The Search For Cuteness: Part 9

Going the speed of light is bad for your age.

        Beak winced. Apparently quite a few people were thinking ill of him at the moment. Not the least of whom were Bob and Ferdie, who were currently lashing themselves to the more permanent structures on the bridge while screaming at him incoherently.

        Perhaps it was best not to tell them they were going too fast, at too sharp an angle to safely re-enter the Hooties' atmosphere. He was fairly certain he could compensate for the resulting friction fires that would spring up on the hull, and as long as Ferdie's sister and her friend kept their ship a good distance away, they shouldn't need to worry about crashing and such.

        Ferdie's shriek of alarm was his first clue that something was wrong.


        Iiwi gaped up at the two streaks of light slowly arcing across the sky. Their hue changed from bluish-white to yellow-gold, a sure sign of one thing: fire. Which meant the ships must be entering the atmosphere.

        Around her, fledglings gasped and pointed, wondering aloud. She could feel Skye watching her, and answered his question before he could ask it. “They're landing.”

        No sooner had she said it, than a third ball of light streaked into view, cutting its path between the other two. This action – and its resulting wake – caused the other two ships to spiral out of control. One of them tumbled forward, rebounding off the intruder's hull – or so Iiwi assumed from the bright flash that it caused – while the other plummeted away from its cousins, picking up speed – and blossoming more flames – as it spiraled towards the ground.

        Iiwi's eyes widened as the hurtling ship struggled onto a course in line with the village. No doubt they were headed for what looked like a clearing! They needed to get Skye's clan out of the line of fire! “They're gonna crash!”


        Beak wrestled with the controls, fighting to bring the ship back under control. He finally managed to get their path to straighten out, but they had taken quite a hit from the runabout, and would need to land soon before any damages became too great for him to repair.

        Onscreen, he could only watch as Ferdie's sister's ship careened out of control.


        Squeaks didn't bother wrestling or fighting with the ship's controls. The Starchaser was Arellian, after all. Simply keeping a tight grip on them was enough to reestablish control once Drake's turbulence had abated to subsonic speeds. That done, he realized one of the ship's wingflaps was jammed from the extreme force of the turbulence, and they were traveling far to fast to make manual compensation a viable option. However, with the flap jammed, slowing down became a difficulty. Cutting the ship's engines as Ferdia scouted for a relatively clear place to land, he nosed the craft up, increasing the surface area subjected to drag. But the ship was a poor glider, and any lift the maneuver accomplished was overrun by its weight.

        “Squeaks! There are people down there!” Ferdia shouted, “It's a village! We can't land there!”

        He wasn't about to argue with her there. They might be about to crash (Hadn't he said he never crashed spacecraft? So much for that distinction…), but they were not going to do it in a village. Firing up the engines would only have worsened their situation, powering their flight nose-first into the ground, so Squeaks took the only other option they had: he rolled the ship on her side. The jammed flap turned this roll into a spin, and the Starchaser spiraled away from the village and into the surrounding forest.

        Unlike the plants of San Viano's parks, these trees were quite old, and thus very tall, with quite thick trunks. Expansive branches clawed at them from all sides, blocking their view. Effectively blind, they blundered into tree and branch alike, battering their shields and denting hull and wingtip alike. Crashing through the treetops was, however, an effective way of slowing them down, and the Starchaser soon slid to a stop.


        Skye caught the metal bird's dodge out of the corner of his eye as he hurried a group of fledglings into the safety of an ancient tree's root-hollow. Streaking in towards their village –snapping what little remained of their perimeter net as it did so – the bird seemed to realize the village was there, and quickly rolled away. It plunged into the trees on the far side of the village, and he could hear the snapping of branches and trunks as it cut its way though the foliage.

        No sooner had it disappeared into the forest than Iiwi streaked by, tracking it. Hoping it was her friends, no doubt. A part of him was hurt that she seemed so eager to leave – but another reasoned she merely wanted to return to her home, much as he did whenever he left the village on an extended hunting expedition. Nonetheless, he followed after her, both to see more of this strange bird and to make certain it had not harmed any of his clan that had taken cover in that area.

        The metal bird had burned a path through the trees overhead, snapping branches and charring boughs as it formed an eerie sort of aerial tunnel. He made a mental note to fly through it sometime. It certainly was wide enough. And long enough. The scorched tunnel-path stretched on for nearly a mile before suddenly halting. There, up amongst the branches, sprawled the metal bird.

        It was not the same bird that Iiwi's friends had used. Nor was it one of the black birds that had captured that bird. It was smaller than the first, bigger than the others, and badly burned and scratched. It also seemed to be somewhat uncertain of its current location, swaying a bit as its cradle of branches creaked and settled.


        Ferdia turned her attention from Squeaks to the viewscreen as the ship gave a low, creaking groan. A quick glance to the screen was useless – too many scorch-marks and branches cluttered the forward cameras – but when she switched to the cameras just beneath the ship's forward belly, her eyes widened.

        “Squeaks,” she pulled the mouse away from the jammed hatch. “It won't open; we've got a trunk right under it.”

        “Oh,” he blinked. “Well, that's not too much of a problem. We can use the top hatch.”

        “No.” She caught his collar, steering him to the viewscreen. “Our problem is that we haven't landed yet.”

        The mouse took in the view afforded by the screen, eyes widening. A hundred feet wasn't much in terms of a crash or landing, when the Starchaser's defensive shields and impact dampeners were online and functioning, but it *would* be a painful landing if the ship simply fell.

        Just then, a familiar figure flit wandered into view onscreen. A red-feathered bird peered up at them from the ground.



        Skye jumped at the booming sound of the metal bird's voice. He hadn't realized these strange creatures could talk! He looked over at the star-traveler. She looked mildly surprised – not at the bird's speech, but at its voice.

        “Ferdia!” she chirped, grinning, “Another excellent landing, I see.”

        “This one's not my fault,” the bird retorted, “Squeaks was flying, not me.”

        “We were doing just *fine* until Drake sideswiped us,” the bird grumbled, in a completely different – and now male – voice.

        “Anyways,” – now it switched back to a female voice, confusing Skye all the more – “Ivan forwarded your message to us, and we came to help. The others are fine –except for Beak, who I plan on maiming as soon I'm done pounding Drake for making us crash. Are you okay?”

        “I'm fine,” she replied, “Skye and the Hawks here have been taking care of me.”

        “Hawks?” the bird's male-voice asked, “But you came here to help-”

        “The Hooties. Yes,” Iiwi nodded, “But I've learned a few things since then. I'll explain it once you've come down. That bit of branches doesn't look very stable.”

        “Tell me about it,” the bird grumbled, “But as things stand we're kind of…stuck.”

        The gods must have been listening, and in an indulgent – if prankish - mood, for at that very moment, the tangled web of branches holding the metal bird fast began to break. Bit by bit, the interwoven branches and boughs cracked and split, and the bird sank lower and lower in the web, until it reached the last few branches, pushing them easily out of the way. The bird uttered a startled cry as it fell, but instead of beating its wings to slow its fall, its tail burst into flames, and it wobbled to the ground, landing roughly a few hundred feet further away. It had three feet, Skye noticed, though one of them seemed injured, as the bird leaned to one side.

        It opened a blowhole of some sort, or a pouch, or something similar, out of which a strangely-shaped, blue-feathered bird emerged. She – for despite her odd form, the bird had an undeniable female look to her – was wearing an odd sort of clothing, similar to what he had seen pygmies wear, only better-fitted to her frame. She had no wings – or if she did, then she had no primary or secondary wing-feathers – and possessed, instead, a feathered but decidedly talon-like 'hand.' Her talons themselves were more like those of skilks, the large running herd-birds that lived in the plains. She was strange to behold – as light on her feet as any other hollow-boned bird, but flightless by birth. Small wonder, then, that her people used these metal birds to fly. Skye silently congratulated himself on how well he met the star-traveler – he hadn't flinched or turned away, and was doing a fair job of not staring overly much at her odd form.

        Then he realized another creature was exiting the metal bird's crop, or whatever it was. And here his defenses and preparations failed him, and he could do nothing but stare.

        The creature looked like the ground- and tree-critters that scurried about the forests - in fact he looked a good deal like the small, big-eared field-critters. Skye assumed he was male; but he had never really been able to tell the difference between male and female critters. They were of no interest to him, really, as they were too small for anything but a light snack. His fur was as white as the snow-peaked mountains, and at first Skye took him for an albino – but his eyes were colored, not red. Perhaps his kind lived in an area where it snowed frequently, and the white fur helped them camouflage themselves while hunting.

        The critter – whatever he/she/it was – wore the same manner of clothing as the strange blue-feathered bird, and Skye took this to mean they were part of the same clan. Or, more likely, the same hunting party or battle group. They were far too dissimilar to be part of the same clan. The critter bore a triangular marking on his head – but whether for valor, or rank, or custom, Skye could not tell.

        Iiwi was conversing with them, he realized. She knew them. Star-traveling must be an odd thing to do, if one is constantly associating with alien species. He himself only occasionally met with other clans while hunting, and even then, anything more than a brief greeting was unusual.

        Perhaps, if these star-travelers were so accustomed to dealing with strange and alien creatures, they could help his kind with the pygmies.


        Drake watched the scene before him from the forest's edge, rubbing absently at the bruises his old friend's 'partner' had given him in greeting when he and the others had arrived at the aliens' village.

        His friends and those they had rescued were clustered in the clearing ahead, sitting around a campfire with an assortment of these fierce-looking primitives – most likely the braver warriors and a Council of Elders. The young warrior the red bird had introduced at 'Skye' sat with them, relating their story and that of his people to the newcomers. The kiwis, in turn, shared their experience and observations of the tiny Hooties' (these creatures' enemies, apparently) city and customs, with ideas as to how the two civilizations might better their relations with one another. The tall brown kiwi – Beak, he'd said his name was – seemed particularly interested in finding a way to put the clans' animosity towards each other aside. Horrified by the tales of how the tiny kiwis abandoned and polluted their cities and environment, he vowed to seek them out and talk some sense into them. This he did while slowly prodding his beak straight again, as it had been rather dented by his friends' delayed reactions to his decision to detonate the Java destroyer.

        As Beak went into a trance – reaching out telepathically to locate and discuss matters with the Hooties, presumably, though Drake supposed he could also simply have fallen asleep – the others continued their dialogs. This went on for quite a while, and by the time Drake shook himself out of the doze he fell into, they were chatting amiably about just about everything *but* the peace process. Ferdia's brother seemed to have joined Beak in his discussion with the Hooties – either that, or he, too, had fallen asleep in his seat – and Iiwi seemed to be discussing the possibilities of trade and/or travel between her world and the Hawks'. The yellow kiwi seemed to be intently enquiring as to whether he might have a coffee-berry bush to take back with him, and how to care for it. Drake made a mental note to report this to Squeaks – introduction of alien flora into a pre-warp environment, or anywhere at all, really, was strictly forbidden without first studying potential impacts and obtaining SpaceFleet permission.

        He paused, taking a moment to remind himself that his friend no longer seemed to care for his old organization, or their rules. The mouse wasn't at the campfire at all, he realized, and quickly scanned the clearing for signs of trouble. He needn't have bothered. Squeaks and Ferdia were off to one side of the clearing, instructing several young warriors on various fighting moves and stances – and, in turn, watching as the warriors demonstrated some rather interesting strategies and techniques themselves.

        Drake yawned; it was nearly dawn, judging by the faint light sky far off in the distance. He slouched to the ground, not bothering if his uniform picked up grass stains or not. He was tired, and he needed to sleep.


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