looking forward to the next update, which I thought was even better than this one. Although really, for me, 'better' is pretty much synonymous with 'has more explosions'.
SO: I guess this story is about to get a lot 'better'...
kim, SW, TNUK, Arch: Thanks for plodding away on this!
“Do you really have to have that thing dangling from the rear view mirror?” Leela asked.
“All the “in” people have fuzzy pink Dodecahedrons,” Amy grumbled. “Haven’t you heard?” She winced, having caught herself too late. “Oops, sorry, I forgot you aren’t up to date on those things.” She couldn’t resist the little barb, as she was still a little annoyed at Leela for not letting her drive. She batted the neon toy playfully, as the Moon filled up their viewport and then slid past.
“You, and it, are blocking my view,” the Cyclops muttered, flicking her glance at the radar, then freezing her gaze on the screen. “Sit back,” she said.
Something in Leela’s tone caused Amy to snap back into her buggalo-lined seat, and look to her right. A vessel about twice the size of the PE ship was ascending from the Moon and slowly starting to parallel their course.
“They after us?” the intern asked.
“No, but they’re heading to the same place,” Leela said, ramming the Romeo’s dainty control rod forward in a fruitless attempt to make their tiny ship move faster. “And they’ll be way past us in moments.”
Indeed, Amy could already see the glow from the exhaust nozzles of the ship as it pulled ahead.
“Too bad we can’t just hitch a ride,” she said. “Me and my friends used to be able to get halfway to Sirius with just a wink and a giggle. Course there were some real Creeps out there—“
“Yeah, Creepious VI has an overpopulation problem,” Leela said, “but you’ve given me an idea. Don’t you have a tractor beam somewhere here? You know, to tow you when you break down?”
Puzzled, Amy tapped a fuzzy pink switch on the dashboard, and then her eyes widened as comprehension dawned. “You’re gonna-“
“Put your helmet on and seal your suit,” Leela said.
Amy barely had time to finish sealing her space suit before Leela rerouted all power the Beta Romeo could muster from the engines to the tractor beam. Moments later, Amy’s head slammed back against her Buggalo-lined seat, as the beam locked into the stern of the larger vessel, and the small craft groaned under the sudden acceleration. A crack appeared in the windshield and a faint hiss betrayed the presence of air leaking into vacuum.
“I’m glad I made us put on the suits,” Leela said through gritted teeth, trying to move her arms against the acceleration. “We’ll be lucky if this thing holds together before we get out of the solar system. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about Nibbler if we break apart.” She glanced worriedly at the small form napping and purring peacefully between them.
Any snarky reply Amy was going to respond with was cut short by the sudden barrel roll Leela executed to dodge a blast of directed energy sent to them from the larger vessel. Like a cow’s tail trying to swat away an annoying fly, the rear turret of the bounty hunter’s vessel peppered the surrounding space with energy blasts, but couldn’t track the feints and dodges Leela managed to put the tiny ship through, while nursing the fragile tractor beam connection joining the two vessels. Within moments the firing stopped.
“Goosh,” exhaled the intern. “Guess they gave up on us?”
“No,” Leela said, not taking her eye off the long-range sensors, “they simply need the power to get where we all want to go as fast as possible.” An image of Saturn appeared on the screen. “We’ll deal with these guys in a moment. But we all have to get there first.” And with that, she gingerly adjusted the tractor beam, drew their tiny vehicle in close to the bounty hunters’ ship, activated the electromagnetic parking clamps, and fastened them to the ship’s hull.
“Can’t we go faster?” Fry whined, nervously casting glances out the viewport.
“We are currently flying at the legal speed limit toward the Charon on-ramp onto the Sqrt(66) starway,” the computer said, giving no hint of impatience at having had to repeat itself five times in three minutes.
“Can’t we go faster?”
“I can release the vessel to manual control, and then you can do whatever you wish. However, all your actions will be logged by me, as required by DOOP regulations.”
Fry hesitated, torn between conflicting emotions. There was the blaze of joy at flying an honest to goodness spaceship, but also the faint gasps of common sense that reminded him that he had flown this incredibly complex craft only three times in seven years, and none of those experiences had turned out well.
More stars were moving outside the viewport, creating an illusion of snowflakes drifting by the ship.
“Bender, can you fly this thing?”
“Sure, that’s easy, but I figure our reward is gonna get pumped up faster if we actually start shooting at things. So I’m gonna go to the gun turret and ratchet up our bounties by a billion or so.” With that, Bender stood up from the couch and sauntered toward the bridge portal, chuckling quietly.
“Wait, Bender! Don’t leave me alone here!”
“You’ll be fine. Just point the ship away from all the other ships, and go really, really fast. And don’t take my money.” And with that the bending unit slipped away.
Fry turned toward Zoidberg and Scruffy, opened his mouth, had second thoughts, and turned back to the computer.
“OK, I’m flying the ship now.”
“No problem,” Gary’s voice said cheerfully.
Fry grabbed the steering stick and pressed a large red button to open the engines further.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” the computer asked.
“Yes,” Fry said firmly.
“Confirmed. The ship will self-destruct in –“
“Are you sure you want to stop the self-destruct sequence?”
“Please hit Cntrl-Alt-Delete on the side panel next to you.”
Fry followed the advice, and then focused on trying to keep his hand from shaking.
“Umm…, where’s the button to make the ship go faster?”
A green light appeared over a tiny dipswitch on the side of the console.
Fry flicked the switch like he had never flicked anything before. For a few moments the hull of the ship vibrated in response to the surge of the engines before the inertial dampers could compensate. Despite everything, Fry had to smile. For the first time in days, he now could really run for his life. Anywhere he wanted—
“Flight time decreased to fifteen minutes, based on increased fuel consumption,” Gary’s voice said.
“The Planet Express ship has been detected, and is headed to the Charon on-ramp,” Kif said, unconsciously deflating his air sacs in preparation for a fight.
“Shoot them out of the sky,” Zapp said authoritatively, savoring the sibilance of the phrase.
“Too far away, sir. Also, we would probably destroy the on-ramp to the starway.”
“That would not be a good thing, sir. The DOOP owns the starway.”
“I see, Kif. I see.”
Branignan adopted his favorite pose of command, then sat, frozen, trying to think of something to say. “What are those other dots on the screen?”
“Those are a bunch of bounty hunters trying to reach the on-ramp along with the PE ship.”
“Why are they doing that?”
“They are trying to get on the starway with the PE ship before the on-ramp is shut down and the starway blockaded.”
“Who’s shutting down the on-ramp?”
“You’re about the issue the order, sir.”
“Of course. Kif, tell those civilian sissies who run this prissy starway to shut down the onramp. And have my men block traffic in the starway.”
“Yessir,” Kiff replied, typing in a code. “It’s going to take a few minutes for the magnetic portals to generate enough power to seal the on-ramp gateway. There’s a chance they might make it in.”
“Fate has dealt me a low pair, Kif, but I’m going to jump her queen,” the captain of the Nimbus growled grimly. “Get us to the gate!”
Kif nodded absently, too preoccupied to sigh, while scanning the transponder codes of the mess of vessels starting to converge on the portal. Early in their relationship, Amy and him had exchanged their codes, so they could map where each other was at all times, during their extended separations. He had never thought he would have to use it like this.
Somewhere, he knew, Amy was getting into trouble…
“The gateway to the ramp is starting to close,” Amy said, teeth chattering from the heavy vibrations that were being transmitted to the Romeo from the shuddering engines of the bounty hunter’s vessel.
“So I see,” Leela said, staring at the long range scanner. On the display a blue donut-like torus was starting to contract around a force-field tube that lead onto the starway. The pitch of the vibration changed as the nearby turret of the bounty hunter ship rotated toward the bow of the vessel. “They’re going to try to disable the ship before it reaches the on-ramp.”
“What then? They’ll be swarmed by bounty hunters trying to board.”
“Well, we’ll just have to be part of the swarm,” fumed Leela. They had blown their advantage. Everyone now knew where the PE Ship was, since that damned delivery boy was blazing toward the entrance at top speed, and not exactly being subtle about it. And from all sides of the outer system ships were converging toward the closing portal, as if the portal were some sort of black hole sucking in all surrounding traffic.
“We still have one advantage,” Leela mused. “A small one, but it might be important. The spacesuits on board have transponders on them that always activate when worn. If they try to abandon ship, we can lock in on those transponder codes and maybe sweep them up faster than everyone else.”
“Splugh,” Amy sighed, “my car is going to get dented, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” Leela said, consciously willing her muscles to relax.
“Ten minutes of flight time left,” the computer said.
Fry tried to remember all their past crises on this same ship, and tried to recall what his competent captain had done. He could only remember two things. She always went faster, and always told him to calm down.
He slammed the control stick down, and the bridge shook noticeably as the PE engines screamed, as if in pain. As for calming down—well, snap, one out of two would have to do.
“Structural acceleration of frame is exceeding safety standards,” warned the computer, a faint tone of disapproval edging into the voice for the first time. “And you only have eight minutes of fuel left, at current consumption rates.”
“Am I still heading to the starway thingie?” Fry asked.
A calloused hand reached over Fry’s shoulder and pointed to the display.
“Jes’ as long as you keep that red x centered on the blue donut.”
Startled, Fry glanced over his shoulder, almost burying his nose in Scruffy’s mustache.
“How’d you know that?”
“Scruffy’s been places, done things.”
“Why is that donut getting smaller?”
“They’re trying to close the gate ‘fore you get there. But that’s a lot of power they need to seal the entrance, so you got a minute or so.”
And with that, the janitor leaned back on his sofa and opened up a new magazine, indifferent to the scene unfolding outside the viewport. Fry stared for a moment, then shrugged and turned back to the console, just as the first barrage of laser fire hit them.
The Romeo shook under the recoil of the directed energy weapons blazing from the bounty hunter’s gun turret.
“Wow, everyone’s throwing everything at them,” Amy said, staring at her display, which was now ablaze with light.
“Everyone’s getting desperate. My—I mean, the Professor’s ship is really fast,” Leela said, with a small hint of pride in her voice. “And their aim is terrible.”
Off in the far distance, a laser blasted from the PE ship’s turret, and one of the smaller vessels that looked like a mutated hedgehog suddenly began to spin, as one of its stabilizers was wrenched away by the laser impact.
“Nice shot,” Leela said. “Wonder who’s shooting? Not him.”
Both women glanced at each other for a moment.
“Bender,” they said, simultaneously.
The image of the cigar chomping robot gleefully unleashing death and destruction on organic life brought a fond smile to both of their faces, and the accumulated tension that had built up inside their cab dissipated ever so slightly.
Looking out the windshield, Amy could now clearly see the outlines of several ships as the trajectories of all the hunters began to parallel and merge, all with one destination—a little red x in the center of the rapidly shrinking magnetic portal.
“Is that one of Mom’s ships?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Leela said. “They probably want their money back before one of us bounty hunter scum strolls away with it.”
Having turned her attention back to her display, Amy now squeaked in excitement.
“The PE ship is slowing!”
“Figures, since they’re using so much power shooting,” Leela mused. “They’re gonna have to make a decision, fight or flee.” It felt strange, very strange, to be talking about what the PE ship was doing, trying to guess what her ship was up to. They didn’t just steal a piece of machinery
, she mused. They’ve stolen a part of me, almost like kidnapping a child.
It was an unfortunate choice of image, because a stampede of other associations and memories of Fry’s past sins flooded her thoughts, and the steering wheel groaned as her anger expressed itself in her grip. Even as she fumed, she marveled at her emotions. As a survival tactic, growing up in a hostile world, she’d always been able, on some level, to view her life with a sense of detachment, as if she was standing outside herself and dispassionately judging the situation. And now that part of her stood outside her jumble of emotions and was astonished at what she had become, and for a moment, just a moment, she felt like she was no longer in control of herself.
“Who the hell shut off my guns!” raged the robot as he stormed onto the bridge. “I was just about to kill something or somebody!”
“Computer says we gotta shut off the guns to go faster,” Fry grunted, eye glued to the display, where the blue donut was getting uncomfortably small.
“You’re just jealous that I’m a better shot than you,” muttered Bender, lighting one of his ubiquitous cigars.
“Just how many of those cigars you got?” Fry growled, coughing, while batting the control stick back and forth, hoping that the ship could dodge at least some of the lethal weaponry bouncing off their rapidly weakening shields.
Bender glanced at the display, and leaned back.
“Enough for the next six minutes.”
“Excuse me, my friends,” Zoidberg said, “but I don’t think they want us anymore.” His alien accent could not hide the clear disappointment in his trill. For the first time in his life, Zoidberg had felt truly wanted. Someone was actually paying money to find him. The normally earthbound doctor had been thrilled, even if all the people who wanted him had been shooting at him.
Bender cocked his head, an impressive feat for a bending unit without a neck. “Yeah, the shooting is dropping off.”
“Why are they doing that? Is that good?” Fry asked.
Everyone on the bridge gave the classic “I dunno” shrug, and Fry ground his teeth in frustration. Everything was so complicated, and not for the first time he wished Leela were there to explain what it all meant.
“We’re boned,” Leela said.
Amy said nothing, hoping to stave off another lecture. No luck.
“Nobody’s firing anymore, except the morons we’re clinging too. Guess they’re too stupid to realize that if they’re going to make it through the portal, they’re going to have to put all power into their engines.”
Even as she spoke, the turret firing just a few meters above their head fell silent, and they felt a surge of acceleration as the bounty hunters’ vessel struggled to close the distance between themselves and the tightening cloud of vessels pulling away ahead.
The hunters were becoming indistinguishable from the hunted, as every eye or equivalent sensory organ focused on their common enemy: the rapidly shrinking portal that within a minute would seal off the starway from the outside world. Everyone was now flying in parallel formation, postponing any attempt at capturing their prey, which darted forward tantalizingly close just ahead of all them, and instead squeezing every last bit of power from their engines, racing against the laws of physics, as the last 10% of the portal began to vanish. A giant game of space chicken was in progress—risk the barrier or pull away to safety? Given that a large DOOP contingent was probably waiting for the fugitives on the other side of the starway, there was only going to be one shot for a bounty.
Relieved, Leela saw that their vessel was all in, committed to success or destruction. She nodded her approval. The vessels were merging so close together, that she could see Larray, Walt and Ignar staring through the portal of the Mom Corp ship, now uncomfortably close. And then, suddenly, it peeled away and slowed down. Leela smirked, unsurprised; Mom’s sons had a lot to lose, why should they risk everything?Why am I risking everything? Don’t I have something to live for? My parents? Gary? Should I be risking Amy and Nibbler?
She shoved the thoughts out of her mind. They had to get the ship; she had to get Fry.
Like poker players going all in, eleven ships barreled after the PE ship as the rest of the hunters swerved away to safety and surrender.
“Five seconds to closure,” Kif said, watching the cluster of lights on his monitor streak toward the collapsing gate, his attention riveted on one of the larger dots, his hand clenching in frustration. There was no time to stop the process now. And here was the final seal intensifying in place—
Twelve vessels smashed onto the onramp, sending a burst of radiation propagating down the starway. The transition through the high energy densities of the port chopped the velocities of everyone almost instantaneously, and two ships at the tail of the group lost control and began spinning helplessly down Route Sqrt(66), bouncing off the force field barriers that encased the starway. Meanwhile, the outside world was getting crowded with frustrated bounty hunters, rubberneckers, and now the Nimbus. A few hunters shot laser fire at the PE ship in frustration, but their beams reflected harmlessly off the cylindrical force fields that safely ensconced the one-way traffic hurtling down the lanes. A short distance away, a second series of force fields encased the traffic flow heading in the opposite direction.
Despite the sudden deceleration, the runaways and the bounty hunters were still moving so fast that the normal traffic traveling along the starway seemed to be standing still, which turned out to be a bit of a problem as three other bounty vessels rear-ended into some normal traffic, planting the seeds for an enormous pile up.
Leela clenched her hands as their hitchhiked ship struggled to dart through the mess swelling around them.
“These guys are just too big,” she muttered, “and what idiot allowed traffic to keep moving on this thing?”
“Why didn’t you stop the traffic?” asked Kif.
“I refuse to inconvenience civilians because of the activities of desperate criminals,” Zapp sniffed. “Now, shoot them.”
“They got through onto the starway, along with some bounty hunters,” Kif said, speaking slowly and clearly. “They’re surrounded by regular traffic that hasn’t reached our blockade yet. In order to take out the force fields, we’re going to have to use the highest settings on our neutrino neutralizers. At that power level, we can’t control our aim well. We’re going to hit a lot of civilians. And the blockade is going to stop them anyway.”
“Sometimes, Kiff, you have to break a few eggs to make a margarita,” Zapp declared, “and some day you’ll understand that. Also, they’re not civilians, they’re collateral damage. And if someone gets shot, at least they’ll die knowing they weren’t inconvenienced.”
Kif decided that now was as good a time as any to sigh.
It was just like a video game, thought Fry, a video game with no extra lives. He played best with only one life left. Hands clenched white on the control stick, he caught glimpses of small passenger vans, cargo vessels, and hypertrucks as he glanced the PE ship against them, attempting to thread his way through the sluggish traffic crowding the lanes, frantically trying to stay ahead of the cloud of debris and wreckage that was snowballing behind him. He could only see three kilometers ahead on his radar and three seconds into the future. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the radar display a huge mass of stationary traffic accumulating just ahead of them, but just behind him seven ships were wending their way through the unfolding disaster, and clearly starting to converge on him. But he couldn’t go any faster.
He felt a shudder pass through the ship as a laser cannon impacted him on the side. Glancing sideways, he saw a news van swerve deliberately sideways into him. Just before the collision, he saw the driver.
“Morbo?” he said.
“The puny Earth human is now on the starway, but he will be destroyed, a pitiful preview of what lies in store for all humans-“
“Thank you Morbo,”
Linda’s voice interrupted. “For those of you just joining us, criminal masterentities Philip Fry and Bender Rodriguez have just forced their way onto the sqrt(66) expressway-“
Amy lowered the volume of the news broadcast, just as a vehicle flashed by their viewport, missing them by less than 100 meters.
“Hey, that’s the Robot Mafia-“ she began, but was cut off as the Romeo gave a sudden lurch, and she realized Leela had released the clamps from their free ride.
But Leela had already reset the tractor beam on the rapidly vanishing end of the Donbot’s car, and Amy’s head slammed back into her helmet as her poor car squeaked and snapped under the enormous jolt that pulled them forward. Looking in her rear-view screen, Leela saw their original host suddenly careen wildly into the sides of the starway in a fruitless attempt to prevent from ramming into a cloud of debris and bumper stickers. She allowed herself a tight grin—her split second decision had been correct. Strangely enough, in the midst of all this destruction she was starting to relax. Like a narrow flashlight beam, her mind was shedding all distractions and was focusing on only one thing, the faint green blob of the PE ship bounding along the highway up ahead, four other vehicles in hot pursuit. You know, whoever’s flying that thing isn’t doing too badly, she thought. Even as she watched the PE ship, its outline grew larger. The Robot Mafia was fast. Fast and stupid. Good combination for right now.
“However, the action may be short-lived. The DOOP has now shut down the starway and blockaded all traffic downstream of the Charon entrance-“
Linda’s words were drowned out as the bridge shuddered again under the collision with Morbo’s newsvan.
“Can I shoot him?” Bender growled.
Fry, sweating, didn’t bother to respond.
“Five minutes of fuel left,” Gary’s voice chimed in. “And one minute to the stopped traffic up ahead.”
What was he going to do? What was he going to do? He wished he had his Rush mix tape—it would have calmed his panic a wee bit.
Up ahead he could now see a swarm of red lights, a mix of brake lights from a sea of stopped traffic, and beyond, the flashing lights of a small DOOP fleet.
“Fire,” said Zapp.
“Just a few more moments and we’ll have them at the -“ Kif cautioned.
Zapp swaggered his finger and pressed a button.
The weaponry of the Nimbus blazed into action, and the neutrino neutralizers pounded into the force fields surrounding the starway. Had it not been for those fields, the PE ship might have been vaporized instantly. As it happened, the force fields took the brunt of it, and the surge regulators embedded around the starway overloaded and blew their safeties, heaving the entire starway vertically several meters. The force fields surrounding all lanes of the starway flickered, then vanished. For a few seconds, at least, the starlanes were now exposed to the rest of the Universe.
Now that the roadblock was visible, Bender’s calm was starting to dissipate, and his hands restlessly picked Fry’s pocket, extracting the new wallet that the bald man had given him yesterday.
“OK, meatbag. What’s next?”Good question
, panicked the delivery boy. Don’t panic, don’t panic…What would Leela do?
He asked himself again. It was not a question he usually asked, because whenever he had been in a situation where he would have wanted to ask that question, Leela had always been right next to him, so instead of trying to think, he had happily settled for watching. Well, time to start. What would Leela--
At that moment the entire starway, including all lanes of traffic, seemed to shudder, then suddenly jerked toward the left. Startled, Fry yanked the controls to the left, plunging the ship into a barrel roll.
“Force field’s down,” Bender said nonchalantly, and it was true. Fry could now clearly see a phalanx of bounty hunters clustered around all sides of the starway, frozen motionless, as if they were in shock. Then they began to move.
Traffic wreck behind him, blockade ahead, bounty hunters above, a glimpse of the Nimbus below, Morbo to the right—at least he thought it was the right—the ship was still rolling, rolling to the left—
Toward the starway lanes carrying traffic in the opposite direction.
Fry started to flick his wrist to the right, to stop the ship from stumbling onto the other half of the starway, but for some reason his arm hesitated for a moment. He blinked in confusion, wondering what idea was germinating in his mind, and in that moment, Bender, being uncharacteristically gentle, leaned over and tapped the controls to the left again. Thus the ship continued to roll and casually slipped onto the lanes carrying traffic in the other direction, like an oblivious dog trotting across a freeway.
Five hundred life forms screamed and five hundred anti-collision safety systems swerved five hundred vehicles sideways, below, and over the PE Ship, which was now hurtling straight down the starway against incoming traffic. Realizing what they had just done, Fry froze in place, with a death-grip on the controls, staring straight ahead as vehicles flashed past him on all sides, scared to flinch his muscles in any direction, terrified to even breathe.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Leela could hear Amy screaming. Another part of her impartially observed two bounty hunters swerve off the starway to avoid the blockade just ahead, abandoning the chase. Two other vehicles attempted to jump across the lanes into the oncoming traffic after Fry, one clipping an oncoming vehicle and bursting in to a pretty pattern of radiation. Behind them three other vehicles were trying the same stunt. She noted the freeway force barrier attempt to switch on for a fraction of a second, then flicker off again.The robot hunters. Only the robots can make such a move with split-second timing.
The DonBot’s car, a few hundred meters ahead of them, was starting to roll into the opposite lanes in pursuit, confident in the microsecond-scale reflexes of positronic brains. Their ship was being dragged along, offset a few meters to the side.
The rest of the bounty hunter ships, those who were not robots, were stumbling off the starway, focusing on avoiding the ball of debris that, now unconstrained by the encasing cylindrical force fields, expanded freely into space. Other ships started to swarm just outside the traffic flow of the opposite lanes, trying to find an opportunity to take a pot shot at the PE ship, safely ensconced by a surrounding tunnel of traffic moving in the opposite direction. And in the distance, the Nimbus lumbered into view, passing under the now ineffective blockade.
She wanted to maneuver with the Robot Mafia, turn with them into the traffic. But she was afraid. No matter how good she was, she didn’t have the reflexes of a machine. It was suicide to try to drive head on into traffic moving at these speeds.But he was doing it, wasn’t he?
How could she risk Amy’s and Nibbler's life on what amounted to a throw of the dice?He’s doing it. He’s getting away. He’s showing you up. He’s making a fool out of you. Him. Braver than you. How will you live with yourself?
Dimly she became aware that Amy was not the only one screaming. That other high-pitched voice had to be her. But instead of fear, it was fury that was bursting forth, and without further thinking she mirrored the motions of the DonBot’s limousine, keeping the tractor beam safely intact, and tossed their lives into the lap of Chance.