The Search For Cuteness: Part 7

Courage is your greatest present need.

        "I realize you don't trust me," the Hawk began, holding his low bow and keeping his wings half-open and pulled back in a supplicating stance, "and that I haven't given you any reason to. I apologize for chasing you yesterday. How's your wing?"

        Across the river, Iiwi scowled, feathers fluffed out in anger. Barely thirty feet from her stood the very same raptor that had plagued her the day before, attacking her, driving her away from the Hooties' city, preventing her from being able to help her friends. There was no way of telling how Bob, Beak, and Ferdie were, or even where they were, much less if her message had gotten through and help was on the way. And she hurt! Her wing hurt, her muscles ached, her head pounded. And after hours of walking and hours more of tree-gliding, these Hawks had tracked her down again anyway. Why wouldn't they just leave her alone?

        The part of her that wasn't seething at her present situation was busily working on why exactly the bird on the other side of the bank was suddenly acting meek. He didn't have a wounded wing, and he'd already proven a faster and stronger flier than her anyway - and, moreover, he didn't look the least bit tired. She was too tired and hurting to fly, and she knew it showed - so why hadn't he attacked her? Why was he still over on the opposite bank, fluttering about like he was afraid she'd bolt?

        Puzzlement and curiosity were beginning to win out over anger. The Hawk's actions made no sense - for an aggressor. Rather, it - like the cleaning and dressing of her wounds - implied somewhat less-hostile intentions. Which only served to further confuse her.

        Across the shore, the Hawk repeated his question. How was her wing? Oh, it hurt. A lot. But the gliding had made her realize that she'd merely strained a muscle - not torn one. Which meant that, given a few hours of not flying and a few painkillers, she'd be skyworthy again in no time. Deciding it couldn't really hurt to answer him, she took a half-step toward the river.

        "Wing's okay," she called, "I'll be flying again by tomorrow." She hoped. But, then, the days here were longer than the days back home. She'd been out wandering the woods for hours, and she knew it should be evening by now - but the Hooties' sun was still high in the sky, hours upon hours from setting. It was amazing what six extra hours a day could do.

        The Hawk blinked, straightening into a more normal posture as he did so. Evidently he hadn't been expecting her to answer - or her answer had surprised him. He recovered quickly enough, though.

        "Come back to the village," he called, "We'll care for you until you're better."

        "No thanks," she replied, "I have to get back to the city. The - the Hooties have ships - they can help me save-"

        "The pygmies are cowards. They won't help you." He shook his head. "They're in hiding now. They always are, after an attack. They'll scurry around in their tunnels for weeks. They'll never go back to that city."

        Iiwi frowned. The city hadn't looked *that* badly damaged - the upper levels were destroyed, true, but there were far more levels below ground than above - and even if the tiny kiwis weren't up to repairing the ruined sections, there was still valuable resources that could doubtless be salvaged. He couldn't possibly be telling the truth. "You're lying," she declared, "you have to be. Why would they abandon an entire city?"

        "Because," he smirked, "that is how they are."

        "I don't believe you." She was getting angry again. The Hawks were the Hooties' enemies - he only wanted a way to their weaknesses. "And I'm not going back to your village."

        "As you wish," he bowed again. "I'll take you to the city. But let me show you something first."

        She narrowed her eyes, suspicious again. But she nodded anyway. He bowed his head to acknowledge her decision, taking a step back and extending a wing to indicate she should follow. She approached the water's edge, cautiously gauging the river's width and scanning for rocks and snags towards its middle. Taking a few steps backward - enough that the raptor jerked upright, worried she was fleeing - she distanced herself from the shore, then darted forward in a burst of speed. She took a flying leap as her talons reached the water, opening her wings as her momentum carried her over the water. But she was gliding, not flying, and she didn't have the altitude to make it all the way across - she kicked up off a snag a bit more than halfway through, giving her enough of a boost to complete her trip. She landed just clear of the water, hopping forward to keep her balance before slowing to a walk and folding her wings primly.

For his part, the Hawk merely gave her an amused look before heading back into the forest. He didn't bother looking back to make sure she was behind him, but she decided she'd follow him anyway. For the moment, at least.


        "Just let me die."

        "No, I don't think so," Ferdia countered, helping Squeaks drag a hung-over Drake to his feet. "You've had a full six hours of sleep, and it's another six back to Earth. I need to go save my brother. And now that we have a ship and a greatly-expanded map, I kind of want to leave ASAP. But Squeaks here won't leave you here alone."

        "But I'm in agony. Please, just toss me out an airlock or something. It'd probably make my head feel better."

        "You should've thought of that before you drank as much as you did last night." Squeaks shook his head. "You did realize that wasn't synthehol, right? Pirates for the most part won't touch that stuff, and on this station, what pirates won't touch can't be stocked. That really was alcohol."

        "And thank you ever so much for bringing this to my attention now!" Drake scrunched his eyes shut, willing the pain to go away. The pain, however, paid him no heed. "Ace, I'm begging you, kill me now!"

        "Nothing doing. You're going back to your ship, and you can take some pain killers and sleep it off there," Squeaks replied. "After you've set the autopilot to go back to Mallard, that is."

        Drake blinked. "Ah, sh*t. Mallard. What am I going to tell him? There's no way I can explain this!"

        "Sure there is," Ferdia grinned, "Just tell him we slipped you something in your food and swiped your runabout while you were out. You're just lucky we were considerate enough to take you with us so you could return the ship once you came to. You don't know where we've gone, but you don't think we'll be back, so you guys can leave without Squeaks and never come back looking for him."

        Drake massaged his temples, trying to get this news to make sense. "So you're never coming back?"

        "That's what you tell Mallard and anyone and everyone you come across," Squeaks clarified. "I won't need to worry about the Alliance deciding to come after me if they have no idea where I am."

        Drake suddenly realized they had reached the runabout. Reaching up to key in the access code, he had a thought. That sort of thing didn't happen often, and he was somewhat concerned that it was a sign that he really was dying, but that's entirely beside the point.

        "Hey! Why don't I follow you guys?" he asked, "I mean, if you're really going to rescue your friends from an entire empire, you might need some help, right? I could do that!"

        Squeaks sighed, shaking his head at the bleary-eyed Duck. "Drake, just get some sleep. You'll feel better in a few hours."


        Humming the Mission: Impossible theme to himself, Bob 'Danger' Kiwi made his way down the corridor, keeping himself flattened against the wall to minimize the risk of someone spotting him. Careful not to make even the slightest sound, he crouched low, easing his head around the corner to check if the coast was clear. Satisfied that the adjoining corridor was presently free of guards, he leapt across the break, expertly rolling into a standing crouch on the other side of the intersecting corridor. He turned, quickly motioning for his fellow agent to follow suit.

        Ferdie poked his head around the corner, glanced for guards, and, to his credit, tried to execute the leaping-roll move Bob had just pulled off. However, lacking the years of professional secret agent kiwi training that Bob had, his leap-and-roll was more of a trip-and-flop, followed by a small “urk” of pain and a not-so-subtle scramble to safety.

        Bob shook his head, embarrassed by his friend's lack of coordination and “danger-skills”. At least no guards had been around. They would've been in trouble then – Bob wasn't quite certain how, but it seemed he had lost his way again. Hours ago, in the abandoned section of the ship, it had seemed like a simple task to walk from their hideout to the shuttle bay; he now realized just how *huge* the Java destroyer really was. They had trekked along mile upon mile of these corridors, trying to stay true to Bob's mental map of the station, but were presently unsure of their position. Perhaps they had made a wrong turn somewhere, or accidentally walked past the bay while practicing danger-maneuvers. Regardless, the shuttle bay, wherever it was, eluded them.


        The planet loomed ahead of them, getting larger with every passing second. The computer was letting ground control pilot them in right now, slowing the ship as it coasted into orbit and then slipped into the atmosphere.

        Ferdia scanned the displays as soon as visuals returned, but could not yet make out the settlement their map said was below. They were using a relatively new map, which should, in theory, be more accurate - and while it had certainly been right about the automated landing system broadcast from the orb, the safehaven they were looking for was nowhere to be seen. She kept checking readouts and records, convinced she was missing something or that their landing path had let them slip off-course.

        In truth, this was all a waste of effort. Nothing but dry, dusty ground stretched for miles - or appeared to. The village that they sought was cleverly hidden under mesh tents, dyed the same color as the ground. They were completely indistinguishable until you were fifty feet above them. And even then, you had to know they were there and really look hard in order to see them. Which made sense, of course - the planet registered no life-forms and no cities, while in actuality it was teeming with life.

        Pirate life, she had to admit, but life nonetheless. These safehavens were really proving to be a blessing - eight hours ago, when they had tried to dock at the DS9-looking station that bordered Alliance Territory and that of the Badlands, they had been turned away for improper registration. And then fired upon as if they were pirates. And then stalked by about a dozen different bounty hunters as they realized Squeaks was aboard the ship.

        The beauty of a pirate settlement and safehaven was that, even if there were people there that knew about Squeaks' bounty, no one was interested in collecting on it. Granted, most of them wanted to know the story behind it, but no one wanted to collect.

        Yawning, she rose to her feet. They were about to land, and Squeaks had slept the past six hours. It was her turn for a nap now. He could go asking around about the Hooties himself.


        The city lay in ruins.

        No traces of green graced the landscape, and within city limits no creature sang or stirred. The white stone towers lay crumbling amidst the rubble of fallen walkways and crumpled buildings. Thick shards of glass that had once adorned the city's small windows lay scattered alongside splintered wooden furniture and the twisted metal skeletons of chandeliers and other once-ornate fixtures. Shattered stone and powdered concrete littered the ruins, along with rusting tools, dry-rotting toys, and weathered knicknacks. A layer of white dust several inches thick coated the ruins, and little puffs of dust and tiny pulverized particles rose with every breath of wind, giving the whole scene an eerie, haunted feel.

        Iiwi was suddenly very glad it was still daylight. This was like walking through a graveyard. A really *old* graveyard.

        "This isn't the right city," she realized, turning to frown at the Hawk, "there's far too much dust. Whatever happened to this city happened years ago."

        "Two cycles," Skye supplied, "and no more."

        "Why'd they abandon it?" She glanced at the rubble. "Were they attacked?"

        Skye shook his head. "No. They built the city next to a swamp - then drained the swamp. They flew their metal birds and burned their fire-less lights, and dumped waste and all they had no use for into the river. But the river - and the fish - needed the swamp to cleanse and to breed. Without it, they grew sick - and when the pygmies polluted the river as well, the river and everything in it died.

        "Without water nearby, the city had trouble quenching its people's thirst and its need to dispose of its wastes. The land withered, the crops died, the prey left - and then the pygmies did. To keep us from taking anything from the city once they'd left, they destroyed their metal tools and set fire to the city, taking nothing and leaving the fire to burn itself out. It burned for nearly a moon before the gods sent us rain; still, while the forest nearby has recovered, it has yet to try to retake the city - and the river no longer passes this way."


        "This city is one of many. When the pygmies can no longer use a city, they abandon it - or burn it." He shook his head, turning back towards the forest. Halfway to the trees, he paused, turning back toward her and pointing in the direction of the late afternoon sun. "The city you seek is south, in the direction of the setting sun. May the gods grant you a good journey." Bowing, he took a few steps backward, then turned and melted into the forest.

        Iiwi looked back at the ruined city. It was clear enough to her that the Hooties had made no attempt to clear out their city's goods before abandoning it. And the ground surrounding the ruins was a dry, dead brown. The only thing that distinguished the scene from that of a massacre was the absence of bodies, bones, or graves. Iiwi thought about what she'd seen of this world so far - pristine mountains and streams, untouched forests and valleys, wilderness as far as the eye could see. All sparsely populated. All Hawk territory. The Hooties' cities - concentrated centers of life and industry, set on cleared forestland and later abandoned by the kiwis but not reclaimed by the forests.

        In her experience, the only time the seemingly unstoppable growth of forest weeds was thwarted without constant maintenance was when the land was so far gone it had turned toxic. And that took effort.

        It suddenly occurred to her that she knew no more about the Hooties than she did about the Hawks. She had no solid information on either of them - except for the fact that the Hawks were offering to help her, and the Hooties were nowhere to be found.

        She turned to the forest.

        "Skye, wait!"


        The battlecruiser sped along at a brisk pace, streaking by stars at Warp 6 - fast enough to be prompt, slow enough to avoid looking undignified and rushed. Their arrival was anticipated, but they were in no hurry - this was neither an emergency response nor a much-needed relief of troops in the field. The Empire simply wanted reinforcements sent to the planet to ease concerns of those aboard the two ships already there. And what the Java Empire wanted, the Java Empire got.

        Usually, anyway. It was fairly safe to assume the Java Empire didn't want the aging fighter hitching a ride on its tail coming along for the ride - or, at least, that the Empire wouldn't want it along, had they known the ship was there. They'd want it even less if they had any idea who it was that was tagging along behind them.

        Up in the fighter's cockpit, Squeaks stirred, checking the tethered ships' status and heading. No one, it seemed, had ever heard of the Hooties - although the fact that they didn't have an official planet name to go with its species' local term for themselves hadn't helped any. He'd had some luck at the desert outpost - an aging pirate had told him of this deployment. Four Empire battlecruisers and a flagship, en route to some unknown backwater where a Magi had reportedly taken out an Empire ship.

        It wasn't as good as a planet name or specific mention of the Hooties, but it was the best evidence of Beak and the others that they'd come across.

        They hadn't gotten the coordinates of the world the ships were heading to, simply the local trade lanes it was supposed to pass by. He'd latched onto the trailing ship to make following the battle group easier - and to hide the fighter's energy signature - and was now busily working to convince the Java ship's computer to give him the ship's destination. He'd feel significantly safer speeding along several warp factors faster than this group, just another trader or hurried businessman, and certainly no one to pay attention to. Hitching a ride with a convoy of enemy battleships was never really a good idea.

        Especially when you were doing it alone.

        Drake had - eventually - boarded his runabout and departed for Earth again; with luck, Mallard would never know he'd gone at all. He hadn't been very happy at being left out of the action, but he had understood the logic behind it. Moreover, the Duck had an excellent sense of professional preservation - in space, anyway - and had no desire to face the consequences getting caught helping Squeaks would bring.

        Ferdia was asleep in the ship's hold - which had been newly-furnished with bedding, food, and a change of more local clothes. She'd accompanied him to the first several stations, then watched the ship's readings while he napped during a rather long trip to their last stop. But she'd fallen asleep almost as soon as she landed the ship there, and had hardly woken long enough for him to tell her where they were going when he returned with news of the battle group.

        And while Squeaks was the first to admit Ferdia would need to be rested when they reached their destination, it left him alone on the ship. And after several hours alone aboard the quiet of the ship, Squeaks was getting tired. He leaned back in the pilot's seat, finding a comfortable position and closing his eyes. The fighter would let him know if it was in danger. Until then, he could use some rest himself.


        The sun had just begun to sink beneath the horizon when they arrived at the village. It had been quite a hike - especially for one accustomed to flying - but his red-feathered guest had a wounded wing she shouldn't be flying on. Moreover, the Star traveler was tired, and her pace had slowed as the day stretched on. She tired quickly on this world – the will of some god named Gravity, she claimed - and the days were shorter where she was from. That was difficult to imagine - certainly, there was less daylight in winter than in summer, but Iiwi had explained that it wasn't simply that - the days and nights here were longer.

        But no matter. He had brought her back to the village, as he'd promised he would.

        They were spotted the moment they stepped into the clearing. The fledglings were practicing their skills at lookout, waiting for him to return and tell them of the hunt, and wasted no time fluttering down from their perches to greet him. They looked worried - he seldom hunted into sunset - and crowded around him, pelting him with questions. Where were you? What were you tracking? Did you get it? Did you find another cave? Meet another hunter? Were there any of the metal birds around? Are they coming back? Did he know the Elder wished him to fix the net? What happened to the red bird?

        He answered their questions as best he could - to them, he was a great explorer. He traveled miles upon miles every day; the farthest from the village they ever ventured was a mile away to the fishing spot and the berry patches – and those were all on well-marked trails. Their questions about Iiwi made him pause, though - he'd thought she was behind him. Turning back to the trees, he caught a glimpse of red lingering in the forest, trying to stay out of sight. He motioned her forward, into the village.


        Her alarm clock was going off.

        It was beeping away happily - a little muffled and far away, as usual - the farther away from her it was when it woke her up, the better it's chances of survival. Not that she'd do anything violent to the offending appliance - her aim was simply off in the morning, and it wasn't all that uncommon for the clock to get knocked to the ground in her attempt to hit the 'off' button.

        The time she smashed a hotel clock radio to tiny pieces was a fluke.

        The alarm was being rather persistent, and she figured the only thing to do in this situation was to get up. Groggily, she opened an eye.

        And realized she was not in her apartment.

        In fact, she was in a good-sized, if spartan, room on a spaceship. And, Ferdia's rapidly-awakening senses informed her, the alarm was actually a blinking message on one of the cockpit consoles.

        Squeaks was asleep, slouched in the pilot's seat and oblivious to the beeping. That was enough of a cue to her not to try and wake him – he was not, generally, a sound sleeper, and therefore must be quite tired to sleep through the noise. Besides, the message was straightforward enough. It merely informed them that the fighter had successfully obtained the battle group's destination. The ship's controls weren't that difficult to discern, and after a bit of trial-and-error, she'd managed to program their destination into the autopilot - which, in turn, disentangled the fighter from the ship it was piggybacking on and set them on their way.

        That seemed to be the only thing that needed her attention, so, task completed, she returned to her bedroll in the ship's hold. No reason not to get a few more hours' sleep.


        Of the five computers in the room, four were now permanently out of commission. The first two had been melted into slag, the third had been (accidentally) run through, and the fourth had simply been too close to him when the lightsaber switched on suddenly, singeing his arm.

        But the saber was working now - and working *reliably* - which meant he really should look to see what he could learn from the last remaining computer. Beak wasn't, generally speaking, good at that sort of thing - but it's amazing how a computer that has just witnessed its comrades' horrible deaths will tell you whatever you want to know.

        And what Beak wanted to know was, why was the Java Empire after the Hooties? They looked harmless enough - they didn't trade with any other worlds, had neither enemies nor allies, and were far too removed from Java territory for the Empire to truly be interested in colonizing it. So why was the Empire there in such force?

        After a fair amount of searching, he located a handful of files discussing the Hooties. The first few files confirmed what he'd thought. The Hooties had next to no interactions with other worlds. Most of their goods were too small for other beings, and a great number of goods other civilizations had to offer were far too large for the Hooties to use. Unless non-Hootie traders were willing to both import and export every last item trader with the Hooties - which would be rather expensive, and entirely non-beneficial to Hootie traders - trade relations were useless. And the Hooties, isolated as they were by virtue of a remote location in a surprisingly dull corner of their galaxy - and because they had nothing of value on the trade-runs - had neither enemies nor allies. Interestingly, the nearest warp-capable planets had never even heard of the Hooties' world. And if they were isolated and too far out-of-the-way for their closest neighbors, they were on the far side of the Java Empire - over two galaxies away, in space rather unexplored by Java traders. Colonizing such a location - regardless of the conditions of the planet - was never the first choice of any empire. A colony would be hard to establish, and even harder to control - and it would doubtless become a haven for bounty hunters, rebels, and riffraff. Even if it didn't, it was bound to rebel, simply because reinforcements would take time to send over, and said reinforcements would be too far away from the Empire's regular border - even in an emergency, it would take quite some time for those ships to reach the incident.

        The last file in the folder, however, was much more informative. Apparently the Hooties did send out scout ships occasionally, and one of these ships had caught the eye of a Java officer, who reported it moved faster than any other ship he'd seen. The officer had asked local traders about the ship, and it seemed one of them had known something about the Hooties' translocation technology. The Empire had followed up on this report by launching an investigation and sending a detachment to the Hooties' world to see what they could. That the Hooties' ships were fast was verified easily enough, but the Hooties had refused to share the secrets of their technology. This had been enough, for the Empire at least, to justify taking the technology by force.

        And that was why the Java Empire was after the Hooties. They weren't after the planet or individuals, or anything like that; they were after a single bit of technology. And they didn't even know what that technology was - they merely figured it had to be some new type of technology.

        True, the Hooties had truly created a new technological wonder - but he wasn't about to let the Empire get ahold of something so dangerous. The thought of an Empire that could outrun any other ship ever made was a frightening one - they would be able to expand their borders infinitely, as once-prohibitively-long travels shrank into manageable commutes. Navies could be outmaneuvered not by trying to fool them with diversions, but by launching actual strikes, drawing the navies to those locations, and then leaving for now-undefended or under-defended stations behind military lines. Fugitives - regardless of their accused 'crime' - had no hope of escaping once spotted.

        Under no circumstances could the Empire be allowed to gain control of translocation technology.

        That gave Beak an idea. Ignoring the fact that more ships would be sent to deal with *him*, the best way to get the Java Empire to leave the Hooties alone was actually not to try and destroy all ships with a record of their world's location - it was simply to convince them the technology they were after didn't exist.

        He was going to need to find himself a ranking officer.


        This time, when the ship's console beeped, Squeaks woke.

        He was a bit surprised at the readouts coming in to the console - they were rapidly approaching a planet system, one that the computer identified as containing their destination - and they were no longer piggybacking on the Empire's battleships.

        "Are we there?" Ferdia yawned, sitting down in the copilot's seat as she stretched herself awake.

        "Almost," he supplied, taking a moment to stretch. He checked the ship's clock. It had been nearly twelve hours since their last stop. That was a lot of sleep. Moreover, it was a lot of time to wonder about - it had been nearly three days since they'd left Earth. He hoped, for their sakes, Ferdie was still alive and well. One little fighter against an entire empire wasn't the type of odds he looked forward to.

        "So," Ferdia began, "we need a plan. I'm thinking, we scan the Empire's ships, storm whichever one Ferdie's on, rescue the guys, and make a break for it." She thought for a minute. "If Iiwi's still on the planet's surface, we can wait until we've lost the Empire's fighters, then sneak back in and get her."

        Squeaks cocked an eyebrow in her direction.

        She sighed. "All right, not the best of my plans, but I'm working on it. Do we have a transporter beam on this ship?"

        "No," he shook his head, "Our military didn't trust them when the Starchaser was built. They still don't put them on fighters, and without an Arellian-built retrofit, you don't want to try installing one on your own. Which is probably why none of her pirate owners did it."

        "Then we'll have to board the ship they're on. It'd be easiest to do that by going in the shuttle bay, I guess. And then it all depends on where they're at in the ship."

        As the planet loomed into view, Squeaks initiated a search of the ships, and as the fighter slowed to sub-warp and slipped behind the moon, the ship's computer merrily informed them two things. First, Ferdie, Bob, and Beak were all in the same ship - although Beak was at the opposite end of the ship than the other two. However, along with this news came a volley of phaser-fire - the Empire knew they were there.

        And, as black, saucer-shaped Java fighters began streaking out of both Java battleships' shuttlebays, drawing them into battle, a third, and rather disturbing, bit of information reached them.

        "See?" Drake's voiced suddenly cut in over the audio port, "I told you I'd come in handy!"


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