The Search For Cuteness: Part 4
When the going gets tough, everyone leaves.
"Sir? Sir? Are you awake?"
An uncertain - but undeniably persistent - voice roused him. A pair of hands shook his right shoulder lightly; another, more timid pair fleetingly poked his left, as if its owner were afraid he would bite them. He had to admit, he considered doing just that - he had, after all, been having a rather favorable dream. After cornering the market on all the organized crime in the state, he'd expanded his empire nationwide, then run for - and, of course, won (however illegally) - the Presidency. At which time he'd expanded even further, controlling the world's most valuable markets and pocketing all their profits. Which was proving to be no small help in impressing a rather hard-to-please female.
In fact, looking back on things, it was no small wonder the dream had been interrupted. He'd been too far into one of those too-good-to-be-true moments. Besides, it was lunchtime, and he had dozens of important tasks that needed his attention. One could hardly reprimand his wards for disturbing his impromptu 'power nap'. That didn't mean he wasn't going to, though.
"Sir?" his sign holder inquired again, "There's a message for you, Sir."
Ivan growled, shrugging off the small brown kiwi and elbowing away the rabbit on his left. "And for that, you wake me? The whole point behind an answering service is that it takes my messages and lets me sleep!"
The sign holder cringed ever so slightly, chagrined. The Boss wasn't in a very good mood, and their message was just going to make that mood worse. He looked over the gray kiwi's shoulders at the tan rabbit standing several feet away. She had more experience dealing with angry superiors - especially angry superiors who are going to get significantly angrier when you're finished.
Lita bowed her head, averting her eyes and toying with a newly-acquired set of military-style dog-tags. She didn't want to deliver the message much, either. However, the Evil Sir Ivan Kiwi had caught the silent communication between her and his sign holder, and now looked to her for an explanation.
"We felt this message was urgent."
"All my messages are urgent! That doesn't mean they can't wait until after my nap!"
Folding her arms behind her, Lita bowed her head even lower. "Perhaps, but
we really felt you should listen to this one immediately."
"It sounded like a matter of life and death," the sign holder piped up helpfully.
"It had damned well better be," Ivan growled, swiveling his chair towards the viewscreen. "Who's it from?"
"Miss Iiwi," his sign holder volunteered. As his Boss scowled, he added, "She wasn't teasing you about the line this time, Sir."
"She really sounded like she was in trouble," Lita mused.
Ivan chuckled at that. "Iiwi's always in trouble," he smirked, "she just never lets it catch her there." He keyed up the digital message and let it start playing onscreen. Iiwi was one of the few people he knew who actually left video messages - most of his associates tried to remain faceless - but she had the reproachful habit of teasing him for this line. The message was rather blurred and static-y, reminding him that Iiwi was, presently, galaxies away - with one of his ships.
"She'd better not be calling to say they damaged the ship," he muttered.
"Oh," Lita breathed, watching as the video started, "She's not."
Ivan peered at the video now playing onscreen. It was dark, but he could just make out the fleeting shapes of trees and branches. Fleeting, of course, both because of the poor lighting and, as an adjusting talon shifted the transmitting device to an angle that clearly showed beating wings, because she was flying. Now, that was unusual. Iiwi hated garbled transmissions, and always made it a point to transmit from a stationary position - and usually a position on open ground, not the heavy forests blurring by in the video.
"It's kinda hard to hear her," Lita supplied, reaching over and increasing the volume, "She's flyin' through a forest or something, so there's a lot of rustling leaves and beating wings and stuff."
Ivan batted the rabbit away from the controls, keying in a filter command that caused a good deal of the background noise to fade away. Iiwi's voice now filtered through the speakers. Perhaps it was an artifact of the filter, but she sounded tired.
"-out a ship, I can't (static) -em back, and (static) 's this (static) after (several seconds of static) could pass (static) to Ferdia, (static) ld (static) use - hey!" Her voice rose to a squawk, and the video pitched wildly. Another screech - this one not hers - echoed through the speakers, and as the video pitched and whirled again, something gold and blurred flit just past the transmitter's pane.
"She's being chased," Ivan observed.
The screeching and squawks and violently-pitching video-feed continued for a full minute before Iiwi's voice cut in again - considerably less controlled than before.
"-ook, I (static) n't care who (static)(static), just send someone! (static) I need (static) HELP!!" Another screech, echoed by a hawk's cry. The video whirled, and they caught sight of a set of sharp, bloodied talons retreating as Iiwi lashed out at them with her own. She whirled again, and a pain-filled squawk sounded as the video jolted. The trees rushed up to meet it, and only as it tumbled and revealed a split-second, blurred image of a fleeting red streak did Ivan realize the transmitter had been dropped. The crashes and background noise increased as the device fell, but the cries were still audible - right up until the message abruptly cut off, to be replaced by static.
"We think that's when the recorder hit the ground," Lita supplied, "Although it might have just run into a branch, or run out of batteries, or possibly even auto timed-out. Your message machine doesn't like long messages, after all."
"So, Boss, are we gonna help her?"
Ivan watched the video replay, muting the volume. "Assuming they're on the world those 'Hooties' took them to, we could, I suppose, go lend a hand. IF," he continued, "They had bothered giving us the location of that world."
"We don't know where they are?"
"Not a clue."
Lita looked thoughtful. "Well
I might be able to trace the signal. Interstellar communications devices like that one tend to broadcast their signal to their destination." Catching her new boss' surprised look, she elaborated. "Alliance regulations to prevent identity theft, kidnapping cover-ups, and any number of scams. It also makes anyone using them pirate-bait, since everyone can find out where you are when you use it." She shrugged. "If your message recorder saved that data, I might have a location for you. Otherwise
well, I could try tracking where the ship is - provided it's still online and in one piece. We'll have no way of knowing if she's with the ship, though."
"Work on them both," Ivan commanded, "And you," he turned to his sign holder, "get those two detectives on the phone."
"Look, I don't care if you *are* the Queen of Sheba, I'm not sending someone over to arrest your neighbor for refusing to bow before your cat!
.No! Absolutely not!
.All right, ma'am, go right ahead and sic the Imperial Guard on me
.Yes, I'll be sure to put my worldly affairs in order
.Right. Good day, ma'am."
Rrrrrrrrrrrrrring!!!!!!!!! Rrrrrrrrring!!!!! Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiing!!!!!
Bishop sighed, eyeing the phone warily. The loonies were out in full force today - in the past hour alone, he'd received calls from people claiming to be the President, Percy the Penguin, the prime minister of Zimbabwae, the Antichrist, and Laddie the dog. He'd also taken calls and dispensed units to deal with five cases of people stuck in trees, two of neighbors suffering from 'demonic possession', and a case of self-cannibalization in progress.
Perhaps it was a full moon. Bad water. Tainted food. Or a subtle gas leak wafting down from one of the city's industrial parks. Regardless, it had the old pigeon cringing every time the phone rang. He was slowly reaching the end of his patience. Days like these made him long to be young and able-bodied again, working the streets and bringing in criminals. But he wasn't young anymore, and he could barely walk at a brisk pace, much less chase down a fleeing suspect. He was sorely tempted to simply take the rest of the night off.
But the phone needed answering.
"San Viano Police, 42nd Precinct," he droned, bracing himself for the newest cockamamie hallucination the citizenry had dreamed up.
"This is Sir Ivan Kiwi, calling for-" click. The phone made such a nice sound on its return trip to the cradle. Bishop had no time for prank callers if they couldn't be bothered to be creative.
Immediately, the phone rang again. Reluctantly, he answered it.
"I think I was cut off when I called before. This is Ivan-" click. The fastest disconnect in the West.
A few seconds later, the phone rang again. Bishop let it ring for a few minutes, hoping 'Ivan' would give up and go find another game to play.
"Hey, Bish, you gonna answer that?" Casey called, wandering up from the back office area.
The older cop gave him a weary look, sighing. Bishop looked thoroughly frazzled - unusual for this early into the night, but then, the phone had been ringing nonstop. It was like all the crazies and prank-callers in the city had decided today was drive-the-cops-up-the-wall day. He decided to give the pigeon a break, and answered the phone himself.
"San Viano Police Precinct 42, what is the nature of your problem?" he queried.
"LOOK, if you hang up on me one more time," a voice snarled, lapsing into profanity and what sounded like Italian curses.
"Sir," Casey interrupted, "I'm not sure what you're referring to, sir, but I'll pass the message on to our technicians. Our phone system may be malfunctioning."
"Malfunctioning my tail," the caller muttered. "Look, I'm just trying to pass a message to Officers Birdie and Arcadia."
Casey cocked his head, curious. Was this one of their informants calling, a missing witness, or someone they'd been in contact with on a case? The two hadn't mentioned that they were expecting any calls. "They're out on a call right now," he supplied, "but if you leave the message with me, I'll make sure they get it."
"Don't they have voicemail?" the caller grumbled.
"Yes, but between us, they seldom remember to check it. I'll transfer you over to it if you'd prefer, but if you give me the gist of your message, it might speed up the turnaround time on this."
The caller sighed, grumbling in Italian again. "Very well. Tell Ferdia her brother's gotten himself in deep again. If she wants to know more, she'll need to listen to her voicemail."
Casey argued with the caller for a bit, trying to glean more information from him - what had happened, where they were, how he knew about it - but was simply told to transfer him to the phone mail system. He did so, vowing to track Ferdia down immediately. This sounded urgent.
As he replaced the receiver, he caught Bishop's eye. "This guy call a couple times before, Bish?"
The old pigeon nodded. "Probably just another prank-calling, trash-talking punk. You'll want to remind Ferdia about that before she listens to that 'message'. Telecommunications says the next phone she puts through a wall, she pays for."
Casey suppressed a chuckle. Ferdia didn't react well to bogus phone messages - especially those of the variety the precinct's female officers tended to receive - and her phones paid the price for it. "I don't think that'll be a problem. This one sounded serious. Italian guy. Didn't leave his name, though."
Bishop's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Italian? Was he really?" he chuckled, laughing harder at Casey's confused expression. "It seems I may have hung up - twice - on the city's own 'Godfather'. Or at least someone trying to pass for him."
Casey blinked. He failed to see what Bishop found so funny about this development. What was San Viano's crime boss doing calling Ferdia, and how did her brother fit into it? And where was she, so he could beg for details?
The light flashed directly in his eyes, blinding him with its painful, pinpoint brightness. He blinked, turning his head away from it and rubbing a swollen jaw.
"Well, you seem to have made it out okay," the EMT said, switching off the penlight, "Your vision should clear momentarily, and the headache just needs some aspirin. You'll want to put ice on that jaw, but nothing's broken and you shouldn't need stitches. You'll bruise pretty badly, but there's nothing we can do about that. Best thing you can do is rest, see your doctor in a week, and stay out of trouble for a while."
Behind the EMT, out of his blurred field of vision, came a derisive snort. "Now, that would be an accomplishment."
"But I didn't do anything!" he protested, trying to massage away a building headache, "Honest!"
"You nearly incited a riot!" a second voice accused. "Honestly, toppling thirty-four Harleys right outside the bar their owners were drinking in? You're lucky you're still breathing!"
"It wasn't my fault," Drake protested, "D'Gal was here! He spotted me, and bolted out the door! I tripped over something as I ran after him, and I fell against the first bike! It was an accident!" A handful of angry shouts sounded as those who attacked him threatened him anew. He looked over to the first voice. "Ace, back me up here!"
Squeaks merely folded his arms, poker-faced. "Right after you explain to me just exactly what you were doing in a bar and not on your ship."
Drake sighed. "I can't raise them. My communicator isn't working, and I'm wondering if they were called away and couldn't spare the time to find me. I'm stuck here for now."
"Oh, and of course the best thing to do in a situation like that is to piss off a pack of drunken bikers," Ferdia retorted.
"I swear, that was an accident. Besides, I've been here three days and this is the first thing that's happened. Don't I at least get credit for that?"
"NO!" bluebird and mouse chorused.
The EMT looked from patient to cops and back again. This did not sound like something he wanted to get involved in. "Look, he's good to go. He'll be wanting a bottle of painkillers soon enough, but there's no reason to drag him to the ER." That said, the EMT turned and walked over to some of the remaining bikers, most of whom had bleeding knuckles.
"All right. I think I've got it figured out this time. You ready?"
"Let me tell you what I'm *not* - "
"Look, I really think it'll work this time."
"That's what you said *last* time."
it almost worked last time, didn't it?"
"Oh, yes. Everything went just fine until that huge soul-sucking demon decided to use us as ping-pong balls!"
"Oh, sure, go ahead and be pessimistic about everything. But that kind of attitude's not gonna get us out of here!"
"It's not going to get us horribly slaughtered, either."
"What? I'm too cute to die! Especially painfully!"
Ferdie rolled his eyes. "Do you have any idea how sad it is that *I'm* the brave one here?"
"You're not being brave. You're just putting your cowardice to use in an unusual way." Bob paced the cell. "And anyway, the only reason you're trying to bust out at all is because you're afraid those guys'll come back for us."
"Well, how long has it been since they took Beak? Two, three hours? More? There's no way to tell what's happened to him! Those Empire guys are probably torturing him!" Ferdie peered through the cell's energy bars and nervously did another visual sweep of the corridor. "And we'll be next!"
"If we keep trying to escape, they won't need to worry about torturing us," Bob snapped, smoothing his singed wing feathers and rubbing at a bruised elbow.
"But I've really figured it out this time!" Ferdie protested, pacing across the barren cell, "All our previous tries have hinged on getting out of this cell through security holes - air ducts, loose floor panels, oversized pipes, and so on. But we've always hit a snag somewhere and failed as a result. It's fair to say my plans up 'til now have been terminally flawed - "
" Bob prompted, eyeing the bluebird suspiciously.
"-because they were too complicated. So the obvious conclusion is to try the simplest way out."
"Which would be
"The door? As in, the cell door? The thing with all those high-voltage energy beams crisscrossing it? *That* door?"
"This is starting to sound like the kind of ridiculously insane plans you sister cooks up."
occasionally her plans work the way she planned for them to work. *Besides,* if it doesn't work, we're no worse off than we are now."
15 minutes and one order of Kentucky Fried Kiwi later
"Aha! *twitch* We're *twitch* free!" A very singed Ferdie staggered into the corridor, leaning on the walls for support and short-circuiting the lights in the area as he did so. "Now to make a break for it!"
"You'd *better* run!" An equally-scorched Bob snarled, "Because when I *crackle* catch you, I'll electrocute ya!"
Casey dove to the ground the instant the warning rang out, instincts and experience all too familiar with what the consequences of a delayed reaction to such a cry could be.
The bruised duck being cited for disturbing the peace and inciting a riot, however, lacked such quick reflexes, and whirled in the direction of the cry just in time to catch the airborne missile straight in the face. The impact sent him hurtling to the ground with a muffled cry of surprise and pain.
He seemed to be all right, though, so after giving Trevor a hearty slap on the back for sounding the alarm, Casey turned his attention to where the rocketing telephone had originated.
Squeaks was braced against the doorframe, eyes wide and face paler than usual. He'd finished talking with the duck only seconds before, and had been entering their office when the phone came hurtling out. Casey didn't know whether it was luck or military training, but the mouse had leapt backwards quickly enough to avoid the missile. But by mere millimeters, nothing more.
Evidently her partner's distress hadn't gone unnoticed, however, for Ferdia immediately appeared.
"Ohmigod, Squeaks, I'm so sorry! I didn't hit you, did I?"
It took a few seconds for Squeaks' eyes to focus, although it was debatable as to whether that was from the shock of nearly being mowed down by a telephone or being fussed over by Ferdia. He waved her away, assuring her he was fine. That was evidently enough to satisfy her, for she turned her attention to the startled cops in the outer office area.
"It didn't hit anyone out here, did it?"
"Just that duck you brought in," Casey supplied. Sensing an opportunity for sympathy, he added, "Although you nearly got me, too."
"Oh. Sorry." Evidently sympathy for near-death experiences caused by her actions was reserved only for her partner. Which he supposed made sense - the two of them put their lives on the line often enough as it was without her temper adding to the mix.
"So, I take it the message was a hoax?" Bishop ventured, pausing in his inspection of the dented phone. It looked as if it *might* actually still work - if they kept it away from Ferdia.
"No," she shook her head, "It's real enough - real bad. Which brings me to my next point-" her hand shot out and caught hold of Squeaks by his shirt lapels "-I need to talk to you."
With that, both she and Squeaks disappeared into their office - Ferdia nearly dragging the still-stunned mouse behind her - and shut the door. Through the office's inside window, Casey could see her begin to pace, talking as she did so.
So much for hearing the details of that case before they solved it, he sighed. And it had sounded so interesting, too!
Ah well. He supposed it was better for his blood pressure if he *didn't* know what they were about to go up against. At least, not until *after* they'd done it. At that point, his nerves could be take comfort in knowing that they'd managed to pull it off, regardless of what it was. Until then, however, there was still the issue of checking on the duck that was still reeling from his encounter with the phone
"We have to go help them!"
"How?" Squeaks queried, watching his partner pace back and forth in the cramped office. "We don't know where they are, much less have a way of getting there!"
"When Ferdie was on the phone begging us to come with him, he said they were going to the homeworld of a tiny kiwi species known as the Hooties. Logic dictates that they used a map to find us, which means we can find a map leading us to them. I mean, really, how many species of tiny kiwis are there? Moreover, how many call themselves Hooties?"
"None that I can remember."
"There, see? All we need to do is find a map with their world on it."
"Which may or may not be possible. *I've* never heard of them, which means they're not members of the Alliance, and they wouldn't need to be begging for help from us if they were near Duck territory. And I doubt they've even heard of the Bagels. In short, they're from out of town - deep in uncharted space, most likely."
"So? There are gypsies and traders and explorers and pirates and whatnot that poke around out there, right? They keep maps. We'll just ask them."
"About a tiny, insignificant world so isolated that they have no allies to turn to? Space is infinite, you know. You could search for five lifetimes and still never even come close to their world. We don't even know what direction to set out in."
Ferdia thought about that for a moment. "Well, why don't we look for the Java Empire instead, then? They're supposed to be a huge confederation of planets like the Alliance or the Bagel Empire, so they should be easier to locate, right? And since the Empire's attacking the Hooties' world, it stands to reason that they know where to look for it, right? So, we find the Empire, we find someone who'll tell us where to find the Hooties, and we should find Ferdie somewhere nearby."
" Squeaks considered that course of action. *If* they could find this Java Empire, then they almost stood a decent chance at tracking down the Hooties' world.
As he was debating what to do, Ferdia remembered something. "Hey! We may even know where to look for the Java Empire! They were the ones who attacked Iiwi's ship when the wormhole-generator-thing tossed them to lands unknown. It stands to reason that we *all* wound up in about the same region of space - since we all managed to find each other again - so if we check my fighter's nav computer, we should get a good starting point."
She was winning him over. That much he could tell right now. And if he didn't come up with a few good reasons why the plan wouldn't work, fast, then he was going to find himself agreeing by not disagreeing. "But
we don't have a ship, do we?"
Her face fell. "Well, no, not really. Mine's still not yet spaceworthy again - little things like time and money needed to finish its repairs have been short. Iiwi talked Ivan into loaning her one of his fighters for their trip to the Hooties' world - and according to her, his second fighter is in pieces at a reverse-engineering facility he's somehow funding."
"And his third fighter?"
"Is his last fighter, and he's not about to entrust his last working spaceship to me. He's convinced I'll wreck it, or something."
Squeaks smirked. "Whatever gives him that idea?"
"Quiet, you," she folded her arms, "He seems to think *you'll* do the same thing." She mimicked his smirk.
"I don't know where he gets that idea," Squeaks frowned, "the only ships I've ever crashed, I've crashed on purpose. Cars, on the other hand
" He grinned sheepishly, then became serious again. "So that leaves us without a ship."
"There's gotta be a way to get our hands on a ship! Surely *someone* else on-planet has one!"
"I suppose there's always D'Gal's yacht," he ventured, "if the Ducks haven't already salvaged it..."
"*If* it was even salvageable," she finished.
"And we're back to Square One," he sighed. "Plan or no plan, we need a ship."
"I suppose we could attempt to 'commandeer' Ivan's," Ferdia mused, "Although he's probably got it so well-guarded that breaking into Area 51 would be easier venture. Not to mention less deadly."
"There's go to be a better way."
" She trailed off, wracking her brain for something, some possibility that they'd overlooked.
Squeaks did the same, letting his eyes wander around the office as if there was some clue there that would solve their dilemma. His gaze eventually came to rest on the scene outside the window. An idea began to form, and he perked up his ears, trying to follow it through to the end and any possible problems it could cause. While it certainly wasn't his first choice, it seemed to be their only one.
He reached over and tugged on Ferdia's sleeve, breaking her concentration. Before she could form the question, he nodded toward the window. She followed his gaze
and grinned as she realized what he was proposing.
Casey was still trying to get the duck to stand. Or, rather, to stay standing. Every time he and Trevor hauled the bird to his feet, the duck merely swayed groggily for a few seconds before sinking back to the ground. His eyes weren't quite focused, and it was beginning to look more and more like he had suffered a minor concussion - either from the phone, or his other injuries.
"We're gonna need to take him to a doctor," Trevor said as they hauled the duck into a sitting position, "for some aspirin if nothing else."
"We'll do it!" a voice cheerfully volunteered. Seconds later, Ferdia and Squeaks had lifted the newly-bewildered duck to his feet and were now walking him to the precinct's exit.
"After all, it's my fault he got hit anyway," Ferdia explained to her fellow officers.
"And we have a favor to ask of you," Squeaks informed his old friend.
Drake blinked, completely confused. At some point in the last four hours, the world had simply stopped making sense, he decided.
"No! Absolutely not! Out of the question! Not possible! I'm not even going to bother listening to the rest of it! No!"
Drake covered his ears, turning his back on the two officers in the squad car's front seat. They were parked in a rather dark, unfriendly-looking part of town, under a rotting bridge he was surprised was still standing. It had started raining not long ago, and the pounding rain only amplified his headache. To make matters worse, not only had Squeaks and Ferdia *not* taken him to a hospital as they'd promised, they'd just asked him to violate and Alliance-wide decree and loan them a ship. If the place hadn't reminded him so much of the area of New York he'd run afoul of not long ago, he probably would've gotten out of the car and walked away right then and there.
Squeaks peered at his old friend through the steel web separating the front seat from the back, frowning. "I fail to see what your problem is."
"You'll get me court-martialed!"
"Why?" Squeaks cocked his head. "We're not primitives - or at least *I'm* not - and even then, Plateria's ignored the Alliance's edicts before. What's the trouble with doing that now?"
"The trouble?" Drake shook his head in disbelief, "The trouble is, Ace, the Alliance is furious with you right now. Not only have you embarrassed them and their military discipline by not having perished the way you crew *swears* you perished, you went on to insult them by refusing to return with us! Do you have any *idea* how angry at you they are?"
"Quite." Squeaks swept his ears back, scowling. "They've revoked my commission and thrown me out of SpaceFleet. Dishonorably discharged," he spat, "and on top of that, they exiled me. From the whole of known space. I can't even *remember* the last person they did *that* to." He paused, taking a minute to calm down. "But I still don't see why you won't even consider helping us out. All-"
"Ace, they wanted you hunted down and imprisoned! Executed, even! Hell, a good number of them were talking about putting a price on your head even after Mallard reasoned with the Council! You have no *idea* how furious they are!"
"Stupid!" Ferdia yelled, pounding the seats in anger, "Why can't they just forget about the whole thing? Just go on pretending you died and save face in front of their members?"
Drake answered that one. "Because anyone who wanted to discredit that story could do so easily enough, and the whole affair makes SpaceFleet and the Alliance look like a lot of incompetent backwater officials, not esteemed heads of the Galactic Counsel! And since they can't repair the damage, they'll get their revenge another way."
"Look," Squeaks sighed, "Can't you just take us to some ill-run trader's station? There's one not far from here, and if you cloaked your runabout even Mallard might not notice."
"Once you reached the station you could just drop us off and leave! You'd hardly be gone a few hours!"
"No one would know!"
"We saved your tail!" Ferdia screeched, slamming her fist into the steel-mesh divider, "You *owe* us!"
"Drake," Squeaks cut in, "I've never asked you for anything. No favors, no considerations, no special status. But I'm asking you, as a friend, to do us this favor. Afterwards, you can ignore me all you wish. If nothing else, loan us you runabout. Tell Mallard I stole it, I don't care. We need that ship, Drake."
" Ferdia added.
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