The cloud of starlings engulfed the airship. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands in the murmuration, darting through space, swooping and diving through the air, but they had not expected to meet such a large object in their path.
The three humans instinctively ducked and wrapped their arms around their heads. A cacophony filled their ears.
The wings were disturbing somehow as they brushed their hair and limbs. The eerie feeling of feathers whispered against them, sometimes augmented by the thump of small bodies as the birds misjudged the path.
The worst had to be the beaks. The tiny little beaks were pointy and hard. One seldom gave thought to the fate of the caterpillars and moths who met their grisly end between the starling's mandibles, but it must indeed be gruesome, Helen couldn't help thinking.
She attempted to make her way toward where she thought her father had been sitting. Her progress remained slow. It proved difficult to know for certain what direction she was heading.
"Papa!" she cried.
No sound came but the cacophony of the starlings. Helen continued with determination, one arm over her eyes to protect them, the other outstretched, feeling for something solid.
The horrible racket! Helen recalled watching the black pools of starlings pulsing overhead as she stared up from the moors as a child. They were rare inland, usually only seen in the warmest months. Helen had never imagined being in the centre of that maelstrom.
She took another step and thought she had just heard a promising sound through the unceasing din. Moving carefully she thrust her hand into the storm.
From everywhere, tiny beaks and feet scratched her skin and feathers ruffled against her clothes. There was something unsettling about it. Unintentionally Helen began to dredge up from her memory some lines about a starling.
Who had written the lines? A German composer, she seemed to recall. Was it Mozart perhaps?
Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar…
As she staggered through the cloudy cacophony, Helen tried to remember how the rest of the poem went. Snatches of words bubbled up as she fought her way across the gondola, rhyming pairs but not their context. Todes bitter Schmerz, which she was quite certain rhymed with Herz but there was not much more welling up from the memory banks now.
Her distracting ruminations gave way when she caught a shouted and incoherent phrase that had to be her father's voice. "Papa!" she cried once more, struggling forward further.
All at once a hand gripped hers and pulled her toward him. Father and daughter embraced with relief.
"These devil birds will put us all in our graves!" He shouted even though their heads were very close together.
"They don't mean to do it, Papa. We're the interlopers here in the sky."
"Damnation! You didn't warn me there'd be such perilous effects."
Helen winced from a particularly sharp beak blow to her head. "Honestly, Papa, I had not anticipated this sort of quandary."
"You should have planned better," his voice rasped in her ear as he flailed one arm helpless against the horde.
"Papa, the odds of this kind of happening were miniscule—"
"So you did calculate the risks?"
Helen sighed and tried to ascertain whether it was just hope or if the sound of the murmuration were beginning to lessen. "At least now we have a new problem to solve based on actual experience."
"The problem could be solved by staying out of the sky!" her father barked.
She ignored him. "Listen! I think the worst of the flock has begun to pass."
The racket assaulting their ears continued, but it did seem to be growing somewhat less. Helen lifted her head from her father's chest and made a quick reconnoiter of the gondola. The swift black shapes continued to flit through, but it had become possible to see individual birds rather than just the black mass of bodies. A few unfortunates lay on the floor of the gondola. She hoped some of them were merely stunned from having run into the sides and the equipment.
Helen cocked her head anxiously, but the engine continued to hum on with blissful regularity. She sighed. That was a relief. But another though occurred that had her glancing quickly around the ship.