"Did you really name that ship the ‘Scarlet Tanager’?"
"Um….yeah. Sort of. Why?"
"Isn’t a Scarlet Tanager a, um….a red bird?"
Inside his ship, Ivan’s head snapped up. Annoyed, he punched the audio channel open. "Look, detective, don’t go tryin’ to read into something that ain’t there, okay? My pilot here came up with the name, alright?"
"Touchy….*yawn* Look, I’m just trying to stay awake here. It’s very comfortable in this fighter."
"Nice try. Your legs are cramping."
"Um, yeah. And my attention span’s waning."
"So take a nap."
"I’m sick of napping. I’ve been napping for the past sixteen hours. I –hey, wait a minute. I think I’ve got the Ducks’ ship on my scanners!"
Ivan glanced at Lita, who shrugged. "They’re still pretty far off, but they’re movin’ real fast. Maybe they’ve spotted Galaxia." She checked her readouts, but, finding nothing, scanned the communications channels. "Hang on, listen to this!" she flipped the speakers on.
"Bagel Ship to Duckhawk. Repeat, Bagels to Galaxia. We are en route to your current position. Please verify that position coordinates 33-45-79-85 have not changed since last broadcast."
Ferdia’s laugh cut in over the speakers. "Are they really that stupid? R2 says that’s not even an encrypted channel!"
"Galaxia struck me as being rather inept at criminal etiquette. She’s full of herself, and Lita here says she’s a really good spy – but from what I’ve seen, that’s where her talents end."
"Great. Funny, though, the Ducks aren’t heading in that direction."
Ivan snorted. "Maybe the rest of the galaxy isn’t as skilled in matters of deception as we’d like to think."
"I dunno, Squeaks seems to follow even the most complicated plots we work on…"
"Right - he’s smart, and funny, and-"
"Hey! Shut up, Ivan!"
It was Ivan’s turn to chuckle. "Just getting even, detective."
"You are an evil, evil man, Ivan."
"Hence the name ‘Evil Sir Ivan Kiwi’. Anyway, if these Bagels have found their way here from wherever we were, then their charts’ll show us the way back. And someone needs to let them know how dumb sending that message was. See you later, do-gooder."
Ferdia watched the trio turn to the new coordinates, wondering if Ivan would tell them the Ducks intercepted the message. If he did, they’d wind up wandering this area of space even longer, searching for a familiar outpost. NOT her idea of fun. She noted the course settings on the pad in front of her, then set a course to intercept the Ducks. Given their current velocity (Warp 8!!), she’d probably have to raise them on a hailing frequency to catch up – but she wanted to see how long she could postpone that. She wasn’t about to take any more chances with Drake.
"Are you guys hearing this?" Iiwi called to the others.
Bob looked up from his hand. "Hearing what?"
"The Bagels are practically broadcasting this Galaxia’s location! Beak, is our warp drive working?"
Beak stopped puzzling over the cards in his hand for a moment. "Should be. Say, Iiwi, what is a ‘straight flush’, and what can I beat it with?"
"A ‘straight flush’ is Ferdie stacking the deck, and you beat it with five aces."
"Iiwi!" Ferdie hissed, "Shut up! I’m winning!"
"Five aces? But Bob said there were only four of each card…?"
Iiwi shook her head. "Never mind. Just don’t bet anything you don’t want to lose." She entered the coordinates into the console. "Okay, since everyone seems to hate my ship-driving skills, I’m leaving the auto-pilot on. We’re warping to Galaxia’s location as fast as possible. As long as she doesn’t move, we’re good to go."
Beak spoke up again. "But, Miss Iiwi, about the five aces…."
"Geez, you guys really shouldn’t be corrupting him like this. I mean, poker? Wouldn’t it be more fun to play ERS?"
"NO!!!!" Bob and Ferdie chorused.
Iiwi sighed. "Fine, fine. I know when I’m beat. I’ll just help Beak with his poker game."
"Anyone want to play spades?" Ferdie piped up. Seeing no takers, he slouched down in his seat. "Okay, fine. Can’t blame me for wanting to hold on to some of my winnings," he grumbled.
The ensign peered at the readouts on the screen. Odd. The computer’s threat receiver was evidently detecting something bearing down on them – but it couldn’t identify what it was. Toggling another screen to the area in question, she cocked her head in confusion. The image onscreen was definitely a ship – but a very small one. Tiny, even. And its lights seemed to be malfunctioning. She frowned.
"Find something, ensign?" Commodore Mallard inquired from his seat in the center of the bridge.
"I’m not sure, Captain. But the computer is detecting a craft set on a course to intercept us."
"The Bagels," Commodore said quietly.
"I don’t think so, sir. It’s much too small – and it looks ancient."
"Onscreen." He gazed intently at the little ship, thankful for the technology that allowed their bird of prey to not only detect, but create a visual image of other craft – regardless of whether either ship was traveling at warp speeds. "You’re right, ensign, it is small. Looks like an early single-seat fighter. What do you make of the blinking light?"
"If it’s really that old, then I’d say it’s probably just malfunctioning."
"You think it’s a signal, Captain?" Counselor Troy asked from her seat.
"It could be. Their course is set to intercept us, after all. And at warp speeds, regular space communications won’t reach us."
"But what kind of communication is a blinking light?" the ensign wondered aloud.
"Let’s find out. Computer, compare the frequency of those lights to all known forms of communication."
"Complying….one match found: Morse code. Ancient form of communication consisting of a series of short and long durations of either sound or light."
Commodore looked at the ship on the screen. "Ah, vintage communication to go with the ship. Interesting. Computer, translate the message."
"Complying….‘Attention Duck ship. If under command of Commodore Mallard, please respond by slowing to sub-warp speed. Repeat, Captain Mallard, please come out of warp.’ The message repeats."
"It’s too small to be threatening," his security officer reported. "Perhaps they need our assistance and would prefer to communicate verbally."
Commodore thought for a moment. His security officer was right – the ship was too small – and too old – to harm his ship. And the odd form of communication made him curious. "Why not," he chuckled, "Ensign Wells, take us out of warp."
Ferdia cheered as the large Duck ship began to slow. She’d found them! That plus Galaxia’s coordinates brought her one step closer to home. And just in time, too – the R2 was beginning to report that her fuel cells needed to recharge a bit. Evidently the mole at the space station had not been completely honest with her – but no matter. Closing on the Ducks’ location, she brought the x-wing out of hyperspace. Seconds later, R2 informed her that the Ducks were hailing her. Good. Her Morse code was rather rusty.
"Sir, they’re responding to our hail," the young duck at the communications station reported.
"They’re responding with an audio signal only, sir."
"Very well, then. Let’s hear it."
"This is Commodore Mallard. Who are you, and what business do you have with us?"
"Detective Ferdia Birdie," the ship replied, to the astonishment of the bridge crew, "You guys kind of left me behind at the station, remember?"
"That was…an accident."
Inside the x-wing, Ferdia rolled her eyes.
"Uh-huh. Right. Sure it was. Look, just open the shuttle bay an’ let me land, okay? I’ve been sitting in this thing for the past twenty-five hours, an if I can’t stretch soon, I’m gonna scream."
A moment of silence passed.
"Guys, I meant it about the screaming thing. Besides," she added, dangling her only bargaining chip in front of them, "you guys are going the wrong way. Galaxia’s over that way." She pointed. "Oops, wait, you can’t see that. Guess you’ll just have to let me aboard so I can give ya the coordinates, huh?"
That got them. "You know where Galaxia is?"
"I know where the Bagels are planning to meet her. Open the gates."
She could’ve sworn she heard a resigned sigh on the other end. "Very well. Drake will meet you in the bay."
Drake?!? "Don’t think I won’t shoot you guys if you try anything funny," she warned. She was sick of being treated like a child.
A pause. "No. I believe we’ve had enough of that already," Mallard replied as the bay doors began to open.
Now what did he mean by that?
A very forlorn Drake was still in the shuttle bay when Mallard’s orders reached him. He stared at the fighter with a mixture of astonishment and dismay as it drifted into the bay – unguided by the ship’s tractor beam. Normally, that would have been considered against regulations. But given the fighter’s pilot, he doubted that argument would’ve done any good. He watched the landing appreciatively. Pretty good flying, for someone unaccustomed to such technology. And a beautiful ship.
The ship touched down gracefully, powering down as her pilot opened the canopy and hopped out.
Ferdia removed her helmet and tossed it back into the cockpit, shaking out her hair and taking a few long moments to stretch. Catching movement in her peripheral vision, she turned. And scowled. Drake approached her slowly.
She would not yell. She would be civil. For now.
"Looking a little pale there, duck. Surprised to see me?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"Two hours, huh?"
"Think you need a new watch."
"And what’s with all the debris on this runway?" she motioned to the burnt pieces of wreckage still strewn across the bay from the shuttles’ crash. "Slacking off? Or am I interrupting a training accident?"
Drake paled even more, if that was possible. Ferdia’s brow furrowed in thought. This wasn’t the same cock-sure pain-in-the-tail duck that had left her at the station. She was suddenly very worried. "Where’s Squeaks?"
He hesitated. "Squeaks is...unavailable…at the moment. You said you knew where Galaxia was?"
Ferdia took the note out of her pocket and read off the coordinates, which Drake relayed to Mallard. Then he looked at her regretfully. Misinterpreting the gaze, Ferdia stepped back defensively and quickly looked over her shoulder. When no attacks seemed pending, she relaxed a bit.
Drake motioned to the door at the end of the bay. "Come on, I’ll show you to your quarters."
"If they even resemble the brig, so help me, I’ll-"
"No tricks. I swear."
"Where did you say Squeaks was again?"
Ferdia followed him out warily. Dozens of security personnel milled around the bay, watching her leave. She returned their forlorn glances with a curious one. What was going on?
High above the floor of the shuttle bay, another pair of eyes watched her leave. Inside the air duct, Squeaks grinned. This was certainly a pleasant surprise!
"Have I missed something?" Ferdia persisted, "This place is about as cheerful as a funeral parlor."
"As you surmised before, there was an…accident…earlier." Drake halted before a set of doors, entering a code into the keypad beside it and motioning her into the room.
Ferdia eyed the door warily. "You wouldn’t be entertaining the idea of locking me in there, would you?"
"The door will not be locked. However, we would prefer it if you remained here, so we can find you if need be. The coordinates you gave us are nearly a light-cycle away, so you should rest. And I’m sorry."
She arched an eyebrow. "What, for back at the station?"
Ferdia watched him leave, puzzled. "Hey, send Squeaks down here, okay?" she called after him.
No response. She leaned into the hallway. "Okay?"
The Duck continued down the hallway as if he hadn’t heard her. Several passing crew members, however, turned to look in her direction. Their eyes told her what their words wouldn’t. She stumbled back into the room, watching as the doors swished shut.
She was still backing away when a hand rested on her shoulder. She whirled, knocking the hand away and grabbing her weapon in one fluid motion.
"Easy!" the intruder yelped, raising his hands in surrender.
"Squeaks!" She caught him in an enthusiastic hug. "You’re okay! I was beginning to think you were dead!"
Her partner returned the embrace awkwardly. "Er…right. So does the rest of the ship. They had me under lockdown, so I escaped and faked my death. How’re you?"
Ferdia re-holstered her revolver. "Tired and hungry. How’d you get in here?"
"Well…" an uncomfortable look.
"Air ducts?" A nod. "Ha! Never thought I’d get ya to do something that cliché. Did you see my ship?"
"I did. Mind if I ask how-"
"Would you believe this desperately drunk mole traded it for one of my tail feathers?"
Squeaks laughed. That explained what the delegates in the marketplace had been looking for.
"Well, he did!"
"I believe you! So, what do you think of her? How’s she handle?"
"Great! She’s a lot like a jet fighter, with the glass canopy an’ all. And the R2 makes dodging attacks a cinch!"
Squeaks arched an eyebrow. "You realize they’re both centuries old, right?"
"You’re kidding." Squeaks shook his head. "Wow. So…what do we do now?"
"We wait. The crew thinks I’m dead, so they’re not gonna come looking for me – and they’ll probably avoid you as long as possible so avoid breaking the news. The computer says we’re a little over twenty hours from Galaxia, so you’ve got plenty of time to rest. As long as you don’t mind me crashing here. I’m sick of crawling through vents."
"I’ll bet. Alright, you can stay – as long as you make me dinner."
She shrugged. "I’ve never understood how those replicators work. Deal?"
"Great." She looked around the room, spotting another door off to the side. "That a bathroom over there?" Squeaks nodded. "Great. I need a shower. Be back in five."
"Sir? Sir? Mister Ivan, sir?"
Ivan jolted awake at the light touch on his arm. Straightening in his chair, he scowled at the rabbit backing timidly away. "What?" he snapped.
Lita stopped backing up and stood at attention. "I – I was wondering what you plan to do with me once we reach Galaxia."
"You’re staying here as long as I’ve got these ships, kid. Unless you’d rather go back."
She shook her head furiously. "N-no, I don’t. I hate it on her ship. She treats us like we’re second-class citizens. I was, um…kind of wondering if I could join you crew permanently?"
Ivan arched an eyebrow. "I spend most of my time planet-side, kid. I’m not gonna have much use for a spaceship pilot. And you’re too young to fly any of my aircraft."
"I’m fifteen cycles old! Sixteen, almost! And…and I could learn to do other things!"
"Yeah, Boss," the Sign Holder piped up, "She’s got really good aim. Maybe she could be a mercenary or a hitman or something."
"Enforcers need spines, kid."
"Snipers don’t. Sir."
Ivan looked from the rabbit to the young kiwi and back again. He really didn’t need another minor on the payroll. Hell, social services and child labor lawyers were already harassing him enough. Not to mention the fact that her appearance would be hard to explain. Though their world hosted many sentient species, rabbits were not among them. She’d be hard to hide. Then again, he thought, remembering her performance manning the ship’s weapons, the awkward teen had potential. He sighed.
"Fine, kid, you win. You’re in. But-" he cut in over the cheers, "you’re gonna need to grow some backbone. I’ve got no time for the timid. Got that?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
Ferdia yawned, picking at the last bits of food on the plate. "Y’know, Squeaks, I’d say you’re a good cook, but I get the feeling that’s like telling someone they’re great at heating up TV dinners."
Squeaks nodded. "More or less. Although they’ve improved since I left. My ship would’ve taken the same instructions and returned with something akin to cafeteria food."
"Ah. I’ll be sure to leave the replicator a big tip, then," she laughed. "How much longer you figure we have until we catch up with Galaxia?"
"A couple hours. And I need to rethink my plan of action."
Squeaks pushed his plate onto the low table and leaned back into the plush couch behind him. Across the table, Ferdia sat cross-legged on an overstuffed, oversized footstool, chewing her desert thoughtfully and regarding him quizzically. "What plan?"
He leaned back, shrugging. "The original plan was to escape, get into the main computer room, seal it off, take control of the ship, and go back for you."
Ferdia laughed. "I’m touched. But wouldn’t it’ve been easier to just take the captain’s yacht? It’s unguarded, easy to get to, faster and better-defended than shuttles - "
"- and it can cloak," Squeaks finished, shaking his head. "Oops."
"So are you going to let them know you’re not dead?"
"No. Not yet, anyway. We’ll guilt-trip them a bit longer. But we’ve got to get back to charted space, and then back on-planet. This ship is more than capable of dealing with Galaxia’s ship – as well as the Bagel ship enroute to her position – but we’ll have a problem if Mallard decides to beam just you back home."
Ferdia folded her arms defiantly. "I won’t let him do that. I plan on taking my ship with me," she thought a minute. "Maybe you could hitch a ride in it – there’s some room behind the pilot’s seat…"
"After listening to you complain about cramped quarters? Pass."
"You wouldn’t be in it that long!" Squeaks folded his arms. "Fine, fine…. Maybe Ivan would beam you over to his ship."
Squeaks sat up. "Ivan! I’d forgotten about him! Galaxia gave him a ship?"
"Three of ‘em. Evidently he was playing pirate for a while, but now he just wants to get back home. He was headed toward Galaxia’s position when I went after you guys."
"As much as I hate to admit it, he may be our best option for now."
D’Gal practically threw Galaxia at the Battle Room’s tactical display. Stumbling for her balance, she slammed into the holoprojector’s table with all the grace of a rag doll, skewing its display. Pushing herself up, she whirled on D’Gal angrily.
"What the hell do you think you’re-"
"Shut up! Just shut up and listen! See those dots headed for us?" he growled, pointing to the holographic display, "Know who they are?"
Galaxia ignored the artificial starfield. "Of course I do! Those are the Bagels, you idiot!"
"That one is," D’Gal allowed, indicating one of the larger forms, "and these three belong to that useless gray-feathered pirate you just had to hire. But guess what this one is," he tapped at another large streaking dot.
She rolled her eyes. "I despise guessing games, Duck. Just get to the point."
"Fine," he said icily, "It’s a Duck ship. Mallard’s ship. Remember them?" his asked condescendingly, "The ones that kicked the crap out of this ship a few days ago? That ring any bells?"
"Don’t take that tone with me! Of course I remember them! But this time we’ll have the Bagels to defend us!"
D’Gal snorted derisively. "Pfft! The Bagels! If their ships were any good against the Ducks, they wouldn’t need that wormhole-generator they had us grab! If we leave now, the Ducks just might not find us!"
"Leave? Leave?!? And just where would you have us go?"
"Anywhere but here!"
"Might I remind you that we have absolutely no idea where we are?"
"So? We find an asteroid belt an wait there!"
"And miss the Bagels and our only chance home? Just because you’re afraid the D-"
"*I* am not afraid of anything, female! But in case you’ve forgotten, we’ve used up all our artillery. And ships’ phasers on a Duck vessel are about as effective as slingshots and name-calling. So unless you’re planning another little space-time jump, we’re nothing more than sitting ducks."
Galaxia glowered at him. "We’re not going anywhere. The Bagels will get here first, and we’ll simply set the device to their home coordinates and leave the Ducks here. Now, if you’re quite finished, *I* have more important things to do."
She turned and stalked out of the room, pausing at the door. "And, D’Gal? Rough up my crew all you want, but touch me again and I’ll have you tossed out an airlock. Got it?"
D’Gal glared at her retreating form until the doors swished shut behind her. Turning his attention to the holographic display, he looked at the ships again and muttered a curse. Given their relative distances and velocities, the Bagels *might* outpace the Ducks – but only by a matter of minutes. That was cutting it close. If they were at all delayed, the battle would be as brief as it was bloody- and it could quite possibly cost him his head. He slammed his fist into the table in frustration, watching as the hologram flickered.
"No, Galaxia. The next time you maneuver us into something this stupid, I’ll toss you out an airlock - personally."
The Entroprise streaked through the stars at Warp 6, her top speed. The light from far-off stars reflected off her streamlined hull, making her gleam like a freshly polished model as she sped toward her destination. The sleek ship was the newly-finished flagship of the Bagel Empire, its design surpassing its predecessors in every aspect. Her stolen stealth systems made detecting her presence without a visual confirmation almost as difficult as detecting a Duck ship itself, and while she could not quite keep pace with a Duck ship, her tail-mounted defense weaponry would make pursuing her…perilous, at best.
All this did nothing to ease her captain’s worries, however. He ordered another system-wide check and had engineering run a third inspection of the engines. Galaxia was carrying very valuable cargo, and the Entroprise’s scanners had already detected ships set to her coordinates. For all her touted superiority, his ship was still untested in battle – and if pirates were already headed for the Duckhawk, there was no telling who else might be considering taking a look at the wounded ship.
An ensign called to report Galaxia’s ship was now registering on their scanners. Good. Another reported the "pirates" closing on her position had the registries of the decoys the spy had left port with. Even better. Galaxia had probably just recalled her diversion-causing allies for the trip back to charted space. This particular region was rather far from known space, and Galaxia would risk the wrath of the thieves’ guild if she left the rogues stranded here. They were no threat to his ship.
Before his sigh of relief could reach his lips, however, a report of more contacts came in. One looked to be a worn pirate fighter of the same model as the other pirates, but bore no registry. A rogue gone rogue, perhaps? Most pirates at least bothered to create a fake registry, unless they wanted to be singled out. He mentally filed that one as a potential threat. The other contact was less readily identifiable, however. The ensign that had reported it had done so because of an unusual rift in the flow of space-time – not because a ship had been detected. However, when asked to confirm the contact, the ensign could not locate the phenomenon again.
The Duckhawk slid into view as it made its way around the moon it orbited, and the Bagel captain ordered his ship out of warp, dismissing the ensign’s unusual contact as a fluke misdiagnosed by an over-enthusiastic and under-experienced rookie.
D’Gal reached the bridge just as the Bagel ship appeared onscreen. From her seat at the bridge’s center, Galaxia shot him her best "I told you so" look.
"See? The Bagels are here, and the only ships behind them are Ivan’s fighters."
"The only ships you can detect, you mean," he retorted.
Ignoring both him and the nervous shudders of her crew, Galaxia hailed the approaching vessel.
"So nice to see you again, Empress," the Bagel captain gushed. The spy had a tendency to get upset over little mishaps like the one that had flung her here. And with that trigger-happy maniac D’Gal as her weapons officer, he wanted to appear as genuinely sorry about the incident as was diplomatically possible. And a little flattery couldn’t hurt, either.
"We seem to be a bit ahead of you decoys, Empress. If you have no objections, we would like to transfer your ‘catch’ over now."
"We do object," D’Gal stated before Galaxia could get a word in, "You’ll get your precious new toy once we’re back in charted space."
The Bagel captain watched as Galaxia turned in her chair to glare at her ‘subordinate.’ The renegade Duck never had been willing to take orders; he wasn’t surprised D’Gal’s involvement with the Bagels had failed to change that. Clearing his throat, the Bagel captain continued on.
"In that case, we will guide your engineers in programming the device to the Motherworld."
"The ‘motherworld?’" a voice cut in, "How ‘bout the coordinates to our world?"
Galaxia growled, accepting the third party’s transmission on a smaller viewscreen. Ivan’s scowling image immediately appeared onscreen.
"I’m gettin’ tired of all this," he stated, "Oh, interstellar piracy is rather interesting, I’ll give it that. But this is the sort of thing I employ underlings to do, and at the moment, they’re enjoying an underserved vacation at my expense. And wasting my time living out "Lost in Space" was never part of our bargain. My pilot here tells me the Bagel homeworld is off in its own area of uncharted space. If nothing else, I want a map back to my corner of the galaxy."
Galaxia scowled, but the Bagel captain, who had overheard the kiwi’s rant, merely nodded.
"That had not occurred to us. We of course would rather not allow outsiders to learn where our world lies. And perhaps direct coordinates would allow our location to be traced," he mused, thinking of the other ship still enroute to their position, "The device will be programmed to the coordinates of your homeworld, pirate. We will take possession of it from there."
With that, the Bagel ship routed its transmission to engineering, instructing them on the handling of the stolen weapon. Galaxia glared at the gray bird.
"You realize," Ivan continued, "that we probably weren’t the only ones who intercepted that transmission of yours. Are you looking to get caught?"
Without even turning around, Galaxia knew D’Gal was nodding in grim agreement.
She waved her hand dismissively. "The Ducks aren’t bright enough to scan interstellar communications."
D’Gal glared at her murderously. Catching the look, Ivan smiled amusedly before throwing a sly grin at Galaxia.
"You sure about that?"
Galaxia’s brow furrowed. Of course she was sure about it! It wasn’t SpaceFleet policy! D’Gal only thought to do it because D’Gal was, well, *D’Gal*. He made a living by eavesdropping on such communications. But still….
"Do you have any information to the contrary?"
"No," Ivan said smoothly, "Why would I?"
As Galaxia cut the transmission, both Lita and the Sign Holder turned to look at him in shock.
"Sir, what about the detective?" the Sign Holder asked.
"Why didn’t you tell Galaxia she knew and was going after the Ducks?" Lita echoed.
Ivan grinned wickedly. "Because, kids. If she’s that stupid, it’s better we let natural selection run its course. Survival of the Fittest, and all."
"But-" Lita began.
"No buts, kid. As long as I get home, I could care less what happens to Galaxia. Besides, her security officer looked bright enough. He’ll monitor for the Ducks."
"D’Gal?" she looked doubtful. "D’Gal hates everybody. He wants to fight the Ducks."
Ivan frowned at his new minion. "Lesson 1, kid: don’t question my decisions. Just do as you’re told. Now, make sure we’re close enough to their ships. I don’t want to be left behind."
"Yessir." She turned back to her work.
The Sign Holder, on the other hand, continued to gaze questioningly at his boss. "Sir?"
Leaning back in the captain’s chair, Ivan looked over at his aspiring young protégé. "What?" he shrugged, "Just because I’m a villain doesn’t mean I can’t root for the good guys every now and again. And besides," he grinned deviously, "life would be a lot less interesting without those two detectives around."
The Sign Holder arched an eyebrow. "If you say so, Sir."
"There she is," Mallard breathed, eyeing the viewscreen, "and with all her pirates and a Bagel ship to boot. Slow to impulse," he ordered, a thin smile spreading across his beak. "We’ll sneak up on them."
"Sir!" an ensign yelped, pointing to the viewscreen as a speeding ship shot into view from beneath their left wing, nearly colliding with the cloaked Duck ship as it skimmed along their shields. The small ship zoomed towards the clustered ships, completely unaware of the danger they had been in. Shields or no, the little pirate was built for speed, not size, and would have been nothing more than a bug on the Ducks’ windshield had the two ships collided.
Beak lunged for the ship’s controls, deactivating the autopilot in time to swerve the ship away from unseen danger. The ship skimmed along some invisible mass, its shields screaming as they fought to maintain the hull’s integrity.
"Beak!" Iiwi batted him away from the controls as the ship shook with turbulence from the shields’ repulsion. "What’re you doing?!?"
"Yeah, there’s nothing out there!" Bob complained, indicating the nearly-empty starfield ahead, "No stars, no chunks of rock, not even ships – well, except for those up there, but they’re too far away and they’re not shooting at us. There’s no reason to start flying like Iiwi!"
Iiwi fluffed her feathers indignantly, warbling what could only be called a growl.
"You don’t understand!" Beak objected, "Something was there! I could sense it! We just can’t see it!"
"So…it’s invisible," Ferdie supplied. "Kind of like Klingon ships on tv, right? Can we do that?"
"No," Beak said thoughtfully, "You can’t. Even the Empire can’t do that. But I’ve heard some adventurers speak of a race of birds that supposedly could. Ducks, I think, or geese….or they could have been swans….seagulls, maybe? I don’t remember. Does it matter?"
"It would if they’re the ducks that have my sister!" Ferdie yelled.
"I thought Galaxia had your sister."
"Bob, we were just gonna ask her if she knew anything about the duck that was seen in the alley! But," Iiwi thought a moment, "if she was being chased by the duck then, maybe she’s still being chased, and he’s in whatever we just flew by!"
"So…Ferdia’s in the invisible ship we just passed?"
"Either that or Mr. Jedi here just saved us from an errant refrigerator magnet."
"Miss Iiwi, there was something big there. I’m certain of it!" an indignant Beak argued.
"In that case," Ferdie pushed his way to the controls, "Let’s get ‘em!"
The small, beaten pirate fighter had almost reached the cluster of her sister ships when she veered sharply, turning a full 180 degrees and activating her weapons systems.
The Bagel captain, having been informed that one of the fighter’s occupants was one of Galaxia’s, had long since stopped paying attention to the late-comer and was newly-alarmed when it whirled around with weapons blazing.
In the Duckhawk, however, D’Gal had seen the fighter dodge unexpectedly moments before the maneuver, and cut their transmissions to the Bagels as he raised the shields and sounded red alert. Galaxia’s indignant protest stopped mid-sentence as the Duck ship decloaked, returning fire and sending everyone into a frantic state of panic.
The ship’s dodge was unexpected, to say the least. Mallard attributed it to a combination of stolen systems software, drunkenly brash flying, and sheer luck. But when the fighter then whirled around and opened fire, hitting his ship while it was still cloaked, still invisible and undetectable, he was floored. Literally.
A cloaked, traveling ship keeps its shields set low to conserve power and avoid alarming passing ships. With her shields this low, the Duck ship was taking damage to her hull. She was also pitching about wildly, each staggering blast jolting the ship anew.
Picking himself up off the floor, Mallard climbed back into the captain’s chair as the blasts continued to rock the ship. Ordering the shields to full power, he had the ship decloak.
And that, in truth, was when all Hell broke loose.
"Ack!" Iiwi squawked, lunging for the controls, "Ferdie, what the hell are you thinking?!? Look at that thing, it’ll rip us apart!"
"Yeah!" Bob yelled, pushing the blue bird away from the console. "And I’m too cute to die!"
Blasts tore past the ship, slowly whittling away its shields as the ship bucked and wheeled, Iiwi fighting for the controls as Ferdie steadfastly refused to be dragged away from them.
"But my sister’s on that ship!" Ferdie yelled, kicking Bob away only to find himself lifted into the air and hurled to the far end of the ship. Looking around for his assailant, he noticed Beak standing calmly by the ship’s shields console, one finger raised in a scolding gesture.
"Don’t make me do that again," the Jedi warned.
More blasts rocked the ship, from both directions now, as the small fighter wheeled around and dove for cover amongst her now-scattering sister ships. For a ship just beginning a battle, her shields were lower than was advisable.
"Where the hell did that come from?!?" Ivan yelled, jolting his ships’ impulse engines to life in an attempt to escape the volley of phaser bursts tearing past the newcomer and pummeling the clustered rogues.
"It looks like one of Galaxia’s fighters!" Lita yelled back, boosting their shields and bringing the weapons systems online.
"Not that one, furball! The one behind it!"
"Oh….that’s a Duck ship!"
"And that’s bad, right?" the Sign Holder piped up.
"Inasmuch as they’re the ones the Bagels are at war with and we’re on the Bagels’ side, yes!"
Ivan shook his head. This venture just kept getting worse. He severed the tractor beams holding his other ships in tow.
"Here, kid, take care of one of the Beta fighters! You too, rabbit! Oughta even the odds up a bit!"
Lita realigned the ships’ control layouts to comply, protesting the futility of the gesture as she did so. "It doesn’t matter how many ships we have! The Ducks’ll still have us out-gunned!"
"The point of this isn’t to win, kid! It’s to buy us enough time for Galaxia to charge up that gizmo of hers and get us outta here!"
"It still isn’t going to work," Lita mumbled.
"The Ducks!" Galaxia yelped. "How?"
"I told you *how*," D’Gal growled from his post. "Engineering! Get that thing fired up already!"
"We’re workin’ on it, sir!" came the garbled reply.
"Well, hurry it up!" Galaxia yelled back, "We’re running out of time!"
From his station at the security / weapons console, D’Gal caught her eye and gave her a fatalistic grin.
"Don’t say it, Duck. Just don’t."
"I told you so."
When the ship slid out of warp, they’d known they were close to Galaxia’s position. But the jolts and explosions echoing over the sirens of red alert caught them off-guard. Blasts slammed into the hull both aft and below their quarters, tearing through the residential sectors and leaving raging fires and depressurizing gashes in their wake.
"What the hell?!?" Ferdia yelped, throwing her arms out to catch herself on a wall as the ship took another hit, "Someone’s shooting at us!"
"Guess they knew we were coming," Squeaks made his way to the door, "Come on! If nothing else, we’ve got to get to an undamaged sector before we’re sealed off!"
The Bagel captain ordered his ship to attack, advancing on the Duck ship even as it closed in. The Entroprise’s designers had touted her as the first Bagel ship capable of holding its own against the Invisible Ducks. Here was his chance to prove them right.
"Throw everything you’ve got at her! Now, while she’s still trying to recover! FIRE!"
Galaxia watched the battle play out on the viewscreen. To her surprise, D’Gal wasn’t even bothering to return the Ducks’ fire. He was too busy leaching power from other systems to bolster the Duckhawk’s shields and screaming at Engineering to get the wormhole-generator charged already.
She wasn’t about to tell him to do otherwise. He wouldn’t listen to her anyway, and their puny phaser blasts probably wouldn’t do much to aid the other ships.
Ivan’s fighters had scattered almost immediately. The trio tore across the screen in every which way, obviously no longer under central control. Not a very effective offensive strategy, but it gave the Ducks more targets to shoot at and seemed to be keeping any one fighter from taking a disproportionate amount of damage.
The damaged fighter that had initiated the attack was less fortunate. It waffled between charging the Duck ship and hastily retreating, as if its occupants were in disagreement over their course of action. As a result, it was taking a heavy amount of fire, and the sparks rippling along its hull betrayed its failing shields.
"We can’t take much more of this!" Beak yelled, tossing Ferdie away from the controls again. "Your shields weren’t in the best of shape to begin with, might I remind you!"
"I’m doing my best to get out of their way!" Iiwi squawked, "But unless someone nails Ferdie to the wall, we’re not gonna make it!"
"But my sister!"
"She’s not on that ship, okay?!?" Bob yelled, pushing the blue bird towards the back of the bridge, "We have no reason to think she is! So stop trying to get us flamen-gebursted!"
"But-" Ferdie began, as the doors to the bridge swished open. Ignoring his protests, Bob sent the bluebird sprawling into the hallway.
"No buts," the kiwi advised, "Just stay there until we call you, okay?"
The doors swished shut an instant before Ferdie reached them, sealing him out of the bridge.
"Focus your attention on Galaxia’s ship!" Captain Mallard ordered, "We need to disable her before she uses that new weapon of hers again!"
"Sir, heavy damage reported in Sectors 13 through 37!" an ensign yelled. "We’ve got fires throughout the residential sectors, and Engineering reports one of our generators is failing!"
"Captain, the Bagel ship is advancing!" Drake yelled, as the massive flagship slid forward, shielding the Duckhawk from fire.
Keeping itself between the Ducks and the spy’s ship, the twin-nacelled saucer advanced on them, unleashing scores of nearly every type of known weapon and a handful of unknown ones. Phasers and photon bursts chipped away at the Ducks’ shields; phase-modulating photon torpedoes and quantum mines slipped right through the bleeding shields and tore into the hull.
"Looks like they’ve been busy, sir! She’s giving us quite a beating!" Drake informed his captain.
"Let’s hope they haven’t thought to move their power generators, then!" Mallard returned, "Target just above her weapons bay, and return fire!"
Ivan dodged the Ducks’ fire, turning only to find his ship on a collision course with the Bagel ship. He dove out of the way, leveling out beneath the massive ship and wheeling around for another pass. In doing so, he noticed one of his fighters trailing smoke.
"Hey, which ship is that? Stay out of the way if you’re that badly damaged! I don’t want to lose any cargo!"
"It’s not mine," the Sign Holder called from his station, watching the ship onscreen.
"Mine neither," Lita reported.
"Well, it’s not this ship, so who the hell is it?"
"Let me find out, sir," Lita said, punching in a few commands, "Scanning….it’s not registered, sir. Let me see if I can get a readout on its crew…"
As the readouts began scrolling on a side viewscreen, the damaged fighter’s shields collapsed in one final burst of energy. It rolled quickly, pitching and weaving in a renewed effort to dodge the blasts that were now connecting directly with its failing hull.
Ivan read the readouts worriedly. "Can we beam someone over with our shields raised?" he questioned the rabbit.
"Yessir, but I can’t get a positive identification on anyone, just on the crew’s relative positions."
"Then beam them all over. Now!" he yelled, an instant before an errant torpedo slammed into the wounded fighter, obliterating it in a fiery blast.
"Damn! Did you get them? Tell me you got them!"
"I got em," Lita assured her captain.
"What the? Where are we?" Iiwi questioned, looking about her. Gold glittered all around them, mixed in with the rich colors of gems and other expensive-looking items.
"Maybe we’re in heaven?" Ferdie asked.
"No, because you’re here, and you’re the reason we got killed!" Bob yelled.
Beak calmly dusted himself off and looked around. "Kind of looks like a cargo hold."
"Now that you mention it, it does! It looks a lot like ours, in fact!" Iiwi said, reaching for one of the glistening objects, "Except it’s got better décor."
Bob ignored the finery. He wanted to know just whose ship they were on. It wouldn’t do to have the very duck they’d been attacking find them in his cargo hold. His eyes scanned the walls. "Look, there’s a door!"
"Great! Let’s get out of here and back to the action!"
The foursome tore down the hallway. With each step they took, they became more certain of their heading – this ship, regardless of how they had wound up in it, was identical to theirs. That made locating the bridge easy, and, though Beak urged them to slow to a more defendable pace, the trip was rather short. Ignoring the Jedi’s words of caution, they burst through the doors and onto the bridge.
One of the things Ivan didn’t like about this ship was that it was completely soundproofed. While that was no doubt an excellent way to keep petty distractions from drawing the crew’s attention, it also masked the footsteps of anyone approaching the bridge. He barely had time to whirl around and face the door before the newcomers reacted.
"Ivan!" Iiwi squawked, skidding to a halt a few feet inside the room. Those behind her were slower to react, slamming into each other and sending the group sprawling to the floor. Well, most of them, anyway. A bird he didn’t recognize hung back in the entryway.
Iiwi struggled out from under the pile and got to her feet, pointing a wing at him accusingly. "What are you doing here?!?"
Ivan smirked. "Just saving your tail feathers, Redbird."
Iiwi scowled. Behind her, Ferdie and Bob folded their arms. "What are you *really* doing here?" Bob asked.
"Getting shot at, same as you, Bob."
"Hey…" Ferdie began, looking at the viewscreens, "You’re not firing at anybody!"
"I know," Ivan said, bringing the ship to the relative safety of the Duckhawk’s shadow before rising and approaching the detectives. "I’m just adding to the confusion. The big dogs can duke it out by themselves, but if they take out Galaxia’s ship, we’re stuck out here. And I, for one, have had enough of space travel."
"Hrmph. You’ve just run out of people to steal from!" Bob yelled.
"The stuff in the cargo hold! You stole it!"
"Bah! Says you, detective," Ivan sniffed, "You’ve no way of proving that wasn’t there when I got these ships, much less that any of it’s stolen. And even if you could, what makes you think anyone back home is gonna believe that I used a spaceship to steal from aliens, eh?"
Bob stammered, angry but unable to argue the point. Iiwi, on the other hand, caught the references to Galaxia and home.
"Wait…so that’s Galaxia out there?" she asked, pointing at the Duckhawk, "and she can get us home?"
"Nice to see that someone’s paying attention," Ivan muttered to himself. He jerked his head at Beak. "Who’re you?"
"Never mind that," Ferdie cut in, "We can’t leave yet! I’ve got to find Ferdia!"
Ivan cocked an eyebrow at the blue bird. "Last I heard, she was getting onto that Duck ship. Something happen since then?"
"The Duck ship? That ship?" Ferdie pointed to the viewscreen, "The ship you’re *firing* at?!?"
Ivan crossed his arms defensively. "*I’m* not firing at anyone, detective. I’m just drawing attention. That’s all I was asked to do, that’s all I wanna do, and that’s all I’m gonna do. And you’re *welcome*."
"For what?" Bob asked.
"For saving your necks. Just don’t tell anyone, eh? It’d make me look bad."
The Bagel captain tried hailing Galaxia’s ship again. No response. Evidently they thought it more prudent to dedicate their full attention to charging the wormhole generator.
Very well. He didn’t need to know how that was proceeding. His ship was doing a fine job holding off the Ducks, who had stopped firing at the fighters that darted annoyingly across the battlefield. Instead they were now concentrating on stopping the phase-modulating artillery the Bagels continued to lob at them. But he knew the Ducks. The defensive tactics meant they were planning something, and with the Invisible Ducks, that was never good.
Suddenly, the Duck ship swung around, diving at them. The captain’s faith in his ship’s shields dissolved as he saw the blue streaks of phased torpedoes headed for his ship’s power generators, vulnerably housed close to the bow’s hull. The Bagel captain ordered evasive maneuvers, well aware that his ship was too big to successfully dodge the onslaught.
True to form, the ship veered, darting away from some of the torpedoes and deflecting several of them into her sides, away from their power source. But a few torpedoes hit pay dirt, boring through their hull and ripping through their generators.
The explosion was vast, shaking the entire ship and wiping out all systems’ power. The lights flickered back on dimly, screens, communications, and other systems coming back slowly. His chief engineer appeared onscreen, bloodied but calm in contrast to his compatriots, who scattered and screamed in the background. The main power generator had been wiped out, he reported. Fortunately, the Entroprise had backup generators scattered throughout the ship, and while they couldn’t generate enough juice to fully restore all systems, the ship could continue the fight almost unimpeded. But he recommended they leave before they incurred much more damage.
At that moment, Galaxia hailed the ship. The weapon was fully charged, she reported. If he could drive the Ducks back a bit, they could fold out, leaving the Ducks stranded.
Excellent. He ordered most of the Entroprise’s remaining artillery fired, and as the Ducks dodged away from the barrage of hull-piercing torpedoes, he saw a familiar glow begin emanating from the Duckhawk.
Commodore Mallard noticed it, too. As the fiery glow radiated outward and encompassed the clustered ships, he ordered his ship around, plunging through the swarm of torpedoes to reach the swirling vortex before it winked out of existence.
"They’re not gonna make it!" Ferdie yelled, struggling to catch sight of the Ducks through the growing wall of fire, "They’ll be stuck here!"
"They’d find their way back eventually," Ivan commented offhandedly, ignoring the display as he tightened his restraining belts. This ride was a bumpy one, if he remembered correctly.
Bob glared at his gray-feathered nemesis. "You’re *not* helping!" he growled, turning to Ferdie and clapping a reassuring hand on his back. "They’ll make it."
"I just hope they make it in one piece," Iiwi said, grimacing as torpedoes slammed into the Duck ship, tearing sizable gashes in its hull as it fought to reach the clustered ships.
"They’ll be lost forever!" Ferdie wailed, grabbing Beak and sobbing into the Jedi’s robe.
Beak pushed him away absently, watching the void as it pulsed outward, expanding once more before quickly spiraling back into itself, drawing the ships toward its glowing center.
As the Duck ship streaked towards it, its whirling increased in speed, rapidly shrinking the size of the tear as its light intensified. The vortex pulsed, dispersing the light in a surrounding sphere before collapsing on itself, leaving only an empty starfield in its wake.
An instant later and millions of light-years away, the vortex reappeared, tearing through space-time in a fiery blaze that spat out its passengers before winking out of existence.
The ships tumbled forward, recovering quickly as their systems came back online. Inside each ship, dazed occupants took a bit longer to collect their bearings.
"Where are we? Did we make it back?" Iiwi asked, eagerly flitting to a console to scan the region. The blue world looming in front of them certainly *looked* like home, but so did every other living planet they’d seen on this journey.
As she waited for the scans, Ivan tried a more direct route. Tapping into a passing satellite’s systems, he found a communications bird, rerouted its feed to the viewscreen, and was instantly rewarded with the image of a perky CNN newscaster standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, which currently had a small plane nestled in its crown.
Ivan frowned, peering at the screen as the camera zoomed in. "Certainly looks like our world. I don’t recognize the reporter, but that’s definitely New York."
A cheer went up among them, the other ships temporarily forgotten. Ivan looked at the crash scene again, shaking his head. That statue had been the first thing immigrants entering the country had seen, a symbol of hope and opportunity in the New World. And while *his* first glimpse of America had been the face of a sailor furious at finding a stowaway, once he’d reached the shore and pulled himself out of the water, the statue had been there, looming far overhead as if to remind him that he needed to find a way across the bay now that he’d been thrown off the ship. Why he got sentimental about it was beyond him, but he still couldn’t help feeling inspired every time he saw it. "At least the statue wasn’t damaged that badly," he muttered.
The ship shook suddenly, reminding them of the battle they were evidently still engaged in. Killing the satellite feed, Ivan called the starfield back onscreen again. And was as surprised as the detectives at what he saw.
"The double-cross," he breathed.
The Bagel ship had opened fire on the Duckhawk.
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