemed pretty much bent to her will otherwise, which was, as far as oddness went, about on the level of having an elephant in festive orange-and-green polka dots appear in the corner of your living room dancing a jig and playing the Applied Cryogenics corporate theme on a piccolo. Of course, it didn't incur the added costs of replacing your hardwood floor, but still …

Kuang dug into his rather disgusting meal, and Leela reflected for what might have been the first time that it was strange to watch members of the armed forces eating. One tended to think about them more in terms of ideals than what they actually did, the latter of which incidentally included eating extremely dangerous non-milspec … indeed, practically illegal … stuff like Andalerian pasta; Kuang didn't quite count as a member of the mainline armed forces, but the same principles tended to apply, she thought. He was still a human, and still in the military. In contrast, nobody actually saw Anderson eating hers – it was just that every time anyone looked at her, the plate of potato bake was just a little bit emptier. Perhaps she absorbed it through osmosis.

The planet outside was getting darker at a remarkable, almost perceptible rate, as evinced by what was visible through the reinforced alon panels that served as the gathering hall's windows; suddenly, the hull light banks of the ships grounded on the plain switched on with a painful clang audible straight through the duranium-and-cinderblock walls. On the upside, there was now a lot more light, and the sheer number of people who were still moving around outside in vehicles and on foot, mostly fixing things, could be appreciated in full. The light also made the dirty rain more visible, so the basic impression was that the clouds were raining bull ants. On that note, that might have been the reason why several people made risky swerving maneuvers immediately after the light banks had been activated.

As the engineers, the workers and the officers continued their seemingly mindless dance of buck-passing outside in the descending night (it was about four PM equivalent by this planet's strange clock, and it was winter, thus almost complete darkness), Leela decided it was time to turn in, said her farewells, and headed off. Fry pleaded inability to follow, claiming he was going to try and elicit some sort of emotional reaction to anything whatsoever from Anderson – Anderson didn't even crack a smile; it seemed she had two moods: terrifyingly cheerful and terrifyingly neutral.

Once back at the Ship's subterranean accommodation a bit of a wander, several misdirections and the better part of an hour later, Leela slipped inside the vessel quietly. The only people left on board were Hermes and Amy; Hermes was most likely asleep, and Amy – Baroness Amy, even – was probably roaming the corridors of the ship with the same kind of murder on her mind that she seemed to have been contemplating for at least the last half-day.

Said corridors were in the strange kind of half-darkness that closed stores tended to exhibit – nothing was on but security lights, throwing pools of light every twelve feet and leaving the majority of the freighter in darkness. The shadows of sealed boxes of weapons, ammunition, and grenades of all sorts were visible, stacked haphazardly in the aft-end corridors and lit only by their blinking green 'seal nominal' lights; this tied in with something Hermes had indistinctly mumbled about shipping weapons to DOOP personnel.

It was somewhat relaxing walking through the ship. Changed or not, it was still her ship, and she felt she had a responsibility of sorts to it – to make sure nothing she did would compromise it or the people whose lives depended on it. It hadn't been a sentient being for the last six chronological years (biological age was an entirely different thing since the time skips of days gone by, but everyone had politely agreed to just match their bioages to their chrono-equivalents), but it still had a spirit of sorts.

Thus it was with some surprise that she heard footsteps on the deck above. The Ship shouldn't have admitted anybody without a pass, and if it had admitted someone with a pass her wrist computer would have lit up like a … shiny thing … in the darkness of the deserted corridors. No, it looked like someone had subverted the systems; not just the entry systems, either, since a sphere of internal sensor blackout was moving along the corridor directly above at about walking speed – an extremely neat sphere, too, not an uncontrolled one: whoever it was knew what they were doing. And it was heading towards the down stairs.

Leela couldn't for the life of her think why a member of DOOP staff – since no one else would have been able to get within the base defence perimeter – might be attempting to subvert the Ship on the sly, but it couldn't hurt to be safe rather than sorry. She unholstered the large-calibre semi-automatic she'd been issued, awkwardly racking the slide and thinking, not for the first time, that there was a reason she preferred to use lasers. None of this pre-firing idiocy, just point-and-shoot until the battery ran out. Holding the gun in a loose grip by her side, she squinted into the darkness.

The sound of footsteps. Soft soles, most likely, given that they didn't make much noise on the metal grille plates that made up the stairwell. Fate had given her keen hearing, and she knew the footsteps were turning towards her – the unknown intruder must be on the single landing. More steps. Whoever it was must have been wearing matt black, because all she could see was a patch of deep darkness in lighter shadow, and that only faintly. She spoke – a directive – and raised the barrel to point directly at the anomaly.

“Stay where you are.”

A chuckle from the darkness – androgynous. The sound of a gun cocking and the glint of something long and metallic being raised. Leela's finger tightened on the trigger … then, with lightning speed, she flicked a catch on the side of the weapon before the intruder could react, and a beam of light speared out from the underbarrel flashlight, revealing one Eliot S.Y. Kuang loosely holding a sonic probe and grinning wildly. Leela sighed, relaxed, dropped the barrel and reholstered her sidearm.

“Oh Lord. Agent, what are you doing here?”

“Proving a theorem,” Kuang said by way of rather opaque explanation. He held out both hands, the cylindrical sonic probe in one and nothing in the other. “I'm unarmed. Look.” And indeed he was. The sonic probe couldn't be a weapon, because there was nothing in its design that would allow such a use, and even his trademark Mateba Six was gone. “You had reasonably reliable commercialised encryption, the kind of thing I wouldn't be able to crack without a good array–”

“Past tense: had?” Leela interjected, not overly worried.

“– you had it, yes,” Kuang continued, “and then the DOOP overhaul basically wiped everything. Gone. Just like that. I got in by subverting a porthole.” He swiped a hand through the air in front of him for dramatic effect, the sonic probe dangling precariously from two fingertips. Leela almost leaned out to catch it until she realised that Kuang knew exactly how close he was to dropping the small tool. “Who's your technician?”

His tone was clear enough. Leela sighed. “You don't want to go rage on our technician, Agent. You really don't. I mean, you don't even want to reprimand her. Trust me.” Kuang gave her a sceptical look that said quite clearly he didn't have a good enough reason to trust her on this. She continued:

“Our technician is, ceremonious and dramatic clearing of throat,” at which she really did clear her throat, “Baroness Aimei, heiress to the viscountcy of the Wong Estate and thirty-seventh Viscountess regent. The last bit is only till her parents get back from the arms deal they're setting up out at the Terminator's Palace on Terminus, but even so.” She shrugged.

Kuang's reaction was, quite frankly, not the one she'd expected – his face split into a grin. “Amy Wong? Of the Mars Wongs?” Leela nodded mutely, slightly surprised. Kuang's grin just grew wider. “I went to university with her! Well,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “I wasn't quite in the same social stratum, but even so, I went to university with her. Sorry, I don't know any of her dirty secrets: she was absolutely incapable of keeping secrets, so 'twas irrelevant.”

At this, Leela had to laugh quietly. “Well, she's probably hanging around the engine room or the computer core. She … hasn't been in the best of moods lately, though that might be my fault. I don't know why,” she added upon seeing Kuang's face contort in puzzled enquiry. “I'll take the computer core, you take the engine room?”

“That's … fine by me, I suppose,” Kuang agreed after a moment's hesitation. “I don't have a taser or anything. Do I need one?” Leela nodded, leaving the agent to decide whether she was actually serious or not. He continued after another pause, striking a particularly dramatic pose: “Never mind. Deepblack agents know no fear! We know no danger! We know … NOTHING!” A loud clang as the sonic screwdriver dropped from his open hand to the floor.

It would have been vaguely amusing, but somehow it just failed to be worth a laugh. Kuang didn't seem especially hurt by the lack of audience response, instead picking the sonic probe up off the floor with a momentary curious expression on his face, then dashing off down the corridor at top speed.

Leela cleared her throat. “Agent?” Kuang spun where he was and looked around for a moment before fixing his gaze on her and giving her an expectant look. “Engineering's that way.” She pointed in the opposite direction, and Kuang promptly dashed off in that direction with no further ado. The words “Thank you,” seemed to slide out of the corner of his mouth as he rushed into an equally dark, equally boring and equally crowded corridor.

The pilot, for her part, paused for a moment as a thought hit her. If he didn't have a gun, how did he cock one?

That secret would remain Kuang's for a time; meanwhile, he was bounding along the human-sized, light blue cylindrical service ducts that served as the figurative 'ribs', as it were, of the Planet Express, in search of Engineering. From the schematics, he seemed to remember that it had been pulled out of the aft drive chamber and jammed in below the computing core (which was itself below the laser turret), and a complicated system of antimatter pipes had been installed to feed fuel through to the drive.

Here it was, finally – a small hatch leading off an angled crawlspace. At least, this was the easiest way in: the nominal way in involved several sealed doors with intricate systems of metal plating fixing them to the walls; Anderson hadn't issued him a keycard, and so he would have had to blow out the bolts and compromise the ship in a major way. No, this way was much easier – all he had to do was blow out the screws in the emergency computer panel and enter Fry's auth code on the little sub-computer. Had the circumstances been different, he might have been described as 'just that ninja', but the fact that Fry had carefully engraved his auth code into the panel plate to help himself remember went a lot towards diminishing that value.

Unfortunately, Kuang hadn't studied the schematics hard enough to know that he was in a cooling pipe, and so it was that he was washed through the semipermeable membrane at the exit terminus by a sudden flow of thankfully non-toxic blue coolant, spluttering and swearing very fast in a mix of English, Chinese and Nova Kong Martian. He also managed to near knock himself out by landing on the rather unyielding deckplate, then rather ungracefully gave himself a bruise on the thigh by landing on his revolver.

When he'd sorted himself out and propped himself up against a wall, he noticed someone rather familiar standing slightly off the reactor and regarding him with a mix of curiosity and condensed irritation. Brushing himself off a bit, he stood and bowed mockingly to the woman – nothing Kuang did was ever serious. At least, not in peacetime. “Baroness Aimei? It's a pleasure to make your reacquaintance.”

“Gleesh,” the figure said. “Don't tell Leela. I'll never hear the end of it.”

Kuang raised an eyebrow. “So you weren't the one who told her? Hell, she told me.”

The figure stiffened for a moment. “Kleist! How public is this–? And anyway, what do you mean 'reacquaintance'?”

“Not very. Far as I can tell, she found out from the base commander … Anura or some such.” Kuang shrugged. It didn't overly concern him – nobility was what it was, born, bought or borrowed. Of no particular weight was it to him how it was obtained or who knew about it, but Amy obviously assigned some value to it. Speaking of which: “Anyway. The name is, as always, Eliot Sun-Yang Kuang.” He let the name 'Kuang' ring out, pronouncing it 'quong'. “I'm an alumnus of Mars University. I went there about the same time you did, only I was majoring in astrophysics. Minoring in journalism, but that's not the point.”

“Well, gluh,” the young Trinewi noblette, student engineer and junior officer said somewhat derisively. “I'm not dumb, you know. I can remember things. I did, like, know you for five years and all.”

Kuang inclined his head graciously. “Just wondering if you remembered me. I have a standard introduction prepared for these things; yep, I'm still Sir Eliot, Baronet of The Little Ten-by-Ten Centimetre Patch Of Astroturf Which Doesn't Look Entirely Healthy.”

“Ya. That's cool, if you don't figure the Astroturf Baronetcy is part of the Vicecomesum Universitatum anyway, so you've really gained nothing.” This was in reference to the fact that the entire Mariner Valley system, along a part of which Mars University was scattered, was its own county, of which the most major viscountcy was the one encompassing Mars University; any baronetcies within the Mars University viscountcy were therefore subject to the authority of the Viscount (the Dean) and thus totally irrelevant. Of course, given that the conferring of nobility upon Imperial subjects was decided by staged vomiting contests, most territories and authorities within its sphere of power were totally irrelevant anyway. Life was like that.

“So what's this little bit of small talk about?” Amy enquired, irritation breaking through the friendliness in her voice. “Nice to meet you again, El, but I have work to do. Like, lotsa work. Gotta prep this damn rustbucket for 'combat',” she airquoted, “just so Leela can spin it around, do some fancy maneuvers, complain to me, make me do it all again.”

“I detect resentment,” Kuang said sagely. “Something going on there? More grudging than the last time I knew you?”

“Yes,” Amy snapped sharply. “And, to be frank, agent or not, it's really none of your business.”

Kuang smiled, his teeth glinting in the relative darkness in a rather dangerous manner as he appeared to consider his options, one eyebrow raised and his body language somehow giving the impression that he was stroking his chin in ponderment, even though his hand hadn't moved from his coolant-soaked side. Finally, he spoke. “Frankly, my lady, it is my business. I'm a DOOP deepblack cover operative, I'm a grade superior in rank to you, and I think I deserve to know exactly what you're so bloody miffed about.”

Amy sighed impatiently. She could practically have been breathing fire, had it not been for the fact that she seemed more weary than angry. “Alright … this goes nowhere, 'kay? Don't want it turning the bridge into a gagglefrak of awkwardness, because we'd all have something to be,” she imitated Kuang's Anglokong accent rather badly, “'bloody miffed about' then. Bad for cord esprot or whatever.”

“… Not that it isn't already, apparently, but you have my word as an officer of DOOP intelligence. Goes nowhere. Of course, you're pretty quick to trust me after five years, but that's life. Oh, and I think esprit de corps is the phrase you're looking for.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I'm going to, like, mention the word 'Takahashi', and you're going to, like, interpret that, and you're going to tell me what you think I mean. And then I'm going to tell you what I think you think I mean. And then you're going to go away. Pronto.”

Kuang pondered again. Back in the halcyon days of the 2990s, 'Takahashi' had been an abbrev for the old slang phrase 'Takahashi couple', which had apparently meant, in a fictional context, in the immortal words of an old printed copy of an even older wiki, 'the pairing of a jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold with a tsundere, thereby justifying a long-extended will-they-or-won't-they'.

The terms 'jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold' and 'will-they-or-won't-they' were pretty self-explanatory, but Kuang had needed to ask what 'tsundere' meant, to his eternal mortification – after all, given that he looked Asian (a Briton by blood, he'd always maintained) and was named in the same fashion, the assumption was that he knew Chinese, Japanese and several other languages beside. At any rate, a tsundere was a fictional character who tended to flip between aggressive and affectionate, with subtypes being (a) aggressive-default and (b) affectionate-default.

There was nobody on the ship who fit either the 'jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold' or 'tsundere' definitions too closely, but there was a particular very small subset of people who could fit them with a little stretching and the right context for interpretation. Taking this into account, Kuang formulated his own little theory, encapsulated it and neatly bowed to the woman who was irately glowering at him. “My lady, I'm struck by inspiration. This inspiration tells me that the appropriate thing to do here is to resolve this situation by locating the objects of your irateness and unsubtly implying what the problem is, thus theoretically creating a profitable endpoint in the reduction of stress for all. As such, I must depart forthwith.” With that, he fled the scene with a high-pitched cackle, satisfied with the amount of hamminess he'd managed to inject into the situation. A large, heavy spanner followed him at a rate of speed slightly greater than the one he was going at, resulting in an apparently outraged grunt of pain and the formation of a bruise on the back of his neck.

Amy stood at the base of the access shaft and glowered at the t-intersection down one direction of which the departing agent had fled. If he actually does, I'm going to kill him until he dies from it. Baronet or otherwise.

Such mortal concerns were far from the twisty turny mind of Philip J. Fry as he tipped back his fifth coffee at about eight PM the same night. Ever since that time with the upper-class party and the fire and stuff, normal coffee had never been as awesome as before, but he figured he could make do with the extra-extra-extracaffeinated stuff. Baconated, too, which wasn't as horrific as it should have been.

Anderson was sitting across the table being completely unemotional as she collected another sizeable chunk of Bender's even more sizeable supply of stolen credit cards and promised, deadpan, that she'd put them to a good cause. Bender, for his part, was grumbling somewhat hypocritically about how cheaters took all the fun out of a good game of Perseid bakajaki cassinoker. Fry, for his own part, was alternately cheering for Anderson (given that most of the credit cards were his own) and off fetching another coffee. So far there had been five cycles, during which Fry's folded and suspiciously clean clothes had been produced out of nowhere and used as stakes; initially, he'd been indignant, but now he was rather amused, given that Anderson was wearing his jacket and shoes without much apparent regard for where either might have been, and Bender for some odd reason his much-abused blue jeans. It was just such a ridiculously awesome image, and the only time he'd seen anything like it was when he'd been high watching that movie about being high.

His camo jacket had also disappeared, but he figured he likely wouldn't be needing it. After all, Diyuji-Diyu held maybe one rock world, which was supposed to be about the same as Venus on the paradise scale, and he likely wouldn't be fighting there. If he was lucky, he wouldn't be fighting at all, because he really couldn't grok how someone could just really unemotionlessly (unemotionlessly? Unemotional? Emotionless? Yeah, that was it, emotionless) could just order him to wipe out a peaceful sentient race like that. Well, she'd ordered Leela to do the dirty work, and just thinking about the way Anura had tried to push, to manipulate the one possibly most ludicrously awesome person in the entire multiverse into committing genocide, for politics and no more than that, was enough to drop his exuberant mood several notches … although thinking about the way he'd felt, how he would have cheered if he could have gotten away with it, when she'd icily refused to do any such thing to a sentient race and really thrown a bunch of defiance – the analogy didn't quite work, but the point was there – right in Anura's thin green face … thinking about that was enough to boost his mood right back up again. He'd thought the age of heroes was over, but Leela had proven herself a heroine – major to him, unjustly minor to the rest of the world – by simply saying 'no, I refuse to do this thing'.

Out of nowhere, a pair of booted feet dropped onto his scalp. He was frightened out of his wits for a moment until he realised that (a) he wasn't going to be kicked in the head by the owner of the boots, (b) his head was, rather, being used as a footrest, and (c) Anderson was regarding him cheerfully across the table. Or rather, looking past him. “Hello, Captain. Couldn't sleep?” As she spoke, she collected another small pile of Visas and MasterCards in what might have been the shortest round of cassinoker ever – one minute thirty-three point zero, Bender grudgingly admitted. The newly footrestinated Fry thought this might be the first time the expert cheat had ever had his own game turned on him seventeen times in a row. Meanwhile, a muffled affirmative came from Leela, who'd decided to put her feet up somewhere other than the mostly deserted and fairly creepy Ship and determined that the nearest place for such happenings to happen was on Fry's skull – she'd determined correctly, as luck conspired to have it.

In short order, Anderson was the proud owner of eight occupied fishbowls, three-quarters of Bender's credit-card reservoir, thirteen emperors' sceptres of the Trinewi Empire (all from successive reigns, Bender grudgingly said; he regarded them as collectibles), a master key to the Wong Enterprises computer network, keys to the apartments of every member of staff, several gigabytes of files, five pistols, three rifles, a cryogenically-frozen plate of bewildered-looking oysters and a sagely-nodding audience. The guns, keys and credit cards were confiscated, disappearing into the pockets of Anderson's ridiculously capacious black suit jacket, while the solid-diamondium sceptres were sold off at thirty dollars a pop to some of the soldiers hanging around and were immediately misused for mock swordfights across the near-empty hall. Anderson sold the files off for a cent each, including the porn but, significantly, not the state secrets, and ate most of the oysters without any visible effect before pushing the plate into the middle of the table, prompting a few off-colour jokes at Fry's expense.

The game looked set to continue well on into the night – Anderson cheerfully informed them that she had a jacket to fill, patting the apparently mostly empty garment, and Bender was of course too much of a proud fool to give up the game at this point, especially against a meatbag; he made some concession towards acknowledging just how much net value he was rapidly losing, although said concession was merely claiming he'd needed to clean up anyway. Fry had to laugh at this, and even Leela chuckled a bit – Bender didn't clean up. It was just something that didn't happen within the accepted boundaries of universal probability (Bender's snappy retort was that that must have been the biggest phrase he'd ever heard Fry use).

A couple more people picked up some of the illegally-obtained holowafers that were serving as cards and joined the game, forcing Fry to move his feet a couple of centimetres. Anderson replaced her poker face, the newest round of cassinoker began, and Bender pushed another ludicrously huge stack of credit and debit cards into the middle of the table.

Of course, it was about now that, in true dramatic style, the lights went out.