The Search For Cuteness: Part 3

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

        Iiwi guided the fighter through the planet's atmosphere, keying in the landing coordinates the Hooties had given them and following their tiny saucer-shaped craft through the layers of clouds. She watched as environmental readouts flooded onto one of the ship's side consoles, confirming that they were comparable to Earth's and taking note of the planet's unusual geographic composition.

        The Hooties' planet was essentially one large ocean, with various island chains scattered about. No single island was very large – the largest one she could see was only slightly more than twice the size of her beloved Hawaii – but the chains stretched on for thousands of miles in every direction. Most of the islands were relatively flat, but a fair number of them had small mountain ranges running through them. . Some of the ranges ran along the coast; others cut winding paths through the interior of the island. The mountains were huge, towering formations - a good number of them stretched so high they sported snow-capped peaks - that reminded her of the Andes. Despite their imposing elevations, the ranges were small ones, spanning mere miles before dwindling to nothing more than grassy hills; however, from the ship's bird's eye view, they did seem to form a continuous line across the island chains. That spoke of volcanic origins for both the mountains and the islands - either that, or an underwater fault line.

        It occurred to her that not only was the fault line a more plausible explanation for the unusually-aligned ranges, but that the scene was most likely what their world's California would look like in a few millennia. Everything west of the San Andreas fault - including San Viano - underwater, as well as much of the lowland region immediately east of the fault. Iiwi shuddered at the thought. Perhaps that was a subject better left untouched. She turned back to the readouts.

        The islands were packed with ancient, thick forests that stretched nearly unbroken from coast to sandy coast. Deciduous ruled the islands' level terrain, while conifers - evergreens - dominated as far up the mountain slopes as they could. As the mountain slopes steepened, hardy scrubs clung to the increasingly sparse soil until finally there was nothing left to cling to. The rolling hills and level spans of the islands were host to old growth trees of dozens of different species, crowded in close and fighting for sunlight in an increasingly impenetrable canopy. The old-growth forests were all heavily populated. The patchy stretches of grassy plain were left empty, and the mountainous regions appeared untouched.

        She sighed, shaking her head. *Another* arboreal race? Not that she minded forest-dwelling species – she was one herself, after all – but she had been hoping to see an alien city. Something new and exotic. Something that made her feel like she was in one of those sci-fi films Ferdie and Bob enjoyed so much. Oh, forest villages were fine - especially *alien* forest villages – but they had yet to see a city. The last time they ventured out into space, they had spent the whole time scrambling about, trying to find Ferdia and desperately trying to avoid getting blown up – they hadn't had time for sight-seeing. That hardly seemed fair, especially since Ferdia – who'd spent a good deal of the adventure doing the same thing – had gotten to explore a space station. What had they explored? A forest village. Hardly fair, really.

        She shook herself out of her reverie, peering at the landscape coming into view, and giving the readouts another look. Wait a minute…..a city! She just managed to contain the chirp of delight that rose to her throat at the discovery. For whatever reason, the Hooties lived in the forest, scattered about like hermits – but, along the edges of the prairies, huge, cream-colored cities rose into view, centers of industry and commerce, of government and culture and society. Their residential areas were oddly isolated from the rest of society, but Iiwi didn't waste much time pondering this – after all, the simple fact that their ship was so big in comparison to the Hooties' made landing anywhere but an open field impossible anyway, and this way they would be right next to a city!

        She stared up at the ship's main screen, watching as the city drew nearer and details became discernable. It looked to be solid rock – not decorative rock, like marble, but hard, functional rock, like granite. This, however, did not rob the city of as much beauty as one might expect. Thick stone towers rose a good ten stories into the air – not nearly tall enough to stand out in San Viano, to be sure, but the towers had to be absolutely huge by Hootie standards – and the streets were crisscrossed with varying levels of walkways. The interlaced streets created a multi-level labyrinth that, at least on the lower levels, caught so little sunlight it could have passed as subterranean. Odd, but, then, kiwis were by nature nocturnal, burrow-dwelling birds. She just hoped there was enough clearance between levels to accommodate her and her companions.

        The Hooties' ship confirmed their landing coordinates, then zoomed off towards the city's upper levels, landing in a shielded hangar carved into the equivalent of the eighth floor of a nine-story tower. Iiwi would have loved to have followed suit, but their ship was *much* too big – it would have been like trying to park a jumbo jet in a two-car garage. The Hooties had given them landing coordinates in the open prairie instead.

        Iiwi slipped the ship into a slow arc, circling down towards the prairie. In spite of the mad scramble for seatbelts she heard taking place behind her, she brought the ship around slowly - couldn't have been more than a few hundred knots - and touched down gently just outside the city. Ignoring the sighs of relief and cheers of triumph now echoing from behind her – one would think Ferdie and Bob had thought they were going to crash into the city or something! – she powered down the ship's systems and headed towards the forward hatch.


        Bob and Beak scrambled into the lift, determined to get to their new friends' ship before the aliens disembarked. Watching the ship circle the city and then swoop like a Hawk onto the prairie below, it had suddenly occurred to them that, if they wanted to keep their guests from sparking a panic, they were going to need to give them a short lesson in cultural customs and etiquette.

        The first rule of which was, no predatory flight patterns! They had forgotten that the red-feathered bird was a Flier – she was, after all, just as big and funny-looking as the blue bird and their doubles, and just as amicable as well. It was easy to forget – especially when one is merely conversing over a communications link – that she was a Flier, and that, though she seemed quite different from the Fliers they were familiar with, she still thought like a Flier. Circle and swoop, Hawk tactics. Sharp beak and talons, meticulously-preened feathers, fast reflexes and on-the-fly strategies – Hawk features.

        When Beak's double had mentioned she was coming, the two Hooties had worried. When they watched the ship dodge the destroyer's explosion and slip through the atmosphere, they were concerned. But when they saw the landing, they panicked. Amicable or not, the alien Flier was still a Flier, and that was going to cause problems.

        The two Hooties tore down the winding streets towards the prairie, slowing only when they reached the growing crowd. They made their way to the front of the swell just as the hatch was opening, and darted up it before their doubles – or anyone else – could even peek outside.


        “What do you mean, I can't go out?!?” Iiwi squawked indignantly.

        “It's not that we don't appreciate your help,” Beak's Hootie explained, “It's just that you'll probably scare people.”

        “Why, because I'm not a kiwi?” Iiwi fluffed her feathers out, an unconscious act that only served to make her appear larger that she was. The Hooties took a few steps back. She pointed over at Ferdie, who was following the argument with no small amount of confusion. “What about *him*? He's not a kiwi, either, but you're not telling him to stay on the ship! How come I have to stay?!?”

        “Because you're a Flier,” Beak's Hootie began, cringing as the bird screeched angrily at him. With her ruffled feathers standing nearly upright, she looked like a huge, angry red puffball. That didn't bode well at all. He decided to try again.

        “You don't understand,” he said, trying to calm Iiwi – and now the rest of the groups as well, as they had evidently taken offence at his last remark, “In your world, your kind are obviously integrated with civilized society. In ours, however, things are…different. Hawks are your size, and they are savages. They attack our cities and homes, raiding our supplies and abducting our citizens. You look like a Hawk. If our fellow Hooties see you, they'll panic. Stampede, even, and probably attack you - and us for consorting with the enemy, all before we can explain ourselves.”

        “Just let us talk to the crowd outside first,” Bob's Hootie cut in, “we'll calm them down, tell them you're all tired from travel and battle, and that celebrations will take place after you've had a few hours' rest. We'll talk to the City Council, and we'll get them to make a lot of important-sounding speeches about how brave and heroic and *Just* you all are, and how different and diverse life is on your planet, and how people shouldn't judge you by your appearances, and stuff like that.”

        Beak's Hootie nodded in agreement. “Knowing our Council members, they'll have everyone one convinced you're Saviors from the Heavens, but you fear you look like monsters and are afraid people will be afraid of your appearances.”

        “Isn't that what you're saying the case is anyway?” Ferdie growled. Here they were, heroes – true heroes, who had beaten their foe without any help from anybody, even his sister, for once – and they couldn't go out and celebrate because a bunch of tiny, paranoid little creatures were afraid of them. He suddenly had the urge to do a lot of stomping and growling and climbing of buildings, but he wasn't certain if that was more a Godzilla or King Kong urging - and at any rate, he didn't want tanks or nuclear missiles or the Hootie equivalent of them lobbed at him. “Look, we can just leave, okay? You can give us some 'token of gratitude', and we can fly off into the sunset, or some flowery phrase like that.”

        “But you have saved our entire existence,” Beak's Hootie protested, “We have to show our gratitude in celebration. Our leaders would face public outrage if we did not.”

        “Just let the Council members do their speeches,” Bob's Hootie pleaded, “and then, if people still react poorly when they see you, you can go without the celebration. It would shame the people then, for allowing prejudices to taint their judgment and disrespect our saviors.”

        Beak nodded in agreement. “Sounds good to me. Besides, we're tired, and this gives us time to rest up so we have plenty of energy for the celebration.”

        “Will there be coffee at this celebration?” Bob asked, looking up from the unholy goop the ship's replicator had tried to pass off as coffee.


        “What? I need real coffee! Not this fake coffee! Besides, what if we need to make speeches? We need time to prepare!”

        “Speeches?” Ferdie asked, eyes shining. Finally! Recognition! “I have to go practice being modest!” he yelled, taking off down the hall.

        Iiwi, feathers now nearly fully un-ruffled, blinked after him. “Well, I guess that settles that…”

        “So you'll let us try?”

        “Why not?” Iiwi shrugged, turning back to the bridge, “It's not like I had anything else planned for the week…”


        Iiwi peered out into the crowd. Ferdie was in the middle of an overly-long-winded speech, and most of the crowd was either fighting off sleep or gawking at the four of them.

        Well, more like gawking at Bob and Beak, and gawking / glaring / staring / watching her. No one was paying attention to Ferdie anymore. Even the mayor had begun dozing after the first twenty minutes of the bluebird's speech. Bob and Beak had given speeches too – Beak had warned about the perils of the Java Empire, frightening and depressing most of the spectators, and Bob had merely lectured about his 'Boss-nassity' and commented on how good the local coffee was turning out to be. The Council Leader had then offered her the mic, but she had – graciously, she hoped – turned him down, saying something to the effect that all she had done was pilot the ship and jam the destroyer. She wasn't sure if the crowd had liked that display of modesty or not – although with Ferdie going on as he was, she was pretty sure they were wishing he'd been brief, too.

        She didn't really care what they thought. She didn't see the point in making speeches. Their actions had spoken loudly enough, and anyways, people didn't want to hear about why they had done what they had done – they wanted to know how. They wanted battle stories, and they wanted Bob and Beak to tell them. That much was obvious. In fact, had Bob and Beak been awake, and not dozing (or, in Beak's case, snoring) onstage, they might have noticed this and cut Ferdie off. But they weren't awake, and she didn't want to ask Ferdie to wrap it up – she was likely to forget her manners and just tell him to shut up, and that wasn't good. The crowd was staring at her enough as it was. So she just let Ferdie prattle on. And on, and on, and on.


        Bob awoke to find Ferdie still talking. He wasn't sure how long Ferdie had been talking, because he wasn't wearing his watch – how was he going to adjust it for Hootie time? The planet had 30-hour days! – but he knew it had been a long time. The shadows had shifted significantly, and his stomach was whining for food. More importantly, his caffeine level was dangerously low. He needed coffee. Precious, life-giving, ever-blessed coffee. He yawned, scanning the crowd for a coffee vendor. There *had* to be a vendor out there somewhere, because most of the assemblage had a cup or two that they were desperately trying to use as a sleep-deterrent. So, where was the coffee guy?

        There he was! All the way in the back of the crowd. Bob waved discreetly, trying to get the vendor's attention. When that didn't work, he started waving both arms – and when jumping up and down and yelling *still* didn't work, he hopped off the stage. If it your ship won't come to you, he thought to himself, swim out to it!

        This proved a tad harder than he'd thought it would. Hooties crowded him on all sides, snapping pictures and begging for autographs and battle recounts. When he mentioned he needed coffee, the crowd abated somewhat, and he thought he might make it to the vendor – but then the crowd doubled, as dozens of Hooties presented him with cups of life-giving coffee.

        Well, that was all it took to win his gratitude. He found a place to sit, drank a few cups of the coffee (although the Hooties' cups were so small it was more like downing shots of coffee), and began recounting their Epic, Brave, Death-Defying Battle With the Java Empire's Most Dangerous Destroyer. He wasn't sure, but every time he told it, he thought he remembered a few more things, like the legion of soldiers that they had fought hand-to-hand to get into Engineering, the deadly killer robots that broke through the walls of the ship and cornered them, and how he had personally stomped three of those robots before they were able to contact Iiwi and beam back over to their ship to watch the glorious explosion.

        Oh, yes, and since Iiwi was jamming the destroyer, regular communications were impossible, so they had to fashion a jury-rigged, lightwave-based communicator from a phaser and bits of the robots he stomped. Where had they gotten the phaser, since the troopers all had heavy-duty laser cannons? Well, they had run into a high-ranking officer, and he, Bob, had personally booted this officer across a really long hallway, knocking the villain unconscious and allowing him to take the man's phaser. Which came in handy, since Beak had forgotten to charge up his lightsaber and it was starting to sputter out.

        The crowd leaned closer, listening intently to the fabulous tale of life and death. And they kept bringing him coffee. Beak joined him after a while, and helped him remember even *more* amazing things about the battle, like the group of elite ninja troopers with stolen, double-bladed lightsabers that had attacked Beak while Bob was fending off the legion of laser-cannon-wielding troopers. Oh, and when he had saved Ferdie from certain doom when a one of the killer robots blew a hole into the side of the ship, and Ferdie almost got sucked out into the vacuum of space. Which would, after all, have been an awful thing, since Ferdie was a valuable member of the team, screaming to let them know when danger approached, acting as an avian shield and drawing fire when the kiwis were in trouble, and, of course, providing valuable insight in the form of comic relief.

        What about the Flier? someone asked. Iiwi? Iiwi was great. She had found a way to keep the destroyer – which was MUCH, MUCH bigger than their fighter – from moving, or firing, or sending messages while they were on board. Moreover, she kept their fighter doing this for over an hour, even though the ship was only supposed to be able to do it for a minute or two – and even then, it was only designed to jam small ships, not BIG HUGE ships like the destroyer. Yeah, they would've been doomed if Iiwi wasn't around. The ship was really hard to fly – lots of screens and readouts and buttons that did terrible things if you didn't know what you were doing – and since Iiwi could fly, she was knew just how to work the ship and could fly it even better than she could fly herself. *And*, even though there was no way she should have been able to find them on the destroyer because of the damage they had caused, she managed to find them anyway, and only waited for them to signal for her to beam them back over because they weren't really in any *real* danger. If they had *really* been in danger, she would have beamed them back immediately – but they were just working up a sweat and keeping the ship's troopers too busy fighting them to fix the ship while the self-destruct counted down.

        At some point, Bob noticed, Iiwi joined them as well. Evidently some of the younger Hooties had decided this was just *so great*, such an *epic battle*, that they needed Iiwi there telling it too. After all, she was a hero too. And she had been watching the readouts of the destroyer, so she could tell them just how *many* troopers were attacking them. She could also tell them about flying the ship away from the explosion, and dodging the deadly debris it spit out at them. And, you know, maybe she'd also tell them about flying, because wasn't flying neat, the kids said. And maybe she could help them think of how to beat the Hawks – after all, since she was a Flier – different from the Hawks, but similar all the same – she might be able to anticipate some of their strategies.

        This was great! The Hooties loved them! They loved him, and Beak, and Iiwi, and, most importantly, they supplied him with a never-ending stream of coffee! He was glad that no one really seemed to be all that afraid of Iiwi – it'd be a shame if she had to sit and wait in the ship while they enjoyed the celebration, after all. Some of the bolder kids were even asking if she'd take them for flights later, or perform aerobatics. The Hawks looked so cool when they did their fancy aerial stunts, but the Hooties couldn't watch them, of course, because they had to run to safety. Or if they did watch, they did so from a cave or behind a window – hardly a decent view!

        Bob and Beak and Iiwi continued telling the story of their Epic Battle and talking about flight and Beak's Magi abilities, and the Hooties continued to bombard them with questions and suggestions and requests and things. And in all the excitement, no one noticed that, up on stage, Ferdie was still giving his speech, oblivious to the lack of an audience.


        When Ferdie finally finished his glorious speech, he noticed two things. First, it was dark. From the looks of things, the world's suns had set hours ago, and the city, curiously, was largely unlit, providing them with little more illumination than starlight. Second, no one was paying any attention to him – which really and truly ruined his moment of glory. He'd been looking forward to a cheering crowd, but it seemed that Bob and the others had interrupted him and started recounting their adventure. Which was rather rude, but then the Hooties had probably bribed Bob with coffee and Beak with bananas. And Iiwi….well, Iiwi had the attention span of a three-year-old. Fliers never could grasp the importance of speeches.

        When the crowd noticed he was no longer speaking, an excited murmer passed through them. The mayor was quickly roused (he must have dozed off, sitting in the dark like that) and after a moment to compose himself, the dignified Hootie announced that a rare fireworks display would now commence.

        The fireworks were rather disappointing. There were very few of them, all monochromatic and launched at the far side of the clearing – but that was just as well. Ferdie found that he was quite tired – and very hungry. It seemed that the assembled Hooties were tired as well – or at least eager to re-enter the city – for the crowd began to disperse, and the 'heroes' soon found themselves left to their own devices for the night.

        The four of them waved after their departing fans before retreating into the ship. Bob and Beak's doubles had promised to show them around after the ceremony, but it seemed that this tour was actually slotted to take place tomorrow. They must've needed to reschedule it because of the delay talking to the Council had caused. He supposed he could wait that long. After all, they were probably planning a parade or a feast or something.

        Oooh, he couldn't wait to tell Ferdia! She'd never gotten such a hero's welcome for anything! And they hadn't leveled any cities or done any major damage to important structures, either! Sis'd probably have blown off a chunk of the Hooties' moon or something, but not them! Oh, she was going to be jealous!

        Now, if only he could figure out why the others were threatening to tape his beak shut if he ever went near a microphone again…


        Bob wandered down the streets of the labyrinthine city, gawking up at the soaring, interwoven web of roads and pathways that stretched above him, dappling the meager bits of light filtering down from the upper levels. He was on the city's lowest above-ground level - the streets were at their widest here, and there was still enough of an 'open air' feel to the place that Beak's fear of tunnels wasn't complicating things very much.

        The Hootie city was an amazing sight, he had to admit. Dozens of levels stacked atop each other in a complicated maze with seemingly no order to it at all - when, in fact, it was actually very well-thought-out and excellently planned. To a newcomer, it was all very confusing - beautiful, but bewildering - but the city's residents deftly wound their ways about, expertly running the maze.

        Bob and Beak's Hooties were no exception to this. Serving as 'tour guides', they navigated their heroes to the city's most beautiful corners. The earthlings were much larger than the Hooties, true, but they could still make their way through the city's streets - albeit only if they hunched over and walked single-file. Bob, of course, didn't need to do much more than duck down a bit - but Beak and Ferdie weren't as lucky. Scrunched down so low they might as well have crawled, the two stumbled down the cobbled streets, amusing Hooties young and old with their clumsy parade.

        The city tour was quite informative, even if it did feel like he was wandering around in a doll village. Scenes from Godzilla kept rising unbidden to Bob's mind, as did several scenarios from his favorite dream, The Attack of the 50-Foot Kiwi - in which he stomped an entire Barbie town. The streets and architecture actually became more ornate as one delved deeper into the city - while the upper levels were all functional granite and devoid of decoration, the inner levels were brightly painted with murals and adorned with statues and artfully-done carvings. The foot bridges' railings were fashioned like the decorative wrought iron fences on Bobetta's estate, with flowers and vines carved into the granite and sections of the interior completely removed so you could see people as they walked along the bridges. The murals were mostly cheerful pastoral scenes and landscapes, dotted with underwater scenes and fanciful renderings of space, as well as depictions of what had to be herds of native animals. Street vendors boasted of their wares from kiosks as shop-owners bustled about their shops, rolling out racks of discounted goods and newly arrived merchandise - some of which, he noticed, sported images of him and his friends. Large viewscreens were set into the sides of buildings at every corner, with commercials and music videos and news briefs flashing across them. Commuters stopped to watch them as they waited to cross the street or board hover-buses, and Bob was reminded of a futuristic version of Times Square he had seen in a movie once.

        They had to stay on the streets - they were too big to enter any of the buildings - which was rather disappointing. Bob had wanted to get a look inside the towering spiral structures, as much to get an idea of what they looked like as to how they were furnished and what exotic blends of coffee could be found therein. This was the first real alien city he had visited, and though he could browse through the street vendor's wares, he wanted to see the insides of more professional establishments - banks, law firms, police offices, and what not. He wanted to see Hootie designs and fashions, not Hootie souveniers. Bobetta was always looking for new trends and 'chic' art - if he could see what the Hooties had to offer, he might find something she would like. Which would earn him forgiveness for being away so often, as well as present her with the opportunity to be the first one to have the newest trendy status symbol. Besides, there were coffee shops inside many of those buildings, and he really wanted more of the Hooties' coffee. It was delicious.

        But the closest Bob came to entering the buildings was being permitted to peer through their doorways. And while they got to see several breath-takingly beautiful monuments and mini-parks, there were several tourist-y spots the Hooties wanted to show them that they couldn't reach due to narrow streets, which was even more disappointing than not being able to enter buildings. He had been looking forward to seeing the statue of Thad the Nose-Healer and the Hawk War Memorial, though the Hooties refused to explain the significance of either structure.

        Bob was so deeply engrossed in the sights and the tour that he forgot to watch where he was going, and tripped over a fruit cart, splintering it to pieces and nearly squashing his Hootie as he fell. The problem with crowded city streets was that one really needed to pay a great deal of attention to where one put one's feet. Hauling himself up, he looked towards what he was fairly sure was the outskirts of the city. Perhaps Iiwi had had the right idea after all…


        Iiwi banked left, flaring her right wing to steepen her turn and catch the updraft. The warm air bouyed her upwards, and she circled, keeping with the current as it lifted her higher. She beat her wings as the current dissipated, heading for another updraft as she surveyed the land below. She felt a slight push of resistance as she flew headlong into another air current, and turned to follow it, flapping along after it until she caught up with the current and rode it, allowing it to carry her where it would. The extended glide gave her time to rest her tired wings.

        Gravity here on the Hooties' world was somewhat greater than she was used to. She hadn't recognized it during their first few hours on-planet, attributing the heavy, weighed-down feeling she'd felt to a cross between battle fatigue and intergalactic jet-lag. But now that she was airborne, the difference in gravity was unmistakable. It pulled her down, made her feel as if she were an overweight, out-of-shape city pigeon trying to fly South for the winter. Her wings were beginning to ache from all the flapping she was doing just to stay aloft.

        The world had a greater oxygen content than hers, she noted absently, or else she would have had to put down every few minutes just to catch her breath. It reminded her a great deal of the first time she had flown in Earth's mountainous regions. She supposed that, just as she had adjusted to the reduced oxygen of higher-altitudes back home, she could adjust to this world's gravity - and she would be all the stronger and faster on Earth for it. Until then, however, she was rather slow and sluggish in the air, struggling as much to finish this one-hour jaunt as she expected she would at the end of a long migration flight.

        It was worth it, though. The Hooties' world was quite beautiful - so pristine and untouched. Beneath her stretched hundreds upon thousands of miles of unspoiled forests, marshes, grasslands, - all as untouched as could be. Hootie settlements were few and far between, always tucked just along the edges of forests and grasslands - and the rest of the land was left to Nature. For all their technology, the Hooties seemed to have remained a hunter / gatherer race, with little cultivated farms or discernable factories. From a capitalism / industrial standpoint, that made little sense - but she supposed there was some reason for it. Perhaps the Hooties merely placed a greater importance on maintaining their home than her fellow earthlings did. Or perhaps this 'Hawk' tribe they hated so much lived in the unsettled regions. It was impossible to tell. She would have to ask the Hooties about that…


        Ten thousand feet.

        The air was so deliciously thin up here. And cold. That was what made it so incredibly enjoyable. The sheer difficulty of it. Only fliers in top physical condition attempted to fly this high. A lesser bird would peter out at earlier altitudes - possibly even black out from lack of air, risking a potentially fatal fall earthward. But that was the whole point - flying higher than was necessary, pushing oneself past any and all limits that presented themselves - being the best that it was possible to be. Being, as Skye liked to think of things, himself.

        The wind whistled beneath his wings, ruffling the leading edges of his feathers as it whipped about the airfoil they created, lifting him even further above the clouds. He flared his wings, watching as his shadow repeated the move as it danced along the surface of the clouds below. So pretty. So fluid. So free. The world beneath him was a patchwork of greens and browns and shimmering rivers. Herds of telk dotted some of the patches, tiny specks of brown on light green meadows, and a few flocks of skilks floated above rivers and lakes, hunting the sea skimmers swimming below.

        It all looked so peaceful. One almost forgot that the creatures below were living in fear, on constant alert for even the slightest sign of danger. Of predators. Of him.

        Normally, this would have saved the lives of the most vigilant. Now, however, it merely wasted their time and energy. He was not hunting now. Well, not prey, anyway. He was stalking a curiosity, an intriguing mystery that had caught his eye not long after he'd brought down his daily meal.

        He took care to stay close to the clouds, keeping both himself and his shadow safely obscured from the form below. He had never seen a creature quite like it. At first, he'd thought it just an overgrown fledgling, testing its wings on updrafts while its parents were out hunting. But then - a flash of sunlight, a glint of red - blood red. A lovely scarlet that had caught and held his eye long enough for him to realize that this, this was no blunt-winged fledgling, but a fully-grown, sword-beaked flier. One quite skilled in high-altitude flight and wind-riding, yet one unaccustomed to the area's regular currents.

        One that was quickly tiring.

        And, more importantly, one that was heading towards a pygmy settlement as if it belonged there. As if the pygmies wouldn't fire at them.

        Skye's curiosity could bear it no longer. He had to know what this creature was - and how it knew the pygmies. And, perhaps, if it had anything to do with the light shows the previous night - or the silver bird that others had seen afterward. He folded his wings in close, welcoming the rush of air as his dive picked up speed.

        Scarlet mystery, I would know your secrets.


        Iiwi watched in fascination as the herds and flocks gathered beneath her suddenly broke for cover, scattering as if a predator had suddenly made their presence known. She couldn't spot any such threat on the ground, and briefly wondered if they were fleeing from her - but quickly dismissed the thought. She'd made no sudden moves, no changes in her flight pattern, no anything to indicate a sudden predatory action on her part - and the creatures had had plenty of time to catch sight of her beforehand, so why flee now? She scanned the grounds below for a clue - any clue.

        It wasn't until after she spotted the swiftly-moving shadow that she heard the low whistle of wind rushing over wings. By then, of course, there was no time for conscious thought - instinct took over, and she cupped her wings and rolled left as her attacker streaked by, just missing her. A few loosed feathers fluttered earthward in unspoken testament to just how close the creature had come. The creature - a raptor of some kind, judging by its wings - pulled out of its dive seconds after the grazing contact, and sped after its now-fleeing prey.

        Iiwi didn't stick around to watch his recovery, of course. She was off like a shot, steeply banking away from the area and beating her wings to pick up speed. No time to climb, she thought, not when he came from above me anyway. She'd never make it to a safe altitude in time - if she made it at all, as tired as she was from this world's gravity. She wasn't about to try to shake the raptor, either - he was gaining on her much too fast for that.

        Altitude for speed, she decided, folding her wings in close and watching as the ground rushed towards her. The more she fell in her dive, the more speed she picked up, and she shot earthward like a scarlet cruise missile.


        Skye pulled up, making for higher altitudes - there was no cover to hide his quarry, so he could afford to put a little distance between them. He hadn't expected the stranger to detect his approach, but he wasn't about to lose them now. He knew this area, they didn't. There was no place to hide in these mountains where *someone* would not find them.


        Five feet from the ground, Iiwi snapped her wings open, shooting forward with her bartered speed and wincing in pain as her momentum resisted the change in direction. Oh, she had strained something with that little stunt. She'd underestimated the effects the increased gravity would have on her speed, and had been traveling much faster than she'd anticipated. She skimmed over the grassy surface of a meadow, wing muscles tensed and taught as she fought to stay in control of her flight.

        Her senses screamed at her. She was going much too fast to be flying this low. A wrong move here could be deadly. An error in judgment, a stray fieldmouse, a spasming muscle - any of these things could very well send her hurtling into the ground, tearing her muscles to shreds and shattering her fragile bones. Worse yet, though - the impact might not kill her, but simply leave her at the mercy of the raptor behind her.

        A river sped into view, and she quickly jerked sideways to fly above it - water was just ever so slightly less firm than solid ground, and its reflection provided her with an easy way of keeping tabs on her pursuer.

        She was so focused on the contours of the route before her that she completely missed seeing the dark, submarine form oozing to meet her.


        Skye saw it, though, and shrieked a warning just as the sanderling broke the water's surface and lunged at the scarlet bird. With a squawk of terror, his quarry rolled out of the path of the four-jawed worm's huge, tooth-filled mouth, leaving it to plunge empty-handed into the river again. The move saved her from the beast, but cost her altitude she did not have, and she touched the water's surface as she rolled. That slight contact sent her tumbling out of control, skipping along the water's surface for the briefest of instants before she flared her wings and re-established control of her flight. She beat her wings, pulling away from the river and heading for a forest just now coming into sight at the water's edge.

        He dove after her. He had to stop her from entering the forest - she would be too easy to lose in there. True, the flora was not in bloom, so her bright plumage would make her stand out - but still, there were too many dark shadows for her to hide in. If he didn't cut the distance between them soon, he'd stand no chance of keeping with her if she made it to the forest.

        He overtook her easily, shooting past her to loop around for another pass, herding her away from the trees. Or trying to, rather. She stayed her course as he charged her, dodging away at the last second and deftly slipping into the woods. He followed her lead, muttering at the luck of it all.


        The forest was dark, but her eyes adjusted quickly enough. Flying at speeds made foolhardy by the dark, she wove around the trees, zipping around branches and through notches in trees in a desperate attempt to shake the bird behind her. In all truth, she kept up the speed and dangerous maneuvers as much to hear him smack into an obstacle as to lose him. The adrenaline coursing through her veins kept her from feeling fatigued, or from even noticing the countless bruises and scratches she was acquiring from near misses and tight squeezes herself.

        She was thoroughly turned around by now - she had no idea which direction to fly in to reach the Hootie village, or any Hootie settlement, for that matter. She supposed it would be a simple enough task, once she got out of the forest and had a minute to look around…but then, she wouldn't get that minute until she shook her pursuer. She could hear him falling behind, slowing as he dodged the tree branches and spiked brambles that sprang into his flight path. But he was still behind her, and he was faster than she was - should they reach another meadow, any lead she worked up now would quickly vanish.

        She silently wished she'd brought along a communicator. If the guys knew she was in trouble, they could rush to the ship and come to her aid. Granted, Bob and Ferdie had no idea how to fly the thing - but Beak had demonstrated a rough understanding of the fighter Galaxia had given her, handling their flight path while she manned the guns in their battle with the Ducks and the Bagels. She was certain he'd be able to maneuver this ship to a spot where even Ferdie could fire at her pursuer, driving the bloodthirsty brute away long enough for her to board the ship.

        But she didn't *have* a communicator. She'd forgotten it on the ship's console when she left that morning. She had no way of contacting her fellow detectives.

        Oh, but I need help! she whimpered to herself, gulping air in an attempt to keep up her strength. She couldn't keep this up much longer.


        Beak jerked upright, slamming his head into an elevated highway as he did so. Though that enticed a yelp of pain from him, it did not stop him from - more slowly, now - straightening up and scanning the surrounding area.

        The Hooties, more than a little alarmed at the cracked highway, quickly shooed civilians away from the area before turning to reprimand the Magi. Bob and Ferdie, on the other hand, had seen Beak do this sort of thing before, and tried their best to listen and look for anything that might be amiss.

        Their senses told them nothing, though, and Bob - ever the direct detective - cut to the chase. "What's wrong, Beak?"

        The brown kiwi frowned, a confused expression on his face. "I think Iiwi's in trouble," he ventured, "but she's moving too fast for me to locate her. She's west of us, in a forest, I think - yes, definitely a forest. She just got scratched by a thorny vine."

        "And for that, you cripple a highway?!?" Ferdie cried. "Sounds like something Sis'd do."

        Beak shook his head. "No - she's in danger. Something's chasing her."

        "Probably a Hawk," Beak's Hootie ventured, glancing worriedly at Bob the Hootie, who nodded slowly.

        "Yes. They're the only creatures here large enough to threaten her," Bob's Hootie agreed.

        "Besides sanderlings, of course," Beak's Hootie added, "But those are marine creatures. If she's in a forest, she's up against a Hawk."

        Bob straightened as best he could in the cramped streetway, taking his best heroic stance. "Well, then, let's go help her!" he announced, turning and stalking back the way they'd come.

        "Yes," Ferdie agreed, still bent-over but trying to look heroic nonetheless, "To the ship!"

        He pointed dramatically, preparing for a dramatic exit. It took him a second or two to figure out a way for him to rush heroically down the streets while hunched over. Just as he started running, however, the tower behind him exploded, sending him tumbling down onto several raised streets and small buildings.

        Hooties scattered everywhere, scampering for a place far enough from the emerging chaos while trying to figure out just what was happening. Beak's Hootie was the first to figure it out. "We're under attack!"


        Another building exploded nearby, and Beak paused in his trek to the ship to survey the damage. "That's coming from some kind of energy cannon!"

        "Yes," his Hootie agreed, "A Java fighter's ion cannon, to be precise! They've attacked us with those before!"

        "The Empire? Here? But we destroyed their ship!"

        "They must've gotten out an SOS or something! Look at the sky!" the Hootie pointed up through the gap in the labyrinth the blast had created. Sinister-looking black-and-green saucers flit back and forth, focusing their fire around the area of town the detectives' ship perched next to.

        Beak needed no further encouraging. As his Hootie raced for safety, he turned to run for the ship. After all, with Iiwi away, he was the only one who knew how to fly the thing. And Iiwi's rescue would just have to wait until after they chased away the Empire's fighters. He wasn't about to abandon her to fate completely, however, and quickly sent her a mental image of where she was in relation to the village. If nothing else, that would help her find her way to the Hooties' hideaways hidden in the forest behind the village.

        The outskirts of the city loomed into view, smoking and burning from the Empire's onslaught. He cleared the rubble as quickly as he could, tripping as he hit the slippery grass of the landing pad. He fell, spilling the contents of his robe's pockets. He leapt to his feet again, snatching up his lightsaber as he did so and bolting up the ship's entrance ramp, keying it closed as he passed through.

        He reached the bridge in record time to find Bob and Ferdie frantically searching the control grids for the flight panels. While that certainly explained why the ship's lights were flashing spasmondically and its forward-portholes' wipers swishing away on high, it was getting them nowhere useful. Waving them to their seats, he quickly located and activated the correct panels. Sitting in the captain's chair as the ship's engines hummed to life, he lifted the fighter off the pad and into the air as the Java fighters began yet another salvo towards the launch pad.


        Iiwi broke through the canopy with a heartened squawk, streaking forward for the Hootie city she knew was there. At some point in her flight through the forest, she'd regained her sense of direction, and she knew that now was her only chance of escaping the bird behind her.

        That being said, the sight that greeted her in the meadow considerably dampened her spirits. The Hootie city was under attack by dozens of circling fighters - and her ship was nowhere to be seen. No, wait, there it was - streaking up into the air, away from the battle.

        Cowards! They were running away! They were abandoning the Hooties and running away! And they were leaving her behind. She slowed.

        Her heart sank. Certainly, it was what she would have done in their place - especially against the sheer number of enemy fighters filling the sky - but it was not what she had expected them to do. They were supposed to be the good guys, the heroes, the ones who never left anyone behind!

        A rustle behind her announced her pursuer's exit from the forest - and the startled squawk that followed it told her he was just as surprised at the battle as she was. She risked a look back -- but a searing pain shot across her left wing, reminding her how foolish not paying attention to what's in front of you in battle could be. She fluttered to the right, avoiding the fighter's blasts only to nearly fly straight into another. Wheeling, she turned and dove for the city. If she tried, she might be able to cram herself into one of the Hooties' tiny underground tunnels, and claustrophobia be damned.

        The fighters weren't having any of that, though. Dozens of them were running strafing runs through the tiny Hootie city, altering their course ever so slightly to include her as she approached. She wheeled, darting away from the ships as best she could, trying to find a way out of this. At least her pursuer was no longer a problem - he was as confused a target as she was, at this point - but that did her no good now. Swapping one flesh-and-blood opponent for hundreds of steel-hulled ships was *not* considered a good trade in her book.

        What to do? Oh, what to do?! She could no longer see her borrowed fighter. The guys must've cleared the atmosphere by now - or at least the cloud layer. No, no, there they were again - streaking across the sky with dozens of enemy fighters in their wake. The little fighter wasn't holding up so well - its energy shields fairly clung to it, a sure sign that they were failing, and it looked as if it were smoking. As she watched, the shields flared brightly - then disappeared. The newly-vulnerable fighter was quickly surrounded by enemy ships at that point, and she watched as a larger saucer slid into view and engulfed the defeated ship entirely. Towed it into a shuttle bay, most likely. Poor guys.

        A series of explosions echoed behind her, and she circled around to investigate. The Hooties' city - tiny yet beautiful only 30 hours ago - was now nothing but a collection of rubble. As one, the enemy fighters turned to leave. And almost immediately after that, her golden-winged attacker was back, emerging from the shadows of the forest to chase after her again.

        Iiwi allowed herself a screech of frustration and anger; about halfway through, however, it turned to a squawk of despair. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off - she was tired, and her wings ached. If only…

        But there! In the rubble! A communicator!

        Iiwi redoubled her efforts, pulling herself through the air, intent on that object and that object only. She couldn't call the guys for help, certainly, but she could try someone else…


        It took every last bit of willpower she had not to land when she reached the communicator. Her wings felt so very heavy, and the ground looked so firm and, well, restful…but no, she couldn't land. The raptor was closing on her now, and if she landed, she'd be defenseless in this rubble-strewn field. So, wearily, she swooped down, grasping the communicator in her talons as she lifted it and flew back towards the forest.

        She faltered a bit as a light wind current blew by her, and the raptor swooped at her as she recovered from it, nearly making her drop the communicator.

        No time to waste then. She had to make this call now, or she might never get the chance.

        She fumbled with the communicator, prying it open with her talons while keeping her eyes on the forest ahead. The minute she entered the forest, she dropped altitude, diving for some speed - and on the odd chance it might confuse her pursuer. At any rate, it gave her enough time to activate the communicator, and she began fumbling with the switches and settings - quite a difficult task, when one can't look at the device screen.

        Area code 555, number 255-3815. She wouldn't get through to anyone now - but someone always checked the messages. Eventually. It was a long shot, she knew, but right now she was just thankful she remembered the number. Honestly, when she'd first found out about it, she'd laughed. It all seemed so ridiculous, once you took the time to match the numbers with the letters on the keypad. Hardly a sophisticated code, but ambiguous enough that it could be explained away as an odd coincidence. She called it every now and again, just to give him grief for leaving the line active. Really, now. 555-DON-IVAN was just so silly if you thought about it. Juvenile, even.

        Still…if he'd deactivated the number, then he was damn well going to regret it when she got out of this. If she got out of this…

        The recording picked up, obligingly - although it now boasted a warning to 'a certain someone' against leaving anything but a serious message. She started to speak, trying not to pause and gasp for breath - couldn't leave a less-than-professional message, after all. She had to convey the impression that she wanted his help, not that she needed it desperately.

        Her professional tone lasted only a few seconds, though, as her pursuer burst through the brush inches behind her. With a startled squawk, she dove left - then pulled a hard right to avoid slamming into a tree - then left again as the raptor dove after her yet again. Realizing that the message was already starting to be long and unusual and probably instant-delete fodder, she quickly got on with it, trying to state the nature of her problem and where, precisely, they were. She was nearly finished when her attacker dove at her again. This time, she had no time to dodge, and could only turn to ward off the attack with her talons. The defensive strike worked, but in the process of recovering from it and wheeling away from the raptor, the communicator was knocked from her talons. She heard the rustle of leaves as it crashed to the ground, but could spare no time to retrieve it. Not now.

        He was too close. She could make out details now - sharp, hooked beak, slashing talons, pounding wings. As fast as she was flying, and as dark as the forest was, she could make out little else - the canopy-filtered, dappled light worked, at this speed, like some kind of natural strobe light, distorting everything. She swung around, fleeing again, concentrating on maneuvering through the maze of trees that was becoming more and more indistinguishable with each passing wingbeat. Fatigue was more than setting in - in was firmly entrenched, and beginning to win the battle of attrition between it and her resolve. Her stores of adrenaline had long ago been depleted; she ached, she hurt, she gasped for breath. Her eyes watered; her vision blurred. She shook her head to clear it, dodging yet another strike, desperately seeking out a hiding place - someplace, anyplace, that he couldn't follow her to.

        Absently, she could hear someone shouting behind her. A screeched something - an entreaty, a warning, a threat? It sounded muffled, hollow even, like someone shouting through water or from very far away. She couldn't make it out; she was too tired.

        The net caught her completely by surprise.


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