The Search For Cuteness: Part 8

Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.

        As Ferdia and Squeaks manned the fighter's guns, dodging phaser fire from battleship and Java fighter alike, Drake's runabout shivered into view. Despite their insistence that he return to Earth immediately, the Duck had simply cloaked the runabout and followed the two of them. It was a clever bit of thinking on his part, he felt. It meant that, should his friends get into trouble along their way, he would be able to help them.

        He'd worry about what he'd tell Mallard later. Right now, there was a space battle going on. And that was one of the few things he truly excelled at.

        He dove toward the enemy fighters, driving them away from the Scavenger. The runabout, like most Duck ships, was well-maintained and well-armed. Her shields could put any of the fighters' to shame, and her phasers packed a much greater punch than the aging Starchaser. And so, when Drake dove into masses of enemy fighters, phasers blazing, he did a significant amount of damage. Moreover, when not on a strafing run, he cloaked the ship, seemingly blinking in and out of existence like an angry ghost. To the Java fighters, who knew nothing of the Ducks and their cloaking devices, he was a fearsome opponent.

        Between him and the confusion he created, Squeaks and Ferdia hardly had any targets to speak of. The battleships ignored them, concentrating their fire on the runabout, and the fighters were far too busy avoiding Drake's deadly phaser blasts to pay much attention to the Starfighter. The sleek, rocket-like fighter steadily crept towards the first battleship's shuttle bay. Fighters still poured out of the bay, but those newcomers were by and large the only resistance they ran into.


        Bob jerked upright as the klaxon went off. What had Ferdie done now?!? He spun around, searching for some way to disable the alarm.

        “I didn't do it!” Ferdie yelled, backing away from the wall he'd been leaning against and casting panicked glances down the corridor they were currently in. The ship lurched suddenly, and the loud, authoritarian voice of the ship's computer boomed above the alarm klaxons.

        “Red Alert! Red Alert! Man your battle stations! All pilots to their ships!”

        As if on cue, doors along the corridor began sliding open, and the sounds of hundreds of running Java soldiers steadily grew louder as more and more soldiers neared the detectives' current location. Bob stood, frozen in place, trying to figure out what to do. Where was the closest side-corridor? Where were they least likely to run into men with phasers? Could they still make it to the shuttle bay, or would they be better off hiding again?

        Ferdie, on the other hand, wasted no time in deciding what needed to be done. He might be a coward, but he was a decisive coward, and one that knew what he was doing. Silently congratulating himself for having the forethought to reread the entire Worst-Case Scenario: Extraterrestrial Warfare book immediately after the Hooties had arrived seeking assistance, he grabbed Bob and bolted down the hallway. Ignoring the kiwi's indignant cries, he ran to the nearest still-closed door, hit the keypad's buttons until the door opened, and threw himself inside. The door immediately swished shut again, moments before hundreds of feet pounded by, making the floor vibrate as entire squadrons of pilots raced to their fighters.

        Ferdie pushed himself into a sitting position, dusting himself off with as much dignity as a coward of his magnitude could muster. Bob, however, unused to cowardly tactics and thus ignorant of the logic behind this retreat, reacted quite differently. Springing to his feet, he wasted no time in smacking Ferdie upside the head.

        “What was that for?” Ferdie yelped.

        “I had the situation completely under control!” Bob steamed, “And then you go and lock us in a…a…” he took a minute to analyze their present location, “a laundry room?”

        “Exactly!” Ferdie yelled, jumping to his feet and gesturing triumphantly while grinning like an idiot, “It's perfect, don't you see? We're in here; they're out there. No one's gonna come into a laundry room while their ship's under attack!”

        “And just how are we supposed to get to our ship now?” Bob demanded, “We can't just waltz out there with all those soldiers running everywhere! We'd be captured in seconds – or even killed! And if we don't get to the shuttle bay, we're stuck here!”

        “But that's the best part!”

        “It is?”

        “Yes! We're in a laundry room! Which means we're up to our ankles in…” Ferdie prompted Bob.

        “Um, dirty socks?”

        “No!” Ferdie resisted the urge to scream in frustration. Here he was, with an absolutely, positively brilliant idea that actually stood a decent chance of working, and Bob was being sarcastic. “Uniforms!” he yelled, “All sorts of uniforms! We can dress like fighter pilots, blend in with all the soldiers outside, and let them lead us to the shuttle bay!”

        Bob blinked. That actually sounded like a feasible plan. Had Ferdie hit his head on something when the klaxon went off? He couldn't remember. But the idea made sense. The destroyer had several shuttle bays, true, but he felt certain they'd find the correct one soon enough, and since the only places large enough to hold their ship were the same places large enough to accommodate the battleship's fighters, they had little to worry about in terms of looking suspicious.

        It just might work.


        “Aren't you worried about him getting himself killed?” Ferdia asked, motioning to Drake's runabout as it flickered in and out of sight amongst droves of Java fighters.

        Squeaks shook his head, guiding their own fighter closer to the lead ship's main shuttle bay. “Not really. Drake may be a bit inept at planetary codes of conduct and interpersonal relations,” - catching Ferdia's glance, he amended that statement – “okay, so he's hopeless at a good deal of what he tries. But starfighting is one of the things he *is* good at. He'll be fine.”

        “Besides,” he added, “his ship has significantly better shields and ordinance than these fighters seem to. As long as the destroyers don't start firing on him, he'll be hard pressed to take any real damage.” He jerked the ship to the side quickly, dodging a fighter's strafing run. “We, on the other hand, can boast no such thing.”

        A newly-emerged wing of fighters dove at them suddenly, and the aging Starchaser shuddered slightly as phaser-bursts bounced off her shields. The Java pilots had noticed the fighter's approach and had some objections to its proximity to their rapidly-emptying shuttle bay. The destroyer had to lower its shields near the bay in order to let fighters out without smashing the smaller ships to bits, and this left the bay vulnerable to more damage than the rest of the ship. Especially given the fact that hundreds of pilots were still pouring into the bay, scrambling for fighters that stood defenseless, lined up in neat, easy-to-shoot rows.

        There was no prying Squeaks away from the fighter's pilot controls or phasers, so Ferdia took charge of the auxiliary guns and assorted weapon systems, picking off attacking fighters and those that passed too close as Squeaks concentrated on the ships still in the shuttle bay. As the number of fighters engaging them dwindled, they dove into the bay itself, decimating the grounded fighters still awaiting lift-off and nimbly avoiding the attacks of those Java fighters that dared follow the Starchaser as it darted around the shuttle bay.


        Bob screeched to a halt as the mid-sized fighter entered the shuttle bay. It was NOT SAFE here! The ship flew around the bay, firing on all unmanned fighters and causing quite a few airborne ones to collide with the bay's walls. There was no way Bob Kiwi was gonna put his cute self in such a situation of utter peril!

        “Bob!” a Java pilot yelled to him, “Come on! We've got to get to our ship!”

        The fighter must have been Ferdie, for his uniform was a bit too tight for him and his helmet slid loosely around his head as he turned to face the kiwi. The fact that the pilot was anxiously motioning for him to venture further out into a battle rampant with fiery doom would normally suggest that the individual in question was not Ferdie; however, he supposed it was possible that the bird's uniform was simply so tight he could no longer think clearly. Or Ferdie could simply be focused on the safety of their fighter and nothing else. Tugging at his oversized uniform to free his feet from entanglement, Bob attempted to ignore the threat to his life and hobbled as fast as physically possible toward their parked fighter.

        He'd made it only a few feet before an errant blast sent him tumbling backwards, knocking his helmet off in the process. Around him, Java soldiers recognized him as one of their escaped prisoners, halting their charge to fire at him as he flung himself toward the fighter, desperately throwing off the uniform as he did so.

        Ferdie wasn't having much better luck. As he turned to help Bob fend off the Java pilots, his helmet swung around backwards, blinding him. As he struggled to pull it off, his behavior and ill-fitting uniform attracted additional attention, and by the time he had freed himself of the suffocating helmet, he had been surrounded by Java soldiers.

        It was at this point that the odd fighter wreaking havoc across the shuttle bay apparently both found its voice and noticed their presence.

        “Ferdie!” a voice that could only be Ferdia's yelled, “And Bob! We found you guys!”

        “Hooray!” Ferdie yelled, “The cavalry has arrived!”

        “Quick,” the Ferdia-like voice advised, “get to your ship, we'll cover you!”

        The ship then demonstrated that it was, indeed, a vessel controlled by Ferdia, as it dove straight at the mass of Java pilots and soldiers and opened fire. True, this did cause said Java fighters to dash for relative safety, but it also caused Bob and Ferdie to scatter. After a good deal of running in every which direction, the two regained enough of their senses to run toward their fighter and board it.

        Once inside their precious bit of shielded sanity, the two realized that not only did they not have Beak; they had no knowledge of how to fly the ship. This did not, however, stop Ferdie from frantically keying up displays on various panels; nor did it stop Bob from frantically calling out to the computer and attempting to instruct it to fly. It is debatable as to whether one of them was more successful than the other, but the ship did, after a while, decide that the life-forms aboard it wanted it to do something. Being a highly advanced piece of artificial-intelligence-driven technology, it obligingly activated its Help software. A tiny hologram that resembled an animated paper clip popped up in front of the main viewscreen.

        “It looks like you're trying to take off!” the hologram greeted them cheerfully, “Want some help?”

        “YES!” Bob and Ferdie chorused.

        “Please select the type of take-off you would like to execute: ground-to-air, atmospheric flight; ground-to-air, spaceflight; space carrier take-off; space station disengagement; sp-”

        “JUST TAKE OFF!!!” Ferdie screamed.

        “Sounds like an emergency take-off,” the hologram supplied. “Should I transmit an S.O.S.?”

        Bob and Ferdie exchanged a look of despair for the briefest of instants before simultaneously deciding that reverting to screaming was their best option. As they pursued this course of action, the tiny hologram detected an incoming signal and put it on the viewscreen.


        “Guys! Guys!” Ferdia yelled, covering her ears as Squeaks reached to turn down the transmission's volume, “Stop screaming! Take off!”

        “We can't!” Bob shouted, “We don't know how!”

        “Then let Beak do it!”

        “We don't know where he is!” Bob replied.

        “Oh. Don't worry, we'll find him for you!” Ferdia assured them, turning to Squeaks. “We can scan for Beak, right?”

        “We could, if we had a copy of his bioscan,” the mouse replied, shaking his head, “But we don't. This ship's never 'met' Beak – it doesn't know what to search for. They should be able to locate him from their ship, though.”

        “Ferdie!” she called, “You guys are going to have to get your ship to search for him!”

        “What?!?” Ferdie whimpered, “But we can't! We don't know how!”

        “Then figure it out!”

        “I can't! I've never used this thing before!”

        “Don't give me that!” Ferdia yelled at her brother, “You, Ferdinand Waldorf Alfonzo da Birdie the Third, Computer Hacker Extraordinaire, Slayer of Glitches and Lord of All Things Technological, are telling me you can't figure it out? You, the guy who without a single manual figured out how to program just about every VCR ever made, can't figure out how to get a highly-advanced, super-enhanced, artificially-intelligent, voice-activated, and completely idiot-proofed piece of technology to do a simple search?!?

        Ferdie cringed. “Well, geez, when you put it that way,” he grumbled.


        “And in conclusion, Admiral,” the Java destroyer's captain stated, “we have determined that not only the residents of this world possess no useful technology, they also have no knowledge of the whereabouts of the Magi.”

        “Are you certain?” the admiral queried, the viewscreen recreating every last trace of skepticism in his features.

        “Quite,” the destroyer's captain replied. “The world's residents are largely primitives, with only a small portion of them even warp-capable. However, these warp-capable residents belong to a very tiny species of beings, and their ships are so small that their warp engines, though designed from standard drives sold to them long ago by pirates and miniaturized to fit in their tiny ships, can push the ships to speeds exceeding Warp 9. The speed is, sadly, entirely dependant on the size and weight of the ship, and it is only because their ships are so tiny that they can travel at the speeds others have witnessed. There is nothing special in their construction or design.”

        “A most unfortunate discovery,” the admiral sighed. “We had great hopes of being able to use those speeds. But I suppose it is not to be. And they truly know nothing of the Magi?”

        “Nothing at all, sir. They chanced upon the Magi we currently hold in custody entirely by accident. A group of representatives sent to get help located him on some remote pirate haven, closer to our territory than theirs, and he agreed to help them for a fee. He came alone, so we can only assume there are no others at his former location – Magi prefer to work in teams, after all.”

        Again, the admiral sighed unhappily. “So we have nothing to show of this venture besides a stray Magi?” he shook his head. “Most disappointing. But it cannot be helped. Bring the Magi back to-”

        “Sir!” a panic-stricken lieutenant appeared on a small side-screen, “We've been trying to reach you, sir! We are under attack!”

        “The Magi must've escaped!” the captain gasped, swiftly ordering the lieutenant to scramble all fighters. “By your leave, Admiral,” he said, bowing to the figure on the viewscreen.

        “Very well, captain. Get to work recapturing that Magi,” the admiral nodded, terminating the connection. As he did so, he thought back on the failed mission. Not only had it failed to yield enticing technology or knowledge of Magi rebel worlds, it had also cost the Empire four battleships. The admiral was no fool. If the Magi had truly escaped, then the destroyers still orbiting the disappointing little world were already lost. So much for career-advancing glory. The paperwork on this information alone would take weeks to complete.

        The destroyer captain, however, merely stared blankly at the dark viewscreen, hardly moving to blink or breathe. From his hiding place beneath the viewscreen, Beak breathed a sigh of relief. That took care of everything but his escape. Well, that and the little matter of finding and rescuing Bob and Ferdie.

        As he crept out of his hiding place and stood up, the viewscreen flashed on behind him. He whirled around, shocked to have been caught – who would have thought the admiral would call the captain back? – but was relieved to find it was Ferdie, not the Java admiral, who greeted him.

        “Beak! Where have you been?” he demanded, “You'd better get over to the main shuttle bay fast, or you're gonna miss your flight!”

        “And we do NOT do refunds!” Bob yelled from behind Ferdie.


        Bob paced the ship, impatiently waiting for Beak to arrive. The sooner Beak arrived, the sooner they got away from this battle, and the sooner they got away from this battle, the sooner he could have coffee.

        Ferdie fiddled with the computer's controls, confident now in his ability to figure out how the ship's systems worked. He was currently looking over the weapons systems – no doubt so he could be of some use once they left the shuttle bay – and was evidently making frightening progress, if the little hologram assistant's terrified reactions counted for anything.

        The ship Ferdia – and Squeaks, as they had learned – flew continued to circle the shuttle bay, preventing anyone from taking off or landing in the bay. A steady trickle of fighters continued to enter the bay in obvious attempts to flush the Starchaser into open space, where the destroyers could fire on her, and a steadily building pile of ruined Java fighters attested to how those ventures were faring.

        There was another strange fighter battling outside the shuttle bay. Ferdia claimed it was Drake, but it was fairly undamaged and was doing a decent job of removing Java fighters from the battle, so Bob figured they must've brought someone else along as well. He couldn't begin to guess who the two cops would have recruited, but he did know the runabout out there could not possibly by the Invisible Duck that had given them so much trouble.

        A sudden hum of their fighter's engines alerted Bob to the fact that Beak had entered the ship. The brown kiwi had hardly said hello after entering the bridge and seating himself at a console, quickly keying up a launch sequence.

        “Bob, you and Ferdie will want to sit now,” he cautioned them, “It took me longer to get here than I had anticipated, and the ship's self-destruct sequence is set to go off shortly.”

        “Self-destruct?” Ferdie asked, “But we haven't heard any countdown!”

        “I managed to get it to run silently,” Beak replied, lifting the ship off the pad, then pausing to let the Arellian fighter exit the shuttle bay before following suit. “But trust me, the Java Empire is going to stop bothering the Hooties in a matter of minutes!”

        Bob wondered if Beak had informed Ferdia and Squeaks of this news or if he should tell them, but then he noticed that Ferdie was frantically hailing the mid-sized fighter, intent on making sure that his sister and anyone else out there fighting to help them had enough time to get out of range.

        Bob smiled as they sped away from the Java battleships. Now all that was left was to find Iiwi and inform the Hooties of their great victory. Oh, and to get more of that delicious Hootie coffee if it was at all possible.


        Iiwi turned her attention from Skye's storytelling to investigate an excessive bit of twinkling stars off in the sky to her right. She'd tried to convince herself it was just the campfire playing tricks on her eyes, but she just didn't buy that excuse. And now that she'd turned to glance at the oddity, she found she couldn't turn away from it. An entire patch of the star field was sparkling wildly, with oddly colored shooting stars flying in circles and other odd patterns within the area. Occasionally a star would pulse brightly and then fade from view entirely. It took a moment to realize she was watching a battle in space. Near space. Just outside the atmosphere, probably, which meant someone was battling the Java ship that had captured Bob and Ferdie.

        Her interest in the stars did not go unnoticed, however, and by the time Skye finished his tale, nearly everyone in the village – except for the youngest nestlings, who had been listening to Skye in rapt silence – was staring up at that little patch of night sky. Some of the children fluttered over to their mothers, where they could watch the events unfolding without needing to worry about being afraid; others clustered around Skye as he moved to stand next to Iiwi. She'd moved away from the fire a bit to improve her view of the light-show, and while some of the villagers had done the same, all stood apart from her, still wary of this strange outsider.

        “Quite a sight, isn't it?” Skye mused. “We saw something similar three nights ago.”

        “It's a starfight,” she supplied, “A space battle.”


        Drake blinked in surprise. “But…” he began.

        “We don't have time to argue!” Squeaks cut him off, “The destruct sequence is too far along to try to counter it! We've got to get a safe distance away!”

        “We've got to go save Iiwi!” Bob's voice cut in over the audio channel, “She's still on the planet, and she'll be really mad at us if we don't help her!”

        “She'd probably go so far as to send us a bill once she got back,” Ferdie muttered.

        “And Mr. Ivan would most likely maim us if we returned without her,” Beak pointed out, “Seeing as how her owing him a favor was part of the deal to borrow his ship…”

        Drake sputtered in disbelief. “But…but…there are still ships out here!”

        “Not once that self-destruct goes off, there won't be!” Ferdia's voice replied.

The Duck huffed, unhappily turning from the battle and following the others to relative safety. Behind him, the fighters turned to pursue them, unsure of their enemy's reasons for suddenly fleeing but more than willing to exploit it as best they could. Drake grimaced as phaser-shots blurred past his runabout. Such light ordinance was of no concern to him, with his superior shields and phaser-avoidance systems, but it posed a threat to his friend, whose ship could boast no such thing. He fired a few volleys behind him, covering their retreat as best he could without actually turning to fight.

        Off in the distance, one of the huge destroyers shuddered. Bright patches of light arced across various patches of its hull an instant before it exploded. The fireball quickly engulfed the second destroyer, triggering an explosion from it, as well, before the airless void of space snuffed the flames. There was no sound – space had no medium to convey it – but the rippling shockwaves the explosions caused were just visible. Java fighters tumbled and collided with one another as the shockwaves hit them, and his ship bucked as it was overtaken as well. However, the Duck had left enough space between him and any other fighter than he had no problems avoiding collisions – although, he told himself, his shields would have protected him. The others took a different tactic, diving into the nearby planet's atmosphere.


        Squeaks didn't have time to adjust their speed as they hurtled through the planet's upper atmosphere. They were going much too fast, but if they slowed, the shockwave would catch them in near-space - and Arellian or no, the Starchaser wasn't designed to take the kind of punishment a multi-faceted shockwave like the one behind them would dish out. Not at this range and intensity –not without serious repairs and upgrades to her shield systems. And yet, if they didn't slow down, they risked bungling their entry angle and bouncing right off the building atmosphere. Which would not only cripple their shields and crumple their hull, but also toss them back into the shockwave's path.

        He was going to have to hurt Beak for this later. The Magi was far too brazenly suicidal for his own good – and that was coming from someone who lived for the daily dosage of life-threatening peril that went with being Ferdia's partner. Moreover, it seemed to be a sentiment the bluebird beside him shared, as she had securely strapped herself in and was now being uncharacteristically silent. She truly looked worried.

        “We should be fine,” he glanced at her, trying to be reassuring. It was a difficult task, considering he didn't really believe it himself. “As long as we get the angle right, we'll slip right into the atmosphere, and the shockwave'll miss us entirely.”

        “And if we don't get this right, we'll come out looking like a paper airplane that's been through a jet turbine,” she grimaced. “I'm going to kill Beak for this…”


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