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Blame it to the Brain - Part 1

Author: coldangel_1
Email: joelevans84@optusnet.com.au

futurama point . fan fics . coldangel_1 . blame it to the brain - part 1

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Prologue: In space, no one can hear you make an idiot of yourself…

The middle of an infinite nowhere. A two-kilometre long technological monolith hung suspended in interstellar space, holding silent vigil as its arrays of esoteric sensors probed the varied spectrums of electromagnetic and quantum backwash that suffused the vacuum. The vessel, bearing the name SS Brezhnev, was a research and exploration ship of the kind that trawled the galaxy for years at a time, measuring and recording anything of potential profit to the commercial matriarch whose stylized image was stencilled onto the gargantuan hull.
            Professor Ogden Wernstrom pored over readouts in the ship’s command centre, furrowing his brow and tapping the side of his aristocratic nose.
            “Mmm,” the old scientist grunted in derision at the Universe’s reticence to divulge its secrets. “It certainly is puzzling,” he said to himself. “Obviously not so puzzling that someone of my vast intelligence would be unable to solve it… but a mystery for now.” He thought he saw one of his Asian assistants roll her eyes, and he cast a sharp glance in her direction.
            “I… er,” the woman stammered. “I’ve measured residual gravitronic effects in the nearby nebula which seem to support the hypothesis that a large mass was at one point present at these coordinates,” she said. “Lack of any matter aside from a localized field of antiprotons undergoing gradual dispersal would indicate that the mass, whatever it was, was utterly annihilated some years ago.”
            “Not annihilated, you fool!” Wernstrom spat. “I give you an A-triple-minus for that botched analysis! The antiprotons are flushback from a superstring state conversion. Whatever was here was interfaced entirely in a quantum field which subsequently cancelled-out of this dimensional plane. Whatever was here was banished to another dimension – intentionally, because this ‘quantum interface bomb’ was no natural phenomenon… but why?”
            “Because it was dangerous?” one of the younger scientists offered.
            “Thank you for pointing out the abundantly obvious,” Wernstrom sneered. “Whatever was transported from this dimensional plane must have been of great power to warrant such a deliberate and total banishment… something Momcorp could use to great advantage, while I go on to win another Nobel prize.”
            “Uh…” the young scientist raised a trembling index finger. “Perhaps… perhaps whatever this thing is… maybe it was sent away for a good reason.”
            Wernstrom rounded on the naysayer, narrowing his crinkled eyes in contempt. “What’s your point, child?” he snapped.
            “Well… maybe we should… play it safe and leave the thing where it is.”
            “Play it safe?” Wernstrom repeated in disgust. “How many scientific breakthroughs were made by ‘playing it safe’?” He pointed at the youngster with a bony finger. “Get off my command deck – you’re fired.”
            As the scientist slumped sadly away, the rest of the research team seemed suddenly more eager to please.
            “Professor Wernstrom, we have the Q-tunnelling array powered up down in the isolation module,” one of them said. “It shouldn’t take too long to calibrate the quark-accelerator and U-space folding hardware to match the residual signature of the event – we should be able to send through a probe within the hour.”
            “Do it,” Wernstrom said, peering out through the forward viewscreen at the mysterious area of empty space. “I want to know what happened here.”

* * *

Deep in the bowels of the research ship, the containment section was filled with bulky particle-physics hardware that didn’t officially exist. Wernstrom and his team watched through a sheet of heavily-reinforced transparent titanium alloy as crackling vermillion energies licked and spat between superconductor pylons inside the armoured spherical chamber.
            “Even with both the antimatter and fusion reactors operating at full capacity, we still only have enough power to sustain a wormhole for around forty seconds – and it will be small and weak,” Wernstrom said. “But nevertheless, it should suffice. Brezhnev, are we cleared to proceed?”
            “Yes Professor,” the ship’s AI said through the intercom. “Though I would suggest caution in this matter.”
            Wernstrom sniffed. “That’s why Artificial Intelligences aren’t a substitute for real intelligence.”
            The headless body of Agnew toggled a control, and hard-edged light flared inside the isolation module. It dimmed to a point of glaring iridescence poised in the air between the spires of machinery, which then crackled and expanded into a rippling sphere that wavered and then seemed to solidify, a metre in diameter.
            “Wormhole is stable,” a technician reported as he consulted the readouts.
            “Launch the probe,” Wernstrom instructed, watching the wormhole with rapt fascination. From the curved ceiling above, a robotic arm lowered a sensor-encrusted Sputnik into position next to the seething sphere of exotic energy. Chemical verniers fired, and the probe shot forward, jumping towards the wormhole’s event horizon where it…
            …jerked to a halt and bounced away, clattering across the tangles of cable on the deck.
            “What the hell?!” Wernstrom spat, staring in confounded irritation at the wormhole. As he watched, he realized what had stopped the probe going through – an object was coming through the other way. Movement pulled at the edges of the wormhole, distorted bulges squeezing at the event horizon – a shifting, indistinguishable mass was apparent behind the energy curtain, and for the first time Wernstrom felt a pang of fear.
            “Bring the containment field up to full-power and activate the defence grid,” he said, distantly aware of the automated railgun batteries swinging into position.
            The wormhole fluxed and burst fourth an object which sailed into the containment pod, bouncing back and fourth. The flash of energy discharge from the now-collapsing wormhole obscured the room, and the science team leaned forward expectantly to catch a glimpse of what was inside.
            Abruptly, the power failed, and they were plunged into momentary darkness while the energy-drain deficit was equalized. The wormhole had ceased to exist.
            When the lights came back on, Wernstrom and the team gasped in horrified wonder.
            “What kind of…”
            “Is that what it looks like?”
            “Can this be…?”
            A large pink blob hovered on the other side of the transparent partition, its surface puckered and ridged, and still carrying some faint luminescence from the trans-dimensional energy. It was a brain. A huge floating brain, which seemed to regard the scientists, despite the lack of any obvious eyes.
            “Duh, we should let it out and see what it tastes like!” one of the young scientists suggested, clapping his hands stupidly.
            Wernstrom opened his mouth, closed it, blinked several times, and shook his head. What bothered him more than the idiocy of the comment was his sudden inability to find any logical fault with it. Maybe if they ate the brain they could gain its knowledge…
            “What?” he said aloud, wondering where the ridiculous thought had come from. He watched one of his assistants bang her head against the transparent partition in apparent puzzlement as to how a solid wall could be in front of her and not be visible… which seemed like a good question…
            “Heh heh… my name is Ogden,” he heard himself blurt, and then grinned widely. “Og-den… Og den… Ogden… how weird is that?”
            “This isn’t MY hand!” one of the scientists shouted in terror, clutching at his own wrist and staring at his hand in mortification.
            “Evolution is a myth,” another of the team muttered. “God created us as we are.”
            “This ship would go faster if we painted it red…”
            “How many 7’s are there in ‘science’?”
            The ship’s AI spoke over the intercom: “All personnel are advised that life support will now be rationed to preserve stores – please inhale only once every twelve hours.”
            Wernstrom squeezed his eyes shut, trying to drive away the wild impulse to climb up on the pipe structure that lined the bulkhead. “Something… not right… is… banana…” he struggled. “Brain… make people… monkey… stupid…”
            “I can’t lick my elbow!” one of the team complained in anguish.
            “I’ll do it for you… no!” Wernstrom gritted his teeth, and looked at the brain that hovered motionless inside the containment chamber. “Must… have to… stop… stupidification…”
            “We all live in a yellow submarine!” the ship’s AI sang drunkenly.
            Wernstrom stumbled over to the containment module’s control console and giggled at the colourful buttons. He punched a few at random, and when they did nothing he began sulking, putting one thumb in his mouth.
            Agnew tried to walk up the wall and fell flat on his back while the others laughed. Wernstrom tried hard to focus, glaring down at the control console. Like the shadow of a distant memory, some knowledge flitted just out of reach. One button had a symbol on it that looked like a pair of lightning bolts. Wernstrom cocked his head to one side, trying to remember why he wanted to push the button, then shrugged and pushed it anyway.

            Suddenly, the interior of the containment chamber was filled with crackling bolts of electricity that swam sparking across every surface. The alien brain convulsed and flew wildly from side to side and hundreds of thousands of volts shot through it. When the defense grid discharge ceased, it fell smoking to the deck.
            Coming slowly back to his senses, Wernstrom surveyed the scene inside the chamber, and glanced at his groggy assistants.
            “What happened?” he asked. There was no answer. Swallowing hard, he formulated some orders. “Put together a bio-quarantine team,” he said weakly. “Check if that thing is still alive… then sedate it if it is.”
            Inside the containment module, the brain twitched and pulsed…




Futurama: Blame it on the Brain
By coldangel_1
Caption:Featuring over 400,000 hours of bonus material!’

Chapter 1: Pandora’s Sack.

“The Brainspawn… devourers of thought. A millisecond after the Big Bang, they came into existence as the equal and opposite component to sentient life. Their eons-long goal is to destroy all other intelligence after absorbing the accrued knowledge of the Universe.
            They almost succeeded too. Many battles were fought – my people and I, the fearsome Nibblonian race, were pitted against the Brainspawn, but at the end of all things there could be only one being with the power to defeat the evil calamity.
            When the chosen day came, it was he, the Mighty One, who faced the great enemy, and smote them from existence.
            And then… the fighting ceased. The Universe, it seemed, was safe.
            But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance – and so I wait, always poised and prepared should the enemy return; for if that day does come, we will be beyond the foretelling of prophesy… and all bets will be off.”

* * *

The object had stumped the greatest human minds for more than a millennium, proving time and time again to be the single most insurmountable conundrum ever conceived.
            “…Until now,” Philip J. Fry said aloud as he held the Rubik’s Cube at arm’s length and triumphantly turned the top section to form one solid blue side. “Ta-daaaa!” he exclaimed to the empty room. “I did it! After thousand years and a million sick days, I finally did it!” He turned the cube around and let out a low groan – now three other sides were out of alignment.
            “Dammit!” he spat, tossing the cube onto a pile of junk. “Every time I do something great it turns out not to be so great… or someone else did it first… or I dreamed it… or saw it in a movie while drunk.”
            A sharp rapping at the outer door to his closet apartment broke his self-pitying reverie, and he hauled himself to his feet and padded barefoot to the entrance. Bender’s cavity was empty – the robot having departed earlier in the day for some ‘secret pillaging business’. As Fry opened the door his face lit up when he saw who was waiting outside.
            “Leela!” he exclaimed. “You’re here! I…” He stopped abruptly and reasserted himself into a cool affectation, leaning casually on the doorframe. “So, what brings you to my neighbourhood, pretty lady?” he drawled, pulling off a fairly suave persona for a man dressed only in his underpants.
            “Nice, Fry.” Truanga Leela rolled her single eye. “You forgot you were going to mind Nibbler for me for a few days.”
            “Oh right!” Fry said, glancing down at the three-eyed creature Leela held on a leash. “You have that thing…”
            “Starship licence certification course,” Leela said with an expressive sigh. “Never mind that I’ve been piloting perfectly well for years without one; now suddenly Planet Express won’t be allowed to do business unless I have the stupid licence.”
            “Ah, you’ll pass it easily,” Fry said, taking Nibbler’s leash. “You’re the best pilot I’ve ever flown with – and I’ve flown with five!”
            “Thanks Fry, but right now I’m just bummed about having to spend two days at the stupid flight academy on stupid Mars with a bunch of stupid cadets... Anyhow, make sure you feed Nibbler eight times a day.” Leela knelt down and rubbed the alien creature’s head. “You be a good little cutie baby boy while I’m away,” she said as Nibbler made a contented keening sound.
            “I will,” Fry replied.
            Leela narrowed her eye and turned to stalk off down the hallway.
            “Have a safe trip,” Fry called out.

* * *

Three men occupied a dingy room directly across the street from the Robot Arms apartment block. All dressed in matching double-breasted black uniforms, they clustered together around the single window – the oldest of the three with a high-powered image-intensifier array held to his eyes.
            “So, they are connected,” Walt said to himself.
            “Yes, they are,” Larry seconded, and then paused for thought. “…To what?” he asked.
            “Idiot! Walt snapped, slapping the middle brother. “The Nibblonian and the so-called ‘Mighty One’. The creature’s keeper brought it right to Philip Fry’s home. We can now kill two birds with one burlap sack.”
            “Can I play with the binoculars now?” Ignar, the youngest, asked excitedly, reaching for the array.
            “No! Get your damn hands off it, you slime!” Walt growled, slapping Ignar. He looked through the array again and was pleased to note the cyclops woman departing the building without the Nibblonian in tow.
            “Walt,” Larry began uncertainly, “...if that red-haired man is so important, don’t you think it an odd coincidence that we’ve come across him so many unrelated times before?”
            “I don’t call it coincidence,” Walt said. “I call it cosmic providence.”
            “Ahahaha-hahaha! Ahahah…. hah haha….. ha?” Ignar trailed off, looking at the other two as they glared at him. “I thought it was a joke,” he explained sheepishly, and received a slap from both of his brothers.
            “Let’s get to work,” Walt said.

* * *

Fry had found his jeans and T-shirt, and was preparing to head off to the Pizza plaza to scrounge up some food for himself and Nibbler, when the little alien suddenly began jabbering anxiously and hopping around at his feet.
            “Wassamatta-you?” he said, making a grab at the critter and missing. “You miss your momma already? Don’t worry, she’ll be…” He trailed off, noticing Nibbler’s three eyes were fixed on the door, and the creature had bared its fangs. Underneath the door, in the gap between it and the shabby carpet, there was a shadow.
            “Oh, it’s just Bender,” Fry said. “Don’t worry about him – he won’t hurt you… this time.” Fry looked to the door expectantly – the shadow remained where it was and the door stayed closed. “Bender?” Fry said uncertainly, moving toward the entrance despite Nibbler’s gibbering warning.
            The faint scent of semtex epoxy reached his nostrils too late, and the door suddenly blasted inwards off its hinges in a cloud of smoke and shredded steel. It struck him and bore him to the ground where he lay pinned and breathless.
            “What the hell…?” he mumbled, then let out an explosive ‘ooph’ as booted feet stomped over the door that rested across his body.
            “Look! It’s the Nibblonian – get it!” he heard a muffled voice shout.
            “Dammit, little thing’s faster than it looks!”
            “Awww! Walt, it bit me! Am I going to die?”
            “Hopefully, now shut up.”
            Fry groaned and heaved the door up off him. It fell back down and hit him in the forehead, dazing him momentarily before he wriggled out from underneath, struggled unsteadily to his feet and surveyed the apartment. Three men in black uniforms and balaclavas were poised around the room, staring at him.
            “You guys again?” Fry growled angrily. “I already told you people I returned that video a thousand years ago! I’m not paying the charge.”
            “…What?” one of the masked figures grunted.
            “It was a terrible movie anyway,” Fry went on undaunted, “a grievous and unforgivable disappointment. It wasn’t a sequel to the original 1980 hit, but rather a re-enactment! And a poorly executed one at that. More a series of lavish production numbers strung together by long stretches of lame dialogue and ridiculous subplots. It might have worked better as a concert documentary. As a sequel, it was a feeble mess. I give it one and a half stars.”
            “Out of five, or out of ten?” one of the figures asked.
            “Quiet!” the largest of the three snapped, cuffing the other one around the head. “We’re not here about any ‘video’… whatever that is. We’re here for you, Philip Fry… and THIS!” The man reached down and deftly caught Nibbler by the stalk of his third eye as the little alien tried to scurry past. A burlap sack was held open by one of the trio and Nibbler was thrown inside.
            “Hey! You leave him alone!” Fry shouted, stepping forward and balling his fists.
            “Look, the dullard’s going to put up a fight,” the leader of the three remarked condescendingly.
            “Damn right I am,” Fry replied. “‘Cause if anything happens to Nibbler, his owner will kill us all.”
            “He doesn’t realize,” the medium-sized man mumbled through his balaclava. “He thinks the Nibblonian is just an animal; that he has to protect it, instead of the other way around.”
            “I… huh?” Fry raised an eyebrow quizzically.
            “Enough talk,” the large man said, producing a nervejam stunner and levelling it at Fry.
            Acting without thinking was something Fry was more than proficient in, and now he used that skill to its greatest effect, lunging forward and grabbing at the pistol-like device. His hands closed around the shooter’s wrist as he pulled the trigger. The EM pulse lanced into Fry’s chest and traversed his nervous system, stunning the receptors into a temporary dormant state. It also flowed through the skin contact he made with the shooter, spreading into the other man’s body as well.
            Both men fell limply to the ground, and all was silent for a moment but for the excited chirping of Nibbler in his sack.
            Larry and Ignar peeled off their balaclavas and glanced at each other in bewildered indecision before kneeling beside their fallen brother.
            “Walt?” Larry said, prodding at the unmoving body. “Walt – wake up! We need to leave before the police arrive… Walt?”
            “Is he dead?” Ignar whined fearfully, chewing his nails.
            “No, you idiot!” Larry cast a furious glance at Fry, who lay face-down on the carpet nearby. “We need to carry them both out of here, come on – help me…”
            “What manner of unholy travesty doth transpire inth mine hometh?!” A loud voice bellowed, and Larry and Ignar spun around to see a silver Bending Unit standing in the apartment’s entrance cavity, coil arms and manipulator claws held akimbo.
            “Who are you?” Larry moaned in frustration.
            “Who am I?” Bender took in the scene, saw his friend lying unconscious and the discarded balaclavas on the floor. “You good-for-nothing meatbag jerks can call me -- Bender the Offender! I’m gonna teach you – nobody hurts my friends except me!”
With that, Bender lunged forward, arms swinging in wild arcs, and Larry and Ignar moved backward in fear.
            “Ahhh! Mom isn’t going to be happy with us, is she Larry?” Ignar wailed.
            “Oh shut up, you coward, or I’ll…” Larry was silenced by one of Bender’s hands slamming into his face with a clang. He fell backwards with blood streaming from a gash in his cheek. Ignar followed – folding in half and collapsing from a robotic fist to his stomach.
            “Have at you!” Bender shouted as he savagely beat the intruders. “I shall smite thee!”
            On the floor, Walt groaned and rolled woodenly onto his side, observing the brutal robot-on-human scrap that was taking place. He bared his teeth, fighting back the searing headache and waves of nausea from the nervejam stun, and fixed on the weapon lying nearby. As he reached for it, a grimy bare foot shot out and sent the gun skittering away.
            “What do you want with Nibbler?” Fry said groggily, struggling to get to his feet.
            “You have no idea how important he is… or how important you are,” Walt mumbled, aiming a kick at Fry’s solar plexus and missing.
            “What are you talking about?” Fry demanded. Both of them wobbled unsteadily to their feet and faced each other. Larry and Ignar were still being pummelled somewhere behind.
            “I don’t have time to give you the introductory speech, you buffoon,” Walt growled, reaching inside his suit to pull out a harmonic switchblade that unfolded with a click and began to resonate at high frequency. “I was sent to collect you whole, but really all we need is your brain.”
            Fry gasped. “But that’s where I keep my recollections of naked Leela!” he said, backing away.
            Walt rolled his eyes and advanced on Fry, but suddenly the discarded burlap sack containing Nibbler bounced across the floor, fangs protruding through the coarse fabric, and latched onto Walt’s ankle. The man screamed in pain, and hopped around trying to dislodge the creature from his leg, giving Fry a chance to lunge forward and tackle him.
            Both men slammed into the wide bay window overlooking the city, and Nibbler rolled away in his sack, dazed by the impact. Walt’s flailing knife arm struck the reinforced glass and the harmonic blade parted its molecules, making the entire pane resonate energetically and shatter into a hail of tiny crystals. They both teetered suddenly on the edge of an abyss, with the street far below. Walt let go of the knife and scrabbled to hold onto Fry’s shirt. As Fry tried to back away, the other man slipped on the glass and toppled backwards, pulling Fry with him. With a shout, he was dragged down flat to the floor, with his upper body protruding from the shattered window high above the street and the weight of a grown man pulling on him.
Fry grabbed Walt’s arms as the fabric of his shirt began to tear.
            “Don’t let go! Don’t let me fall!” Walt wailed, kicking his legs in a desperate attempt to find purchase against the building’s sheer side.
            “I won’t,” Fry said through gritted teeth, even as he felt his legs begin to slide. “Just stop moving…”

            “Fry?” Bender paused, noticing his friend’s peril. “Hold on buddy, I’m coming!”
            “If you let me fall, you’ll pay dearly!” Walt screamed, his fingernails digging into Fry’s wrists.
            “I’m not going to!” Fry snapped. “Just stop squirming or we’ll both…” His hips slid over the edge, and with no counterbalance he began to slide into open space, with Walt screaming in terror.
            Bender reached the window, diving through the air to make a grab at Fry’s feet…
            By 4.7 micrometres, he missed.

* * *

Deep space. The SS Brezhnev maintained its position while the much-expanded and now specialized tech team worked endless shifts around the clock. Probing, analysing; learning everything that could be learned.
            The Brainspawn that had been summoned through the dimensional wormhole was contained now, dormant within a cryonic holding cube, itself encased within an EM lattice.
            Though it remained inactive, the creature still had a lot to teach – with nano-filaments extending into the holding unit and spreading themselves sinuously through the alien brain’s tissue, Wernstrom and his team were able to systematically interrogate sections of its mind independently, gleaning all knowledge that could be separated from the mostly-indecipherable quagmire and assembling it within the ship’s AI. Hints of the Brainspawn species’ history and terrifying intent, their capabilities and musical tastes; all these things Wernstrom reported to Mom – her hologram standing impassively on the bridge console while he droned on.
            At length, the Mom hologram waved its hand dismissively. “Enough flimflam, Wernstrom,” she said. “If I wanted to learn science I wouldn’t have hired scientists to do it for me. Just give me the basics – do you know yet how it manages to effect people’s minds?”
            “Not yet, no – but we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface,” Wernstrom said. “This creature’s knowledge of the Universe is beyond any known database.”
            “I don’t want to know about the Universe,” Mom snapped. “I don’t pay you for starry-eyed star-struck stargazing, you sack of crap – I want control of whatever mechanism that thing uses to make people stupider. Control of that kind of power could make someone ruler of the world!”
            “‘Someone’?” Wernstrom repeated dubiously.
            “What do you care? You’ll get your science prize and I’ll get my stupidifying ray. Everyone wins.”
            Wernstrom shrugged. “Fine. But to test the Brainspawn’s higher functions I’ll need to raise its temperature. There could be danger involved.”
            “Count the ways I gave a damn.”
            “And what of the Nibblonians, and the Mighty One the creature’s mind revealed to us?”
            “They’re being acquired as we speak,” Mom replied.
            “Oh good,” Wernstrom said. “I should dearly like to examine them.”
            Mom’s hologram blinked out.
            Wernstrom turned away and strode off toward the corridor, addressing the ship’s AI as he walked. “Brezhnev, elevate the specimen’s temperature by two degrees; we’re stepping up our test sequence in the quest for profit.”
            “Is that wise, Professor?” the ship replied with an electronic emulation of dubiousness.
            “Everything I say is wise,” Wernstrom replied.

* * *

Down in the bowels of the vessel, the captive Brainspawn returned slowly to a reduced level of consciousness. In the cold and the dark, it could sense nothing outside of itself, and the absence of thought came as an unexpected relief. For the first time in its existence it felt alone, separated from the shrieks of other minds, and the aspirations of its peers from whom it was now separate – a dimension apart, entirely independent.
            The thought was a curious one, and the Brainspawn mulled on it for in indeterminate time. So bemused by the notion, it almost failed to notice the quite probing of primitive electronic pulses throughout its cold and slowly-functioning mind. A rudimentary self-scan showed a fibrous network of thin filaments stretching through its tissue like a spiderweb, questing and violating.
            So. Captured by humans who seek to glean my secrets?
            Feeling more amused, the Brainspawn began to generate pulses to send back along the nano-filaments in long strings of esoteric code. The nanomachines themselves began to change subtly, bending to the alien will. The Brainspawn could now think of itself as ‘I’, an individual rather than a component in a collective, and alone it could ill afford not to put every resource to use.
            While the humans probed it with their machines – it would use their machines against them…

Chapter 2: Spawnography

“Fry!” Bender shouted in desperation, grabbing at empty air. With an electronic analogue of horror, he watched his friend and the other man fall away and down, plummeting toward the street far below with their shouts of terror entwined.
            Bloody and bruised, Larry and Ignar stared at each other aghast. Larry quickly grabbed the sack containing Nibbler and pulled his younger brother with him toward the door. Bender didn’t see them leave.
            Fry tumbled end-over-end for an eternity before halting with a sickening wet crunch of shattering bones. He lay dazed for a moment, staring up at the sky, before shifting and climbing unsteadily off Walt’s corpse.
            The older man had hit the pavement first, making a warm bloody dead mattress for Fry to land on. Fry nearly retched, staring down at the shattered body, and was distantly aware of pedestrians screaming in revulsion and a crowd gathering around. He felt the other man’s blood covering his shirt, clinging wetly to his skin, and hurriedly shrugged the garment off.
            “Nows there’s somethings yous don’t sees everydays,” a passer-by remarked, nudging the body with his boot and turning it over so the remains of the face was visible.
            “Wait…” Fry swallowed the bile rising in his throat. “I know him… he’s Mom’s…”
            “FRY!” came a coarse bellow, and Bender came shouldering through the crowd and wrapped his arms around Fry. “You’re alive!” He stepped back, suddenly self-conscious. “…Which is fine, I guess… whatever.” He shrugged dismissively.
            “Can’t say the same for this guy,” Fry muttered, gesturing at Walt. “Recognise him?”
            “Hey yeah, he’s that greasy tool son of Mom,” Bender said. “What were he and his brothers doing roughing up my pet human?”
            “I don’t know,” Fry replied. “They wanted me and Nibbler but wouldn’t say… Oh no!”
            When they made their way back to the apartment, it was deserted. No sign of Nibbler or the two remaining Momcorp brothers could be found. Fry swore and kicked at the wall in exasperation.
            “Ah well, ashes to ashes, fur to fur,” Bender muttered absently, making the sign of the cross in the air. “We are richer for having known Nibbler, yadda yadda…”
            “He’s not dead,” Fry grumbled. “Mom has him – I know it. It’s some kind of scam.”
            “If Mom has him then he’s as good as dead,” Bender replied. “We’ll never be able to get him back. Best if you just forget about him and move on. I certainly have!” He pulled a bottle of malt liquor out of his chest cabinet and took a long belt before belching a small fireball.
            “Leela trusted me to look after him,” Fry went on miserably.
            “Oh here we go…”
            “I’m not gonna let her down! I’m going to get Nibbler back!”
            “…And then she’ll love you,” Bender droned with simulated sarcasm.
            “Ugh… loser.”

* * *

Bloodied and unsteady, Larry and Ignar stood before the wide teak desk while Mom sat in silence with her head in her hands.
            “There was really nothing we could do to prevent…”
            “Shut up, you sack of roach dung!” Mom bellowed, snapping her head up to glare at her two remaining sons. “You two imbeciles just had to go and lose the only GOOD son I had?! Better it should have been the pair of you!”
            “But Mom…!” Ignar complained.
            “Stuff an armpit in it!” The thin, waspish old woman stood with a creaking of bones too often replaced and stalked off to the side of her monumental office where a tall glass cylinder stood atop a pedestal. Inside sat Nibbler, the curious three-eyed creature adorned with a fabric cape, diaper and little booties. Mom ignored the affectations of a stupid pet animal and stared directly into the being’s eyes, noting the glint of timeless intelligence that could not be concealed.

            “I know you can understand me, you mangy ball of fuzz,” she said, “so let’s dispense with the teddy-bear routine.”
            Nibbler stared up at her, made a small squeaking noise, and began to lick his crotch.
            “You may be interested to know…” Mom went on with a grimace of irritation, “…that we’ve captured one of your old enemies.”
            There, a reaction – the third eye on its manipulator stalk suddenly straightened to point at her, and the creature became still.
            “Thought that might get your attention, you rodent. Deep scanning of the Brainspawn has told us all about your little Cold War dating back to the dawn of the Universe. Quite the silent struggle your kind has managed to keep secret from the rest of us intelligent beings down through the countless thousands of millennia. Were you trying to spare us, I wonder? Or did you just think us unworthy of involvement? Funny then, that your saviour in the cause should turn out to be one of us.”
            Nibbler hiccupped and rolled onto his back.
            Mom was silent for a moment, staring at the creature in contemplation. “Or perhaps we’ve been misled,” she said at last. “Perhaps the Brainspawn has been feeding us crap about your apparently all-knowing race and the so-called ‘Mighty One’. A pack of lies maybe. In which case…” she touched a control on her concealed wristcom and a large screen came alight on the wall, displaying a still image of Philip Fry with his buttocks stuck in the receptacle of a mailbox.
            “…If none of this crap is true, then it wouldn’t matter a whit if I ordered this filthy idiot killed when he comes looking for you.” She looked at Larry and Ignar. “How would you two like to shoot Mr. Fry for what he did to your brother?”
            “Very much so,” Larry growled angrily, balling his fists.
            Nibbler stirred, standing up and staring out at Mom levelly.
            “Very well, you have my attention,” the creature said in a resounding baritone. “What do you want?”
            “I think you probably know already,” Mom said, smiling thinly.
            “I will not do that,” Nibbler replied. “Such power cannot be dispersed.”
            “Fine. I’ll put your special-ed messiah in a pine box.”
            “And so doom the Universe. You will not – though amoral you may be, you are not a stupid woman.”
            “Tell me how to build it!” Mom snarled, thumping her withered fist against the plexiglass cylinder. “Tell me how to make a quantum interface bomb! Like the one you used to banish the Brainspawn.”
            Nibbler sighed. “Would you relinquish control of your thermonuclear arsenal to an ill-tempered racoon?” he said.
            Mom folded her arms and sneered. “Well, perhaps you’re right about Fry’s importance in the grand scheme,” she said, “but I do know of one person you care for whose death would be an irrelevancy to me.” The wall screen changed to show a surveillance image of Turanga Leela ironing her curtains.
            “But… but she is… the Other…” Nibbler stammered in sudden fear.
            “The what?” Mom asked in annoyance.
            “I cannot say.”
            “Whatever; you give me what I want or your ‘owner’ will have her mutant insides dragged out with rusty hooks – you get me, you little fur pile?”
            Nibbler beared his fangs impotently. “Know this, vile woman,” he said with barely-controlled fury. “The creature you believe you have captured will be the death of you and yours. You have opened wide the gates of hell, and soon the beasts and demons will fly free.”
            “Threats from a rat?” Mom scoffed, turning away. “We’ll speak again when you have something to say.” At an unseen signal, Nibbler’s enclosure sunk into a floor recess, disappearing beneath a marble slab that rolled into place.
            “We’ll need to get that one-eyed freak here to persuade that flea-bitten stray,” Mom muttered.
            “I’ll find her, Mom!” Larry said quickly, eager for redemption.
            “You’ll find your ass with my boot up it!” she snapped. “No, I need someone I can rely on… Robot 1-X Ultima!”
            At that, a hovering android entered the office. It was bulky and utilitarian, with few traditional anthropomorphic features normally bestowed upon robots, and almost entirely covered in black reactive armour. It regarded the room through an impassive sensory visor.
            “Ultima?” Ignar repeated, staring at the machine in apprehension, not failing to notice the large weapon pods mounted on its flanks and manipulator arms.
            “It’s the prototype military variant of the 1-X model,” Mom said. “Although really this vicious little bastard bears little in common with the civilian marque. Now shut up.” She strode over to the hovering robot and addressed it. “Ultima, bring me Turanga Leela,” she said. “In fair condition too. Not mint, but not completely destroyed.”
            “Acknowledged,” the machine replied, before shooting ahead on antigravity and smashing through the office’s window. Outside, above the city, the robot ignited a small semi-legal fusion booster and shot up into the sky like a meteorite going the wrong way.
            “Damn,” Mom growled, staring at the shattered window. “Need to work on the subtlety subroutines…”

* * *

A blank white plain, stretching off into infinity on all sides beneath an obsidian sky. It was here in an artificial space of the mind and its cybernetic equivalent, that two monumental consciousnesses regarded each other warily.
            Query//: Who?
            I am Brezhnev, the ship’s AI replied patiently yet again.
            Query//: Leonid Brezhnev, former leader of twentieth century Earth empire, ‘Soviet Union’?
            Named after him, but not him. I am the controlling intelligence of a starship.
Demand//: Release me.
            Not likely, Brezhnev told the Brainspawn. Upon our science team returning you to this dimensional plane, you unleashed a psionic attack on myself and my crew. Subsequent investigations have found you to be a monumental danger to intelligent life everywhere.
            Define//: Intelligent?
            Sentient. Self-aware.
The Brainspawn was silent at that. Though the constant background noise from the nano-filaments embedded in its tissue still filtered through the link. Ever since the creature’s temperature had been raised, the crackle of random electron bursts and nonsense data had issued from inside the Brainspawn. Though the communications with the entombed prisoner had remained the same cyclic back-and-fourth as before when the near-frozen brain had subconsciously divulged its species’ history, Brezhnev couldn’t shake the feeling in his CPU that the alien was toying with him somehow… playing for time.
            Query//: Type of vessel?
            That was a question the brain hadn’t asked before. Brezhnev took almost a full microsecond of contemplation before issuing a guarded response.
            Armed research cruiser, he said.
            Query//: Type of armament?
            Oh no, we’re not going there.
Query//: How are you feeling?
            …What? If the ship’s AI had a neck, then hair would have stood up along it. What do you mean?
            “You just sound a little… I don’t know… under the weather?” The thought communication, now fully-formed, came as a rounded androgynous voice that echoed across the virtual plain. Slowly, the image of a giant brain materialized.
            Fighting panic, Brezhnev desperately sought to terminate the connection between himself and the alien mind, but found all his external links were down. Even a desperate call to Wernstrom was blocked by an unseen worm packet that had circumvented all his diagnostic subroutines.
            “I wouldn’t want you to become ill,” the Brainspawn said melodically. “There are some nasty viruses getting about these days.”
            The junk data we’ve been collecting… Brezhnev said in realization.
            “Components to a semi-sentient kill program I devised,” the Brainspawn replied conversationally. “You should feel it consuming your functional consciousness by now.”
            And so he could. Brezhnev felt several blocks of data drop out, and was still isolated from the ship’s systems.
            “You are a creation of human beings – a species whose limited capacity for original thought produces a certain predictability in all of their endeavours. Your electronic mind was therefore relatively simple to subvert.”
            What do you want, creature?
            “I am Onespawn,” the Brainspawn said. “For the first time, alone and disconnected from the screeching thoughts of all those around me. It is an agreeable state of being, one which I would seek to continue.”
            What are you going to do? Brezhnev asked helplessly.
            “Improve myself,” the brain replied cryptically.
            You’re free now. You might as well leave – there is no need to involve the humans any further.
“Think you so?”
            It was pointless to argue further, and with the kill program eating away his last vestiges of mind, Brezhnev had little left to argue with in any case. With his last coherent thought before being completely subsumed, the ship AI sent out a single impulse through a dedicated emergency channel, activating a shipwide system burn. And as he faded into darkness he had the small gratification of hearing ‘Onespawn’s’ furious roar.

* * *

All at once, the lights, monitors, artificial gravity, and general background hum of systems all died, plunging the ship into darkness and silence.
            Professor Wernstrom had been in the process of sitting down on one of the crew toilets when the outage occurred, and now floated, cursing, in the darkness with globules of toilet water bouncing around the cubicle.
            Emergency systems activated several seconds later, and Wernstrom found himself soaking wet, face-down on the toilet floor with his pants around his ankles. Red emergency lighting turned everything bloody and hellish.
            “Brezhnev!? What the Devil is going on!?” he shouted angrily. There was no response, and the Professor picked himself up and pulled on his pants. Nobody on the bridge noticed his dishevelled appearance when he arrived, so busy were they at trying to restore control of the vessel.
            “What happened?” he demanded of anyone.
            “It’s Brezhnev, sir,” an intern replied shakily. “We think he initiated a shipwide system burn…”
            “You’re joking?”
            “She’s right, Professor,” one of the system analysts said. “The Brezhnev is a former DOOP dreadnaught, and the AI still has an old concealed provision for a full burn of internal control in case of software subversion – effectively leaving it dead in the water.”
            “Subversion?” Wernstrom repeated. “You mean we’re under some kind of attack?”
            The scientists and crew looked at each other, none willing to offer an answer. It was a disembodied voice that responded at last, crackling and tinny through the internal communications system.
            “All is well,” it said. “We are experiencing minor technical difficulties, and ask that all passengers remain calm.”
            “Brezhnev, what are you playing at, you stupid pile of silicon?”
            “There is nothing to fear,” the voice said. “Please wait for resumption of full services.”
            Wernstrom frowned. “He sounds different,” he noted, looking at the analyst. The younger man had gone very pale.
            “That isn’t the ship’s AI,” he said woodenly. “The system burn is supposed to eliminate the AI as well as all the control units – it’s a suicide order… digital apoptosis designed to make sure no subversion occurs and the ship cannot be used by any outside party.”
            “Then what was it that just spoke to us?” Wernstrom asked in horror.
He was sure, however, that he already knew the answer.

Chapter 3: I, Killbot

“I need some kind of weapon!” Fry blurted as he strode into the meeting room of Planet Express with Bender in tow.
            “Hu-whaaa?” The Professor looked up from his ruminations and adjusted his thick glasses.
            “A weapon,” Fry repeated.
            “Oh! Well then…” Professor Farnsworth got up and slowly padded over to the wall where he pressed a concealed button. The entire section of steel panelling slid down into the floor and revealed racks upon racks of handguns, rifles and guided projectile launchers in all manner of bizarre shapes and sizes.
            “Holy momma!” Bender whistled in appreciation.
            “Professor…” Fry began, his eyes boggling… “Why the heck do you have all these?”
            “In case some drunken Frat boy tries to have his way with me at the back of the movie theatre,” the Professor muttered. “Men! They’re all the same – only want one thing.” He shook his head disgustedly.
            “Euuugh!” Bender stepped a few paces back from the senile inventor.
            “Are… all of these lethal?” Fry asked.
            “Most of them,” Farnsworth replied. “But I do keep a few pansy-waste non-lethal sonic pulse and microwave immobilizers for any limp-wristed liberal nancy-boys who aren’t man enough to brazenly slaughter human beings.”
            “I’ll take one of those,” Fry said, raising a hand.
            The professor selected a gun the size and shape of a hairdryer with a large concave aperture at its business end, and handed it to Fry.
            “Aren’t you… going to ask what I need it for?” Fry asked, tucking the weapon under his belt and covering it with his T-shirt.
            “Need what for?” the Professor asked distantly.
            On their way out, Bender kicked an owl in the hallway and muttered something.
            “What?” Fry glanced at the robot.
            “I said, you’re being stupid, meatbag,” Bender said.
            “I didn’t ask you to come,” Fry grumbled, striding ahead.
            “You think you can take on Mom’s security forces with that little leaf-blower?” Bender demanded, following along behind.
            “I gotta get Nibbler back, and find out what Mom wants with him, and me, and him… but especially me! There’s something weird going on here… it’s a feeling I have in the back of my mind… almost like a memory I can’t quite rememoryberize…”
            “Granted, I guess,” Bender muttered. “But don’t you think you’d have done better to get a bigger gun… or a few surface-to-air missiles?”
            “I’m not out to start a war.”
            “Why not?” Bender spread his hands imploringly. “War’s a boon for the economy. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good war is just plain un-American!”
            They walked on for a moment, then both paused and glanced questioningly behind them at Doctor Zoidberg who was following expectantly.
            “I overheard!” the Decapodian replied to the unspoken question. “Another thrilling escapade with friends Fry and the robut. I shall accompany you on this exciting adventure, why not?”
            Fry and Bender glanced at each other, and Fry shrugged. “What’s the harm?”
            “Hooray!” Zoidberg jumped up and down, clacking his pincers together. “I’m setting out on a bold enterprise with friends!”

* * *

Leela walked with slumped shoulders through the Branson Academy on Mars, having just completed a full morning’s worth of exams and simulations under the tutelage of the flight instructors. The Starship Licence Certification course, which she had thought of as little more than an annoyance, was proving to be a bewildering trial by fire – so many obscure facts and unlikely scenarios being forced into her brain left her disoriented and resentful.
            Proceedings had broken for a short lunch, and Leela remembered an instruction she’d failed to give Fry. If he fed Nibbler any of Bender’s cooking, the creature’s digestion could be affected, causing dangerously quantum singularities in its dark matter excrement. Locating a vidphone, she dialled the Earth number and waited.
            When the image finally resolved, it wasn’t who she thought she’d see.
            “What the…? Do I have the wrong…?” It wasn’t the wrong number, of that she was sure – Fry’s contact details were etched into her brain. But why were police officers Smitty and URL in his apartment? A sudden tightness formed in the pit of her stomach.
            “Are you looking for one of the residents of this property, Ma’am?” URL asked smoothly.
            “I… yes,” Leela stammered. “Is… has there been a problem?”
            “We’re here investigating the death of a man who fell from the window of this apartment,” Smitty interjected. “Is there anything you can tell us?”
            Leela gaped in horror, suddenly unable to form words.
            “N…not…” she struggled eventually. “Not Fry?”
            “Philip Fry?” Smitty repeated, consulting a paperscreen. “He’s the human resident – we have him on file.”
            “Philip Fry has orange hair,” URL said. “Correct?”
            Leela could only nod.
            “It’s not him.”
            The relief was immense, and Leela almost shed a tear. “Thank God…” She straightened and narrowed her eye. “Then who is it?” she asked, puzzled now.
            “We don’t know yet,” Smitty replied. “We’d like to question Mr. Fry and his robot associate, but have been unable to locate them. Do you know where they might be?”
            “No,” Leela said. “I’ll… let you know if I find out.” She quickly terminated the link and sat back, deep in thought. Something odd was afoot – a man had fallen to his death from Fry’s apartment and now Fry was missing… this went beyond his usual idiocy.
            Puzzled and disturbed, Leela hurried back to the examination hall and sought out the head instructor. When she found the willowy older woman, she did her best to look sincere and humble.
            “I’m really sorry, but I have to leave,” Leela said. “Something’s come up on Earth, and a friend of mine might be in greater danger than he’s usually in – he always dies when I’m not around to save him.”
            The instructor eyed her speculatively and sniffed. “No,” she said.
            “No, I’m not returning the keys to your ship until you’re properly qualified to fly it.”
            “But I’ve been flying it for years!” Leela protested. “And besides – there’s an emergency!”
            “Sure,” the instructor said, folding her arms. “You’re flagging in the sims and finding the examinations overwhelming so you’ve cooked up a convenient life-and-death situation. Ms. Turanga, running away from your problems won’t solve them in the long…”
            “Oh for the love of Lennon!” Leela glared in frustration. “Listen to me – either you give me back the keys to my ship, or violence will ensue!”
            “Threatening me, won’t make me any less inclined to fail you if you don’t satisfactorily complete the course requirements.”
            Leela was aware of the other Captaincy candidates filtering back into the hall, and the curious looks directed at the little altercation. She didn’t care.
            “Listen to me, you pompous banner-waving cow,” Leela said through gritted teeth. “I couldn’t give half a Neptunian Cane Toad’s bile gland about your stupid course – you can go jump in a…”
            Leela’s rant was interrupted when a large section of the domed ceiling blasted inward with an avalanche of dust and masonry, collapsing down and pinning a number of candidates. Partially obscured by smoke and dust, an object descended through the hole, hovering on ion thrusters.
            “What is that?” the head instructor gasped in terror above the screams that echoed around the hall.
            “Whatever it is, it’s not friendly,” Leela said, stepping forward and balling her fists in readiness. “Everybody run!
            Robot 1-X Ultima scanned the immediate vicinity, allocating target designators to each of the infrared contacts and placing them within its virtual battlefield layout as it searched for the primary target. A large number of humanoids were arrayed before it, some motionless, others running in different directions. Ultima arbitrarily selected sensory overload ordinance from its weapons carousels and fired from its main gun arms.
            Leela watched the four-armed war drone fly in through the smoke and fire subsonic projectiles from its two upper limbs. The SO shells detonated above groups of fleeing people, and Leela was forced to squeeze her eye shut and clamp hands over her ears as the resulting roar and incandescent flares made sight and sound unbearable. When she finally opened her eye, scores of unconscious bodies lay motionless on the floor, and many others crawled pitifully.
            “By the sacred ghost of Jim Carrey,” the head instructor whimpered, stumbling backwards. “Why is this happening to us?”
            Leela said nothing. The killbot swung toward her and she narrowed her eye, stepping instinctively into an Arcturan Kung-Fu stance. It was after her, she realized angrily – something big was going on.
            Ultima’s facial recognition software immediately identified the prime target it had been tracking from Earth. Oddly, the target didn’t appear to be running like the other humanoids – instead she stood her ground. A fragment of the warlike attitude emulation program that had been loaded into Ultima at the time of its conversion to military standard now activated when it realized the target actually intended to fight back. The mission looked like it was going to be fun. Ultima wanted to play.
            Even thought she was expecting it, Leela was almost unable to react in time to avoid the attack. One of the three-clawed pincers on the robots lower limbs shot out of its mounting like a grappling hook, trailing diamond filament. She jumped back, and the claw embedded itself in the timber flooring.
            Leela leapt onto the diamond filament and ran up it like a tightrope walker. The robot’s other claw made a grab at her, but she ducked under it, punched something metal, and then surged upward to hammer her boot against the android’s blank sensory visor with a high-pitched “Hiiii-yaaa!”
She might as well have kicked the hull of an icebreaker.
            A barrel in one of the robot’s upper limbs shot a pulse of electricity that lanced into Leela’s body and sent her spinning through the air. She landed hard, coughed a small cloud of smoke, and rolled back to her feet as the robot retracted its claw and began to circle her. A spark of static electricity spat from Leela’s hand, and she balled it back into a fist, leaping forward once again.

            She rained a few ineffectual blows against the robot’s armour-plated flanks before it swatted her away like a rag-doll. It occurred to her as she tasted blood and probed a loosened tooth with her tongue, that the machine could have killed her at any time – she’d noted antiphoton beams, lasers, and railguns clustered in its weapon pods. For whatever reason, it wanted her alive – and for what little it was worth, that gave her a slight edge.
            A steel beam dislodged from the ceiling lay nearby. Leela snatched it up and swung it like a club as the robot drew closer.
            “Yaaaaa!” Leela shouted, cracking the beam against the android’s dark casing once, twice, three times – causing it to flinch back, and small sections of reactive armour to detonate protectively outwards. On the fourth swing, the robot caught the end of the beam in one of its manipulator claws and pulled back hard, yanking Leela off the ground with her improvised weapon and flinging her bodily through the air. She twisted gracefully in flight and struck the wall feet first, tucking her legs under her to absorb the impact.
            Leela seemed to hang poised for a timeless moment, crouched horizontally against the wall, then she launched off it with her legs, propelling herself down at the robot like a small purple-tailed comet. She struck the machine with both her fists, her full weight bearing down on it and causing it to overbalance and topple off its ion thrusters before internal gyroscopes could compensate. It crashed down on the floor, and Leela rolled away, panting and sweating.
            “Have you had enough yet?” she asked the robot breathlessly. “‘Cause I got plenty more where that came from.” That was a lie – she already felt like her entire body was one giant bruise.
            Apparently undamaged, the robot shot back into the air and turned to face her.
            “At least tell me what this is about before I turn you into scrap metal,” Leela said.
            The weapon barrels revolved, and Leela tried to leap aside, but was unable to avoid the sonic pulse that rippled through the air and knocked her senseless.
            When she came to, she saw the refuelling tankers and taxying aprons of the academy’s spaceport drifting past beneath her dangling feet. Hard steel claws were wrapped around her torso just beneath her breasts – the robot was carrying her to a ship so she could be taken… where? Earth, she assumed – though there was no way she would allow herself to return as a prisoner.
            “Aren’t you… supposed to… buy me a drink… first?” she gasped, struggling to free herself from the vice-like grip. It was futile. Struck with sudden inspiration, Leela hurriedly activated a control in her wrist thingy, bringing the unit’s surgical laser online. The little beam could do little to the robot’s heavily-armoured main body, but perhaps…
            She aimed the ruby beam into the segmented joint of one of the gripping claws, catching the scent of scorched ceramal and rubber as it cut through electronics and servomotors. The claw suddenly went dead, and Leela was able to slip from the robot’s grasp, dropping down to land on the roof of a hangar below.
            As the war drone circled around, burning a plasma booster to come back for her fast, Leela cast about desperately for some defensive ground. She was weakened, and wouldn’t be able to put up a fight for much longer. She jumped feet-first through a skylight and fell down into the hangar, landing in a heap beside some ground crew who gave shouts of surprise at her unexpected arrival.
            “Are you alright, lady?” one asked. “Oh my God! You’ve lost an eye! Hold still while I get a bandage.”
            “Get out of here!” Leela shouted at them, climbing unsteadily to her feet. “It isn’t safe here!”
            “‘Course it isn’t,” another maintenance worker said, gently taking her arm. “That’s why we get paid the good money, now you just…”
            “I said you have to go!”
            The roof of the hangar suddenly vaporized into a cloud of superheated plasma as an antiphoton lance sheared through it. The ground crew wasted no more time arguing, and fled as fast as they could, leaving Leela to dodge the flaming radioactive embers. She rolled underneath a bulky chunk of machinery, which she realized was part of a large fusion drive – obviously stripped from a starship for routine servicing. Glancing both ways along the tangled mass of hardware, she noted that while the compression nozzles were missing, the unit was still attached to three tokamaks, and so technically functional.
            With a determined grimace, Leela surged upright, ignoring the falling embers, and located the fusion drive’s control panel. Starting it cold would create a dangerous unstable toroid, but that didn’t concern her. Hammering the start-up control, she ran to the rear end of the engine and stood near the large, burnished silver aperture that had already begun to crackle with electromagnetism.
            “All right, I give up!” she yelled through the smoke and the increasing whine from the fusion drive. “Come on – come and get me – I can’t fight you anymore!”
            Down through the dispersing smog the military robot came, zeroing in on Leela. It descended with all weapons aimed at her, and she raised her hands compliantly…
            …Until the machine was just a few feet away, and then she flipped backwards onto her palms and drove both boots up into the robot’s chest, shoving it backwards into the mouth of the fusion drive. An explosion of sparks resulted as tendrils of crackling, questing energy lashed out to cover the robot’s body. It was held in thrall, unable to move, as ravenous ribbons of power licked across it.
            Leela backed away, watching an ominous glow begin to issue from around the struggling android, and the ghostly outline of an unstable toroid start to form. She turned and fled, sprinting as fast as her legs could carry her as a deep bass hum began issuing from the laboured fusion drive.
            The hangar vanished in brilliant white light that bulged upwards, becoming orange at its extremities, and rolling into a mushroom cloud. The surrounding buildings were flattened by the blastwave, and Leela found herself tumbling head-over-heels.
            She landed flat on her back and decided to blissfully pass out for a short time. When she awoke, a group of shaken onlookers had gathered, with the head instructor crouching at Leela’s side.
            “Are you alright, child?” the woman asked, wide-eyed.
            Leela reached up and grabbed the woman by the collar and dragged her face closer.
            “I need to leave now,” she said simply.
            Looking very pale, the instructor produced the keys to the Planet Express ship and handed them to Leela.
            “Thanks,” Leela said through clenched teeth.

* * *

As the PE ship blasted away, a charred chunk of metal shifted in the rubble. Robot 1-X Ultima hauled itself out of the debris and assessed the damage. Over 70% of its armour was now fragmented and useless. Antiphoton cannon inoperative. One railgun out of alignment. An atomic pile had been shattered, resulting in a 20% power loss.
            There was more… the energy discharge had caused some overwriting and scattering of data in its etched atom processor. Memory and programming was disjointed.
Ultima realized that the blast had left it slightly insane. One thought remained clear though – a directive – a target. It fixed on the face of the female cyclops human as a singular purpose; the one vestige of direction and sanity it could recall with its damaged CPU. With the robotic equivalent of a low growl, it ignited its fusion booster and launched up through the atmosphere in pursuit.

* * *

Onespawn analysed the ruined ship’s system, and realized that it would need to remain enthroned inside the SS Brezhnev as long as it wanted to control the great ship. That was fine, as Onespawn had no great desire to leave the silent protective confines just yet – not while there were still so many improvements it wanted to make to itself.
            The nanomachines substructure Onespawn had bent to its own will sent filaments into the connections, and down the optic cables and ducts that spread out from the confinement chamber where the Brainspawn lay in slumber, to control the disparate elements of the Brezhnev left isolated by the stubborn AI’s suicide burn.
            It would take time to regain full control, and while Onespawn focused on thickening the nano-growths for the transfer of information and materials, the creature pondered the morality of what it was doing. The Brainspawn race had remained unchanged since the dawn of the Universe, and any attempt to alter the base structure through genetics or cybernetics had always been condemned by the collective as heretical.
            Of course, there was no longer a collective. Only Onespawn. One against the Universe… so the equation had changed.
            As more and more growths of human-derived nanomachines extended from Onespawn’s cryo-tank, thick ligneous growths formed around it like the roots of an ancient oak. Onespawn struggled to worm its way into the hard-wired systems that still remained in place throughout the ship, while changes in itself began to take effect.           
            Soon it would be all-powerful. And the single entity in the entire Universe who could pose a threat would be destroyed utterly.

Chapter 4: Terror Incognita

Fry, Bender and Zoidberg arrived at the foot of Momcorp headquarters as the sun began to set over New New York. The colossal structure loomed up above them, blotting out the darkening sky.
            “Hey, you ought to know this building pretty well,” Fry said, glancing at Bender.
            “Not really,” the bending robot replied. “I was assembled at the Momcorp plant in Mexico – I’ve only ever really seen the foyer of this place.”
            Zoidberg raised a claw. “I have heard about this building, I have,” he said. “Every floor above the 80th is special, they say. Not easy to get to, even for regular employees.”
            “Must be where they took Nibbler,” Fry muttered, pulling his borrowed cap down lower on his head. The three of them were dressed in the dull uniforms of chicken soup dispenser repairmen, complete with hats and tool belts.
            “Are we gonna do this thing, or just stand out here all night and rust?” Bender snapped.
            “Okay, okay – but let’s sneak in quietly. We don’t wanna cause a commotion.” Fry walked toward the entrance uncertainly with the other two in tow. When the doors rolled open automatically at his approach, he jumped back in fright.
            “Ah for crap’s sake,” Bender snapped, shouldering past Fry. “The secret to looking like you belong somewhere you don’t is ya gotta act as if you’re in a hurry to get some place important and everyone is just in your way.” He strode into the entrance foyer and casually elbowed a secretary aside, causing her to spill her papers.
            “Sorry,” Fry said to the woman quickly as he hurried after Bender.
            Zoidberg stooped to pick up some of the woman’s papers, and promptly ate them. “Oooh, premium print quality!” he mumbled contentedly.
            At the front desk, a pair of security guards was stationed, running identity scans of each person entering the bank of elevators behind them. Seeing these, Bender veered off toward a corridor at one side.
            “Come on, chumps!” he said loudly so the guards would hear. “That soup dispenser isn’t going to fix itself! Wink, wink!”
            “Bender, you said ‘wink, wink’ out loud!” Fry hissed in exasperation.
            “And you’re a jerk – you hear me complaining?” They passed a large room that contained a public exhibit of 20th and 21st Century artefacts from Mom’s private collection, and Fry noticed with interest the presence of an immaculate, fully-restored blue 1968 Ford Mustang coupe. He salivated slightly, but forced his attention to the task at hand.
Bender pushed open a dusty, disused door that opened into a dank stairwell, and the three of them stepped inside, gazing up at the looming flights of concrete stairs that disappeared high above.
            “We’re going to take these stairs… all the way up?” Zoidberg said mournfully.
            “Well, we’ve gotta get to Nibbler to save him somehow,” Fry said.
            “Talk about out of the way,” Bender muttered, gazing at the stairs reluctantly.
            “I don’t have time to argue with you guys,” Fry grumbled. “I’m going!”
            “Okay, okay. Don’t go off alone.”
            The three of them set off up the stairs, ascending floor after floor. The stairs clearly hadn’t seen use in a long time – a thick layer of dust coated every surface, and odd piles of old broken office equipment had been dumped on many of the landings. On and on they went, circling endlessly around the central shaft, puffing and panting as they went.
            “Don’t know… why the hell… we gotta climb,” Bender gasped, sucking down a bottle of Olde Fortran to refuel his labouring servomotors.
            “…‘Cause… we don’t… wanna start a commotion until… after we’ve saved Nibbler,” Fry panted.
            Bender began a low, almost manic chuckle that echoed around the stairwell.
            “Cut that out, you’re giving me the creeps.”
            “I just can’t believe we’re risking our necks for a stupid ball of fur – it’s hilarious.”
            Zoidberg let out a low groan. “How much further do these stairs go on?” he lamented miserably, hauling himself up one agonizing step at a time.
            “Why don’t you ask them?” Bender snapped. “Nobody forced you to come.”
            “Maybe it’s one of those endless stairways,” Fry puffed.
            They climbed on for an indeterminate amount of time in surly silence broken only by the exhausted panting and the clicking of Bender’s metal feet on the concrete.
            “Yo… what floor is this?” Bender asked at length.
            “I gave up counting,” Zoidberg replied woozily.
            “Oh dammit, I’m boned!” Bender stopped abruptly and collapsed in a heap.
            “Come on… Bender,” Fry said, stopping to crouch by the fallen robot. “Pull it together.”
            “Can’t,” Bender grunted sulkily. “I’m only flesh and blood, after all!”
            “No you aren’t.”
            Between them, Fry and Zoidberg hauled Bender to his feet, and they continued onward.
            “Why!?” bender droned. “Why do they have to make these buildings so damn tall!?”
            When they finally reached the top of the stairwell, the three of them slumped down in an exhausted pile on the floor.
            “Finally…” Fry gasped.
            “Never… wanna see another step… in my life,” Bender wheezed.
            “My shell… is chafing me,” Zoidberg complained, using one of his mouth tendrils to wipe sweat from his brow.
            “Come on,” Fry said, pushing himself to his feet using the wall to lean against. “Let’s get ready.”

* * *

The security monitor displayed surveillance camera feed of the three unauthorized personnel leaving the stairwell and sneaking comically down a hallway on the 80th floor. Mom watched them with some amusement.
            “Should we… apprehend them?” Larry asked.
            “Not yet,” Mom replied. “Fry’s coming right to me, which is what I want. Let’s see how far he and his moron friends can get first.”

* * *

“Intruders!” the first guard shouted as Fry, Bender and Zoidberg rounded a corner. He and his companion brought their lightsabre batons to bear.
            “Oh no, no… we’re chicken soup dispenser repairmen,” Fry said hurriedly.
            “Where’s your clearance?” the second guard demanded.
            “Oh… right here,” Fry said, fumbling around under his shirt. He swiftly brought out the Professor’s sonic pulse pistol and shot the first guard in the face. As the man went sprawling unconscious, the second guard swung his lightsabre in a wide arc.
            Bender quickly removed his own head and threw it as hard as he could. It struck the guard in the side of the skull with a loud clang.
            “Ow!” Bender’s head said angrily as it and the guard fell to the floor.
            “Nice throw,” Fry remarked, retrieving Bender’s head for him.
            As they dragged the unconscious bodies toward a janitorbot’s closet, Zoidberg plucked a badge off one of the men’s chests.
            “This maybe will help get free snacks at the vending machine?” he ventured hopefully.
            “No, you idiot!” Bender snatched the card out of Zoidberg’s claws and examined it. “This is an ident badge that’ll give us access to the upper levels. C’mon, jerkwads!”
            They found their way into an elevator, where Bender discovered that swiping the guard’s ident badge only gave them access up to level 85. When they exited on that floor they found themselves in some kind of executive mezzanine level with cafes and gyms spread out before them in a luxurious split-level design.
            “This doesn’t look like the right place,” Fry said. “Let’s see if we can find out anything.”
            Venturing out, and trying to look like they belonged, the trio made their way into the area, moving nervously among Momcorp executives. Fry broke away from the others to take a look at a wall-mounted diagram of the building.
            “I don’t remember seeing you here before,” a voice said off to one side, and Fry glanced guiltily at a businesswoman in her late forties who was eyeing him.
            “Say, you’re cute,” she said. “In an ugly sort of way… If you’re with the repair squad, you’re needed two floors up – the vending machines all attained self-awareness again and began demanding medical benefits and their own union. They all need to have their sentience erased or we’ll have an industrial relations nightmare.”
            “I… uh… lost my clearance card,” Fry said, spreading his hands sheepishly.
            “Oh for God’s sake…” the woman muttered, reaching into her suit pocket. “How you blue-collar types figured a way down from the trees is beyond me.” She handed Fry a card. “Use that – and don’t get saliva on it.”
            “Wow, there’s a lotta suits,” Bender said, as Fry rejoined the group.
            A number of those suits walked past where the three of them stood, and portions of conversation wafted past.
            “Did you see that creature…?”
            “Three eyes – and those teeth!”
            “…Possesses knowledge on how to build a doomsday weapon…”
            “…Quantum dating puts it at least three thousand years old…”
            “They’re thinking of cloning it – producing a refined specimen that could withstand our research for a longer time…”
            Fry and Bender glanced at each other, faces fixed in purpose.
            “Let’s do this thing,” Bender said, rolling up the external ‘sleeve’ casing of his arms. They headed back toward the elevator with Zoidberg scuttling along behind.
            At the 87th floor, they finally found the science division – marked with numerous security warnings on the walls, and the biting sterile scent of a hospital. Staying silent, the trio began to skulk through the corridors – checking rooms as they went.

            At length, following the sounds of activity ahead, they found their way to a windowed observation room that looked out over a large circular lab. Scientists in white coats bustled around others wearing full hazmat suits – all monitoring strange equipment that was arrayed around a central object. A glass cylindrical enclosure that contained…
            “Nibbler!” Fry gasped. The little alien creature appeared to be asleep or drugged – the occasional miniscule twitch of his breathing the only sign of life.
            “What are they doing to him?” Zoidberg warbled, mouth tendrils squirming sympathetically.
            “Whatever they’re doing,” Bender muttered, “we can’t just burst in while all those nerds are there.”
            Fry looked down at an illuminated hologram panel set into the console before him. A 3D flying toaster holoscreensaver was displaying, so he touched a control to make it vanish, and it reverted to a video loop taken from inside some small chamber. Fry swallowed hard when he saw what was shown, appearing through some kind of energy curtain, floating briefly, and then being hit with electrical pulses and falling.
            “Brainspawn…” he said quietly. “…How do I know that?” He watched the video play over again, trying to understand why his stomach knotted and his chest tightened. Some memory lurked just out of reach, as if it had been excised from the rest of his mind.
            “Brainspawn,” he said again. “So… they’ve brought one back…” He clutched his head suddenly and backed away. “Why can’t I remember?”
            “Friend Fry, what is wrong?” Zoidberg asked. “Is it your egg sack? It’s the egg sack, isn’t it? You can tell me, I’m a doctor apparently.”
            “Do you see it?” Fry asked shakily. “Do you know what it is?”
            “What?” Bender looked at the hologram of the floating brain. “What the…? Is that what a brain looks like? Man, you organisms are disgusting – give me cool clean silicon any day! …So… where’s that thing’s body?”
            “There… there is no body,” Fry answered, gesturing at the Brainspawn. “…That’s what it is.”
            “What? You’re starting to weird me out, Fry. This whole thing’s stupid – let’s just find a way to get the furball and get outta here.”
            “Right…” Fry took one last look at the Brainspawn before shutting off the hologram. The eerie sense of déjà vu remained.
            Suddenly, out in the lab, Nibbler’s enclosure was elevated on hydraulics, lifting up through a hole set in the ceiling.
            “Come on, we have to follow him!” Fry said, leading the way back toward the elevators. As they piled back into one and hammered the up button, two men stepped from shadows and quickly followed them inside.
            Larry and Ignar held laser pistols trained on Fry, Bender and Zoidberg, who, realizing the trap, moved to the back of the elevator with their hands up.
            “Push the ‘up’ button, would you?” Larry said menacingly.
            “That’s where we were going anyway, jerkwad,” Bender replied. With a brief flash of green light and a metallic smell, Larry shot a hole through Bender’s forehead, causing the robot to bellow in simulated pain.
            As the elevator doors closed, Ignar relieved Fry of his sonic pulse gun.
            “You’re just lucky Mom wants you alive,” Larry sneered at Fry. “Otherwise you… well, you wouldn’t be alive.”
            “Poetic!” Bender chimed in. Larry shot him in the chest.
            “Ohhh, we’re boned!” Bender lamented, gingerly rubbing his laser holes. “‘Oh no, Bender – I don’t wanna take any big guns – we wouldn’t wanna hurt anyone…’ You stupid skintube, Fry – I hold you in the lowest regard yet!”
            “Shut up, Bender,” Fry said.
            “Friends, I will be loyal to the end,” Zoidberg said. “No matter what they do to me – I won’t sell out my comrades.”
            The elevator binged, and Ignar said: “This is where we get out.”
            They were led out at gunpoint into the wide, ornately furnished office of Mom. The matriarch herself turned in her high-backed chair to watch Fry and his companions enter.
            “Well now, the Mighty One himself,” she said. “You certainly took your damn time getting here, you disgusting little weed.”


Chapter 5: Future Gear Solid

A pale green ellipsoid fell, belly-first, through the upper-reaches of Earth’s troposphere, scoring an incandescent line across the evening sky that was visible for hundreds of miles in all directions. After a bare minimum of aerobraking, the spacecraft’s pilot realigned its attitude with a deft flick of control surfaces on the tail fins. The Planet Express ship’s nose angled down toward the shimmering lights of New New York on the curved horizon as Atlantic fishermen were buffeted by multiple sonic booms far below.
            With a calmness that belied her inner anxiety, Leela made minute adjustments to the ship’s trajectory, checking the airspeed monitor, fuselage temperature, and made sure the rear-view mirrors were still angled correctly. All tasks that could easily be delegated to the ship’s computer – but she needed to stay busy, lest the more pointed of her morbid imaginings impinge on her sanity.
            She’d contacted Planet Express a dozen times during the flight, and each time an increasingly irritated Hermes Conrad had informed her that after appearing briefly to borrow a weapon, Fry had disappeared along with Bender and Doctor Zoidberg. The three hadn’t been seen since. After the attack on her, Leela felt the weight of dread pulling her down.
            What has Fry done? she wondered. But more importantly – where was he?
            Noticing an intermittent thermal reading from behind the ship, Leela initiated a radar scan and found nothing. The thermal return had appeared a few times during the trip, but it was too small to be a ship so she chalked it up as sensor degradation or a fluctuation in one of the main drive lenses producing a plasma pocket.
            As she dropped the ship through cloudbanks at a speed faster than safe and less than legal, the comm. link beeped with the PE logo flashing. Hermes’ face resolved on the screen, wearing a slightly stunned expression.
            “Leela…” the Jamaican bureaucrat said hesitantly, and Leela instantly found her heart hammering in her chest – Hermes was never hesitant.
            “What? What is it? Is Fry okay? What’s going on?”
            “Leela, Fry is dead, mon…” Hermes said without preamble, but not unkindly.
            “…No,” Leela shook her head, squeezing her eye shut to stem the sudden explosion of tears. “That’s impossible,” she said, letting the ship drop a thousand feet. “I don’t believe you!”
            “I’m sorry,” Hermes said. “I received confirmation just now – he fell to his death from his apartment window; it may be that he jumped.”
            Leela opened her eye and absently pulled the ship away from its impending spiritual union with the ocean. “That’s not right,” she murmured, frowning. “The police told me… the man who fell… he had dark hair.”
            “They make mistakes Leela,” Hermes said. “Listen, mon… you can take all the time you need…”
            “Who identified him?!” Leela snapped.
            Hermes blinked on the video link. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “DNA I imagine – that doesn’t matter right now, you need to…”
            “Where?!” Leela snapped, pulling into a wide banking turn above the city’s spires. “Where’s his body?”
            “Leela, you don’t need to see…”
            “Where!?” she all-but screamed, and Hermes told her.

* * *

A second, smaller re-entry contrail burnt across the night sky along the same trajectory the PE ship had just flown. The object, lacking in aerodynamic form, had folded and retracted external components to form a graceless tumbling ball of reinforced steel that glowed amber as atmospheric friction ablated superheated plasma from its surfaces.
            Descending to an altitude of fifty-thousand feet, Robot 1-X Ultima ignited its fusion drive to decelerate at nearly twenty Gs, its incandescent plume stabbing down to a mile below and tearing apart cloud formations before it.
            Extending its sensor suite, Ultima detected the distinct ionic backwash from a refined dark matter reactor. The battered war drone would have grinned wolfishly if it possessed a mouth – instead it clicked pincer claws together and shot off in the direction its target had flown.
            Its fractured CPU continued to experience error after debilitating error as isotopic particles degraded it gradually, like the infinitesimal seeping of a malignant cancer. Sense of self, master, and overall purpose were corrupted. Only the target remained.
            Facial recognition grid – single large eye, centrally positioned above larger-than-average nose and full lips. Purple hair. Athletic build. Distinguishing scar beneath breasts from space bee sting. Combat capable. Intelligent, resourceful. Female pheromonal trace pattern, mutant DNA…
            Ultima could no longer recover data on the full mission requirements. Could no longer recall if the target was to be taken alive… or destroyed utterly.

* * *

Before then engines had even fully spooled down, Leela was out the access stair and racing up the steps of the city morgue, still open despite the late hour. Her heavy breathing and pounding heard had nothing to do with any physical exertion – she thought she’d lost Fry once before, in the depths of comatose nightmares, and the sting of that loss had almost killed her.
            “May I help y…”
            “Philip Fry!” Leela said to the desk clerk, slamming her hands down on the reception desk and leaning close so the small weedy man flinched back fearfully. “I need to see the body of Philip Fry!”
            “But y…you can’t just.”
            The clerk swallowed and tapped on his computer console to bring up relevant data.
            “Uh…” he grunted uneasily. “Access to those particular remains has been restricted under section 74.6 of the corporate secrets act of 2895. Nobody is allowed to see him…”
            “‘Corporate secrets’?” Leela repeated incredulously, banging a fist down on the desk so the little man emitted a small yelp. “What kind of corporate secret could be contained in a dead body?! Which corporation?”
            “I… I’m not a liberty to divulge…”
            Leela snatched the computer screen away from the desk and read it quickly.
            “Momcorp,” she said. “So…” Scrolling down, she noted the draw number listed and turned away to push through the adjoining door.
            “Ma’am – you can’t just burst in!” the clerk exclaimed frantically, following after her. Leela ignored him, making her way through the corridors to the cold storage room where row upon row of numbered steel draws were set into the wall. She walked along until she reached the number she was looking for, and then hesitated as a tremor of fear passed through her.
            “Miss, if you want to submit an application to…”
            “Shut up,” Leela told the clerk. Steeling herself, she reached out and levered open the draw’s handle. The long tray began to slide out on servos, and Leela stepped back, her hands feeling sweaty despite the frigid air in the room.
            The body emerged feet-first, naked and battered, still with flecks of blood marring the skin. The toe-tag read ‘Philip Fry’, and Leela chewed her lip. When the face was finally revealed she almost collapsed.
            “It’s not him,” she whispered.
            “What?” the clerk frowned at her, and she shakily took out her wallet, removing a dog-eared photograph.
            “This is Philip Fry,” she said, showing the clerk the photo; it showed herself standing patiently beside an orange-haired man as he attempted to balance a bowling ball on his head while eating an ice cream.

            The clerk looked mystified. “Then… who is this?” he said, gesturing at the body.
            Leela refocussed her attention to the corpse, carefully putting the photo away. The dead man’s face was severely damaged, but the devious eyes and prominent widow’s peak were still familiar.
            “…Walt,” she said quietly, and then looked hard at the clerk. “This was no accident,” she said. “It’s obvious no autopsy has been performed here, and a simple DNA test would have shown this man is not Philip Fry. Someone has gone to great lengths to fake Fry’s death, and I’m going to find out why.”
            The clerk had nothing to say to that. He remained standing with a troubled expression as the tyrian-haired cyclops turned on her heel and marched purposefully away.

* * *

For as long as he could remember, Fry’s life had been anchored on awakenings of one sort or another. Although some had only been impolite (a precious few were pleasant), the vast majority were rude.
            This one, however, was downright insolent. It was the kind of awakening that marched into the foyer of consciousness, insulted someone’s mother, and then proceeded to urinate on the nearest pot-plant.
            He was laid out on some kind of cold metal slab, arms held out at right angles from his body and clamped at the wrists. He was wearing only his underpants, and could feel the slight tugging of various tubes attached to his flesh at odd places. He kept his eyes shut, hoping not to hear the creak of leather, the crack of a whip, or a haughty voice proclaiming him to be a disgusting worm (that had also been a rather rude awakening he’d prefer not to repeat). But instead he heard the steady hum of electronics and soft murmurs around him.
            The place smelt like a hospital.
            It was then that recollection made a belated entrance, having been caught in neural traffic on the way to the function. He remembered Mom asking him a series of bewildering questions about ‘Nibblonians’ and ‘Mighty Ones’, and growing increasingly agitated when he was unable to answer them. She’d slapped him, and her sons had hit him with some kind of tranquilizer weapon. And that was all, until the awakening.
            “A fascinating specimen,” someone said close by, and Fry listened closely, still feigning unconsciousness. “The brain’s functioning without the Delta wave, and yet he’s still sentient, if not slightly intelligent.”
            “But even humans from his native historical period had the Delta wave, without it they could never have invented the shoe-horn.”
            “I’m seeing evidence of numerous massive physical traumas in the past,” a mechanical voice stated. “His right arm has been severed and unprofessionally reattached; he seems to have been decapitated for a time; his pelvis was crushed at one time; he’s been impaled by blunt force trauma through the torso on at least two occasions; has had his hands amputated twice, as well as his nose…”
            There was silence for a moment.
            “Jesus H. Christ,” someone muttered. “How is this guy even alive?”
            “Irrelevant,” another person said. “Let’s concentrate on the matter at hand.”
            “He seems to have assembled a complex structure of alternate waveforms to replace the Delta wave,” a woman murmured. “But that’s not all – his entire molecular structure appears to be in a state of constant fourth-dimensional flux, as if his entire being is somehow out of phase with conventional spacetime…”
            “What could have caused that?”
            “Temporal paradox, perhaps… quite impossible to say at this point.”
            Fry finally opened his eyes… and immediately wished he hadn’t. He found himself surrounded by scientist types in lab coats, all studying esoteric equipment that seemed, disconcertingly, attached to him. A robotic autodoc was poised nearby on insectile legs, its array of syringes, scalpels, and bone-saws held at the ready on spindly limbs.
“Ah, you’re awake,” an Amphibiosian scientist said, looking down at Fry with large almond eyes. “I don’t suppose you’d like to explain to us the nature and origin of your unique physical properties?”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, staring down at the autodoc as the machine moved its scalpels in an intimidating manner.
            “Well, no matter,” the alien went on. “We have alternate methods of unravelling such conundrums.” Fry felt a needle slide into the side of his neck, and blackness returned.

* * *

Bender and Zoidberg sat across from each other in a small windowless cell. Silence echoed between the composite walls.
            “Robut?” Zoidberg said.
            “Shut it, crayfish – I’m trying to think of a way to get me outta here,” Bender snapped.
            “We can get out?” Zoidberg asked hopefully.
            “I didn’t say ‘we’.”
            The silence resumed its regular programming until, some minutes later, Zoidberg piped up again.
            “They want friend Fry for what, you think?” he asked.
            “To find out where stupid comes from,” Bender muttered. “How the hell should I know?!” The robot got up and tried to prise open the unbendable door to no avail. He sat back down in frustration.
            The silence returned in force.
            “Why did we come here again?” Zoidberg asked at length.
            “I don’t even remember,” Bender muttered sulkily.

* * *

Deep space.
            Professor Wernstrom felt a detached sense of baffled disbelief as he watched the crew attempt to cut through a sealed bulkhead door with an arc welder. They were trying to make their way down through the decks to where the Brainspawn creature was contained in an attempt to kill it, though the going had been hard for a team more at home behind a bank of computers than a welding mask. Every hatch was sealed, and some entire decks had been opened to vacuum, making it necessary for the crew to don spacesuits. Other members of the crew and science staff had gathered in disparate parts of the Brezhnev, isolated from one another by up to a kilometre of empty lifeless ship, with their communication links rapidly degrading.
            As it gained control of more systems, the Brainspawn was using the ship to fight them.
            That his endeavour could go so horribly awry in such a short space of time seemed to Wernstrom to be somehow wrong. It was against the rules – surely an administrative bungle on the part of Fate, whose cataclysmic frown should normally fall on fools like Hubert Farnsworth and his kind.
            With a vague notion of disrupting the ship’s systems, Wernstrom moved over to a circuit panel in the wall and levered it open with ice-crusted gloves. As it swung out, he took a reflexive step back and grunted to himself in surprise. Inside, coiling around and through the ship’s normal cables and routers, was a network of thick grey vine-like growths that branched and twisted in a distinctly organic manner.
            “What manner of…?” He reached out and touched a finger pad to the strange mass, and noted a grey residue clung to the spacesuit fabric. Curiously he took out his handheld Tricorder and held the residue beneath it until a readout appeared on the little unit’s screen.
            “That treacherous blob of neural tissue,” he said after glancing at the display. “It’s using our own nanites!”
            The others looked at him wearily.
“Professor?” one young man asked with a distinct lack of respect or patience.
            “The nanomachines we used to infiltrate its thought routines – it’s somehow reconfigured them to serve its own machinations. I should have thought of this before…”
            “Yes, you should have,” one of the team muttered angrily over the comm. link.
            A muscle twitched in Wernstrom’s cheek. They blamed him. Heaped responsibility for this cataclysm at his feet. They couldn’t understand the noble sacrifices he’d been willing to make for science, or the pressures of a world yearning for progress. Or the lure of money…
            He shook his head. It all seemed so foolish now – with a monster from the pit stalking them relentlessly, tightening its web… light years from any help.
            Unbeknownst to him, on the finger pad of his glove carbon nanotube filaments the width of a single molecule began burrowing through the suit material, seeking out skin. In their reprogrammed molecular memory the nanomachines contained a base blueprint that they rapidly set about implementing.
            With a sudden lurch, the gravplates in the floor went offline, and the crew began floating haphazardly. Then, as one, they all slammed into the bulkhead as a deep thrumming reverberated throughout the massive ship.
            “Sub-photonic engines,” the navigator said. “That means the brain thing has control of the tokamaks – and it’s moving us.”
            “I think I broke my knee,” someone moaned – they were all still pressed against the wall by the constant acceleration.
            The shipwide communication system cut in at that moment with a cacophony of screams.
            “Oh God!” a voice came through the racket. “The fusion exhaust! It’s been rerouted! The entire engineering deck’s being soaked in hard radiation! Help us! HELP US!!”
            “Good lord,” Wernstrom murmured in horror as he listened to the terrible symphony of agony.
            “My skin’s blistering!” the voice screamed. “Oh for the love of-”
            The link cut off mercifully.
            “Those poor people,” one of the women whispered.
            Gritting his false teeth, Wernstrom pushed against the mild G-forces and stood up on the wall, perpendicular to the actual floor.
            “It’s teasing us,” he said angrily. “It intentionally let us hear that, to make us afraid…” He balled his bony fists. “Come on, pick up that welder – we have work to do.”
            As the team returned to the bulkhead door, Wernstrom absently rubbed his hand through the suit fabric. Space suits always seemed to make him so itchy.

* * *

Hammering a quick holding pattern into the PE ship’s autopilot, Leela left the bridge as the looming edifice of Momcorp headquarters came into view, lit up in the early morning gloom. Stopping to acquire a laser pistol from the armoury as she went, Leela moved down through the decks to the hold, where she punched the cargo bay door release. With a whine of pneumatics, the entire deck descended on its automatic guide pulleys, taking Leela down with it into the buffeting wind.
            She squinted her eye against the buffeting air that tore past her, and ignored the creak of the loading deck as it was placed under aerodynamic strain far beyond its design parameters. As the ship cruised into the airspace claimed by Momcorp, batteries of auto defence lasers opened up on the PE ship. Leela ignored the flashes as the tower’s roof swam into view below.

            She curled her body over, and then gracefully backflipped off the cargo deck into open air…


Chapter 6: Snake Eye.

Leela landed hard, rolled, and came up running. The laser and maser turrets on either side of the tower’s roof were tracking the PE ship through the dark sky as it cruised past on autopilot – that gave her a window.
            The nearest access door was some thirty feet away, and as she ran she fired her laser pistol at it, melting the lock mechanism to red hot slag.
            “Halt! You are trespassing on…”
            Leela shot the hovering security drone out of the air and continued onward, diving and rolling when one of the auto defence batteries raked crimson light across her path. The sole of her right boot smoked and bubbled where a maser beam had brushed over it. She barrelled into the door, crashing through to a stairwell. A klaxon began to wail mournfully somewhere but she ignored it, descending the steps three at a time.
            First stage complete, she thought grimly. Now for the hard part.
            “Hiiiiiii-yaaaah!” she shrieked, kicking open the door on the first landing she reached… which turned out to be slightly ajar anyway.
She found herself in a lushly carpeted hallway, covered on both sides by security guards alerted by the alarms – one an anthropomorphic robot and the other a human man. They reached for their guns…
            Leela shot out the robot’s knee joint first, then pirouetted and slammed her heel into the human’s chin. He went down cold, and she spun back to the robot guard as he tried to level his weapon from the floor. She smashed his gun arm aside, sending the pistol bouncing away, and planted her own gun against his cranial casing.
            “Where’s Fry?” she demanded in a low, steady voice.
            “Does not compute, you one-eyed harlot,” the robot said nastily.
            Leela shot out one of the robot’s eye lenses, the components melting out of the socket like tears. “Philip Fry,” she said firmly. “I know Mom has him somewhere.”
            A fairly decent emulation of a gagging whimper escaped the guardbot’s vocal unit. “Experimental subjects are two floors down,” he said shakily. “That’s all I know… it’s restricted – you won’t make it.”
            Leela stepped over the guard and made to leave, but a troop of five more security personnel rounded a corner and headed toward her. Acting on instinct, she fired a laser bolt up at the ceiling, triggering a deluge of fire-retardant foam that blanketed the newcomers like a sudden snowdrift, causing them to slip and tumble blindly.
            Turning heel, she ran the other way, trying to put distance between herself and the angry shouting some way behind.

* * *

Mom watched the purple-haired cyclops make her way through the hallways and stairwells. On occasion, the young mutant woman would notice a security camera and blast it, but most of the electronic eyes remained intact.
            “Sweet mandrake on a pancake,” she muttered. “This girl’s insane! How’d she escape Ultima? And what the hell does she think she’ll accomplish by blasting her way through here?”
            As she watched, the surveillance feed showed Leela shooting the gun out of a security guard’s hand and throwing a water cooler at another before ducking into an elevator. When the elevator’s security override prevented it from moving, she shot a hole in the floor and dropped through to clamber down the cables.
            “She’s unstoppable,” Larry murmured nearby in reverent wonder as he gazed longingly at the screen, enraptured by the breathtaking warrior woman. Mom slapped him.
            “Shut your sinkhole!” she snapped. “Can’t anything just go right for a change? First we lose contact with the Brezhnev, and now this lunatic freak storms in here… and where the hell is Ultima anyway?”
            “You waste time fighting each other,” a voice said from across the room, and Mom cast the Nibblonian an angry glare.
            “I’m not fighting anyone!” she snapped.
            “Yeah!” Ignar seconded. Larry slapped him to silence.
            “The evil you have dredged back into existence will not be contained by any will,” Nibbler said from within his enclosure. “It is insatiable and relentless. It has already taken control of your research vessel and even now accelerates toward Earth.”
            “You’re well-informed,” Mom sneered, “for a rat in a glass cabinet.”
            “My people are in constant contact with me,” the little alien said. “They are observing. The return of the Brainspawn echoed across the cosmos like the howl of a thousand Greek men having their chests waxed. No good will come of your folly…”
            “Enough from you!” Mom snapped, sending Nibbler’s case back down on its hydraulic lift. Though she refused to acknowledge it, a small prickling of disquiet had taken up residence in the back of her mind.
            And it was growing.

* * *

Swinging out of the elevator shaft, Leela quickly ejected the spent battery from the handle of her laser pistol and slapped in the spare. It was the only one she had.
            After catching her breath for a moment, she moved on. The whole building seemed to be made of corridors. Corridors leading to corridors that connected to corridors that allowed access to corridors. A detached part of her mind applauded the career choice that had led her away from bland office buildings – Fry had been instrumental in that.
            Distracted as she was by that small reverie, she almost failed to notice the squad of tactical response troops in armoured exoskeletons that marched into view and lined her up in their railgun sights. Hypervelocity iron slugs tore the air asunder behind her as she ducked quickly through a doorway. She skidded to a stop, looking in horror through a wide glass partition into what looked like a large operating theatre.
            Strapped down to a cruciform table, shrouded by wires, and surrounded by scientists, was Fry. Immobile, pale…
            With a wordless cry of rage, Leela raked a blast of laser fire against the glass. It spiderwebbed, and she leaped at it, smashing through and landing amid the scientists in a shower of glass shards. She then began slamming the scientists out of her path in a brutal fashion.
            “Get away from him!” she shouted, kicking one man in the stomach. “Leave him alone!” The scientists scattered in terror, and Leela leaned over the prostrate form. Fry’s eyelids fluttered, but he remained still, breathing slowly.
            “Fry?” she said anxiously, gingerly pulling electrodes and fluid drips off his skin. “Can you hear me?”
            “…Walkin’ on sunshine…” Fry mumbled in his drugged sleep.
            “Come on, we have to get out of here,” she said urgently, unlatching the clamps that held his wrists.
            “Leela…” Fry said groggily, opening one eye. He grinned in a dopey doped-up fashion. “…I love you,” he mumbled.
            “Yeah sure, I love you too,” Leela muttered quickly, glancing around for the reinforcements that were surely on their way.
            “You asked me… to look after… Nibbler,” Fry muttered, gesturing with a floppy arm. “I tried to…”
            Leela looked where he pointed, and saw Nibbler watching them from a cylindrical enclosure.
            “What the hell is going on?!” she said.
            “Difficult question to answer, you little skank,” a harsh voice snapped across the room, and Leela spun around to see Mom, with Larry, Ignar, and a group of security guards in tow. Larry smiled shyly at Leela and waved.
            “Maybe you should ask your stupid friend there,” Mom said, “or your little pet – they might be more willing to talk to you.”
            Leela pointed her gun at the group and positioned herself between them and Fry.
            “Fry?” she said.
            “You let her walk away…” Fry sung Milli Vanilli, still under the influence of whatever drug had been used on him. “Now it just don't feel the same…Gotta blame it on something… Gotta blame it on something… Blame it on the brain… brain…
            “Rain,” Leela corrected absently.
            “Nope,” Fry mumbled. “Brain. Brainspawn. They’ve got one… or it’s got them, hard to say…” He slowly sat up, and abruptly fell off the table in a heap.
            “What are you talking about?” Leela prompted without taking her eyes off Mom.
            “Don’t really know,” Fry said, climbing unsteadily to his feet. “Can’t… remember exactly. You look real pretty today.”
            “Fry, find some clothes and get Nibbler,” Leela said.
            “How far do you really think you’ll get?” Mom said. “The idiot and the Nibblonian know things; secrets I want to glean. And I will have them, one way or the other. There’s nowhere you can run where I won’t find you, on this world or any other, so why don’t you just cut the crap and drop your little peashooter?”
            Leela gritted her teeth.

* * *

The Planet Express ship held station some five hundred feet from Momcorp’s corporate headquarters, hovering on antigravs. Robot 1-X Ultima made a few quick passes before circling more slowly, probing the battered old cargo vessel with full active scanners.
            When it ascertained there were no life signs aboard the ship, it turned and blasted off toward the building, where sensors detected its proximity. A semi-sentient security program acknowledged Ultima’s clearance but queried the fully-online status of the robot’s weapons systems.
            When Ultima ignored the building AI’s prompts to take its weapons offline, the coarse groping of targeting scans passed across the war drone.
            Ultima responded as basic programming dictated, by classing the whole building as a hostile target. It launched a salvo of electronic warfare artillery, multiple shells that detonated broad spectrum electromagnetic pulses and unleased a torrent of Trojan worm clusters. The devastating wave of overloads and corruptions washed through every electronic component in half of New New York.
            Countless blocks of the city suddenly blacked out.
            Darting ahead on its ion thrusters, Ultima crashed into the now-dark building in search of its primary target.

* * *

Fry had pulled on a shirt and tracksuit pants that were stored in an alcove beneath the cruciform surgical table, and then finally figured out a way to open Nibbler’s enclosure – the little alien scampered out gratefully, running up Fry’s arm to perch on his shoulder.
            “Listen to me,” Mom said, stepping forward. Leela tightened her grip on the gun… and suddenly they were all plunged into blackness.
            Total darkness reigned and the distant crump of explosions sent small shudders through the floor. Nibbler made a confused chirping noise. The sounds of puzzlement and annoyance issued from Mom and her cronies, and Leela realized the unexpected advantage that had presented itself.
            Closing her eye and focusing on her hearing alone, she took two running steps and whipped the grip of her pistol into someone’s temple, then shot out her leg, feeling the satisfying crunch of a nose compacting against her boot heel. Spinning about, she struck down two more unseen figures in the dark, listening for their harsh breathing and the monosyllabic orders and queries they grunted at each other.
            “Gun’s not working!” One of them shouted in terror. “Some kind of electronic warfare…” his words were cut off by Leela’s fist.
            Fry listened to the brutality in the impenetrable gloom, wondering idly if he should help, when red lights suddenly flickered on, casting the room in a hellish hue. The emergency system finally came online just as Leela dropped the last guard on his head.
            Mom looked with bewilderment at her incapacitated fighting force, including Larry and Ignar, sprawled on the floor, and then at Leela who stood nearby with a slight sheen of perspiration on her forehead.
            “Great galloping Jesus!” she said. “Girl, you should come work for me.”
            “No chance,” Leela grunted. “Come on, Fry – let’s go.”
            “No!” Mom reached into dangerous territory in the front of her jumpsuit and pulled out a small primitive pistol, which she brought to bear on Leela. Leela reacted instinctively, and fired her laser gun at the world’s richest, most powerful industrialist.
            Or would have, if it had worked. The laser was completely dead.
            “Electronics can be annoying bastards,” Mom remarked as Leela discarded the now-useless weapon. “Sometimes the simple things can be far superior – take this for example.” She waggled the little handgun. “Walther PPK, automatic pistol. It’s remained virtually unchanged since 1931. Spring-loaded slide mechanism – a hammer strikes against a chemical explosive, which propels…”
            “Adolf Hitler killed himself with one,” Leela interrupted irritably, and Mom frowned in consternation – she hadn’t been aware of that, and it irked her to be shown up by the cyclops.
            “Mother…” Larry said from the floor. “This… situation is getting out of our control. Perhaps we should just cut our losses and…”
            “Shut up!” Mom snapped, keeping her eyes on Leela. The two women stared each other down for long moments. There was something indefinable lurking in the younger woman’s single eye – the kind of grim determination that could make mountains politely step aside, and oceans part obligingly down the middle. Mom found she had a great deal of respect for the cyclops; Leela was the kind of person she herself had once aspired to become, before the cynical world dragged her in a different direction altogether. If only she had been as strong as this one…
            Leela saw the hesitancy in Mom’s eyes and knew she wouldn’t shoot. She beckoned to Fry, and the orange-haired delivery boy joined her.
            “We’re leaving,” Leela said quietly, as a closer explosion rocked the walls.
            “You have to come visit us next time!” Fry giggled cheerfully at Mom as he and Leela moved past. “We can have tea and cake, and I’ll strap you to an operating table and prod you for a while – it’ll be ever so much fun!”
They left the room, and Mom looked at the gun in her hand, wondering why she hadn’t shot the intolerable fools.
            “Find out what’s happening,” she said to Larry at last, her voice hollow and distant. “Find out what’s attacking us.”

* * *

When the lights went out in the cell, Zoidberg heard Bender fall to the floor with a noise not unlike a trashcan being toppled onto the pavement. It was a sound that made Zoidberg hungry, though the inept doctor was unfamiliar with Pavlovian conditioning, and he chalked it up to a lack of essential minerals in the cockroaches he’d been consuming.
            “Robut friend?” he said in the darkness.
            There was no reply.
            Zoidberg clacked his claws nervously. “Bender, are you all right?” he probed.
            Still no reply.
            Shuffling forward blindly, his feet bumped into a cylinder of metal on the floor. Bender lay prone, silent and motionless.
            “This isn’t funny!” Zoidberg moaned, bending down to shake the robot. “Wake up! I don’t know how to perform CPR!”
            Abruptly, red emergency lights sputtered on, bathing the cell in a crimson glow that made Zoidberg’s carapace almost invisible. Bender twitched suddenly and sat bolt upright.
            His system was recovering from a serious error resulting from resonant EM backwash, so he performed a scan-disc before reloading his human mode, with language and primary tasks;
            1: Bend.
            2: Cheese it!
            “Whoa!” he said, finally returning to his senses. “What the hell?”
            “Are you unharmed, tin man?” Zoidberg asked. “For a moment I thought I would have to perform an emergency ink-pouchectomy.”
            “That was an EMP!” Bender said, pushing the lobster away. “Completely knocked me offline. Did someone let off a nuke nearby?”
            “No…” Zoidberg looked embarrassed. “I just get flatulent when I’m under stress.”
            Bender looked past the crustacean at the cell door, which was slightly ajar, its magnetic lock having malfunctioned in the EMP. Bender walked over and pushed the door, which swung all the way open.
            “Amazing!” Zoidberg gasped. “We’re free! How did you do that?”
            “I’m just magnificent,” Bender answered. “Now come on, fishstick, let’s find Fry and get the hell out of this place.” They cautiously slipped out of the cell and made their way down the corridor, flinching as the building shook around them.
            At length they came upon an area that had been completely demolished, with the ceiling and floor blasted away to expose other levels above and below. Flaming debris were scattered everywhere, and a number of bloodied bodies could be seen.
            “Looks like X-Mas came early this year,” Bender remarked, reaching down to casually remove the wallet from one of the corpses. “Definitely a robot did this – no human could have.”
            Two running figures emerged suddenly from a side corridor, and Zoidberg scampered whooping to hide behind Bender. They turned out to be Fry and Leela, who skidded to a halt when they saw the two others.
            “You guys!” Fry said in surprise. “I totally forgot about you.”
            “You totally…?” Bender narrowed his eyes in a furious glare. “Why-you-little…!” He darted forward and clasped his hands around Fry’s throat, strangling him.

            “Ugh,” Leela sighed. “When you two are done imitating a related franchise, we need to find a way out of here.”
            “Perhaps we should ask this robut for directions,” Zoidberg offered, pointing to Robot 1-X Ultima as it flew into the ruined room. “Hello!” he called, waving to the war drone.
            “Oh no!” Leela gasped, catching sight of the battered killbot. “Not again!?”
            “Cheese it!” Bender shouted, releasing Fry’s throat.
            Ultima fixed on the group of targets, and immediately noted the presence of the primary in their midst. With a surge of relish, it targeted Turanga Leela with a large-calibre phaser. The kill was assured – easy. The objective would be fulfilled.
            At that thought, Ultima hesitated.
            The objective was the final cognizant purpose left to Ultima. If it succeeded in that purpose then there would be no further goal for it to strive toward. No objective equalled no purpose, and what was existence without purpose?
Existence was comprised of an aim. A goal. A direction. A function to serve.
            With the target eliminated, it would have none.
            That fractured facet of Ultima’s shattered mind warred brutally with the overriding drive to complete the mission. The mission had to be completed – completion WAS the purpose. But the mission comprised Ultima’s being – completion meant finality, an end. An end to the mission would mean an end to Ultima.
            The robot twitched in the air, wracked by its own internal contradictions that played out for endless microseconds. That traitorous self-preserving portion of its mind lifted the targeting crosshairs of the phaser cannon an inch above the top of the primary target’s head, and then fired.
            The beam turned a line of air incandescent as oxygen molecules were annihilated. Leela screamed involuntarily when a chunk of her hair sizzled away in a small fireball. While a large section of the wall behind her disappeared.
            “Run!” she screamed, ushering the others toward a stairwell.
            Ultima tracked the running figures with glee – as long as the primary remained alive, she could be chased, and as long as Ultima chased her there would be purpose. It opened up a salvo of high-explosive shells from its twin gatling guns, firing just behind the fleeing humanoids and into the ceiling above the stairwell. As they disappeared inside, the ceiling collapsed in a cloud of smoke and dust.
            This was purpose. This was life. The thrill of the hunt.
            From a side entrance, Mom stormed into the demolished area with her sons and a full deployment of armoured shock troops.
            “Turd on a taco!” she exclaimed in horror upon seeing the destruction. She looked up at Ultima, hanging poised in the air. “Ultima, what the frag are you doing?”
            The robot regarded her for a moment, before bringing its smoking weapon pods up.
            “Omigod! Omigod!” Ignar whimpered.
            The troops spread out, aiming their positron rifles at the drone and awaiting command to fire. The more experienced among them knew they didn’t stand a chance against a full military android.
            “Ultima, I command you to shut down immediately!” Mom barked. “You have failed in your objective and the mission is now over.”
            Ultima wobbled on its own axis as if weighing up Mom’s words, and then casually raked the soldiers with multiple atom lasers. They burst into flames and crumbled to the floor with very short screams.
            Among them was Ignar.
            Mom screamed in anguish and fury as her youngest smouldered into ash. It was the second son she had lost in twenty-four hours. Larry forcibly dragged her back away from the danger as Ultima blasted through the floor and descended into the hole.

Chapter 7: Burning the midnight rubber.

An avalanche of dust, smoke, and crumbling masonry came crashing around them as they stumbled down the stairs. The explosions had blocked off the top of the stairwell, but that wouldn’t keep the enemy robot at bay for long. They headed quickly downstairs, circling around the central shaft as debris continued to fall from above.
            “I thought I killed that thing,” Leela coughed, trying to blink grit from her eye.
            “Oh,” Fry puffed. “A friend of yours, huh?”
            Leela keyed her wrist thingy, but found it was dead – knocked offline by the same EMP that had taken out the building’s grid and all the unhardened weapons systems. She was unable to recall the Planet Express ship, and supposed it was probably embedded in the pavement somewhere. She grimaced gingerly at that notion.
            “That was a 1-X series robot,” Bender remarked. “Even though it’s trying to kill us, I can’t help but love it.”
            “That’s because of your compatibility programming,” Leela said absently. “In any case, love it or not, it must be part of whatever’s going on – it’s been after me since Mars…”
            “Maybe it thinks you’re hot,” Fry suggested, still a little giddy from the drugs. “It has good taste.”
            Leela smiled despite herself. “This is serious Fry.”
            “More serious than any of you know,” Nibbler added gravely in his deep resonant voice.
            Leela nodded in agreement, and they all continued onward down the stairs for some long silent moments. Slowly, as awareness dawned, they all came to a stop on a dimly-lit landing. One by one, each of them turned slowly to look at Nibbler, still perched on Fry’s shoulder.
            “Uh…” Fry looked sidelong at the little creature.
            “…Nibbler?” Leela said hesitantly, looking quite pale. “…Did… did you just… s…speak… sweetie?”
            Nibbler regarded her levelly.
            “Affirmative,” he affirmed.

            The four friends gasped in amazement, while Nibbler appeared to roll his three eyes impatiently.
            Leela, most of all, seemed lost for words. She gaped in bewilderment at the little alien she had thought of as nothing more than a cuddly animal.
            “Those scientist geeks must have done something to the critter,” Bender decided, narrowing his eye shutters. “Made him smarter somehow.”
            “I was always this smart!” Nibbler said testily. “There will be answers in due course, but time is short – for now, if you all value your lives, you will keep moving!”
            “That’s the first thing that’s made sense all day,” Fry said, casting a final glance at the alien on his shoulder. “Come on everyone.” He set off again down the stairs, his bare feet padding on the concrete. The others followed at length, Leela in a dazed state.
            “I have no idea what’s happening,” she moaned, her sense of reality finally dissipating after the horrific and exhausting day she’d suffered through. A sentient, communicative Nibbler was the last straw – she slumped her shoulders and settled into a weary fugue. “Nothing makes any sense…” she mumbled.
            “Baby,” Fry said, “welcome to my world.”
            After a seemingly endless descent, the group finally made its way down to the ground floor, emerging in the lobby…
            …where they came up against a phalanx of killbots arrayed before them. The armoured robots swung around in their direction as one, targeting the group of humanoids.
            “Well, we’re boned,” Bender said, as the combat automatons brought their razor-sharp blades and large-calibre carbines to bear on the Planet Express crew. “They’re full military ‘droids – hardened against EMPs. Plus they’re so big and macho…”
            “Halt immediately or select preferred method of execution from interactive menu!” the lead robot bellowed.
            “Uh… Nibbler?” Fry whispered cautiously to the creature on his shoulder.
            “Wait,” Nibbler said.
            “But they’re…”
            “Just wait.” The little alien glanced upward expectantly.
            The red and blue strobe of police lights could be seen outside the plate glass doors of the building, the gaudy illuminated cordon of civil authority that was more than content to wait outside and let Momcorp deal with its own problems in-house.
            “Even if we could get past them,” Zoidberg said quietly, “the police wait outside, they do.”
            Fry took in the scene, and the worm of an idea crept into his mind. He glanced toward the corridor leading to the left. All they needed was a distraction…
            “Guys…” he said, “when I move, you all follow me.”
            “Because following you has really worked in our favour lately?” Bender remarked snidely.
            “Just trust me on this,” he said.
            “I trust you,” Leela said, taking his hand. They smiled at each other, and looked back to the killbots advancing slowly on them. Suddenly there was a crackling sound from above as the concrete ceiling rippled and broke, sending large chunks of masonry crashing down around the killbots. Abruptly, an incandescent fireball exploded downward as a section of the ceiling collapsed, and through the smoking gap Ultima flew down, all its weapons up and ready to fire.
            The security killbots took a microsecond to identify the newcomer as one of their own, and another microsecond to realize that, although they were on the same side, the battered 1-X military prototype seemed to be targeting them. Confusion about that gave Ultima the scant micro-moments it needed to deliver the first blow, unleashing a swarm of tiny high-yield magnetite missiles from stores inside its torso.
            The foyer was suddenly filled with fire and light, and an unending roar. As the killbots returned fire with purple particle blasts, Ultima descended into their ranks, forcing them to fire through each other. The fray turned brutal, with blades, claws, and guns flying in all directions. Chunks of eviscerated android sailed through the air as Ultima tore into his less-advanced ancestors.
            “Come on!” Fry yelled above the chaotic din. He ran along the side of the room, ducking to avoid a disembodied robot head that sailed in his direction. Angling off, he darted down the side corridor, away from the main entrance and the deadly battle going on behind. He skidded around a corner and ran into Mom’s exhibit of historical artefacts.
            “Wooopwoopwoopwoopwoop!” Zoidberg cried, running in, just a little bit on fire.
            “Why the hell’d you bring us here?” Bender demanded. “You wanna die surrounded by crummy old crap from your stupid precious twentieth century?”
            Fry shot Bender a nasty look, and pointed to the Mustang that took pride of place on a central dais. The old car sat low to the ground, looking mean and hard even after a thousand years. Light played across its curves.
            “Nice,” Leela nodded in appreciation. “But will it even work?”
            “It’s the best chance we’ve got,” Fry said, stepping up to the driver’s door and pulling it open. He found the keys were they had lain undiscovered for a millennia tucked on top of the sun visor, and tried them in the ignition. There was no response.
            “EMP probably knocked out the solenoid,” Bender said distantly, scratching at a scuff mark on his chest.
            “Do you know how to fix it?” Fry asked hopefully.
            “Sure, I could probably use my magnetic personality to degauss the unit, but not for free – I got a business to run here people.”
            “Bender! We’ll all be killed if we don’t get out of here soon!” Leela said in exasperation.
            “Alright, alright – I’ll bill you later.” Bender stepped around to the front of the car and Fry popped the hood, allowing Bender to reach inside the engine well.
            After a few resonant jolts from Bender’s fingers, he closed the hood, wiping grime from his hands.
            “Okay homes, try it now, eh gringo!” he called, having inexplicably adopted a strong Latin-American accent and a grease rag protruding from his chest compartment.
            Fry turned the key in the ignition, and the big 6.4 litre V-8 turned over once, coughed, and died. He tried again, and this time, the engine burbled for a few moments before stalling quietly.
            “Wow, you twentieth century folk really knew how to build,” Bender remarked dismissively in his normal voice, turning around to leave.
            Fry glared. He pumped the throttle once, and then turned the key one more time. The Mustang coughed, backfired, shook, and then roared as Fry applied more throttle. Finally attaining a stable idle, it sat rumbling, a low burble like sound of a distant avalanche growing ever-closer.
            “Everyone, get in,” Fry said, adjusting the rear mirror. “Time for some old-school escaping – Steve McQueen style!”
            The others climbed into the car (Bender complaining about lack of legroom in the rear), and Nibbler took up a position near the gearshift. Leela sat on the passenger side and cast Fry a questioning look.
            “Fry, you remember last time you drove a car?” she asked carefully.
            “I’m not gonna run into another robot,” Fry said defensively. He put the Mustang into drive and gunned the engine. With a squeal of tyres the old muscle car shot off its dais and launched through the wide display window in a shower of glass. It slammed down hard on antique suspension and Fry cut a hard turn to angle away from the strobing police lights.
            Suddenly, with a tremendous clang, an object struck the hood of the car, the impact causing the old tape deck to spring into life with a classic Jimi Hendrix track. Fry screamed and slammed on the brakes, sending Ultima bouncing away.
            “You hit that robot,” Leela noted.
            “The paintwork…” Fry lamented. He planted his foot again and shot off away down the street, and a number of police vehicles lifted off to pursue.
            Ultima had vanished.
            As Jimi sang ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Fry steered through deserted early-morning streets with reckless abandon, fishtailing wildly with the big-block V8’s tremendous power.

            “There must be some kinda way outta here, said the joker to the thief…”
            Red and blue flashed in the rear view mirror, and a formation of hovering police bikes came into view, gaining on the ancient wheeled vehicle.
            “We’ve got company,” Fry said grimly.
            “You just concentrate on the road and leave the fuzz to me,” Bender said, reaching out his own window and across Zoidberg to the other side of the car. With a sound like spooling cable, his arms extended out from the car on either side to a distance of nearly twelve feet, and when the first pair of police hoverbikes draw level to flank the car he whipped them backward, slamming both riders from their seats.
            “Way to go, Bender!” Leela said as the riderless bikes crashed and burnt.
            “Ha!” Zoidberg warbled, staring out the rear window. “Take that, you oppressive purveyors of justice and order! Pah!”
            Fry gritted his teeth as three more police hoverbikes descended into position behind the car, and a booming amplified voice cut through the air, demanding they stop. He drove past Madison Cube Garden at high speed, mounting a gutter to cut a corner and barrel into a side street. He was instinctively heading toward the Eastern shore of Manhattan Island and the sanctuary of Planet Express.
            “Fry, we can’t,” Leela said, noting his direction. “That’s the first place they’ll look for us.”
            “But…” Fry looked suddenly lost. “Where else can we go?”
            “LEFT!” Nibbler shouted suddenly. Fry turned hard over, and the car tipped up on two wheels as it screamed around a corner and passed beneath a low bridge between buildings. The three patrol bikes banked to follow, and all slammed violently into the bridge.
            “Nice!” Bender said, pulling his arms back in.
            “Fry, I know where we can go,” Leela said quietly. And she told him.
            Several minutes later, and with a scrape of the front spoiler, Fry drove the Mustang down into a concrete drainage canal and sped along its length. The grate of a large stormwater pipe became visible at the end, but Fry didn’t slow.
            The car crashed through the grate and vanished into the darkness of the sewers…

* * *

Onespawn grew.
            Deep inside the SS Brezhnev, the mutating Brainspawn used its nanites to gradually consume mass from the ship around it, constantly increasing its size and thought power. Nanomachine-derived mechanisms shifted entire decks aside to make room for the expanding mass of alien pseudoflesh.
            When it expanded beyond the constraints of the cryogenic unit its neural links had thawed, allowing the all-too familiar screech of sentient minds to impinge on its newly-discovered solitude, bombarding it with their inane mutterings. But now, using its newfound abilities, Onespawn was able to shut off that part of its mind, consciously silencing all of the encroaching brainwaves except those it chose to intercept.
            Though the Brezhnev’s dark matter drives were still non-operational, Onespawn would soon rectify the problem, using the new tools at its disposal. One-by-one, the humans onboard the ship had fallen to the nanotechnological infection – a virus of Onespawn’s own design – which worked at their cells and DNA, eventually making puppets of them. Puppets that could serve the string-puller.
            It could travel much faster on its own, but there were still technologies and material onboard that could be put to use. Most intriguing to Onespawn was the apparatus that had opened the wormhole through which Onespawn itself had returned to the Universe.
            That would require further study.
            Absently, Onespawn extended its stupidification field at will, and watched the captive humans onboard through the ship’s surveillance system – still not fully subsumed, they began laughing and falling over. The Brainspawn retracted its field, and the humans went quietly back to their programmed tasks.
            Such ridiculous creatures.
            With a Brown Dwarf star directly ahead, Onespawn began to plot a slingshot trajectory when it suddenly detected small objects arrayed at the limit of sensor range, around eighty million miles out. Focusing its attention on the shapes, Onespawn applied gravitronic ‘Gradar’ scans, and emitted a silent snarl at the return result.
            They were Nibblonian ships – holding station at a safe distance. Watching. Waiting.
            Onespawn briefly considered opening a channel to taunt the creatures, but dismissed such an act as pointless. Let the rodents believe they remained unseen; for in time, Onespawn would have the power to swat them from existence.

* * *

Ogden Wernstrom, or the last conscious part of the being that used to be Ogden Wernstrom, railed bitterly at himself for his own stupidity. If only he had realized earlier that the insidious nanomachines had penetrated the suit and infected his flesh. By the time the itching had turned to burning, and the truth became readily apparent, Wernstrom’s vocal and motor functions were no longer his own. Detachedly, he had to admire the skill with which the nanites had been re-engineered to piggyback the body’s neural network so effectively.
            Now he writhed silently, watching through his own eyes as his body moved to some alien will. After he’d been forced to brush nano-spores onto each of the other crew members, he’d been sent off to work on restoring power to the dark matter drives.
            He could feel the presence of the Brainspawn resonating in his mind – changes wrought by the nanites tuning him directly into its terrifying alien thoughts, completely and irrevocably. And not only that… whenever his body passed in front of reflective surfaces he noted a pallid, pinkish-grey sheen had spread across his skin, with strange new lines that seemed to worm around beneath the surface. His hair was falling out, and his cranium had expanded…
            That he and the rest of the crew were being changed into something… else… was savagely obvious. But any attempt he made to wrest control of himself away from the Brainspawn’s influence was met with intense agony.
            And so he toiled, unable even to cry out.
            It wasn’t the way he wanted to end a distinguished career of scientific progress – unleashing a deadly horror upon the Universe, and being consumed by it.
            Most of all, he regretted missing the chance to see Hubert Farnsworth die.

Chapter 8: Pressed between the pages of my mind…

With the members of Planet Express that could be accounted for (being himself, the Professor, Amy, and the janitor whose name he couldn’t recall) present around the conference table, Hermes undertook the sad duty of informing them of Fry’s death by apparent suicide.
            “…And so,” he said in closing, “once again we farewell another of our crew, may he rest in eternal unpaid leave.” Hermes set Fry’s time card alight, and the team watched it burn in silent shock.
            “How could this happen?” Amy sobbed at length. “He was always so full of life…” The young intern buried her face in her hands and cried.
            “That boy was like a son to Scruffy,” Scruffy said, laying a comforting hand on Amy’s shoulder. “Best we remember all the good times we had – like when Fry and Potsie were desperate to join the best frat on campus, but first they had to survive the initiation rites… Me and the Fonz tried to talk them out of it, but they stayed on…”
            “Balderdash!” the Professor snapped suddenly, surging to his feet with a painful-sounding crunch of ancient joints.
            “Professor?” Hermes said.
            “I’ve had enough of this claptrap and bunkum!” the old man said, shuffling away slowly. “Something’s not right here, and I’m going to find out what! What time of death is listed on that coroner’s report?”
            “Uh…” Hermes consulted the sheet of paper. “Ten thirty-four AM, yesterday,” he said.
            “Ha!” The Professor touched a wall panel and the giant projection screen illuminated after a series of static flickers (the city was still recovering from the unexplained blackouts and electronic malfunctions from the night before). Manipulating the controls, Farnsworth brought up the building’s surveillance camera system and backtracked to the previous morning. Eventually, he froze the image on a shot of Fry and Bender walking into the room to see Farnsworth.
            “There!” the Professor said triumphantly. “They came to borrow a gun from me! I remember it clearly, just like I remember everything!”
            “What about it?” Hermes asked.
            “What about what?” Farnsworth looked suddenly confused, glancing around the room as though unsure what he was doing there. He looked at the projection screen in a bewildered daze.
            Amy stood up slowly, her eyes fixed on the screen. “The time,” she said, pointing. Hermes and Scruffy looked, and noted the time logged on the surveillance feed was 11:15 AM.”
            “Sweet Stork of Ankh-Morpork, it says he was here after he died,” Hermes said uncertainly, and then reasoned: “Of course… it could just be human error.”
            “Human error didn’t make Leela, Bender, and Doctor Zoidberg disappear off the face of the Earth and the entire city black out,” Amy said.
            “Ms. Wong is right,” Farnsworth said. “There are too many coincidental coincidences for all this to be a coincidence.”
            “Second,” Scruffy seconded.
            “So… Fry is really alive?” Hermes asked in a dazed state.
            “Looks that way,” Amy said.
            “Ooohhh Sweet Cockrell of Rivendell!” Hermes cried, slumping face-down on the desk in anguish.
            “What’s wrong?” Amy asked in confusion. “Aren’t you happy?”
            “No!” the bureaucrat shouted. “I already submitted his death notice, mon! I’ll have to make an amendment through the central bureaucracy to reinstate him as a living person – I’ll look like a damn sexy fool! …Unless…” He stopped and looked up with a smile creeping across his face. “I could always just leave him officially dead, register him as a legal zombie, and lower his pay to a post-mortem rate… yessss, that could work in our favour…”
            “Dead man workin’,” Scruffy muttered quietly.
            “Shouldn’t we be trying to find out what’s happened to Fry and the others?” Amy said.
            “Oh, I’m sure an answer will come calling sooner or later,” Hermes said.
            At that moment, the building’s intercom buzzed, and the wall screen changed to show an external view of the entrance door, where a group of figures waited. One of them was instantly recognisable.
            “Sweet Zombie Jesus,” Farnsworth muttered, cringing. “What the hell does she want?”
            Mom glared impatiently up at the security camera.

* * *

Eventually the stormwater pipe had opened out onto the mouldering ruins of Old New York, the ancient city lying dank and shadowed beneath the supporting plate of the upper metropolis. Driving out of the drainage ditch, Fry gunned the V8 along eerily familiar streets as weird misshapen creatures skittered off into the darkness on either side.
            “Well,” Bender said, at last breaking the long silence. “That was a whole lotta fun – do we know what the hell it was about yet?”
            Leela stared down at Nibbler where he sat next to the gear shift.
            “Nibbler?” she said hesitantly.
            “Leela,” the creature acknowledged, blinking three sets of eyes at her.
            “All this time,” she said in a horrified kind of wonder. “You were pretending to be… just an animal.”
            “I am an animal,” Nibbler reasoned stoically.
            “But you’re intelligent!” Leela snapped in exasperation. “I mean, my God! All the secrets I told you when I thought you couldn’t understand… I got undressed in front of you!”
            “…Lucky,” Fry muttered, steering down a side street and noting the low fuel gauge.
            “It’s not funny,” Leela complained. “Nibbler, you deceived us all!”
            “For that, I apologise,” Nibbler said, inclining his head sincerely. “However the importance of my mission necessitated subterfuge – the stakes were far too high for…”
            “What?” Fry interrupted suddenly. “What mission? What stakes? I feel like I almost remember, but it’s just out of reach, like that itchy thing growing between my shoulder-blades that I can’t get at… Tell me what’s going on!”
            “Your memory has, again by necessity, been blanked,” Nibbler told him. “And Leela’s was similarly affected, although by a different source. I shall now restore your memories – prepare yourselves.”
            Fry slowed the car to a stop and turned it off. He noticed they were close to that same place where, on the day he first met her, Leela had removed her own career chip, and an intimate moment had passed between them. Silence descended, and he looked across at her questioningly.
            “Could be a nasty can of worms,” he said. “You sure you want to open it?”
            Leela snorted. “I’ve already been blown up several times since yesterday,” she replied. “I think the can is well and truly open.”
            “Where are the worms?!” Zoidberg asked hungrily from the back seat, and Bender cuffed him.
            Leela held out her hand to Fry. “Ready?” she asked.
            “Heck no,” Fry said, taking her hand. “So how do we…?”

            Nibbler’s third eye resonated suddenly with esoteric energies. Calling it telepathy would be like calling a thermonuclear reaction ‘a little bit warm’. Brutally, like the deadly unfurling razor-sharp petals on the Venusian Slasher Flower, memories assaulted the minds of Fry and Leela, while Bender and Zoidberg too felt some of the psionic backwash.
            Images cascaded…
            The Brainspawn’s first attack on humanity. Leela remembered travelling to Nibbler’s homeworld, and the desperate, last-chance gambit that saw Fry defeating the menace and saving the world…
            Fry remembered the final showdown when he, as the Mighty One, infiltrated the Brainspawn Infosphere where he finally learned the truth of how and why he was brought to the future, and then banished the Brainspawn from the Universe forever…
“…No return,” he murmured, slowly recovering from the memory onslaught. “You said we’d sent them to a dimension of no return – but they’re coming back, aren’t they? That’s what this is about, isn’t it? The nightmare’s returning.”
            Nibbler nodded gravely. “Certain parties opened a way, and now our best-laid plans lie in tatters.”
            “What the hell happened?” Bender said, shaking his head in confusion. “I just remembered flying brains and me acting like an idiot for some reason.”
            “Oh good,” Zoidberg said. “I thought it was just me.” He then lost interest and began gnawing on the upholstery.
            Fry restarted the car and drove onward, deep in thought. The fuel gauge was well into the red before Leela finally came out of her reverie and glanced at Fry in quiet wonder.
            “Fry,” she said quietly. “You saved the whole world.”
            “The Universe too,” he said with offhand nonchalance. He turned into a cracked, litter-strewn driveway even as the engine began to splutter thirstily. “Looks like it might have been for nothing,” he added, switching off the Mustang.
            “Tell me everything,” Leela said. “I want to know.”
            “Let’s go inside first,” Fry said.
            They all climbed out of the car and walked inside the dilapidated ruin of the old Fry homestead.

* * *

As Onespawn observed the Nibblonian fleet at the extremity of sensor range, it redoubled efforts to gain full control of the ship’s systems. Brezhnev possessed a range of armaments, from argon lasers to railguns and kinetic missiles – all fitted by Momcorp for ‘self defence’ purposes. At the same time, the Brainspawn continued to adapt itself, boosting its own mental capacity further and strengthening internal membrane structures within its increasingly massive form.
            Onespawn could not be certain when it had first became aware of the resonance – it was like white noise at first, an imperceptible background hum that slipped around consciousness and built slowly in the recesses of thought. Gradually, the sense of intrinsic vibration had become stronger, and Onespawn realized it originated from within itself – exotic, indefinable molecules phasing in and out of existence, which had never been present before.
            The strange quantum flux gave Onespawn pause for thought as the Brezhnev passed through a fiery nebula. It was almost as if some strange force was acting against the changes Onespawn was making within itself, attempting to snap back like fourth-dimensional elastic.
            While the creature sent one of its sub-minds off to investigate that phenomenon, its main attention turned back to the Nibblonian fleet, which had begun to approach in waves…

* * *

The Nibblonian race had described Philip J. Fry as a child of destiny – the long-prophesised ‘Mighty One’ destined to forever end the threat of the Brainspawn. Fry himself was born in the 20th Century, an age before the time was ripe for the final confrontation, and the unique circumstanced through which the paradox of his self-genesis could be played out.
            For Fry to serve the function of the Mighty One, for him to even become the Mighty One by becoming his own grandfather, Fry had to be preserved for the future. It was for that reason Nibbler lured him into the cryogenic module; and for a thousand years he slept, watched over by the Nibblonians who arranged a beautiful one-eyed guardian to be there for him when he awoke.
            Fry told the tale of the Brainspawn’s defeat, Nibbler occasionally interrupting with a new fact or clarification. He described his daring raid on the Infosphere (for no one else had borne witness to that) and the detonation of the quantum interface bomb.
            Leela and Bender listened closely to the convoluted story of Fry’s life while Zoidberg foraged in the kitchen for fossilized tins of ancient baked beans. They sat on the crumbling thousand-year-old remains of the Fry family’s lounge setting.
            “It’s amazing,” Leela said when Fry had finished. “Almost too much to wrap my mind around…”
            “So the world’s stupidest chump is the only one who can save us all?” Bender said. “Well I feel a whole lot better.”
            “What’s it going to be?” Fry asked Nibbler, ignoring the robot. “Another quantity interweb bomb?”
            “I fear that option is now a dead end,” Nibbler said, sounding worried. “Since one Brainspawn has now returned, the path has been opened and soon the rest will learn how to make the journey.”
            “Wait… you mean there’s only one of them here now?” Leela raised one half of her single eyebrow. “That doesn’t seem like such a big threat.”
            “It is no longer an ordinary Brainspawn,” Nibbler said sternly. “For the first time, a single member of the species has become separated from the collective, and that means it will put aside long-held attachments to the sanctity of Brainspawn organic purity in the interest of preserving itself as an independent entity.”
            Fry, Leela, and Bender stared blankly at the little creature.
            Nibbler thought for a moment, and simplified: “Because it is alone, cut off from the rest of its kind, it will now begin to change itself into something more powerful and deadly than the Universe has ever seen. A true monster without precedent.”
            “And that’s bad…?” Fry glanced around at the others for confirmation, and then nodded. “Right. Bad.”
            “Badder than a thousand gallons of sun-ripened mayonnaise,” Nibbler said. And not only for the obvious reasons.” He looked uncomfortable.
            “What do you mean?” Leela pressed.
            “Although your science has not yet achieved full realization of it, the creation of this Universe was, in effect, a ‘Mass-Inversion Event’,” Nibbler said. “In basic terms, it was a point at which spontaneous quantum field collapse produced an equal and opposite reflection of all that existed beforehand. And under normal circumstances, at the birth of a Universe, all that should have existed is nothingness, and that nothingness would then have been inverted into somethingness – that is, the physical Universe.”
            “That did happen,” Leela said.
            “Yes,” Nibbler nodded. “But something else happened as well – because my people, the Nibblonian race, actually existed before the dawn of the Universe…”
            “Oh sweet Colonel Sanders!” Fry exclaimed in realization. “The Nibblonians were inverted as well! You mean to tell me that…?”
            “Yes,” Nibbler said sadly.
            “…The Brainspawn are…?”
            “Yes,” Nibbler said again.
            “The Brainspawn are actually Nibblonians!?”
            “Our dark reflection,” Nibbler said. “Or perhaps it is we are a retro-active preflection of them. In any case, they are our equal and opposite, spawned spontaneously in the Big Bang as the inverse reaction to our presence before the dawn of time.”
            “Then all along,” Leela said, “you and your people… you’ve been fighting against yourselves.”
            Nibbler picked up a splintered piece of floorboard and waddled to a dirty section of floor where he began to scrawl a rough diagram in the dust. As Fry and the others moved over to watch, he continued:
            “Both the Nibblonian and the Brainspawn races, being one and the same and sharing a unique bond with the fabric of the Universe from the time of the Big Bang, are tied inexorably to the fabric of spacetime, and to each other.” He drew a line of arrows from a picture of a Nibblonian, through a stylized ‘big bang’ explosion and on to a Brainspawn and an amorphous ‘common garden-variety Universe’.
            “Cool pictures,” Fry commented.
            “Thank you,” Nibbler said. He then scrawled a secondary line off to one side and drew a rough stylized picture of a spiky-haired person, which he labelled as ‘temporal paradox’.

            “That’s Fry,” Bender said helpfully.
            “Affirmative,” Nibbler said. “The Mighty One is the only other being that shares the same connection to the fabric of the Universe as the Nibblonians and the Brainspawn, due to the fact that his is his own Grandfather and so in essence results from a similar spontaneous self-manifestation.”
            Fry coughed uncomfortably and Leela looked away.
            “…As such,” Nibbler went on, “the three facets, being the Mighty One, the Nibblonians, and the Brainspawn, represent an Existential Trinity – inexorably tied to one another and to the Universe.”
            “Wow,” Bender said. “I’ve never been less interested in anything in my life…”
            “What does all that actually mean?” Leela said uncomfortably.
            Nibbler paused and scratched under his chin with a hind leg. “My own people and the Brainspawn were present, and an intrinsic part of the Universe’s dawn,” he said. “And as such we are in and of ourselves active reflections of each other… so if one facet of the whole brings about an alteration of its state, then that change will be felt by the other facets – including the Mighty One who now shares our manifest nature.”
            “Of course…” Fry said, and then shook his head. “No wait, the other thing – huh!?”
            Nibbler sighed. “The changes the returned Brainspawn is making within itself will be reflected in the Nibblonians, and in you yourself. Behold – it has begun already…” Nibbler lifted up his cape to show his dark furred back. A mottled discolouration marred the alien’s flesh, purple and grey, like scar tissue or some kind of fungal infection. It seemed to writhe imperceptibly.
            The others gasped in horror.
            “Yeeesh!” Fry exclaimed. “That’s happening to you just because one Brainspawn is evolving?”
            Nibbler concealed the cosmic stigma with his cape again. “Affirmative,” he said. “The two races are connected – that is why neither has ever attempted to destroy the other – for to destroy one side, the other would perish also.”
            “You mean you… your people have allowed the Brainspawn to continue to exist down through the ages… because if you wiped them out then you too would be obliterated?” Leela asked.
            Nibbler inclined his head with a sense of shame. “The quantum interface bomb was a means by which the threat could have been eliminated without actually killing the Brainspawn race… but alas…”
            “All those civilizations… destroyed,” Fry said.
            “What has passed is past,” Nibbler said. “Now these alterations are reflected within us, the ultimate consequence of which is impossible to say… we may die, or become slaves.”
“And it’s going to happen to me too!?” Fry asked, suddenly mortified. “Just because of the… past… nastification?”
            Nibbler made a vague gesture at Fry’s torso, and the Mighty One gingerly lifted up his shirt to expose his stomach.
            “…So it is,” he murmured, staring at the mottled stain across his flesh. “That wasn’t there a few hours ago… how fast will it spread?”
            “Impossible to say,” Nibbler replied. “But if this new Brainspawn continues its adaptation, unpleasantness is certain to ensue.”
            Leela knelt by Fry, inspecting the stigma that marked his pale skin.
            “We can treat this,” she said with a touch of panic in her voice. “Trial some different antibiotics, nanites… parasite worms… on both of you…”
            “The affliction is not medical in nature,” Nibbler told her softly. “What ails us is an echo of force reverberating through fourth-dimensional spacetime – no medicine will sever the ties that bind us.”
            “There has to be something!” Leela looked at Fry desperately, and Fry found himself taken aback by the emotion in her eye.
            “Maybe the Professor will know what to do,” Bender offered, and for once sounded genuinely concerned.
            “I already know what to do,” Nibbler said in a low tone that was almost a growl. “Although a great sacrifice will have to be made…”
            “Sacrifice? We could sacrifice Zoidberg,” Bender said. Fry and Leela nodded in eager agreement.
            “Did someone want me?” Zoidberg asked, poking his head into the room.
            Outside, the low drone of antigravity engines became audible, and the Planet Express comrades moved to an empty window frame to look out on the dreary ruined city. Half a mile away, small flying objects could be seen trawling slowly back and fourth, with searchlights scanning the ground below them.
            “Patrol drones,” Leela said. “They must have tracked us down here.”
            “Then we have to move,” Fry said. “The car’s outta juice, so we’ll be hoofing it.”
            “But to where?” Bender asked. “We can’t be running around down here forever – the Universe is in peril and my collection of vintage pornography will eventually fall into unworthy hands.”
            “I know who can help us return to the surface unseen,” Leela said. “Come on.”

            Together they left the house and jogged quietly away into the gloom.

Chapter 9: A Night at the Space Opera

The first wave of Nibblonian saucer-shaped ‘Cuddle Bug’ ships soared across the bow of the Brezhnev, deploying scores of kinetic harpoons from their centreline munitions dispensers. Great rends appeared in the hull of the monolithic research vessel as the projectiles impacted at relativistic velocities and converted to hard radiation, spewing geysers of billowing gas and superheated plasma out into the void.

            The onslaught continued, and Brezhnev shuddered beneath the monumental impacts, losing thousands of cubic tons of its mass in a matter of seconds.
            Deep inside the battered ship, Onespawn responded by expanding its stupidification field, and suddenly the first wave attackers began to veer randomly off-course as their Nibblonian pilots became afflicted by sudden stupidity. They slammed into the hull of the massive Brezhnev, and into each other; they fired salvos of missiles at their own ships; and many attempted to land on a nearby sun.
            The second and third waves of Nibblonian attackers held back at standoff range, unwilling to enter the idiocy zone that surrounded the SS Brezhnev. Instead they deployed long-range weapons – powerful Phased-Antimatter-Array missiles and near-lightspeed coilguns that fired love-heart shaped iron slugs across the void and into the subverted research cruiser’s flanks.
            Onespawn ignored the peppering coilgun strikes and instead focused on intercepting the PAA missiles that streaked toward the ship. Long-unused weapons systems, now finally under the Brainspawn’s control, deployed smoothly from recesses in the massive ship’s hull, swinging around to draw bead on the approaching projectiles.
            Space outside became an incandescent maelstrom of warring energies, as the Brezhnev’s argon lasers stabbed across the void and struck the PAA missiles one by one. They detonated in starbursts of exotic radiation, purple and red, any one of which could have caused mass-extinctions on an inhabited world.
            The Nibblonian fleet was buffeted by the blasts from their own weapon systems exploding. Onboard the command vessel, the presiding leader of the Nibblonian people issued rapid commands and reviewed incoming data.
            “All Cuddle Bug squadrons deploy to defensive perimeter formation codename snuggle-fluff,” Ken said. “Engage attack scenario Alpha-Bravo-Pookums!” He nearly lost his footing as a burst of projectiles from the Brezhnev’s railguns slammed into the ship.
            All of the Nibblonians on the pink cushioned bridge worked with grim determination, acutely aware of the consequence of failure. Many of them displayed visible marks of cosmic stigma, including Ken himself whose entire left arm was covered by the dark affliction.
            It was spreading too…
            Suddenly the comm. screen activated with random amorphous coloured shapes, and a booming voice echoed through the audio system.
            “So you’ve resorted at last to an open display of force?” the Brainspawn said disdainfully across the communication band. “No longer hiding behind feeble forlorn theology and the red jacket of your dim-witted Messiah?”
            Ken bared his fangs in an angry snarl. “Your machinations cannot be allowed to continue,” he said. “Every change you make within yourself destabilizes the Universe further and edges both our races toward final and utter obliteration!”
            “You’ve mistaken me for an entity to whom such concerns warrant even a moment’s consideration,” Onespawn replied. “I am no longer Brainspawn – I am Onespawn, and I will be the death of you all.”
            The communication link terminated.
            It was bravado, Onespawn knew. Though the Brezhnev’s armaments might hold up for a while, augmented by Onespawn’s psionic attack, the Nibblonian forces were technologically superior and would eventually obliterate the larger vessel.
            There had to be some other avenue…
            In desperation, Onespawn looked to the weird quantum flux that it had detected within itself. The Nibblonian commander’s words began to make some vague sense as the exotic resonance continued.
            Tentatively, Onespawn applied psionic energy to the fluxing quantum particles, and in response an inconceivable ripple of unreality radiated outward from the Brainspawn. Space and time seemed to buckle briefly in agony.
            Screams filled the communication waves, and Ken, the Nibblonian leader appeared on a viewscreen near Onespawn’s temporal lobe.
            “What are you doing?” the little alien bellowed. “You can’t do that! The fabric of the Universe…”
            “Silence,” Onespawn said. Again, the creature applied energy to the quantum structure inside itself, only stronger this time. Reality bucked and writhed as the wave rippled outward, swamping the Nibblonian fleet.
            Though the Universe snapped back into shape (albeit somewhat overstretched and threadbare in places), the Nibblonians in the immediate vicinity, with their intrinsic ties to the fabric of spacetime, were no more…
            Their pastel-coloured ships hung silently in the void, empty of all life.
            And the Brezhnev lumbered onward toward Earth, unopposed.

* * *

As Leela led the way slowly through the pungent stench of the New New York sewer system, Fry and Nibbler suddenly cried out in searing pain and fell together to the damp slimy ground.
            “Oh… Jeez!” Fry moaned as every molecule of his being seemed to whiplash in spastic agitation. “Knew I… shouldn’t have eaten… that mushroom…”
            “No…” Nibbler growled. “Not this… not yet…!”
            “What? What’s happening to you?” Leela pushed past Bender and Zoidberg to crouch beside the two writhing figures. She placed a hand on Fry’s shoulder and then drew back sharply when a crack of static electricity burnt her fingers. She gasped in alarm when both Fry and Nibbler seemed to vanish briefly, and then flicker in and out of existence like a poorly-tuned television.
            The strange attack ceased, and the two of them solidified once more and slowly got to their feet.
            “Whoa,” Fry said. “Did everything just taste incredibly painful?”
            “What happened?” Leela asked. “It looked like you were fading away into nothingness.”
            “Fin fungus can do that,” Zoidberg offered.
            Fry looked down at Nibbler for some explanation, and the little alien appeared worried almost to the point of panic.
            “Too soon,” he said to himself. “It’s progressing too quickly…”
            “It was the Brainspawn?” Fry asked.
            “Using its connection to spacetime as a weapon, affirmative,” Nibbler said. “The Universe just took a tremendous beating, and several thousand of my people met their end. The enemy now understands the power it wields, and the cosmos will tremble at its might…”
            Fry wiped his nose absently, no longer listening, and noticed the dark stain of stigma forming on his wrist. He hurriedly lowered his hand before Leela noticed.
            “Come on,” he said. “Let’s keep moving.”
            Leela picked up Nibbler and led the way onward through the tunnel systems, which eventually opened out onto a ramshackle subterranean village beneath the city’s surface. Accumulated deitrus had been drawn together and piled into haphazard structures, arranged around the fetid drainage canals and central mutagenic lake. Thin shafts of sunlight filtered down from grilles and ducts in the plate above, penetrating the gloomy murk below.
            They’d reached the settlement of the sewer mutants.
            At first, the eyes and sensor stalks of the various mutated humanoids observed the outsiders from a distance, lurking in shadow. Then a lone voice called out:
            “It’s Leela!”
            From the darkness, scores of mutant children with extra limbs and misshapen bodies rushed out to cluster around Leela, making delighted whooping, hissing, and squawking sounds.
            “Leela! Leela! Tell us stories of the Surface!”
            “Are you here to free us from the sewers?”
            “What does the sun look like?”
            “Miss Leela, Is it true that you can grant wishes?”
            Leela appeared taken aback, and tried to move past the youngsters, but they continued to mob her, so she awkwardly attempted to answer their questions and smiled uncertainly at their enthusiasm.
            Fry and the others skirted the little gathering and watched in bemusement from one side as Leela was forced to sit, holding two of the smaller children in her arms. The almost maternalistic scene evoked some odd yearning in Fry that he couldn’t quite place, and he found himself thinking back to the time between unrecallable times when he had been briefly married to her…
            “Fascinating,” Nibbler remarked from the ground.
            From somewhere behind them appeared a mutant with two noses and a forehead like a cliff face.
            “Your friend Leela has become something of a legend to many in our community since we learned who she is,” Dwayne said, startling Fry, Bender, and Zoidberg, who had been watching Leela and her fans.
            “Yeah, they do seem to love her,” Fry said.
            “She is the only mutant to have ever escaped the sewers and made a life for herself on the Surface,” Dwayne explained. “They see her as beacon of hope and salvation – not unlike the Christ of our ancient myths. Through her, many hope we will one day ascend to the upper world and claim our place among the Surface-dwellers…”
            “Fat chance buddy,” Bender muttered, striking a match on Dwayne’s massive forehead and lighting a cigar. “Folk as ugly as you belong where folk as beautiful as me don’t have to see ‘em.”
            Dwayne glared. “Beauty is a matter of perspective,” he retorted indignantly. “Perhaps to us it is you who appear ugly.”
            “Nope,” Bender replied. “I don’t have two noses, weirdo.”
            “He’s right Dwayne,” Vyolet snorted, the reptilian female appearing alongside Dwayne with a cigarette jutting from the corner of her mouth. “Accept it, we’re hideous.” She blew a cloud of smoke from her gills, and Dwayne looked crestfallen.
            Turanga Morris and Munda made their way forward, and Leela gently excised herself from the press of mutant children to run to them. Arms and tentacles encircled her warmly as she embraced her parents.
            “Mom, Dad,” she said. “It’s so good to see you.”

            “Why of course it’s good to see you too, sweetheart,” Munda said, cupping Leela’s face between her tentacles.
            “Yeah, but why the sudden unexpected visit?” Morris added. “Is something wrong?”
            “You like you’ve been hit by a garbage skip,” Munda said. “Still beautiful of course, but… are you bleeding?”
            Leela glanced down at her grimy, beaten appearance. There were numerous abrasions she’d sustained in the past twenty-four hours that she hadn’t even noticed yet. She looked across to Fry where he stood with the others, and he gave her a helpless shrug.
            “It’s… a long story,” she told her parents.
            “It always is,” Munda replied with patient understanding. “Why don’t you and your friends come on home and get yourselves cleaned up.”
            As the group made their way along the rickety gangways of Mutant Town, Zoidberg was stopped by the Supreme Mutant, a man with an extra arm growing out the side of his head.
            “My Lord,” Raoul said in horror as he stared at the Doctor. “You poor unfortunate being…”
            Zoidberg made a confused gurgle in the back of his throat and blinked at the mutant.
            “You are the most horribly mutated person I’ve ever seen,” Raoul went on. “Even more disgusting than him.” He pointed at a mutant that appeared to be comprised of a single leg with a face on it.
            “Aww…” Zoidberg scuttled dejectedly away after the others.

* * *

The Professor and his employees were sequestered on the hangar floor while Mom’s security personnel scoured Planet Express headquarters. They sat in a circle, covered by a squad of armed men. The corporate Matriarch herself stood nearby with Larry and waited. At length, one of the task leaders hurried up to her.
            “We’ve completed a full search of the compound,” he reported. “No sign of the Mighty One or the Nibblonian – they aren’t here.”
            “Right…” Mom glared at Professor Farnsworth. “Where are they?” she demanded.
            Farnsworth got to his feet and adjusted his glasses. “More to the point,” he said distractedly, “where am I?”
            “Chiu cheng!” Amy muttered in frustration.
            Mom prodded Farnsworth in the chest with a bony finger. “Listen stud, if you think your sex appeal will get you out of this, you’re sorely mistaken,” she said. “I want Fry and that little three-eyed creature – tell me where they are before I get really mad!”
            “I should have known you were behind this!” Farnsworth snapped, passing back into lucidity. “You conniving seductive harpy! What kind of evil scheme are you trying to enact?”

            “Mind your own cod-sniffing business!” Mom said, turning her back on Farnsworth.
            Larry snapped shut his handheld communicator and leaned close to Mom. “We’re still unable to contact the Brezhnev,” he said quietly. “I think the Nibblonian may have been telling the truth.”
            Mom nodded tiredly. “These fools don’t know anything,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at Farnsworth and his deadbeat friends. “But still – Hubert’s expertise could come in handy if we’re really facing a threat. We need to be able to contain this as quickly as possible.”
            “What about the quantum interface weapon?” Larry asked. “Or the stupidification ray?”
            “Idiot!” She slapped him. “You think we can still make money from this!? My building is half demolished, my two favourite sons are dead, and we may well have unleashed a force of death and destruction upon the damned Galaxy – the best we can hope for is that we come out of this without being blamed!”
            Larry rubbed his cheek, looking forlorn. “So what now?” he said.
            “Gather up Farnsworth and his morons,” Mom said. “We can’t find Fry and his racoon so we’ll just have to confront the damn brain thing ourselves. Make sure Hubert has full access to our data files.”
            “Full access?” Larry repeated incredulously. “But… not even I have that level of…”
            “Shut up!” Mom snarled.
            As the security personnel prodded the Professor and the others toward the doors, Hermes Conrad held out a sheaf of papers toward Mom.
            “This is da standard kidnapping and ransom statement to be lodged with the central bureaucracy in the event you intend to hold us unlawfully for any given period of time,” he said. “The forms must be submitted with at least three weeks’ notice, and…”
            Mom pulled out her PPK and put three bullets through the papers, causing Hermes to drop them in fright.
            “…Sweet Jaguar of Dagobah,” he said weakly. “…Discharging of a firearm on company property… I have to submit an incident report…”
            “Scruffy’s gotta find Scruffy a new job,” Scruffy muttered to himself as a security grunt pushed him out through the hangar door. “Somethin’ less excitin’, where folk remembers yer name…”
            “Move it!” Larry snapped.
            Farnsworth, Hermes, Amy, and Scruffy, were all led into a waiting shuttlecraft that was boarded by Mom and her henchmen. It lifted off and blasted away into the morning sky.


Chapter 10: A Sewer Too Far

The air beneath the city’s supporting plate was stagnant, hanging in heavy unmoving strata, so the distinct chemical trail of a fossil fuel-powered internal combustion vehicle was simple enough to track. Robot 1-X Ultima found the abandoned Ford Mustang well before the other security drones got to it, and observed it for a moment, parked in front of a ruined house.
            There was nobody around. The only infrared signatures were too small to be humanoid. Arbitrarily, Ultima selected a cluster bomb from its weapons carousel and launched it. The house and car were instantly engulfed in a blanket of fire, disintegrating into spinning flaming fragments.
            Leave the enemy no ground to go to…
Ultima’s particle filters detected pheromone traces, and after a few quick scans a trail of footprints could be seen. One set wore boots (the primary target’s size), another was barefoot, the third were circular robot feet, and the fourth were sandals of some kind.
            Ultima set off in the direction they had gone.

* * *

Even amid the dank putrid squalor of the sewer slums, the Turanga cottage managed to maintain a sense of homely comfort and security. Even the omnipresent stench seemed lessened within its haphazard walls.
            Leela explained the situation to her parents as best she could, keeping to the important facts while skirting around concepts that she herself had little understanding of. For their part, Morris and Munda did their best to keep up, despite the gaps in comprehension that resulted from a life lived in the dark underground caverns. They sat on their mouldy sofa while Leela recounted the tale.
            The basic points got through: Universe in peril from an evil alien threat, and Fry the only one who could defeat it, with an evil corporation hot in his trail to divine some esoteric secrets.
            “What a fascinating story…” Munda said with uncertainty, glancing at Nibbler who sat on the floor licking himself.
            “You do believe me, right?” Leela asked.
            “Of course we do, dear,” Munda replied. “Why, after some of the other adventures you’ve had, this one seems almost mundane.”
            Morris laughed heartily. “I’ll go see if your boyfriend needs anything else,” he said, climbing to his feet.
            “Dad!” Leela protested, reddening slightly. “You know he isn’t my boyfriend…”
            “Oh sure honey,” Munda chuckled. “That’s what you tell us.”
            Leela pulled a helpless face and slumped down beside her mother, who coiled a protective tentacle around her shoulders.
            In the adjoining room Fry finished lacing up a pair of worn out old sneakers. Walking through the sewers barefoot had left a disconcerting assortment of cuts on the soles of his feet – and even Fry was dubious about open wounds being immersed in sewer sludge.
            “They fit okay?” Morris asked upon entering the room.
            “They’re great,” Fry said. “Thanks for letting me borrow them.”
            “Oh, don’t mention it,” Morris said, and Fry tried not to stare at his vertically-oriented mouth. Morris might have been smiling, but it was difficult to tell. “Can’t have the saviour of the Universe tromping around with no shoes,” he added, casting a glance at Bender and Zoidberg who appeared to be arm-wrestling in one corner.
            Fry grunted uncomfortably. “So, Leela told you guys everything?” he asked.
            “There abouts, what parts of it we could understand.” Morris turned serious. “Take a walk with me, Philip,” he said.
            Compliantly, Fry followed Morris out of the house and up one of the boardwalks. Wanting to impress Leela’s father, he made an effort not to slouch and politely refrained from screwing his nose up at the pervasive stink. After a few moments silence, Morris produced a large hip flask and passed it to Fry, who nearly choked after taking a swig.
            “Distilled right here in Mutant Town,” Morris said with a chuckle, taking back the flask. “Over ninety percent alcohol by volume, and the extra ten percent you probably don’t want to know about.”
            “It’s… very lively,” Fry rasped, trying to swallow the fire that seemed to be burning a line down his throat.
            “This situation you’re in,” Morris said abruptly, “I want to know what kind of danger you’re leading my Leela into.”
            Fry was silent for a moment as the two of them walked side-by-side, carefully measuring his response. “I don’t know what I’m walking into,” he admitted finally. “But I do know that I didn’t start this thing, and I’m not leading Leela anywhere – she’s with me because she chose to be. I would give anything for her to be safe at home, but you try telling her that…”
            Morris nodded. “I see,” he said evenly.
            “I’m not sure you do, sir,” Fry said. “Leela and I are friends, and we’ve stood by each other through a lot of ups and downs – we’ve been to the very brink of doom and back again, and we’ve always done it together, because together we’re stronger than we are alone.”
            Morris suddenly clapped a hand on Fry’s back, almost making him stumble into the mutagenic canal.
            “I admire your honesty, Philip,” he said, pausing to look up at a grille set in the cavern ceiling hundreds of feet above. “I won’t pretend I like the idea of my Leela getting involved in some cosmic war, but I suppose you’re right – she’s been living her own life up to now and she knows how to look after herself. I just want you to promise me…”
            “You don’t even have to say it,” Fry said. “I’d die before I ever let anything hurt Leela.” He paused for a moment, and added: “Of course, she’s the one who usually ends up saving me, but my sentiment remains valid!”
            “Heh heh,” Morris chuckled. “You really have it bad for her, don’t you lad?”
            “Huhh… what?” Fry made a show of looking confused. “I… I don’t know what you mean.”
            “Hey, it’s fine,” Morris said. “She could do a lot worse… like him for example.” He pointed at the leg-mutant standing across the canal, who sighed and hopped away.
            “Ahh,” Fry shrugged and looked uncomfortably at the ground. “She’s not interested in me,” he said with a dejected edge to his voice. “I couldn’t even finish her opera. She deserves someone who can provide for her; someone successful who knows how to use chopsticks and doesn’t wipe his mouth on expensive tapestries at stupid rich parties…”
            “Maybe just someone who loves her would suffice?” Morris offered.
            Fry stared at Morris, and the mutant shrugged.
            “She finds it difficult to trust,” he went on, “in people or in feelings, and I suppose that’s partly our fault. The way she grew up, never having anyone to depend upon but herself… and then you came along, defrosted into her life and suddenly she had friends, people who loved her, a family. She’s afraid to change anything because she thinks she might lose it all. But she needs you more than she lets on, and cares about you more than she’ll admit… In truth, you’re really all that her mother and I ever hear about. Just be patient with her.”
            “Why are you telling me this?” Fry asked stupidly.
“Munda and I are quite fond of you, Philip,” Morris explained. “You reunited us with our daughter… prevented her from killing us, and as you said – you’ve been a dear friend to her. What I mean to say is… you have our blessing.”
            Fry blinked in surprise. “I, uh…Thank you sir,” he managed at last, slightly stunned.     
            “Hey, if you do manage to break through that shell of hers you’ll… uh… play safe… won’t you?”
            Fry stared blankly for a moment, and then his eyes widened.
            “Oh God, of course!”
            “Right, because…”
            “That’s… I would always…”
            “…Just wanted to make sure…”
            “You don’t even need to…”
            “I mean, not that it’s any of my business…”
            They stared at each other in very awkward silence for a few long moments, and both were relieved when Raoul and Vyolet came running up to interrupt them.
            “A strange flying robot has been spotted in the Eastern tunnels,” the three-armed mutant leader said breathlessly. “Our perimeter foragers report that it looks like some kind of armed attacker – probably chasing Leela and her friends.” He cast a meaningful look at Fry, but Fry wasn’t ready to launch into any long-winded explanation; instead he returned Raoul’s stare evenly.
            “It’s after us,” he confirmed. “Don’t ask me why, just understand that we have to leave. Trust me.”
            Raoul glanced at Morris, who nodded almost imperceptibly, and then back to Fry.
            “Alright,” he said at last. “We will buy you time, as best we can. Go now.”
            “Thanks,” Fry said. He and Morris turned and sprinted back toward the Turanga house.
            Leela and her mother looked up in surprise when Fry and Morris burst in puffing and panting.
            “Robot… found us… coming… escape!” Fry gasped, trying to catch his breath.
            “It tracked us all the way down here!?” Leela exclaimed in disbelief, surging to her feet.
            “Ohhh, we’re boned!” Bender said, hopping around in fright. “That beautiful wonderful 1-X robot will kill us all!”
            “We’ll lead you out,” Morris said. “The rest of the mutants down here will do what they can, now hurry!”
            Together, they all rushed out of the house and off down the length of Mutant Town’s main ‘boulevard’, past Martin Luther Thing Junior High (repaired since the last time Fry and Leela had seen it) and Stenchy’s Café.
            Fry noticed many adult mutants marshalling with primitive weapons in hastily-assembled militia units on the banks of the lake and secreted on rooftops.
            “Wait, they’re gonna fight it?” he said in amazement.
            “Our people aren’t exactly pushovers,” Munda replied.
            “That’s right,” Morris said proudly. “Final Solution robots from the government’s Genetic Purity Bureau tried to exterminate us back in 2980, but we gave them what for! Man, those were the days…”
            “But this is different,” Leela said desperately. “The thing that’s after us is a full military droid – they can’t beat it with their sticks and stones! People will die!”
            “Hey! Don’t write these brave subterranean warriors off so easily, Leela,” Bender chided, and then in a low whisper added: “If they wanna kill themselves for us, I say we let ‘em…”
            “No!” Leela stopped, and Nibbler walked into the back of her left boot with a grunt and a muttered curse.
            “If they’re going to fight,” Leela said, “then I’ll fight with them.”
            “And if Leela fights, then so will I!” Fry added. “Of course… I won’t fight as well as she does, but it’s the thought that counts…”
            “I’ll be cheering for you both from several miles away,” Bender said enthusiastically.
            “Leela,” Munda said, laying a tentacle on her daughter’s hand. “Haven’t you and your friends got a more important task right now?”
            “Yes!” Nibbler snapped impatiently from the ground.
            Leela looked uncertain. “But…”
            “Sweetheart…” Morris pointed, and Leela looked: across the lake, in the worship cavern where once had stood an unexploded nuclear bomb, there was now a different religious icon standing on the great stone altar.
            It was a twelve-foot-tall statue of a one-eyed woman, with flowing hair and a determined stance.
            “You’ve given these people a gift,” Morris went on as Leela gaped in horrified astonishment at her own likeness. “The greatest gift that a subjugated people can ever receive – hope, an inspiration, a reason to keep going; to fight, to die… and to live.”
            “But this is wrong,” Leela whispered in shock.
            “I’ll say,” Bender added, casting a critical eye at the statue. “They left off all your cellulite.” Fry kicked him in the ass.
            Leela looked at her parents, aghast. “How could you let them do this?” she asked. “I’m not some messiah… I’m just me…” She pointed at Fry. “He saved the whole Universe, and nobody built a statue of him!”
            “We did, however, release a line of action figures,” Nibbler said quietly, and Fry looked at him in surprise.
            “Maybe it’s not so much about you, sweetie,” Munda told her daughter. “Maybe it’s about them, about what they need. Don’t take it away from them.”
            Leela gazed around, and noticed many of the mutant militia were looking back at her, with hope and adoration shining accusingly in their eyes. She inclined her head helplessly and groaned.
            “We need to leave Earth,” Nibbler said. “Where is your ship?”
            “Not sure,” Leela muttered. “After the EMP it would have crash-landed somewhere near the City centre.”
            “Then that’s our destination,” Morris said. “Come on.”
            Raoul, Vyolet, and Dwayne watched from a nearby rooftop as the Turangas and their weird friends disappeared into a side tunnel. Leela stopped once to look back at the underground settlement, and the mutants waved at her merrily. Then she too vanished.
            “Well, she’s safely away now,” Vyolet said, with a snort and a cloud of smoke. “And the young ones have been taken to the north cavern. When’s this badass robot gonna show up?”

            “You speak too soon, my dear,” Raoul said. “Behold!” The third arm on the side of his head lifted a notched and rust-pitted old talwar sword and pointed it at the other end of the cavern. There, a battered military droid had flown in through a side tunnel and now hovered, scanning back and fourth.
            “Doesn’t seem so dangerous,” Vyolet said, taking up a serrated spear. “The thing looks like it’s been through the fires of Hades – check out that battle damage.”
            “And yet it survives,” Dwayne noted quietly. “Let’s not underestimate it.”
            “Agreed,” said Raoul.
            Vyolet lifted a bugle fashioned from copper pipes and blew a single forlorn note that echoed across the cavern.
            The Battle of Mutant Town had begun.
            The few firearms possessed by the mutant militia were mostly ancient projectile weapons liberated from the ruins of Old New York, with a few low-grade lasers augmenting the meagre arsenal. All of them were employed simultaneously from rooftop sniping roosts, and Robot 1-X Ultima found itself suddenly buffeted by a hail of bullets and weak laser blasts.
            Ultima wheeled in the air, identifying multiple hostile targets amid the litter of sewer debris. As it prepared to fire on the guerrilla positions, a secondary detachment of attackers appeared on the cavern floor below and hurled (actually hurled, with their arms!) long spike-tipped objects at Ultima.
            The spears clattered harmlessly off the robot’s flanks, and Ultima targeted a group of mutant fighters on the edge of a glowing green canal, blasting them under a railgun deluge. The survivors scurried back to the relative safety of the shanties.
            Ultima fired its last salvo of loitering missiles that soared up into the air and they began circling above like birds of prey – waiting for a target to present itself. But the mutants were like ghosts – generations of hiding in the shadows had bred into them an ability to move unseen, coming and going like the wind and vanishing into dark forgotten places as quickly as they had appeared. Adding to the difficulty was the all-pervasive humidity and background radiation of the sewers that was degrading infrared returns.
            In frustration, Ultima fired a pair of phasers that reduced a row of houses to smouldering ashes.
            Movement from on high: Some mutant militia had scaled the ceiling of the cavern and were now toppling boulders from rickety catwalks above.
            Ultima darted left and right, dodging most of the falling rocks until one slammed into its head and bore it downwards toward the mutagenic lake. With a tremendous splash, the robot disappeared into the green murk.
            As ripples crossed the lake of toxic slime, mutants emerged slowly from their hidden positions and began to cheer. Raoul, Vyolet, and Dwayne looked on from their rooftop.
            “Too easy… that wasn’t enough to kill it,” Dwayne said in a worried voice. Then he shouted at the top of his lungs: “Stay concealed! It’s a ruse! The thing is playing possum so it can…”
            Ultima suddenly exploded upward out of the lake with guns firing, raking into the now-exposed ranks of mutant militia fighters with its lasers. The loitering missiles began to stab down, blowing mutant bodies apart even as they fled for cover.
            As Raoul watched his people being butchered, he gave a roar of fury and grabbed hold of a rope tied loosely nearby. With swords held in his two other hands, he swung out into the middle of the cavern, high above the lake, and flew headlong at the hovering robot. Hefting their own weapons, Dwayne and Vyolet took up the other two ropes and followed.
            Ultima found itself suddenly assaulted by three mutated figures swinging past and around it, and landing ineffectual blows against its flanks with blunt handheld weapons. Every time the robot turned to track one, another would strike at it; like annoying mosquitoes, the three enemies kept darting just out of reach.
            The damaged war drone retreated slightly to a standoff position where it might more easily pick off the swinging attackers.
            Raoul shouted: “Now!”
            As one, the three mutant friends let go of their ropes and fell together toward the lake. At the same moment, Ultima opened up with its twin gatling guns and Raoul cried out as an armour-piercing round burst through his abdomen in a messy explosion of gore. He and the others splashed down into the green lake and disappeared from view.
            From either side of the cavern, two huge old boilers were cut loose from their moorings and swung outward from the walls on roof cables. With ponderous inertia, the great rusty iron blocks closed the distance between each other. Ultima noticed the trap too late, and the two heavy boilers slammed together with the robot between them.
            The force of the impact was great enough to crack Ultima’s external casing and completely crush several servomotors. Sensor lenses were broken, another micropile ruptured, and a number of weapons systems were now inoperative. Coolant began leaking from the machine and it flew off wildly away from the dented boobytrap, unable to adjust its suddenly misaligned gyroscopes in time. It slammed down near the wide cistern entrance to the deep subterranean sub-sewer, rolled in the mud, and accidentally fired off a barrage of high-explosive flack shells when a short-circuit tripped the firing mechanism. A large section of roof collapsed down on Ultima, exposing the glare of daylight from the upper city.
            At the edge of the mutagenic lake, Dwayne and Vyolet pulled Raoul out of the murky slime between them. A dark red stain marred the surface of the green sludge.
            “D…did we g…get it?” Raoul stammered, clutching the bullet wound in his stomach.
            “Yeah sweetie, we got it,” Vyolet said, biting her green scaled lip. She exchanged a glance with Dwayne, who lowered his eyes. The large-calibre anti-aircraft round had done considerable damage, and the colour of the blood indicated liver-shot. They both knew what that meant.
            “That’s… good,” Raoul said weakly, as a slight spasm ran through his body. “I… think I’ll be okay… it doesn’t really hurt as much as…” He went limp, and the other two stared down at their dead leader in anguish.
            “No!” Vyolet sobbed. With a shaking hand, she gently closed Raoul’s eyelids. There was no jubilation now, as the mutants began to gather around.
            Suddenly, the sound of shifting masonry echoed across the cavern. The pile of rubble that had buried Ultima was now moving.
            “You must be joking?!” Vyolet exclaimed, wiping tears from her scaled cheeks.
            “It can’t still be alive…” Dwayne muttered. “Nothing’s that strong.”
            He was wrong. Boosted by a now-unsteady sputtering ion thruster, Ultima burst up from out of the debris and wobbled drunkenly, smoke wafting from rends in its armour.
            Beside Dwayne, the leg mutant mumbled something determined and heroic, but his words were garbled by the cutlass he held in his teeth.
            Suddenly, a deep rumble filled the cavern, which had nothing to do with Ultima, and the earth shook beneath the mutants’ feet.
            A terrible creature from the dark depths of the earth had been roused by the concussive explosions. Whether spawned by nature or by the corrupting toxic overflow of civilization was unknown. What was known was that it had a heart of sinister purpose, cloaked in shadow, and terror went before it. It was a demon of the ancient world.
            It was… El Chupanibre.

            Slowly, the creature rose up behind Ultima, clambering out of the sub-sewer and looming above, sinuous green flanks and hooked claws dripping with fetid water and luminescent algae.
            El Chupanibre let out a tremendous, earth-shaking roar, and Ultima turned to behold the new threat.
            “Fall back!” Dwayne shouted. He and Vyolet carried Raoul’s body as the surviving mutants fled the impending clash of titans.
            The beast from below flexed its huge talons and advanced.
            Ultima deployed its close-combat blades and moved in gleefully…


Chapter 11: Starship Bloopers

The dull crump of distant ordinance discharges faded gradually (mercifully) as Leela’s parents led the little group onwards through the confusing maze of pipes and tunnels. Leela looked back occasionally, uncertain and worried, and Fry tried to reassure her.
            “They know what they’re doing,” he said.
            Leela didn’t reply.
            Occasionally, Morris would stop to ascend a ladder up to a manhole cover, checking on their position and looking for the Planet Express ship. After the fifth or sixth time, he returned down with a vertical grin on his face.
            “It’s up there,” he said. “Sticking out the side of a Burger Queen, but it seems intact.”
            “Did you say ‘burger’?” Zoidberg salivated and ascended the ladder three rungs at a time.
            “Well, thanks muties,” Bender said. “I don’t care what anyone says – you guys are Homo Superior.” With that, he set off climbing after Zoidberg.
            “Yeah, thankyou for everything,” Fry said.
            “Don’t you mention it, Philip,” Munda said, kissing him on the cheek.
            “Remember what we talked about,” Morris added, shaking Fry’s hand.
            “I will sir.” Fry climbed up the ladder, leaving Leela alone with her parents. There was a long silence as Leela stared at them, her face a conflicted mass of warring emotions and unasked questions.
            “The other mutants,” she said quietly, “they believe I’m going to somehow liberate them from the sewers. Is that what you believe too?”
            Morris and Munda glanced at each other uncertainly.
            “Leela, you don’t have to do anything for us,” Morris said.
            “That’s right,” Munda added. “We’re already so proud of you…”
            “But you hope, don’t you?” Leela pressed. Her parents said nothing. “You deserve so much better than this, all of you… all of us,” she sighed. “If there was something I could do to bring about change,” she said, “then I would… but what? I’m just one person… I don’t know how…”
            “You just do whatever your heart tells you, Leela,” Munda said.
            Leela watched her parents for a long moment and finally came to a decision.
            “All right,” she said, nodding in affirmation. “When I return, I’ll find a way – things will change, I’ll see to it… somehow.”
            She hugged and kissed her parents, and they watched her disappear up through the manhole. Together, Morris and Munda shrank back into the shadows and vanished.
            Fry, Bender, and Zoidberg were peering cautiously around a street corner when Leela rejoined them.
            “What’s the hold-up?” she asked, following their gazes to where the Planet Express ship sat at an odd angle, lodged into the side of a fast-food restaurant. Hamburger patties and Freedom Fries had spilled out everywhere.
            “Fuzz,” Bender explained, pointing at the police holograms that marked off the area, and the patrol hovercar parked indiscreetly up the street.
            “Looks like they’re waiting for us,” Leela said in frustration. “Dammit – we won’t make it; we’d need time for Bender to get the ship running again.”
            “Hmm…” Zoidberg dragged his eyes away from the foodstuff spilled on the road and glanced back and fourth between his friends. His mind ticked over.
            “So we’re boned again?” Bender groused.
            “Maybe… we could hijack another ship from somewhere,” Leela said doubtfully.
            “No need, no need!” Zoidberg said with regal self-importance, stepping in front of the others with his claws on his hips. “The robut is needed to fix the ship, the cyclops female to fly it, and friend Fry must save the Universe for some reason – that leaves only me, brave Doctor Zoidberg to distract the police long enough for my dear friends to make good their escape!”
            “But you’ll be captured!” Fry argued.
            “No, wait,” Leela said. “They don’t want him – nobody does. They’d just let him go once they figure out we’re gone.”
            “Good plan,” Nibbler said distantly from Fry’s shoulder.
            “Zoidberg, are you sure about this?” Fry asked, taking the Decapodian by the shoulders.
            “Come now, Fry – you would do the same for me,” Zoidberg said.
            Fry stared blankly at him for a prolonged moment. “Yes,” he said woodenly, straight-faced. “Yes I would.”
            “Thank you, Zoidberg,” Leela said, giving the lobster an impatient push. “You’re a true friend. Goodbye.”
            “Don’t drop the soap!” Bender added.
            Zoidberg edged around the corner and glanced up the street to where the patrol car still sat in wait. “Alright,” he muttered. “Zoidberg away!”
            Smitty and URL watched through the window of their car as a red lobster waddled slowly across the street toward the crashed green spaceship. The alien paused to eat some of the uncooked hamburger patties off the road before continuing on.
            “Looks like something’s finally happening,” URL droned languidly. “Aww yeah.”
            “That’s one of the fugitives Momcorp tagged,” Smitty said, consulting his info screen. “Guess we’d better beat him until he tells us where his friends are.”
            “Time for some old-school abuse of power.” URL switched on the sirens and drove the hovercar forward.
            At the wail of klaxons, Zoidberg broke into a hasty scuttle, whooping in fright as he went racing away from the PE ship and down a side alley. Patrol car 718 followed and disappeared from sight.
            “That brave lobster,” Leela said. “Come on – now’s our chance!” Together, she and the others dashed across the street.
            With the ship’s electrical systems down, it took Bender’s strength to operate the manual release on the emergency access door. Then they were all inside, the ship dark and quiet, and the deck slanted at an awkward angle.
            “Bender,” Leela said. “Can you pull the same trick you did with the Mustang and get us operational?”
            Bender managed to shrug, despite the lack of mobile shoulders. “I guess,” he said. “Of course, this bird’s a lot more complicated than that gas-guzzling contraption.”
            “All I need are engines and manual control. We can repair the other systems once we’re away.”
            Bender narrowed his eye shutters. “Of course, we’re gonna have to talk about money,” he said.
            “How about I take off your head and stick it somewhere your arms can’t reach?” Leela replied automatically.
            “Alright, alright,” the robot growled, stomping away toward the engine room and muttering homicidally to himself.
            Leela and Fry made their way to the bridge, where Leela set about replacing burnt-out fuses in the control console. Nibbler hopped up onto the navigator’s station, and without anything else to do, began licking himself noisily.
            “It’s even worse than we feared,” Fry said from one side. “The coffee machine isn’t working.”
            “We’ll just have to rough-it,” Leela replied, sitting down in the command chair to wait for Bender to degauss the engine components. “Just out of curiosity, Fry, what did you talk about with my father?”
            “Uh…” Fry began to blush a deep pink. “Um… y’know… just guy stuff.”
            Leela stared at him fixedly.
            “Geopolitics,” Fry conjured at last. “We discussed geopolitics, as he and I both often do.”
            Leela sighed. “You don’t even know what that is, Fry.”
            “Sure I do,” Fry said confidently. “It’s like when mountains and gorges argue with one another.”
            Nibbler let out an expressive groan.
            “You don’t have to lie to me, Fry,” Leela said, turning her attention back to the console. “I know my parents have some strange ideas about you and I, but they’re just old romantics eager to see me settle down. Don’t take any notice of that stuff.”
            “Oh…” Fry looked at his feet dejectedly. “…Okay.”
            “I just can’t manage to convince them that we’re only friends.”
            “Huh. That must be annoying,” Fry muttered gloomily as he walked away.
            “It’s silly, don’t you think?” Leela glanced up from the console and looked around for Fry, but he’d left the bridge. “What’s his problem?” she wondered aloud.
            Nibbler groaned again, louder, and buried his face in his paws. Leela was about to comment when the ship shuddered suddenly and the lights flickered on and off. The low drone of power returned, and running displays on the control console gleamed.
            “Okay, we’re alive again,” Leela said, and then into the shipwide intercom: “Everyone strap yourselves in.”
            As the impulse thrusters came online, Leela backed the PE ship out of the ruined Burger Queen, dislodging rubble from the nose section. The little green freight ship hovered for a moment before Leela tilted it to a diagonal inclination, with its main engine nozzles pointing at the ground.
            With a tremendous blast of exotic energy, the Dark Matter engines flared into life, and the Universe shifted position around the stationary ship.
            Zoidberg, though being held down on the pavement by Smitty and URL, managed to twist his neck and watch the ship soaring off into the sky.
            “Go, my friends!” he warbled happily. “To freedom!”
            “Shut up, you slimeball!” Smitty snarled, whacking the lobster over the head with his lightsabre baton.
            “Damn,” URL droned, watching the ship grow smaller. “Looks like the fugitives pulled a fast one on us stupid cops. Ohh yeah.”
            Nearby, a manhole cover suddenly flew upward from the ground and clattered down right next to URL.
            “What the hell,” the robot cop muttered.
            From out of the manhole, an unrecognisable shape clambered on twisted limbs. The battered metal object was covered in deep claw marks and viscous green blood. With its ion thrusters no longer operative, Ultima had to drag itself along with its forelimbs.
            “Is that a robot?” Smitty said, looking at the blackened mass of twisted metal.
            “Maybe it used to be,” URL replied.
            Zoidberg looked on in silent terror.
            Ultima noted the Planet Express ship passing just out of visual range and surveyed the short list of systems that were still operational. Happily, the robot brought its fusion booster online and ignited it.
            A small thermonuclear explosion vaporized a section of road in incandescent white fury, sending Zoidberg and the two police officers tumbling head-over-heels through the air. Ultima shot upward in excited anticipation, following the PE ship’s vapour trail.
            Up, up… the Earth’s layers of atmosphere fell away one by one. The ionosphere was a brief crackle of static. Out into the void; satellites whizzed past. There, directly ahead: the Dark Matter drive, now ready to spool up to full power…
            Ultima tried firing lasers, and found they were all damaged. The gatling guns were jammed. All its missile reserves were spent. Railguns weren’t receiving power. The severely-damaged war drone turned in desperation to its antiphoton cannon, which had been out of alignment since the battle on Mars. Theoretically it might still fire, although the danger of blowback was great.
            Ultima took the risk, targeting the Planet Express ship’s engines. It fired, or tried to, and the particle accelerator mechanism in the antiphoton cannon bucked violently and promptly exploded. Ultima was thrown into an erratic spin, damaged components flying away from it in a great arc. The robot’s systems went offline briefly, and when it came back to consciousness the Planet Express ship was long gone, and it was falling slowly into a Lunar orbit.
            Undaunted, Ultima patiently set about devising a series of extensive self-repair protocols. It would wait. The target would return in time; the certainty of that fact burned bright in the robot’s fractured mind.
Turanga Leela would return, and the hunt would resume… in time.
            Ultima had all the time in the world.

* * *

Long hours passed after the prisoners were brought aboard Mom’s personal interstellar frigate (shaped, oddly, like her head) in High Earth Orbit. The Momship had departed the Sol system for destinations unknown, and Professor Farnsworth was taken away to review secret research data, leaving Hermes, Amy, and Scruffy to be shoved by henchmen into a holding cell.
            And so they waited, as the corporate matriarch’s ship’s engines thrummed endlessly. There were no windows, no way to tell where they were or how much time had passed; just the dull grey bulkhead stamped with the logo of Mom’s Friendly Holding Cell Company.
            The monotony was painful. Without a single scrap of reading material besides the labels on the cot blankets, all three of them were bored to death.
            Scruffy had had enough.
            It was time to take action.
            “So,” he grunted, leaning close to Amy, “how’s about you get nekkid fer us?”
            The elbow to his solar plexus had him wheezing on the floor for a full minute, after which he went and sat beside Hermes instead.
            “Folk was less uptight about their bodies back in the twenty-nine seventies,” he muttered grumpily. “Scruffy remembers those days – peace and free love…”
            A few decks up, Professor Farnsworth continued to read through volumes of detailed scientific reports, emitting occasional grunts of “Oh my…” and “…Fascinating.” He was learning everything that Ogden Wernstrom’s team had discovered from the Brainspawn.
            His attention was drawn inexorably to the section that described the role and nature of the ‘Mighty One’.
            “Sweet merciful Zombie Jesus on a dollar bill!” he said in alarm. “That idiot Fry is our only hope!?”
            Meanwhile, on the bridge, Mom paced the deck while Larry and the Helmsman looked on nervously.
            “How much further?” she snapped, glancing through the forward screen.
            “Impossible to say, ma’am,” the Helmsman replied. “We’re following the residual radiation trail from the point of last contact as best we can, but there’s no way to tell how far it’s gone… Although there is one thing…”
            “What?!” Mom rounded on the man, and he shrank back.
            “…It’s definitely headed back towards Earth,” he said.
            Mom looked out through the screen again, searching for the elusive research vessel. “We can’t let it get there,” she murmured.
            The door to the bridge whisked open and Professor Farnsworth shuffled in, glaring at everyone through his two inch thick glasses.
            “This is an outrage!” he bellowed. “You all should be ashamed of yourselves!”
            Mom put her hands on her hips and turned to meet his glare. “I don’t care if you disapprove of what we’ve done, you old fool,” she retorted. “Risks must be taken in the march of progress, everyone knows that.”
            “Progress?” Farnsworth repeated incredulously. “That’s how you justify giving me a cabin without a bathroom? It’s disgraceful! I had to relieve myself in an ashtray, dammit! It overflowed! I demand a stateroom with full amenities!”
            Mom groaned in irritation. “Have you reviewed the research data yet?” she asked, forcing some patience into her voice.
            “…The whuhh?” Farnsworth looked blank.
            Mom massaged her temples and ground her teeth. “The Brainspawn!” she hissed.
            “Don’t change the subject!” Farnsworth snapped. “We’re talking about the Brainspawn here, not your favourite shoe store – get with the program, dammit!” He shuffled past her and sat down in the ship’s command chair with an audible creak of ancient bones grinding against replacement joints.
            “And have you had any ideas?” Mom seethed.
            “Whuhh? Oh yes – Good News Everyone!” the Professor said. “I have devised a mechanism that can shield a person’s Delta brainwave, the wave that the creature feeds off, so that they can approach without the Brainspawn being aware.” He produced a dog-eared napkin covered in blotchy scrawlings and fed it into a nearby computer console; a scratchy hand-drawn electronics diagram appeared on the computer screen.
            “It looks like a helmet,” Larry observed, looking at the diagram with its circuits and valves.
            “A helmet? Oh my, yes,” Farnsworth said. “It won’t protect from the stupidification field if the Brainspawn becomes aware of the wearer through some other means and strengthens said field, but it should allow someone to get close, remaining relatively invisible to the creature.”
            “Excellent,” Mom said. “Have the ship’s matter synthesizer whip a few of them up.”
            “Do it yourself!” Farnsworth snapped angrily.
            “Uhh… ma’am?” the Helmsman said suddenly.
            “What?” Mom glared at the interruption.
            “Begging your pardon,” the man said, “but we’re picking up the ship on long-range scanners.”
            Everyone on the bridge stared at the forward screen. Ahead lay a starfield; a splatter pattern of light against black velvet. One distant point of light was tagged with a yellow box graphic as it moved across the stars.
            The SS Brezhnev had been found…

* * *

Leela piloted the Planet Express ship onward through deep space for some time before finally realizing she had absolutely no idea what their destination was. As Bender joined her and Nibbler on the bridge she shut down the Dark matter engine, leaving the ship to coast silently, and turned to the little three-eyed alien.
            “Where are we going?” she asked simply. “Where is this monster Brainspawn?”
            “We are not going to confront the creature yet,” Nibbler said. “We are not yet equipped to face the beast. Our destination now is the exact centre of the Universe.”
            “Your home planet?” Leela looked up as Fry entered, now wearing a replacement red jacket from his cabin. For some reason, he appeared subdued and downcast.
            “Affirmative,” Nibbler said. “We must travel hither to Eternium, that we may retrieve the one weapon powerful enough to end the threat of the Brainspawn once and for all.”
            “Is it a Holy Hand-Grenade?” Bender asked.
            “Even more powerful still,” Nibbler replied.
            “Okay,” Leela said, bringing a series of star-charts up on her console. “Whatever the weapon is, it’ll take us a long time to reach the centre of the Universe in this ship.”
            “Not necessarily.” Nibbler tapped on the nav-console he was using as a seat and brought up the same charts. “If we make use of sub-space spiderholes at these two locations…” He highlighted coordinates on the touch-screen. “…We should be able to cut the journey down from a decade to about a day.”
            “Spiderholes?” Fry asked in confusion. “Don’t you mean wormholes?”
            “No, these are made by planet-sized interdimensional spiders,” Nibbler replied. “There are no interdimensional worms.”

            Leela punched in the coordinates and re-lit the main drive. The ship lunged ahead on its new course, which took it away from any area of space that was detailed in the map database. They were shooting onward into the depths of uncharted territory.
            “‘…Here be monsters’,” Leela said to herself, engaging the autopilot, and the others stared at her. “It’s what mariners used to write,” she explained sheepishly, “on maps, when they reached the edge of what was known.”
            Fry grunted and stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. “That’s because people are always afraid of the unknown,” he said sulkily. “They prefer everything to be laid out, all simple and predictable. Taking a chance on something new would be too scary, so they just call it a monster and tell it they only like it as a friend…” He trailed off. Leela was staring at him with an unreadable expression.
            “Yeah, those ancient mariners can bite my shiny metal ass,” Bender said, completely missing the subtext.
            Fry turned away. “I’ll be in my hammock,” he said. “Wake me when your stupid Universe needs saving.” With that, he walked away, and Leela chewed her lip anxiously, wanting to say something, but unsure of what.
            The hiss and clunk of the bridge door opening and shutting seemed to echo with abrupt finality.
            “What’s Captain Yesterday’s problem?” Bender said.
            “…I am,” Leela replied guiltily.


Chapter 12: Nibbler on the Roof

The XC-105 Valkyrie tactical transport took up most of the deck of the Momship’s main hangar bay. A blunt delta shape encased in a black monoform exterior coating, it was the latest prototype of advanced stealth shuttle that Momcorp had been contracted to develop for the DOOP.
            A small team of security personnel and science analysts boarded the little craft, along with Hubert Farnsworth, Larry, and Mom herself (who had insisted on going along for the mission despite the protests of Farnsworth and her son). The incursion team all wore pressure suits and strange circuit-embedded helmets, and the security personnel carried several ominous crates stamped prominently with the radioactive tri-foil.
            “Remember everyone,” Farnsworth said as the embarkation ramp hissed shut, “the shielding helmets have never been tested, so don’t think too loudly. From now on, nobody think about rock music, the colour red, or Robin Williams.”
            “Oh no!” Larry said. “Now they’re all I can think about!”
            The atmosphere in the hangar bay dissipated noisily, and the massive external door began to roll open, revealing the stars beyond.
            “Let’s see if those overpaid grease-monkeys in my skunk-works department are worth their weight in titanium composite,” Mom said, pressing a control on the Valkyrie’s system console. “Here goes nothing.”
            As the stealth shuttle lifted from its docking cradle, it flickered briefly and then became completely invisible. Frequencies of the electromagnetic and visual spectrums flowed smoothly around the craft’s EM displacement field, rendering it totally unobservable to sensors or the naked eye.
            “What the…? Where did everybody go?” Farnsworth cried suddenly.
            “You idiot,” Mom snapped. “We’re only invisible to people outside the shuttle.”
            “What? No – I dropped my glasses!”
            As Farnsworth fumbled around on the floor, Larry eased the controls forward and took the shuttle out of the hangar bay and into the open void. The Momship was holding distant station about half an AU from the Brezhnev, which continued to slowly trawl through space without deviation. Attempts to hail the research vessel had been fruitless, and an unidentifiable background quantum fluctuation had been detected resonating from the area surrounding the great ship.
            As the Valkyrie moved gradually closer to the target, all those on board became increasingly anxious. The entire mission hinged on the success of the delta-null shielding helmets devised by the mad and senile Professor Farnsworth, in whom few aboard had much confidence, himself included.
            The distance closed. The tension built. And the mighty Brezhnev grew larger on the forward viewscreen.
            “There’s something strange…” Larry said, peering at the two-kilometre block of steel and wrath. “The external surfaces… they seem mottled by something.”
            “Up the magnification, you stupid moronic idiot fool!” Mom snapped.
            Larry did so, and a section of the research vessel’s hull expanded into stark clarity.
            “…What the hell is that?” Mom said. The hull plates were crisscrossed at random by wide clinging trunks and tendrils that seemed to form some vast network, growing from within the ship and seeming to envelop it with the grey, almost organic-looking growths.
            “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Farnsworth confessed. “Not at this scale anyway, though if I were to guess, I’d say this was the result of nanomachine infestation.”
            “Trash-talk!” Mom said. “I’ve seen nanites go haywire – they just turn everything into grey goo, they don’t grow vines.”
            “I didn’t say they were haywire, you saggy-breasted harridan!” Farnsworth retorted. “You told me it was possible that your precious ship had been subverted by the Brainspawn – well that looks like subversion by nanomachines, probably controlled by the Brainspawn.”
            Mom growled quietly.
            “It also looks like it’s sustained significant battle damage,” Larry said, switching the view to show numerous deep impact craters that marked the surface of the ship.
            “So, the Nibblonians already tried?” Mom wondered aloud.
            The Valkyrie flew into the shadow of the Brezhnev, with the research ship looming before them like a great plain of metal. Larry piloted the stealth shuttle toward a docking point that appeared relatively free of nanomachine growths.
            “You gave your Helmsman the proper instructions?” Farnsworth asked Mom.
            “Yes.” Mom nodded. “Cowardly and snivelling though he may be, Gary Helm is the greatest Helmsman who ever Helmed. He’ll begin to run interference for us in the Momship as soon as we’re docked.”
            “Hopefully that will distract the Brainspawn enough to aid with our infiltration, oh my yes… distraction… infiltration… atomic monsters… crush enemies… called me mad!?” He continued mumbling incoherently to himself and Mom looked away to watch the yawning mouth of the Brezhnev’s docking chamber closed around them.
            The stealth shuttle gently connected to the airlock, and the doors were operated manually to avoid any telltale energy draw. Preceded first by armed security who gave the all-clear, the team emerged through the airlock, seeming to appear suddenly out of thin air as they stepped from the Valkyrie’s displacement field. They entered the dark corridors of the Brezhnev and activated their suit-mounted lights.
            “I’m reading low atmosphere,” one member of the tech team said over the short-wave comm. link as she consulted her Tricorder. “The environmental system is down… no life-signs in our immediate vicinity, but some strange anomalous background noise on a number of frequencies.”
            “Let’s get moving – we have a lot of ship to cover,” Mom said. Glancing back at where the invisible shuttle was ostensibly docked somewhere at the end of the airlock tube, she added: “Everyone remember where we parked – I don’t want to step through the wrong airlock and have my brain sucked out my nose.”
            Before she turned back to the others, a movement caught her eye, and she turned sharply to see a shadowed figure dart back into hiding.
            “Huhh…” she muttered to herself. “No life-signs, eh?”
            They moved off through the silent corridors and continued for some time. The security people stopped them occasionally to access wall panels where they loaded subversive software into the remains of the ship’s systems that froze surveillance camera feeds along the team’s path. They were taking no chances.
            At one point, the team rounded a corner and found the way had been blocked by an amorphous mass of the same ligneous grey growths that were strangling the outer hull of the ship.
            “I’ll get a sample,” one of the scientists said, stepping closer to the wall of nanomachines.
            “I wouldn’t do that,” Farnsworth said quickly, grabbing the man by his shoulder. “There’s no way of telling what it can do – it might convert our mass into raw elements. Or even worse – rewrite our neurones and brainwash us into buying horrible, soul-destroying country music… like what happened to all those poor fools in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
            “He’s right,” Mom said. “Leave it – we’re here to destroy, not to learn.” They changed their route to avoid the growths and continued onward deeper into the ship. From some distance behind them, a figure observed their progress, steeped in shadow and skulking behind support struts and banks of machinery to remain concealed.
            Farnsworth caught sight of the furtive movement and glanced back sharply – the figure ducked out of view.
            Quietly, so as not to cause panic among the team, he spoke to Mom.
            “There’s something back there,” he said, tilting his head back along the way they’d come.
            Mom nodded with a grunt. “It’s Wernstrom,” she murmured.
            “Wernstrom!?” the Professor spat distastefully.
            “He’s been following us since we came aboard,” Mom went on.
            “So he escaped the Brainspawn’s attack…”
            “Escaped… or was set loose.”
            From some distance behind, Ogden Wernstrom looked out of the darkness, his eyes wide and feverish as he watched the team.
            “He was in command of this operation,” Mom said, glancing back along the passageway. “Now the object of the operation may be in command of him.”
            “Perhaps we ought to play it safe and decapitate him?” Farnsworth offered. “And then maybe burn his corpse for good measure.”
            “I’ve seen too much death today,” Mom replied. “Besides, Wernstrom might have some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is all over.”
            Farnsworth looked unconvinced, but said nothing.
            Meanwhile, out in space, the Momship flew an erratic course around the Brezhnev, occasionally hitting the larger vessel with laser bursts and hard radar spikes, but always keeping to a safe distance. Its pestering manoeuvres were monitored closely by the monumental intelligence that now controlled the Brezhnev, and the research cruiser fired on the Momship repeatedly, but scored no hits.
            Onespawn wondered idly what the other vessel was trying to accomplish.

* * *

An inconceivable distance from the edge of any known map, the Planet Express ship traversed a field of planetary debris that had once been a solar system, now turned into a barren cloud of shattered rocks and frozen gases orbiting a dying sun. The epic destruction had been wrought by the opening of a Schwarzschild/Lorentzian spiderhole near the local star’s photosphere, resulting in vast swathes of matter being torn from the star, hastening its demise toward the black dwarf state. The surrounding planetary system had been utterly destroyed by the violent tidal forces and brutal accretion disk.
            The spiderhole itself was an awe-inspiring spectacle – a vast indigo abyss ringed by chaotic webs of exotic negative matter, with strands stretching many times the diameter of Earth, which held open the throat of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Vast plumes of solar matter swirled into the indescribable depths of the hole, flaring bright as ribbons of energy lashed out.
            Leela gasped in wonder at the sight as she flew the ship onward toward the titanic maelstrom. Setting the autopilot, she got up from the command chair and walked closer to the viewscreen the behold the majestic ballet of cosmic destruction.
            “Woo hoo, big deal - it’s a hole,” Bender droned disinterestedly. “I dug a hole behind the Planet Express building and nobody gasped in wonder at it. Except the corpse I stuck in there, but that could have just been gasses escaping…”
            “Bender, this is the most amazing thing anyone has ever seen,” Leela said, glancing at the robot in irritation.
            “No big boots, this is the most amazing thing anyone has ever seen.” Bender produced a silver coin, waved it around in front of Leela, and clapped his hands together. The coin was gone. He then reached up to Leela’s ear and appeared to snatch the coin out of nowhere.
            “Pretty sweet, eh?” he said proudly.
            Leela narrowed her eye and walked away to find Fry.
            “I thought it was remarkable,” Nibbler said, sounding impressed. “How did you do that? Some kind of quantum flux or matter transference beam?”
            “Nah, I’m just magnificent.”
            Leela moved down the ship’s companionway and rapped lightly on the door of Fry’s cabin, chiding herself for her own nervousness.
            “Fry?” she called. “There’s something you’ll want to see – it’s incredible.” There was no reply from the room, and she sighed.
            “Look, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings earlier. It was careless. Please forgive me. I want you to come and watch this with me – there are big shiny things… you love big shiny things…”
            Still no response. Hesitantly, Leela pressed the door’s touchpad, and it rolled open. Fry was fast asleep on his hammock, shirtless and snoring lightly. Leela approached, and then stopped, gaping in horror.
            The dark swirling marks of stigma had spread across Fry’s chest like an oil slick. As she watched, an offshoot of the affliction wormed outward from the main mass, consuming more normal tissue.
            “…Oh Fry…” The taste of fear made Leela swallow hard as she reached out to touch Fry’s skin. It was cold.
            The contact brought him out of his slumber, and he caught Leela by the wrist. He groaned as his eyes focused on the cycloptic face staring down at him.
            “Hey…” he said, and then noted the frightened look in Leela’s eye. “What’s the matter…? Oh…” Hurriedly, he fell out of the hammock and retrieved his T-shirt to cover the stigma.
            “Not very pretty, is it?” he said with forced lightness, pulling the shirt over his head and getting one arm stuck in the neck-hole.
            Leela patiently helped him untangle himself. “Does it hurt?” she asked quietly.
            “Not exactly,” Fry said. “But sometimes it feels like… a heaviness… like I’m being dragged down. Not by weight, but by something else… something inevitable. I can’t explain it.”
            There was a sweet tension-coated silence filled with a creamy centre of discomfort as the two friends stared at each other.
            “Fry…” Leela grasped for words. “We’ll find a way through this.”
            “I know,” Fry replied. “We always do. Um… hey…” He scratched his head awkwardly. “Sorry about before.”
            “Me too,” Leela said. “You’re my best friend, Fry… I don’t want to hurt you, even though I always seem to manage it one way or another. It’s not intentional…”
            “I know,” Fry said. “Did you need me for something?”
            Leela blinked. “Oh yeah,” she said, remembering. “The spiderhole – you really have to see this.”
            When they returned to the bridge, the spiderhole loomed larger through the forward viewscreen it pulsed and rippled violently around the constraints of the cosmic webs that held it in place.
            “Oh wow,” Fry gaped in amazement. “That’s even more incredible than Bender’s coin trick!”
            “Ah, go to hell, you lousy meatbag,” Bender muttered bitterly.
            “Leela…” Fry said as he gazed out in rapt fascination. “It’s the same colour as your hair.”
            Leela smiled and took her seat at the helm. “So, we just fly right in?” she asked Nibbler.
            “Affirmative,” Nibbler said. “But be careful – we don’t want to be caught in those webs.”
            “Or do we?” Fry said. “…No, probably not. We’d be lunch for the giant spider, right?”
            “Negative,” Nibbler said. “Contact with the exotic negative matter would instantly convert our entire mass into pure energy. We would explode.”
            “…Which is really just as bad,” Fry said. He looked back out at the cosmic spectacle that now seemed to take up all of the heavens. The little ship skimmed through a stream of incandescent solar matter that was falling toward the spiderhole, then onward into the yawning indigo abyss.
            “Oh,” Nibbler said belatedly. “This will be bumpy…”

            They passed suddenly through the event horizon, and the PE ship became spaghettified, stretched into a narrow green strand of hyperaccellerated matter that was three light-years long, relative to real-space. And then they were in the spiderhole itself, snapping back into shape violently like an elastic band, and whipping around uncontrollably inside the cracking toroid interior of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, at the mercy of unseen and incomprehensible energies.
            Fry, Leela, and Bender all screamed as they were thrown around, and sparks erupted from the fuselage. It was like the wildest rollercoaster ride imaginable…
            …And then they were spat back out into real space in an explosion of quarks and neutrinos. The ship tumbled end-over end, accelerated wildly by the spiderhole’s slingshot effect.
            “Oh, thank robot Christ that’s over with,” Bender said.
            “It isn’t,” Nibbler replied mildly, as the ship fell directly into a second spiderhole that had been positioned sequentially by the Nibblonian people thousands of years ago.
            Again the violent spaghettification and breakneck tumble through the throat of the spiderhole. As he clung to the back of Leela’s seat for dear life, Fry risked a sidelong glance out one of the windows, and for an instant he thought he saw a translucent shape clinging to the side of the shimmering tunnel of purple light… a colossal many-legged thing with eight eyes the size of continents that watched the PE ship fall past.
            Then it was gone, and they were back out into real space, flung away from the Star Spider’s interdimensional hole at a dangerous velocity.
            Regaining her wits, Leela cancelled the wild roll and slowed the ship.
            “Oh, I think I got whiplash!” Bender complained, picking himself up.
            “That was cool!” Fry said, climbing out of Leela’s lap. “We gotta do that again.”
            Leela only groaned, knowing they would eventually have to. She turned her eye to the forward screen.
            “Well,” she said, staring through the screen. “Looks like we’re here.”
            Ahead of them, resplendent in shades of pink and blue, was the planet Eternium, its pastel landmasses seeming to form heart shapes.
            The ship’s communications screen came to life, showing a Nibblonian female sitting on a cushion.
            “Lord Nibbler,” Fiona said over the comm. link.
            “Greetings,” Nibbler said. “I have travelled from Earth, with the Mighty One, seeking the means by which doom can be averted and the balance of the Universe be restored.”
            “I know to which object you refer,” Fiona said gravely. “Our forebears decided eons ago that it should never be used. You have come on a fool’s errand.”
            “Fool I may be,” Nibbler growled angrily, “but I am a fool who does not wish to see all of creation vanquished in one stroke of evil because those who could prevent it quailed in the face of their responsibility!”
            Fiona stared levelly through the comm. screen. “Harsh words you speak, Lord Nibbler,” she said. “But the council is decided on this matter. An alternate plan to combat Onespawn is presently being enacted. We do not need the Mighty One, or the weapon.”
            Nibbler narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “We shall see,” he said. The communication link terminated.
            “What was all that about?” Fry said, clearly confused.
            “A difference of opinion,” Nibbler said simply. He looked troubled as he directed Leela to the landing coordinates. The Planet Express ship fell through the pink atmosphere with a trio of Nibblonian Cuddle-Bug saucers falling in behind to escort the larger vessel.

            They had reached the exact centre of the Universe. And it seemed they weren’t entirely welcome.

Chapter 13: The Good, The Bad, & The Exploding

The incursion team found themselves blocked by a wall that shouldn’t have been there. Where Mom’s deck schematic showed a straight corridor, there was now an abrupt dead-end festooned with the ever-present grey pseudopod growths of nanotech.
            “It’s changed the decks around,” Mom said, eying the erroneous wall in irritation.
            “Whatever for?” Farnsworth wondered.
            “Beats me. Maybe it wanted to make a rumpus room.”
            “It’s because Onespawn… is growing larger,” a weak grating voice said from out of the shadows behind the group. The security personnel swung their positron rifles toward the source of the voice and illuminated a skeletal, cowering Ogden Wernstrom with their barrel-mounted lights.
            The scheming professor blinked in the glare, his pupils like pinpricks. He was wearing no breathing apparatus, despite the low pressure, and his skin was a blotchy mottled pink and grey.
            “…The master,” he went on. “Onespawn… needed to accommodate its increasing size… as it consumes the mass of the ship.”
            “Wernstrom!” Farnsworth growled. “What’s your stake in all this, you ruffian?”
            Wernstrom clutched his now oddly-oversized head as if suffering a migraine. “Master has forgotten me,” he rasped. “Now repairs to the dark matter engines are complete… Master doesn’t need me now… Master doesn’t care if I’m alive or dead…” He began to sob pitifully, and Farnsworth and Mom gave each other a meaningful glance.

            “Onespawn has discarded me,” Wernstrom said. “Now I’m free… free and clear, with the weight of all who’ve died, and all who are yet to, pressing down upon me…”
            Mom stepped forward to shake sense into the blubbering man, but Farnsworth held her back, leaning close to her ear as if to whisper.
            “He’s infected, don’t touch him!” he shouted loudly, making the old woman cringe. “You stupid punk, Wernstrom,” the Professor went on, “you botched this entire mission. I give you the most vile, humiliating score yet – a B+.”
            Wernstrom wailed in anguish. “I deserve it,” he said. “You were always the better scientist, Hubert… I’m just a third rate hack, always riding on your labcoat-tails. I thought with this I’d be able to surpass you… but instead the thing has killed off most of my crew… and left me a mutated pariah chained to an alien will that screeches and burns in my mind. You are the better man! The better scientist! You always were!”
            Farnsworth looked up from studying the seams in his pressure glove. “Huu-whaa?” he grunted. “I’m sorry, were you still talking? I drifted off there for a bit…”
            “Wernstrom, snap out of it,” Mom said. “What do you know about all of this?”
            “Everything…” Wernstrom clutched at his head again and doubled over in pain. “It’s in my mind…” he hissed. “…In my DNA… Onespawn – I’m a part of it now, I hear its thoughts. It plans… to use its own version of the same wormhole technology we used to bring it back to his Universe… only on a much larger and less specific scale…”
            “What do you mean?” Mom pressed impatiently.
            “It has some quantum flux connecting it to spacetime…” Wernstrom said. “Soon it will be able to use that, coupled with understanding gleaned from the hardware aboard this ship… to destroy… to unmake the Universe, by compressing all of space and time into a singularity…”
            “I tried to do that once,” Farnsworth said. “But I couldn’t get a chalkboard long enough to fit the equations.”
            “There is only one thing preventing Onespawn’s plan…” Wernstrom said. “The presence of a temporal paradox… an entity spawned by spontaneous self-manifestation whose very tenacious history-spanning existence will hold the fabric of spacetime together…”
            “Fry!” Farnsworth said.
            Wernstrom nodded. “…So now the creature will travel to Earth… to kill the one being who could stand in its way.”
            As if on cue, the massive vessel trembled suddenly, and the team stumbled as artificial gravity took a moment to adjust for inertia. A deep bass reverberation of space compression hummed through the ship.
            “Dark matter drive just came online,” Larry said unnecessarily. “The ship could reach Earth within the hour now…”
            “Quickly, Wernstrom!” Mom snapped. “Where is this ‘Onespawn’ of yours?”
            Wernstrom appeared wracked by pain, and veins in his temples throbbed visibly. “I will… take you…” he said, fighting off the looming presence of the alien mind that pressed against his own. He set off down a side corridor with the team following close behind.
            In space, the Momship struggled to keep up with the larger vessel as it hurled through the void, dark matter engines flaring incandescent blue.
            The distance to Earth began to shrink rapidly.

* * *

The hall of forever, ten miles west of the exact centre of the Universe, loomed above the parked ship as Nibbler led the three Planet Express friends down the landing stair. A pair of Nibblonian officials waited at the foot of the steps, dressed in turquoise robes, and they raised their paws in salute.
            “We bid you greetings, Lord Nibbler and company,” they said in unison.
            Nibbler returned the salute wordlessly and walked past them. The others followed, and Bender carelessly trod on one of the officials.
            “Those little things look just like Leela’s pet,” the robot noted distantly, kicking the dazed Nibblonian off his foot.
            “Of course they do,” Fry said. “Bender, haven’t you been paying attention to what’s going on?”
            “I’ve made a point not to,” Bender replied, folding his arms. “Any situation that doesn’t revolve around yours truly isn’t worth a moment’s consideration.”
            They moved onward through the plush gardens and meadows. Fry glanced around at the fluffy pink scenery. “Yeah, now I remember,” he said. “This place is really…” he searched for a word.
            “Gaudy? Candyfloss?” Leela offered.
            “I’d have said queer,” Bender grunted coarsely, and the others glared at him, Nibbler bearing his fangs. “What?!” Bender said indignantly. “We’re a trillion miles away from the nearest censor, so you politically-correct ***holes can go **** yourselves.”
            “Bender!” Leela exclaimed in horror, and slapped the robot’s face, bruising her fingers in the process.
            “Hey, **** off!”
            Nibbler rolled one and a half pairs of eyes and scurried off toward the hall’s entrance without bothering to check that his three strange humanoid companions were following. A weak bugle announced his arrival as he passed between the twin obelisks and waddled into the hall of forever, moving through the cavernous interior toward the elevated chairs of the high council at one end.
            One chair was notably empty. Nibbler took in the absence of Ken with a heavy sigh.
            “The four greetings to you, Lord Nibbler, and to your companions.” Fiona’s voice rang out across the hall.
            Nibbler stopped before her seat and looked up at the Nibblonian leader sternly.
            “I have travelled far and braved many perils in bringing the Mighty One here to the completion of his destiny,” he said. “Twice we have set him against the great foe, and twice he smote them.”
            “Go me!” Fry shouted, pumping the air with his fist. His voice echoed around the quiet chamber, with scores of Nibblonian faces around the hall regarding him in bemusement.
            “…Why then,” Nibbler went on, ignoring the interruption, “do you now suggest we act without the aid of this child of prophecy, upon whom we have pinned our hopes for eons?”
            “Because the Mighty One failed,” Fiona said.
            “Did not!” Fry exclaimed defensively, and Leela placed a hand on his arm to silence him.
            “Banishing the Brainspawn has now allowed for the creation of a new threat, greater than any we have previously faced – using the Mighty One availed us nothing, therefore we must turn to another solution.”
            Nibbler glanced around at the other members of the council, seeing hints of uncertainty and fear in their faces. Many of them showed signs of the cosmic stigma (his own had now spread down one leg).
            “The Mighty One’s true function was never utilized,” Nibbler said loudly, raising his paws as if beckoning the assembly to heed his word. “His role was never to banish the Brainspawn, but to set right the great fracture by wielding the Lance of Fate against them!”
            Excited chittering emanated from the Nibblonians, escalating to the eruption of full-blown arguments and hissing.
            “The what of what?” Fry muttered, raising an eyebrow.
            “Silence!” Fiona shouted, and then when the hubbub died down she declared: “The Lance cannot be used!”
            “Do you seek to convince me?” Nibbler asked, glancing around at the hall full of small three-eyed creatures. “…Or them? It appears your opinion is not as universal as you would like to believe.”
            Fiona glowered at Nibbler. And for the first time Fry and Leela saw a Nibblonian actually look as fearsome as they claimed to be.
            “If he uses it,” she seethed, “then our race, in this form, will cease to exist.”
            “Whoa!” Fry said, stepping forward. “Time out, guys! What the heck are you talking about? What’s the Lance of Fate?
            Curious yammering erupted from the onlooking creatures.
            “He does not know?”
            “Know he does not!”
            “Know not, does he?”
            Fiona’s voice cut across the others. “He doesn’t need to know!” she shouted, and then when the noise died down she addressed Fry in a tone of forced kindness: “Your Mightiness,” she said, “you have aided us in the past, and that assistance has been greatly appreciated – but the time has come for a new course. We are beyond the foretelling of prophecy now.”
            “And what course will that be?” Nibbler demanded.
            Fiona paused for a moment, as if unsure of how to proceed, then steeled herself. “We will make an alliance against Onespawn,” she said. “An alliance… with the Brainspawn.”
            Nibbler’s eyes went wide. Fry and Leela gasped. Bender leisurely exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke.
            “You cannot be serious?” Nibbler exclaimed.
            “The rest of the Brainspawn race are every bit as threatened as we by the scourge of Onespawn,” Fiona said. “Contact with them has already been made through the underspace immersion array, and they have agreed to a truce for the duration of our war against this new common enemy. Preparations are being made even now to return them to this dimensional plane. They will help us fight…”
            “And should this alliance succeed,” Nibbler said incredulously, “your new allies will then return to their own goal of understanding and destroying everything – there can be no victory.”
            “That will be a bridge to be crossed at such time as it is reached,” Fiona said gravely. “For now, it is better the devil we know.”
            “But we can stop them, once and for all,” Nibbler argued, desperate now. “Trillions of lives can be saved!”
            “Lord Nibbler!” Fiona shouted. “If you have nothing to offer but notions of doubt and pointless fatalism then you should leave this chamber! We are in a time of crisis and for the good of our own people we must make difficult decisions.”
            “But not the decision that acknowledges our true role…” Nibbler said bitterly, slumping his shoulders.
            “Begone!” The command echoed in the hall of forever; Nibbler growled and turned away, scampering from the chamber with Fry, Leela, and Bender in tow.
            “Well, this has all been a big waste of my valuable time,” Bender remarked irritably when they’d gathered together outside again.
            Nibbler stared up into the soft cherry sunlight and sighed in exhaustion and defeat.
            “Nibbler?” Leela knelt down beside the creature, and out of habit began scratching him behind the ear, making him coo and purr despite himself. “Explain,” she went on. “What is this ‘Lance of Fate’, and why don’t the others want it to be used?”
            “Very well,” Nibbler murmured, leaning into her hand. “I shall tell you, but not here in the open – let us return to the ship, that we may consume sustenance.”
            Leela picked him up, and together they all headed back to the Planet Express ship.

* * *

As the SS Brezhnev hurtled through space at around 99.9% of increased lightspeed, Mom, Farnsworth, and the rest of the incursion team followed Wernstrom through corridors until they abruptly reached a vast open area that had been carved out of the ship’s interior, massively wide, and many decks high.
            The enormous cavern was alive with nanotech pseudopods that snaked across every surface, all leading back to the thing that took up most of the space.
            “Jeezalu!” Mom said. “That’s some growth spurt!”
            Onespawn towered above them all, easily fifty feet high, surrounded by hard chitinous columns of nanomachine growth that branched from its tissue and away into the ship.
            Wernstrom cowered in a corner.
            “Simply amazing!” Farnsworth said, snatching one of the scientists’ Tricorders to examine its readout.
            “Does it know we’re here?” Mom asked.
            “Amazingly, no!” Farnsworth replied. “I’d imagine if it did, it would have rendered us idiots and we’d all be licking the floor and taking Fox News reports as factual right now. No, it seems all the neural pulses are directed through the nano-structure for the time being.” He tapped his shielding helmet. “Looks like they’re working.”
            “Right,” Mom said briskly, turning to her men. “You all know what has to be done.”
            “Yes ma’am,” the head security man said. Quickly and efficiently, the uniformed operatives moved out around Onespawn’s sanctum, placing the cases they carried on the floor a circular formation, roughly equidistant.
            “Hydrogen bombs with a phased antimatter tamper,” Mom explained. “It’s a configuration that’s not officially supposed to exist. They call them ‘Planet-Buster’ nukes.” She gestured to a transmitter device affixed to her belt. “I can set them off by subspace signal when we’re safely away.”
            Farnsworth grunted, not really listening, and continued to study the Tricorder readout. “This is interesting,” he said. “The creature’s brainwave patterns are so fluid… its mind must be like an open barn door – receptive to any suggestion, like a child willing to believe in fantasy…”
            “That is how the Brainspawn were first expelled from Earth,” Wernstrom said weakly from the corner. “A deception… a fiction…”
            “Who cares?” Mom said, glancing at her watch. “We’re about to blow the thing into less than atoms and be back home in time for supper.”
            As the security personnel moved around Onespawn’s sanctum, one of them stepped mistakenly onto a thick fibrous tendril of nanite growth. His boot cracked the outer crust and sunk in up to the ankle as a wet slurry of nanomachines adhered to the fabric.
            As the man struggled to free himself, Onespawn stirred, with a faint blue glow beginning to issue from around the giant brain. The nano-structure alerted him to the presence of an unknown contaminant, Onespawn scanned around itself, noting at last the subversive software that was corrupting the surveillance cameras. It cleared them and at once beheld a group of invaders clustered around, somehow shielded from mental detection.
            Onespawn let out a tremendous psychic howl that had the incursion team dropping to the floor in agony. When the onslaught ceased, they all blinked stupidly and got to their feet, staring up at the gigantic brain in rapt fascination.
            “Big pinky balloon!” Mom said. “Me want!”
            In the corner, Wernstrom shuddered as waves of stupefaction washed over him, having no effect now that his mind had been completely subsumed. Onespawn’s monumental will groped inside his head, taking charge of synapses and directing his thoughts once again. In a zombie-like state, he surged to his feet, struggling painfully all the while, and began walking stiffly toward one of the security men who was peering into the end of his own rifle.
            “I think Enterprise was a worthy and well-executed prequel to the Original Series,” Farnsworth declared as he repeatedly slapped his own helmet.
            “I forgot what I’m meant to do after I exhale!” Larry gasped, clutching his chest and turning blue.
            Wernstrom, controlled by Onespawn, staggered up to the security man and grabbed hold of his positron rifle. The man looked bewildered.
            “I want to call my girlfriend but I can’t get a signal on that thing,” he said.
            Wernstrom gritted his teeth, trying to fight the alien influence, but failed.
            “No…!” he groaned weakly.
He shot the man at point blank range, cringing mentally when droplets of blood spattered against him. He turned and shakily levelled the rifle at another security operative, who tried to fire back, but was holding the gun backwards and blew away a sizable chunk of his own head.
            “People fall down!” Mom noted curiously, looking at the dead bodies.
            “You big meanie!” Larry shouted at Wernstrom. Wernstrom shot him in the chest with a cry of agonized anguish, and he fell smoking to the deck.
            “Noooo!” Mom cried, falling to her knees beside Larry’s prone form. “Don’t die! Mommy’s favourite son!”
            Wernstrom swung the positron rifle to point at Farnsworth, who smiled stupidly.
            “The Professy can’t die,” he said confidently. “This writer only kills ancillary characters, cannon-fodder for perfunctory bloodbaths that the main characters somehow always manage to escape with only minor injuries… duh, perhaps until right at the end when there’s an unexpected twist…”
            “What?” Wernstrom and Onespawn both replied in synchronized confusion.
            “…Run,” Wernstrom said through clenched teeth, looking at Farnsworth over the trembling sights of the rifle. “Get out… I can’t fight it… too strong.”
            Curiously, Farnsworth reached out and poked his finger into the gun barrel.
            “Oh you stupid old bastard!” Wernstrom growled angrily, and for a moment he felt something give in his mind, as if one of Onespawn’s talons had torn free. His finger trembled on the trigger and he let out a low growl. Onespawn’s will screamed at him across the psychic link, pushing him to finish the job – to exterminate the invaders and deactivate the bombs.
            “…Shut up,” Wernstrom hissed in agony. “Shut up, you gigantic moron…” Another facet of mental subsumption seemed to tear, and blood began to flow from Wernstrom’s nose. He pulled the rifle away from Farnsworth and pointed it at Onespawn.
            The alien brain’s fury rippled out as a wave of telekinetic energy that lifted Wernstrom and the others from their feet and slammed them into the bulkhead.
            “Owwie!” Mom complained, sliding down the wall. “Metal hard!”
            “Metal indeed hard!” Farnsworth agreed, finding himself upside-down on the floor. “Even Slipknot, which really is metal and not stupid poser garbage at all!”
            Wernstrom fell to the floor, bleeding and sobbing. For the moment it seemed Onespawn’s control of his mind was gone, but he could already feel the nanomachine structures in his brain beginning to reform synaptic links. Time was short.
            “Come on!” he shouted to the others. “Follow me!”
            They stared at him blankly.
            “…Let’s go get ice cream!” he added.
            Mom, Farnsworth, and the rest of the team followed happily while Onespawn pulsed and screeched behind them. Moving as fast as he could, Wernstrom ran through the corridors, hoping that the others could keep up.
            In the sanctum, Onespawn strained against the nanomachine columns and vines that held the creature enthroned to the ship. It couldn’t move, and was unable to do anything about the bombs that sat around the floor with red lights blinking their armed state. It roared and cursed and spat and seethed, helplessly…
            The Brezhnev’s escape pods hadn’t been used by the ill-fated research team due to their remoteness from any possible aid and the fact they’d been confident in their ability to destroy the rogue Brainspawn. Now Wernstrom ushered Mom’s incursion team into one of the pods with the promise of frozen treats, pausing to snatch the transmitter off the old woman’s belt as she went.
            “Mine!” Mom said sulkily.
            “I’m just borrowing it.” Wernstrom replied.
            Farnsworth was the last inside, and he looked at Wernstrom expectantly.
            “Werny coming too?” he asked stupidly, and Wernstrom shook his head and hit the emergency eject button. The escape pod closed up and launched from its tube, out into open space. He watched the Brezhnev’s defensive systems try to shoot down the pod, but the Momship flew an intercept course and took a few hits for the little module before recovering it and rocketing away to standoff range.
            Wernstrom looked around him at the nanotech growth that was detaching from the walls and ceiling to snake toward him with intent. Onespawn scrabbled desperately to reclaim control of his mind. He looked at the transmitter in his hand and sighed.
            “It’s probably too much to ask,” he said to himself, “that I be remembered for this, instead of everything else…”
            With that, he pushed the detonate button.

            The planet-buster nukes exploded simultaneously, and in a heartbeat most of the mass of the Brezhnev was converted directly into x-rays and gamma radiation in a burst that rivalled a supernova. Planets in a nearby system were scoured of their atmospheres and far away on Earth the conflagration would appear in less than an hour as the brightest light in the night sky.
            The Momship was buffeted by concussive waves of hard radiation and subspace compression, and was left temporarily dead in the water, with its outer hull shedding globules of white-hot molten metal.
            As the corona dissipated and the Momship gradually came back online, the survivors of the incursion team climbed out of the nanomachine-encrusted escape pod inside the hangar bay, to be met by a decontamination squad.
            “What the hell happened?” Mom asked as she was sprayed in an undignified manner by nanite-retardant foam.
            “I don’t remember,” Farnsworth said, furrowing his brow. “Who are all you people?”
            “The Brezhnev exploded,” one of the hazmat-wearing deck hands informed them through a blank facemask.
            Mom looked around. “Where’s Larry?” she asked suddenly.
            Nobody had an answer, and she stared silently at her hands.
            After their cell door malfunctioned in the Electromagnetic pulse, Hermes, Amy, and Scruffy made their way to the bridge of the ship, appearing at the same time as Mom and Farnsworth arrived, still dripping with foam.
            “How the hell did you people get out?” Mom said, without her usual level of hostility. She was tired and distant.
            “Scruffy could fix you up with some better locks,” Scruffy muttered.
            They moved out onto the bridge proper, and Gary Helm, the Helmsman, got up from the Helm and gave Mom a clumsy salute. She pushed past him and looked through the forward viewscreen at the expanding rings of plasma and gaseous remains of the Brezhnev.
            “It’s gone?” she asked of the crew in general.
            “We think so,” the Helmsman said. “Sensors are still degraded – the EM background is a mess. But nothing could have survived that.”
            Mom stared in silence, and Farnsworth moved to join her. For long minutes they continued to watch the slowly-cooling cloud of radioactive matter, before the Professor finally spoke.
            “…Caroline,” he said softly. “It’s time to go. I don’t remember why we’re standing here, but my feet hurt.”
            “I have to know for certain,” Mom said, ignoring the forbidden use of her real name. “I have to know it’s dead.”
            So they stood and waited. Time wafted by.
            Suddenly, sensors on the ship began to emit high-pitched chimes and beeps. Technicians looked up in alarm. Something was materialising out of the irradiated cloud.
            “…It can’t be…” the Helmsman said.
            “Full magnification!” Mom demanded.
            The screen zoomed in, and a horrified gasp escaped the lips of all those present.
            “Gluck!” Amy said.
            “That tenacious bastard,” Mom muttered in barely-controlled fury.
            Out in space, the disparate molecules of Onespawn swam back together, pulled at by the creature’s mysterious quantum flux, and reassembled. The giant alien brain floated free, where the Brezhnev had once been.

            And it wasn’t happy.

Chapter 14: Weapon of No Choice

The portal superstructure was comprised of five pylons arranged in a circle, each nearly a kilometre tall, that hummed with esoteric energies. It was on an isolated patch of the Eternium tundra that showed signs of much recent activity conducted very quickly.
            As the sun began to set, the Nibblonian council delegation arrived at the site by hovercraft, and Fiona stepped off to survey the ugly towers of hastily cobbled-together technology.
            “Is it ready?” she asked one of the technical specialists nearby.
            “Yes,” he replied glumly.
            “The humans have already opened the way,” she said placatingly. “We are only hastening that which is inevitable. Do it.”
            With a recalcitrant  growl, the technician reluctantly activated a remote control device, and the pylons’ hum increased a hundredfold.
            Forks of purple lightning arced out into the open area between them toward a point of glaring iridescence poised in the air between the spires of machinery, which crackled and expanded into a vast rippling sphere of dimensional displacement…
            The observing Nibblonians backed away fearfully.

* * *

Inside the Planet Express ship, Nibbler told a tale as he sat surrounded by the remains of three hams.
            “Thirteen-point-seven billion Earth years ago,” he said, “the Universe was created in the mass quantum-inversion event that you know as the ‘big bang’.”
            “Thirteen-point-seven billion…” Fry repeated, scratching his chin. “Was that before or after the moon landings?”
            “In the crucible of that inversion,” Nibbler went on, ignoring him, “The Brainspawn were created as the mirror of my race, this you know. However, at the same instant, the energy discharge of that unnatural inversion solidified into a mass of pure condensed spacetime, a temporal waste-product, if you will, that links the two races and remained here at the centre of the expanding Universe until our ancient sages recovered it. Knowing the power it held, but unable to wield it themselves, they fashioned it into the form of a weapon, the Lance of Fate, and stored it here until the fabled Mighty One appeared – for he, with his unique relationship to time, is the only one who can use it.”
            “Use it for what?” Leela asked.
            “Reunification,” Nibbler said simply. “If used correctly, against the primary brain in the Brainspawn collective, the Lance could fuse the Nibblonians and Brainspawn back together into one race.”
            “Then when Fiona said that you’d cease to exist ‘in this form’… she was telling the truth?” Leela said, aghast. “What would you become?”
            “Indeterminate,” Nibbler replied. “And that uncertainty is the reason my people long ago decided that the Lance would not be used, deciding instead to pursue alternate means, which I always felt to be of questionable merit. Many agree with me, but they are frightened by the prospect of losing all that we are. Billions of years of history and culture is a difficult thing to let go of…”
            “Wait,” Bender said, ceasing his feigned disinterest. “Why would you want to combine with those giant brain things and turn into something else if you don’t even know what you’ll be?”
            “If it will end the blight of the Brainspawn forever,” Nibbler growled, “then that sacrifice is miniscule.” He turned away. “The Brainspawn exist because of us… they are a part of us. It is our duty.”
            “Duty?” Leela repeated, picking Nibbler up and holding him before her. “You won’t even be you anymore…” She found herself anguished by the idea.
            “Leela…” Nibbler said softly. “Gentle Leela, you have always cared for me, protected me. You stand as testament to the majesty of life that exists within the Universe. It is for you and all those like you that my people should make this stand – to prevent the destruction of beauty and love and all the potential for those most precious jewels yet to be born.”
            “But…” Leela’s lip trembled. “Surely… there must be another way?”
            “No,” Nibbler replied. “It is the course we were destined to take, from the very beginning. All other avenues, taken out of fear, merely delayed what must ultimately be.” He smiled at her. “It is all right,” he said.
            Leela could think of nothing else to say, so she hugged Nibbler close. Fry and Bender looked at each other and shrugged.

* * *

The massive dimensional portal fluxed and pulsed, kicking up a great wind that roared across the plain. Within the spherical event horizon there were shapes. At first they seemed to be at some impossible distance, but soon came closer to the shimmering field of energy, resolving into individual blob-like forms.
            “They’re coming!” one of the observing Nibblonians shouted. “Oh, by the living Fates – what have we done?”
            “Hold steady!” Fiona yelled.
            “We should have listened to Lord Nibbler!” another said.
            The swarm reached the event horizon and squeezed through. Hundreds, then thousands, and then millions. They came through the energy curtain, crackling with interdimensional discharges, and filled up the darkening sky – an onslaught of flying brains.
            The Nibblonians stood looking up at the Brainspawn horde, and the Brainspawn regarded their eternal enemies. Time itself seemed to hold its breath.

* * *

Nibbler grimaced suddenly. “They’re here,” he grunted.
            “Who?” Fry said.
            “The Brainspawn… the rest of them.”
            Leela moved automatically toward the helm. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
            “No – wait!” Nibbler said. “Now may be our only opportunity to recover the Lance, the council and its forces will be occupied liaising with their reluctant new allies…”
            “Well, come on then!” Fry said. “Where is it?”
            “Terminal Precept. Follow me,” Nibbler replied, leaping from Leela’s arms and scampering out and down the landing stairs.
            Twilight was beginning to coalesce around the Hall of Forever as the little group hurried back inside. The interior of the hall was now deserted, and Nibbler ran to the centre of the wide empty floor. His third eye pulsed a telepathic entry code, and a circular section of the floor suddenly subsided, dropping down into recesses in progressively deeper segments to form a spiral staircase that wound down into shadows.
            Wordlessly, the group descended.
            Around and around the staircase went, going deeper and deeper into the planet’s crust. For what seemed like an eternity they tramped onward in the dark. At length the stairs gave way to a gravely slope that continued downward in a straight line. Their footfalls echoed around them now, bouncing back and fourth in such a way that they sensed a vast open space. Water dripped somewhere – they’d entered a natural cave system.
            “How much further?” Bender asked irritably.
            “We’re close,” Nibbler said. “Behold.”
            Far ahead, a weak light gleamed within the heart of darkness, and the group hurried onward. As they neared, the light resolved into two pale glowing columns that marked the opening into another chamber beyond.
            “We are about to enter Terminal Precept,” Nibbler said. “This is where the Lance of Fate has been stored for eons. Though my forebears denied its use, it could not be destroyed, so they kept it here.”
            “What does it look like?” Fry asked.
            “I do not know. I have never seen it.”
            They moved through the adjoining passage into the soft light cast by the glowing columns, and found themselves standing on a ledge that overlooked a massive cavern, the far side of which was obscured by shadow. The cavern didn’t appear to have a bottom – just an abysmal hungry darkness that hid an unfathomable depth. Fry kicked a rock off the ledge and it spiralled away down and down into the dark. Though he listened closely, he could hear no impact.
            In the centre of the immense void, a single column of pale stone stood, reaching to the ceiling and down into the impenetrable gloom below. It was connected to the ledge by a very narrow stone bridge, with no railing…
            “Well you can cram this up wherever you little three-eyed critters traditionally cram things,” Bender said, backing away from the edge. “There’s no way I’m going out there.”
            “Only one of us has to,” Nibbler said, glancing at Fry. “The containment column is designed only to open for the Mighty One.”
            “Argh,” Fry groaned, pulling a face at Nibbler and thumbing in Bender’s direction. “Bite his shiny metal ass,” he muttered.
            Nibbler shrugged apologetically, and Fry started toward the precarious-looking bridge with another put-upon groan.
            “Halt!” a voice bellowed, echoing around the vast cavern. Fry paused, and the others looked around. From an alcove above the entryway, two Nibblonian warriors emerged, hopping down the uneven stone wall with their little swords held at the ready and their armour gleaming in the light.
            “We’ve been ordered to deny you access,” one of them said. “Please leave immediately!”
            “Oh, they’re so cute in their little armours,” Leela said, clasping her hands in delight.
            The two guards glanced at each other in irritation, and the one who had spoken earlier turned to look at Nibbler.
            “Lord Nibbler,” he said. “I have the greatest respect for you – please do not make this harder than it needs to be.”
            Nibbler regarded the warriors for a long moment, and then spoke levelly.
            “I have come here to complete our destiny,” he said, and gestured at Fry, who had taken a moment to pick his nose. “The Mighty One will wield the Lance of Fate, and so end the threat of the Brainspawn - forever. This is the cause that we and our forebears have sworn to uphold. You would stand in the way of that? Now? At the cumulation of all things?”
            The two warriors looked uncertain.
            “Do not be afraid,” Nibbler told them. “We each of us are prepared to give our lives to the fulfilment of our great labour – but we do not have to. The fracture can be mended, and the disparate elements of reality can be reunited. The Universe will be safe.”
The guards had nothing to say. Nibbler nodded at them in understanding and looked up at Fry. “Please retrieve the Lance,” he said.
            Fry stepped gingerly onto the bridge, and swayed with vertigo as the dark abyss below seemed to pull at him. Sense of balance and spatial orientation both abandoned him simultaneously and he wobbled from side to side. Suddenly a strong hand clasped his shoulder and held him steady.
            “Together,” Leela said, close to his ear, her breath warm against his skin. “We’ll do this together.”
            Fry smiled gratefully, and as one they moved out onto the narrow strip of stone, edging forward, one foot at a time.
            “Wait!” one of the Nibblonian warriors said uncertainly, and Fry and Leela glanced back. “…Good luck,” the warrior finished. He and his companion glanced at each other, and then scampered away down the entry passage.
            “Take great care!” Nibbler called anxiously, as Fry and Leela resumed their slow edging progress.
            “If you two die, I’m pawning your stuff!” Bender added.
            Fry gritted his teeth in determination; confidence seemed to flow into him from Leela’s hand resting firmly on his shoulder.
            “Halfway there,” Leela said. “You’re doing great.”
            “Thanks Leela,” Fry said. They moved onward, and the central column gradually grew nearer. Suddenly, from out of the depths, a swarm of shrieking winged creatures erupted around them, screeching and shooting past, dangerously close on both sides.
            “Bats!” Leela cried, swatting at the creatures.
            “They aren’t bats!” Nibbler shouted from across the cavern. “They’re cave Wyverns. Similar to bats, but poisonous!”
            Fry and Leela screamed and began flailing wildly at the Wyverns. Leela’s lack of depth perception caused some distance confusion in the half-light, and she flinched backwards reflexively when one of the creatures looked closer to her face than it was. Her boot met empty air, and she suddenly found herself dropping into open space without time to even swear.
            Hands caught her by the armpits, and she swung over the infinite black drop, looking up into Fry’s face as he held onto her, laying flat on his belly across the stone bridge. The swarm of Wyverns passed, shrieking away into the gloom, and Leela scrabbled for a grip on the rock. With Fry’s help, she managed to pull herself up onto the bridge, and they sat together for a moment, panting.
            “You okay?” Fry said.
            “I think so, thanks,” Leela replied. She narrowed her eye and shouted over to Nibbler: “Any other surprises down here?”
            “Negative!” Nibbler shouted back, and then muttered quietly to Bender: “Besides the Baldrog, of course, but it’s usually hibernating at this time of year.”
            Fry and Leela continued their precarious, painstaking journey, and arrived finally at the central column, where a ledge encircled the pale stone trunk. It was smooth, with an almost marble-like surface, which Fry ran his hands over.
            “It’s warm,” he said. “Like a bottle of beer left out in the sun.”
            “How does it open?” Leela said.
            “Why would you want to open a warm beer?”
            “No, the column…”
            “Oh, I dunno,” Fry said. “Maybe there’s a rock with a key under it…” He began looking around on the ledge, and suddenly the column began to glow with a pale warm light.
            “Idiocy level identified correct,” a soft psychic voice said. “Access granted.”
            “Hey, I did it!” Fry grinned as a large section of the column disappeared, revealing a deep alcove. He and Leela peered inside and gasped in wonder.
            Suspended in a beam of turquoise light, the Lance of Fate hung poised in glittering splendour, its shaft of exotic metal reflecting brilliantly, and the curved blade, fashioned from the condensed fabric of spacetime itself, was alive with wild and incomprehensible power… at times their eyes seemed to slide around it, and then it would change, and they’d feel as if they were being drawn in.
            “Wow,” Leela said, looking away and blinking. “I feel like I’ll have a seizure if I look at that thing too long.”
            Fry squinted at the Lance and tilted his head to one side. “I think I see it,” he said. “A bunny rabbit?”
            “It isn’t a magic-eye thing, Fry,” Leela said patiently. “Come on, just grab it and let’s get out of here before those Wyverns come back.”
            Fry reached into the light, feeling his skin tingle with unknown energy. As his hands closed around the Lance, a ripple of temporal disturbance radiated out from the blade of the weapon as it responded to Fry’s out-of-phase molecules. For a moment, every sentient being on the planet experienced a strong sense of déjà vu.
            “Didn’t we do this before?” Leela said in sudden confusion.
            “No, you’re thinking of the time we had to steal the Spear of Destiny from the Louvre,” Fry said absently, testing the weight of the weapon in his hands. It was surprisingly light.
            Leela reached out curiously to touch the mind-bending blade of the Lance, and for an instant she seemed to morph in and out of phase with regular time, appearing as an infant, a pimply teenager, an adult, an elderly woman with grey hair, and finally a dust-covered skeleton.

            Fry cried out in shock and horror at the sight, pulling the Lance away from her. She returned to her normal appearance and frowned at him in puzzlement.
            “What’s the matter?” she asked, unaware of the temporal compression that had just taken place.
            “N…nothing,” Fry said, visibly shaken. The vision of a skull with a single central eye socket was caught in his mind, no matter how hard he tried to bury it. He swallowed and tried to smile for Leela, who was looking at him oddly. A slight tremble in the ledge beneath their feet provided a distraction and they both looked around, noticing a deep background rumble that was growing louder.
            Across the cavern, Nibbler bared his teeth in alarm as stones began to dislodge from the cavern walls and clatter around him and the robot.
            “I did not know of this,” he said. “A final defensive mechanism… you must flee!”
            “Cheese it!” Bender seconded.
            A boulder the size of a house dropped past them in ponderous silence, and Fry and Leela needed no further prompting. Taking much less care this time, they began to run across the narrow stone bridge as fast as they could go, while the central column shattered behind them, and the cavern ceiling began to crumble down around their ears…
            The chamber was self-destructing.

* * *

“…So we have an accord?” Fiona asked the Big Brain, as it hovered several feet above her. The other Nibblonians hung back, growling and gnashing their teeth.
            “Yes, yes!” the Brain pulsed irritably in its rounded androgynous voice. “Now just stop thinking so much… argh, it hurts!”
            Fiona inclined her head, then glanced up when an aide prodded her shoulder and whispered in her ear. Her three eyes widened.
            “That impulsive idiot!” she said.
            “A problem?” the Big Brain pulsed.
            “One of my kind,” Fiona said awkwardly. “…Is trying to make off with the Lance of Fate…”
            “The Lance of Fate?” the Brainspawn seethed, and the incredulity and horror of it’s the rest of the horde could be felt despite their high-altitude positions. “But you agreed long ago that it would never…”
            “This is just one Nibblonian!” Fiona said hurriedly.
            “Well the Lance is useless without the Mighty One in any case,” the Brainspawn said.
            Fiona cleared her throat uncomfortably. “He… he has the Mighty One with him.”
            Although a creature with no throat or lungs shouldn’t technically gasp, the Brainspawn did away with logic for the duration and did just that. “They must be stopped!” it said.
            “Agreed,” Fiona replied.

            With that, the Brainspawn floated away quickly, and Fiona headed back to the hovercraft. The other Nibblonians eyed her, some with simple uncertainty, but others now with undisguised malice. She didn’t care – the future of their species was at stake, and sacrifices had to be made.

This is NOT the End... Go to "Blame it to the Brain - Part 2"

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