"*Bzzzt!* Good morning, California! It's gonna be hot hot hot today, with a high of -"
Bob Kiwi rolled over and swatted at the radio. Unfortunately, he succeeded only in knocking it to the floor, not shutting it up, and after a few more minutes of the radioman's cheery banter he decided to put an end to his suffering and get up. He shuffled through his morning routine in the dim light filtering through the curtains, unwilling to turn on a light and too tired to raise the shades.
He made his way to the kitchen and fumbled with the coffeemaker. Ten minutes and one pot of coffee later, Bob was awake and once again ready to take on the world. Grabbing his detective hat, he strolled out of his apartment, rode the elevator to ground floor, and headed off in the direction of his office.
The weatherman was right, he though to himself, it *is* a nice day - sunny and warm, with a slight breeze and absolutely NO smog. He noticed the crowds around newsstands and an unusually high number of police on the sidewalks and roads, and briefly wondered if he should have stopped to read the news -- it looked like someone important was coming to town. He shrugged to himself. He'd read the paper at work.
The building that housed Bob's detective agency was quiet - an unusual occurrence that was due mostly to the fact that a large amount of the area's kingpins had recently taken permanent vacations. That, and the fact that the Evil Sir Ivan Kiwi had been out of town recently, which always marked a slump in crime. The week had been a slow one so far - a few background checks and a fact-finding mission for an orphan convinced she was related to the governor. Bob fully expected the rest of the week to follow suit.
His hopes of a slow week were shattered the moment he walked into the office. As opposed to the quiet, deserted hallway, the office was a frenzied state of chaos. A dozen cops combed through the office, searching case files - regardless of whether the files were closed, opened, and unstarted. As Bob looked for someone he recognized, Ferdie came out of his room, cradling a cell phone as he followed a pair of cops carrying boxes of files.
"Come on, guys, you really don't need to look through ALL our files! She didn't even send that many over to us, anyway, and they were all minor things, like lost pets or something! Stuff you don't have time for, that's all! Why don't you look through her files at the precinct?"
"We ARE," the green bird replied, "and while we're probably not going to find anything here, I for one am not about to spend a month going through her cases searching for this guy. You've got a lot less files."
"Yes, but I'm also the easier guy to hit. You'd like need an army to go after Sis," Ferdie replied. The cell phone shrieked. Wincing, he emphatically shook his head and spoke into the phone.
"No, no, Ma, I was speaking metaphorically! There's not an army after her!....No, Ma, nobody's after me, either....Ma! Calm down! She's fine!.....I don't care WHAT the papers say!....Look, here, ask the police, they'll tell you!"
He held the phone out to an orange cop nearby. "Here, Casey, YOU talk to her for a minute, okay? Tell her my sister's okay."
"But we don't know where they are, much less if they're okay," Casey said apologetically, "We don't even know what really happened! All we know is the only real witness is screaming something about a duck built like Aucknald Schwartzenager."
"MA DOESN'T KNOW THAT!.....Look, just tell her the papers are wrong and Ferdia didn't get squashed by a meteor or abducted by aliens or whatever!" Ferdie pleaded, holding out the phone. "Come on, someone else needs to talk to her, she's not believing me. You and Ferdia worked together, maybe she'll believe you. I don't care *what* you tell her! Just tell her *something*!"
Casey sighed and took the phone. "Hello, Mrs. Birdie? This is Officer Redwall....yes, Casey, that's right...."
Relieved at not having to talk to his hysterical mother for a while, Ferdie walked up to Bob, who was still standing in the middle of the lounge with a confused expression on his face.
"Hi, Bob! Uh, Ferdia and Squeaks disappeared last night under, uh...suspicious conditions, and the police think they might be in trouble, so they're searching our files."
"Waitaminute! THEY disappear, THEY're in trouble, and the cops're searching OUR files?" He scratched his head. "I don't understand."
Trevor plopped a box into Ferdie's arms. "Here, these are your solved 'missing pet' cases. We don't need 'em."
"Great," Ferdie muttered, staggering from the weight of the box, "Guess I'll just put them back, then....wherever they went..."
"What're you looking for?" Bob asked.
"Witness identified a six-foot tall duck in a biker hat and dark glasses. Blood samples from the crime scene place two avians and one mouse there, and the mouse and one avian sample matches Squeaks' and Ferdia's samples on file, so we're assuming the witness wasn't as stoned as he appeared to be. Any of your files mention a six-foot-tall duck?"
"Oh, and *I* couldn't tell you that?!?" Ferdie demanded indignantly.
"I don't think so..." Bob began.
"Hey!" a cop yelled from further inside the office, "Where's the key to this door?"
"Oh, that's Iiwi's office. She doesn't keep any files in there," Ferdie said. "The ones she's finished, she puts on our shelves, and the ones she's working on, she takes with her. But she doesn't have any open cases right now - she finished them all before she went on vacation last week."
"You don't have a key?"
"Sure we do....we just don't know where it is. But Iiwi's due back in today, so she'll let ya in when she gets here."
"I'll let who in where?" a voice asked. Perched on the windowsill was Iiwi.
"They need to get in your office," Bob told her.
"Oh, but I don't have the key," she said, "I usually just fly in through the window. But I'll go in and look for it anyway," she added, hopping outside and flitting to her office's window.
Iiwi opened the window and hopped inside, making a precursory sweep of the area to make sure there wasn't anything incriminating in the office. There was nothing illegal about being a bounty hunter, as long as you could convince the authorities that everyone you went after was wanted by the law. But third parties often had more interesting or lucrative jobs - as well as a way of paying for services with rare and valuable things - and she wanted to be sure the 'payments' that decorated her office were not too obvious in their values.
As she looked them over, her gaze traveled to the answering machine on her desk. The light was on -- odd, she rarely got messages on this line. Thinking it better to listen to it before the cops could, she pressed play. The machine identified the caller as a Galaxia Kiwi, calling at around three a.m. the night before. Interesting. The voice that spoke from the machine was not one she recognized.
"Greetings, Iiwi. I am Galaxia Kiwi, captain of the Duckhawk. I desire your services in a matter or galactic importance. If you are interested, you will find the equipment that will take you to a ship in San Viano's Post Office Box #667. The ship will automatically take you to rendezvous with me; you are invited to bring along anyone you think will be able to be of service, as you will require a crew. As payment for helping me, you will receive the ship and any goods you acquire with it. If you choose to reject this offer, destroy this message and send the ship back empty. Also, this is a matter that requires the utmost secrecy -- if a duck should approach you about it, you are to deny any knowledge of me or this message. I await your reply."
Iiwi played the strange message again, then deleted it. It was highly unusual for someone to leave such a message on this line - most used her secure line for that purpose. She went to the door, wondering about the curious P.O. box number for a moment before she remembered that Ivan had box 666. Unlocking the door, she opened it and walked out, waving the waiting cops into her office.
"Here ya go, but you're not gonna find...whatever it is you're looking for," she said, realizing that she didn't know what they were here *for*. But they were searching everyone's office, so it couldn't be of much concern for her.
"Thought you didn't have a key," one of the cops scowled at her.
"I don't. I picked the lock," she shrugged, walking past him towards her fellow detectives, "Hey, guys, I gotta go to the post office, okay?" she flew to the window.
"But you just got here!" Bob yelled after her.
"Yeah, well....it hadn't opened yet! I'll be right back!"
Iiwi flew back to the office, the gadget from the post office clenched in her small talons. This thing looks straight out of Star Trek, she thought. The size of a pager, it looked like a cross between a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. ~ A dead runner for a communicator if I ever saw one! ~ she told herself.
Folding her wings in close, she dove toward the office's open window. Her mystery caller could wait a while - she wanted to know what the cops had been looking for in the office, now that they were gone. They *had* to be gone - it had taken her all morning and most of the afternoon to locate the post office box in question.
Her caller could have had the courtesy to mention exactly *which* of San Viano's twelve post offices the box was at, not to mention the combination of the box. After arguing with a postal employee for an hour, she'd stormed off to see if she could pick the lock, only to find the box had had its combination entered in already and only needed a quarter turn to open it.
She landed in the middle of the lounge, in front her two sulking partners. "Hi, guys!"
"And where have *you* been?" Ferdie grumbled from a beat-up recliner.
"At the post office," she said, "Really. Had to check a box, and forgot which post office it was at.....So, did the cops find what they were lookin' for?"
"No, just like I knew they wouldn't, just like I told them they wouldn't. I really think I'd remember it if some duck twice my size threatened me."
"I think I'd remember him even if he didn't threaten me," Bob observed, placing another empty coffee cup on a growing stack.
"Wait. They were looking for a duck? Why?"
"Sis and Squeaks went missing last night. Sometime after midnight a fireball or airplane or whatever smashed into their car, and, according to the guy they were arresting, this six-foot-something duck came out like the Terminator. Then the three of them disappear in a flash of light."
"You heard me. Cops have no clue where to start - they have a set of fingerprints that don't match any on file anywhere, a description from a guy in therapy, and a melted pile of metal that's either the weirdest military aircraft yet or a very sophisticated meteor. Ma was so freaked out she screamed 'til she fainted and somebody here decided to sedate her."
"Wow. And a duck did this?"
"Why the hell does that matter!?! My sister's missing!"
"Don't yell at me! It matters 'cause I got a message from a Galaxia Kiwi last night around midnight, and she warned me about a duck!"
Ferdie sat bolt upright. "WHAT?!"
"Hey, what's that in your footness?" Bob asked, seeing the gizmo she carried.
"It's what was in the box Galaxia told me to look for. I think it's a communicator or something. I'm supposed to use it to contact a ship."
"Wait. Back up. What do you mean, a ship?"
"She means a spaceship, right Iiwi?" Bob asked eagerly, "Anyone named Galaxia MUST be from outer space!"
"Yeah. She said the ship was mine if I took the job, and I could bring anyone I wanted with me."
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute! This is ridiculous! Are you suggesting my sister's been abducted?!"
"Hey, that flash of light could be a transporter!" Bob yelled.
"Hey, EARTH TO TREKKIES, that stuff AIN'T REAL!!!"
"Are you saying interstellar space travel isn't real? You, whose sister's partner is an alien?"
"That's not fair, Iiwi."
"Sure it is. Besides, I'm not saying they were abducted or anything. But this Galaxia warned me about the ducks at approximately the same time your sister and Squeaks were attacked by one, and I'm willing to bet the 'meteor' was a ship or something. And it follows that wherever the duck flashed to, Ferdia and Squeaks went as well, right? So, if this Galaxia knows where we could find these ducks, we would know where to look for your sister, right?"
"Yeah...." Ferdie said, considering what she'd said.
"So, what do you say? Is it worth a look?"
"Exactly what 'job' does she want you to do, Iiwi?" Ferdie asked. Though she'd never admitted as much to them, he and Bob were almost certain their partner occasionally took part in less-than-admirable pursuits.
"I dunno. She didn't say. But I could always turn it down."
"Great! Let's boldly go where no kiwi has gone before!" Bob yelled.
"Just what I've always wanted - a trip with Captain Kirk and Uhura," Ferdie muttered.
"Come on, Bones, don't be a stick in the mud," Iiwi teased.
"Bones? Can't I be Spock instead?"
"Great, then let's get to the Enterprise. Scotty, three to beam up!"
"And he says WE watch too much Star Trek," Bob commented, adjusting his hat.
"I can't believe you just let her walk out of here."
"I'm sorry, doctor. But she DID look much better, and she said you said she could leave."
"Well, I *DIDN'T*, so go find her!"
Ferdia sat in a darkened corner of the Twelve Forward lounge, leaning on the viewport's sill and gazing out at the stars flying by. The lounge was otherwise deserted, its other occupants having left hours ago to start their shifts or rest up for their next one. Thinking they were the last to leave, an ensign had turned the lights out a while ago, failing to notice the bluebird in the corner watching the cosmos go by.
The redheaded doctor in sickbay had told her she had some bruised ribs in addition to the damage done to her throat. She'd been given a shot with some type of needle-less needle that somehow sped up her body's healing rate, and had felt fine within an hour. She'd then been given a chance to shower and change. The doctor had even yielded to her insistence that her torn uniform be cleaned and returned to her. The washed uniform had been returned almost immediately, and she'd quickly donned it and departed. She hated hospitals, even space-age ones, and hadn't wanted to stay any longer than she had to.
Squeaks and the duck hadn't been there when she'd left - she'd been deemed the one most in need of medical attention and had been attended to first. Her partner had been arguing with the duck as she was taken into an examination room; both were gone when she came out, and a brief survey of sickbay hadn't turned up either of them.
But the lack of a guide hadn't stopped her -- she'd simply wandered around the ship for a while, ignoring the curious looks the crew gave her and relying on her memories of Star Trek to navigate through the ship and use the turbolift. She'd stumbled across engineering somewhere along the way, and had amused an engineer with her curiosity enough that he'd shown her around for a while, explaining systems and gadgets until he'd been called back to work. She'd then found her way to the lounge and dozed off at the viewport, only to awaken to an empty lounge and a handful of planets drifting by the screen.
She rubbed her throat, noting that it no longer hurt. She smiled, making a mental note to find out what the medication she'd been given was - a recovery counted in hours instead of days was *definitely* a medical breakthrough she liked.
Her smile faded as she realized none of the planets or stars streaking by looked even remotely familiar. Remembering the speed the ship's captain had ordered the ship to when they were on the bridge, the reality of just how far from home she really was dawned on her. ~ Poor Ferdie, ~ she thought absently ~ If anyone tells Ma I'm missing, she'll have a nervous breakdown and call him up and drive him nuts. ~
"Thought I'd find you here. Any particular reason you're sitting in the dark?" a familiar voice inquired. Standing silhouetted in the doorway was Squeaks.
"Stars look better this way."
"True," he laughed, crossing the darkened lounge, "Feeling okay?"
"Never better. Wish our hospitals could heal ya this fast. Hey," she added, noticing her partner's gray-green attire, "You're out of uniform."
He shook his head, smiling sadly. "They impounded it. I'm surprised they let you keep yours."
"I had that whole primitive-local-needs-consistency thing working for me. So that's, what, one of their uniforms?"
"Kind of. Regulation attire for a SpaceFleet officer of my race. It's...one of my old ones," he said. ~ Except I don't remember feeling so awkward in it. ~ He tugged the shirt down, adjusting it a bit. "Half the ship is looking for you, you know that?"
"Something to do with you walking out of sickbay without an escort. The computer couldn't locate you either, which was unusual. Where've you been?"
"Here and there. How'd you find me?"
"Lucky guess. This place has the best view on the ship. Other than the bridge, that is. And you obviously weren't there."
"Ah. Took you a while."
"Hey, I had to listen to the captain chew me out for a few hours before I could start looking."
"A little thing called desertion. Ships' records listed me as dead, but there I was, alive and well on some uncharted planet. Not only is it suspicious, it's grounds for court-martial until they track down my crew and straighten things out."
"They came all this way to court-martial you? Seems like an awful waste of time."
"No, they came all this way trailing someone named Galaxia. Finding me was an accident. Oh, it gets better," he continued as his partner began to object, "This Galaxia's recruited a Sir Ivan Kiwi for purposes unknown."
"And someone else, evidently. You've got to be hungry. Come on, I'll explain it over dinner."
"Breakfast." She checked her watch. "No, wait - lunch."
"TOO FAST!!! TOO FAST!!!!!"
"Oh, you guys are no fun. We've got shields to take care of that stuff."
Iiwi swerved the small ship away from the fast-approaching star, re-activating autopilot to calm her friends down. The ship swung around, arcing its way back onto its programmed flight path and heading away from the asteroid belt.
"Iiwi!" Ferdie yelled from behind a console, "We're here to find my sister, NOT give me heart failure!"
"Ooooh, at least you can't feel the speed when the computer's flying," Bob mumbled from the floor.
"Everybody's a critic."
General Creme' paced impatiently across the bridge of his ship. Galaxia was running late. Where *was* she? He hoped she hadn't run into the Ducks on her way to their rendezvous point, but the more he thought about it, the more that seemed the only reason for her tardiness. Galaxia was a spy, not a soldier - she was crafty, but not quite military material. She knew better than to betray their agreement, and was not fully aware of the value of the weapon she carried.
He muttered a silent curse. He'd warned the Council to send someone with military training with her. Fancy ship or no, an unskilled captain was no match for the Ducks' patrol ships. And he didn't trust Galaxia's security officer, D'Gal, the only true warrior aboard the Duckhawk. D'Gal cared nothing for the Bagels' carefully-laid plans; the only thing that mattered to him was extracting revenge on the Ducks for banishing him.
Drake looked over his shoulder at the scowling bird behind him. "Come on, I said I was sorry," he offered. Her scowl only deepened. He turned to the mouse walking beside him.
"Hey, Ace, how long does she hold a grudge? Ballpark figure."
"Can't say that I've ever seen her hold a grudge against anyone," Squeaks answered, "although no one's ever tried to kill her and then said it wasn't personal before."
"And I see you're still holding that against me as well," Drake sighed. "Is it so hard to believe that I didn't recognize you? I mean, none of us had ever seen you out of uniform before, and that mangled tail of yours isn't very noticeable in the dark...."
"Where are we going, anyway?" the bluebird inquired, coming up beside Squeaks and leaving as much space as possible between her and Drake as the trio stepped into a turbolift.
Drake ordered the lift to the bridge. "The captain wants you on the bridge. We're about to overtake the other ship."
"Captain! Ship de-cloaking to starboard! They're preparing to fire!"
"Evasive maneuvers!" Galaxia yelled as the first two yellow phaser blasts streaked toward her ship. Too late to dodge, she realized. "Shields up! Brace for impact!" The beams hit the starboard shields, just in front of the Duckhawk's right warp engine.
"They're aiming for our engines! Without our shields....!"
"Sound red alert! Come out of warp and return fire!"
The ship slid out of warp with a jolt, as two more phasers hit the shields. Their attacker disappeared briefly, blinking into existence seconds later as the Ducks also slowed from warp and doubled back. As the Duckhawk launched its first volley of phaser blasts at the duck-shaped ship, Galaxia heard the bridge doors slide open.
"Hey! What's with the turbulence?" Ivan demanded, stopping short as he saw the ship on the viewscreen. "Oh. In that case, I'm outta here. Hard to be a diversion when you're sitting in a shuttle bay and all..." he said, backing back onto the turbolift.
"He doesn't stand a chance out there," her black-feathered security officer smirked. "They'll pick those little fighters off one by one."
"I can't afford to lose him just yet!" Galaxia yelled. The Ducks' ship was now firing a constant stream of energy blasts at them, and their shields were beginning to falter. "Can't we fire anything *bigger* at them?"
"With pleasure," Commander Charles D'Gal said with an evil grin. "Firing phase-modulating photon torpedoes. They'll slide right through their shields."
Commodore Mallard's eyes widened as two ice-blue streaks sailed toward his ship underneath the stream of phaser bursts. "Phase modulators! Fire countermeasures! Brace for impact!"
A small decoy slid into view, then exploded as the first torpedo collided with it. The second arced around the explosion and buried itself in the belly of the ship, obliterating a section of the science wing and badly damaging one of the warp engines.
"That little pest! What's she doing with those?" Drake sputtered from his seat.
"I don't know, but let's see how she likes it! Fire torpedoes!"
"Hey, you!" Ivan yelled at the tan rabbit running past him.
"Me, sir?" She asked meekly.
"Yeah, you. You're one of this ship's pilots, right? Take me to the shuttle bay!"
"B-but I need to get to the bridge!" She stammered. "Galaxia will be angry with me!"
"Forget Galaxia. I need a crew, and you'll do for now. Now MOVE IT!"
"Oooh, look, fireworks!"
"Don't be ridiculous, Bob, there aren't any fireworks in spa--AAAA!!!!"
"What? What is it?"
"Iiwi, LOOK! We're headed straight for a war zone! Put the autopilot back on!"
"It IS on....maybe the ship we're supposed to meet with is one of those two?"
"AAAAA!!!! TURN IT OFF!! TURN IT OFF!!!!" Her partners screamed as the autopilot plunged the ship straight into the heart of the battle, heading towards the shuttle bay of the oblong ship.
As they streaked towards the opening shuttle bay, a trio of small ships darted out of it. The detectives screamed. Slapping off the autopilot, Iiwi yanked the control stick hard, flipping the ship into a loop and barely missing the three ships.
She heaved a sigh of relief and collapsed back into her chair, thankful that the warring ships weren't firing at them. Ferdie stood rooted to the spot, eyes bugged out, pointing dumbly at the screen as his beak quivered, unable to speak. Bob fainted.
"We can't take much more of this!" D'Gal yelled, scowling at the readouts. "Shields are holding up just fine against their phasers, but our hull can't take many more torpedoes! *And* we've run out of *our* torpedoes!"
"The Ducks shouldn't even *have* those torpedoes, let alone be *using* them! They're illegal! That's why *we* have them!!"
"Be that as it may, Captain, we're still losing."
"Don't we have *anything* else to hit them with?!?"
A slow, shark-like grin spread across French Commander Charles D'Gal's face. "Actually, Captain, we do."
"Captain, the Duckhawk has ceased firing!"
"Good. Either they've resigned themselves to the inevitable or we've knocked out their power generators. Open a channel to them. And get those little fighters in a tractor beam!" Commodore yelled.
"Well, Squeaks, looks like we won't be needing your help in the Forbidden Zone after all," Commodore started.
"Hey! What's that glow coming out of their shuttle bay?" Ferdia interrupted, pointing to a red circle of light that hadn't been there a moment ago.
"I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, dear. Just red alert or emergency lights or something like that."
"Emergency lights don't pulse like that, Commodore," Squeaks countered, peering at the viewscreen, "they might be readying another attack."
"With what? They don't have anything left to throw at us," Drake scoffed.
"FIRE!" Galaxia yelled, pounding her fists into her chair's armrests. True, this was not how the stolen weapon was supposed to be tested, but....
"Hey! Why'd you stop us?" Ivan demanded.
"I-it wasn't me, sir! We're caught in a tractor beam!" the young rabbit, a Dust Bunny named Lita, replied, her fingers flying across the control panel in a vain effort to break the beam's hold. "We're stuck!"
"AAAAA!!!! TRACTOR BEAM!!!!!!"
"Bob, really, get over it. No one's gonna shoot us while we're in a tractor beam. And they really don't have beams that will pick you up and throw you around the room. I think..."
"Look! THEY'RE shooting something!"
The red pulsating glow grew and intensified, fed by the strange contraption perched in the Duckhawk's shuttle bay. The ship's lights flickered as it tapped the Duckhawk's energy resources, then came back at full intensity as the red concentric rings disappeared.
The occupants of the various ships stared at their viewscreens, wondering what had happened to the light. Many voiced their misgivings about its disappearance ('I have a baaaaad feeling about this...'). The ships' lights flickered again, and scanners all registered a drop in the amount of power coursing through the ships, but the void onscreen remained blank save for ships and stars.
Suddenly the space in the center of the clustered ships began to twist and contort. Bursting open, it ensnared the ships in a mass of fiery rings that spread out like ripples in a pool. It began to implode, dragging them along with it like a fiery black hole as it drew back into itself. It spiraled shut and winked out of existence, leaving nothing on the battlefield save the stars and empty void of space.
The ships were gone.
Seconds later and millions of light-years away, the fabric of space stretched and contorted, spiraling into a flame-colored whirlpool that spit out a ship before disappearing once again. The Duckhawk tumbled through space for a brief moment as its systems fought to regain control of the craft and halt its motion.
Galaxia picked herself off the floor, smoothing her hair over and dusting herself off, determined to maintain at least *some* of her dignity. Her crew slowly hauled themselves to their feet, and amid their groans and complaints she heard very few reports of actual injury. But that was not her primary concern. What occupied her attention now was the starscape on the screen.
"Where *are* we?"
"Right smack dab in the middle of nowhere," D'Gal commented, comparing the stars on screen to the many maps in the computer. "Alone, I might add."
The Ducks were nowhere in sight. Neither were any of the fighters. And as systems came back online and reports began to come through, it became evident that they were no longer anywhere near the regions of space familiar to her. They were in an area devoid of both life and landmarks. An uncharted area. Galaxia was suddenly very thankful for her ship's huge fuel supply.
"Was that gizmo *supposed* to do this?" she asked D'Gal.
"Captain, the Bagels trust me even less than they trust you. They don't tell me anything. But judging by its performance, I'd say it's a safe bet that it's not the type of weapon we thought it was."
"Assuming destinations can be specified, it would be an excellent way to send an entire legion deep into enemy territory without risking discovery en route. Or the opposite could be employed - an enemy's forces could be sent far from the area of conflict, rendering their homeworld defenseless. Ingenious..."
"Ingenious, except that now we have absolutely no idea where we are. Or where the Ducks are, for that matter."
"So set an arbitrary course. We're bound to find some semblance of civilization somewhere. And never mind about the Ducks. For all we know, they could've been crushed in that thing. The fighters, too -- we didn't need them anyway."
"All the same, I dislike traveling virtually unarmed through unknown territory," Galaxia said, selecting a heading at random, "Let's hope we find a place to repair and restock soon..."
The Ducks' ship burst through the brilliant spiral, flung clear by some unseen force. The floundering ship righted itself almost immediately, setting into a slow arc and scanning the area for its quarry as the crew regained its bearings.
"This thing could really use some seatbelts," Ferdia grunted, rising to her feet.
"Seat what?" Commodore asked.
"Restraining harnesses," Squeaks supplied.
"That it could," Commodore chuckled, reseating himself and looking to the viewscreen. "Any ideas where our friends went?"
"Captain, scans of the area do not match any records in known space," an ensign reported. "But we appear to have emerged very close to-"
"Hey, cool! DS9!" Ferdia pointed to the distinctly ringed spaceport floating into view, enthusiasm adding volume to her statement. "Maybe we came out of the wormhole!"
Drake looked up from the ensign's readout, giving her a curious look. "And just *how* did you know that?" he asked, disbelief filling his voice.
"I catch a rerun every now and then....Why? That's not *really* what it is, is it?"
"You'd be surprised how accurate some of those shows are," Squeaks muttered.
"That’s it. You’re not allowed to drive anymore."
"I mean it, Iiwi. I’m sick an’ tired of being smacked around like a pinball."
"But that was the autopilot!"
"I don’t care! We’ve got a kiwi-shaped *dent* in the screen from that last ride!"
"That reminds me….Bob, are you okay?"
Bob moaned from where he lay under the viewscreen, rubbing his head and groggily propping himself up. "Dammit Jim, I’m a kiwi, not a ping-pong ball…"
"He’s fine," Ferdie observed. "So where are we? Where’d everybody go?"
"How should I know?" Iiwi shrugged.
"You’ve got the navigation stuff an’ everything. Where’s the computer say we are?"
"It doesn’t. We’re in the part of the map labeled ‘Here there be monsters’."
"WHAT?!?" That woke Bob up. "Monsters?!"
"She’s just messin’ with your mind, Bob."
"You leave my brain alone!"
"No, guys, I’m serious. Look at that," she pointed to the screen. Strangely-glowing ribbons of color floated in the distance, an occasional bolt of energy breaking free and darting out toward the ship, only to fizzle away as it crossed the empty blackness. "It’s not on the charts. Neither is anything else," she added, gesturing at a series of planets to starboard, seemingly in orbit around the thing.
"Hey look!" Bob pointed at a metallic glint to their left. "It’s a ship!"
"That looks like some sort of official insignia painted on it. Maybe they’re police or the navy or something. You think they’ll tell us where we are?" Ferdie asked hopefully.
"Assuming they don’t blow us up first." She’d looked at the ship’s specs while the autopilot had been guiding them to their rendezvous point. She didn’t have to be familiar with the nuances of interstellar law to spot a fake registry. And a ship, be it sea or space, with a fake registry usually meant a pirate. And *no* authorities liked pirates….
Ferdia stepped out of the hallway and into the belly of the station, her wide eyes taking in the sights and the bustling peoples about her. "This place is huge!"
"Yes," Squeaks agreed, jogging down the hallway to his partner, "So don’t just take off like that. It’s dangerous here. You could get lost."
"Squeaks, I’m a cop, not a kindergartner. You don’t need to tell me a place like this is dangerous."
"Just be careful, okay? Guns don’t scare these people very much."
"She shouldn’t even be carrying one," Drake intoned from behind them. He didn’t see why the captain had let the bird board the station. She was a primitive! She shouldn’t even have been allowed on the bridge, much less engineering! He made a mental note to remember to discipline the engineer who’d shown her around. But the bird didn’t belong here, and she definitely couldn’t be part of this mission! The Prime Directive clearly prohibited interfering with pre-warp races, and endangering the life of such a world’s inhabitant just as taboo. The weapon that had been used on their ship couldn’t be allowed to reach the Bagels; the Ducks would see to that. But that would mean more battling – either with Galaxia or with the Bagel navy – and *that* meant something needed to be done about this bird. Whether Squeaks liked it or not.
The bird just glared at him, her steely gaze coupled with Squeaks’ cold one. His friend had changed, he saw – the mouse he knew from his academy days was no longer there. Or if he was, he was ignoring his SpaceFleet training. He was allowing his feelings for a friend, along with a slight misunderstanding on Drake’s part, cloud his judgement. Yes, Drake realized, he’d have to do this himself. He just hoped his friend would forgive him when this whole mess was over. He held a datapad out to Squeaks.
"Take this down to their armory. I need to talk to this station’s chief about getting those star charts. I’ll meet you back at the dock in an hour. Oh, and here," he tossed the bird a small sack of credits. "Have a look at their markets. Get yourself a souvenir or something." With that, he turned and walked off toward a turbolift.
Ferdia eyed him suspiciously as he walked away, considering the credits. He seemed to be genuinely sorry about attacking them in the alley, and his apologies sounded sincere enough….but she just didn’t trust that duck. Her cop instincts told her something about him wasn’t on the level. She just didn’t know what.
Squeaks jarred her back to the present. "Come on. Their weapons storerooms are at the other end of the station, so we should hurry. The markets here really do have some interesting stuff."
"Ack! Look out! That one’s gonna hit us!"
"Shut up! They’re *all* hitting us!" Iiwi braced herself as the blast shook the small fighter. "Just find a place to land!"
"ANYWHERE! Just as long as we can breath in the atmosphere! We need to go down before we’re *shot* down!"
Ferdie pointed to a green orb on the screen. "There! That one’s good!"
Bob eyed the growing planet carefully. "If it’s another desert planet, I’ll geboot you!"
"So will I. We need a place to *hide*, Ferd. Not a place that looks like a setting in Star Wars."
"If you don’t like it, *you* drive!"
"FINALLY! It’s about time you guys let a *flier* fly this ship! Entering atmosphere!"
The ship sliced through the planet’s soupy clouds, bouncing about in the air as turbulence and their pursuers pounded the hull and wreaked havoc on the ship’s control surfaces. As the fighter broke through the fog, it became apparent that they were headed straight into a forest, and Iiwi forced herself to tune out the cries of her companions as they scrambled to secure themselves in their seats. Using instincts honed from a lifetime of flying, along with the fighter’s many anti-collision systems, she wove the fighter through the trees, maintaining its suicidal angle of decent until the ship burst through the trees and streaked down the canyon its scanners had told her were there. Once in the canyon, she elicited further screams from her friends by opening fire on the cliff walls, dodging under the crashing boulders in an attempt to lose the trigger-happy naval trainee ship behind them.
Convinced though they were that their quarry was the real thing and not just a training drone, the trainees nonetheless shuddered at flying their larger, and considerably less agile, ship through the narrow chasms, and pulled up out of the canyon. As they headed back for orbit, though, they loosed one last volley of ordinance – some of which hit one of the falling rocks, sending it crashing into the fighter, smashing its horizontal controls. The little ship nosed down, gaining even more speed as it plummeted, nearly out of control, toward the river running the length of the bottom of the canyon.
Jerking the ship into a spin as the water rushed up to meet it, Iiwi managed to create enough drag to nose the craft up ever so slightly, saving them from a bone-shattering crash. The fighter instead hit the water and skipped like a stone, its spin tossing it out of control until it was more tumbling than skipping across the surface. The cliff walls, which had been receding as the river widened, gave way to a grassy field, and it was here that the tumbling ship came aground, skip-rolling up the slight slope and finally skidding to a halt just a few yards from yet another forest.
"Yet another perfect three-hundred-and-eleven-point landing brought to you by Heart Attack Air, making you vow to stay earthbound since 19….hey, Iiwi, what year were you born?"
"Shut up, Ferdie."
"That’s not a year."
"So? That wasn’t a landing. THAT was an adventure."
"You shut up too, Bob. Any landing you can walk away from…."
"…is a good landing. Yeah, we know. But a *really* good landing is one where the plane can be reused. Now get me a wheelchair."
"You guys really should’ve used the restraining harnesses in the seats the way they were meant to be used instead of just knotting them together."
"Well, you know, if someone had *told* us we would be landing upside down, I think we would’ve come up with something better."
Iiwi opened her eyes at that – sure enough, they were upside down. She wondered how Bob had figured that out without opening his eyes. Reaching down to unfasten her emergency safety harness, she freed herself and fluttered down to check on Ferdie, who was stuck between the gap that formed between his seat and the one next to it. Bob just lay on the ceiling and waited for the world to stop dancing.
"Hey, Iiwi?" he asked, glancing up at one of the few still-functioning screens above him, "You don’t suppose this place is inhabited, do you?"
"I don’t know – I was a little too preoccupied with landing to pay attention to the lifeform readout. But it certainly *looks* habitable. Why?"
" ‘cause there’s someone at the door," Bob replied, pointing to the screen’s fuzzy display.
As Iiwi and Ferdie turned to try and make out the dark figure slipping through the night’s shadows and approaching the ship, the resounding bass tone of a knock echoed through the hull. The detectives shared a wide-eyed look. They were a long way from home, they realized. And suddenly, none of them wanted to be there…
Ferdia meandered down the rows of merchants, staring in awe at both the wares and their sellers. She’d never imagined such exotic aliens existed! Furred creatures with black-tipped ears and white-tipped tails, seven-foot-tall insects, scaly lizard-men, even some creatures that looked like something straight out of a Hollywood B movie! Very few resembled the aliens that frequented her familiar Star Trek episodes – most resembled in one form or another an odd, hairless species and were what Squeaks said was ‘humanoid’. She had to force herself not to stare – they looked so weird, with no fur or feathers anywhere but their heads!
She failed to notice that many of them were staring at her as well – mostly because her uniform reminded them of something they had seen in history class. That she and her partner were both species unknown to the area was a matter of secondary concern – the spaceport was privy to all sorts of unusual visitors, and they *had*, after all, emerged from the wormhole. The better gossipers among them whispered about the curious design of their ship.
Squeaks stayed with her, for the most part, looking not at the items but at the conglomeration of species gathered there. Some he recognized – members of particularly well-traveled races, fellow explorers, and gypsy-like cargo haulers. Many he could only guess at, based on similar species he’d seen on the fringes of space. He spotted several Kurdish shoppers, clad in formal attire and frantically searching the merchants’ tables for something. A few well-dressed Corellians also wandered about, showing no interest in the Kurts, making him wonder if perhaps the two had finally settled their centuries-old feud. Just how long he’d been out of touch with these beings and this setting was beginning to dawn on him, and he began to remember why he’d loved space exploration so dearly.
Someone tugged at his shirt. Turning, he found himself face-to-face with Drake again. His old friend smiled.
"Like riding a bike, eh?" Drake asked.
"It’s coming back, yeah. Just have to get used to it again."
"You said it. Look, Ace, I’m really sorry about what happened in the alley."
"I believe you already, okay? Doesn’t mean I condone what you were doing. Situations like that, you’re supposed to avoid locals, not attack them, and you know it."
"I know, I know. I’ve learned my lesson, okay? I stick to the rules from now on."
"That’ll be the day."
"Aha! If you’re able to joke with me now, I’m at least partially forgiven. Want to go someplace quieter and talk? I’m dying to hear how you’ve survived on that primitive world."
"It’s *not* primitive!"
"They still using fossil fuels?" A nod. "Then they’re primitive. Look, we’ve got at least another two hours before we can leave – repairs are taking longer than we’d thought. Let your friend look around some more. If she can find her way around an enterprise-class starship, she can find her way back to the dock. And if she can't we can always come back for her."
Squeaks considered the offer. Drake was an old friend, and they did have a lot of catching-up to do – they hadn’t seen each other since they’d graduated from the academy several years back, and neither had kept up correspondence. And he wanted to set Drake straight on some things, too – his haughty view of Ferdia’s planet, for example. Pre-warp could mean a lot of things – and a society that built aircraft capable of flying faster than sound and sent satellites and brave souls aloft into orbit wasn’t primitive. Primitive was a planet still surviving with spears and animal skins. He nodded. "Just let me tell her."
Drake nodded as the mouse went over to talk to the bird. She glanced his way, no doubt objecting to the idea of splitting up. Drake remembered engineering’s recount of her questions. He had to admit, she was pretty smart. For a primitive, anyway. In a different setting, he was certain they could’ve gotten along quite well. In an odd way, what had to be done bothered him. But it was in her best interests. And Squeaks’. Whether they appreciated it or not.
Another pounding sound echoed through the ship, spooking the detectives into action. Cowering wasn’t going to get them anywhere. Iiwi flew up to the main console, trying in vain to find a system intact enough to protect them – but the battered ship’s energy supplies were waning, slowly sapped out by the snapping cables and sizzling wires. The viewscreens had long since lost their ability to display a view of the outside world, and their cloaked visitor wasn’t showing any indications of leaving. She glided back down to the others.
"It’s no use. Engines are out, shields are out, heck, even communications are out. We’re stuck, and we’re running out of power. And when that happens, we’ll have to leave before we run out of air."
Ferdie looked in the direction of the knocks. "I’m not leaving as long as *that’s* out there. Who knows what it is."
Another knock sounded, accompanied by the muffled sound of a strange tongue. Iiwi picked a fallen translator off the floor and searched for the way to turn it on. Her friends did the same, fumbling for an on/off switch until Bob stuck the tiny device in his ear and discovered they already *were* on. A bit embarrassed, the others followed suit.
"Helloooooo," the voice called again, "Can you hear me? Are you all right?"
"Oh, well, he certainly sounds nice," Bob remarked, calming visibly.
"Oh, yeah, sure, they all do, right before they lure you out and eat you."
"Come on, Ferdie. It’s worth a look, at least."
"Says you, Iiwi. YOU go out and look."
Iiwi flit over to the doors and, prying them open, flew out of the bridge, down the corridor and into the cargo bay. Bob scrambled after her, and, after a few seconds, Ferdie reluctantly followed, ducking the dripping coolant spills and gingerly picking his way around piles of sparking wires. In the cargo bay, he found the others scowling up at the bay doors.
"They’re jammed," Iiwi grumbled, "Probably from when that rock hit us. And I don’t know where the emergency hatches are."
"What about those little doors that have ‘emergency’ painted on them?" Bob inquired, pointing to a narrow door flush with the far wall.
Ferdie walked over and opened the door, peering into the passageway inside. "Stairs up and down….and looks like some doors spaced every few flights."
"That’ll do," Iiwi said, flitting over to the stairway, then stopping short as she got a look inside. "Oh, it’s so cramped in there."
"So we go single file."
"It’s still pretty tight. And dark," she backed up, looking about the room for another exit. Finding none, she gave a frustrated sigh. "Guess it’s better than staying stuck in here…"
Ferdia hurried down the hallways of the station, scanning each docking bay’s registry and searching out the viewports for the oddly-shaped ship. Squeaks had said the ship needed two more hours for repairs, and yet not ten minutes after he’d left, whispers about the strange Klingon-like ship that *had just left* began filtering through the crowd. She ignored the stares she got as she jogged around the docking bay – one would think no one here ever ran – and then skidded to a stop as she passed bay 33E. The viewport stretching between bay 33E and the bay the Ducks had docked at gave her a good look at the cerulean transport docked at bay 33E, as well as an excellent view of bay 34E.
Which was empty.
She stood there for a solid minute, gawking out the viewport, then forced herself to keep moving. Squeaks had said the ship could cloak, could become invisible. Maybe that’s what is was. Or maybe she had the wrong dock. She knew 34 was the right number, but maybe it had been 34B? or 34D? They sounded so similar. She’d just go up a few levels. Or maybe it was 34F. She hadn’t paid much attention to the numbered plaque next to the bay as she’d left the ship. True, the bright blue ship in 33E looked familiar, but who was to say there weren’t a dozen such ships docked at the station? Or maybe she just *thought* it looked familiar. Like the dingy rust-colored freighter in 35E that was now coming into view. Hadn’t she passed two just like it on her way here? Yes, that was it. She had the wrong bay. Maybe she should just ask those people ahead of her where the ship was docked. She quickened her step. Yes, that’s what she’d do. They were officers aboard the station, they could check. Yes, definitely officers. They wore those distinct orange-yellow uniforms….
…of station security….
….and they were all standing in front of bay 34E, as if they were waiting for something…or someone…..She felt her pace slowing as her heart rate quickened, her cop instincts telling her that something was just not quite *right* here….
One of the officers caught sight of her, and the others turned to follow his gaze. Ferdia froze.
"Ah, Miss Birdie. We’ve been looking for you," one said conversationally.
"Yes, we’d like to talk to you," another said pleasantly.
A wave of fear shot through her, and Ferdia forced herself to stay in control. She would not panic. She knew this game – she’d seen it played countless times before. Approach a dangerous or flighty suspect as non-threateningly as possible. Be their friend. Soothe them. Calm them. Because if you spooked them, they’d run. And that meant you had to chase them. Which meant they might get away. She’d played the game herself at least a dozen times, but always as one of the officers. Now she knew how the other guy felt. Trapped. Except for one thing – she knew how the game was played, what the officers did, what the suspect did, what the officers were thinking, and what the officers were thinking the suspect was thinking. She glanced behind her. No one there. Yet.
"If you’d just come with us…" the first one began.
"No, that’s all right," she replied, taking a step back, "I…kinda need to get back to my ship-" she turned, bolting back the way she’d come as they ran after her. Predictably, another group of guards now advanced from where they’d been hiding in 32E, and to avoid them she ducked down the hallway leading back to the body of the station.
Three more guards appeared at the end of the hallway, running towards her. Two could play at that game. Ferdia charged them, diving at the last second like a runner for home plate. Curling into a ball and somersaulting behind them, she was on her feet again in an instant and running toward the merchants’ mezzanine, the one part of this station that would allow her to instantly put several levels between her and her pursuers. As long as she wasn’t more than a few levels up, that is.
The guardrail came into view up ahead, and from her angle she guessed she was only two or three levels up – and hoped she was right, because she didn’t have time to check. She hit the railing and vaulted over it, plunging into a crowd that parted when it saw her jump and again merged into a sea of bodies when security didn’t fire at her. She wove through the crowd, ducking and dodging to lose any security still behind her.
She couldn’t stay in the crowd – she needed a place to hide. As she searched for a conveniently narrow corridor to duck into, she spotted a brightly lit sign off in a far corner. Of course! Where better to hide than in the open?
Squeaks charged, throwing his shoulder into the door as his slammed into it. The door shuddered with the impact, but all he’d really achieved was to add another bruise to his shoulder.
"Dammit, Drake! Let me OUT!"
"Sorry, Ace," came the reply from the other side of the door, "You know I can’t do that."
"We can’t just *leave* her there!"
"Sure we can. We just did. Don’t worry, she’ll be safe. I asked their security to, er, ‘look after’ her until we get back. She can’t come on this mission, it’s too dangerous."
" ‘for a primitive,’ you mean. I can’t believe Mallard authorized this."
"He didn’t, but now that it’s done, he agrees that she’s better off there until we’re finished. And that’s what she is, Ace. Really, I’m doing you a favor. And as soon as you come to your senses and remember your training and duty as an officer, I’ll let you out."
"I hate you for this, Drake."
"You’ll get over it."
Squeaks gave the door a vicious kick. It was hopeless, really. The door was designed to withstand powerful explosions. He could beat at it all day and not get anywhere, and he knew it. But since when could doors to personal rooms be locked from outside? He paced the room. There had to be another way out, and if there was, he’d find it. The communications console in the room had been deactivated, and the replicator programmed only to replicate food, so his options were limited. But he had to get word out to someone somehow. Ferdia would not tolerate being incarcerated, and there were always those in a space station waiting to take advantage of a preoccupied security staff.
The face-off continued. As soon as Iiwi had opened the hatch door, the shadowy figure had rushed at them, only to be forced back by Iiwi’s screeches and snapping beak. Now he stood several feet from the crippled spacecraft, watching the detectives as they eyed him warily. The silence was uninterrupted but for the occasional rustle as Iiwi ruffled her feathers.
Bob was getting tired of all the standing and staring. He was also getting hungry. Pushing his way to the front of the group, he yelled down to the figure.
"Hey! You gonna stand there all night or are you gonna leave so I can get some coffee?"
"I was only trying to see if you needed help. That was some crash."
"TELL me about it," Ferdie muttered, earning a glare from Iiwi.
"Your ship will need to be repaired – I can take you to someone that can fix it," the figure offered, pointing to the forest. "My village is in there."
"Oh, great. A forest village. If that isn’t the most cliché thing I’ve ever - ow!" Ferdie yelled as Bob stomped on his foot. "I mean, sure, sounds great to me."
Iiwi shrugged. "Not like we’ve got anything to lose."
"Great!" Bob yelled, jumping down to the grass, "Lead on!"
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