Invasion of the Fittest

The morning sun lazed above the tiny village of domed nest-huts, nestled against the narrow shores of the fiord. It illuminated the tawaki, a race of penguins, as they went about their daily chores of smoking fish, cleaning out their nests or simply lazing in the sunshine. And it glanced down upon two young tawaki, little more than chicks, playing beside a creek. Or rather one was playing, the other jiggled about in excitement.

“Oh Rangi, come and see, come and see!” Rewi hopped about, yellow crest flapping in her eyes.

Rangi, her clutchmate, looked along his bill at her. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” he bemoaned, “whatever could be that exciting?” And back his attention turned to the bubbling brook and the stone wall he was attempting, without much success, to build across it.

“It’s a barge, only it’s really, really big and has wings like a toroa.” Her dark eyes sparkled with excitement. The tawaki specialised in fishing, using only their paddle-like wings and powerful beaks to capture their prey, but small flat boats, called barges, were used to transport the fish, dragged through the water by one of the tawaki in a special harness. It was not a barge that Rewi had seen, but no other term in her limited experience could possibly describe it.

“A flying barge,” Rangi abandoned his dam-building and focused his attention on her. “Now you’re pulling my feathers. You’re imagining things, chicki-dee.”

“I am not,” she stamped her flippered foot. “All the others are watching it. It flew on the water into the head of the fiord just a little while ago. You don’t wanna be the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on, do you?”

With a sigh her brother relented. The dam would wait – it wasn’t working anyway, a thin trail of water trickled through the stones, turning swiftly to a burble as the creek returned to its former, flowing status. He had to admit, he was curious. Big barges that flew on water? Technical stuff had always interested the young tawaki – hence why he was busily attempting to construct a dam whilst his age-mates practised their diving and underwater gliding in the calm waters of the fiord.

“Very well then.” Rewi was off before the last words had fallen, running through the beech trees, leaping over the fallen rimu and finally jumping down a slight cliff and into a jumble of rocks a short distance into the fiord. This position offered a clear view of the village and a slightly less clear one of the incoming barge.

Rangi had to admit, it did look like it had wings, although they weren’t like those of any bird he had seen – they were more like sheets really. It was an interesting concept, putting sheets on a barge. Although this was no normal barge. It rode much higher in the water, with the sides curving up and contracting to a point at the front end. Instantly his interest was roused. Such a craft would travel rather more smoothly through the water, and the sheets seemed to catch the wind and blow it along. Why, it was a self-propelled barge. “How fascinating,” he muttered, wishing he’d brought along his notebook and drawing stick.

“Isn’t it,” his sister commented, her beak parted in a penguin grin. “I knew you’d like it. I wonder what the people are like. They obviously can’t fly. Or swim like us.” Tawaki were justifiably proud of their swimming abilities. Other birds might be able to fly through the air, but only penguins could fly through the water.

“Maybe we should swim out and take a closer look?” Rangi suggested, he didn’t particularly care about whomever was aboard it – he just wanted to get a better look at the craft.

It took Rewi only a moment to agree. “Race you to it!” she shrieked, flinging herself into the water with easy grace. Rangi followed, forging swiftly after her. The two weaved and dived, startling a small shoal of fish into shimmering flight. A moment later they surfaced, side-by-side, and got their first decent view of the craft.

It was big, bigger than Rangi would have guessed, too big to be carved from a tree, except perhaps the mighty kahikatea. Strange figures darted across the deck, clambering through the net-like rope structure between the sheets. Rewi gasped at the sight of them and Rangi had to agree – he had certainly never seen anything like them before. They had rounded snouts instead of beaks and legs instead of wings, equipped with long, dextrous toes. Their bodies were long and supple – they moved more like fish then birds. Some of them had long pink tails that resembled worms. And they clambered up these immense nets with dexterity, chattering to each other like fantails.

One, much larger than the others and wearing an enormous, plumed hat, stood at the pointy end of the craft. He seemed to be the leader and he pointed at the tiny tawaki village, gibbering excitedly.

Rangi felt a cold chill then, like he had just passed through a southern current. These creatures were so alien, their craft so advanced. He could not help but feel a stab of apprehension. His race had never known true danger, save what the elements might throw up at them, but these invaders were so strange, he could not help but wonder their intent.

A large cylindrical device was wheeled across the deck, hauled by several of the creatures and pushed by a number of others. It was heaved into place at the front of the craft and Rangi caught sight of a spark. “Rewi,” he muttered, dragging his sister close to him, the two of them bobbing on the surf.

There was a flash, followed by a great rumbling BOOOOOOOMMMM that bounced off the sheer cliffs of the fiord and vibrated through the water. With a shriek, Rewi dived, Rangi not a heartbeat behind her. Fear replaced curiosity as they darted through the sea, concentrating on nothing but the desire to get as far from this strange and noisy craft as possible. Another boom, the sound muffled, vibrated around them. And then another, forcing them onwards, away, away. It was Rewi who surfaced first, needing to breathe. Rangi followed shortly after, concern for his clutchmate greater then his fear.

Even from this distance it was obvious that something very terrible indeed had struck the little village. Great plumes of grey smoke poured into the air and flames licked hungrily from several of the dwellings. Aboard the craft, little more then dark shapes now, the strange invaders cheered and clapped each other on the back.

They were pleased, Rangi thought, pleased to have partly destroyed his home. Why? What manner of monster were they? Did they not have homes or families of their own? At the thought of family, fear gripped his heart. His mother and father and siblings-of-previous-clutches – would they be all right?

“Rewi,” he whispered, ears still ringing in the aftermath of the boom, “what about our family?”

Rewi merely shook her head. “No,” she whispered, “no, no…” It took him a moment to realise she was not answering him, but speaking instead to the invaders, and turned his attention back to them. Smaller crafts were being lowered onto the water, and the supple creatures sprang down into them, wicked looking fishing spears were tossed down, blades glinting in the once-friendly sun.

Slowly but surely, and then more swiftly, the invaders steered their crafts towards the wounded village.

“They’re going to kill them,” Rewi exclaimed, ducking beneath the water, and starting to stroke strongly towards the shore.

“No!” Rangi shrieked, “you’ll get yourself killed.” But she was below earshot and, despair rising in his heart, he followed her.

The two of them raced the boats, their strong flippers propelling them forwards. Rewi was cutting straight for the shore – a path that lead her frighteningly close to the enemy and the moment she broke the surface for air, a shout rang out. With a bang and a flash of light something fast and hard struck the water behind her, as she dove deep. More followed, small balls, harder then rock, peppered the water, sinking forever. Rangi dreaded being struck by one. His lungs struggled, fit to burst, he must break the surface, or drown.

He surfaced, gasping in air in one great breath and diving again in the same motion. But the enemy were quicker and another shot ran out, bringing with it an explosion of pain in his lower spine. Luckily it was a glancing blow, turning the water red but striking nothing vital. Ignoring the pain as best he could, Rangi struck out for shore.

The two tawaki made it ashore only mere minutes before the invaders, hopping amongst the rocks and ducking behind the low stone retaining wall amongst a flurry of the pellets. The village beyond was a flurry of activity, frenzied, disorganized activity. Pillars of smoke rose from several of the huts, filling the air with noxious fumes. Several tawaki were attempting to douse them, whilst others rushed around, dragging their chicks away or staring in open-beaked amazement at the invading beasts.

In one glance Rangi saw it was hopeless. The gentle, peaceful tawaki did not stand a chance.

“Rewi,” he urged, “get all the chicklings and injured up into the trees, up into the pohutakawas. They should be safe there.”

“But what about you?” She fidgeted nervously from foot to foot. “You’re hurt and bleeding everywhere.”

“It’s only a scratch,” he said. “We have to fight back, Rewi, or they’ll be on us like gulls to a carcass.”

She nodded quickly, hugging him briefly with her flippers and ran into the village, barking orders. She would be fine, Rangi thought with a brief flicker of a smile. She might be young, but she had a loud voice. If she spoke with reason, they would listen. But for now he had other matters to attend to. As long as the tawaki stayed in the village they were easy prey to those nasty flying stones. Wincing with pain, Rangi waddled with as much speed as he could manage, towards the nearest domed hut. The first of the invaders were jumping ashore, leaping from their boats.

“Don’t let them get ashore!” he barked. “Pelt them with spears, stones, anything! Our lives depend on it!”

And they listened – listened to the instruction of a mere youngster. They were confused, frightened, and his was the voice of reason.

Well, some listened, grabbing up rocks in their flippers, flinging them with all their might. They were the first to die. Others fled, panicky, disorganized, seeking shelter in their huts or darting into the forest. A few made it into the water, diving deep, swimming away from the slaughter and towards the many secret coves and caves.

And a slaughter it was, although both sides suffered their losses. The brave tawaki that stood strong took with them a number of the furred intruders, sending them tumbling into the churning waters, waters that swiftly ran red. But it was not enough, the villagers humble, makeshift weapons were no competition to the rods of the enemy. Rods that fired small, hard lumps at immense speed. Many fell, blood pooling between the stones.

“Fall back,” Rangi shrieked, his heart tearing at the screams of his family, his friends. Guilt clawed at him. It was his fault they stood and fought, he must be the last to retreat. Crouching behind the retaining wall he hurled rock after rock, his arm throbbing from the effort. If only… if only his people could survive, he would make a device that would fling rocks for him. Many rocks. At great speed. He could only hope his sister had listened, had lead away the youngsters.

Rangi reached down, scooping up another rock. Stood up in preparation to throw. And froze. One of the beasts crouched on the retaining wall before him. In its forelegs it held not one of those rods, but a very long knife. Up close it was like nothing he had seen before. Certainly not a bird. Long and lean, its eyes glinted golden-green, and white teeth glistened from a stubby and furry “beak”. He had little time to make further observation for at that moment it slashed at him, and he sprang back, pain erupting as he jarred his injury. He was quite surprised to find the rock still in his flipper. Hefting it, he flung it in the creature’s face. It struck with a terrible cracking sound and the beast crumpled to the ground, its long knife crashing to the stones. It did not move.

Crouching, Rangi retrieved the knife. It was hard to hold – made for grasping paws more then his ill-designed flipper, but the blade was different from any he had seen before. The tawaki carved their implements from wood and rock. He slashed clumsily as another of the furred invaders charged him, barely managing to block its blade. The blow tore the weapon from his flipper and it tumbled to the ground once more. His new opponent grinned, teeth glistening with blood. Blood stained its chin and chest. It hissed and slashed again. Rangi tried to jump back, but found himself backed up against one of the dens.

He ducked, the blade trimming his crest. Lowering his head he charged the intruder, large broad head striking its narrow chest. Catching it off-balance, he sent it stumbling backwards, wherein it tripped over its falling companion and struck its head on the retaining wall. To avoid it getting up, Rangi struck it with a rock. Blood, this time its own, trickled from between its jaws.

Risking a glance about, it become increasingly apparent that he was the only tawaki left standing. The others either lay broken and bleeding or had fled into the forest. In the little village, a place that had known nothing but peace, little riverlets of blood drained through the stones and trickled into the fiord.

Scooping up the long knives, Rangi hobbled into the forest.

The survivors had gathered beneath the pohutakawa, heavy with its load of beautiful red flowers. A few tiny titipounamu darted about the branches, grasping struggling insects in their delicate beaks, “tsitting” merrily to one another, oblivious to the massacre their neighbours had suffered. Beneath the boughs the tawaki huddled, some of the females cradling eggs to their chests. One female looked up at Rangi tearfully, her flippers lovingly cradling a cracked egg, blood-stained yolk trickling down to mat amongst her feathers.

“Why?” She asked.

But Rangi had no answer.