The Antics of Certain Profligate, Spacefaring Penguins
by Channie Greenberg
A colony of Emperor penguins hijacked a NASA ice cutter and allowed one of their chicks to refit it for deep space exploration. His reconfiguration worked since both icebreakers and planetary probes access uninviting routes. Simply, both types of vessels feature rounded hulls, and both exploit weight, size and power.
Conversely, when all was said and done, despite the verity that those penguins’ craft was a class unto itself, neither the colony’s brooding fathers nor its nautical hens could navigate their boat as they knew no trigonometry. The group’s only hope for piloting among the stars was the unpopular brainiac fledgling who had retooled it.
So, in the middle of bouts of molting, that chick possessed of robust intelligence (but not of opposable thumbs) made multiple conjectures about propellants, propulsion, and thrust. On the one flipper, that intrepid young supervisor was able to cause the ship to dodge most of the meteors in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. His interplanetary liner suffered only a few hypervelocity impacts.
On the other flipper, the fizzle caused by a micrometer-sized pebble resulted in a solar panel floating off into the boundless night; and another bang, which was instigated by a large, explicitly millimeter-sized object, resulted in a chipped window.
An adult repaired the porthole with a functional but ugly piece of weatherproofing tape, which he had appropriated from a cache. That cache, in turn, had been part of a cargo drop intended for an Antarctica science station. The colony’s members had insisted not only on bringing fish on board but also on hauling their “treasures” with them.
Only the captain and the mechanic seemed mindful of that restoration. All things being equal, rocks and sea creatures interested those feathery passengers, but accidents did not. None among them cared about the ship’s workings. In their black and white milieu, they endeavored to focus on the pleasant cacophony resulting from all of them being stuffed into a small soyuz. Namely, they reveled in their noise and guano.
That attitude shifted when a belatedly classified “wandering” plasma field gifted half of them, i.e. the portion of the collective residing on the port side of their freighter, with nasty radiation burns. Suddenly, the kinetic energy of fast-moving, tiny items became a sexier topic than pilfered fish or manure piles.
Two of the loudest, most useless males were sent outside of the craft to jerry-rig Whipple bumpers. As the birds lacked aluminum, those techs used fish skin to form hypervelocity impact shields. Fortunately, the collagen in fish skin allows for a wide spatial and temporal distribution of the force of striking debris. The penguins’ one-off use of aquatic membranes temporarily saved their mission.
Unfortunately, half a week thereafter, their communal joy was once more disrupted. The first mate, who was under the captain’s tutelage and learning a bit of math and physics, observed that their cruiser was circling dangerously near a Type S asteroid. Imprudently, she announced her findings on the public address system.
In response, a bunch of the Antarctica layers were tasked with laser ablation. In so many words, they were commanded to use their ship’s most powerful optical amplification device to irradiate material from the sphere’s surface to push their vessel away from it.
They failed. All that the team managed to achieve was to transform a tiny portion of that dwarf planet’s surface into diamonds. A half-blind hen had to improvise, using the individual jet propulsion packs that she found in a locker on an unused deck (she had meant to roost there) to separate their star boat from the source of deadly gravity.
From the time that the hen commenced her efforts, though, her work was barracked; marine flyers don’t grasp the nature of jewels, but they like shiny things. If the elder would stop interfering, their liner could crash into the asteroid and then they would be able to harvest diamonds. Being bird-brained, the members of the colony couldn’t consider that there might be additional consequences of a hard landing.
In fact, after they realized that there would be no collision, many among them volunteered to fly the lone escape pod to scoop up those gems. The birds that were granted permission, plus double their number in stowaways, repeated that undertaking with passion. They stopped only when their aerostat’s hold was so full as to compel their captain to choose between stranding them and dumping their payload. Sagaciously, that unseasoned Bird-in-Charge, who knew to disallow excess weight on his craft and who comprehended the outcome of a smashup, marooned a few dozen penguins.
Naysayers point out that the young chief had a strong grasp of astrophysics and of integral calculus but lacked training in negotiation analysis. They further decry his passive response to those among his fellows who squandered jointly-owned fuel to gather sparkly rocks. What critics miss is that the inexpert honcho had mollified the community’s true bosses to prevent the entirety of the community from falling over the brink into death and destruction. Detractors likewise miss that the new leader had counted on his subsequent increase in popularity to insure his receiving extra helpings of predigested fish. He was still too tender to masticate whole ones.
Most of the birds did not disparage their captain. Overall, those survivors, the waterfowl that had not: been crisped by the radiation of the wandering plasma field, lost their lives to allotrope lust or been trampled to death by the mass hysteria resulting from a rooster’s suggestion that none of them might ever again hunt fresh fish, continued to merrily eat, poop and complain. The males were genetically wired to complain when their mates went fishing for months at a time. The females, who were wired to fish for months at a time, and who had learned, via trial and error, that leaving the rocket was lethal, too, joined in the grumbling. All of them, nonetheless, ate and pooped.
Alas, their top officer did not partake in the greater part of those entertainments as he had become love-struck, besotted and otherwise infatuated. That lad had become twitterpated while waiting, one evening, for his regurgitated nourishment to be served. As he sat in front of his cabin’s door, an emergent hen, “Blue,” waddled by.
That blooming miss, who understood opportunity, invited the high-ranking juvenile away from his compartment and into hers. Her room revealed itself to be a wondrous cavity filled with all manner of knick-knacks. “France... cargo drops,” was all she muttered by way of explanation.
Significantly, on her highest shelf sat a crystal bowl, which was too pretty to be used for anything except as a serving dish for fish heads. On the next shelf sat a book, in Latin, on pataphysics. The commander hemmed and hawed over that volume. On the lowest shelf sat a pumice stone. The leader raised his shoulders slightly and momentarily to signal indifference over Blue’s third shelf’s contents; rocks were rocks.
Looking again at the top shelf, the pubertal skipper shook his head as if to clear it. That sparkler constituted indescribable riches. It’s hardly surprising that he was smitten.
All of the diamonds in his hold were as nothing to him relative to that unique items secreted in the young hen’s accommodations. He rationalized that abandoning his duties temporarily mattered less than did claiming that basin.
Later, in his chambers, his belly momentarily sated by fish that had been treated with enzymes from his parents’ craws, the callow skipper cogitated. The dinner his parents had spit out for him had been tasty but would have been that much more scrumptious had it been served in Blue’s shiny receptacle rather than straight from their beaks.
He mused. Among penguins, taking ownership of others’ possession is not “stealing” but is “aggressive sharing.” Shrugging, he supposed that his yearning for Blue’s lustrous dish was a sign of maturity. The flivver flyer told Blue as much during his next visit to her quarters.
She answered him with a half-smile, wrapped her flippers around him, and then gave him the penguin equivalent of a kiss. She was convinced that her status among hens would be unparalleled if their frigate’s captain became her paramour.
Soon after that embrace, though, the young birds’ relationship got weird. One day, when the chief officer spotted Blue in the gym and hurried toward her, she abruptly left that facility. He couldn’t know that her best friend had advised her to play hard to get. What’s more, neither Blue nor her bestie was aware that the chief only wanted Blue’s ewer in a literal sense.
Another day, in the dining hall, the skipper’s life became even more awkward. Blue, who had become fully fledged, was slurping down small silver fish as though eating was going out of style. In truth, if the multitude didn’t soon find a habitable, water-based planet, eating would become out of fashion. That time, confusingly, instead of running upon noticing the head bird, Blue patted the floor next to her.
The leader sat, sniffed Blue’s fish, smiled, and then looked directly into her eyes.
Blue was horrified. Only parents feed inchoate penguins.
She gulped down the last of her fish and then scuttled away. Prestige was one thing, but living with a mate who couldn’t mate was another.
The captain gesticulated dismissively and regarded the wall clock. It would be a long while until his mother and father who, like most ordinary penguins, couldn’t tell time, arrived to feed him.
He sighed. His social preparation had not yet progressed to courting, building a nest or providing for chicks.
Truth be told, his education might never advance. Given his high echelon, except for feeding him, his parents were barred from all interactions with him.
The young bird had only once sourced information on “delicate matters.” That directive had been mumbled to him by one of the colony’s bosses as a consolation for the inexperienced commander having had to make due with an engine design modified by an unschooled committee. Basically, what that older penguin had whispered was that the adolescent captain would “know what to do” after ripening. The problem was that the bird had not yet “ripened.”
Looking to his age mates for insight was equally useless. Granted, some of those chicks already excelled in stealing rocks. Others had proceeded to embed themselves in the tribe’s chorus when, on Earth, male birds negotiated the dark half of the year by singing. On the ship, many of those vocalists had become hoarse; Antarctica’s eventide might be long, but space’s eventide is unrelenting. Additionally, a few of the immature fowl of his acquaintance had become skillful at catching enough fish to feed more than their families. All of those contemporaries were savvier than him regarding females and none of them wanted to share their advantage.
Plus, those alleged friends tended to discount cold-water roosters devoted to science and to “medical research” and, as such, treated the young commander’s thoughts on liaisons with hens as shards of fictions best used in communal talent shows. That is, they teased and otherwise bullied him or standoffishly chirruped and then abandoned him.
Accordingly, all that the space cowboy gleaned from talking to his chronological cohorts was that he was a weirdo. He also inferred that “medicine” and “research” were professions involving decapitating buddies.
Finally, his parents arrived. They actualized his feeding without incident. Ever the polite son, he thanked them before shuffling to the bridge. No new displays appeared on his screen, so he spent the next few hours pondering possible ionization and atomic displacement damages to semiconductors. There were so many perils possible on an intergalactic voyage, and no other penguin gave the impression of having the aptitude or interest to share his apprehensions.
Be that as it may, he was the Bird-in-Charge. It was his responsibility to steer their rocket, find new food sources and pilfer Blue’s crystalline saucer.
If only that wayward hen, that potential mother of his descendants, would permanently “loan” him that bowl, he could better sail over all of his heart-rending “growth opportunities.” He could sally forth through all of his pubescent pains. He could believe in unicorns.
As it were, he had no bowl, no easy sup, and no nestmate. He never acquired the characteristics that would have made him a wonderful feathered creature and never freed himself from his exploding somatoforms, either. Unquestionably, that poor bird had been unable to shake the mental illness that rerouted his pea-sized thinker into a genius center of intellectual activity, and that lack, consequently, made him swoon without sufficient hormonal input.
It was that malady that caused him to inadvertently steer the penguins’ clunker into a planet-sized azotosome’s moon-sized cytoplasmic pseudopod. Said differently, in the end, the untried penguin had proved as unqualified at piloting a star yacht as he had been at twigging his society.
* * *
Somewhere in the expanse beyond Earth, but before the far celestial bodies, a cache of diamonds floats next to the remains of cargo drops from Europe and North America. Most puzzling to many space travelers is that bodies of Antarctic birds float beside those belongings.
Copyright © 2019 by Channie Greenberg