Truth or Dare
Stork winced as a thick, viscous glob of goo sailed over his head and hit the Condor's windshield with a sickening splat. It slowly slid, smearing a glistening virescent trail down the length of the glass. "Aaaand . . . so it begins."
"Ooops, sorry!" Junko shrugged sheepishly, an apologetic grin on his face. The Wallop snagged a wrench in his left hand and tried to pry Radarr out of the sludge oozing down the windshield.
The green-skinned helmsman's fingers tightened on the thickly-bound book in his hands and he gritted his teeth, intent on ignoring the goo dripping onto the ship's navigation panel – the aftermath of Piper's lame dare to Junko involving her slimer crystal and a left-handed spanner. Even though the viscous slime was bound to cook into a noxious sheen coating the navigational array – if the pungent smoke wafting from the console was any indication – he was determined not to get involved. Cleaning up after someone else's Dare only encouraged them. Stork nervously let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He just wished he had a good reason to excuse himself from the game. He'd rather be working on the Condor's systems – but there was nothing left to fix . . .. Actually, the carrier was currently in wonderful shape, as he had been evading the others by spending an inordinate amount of time repairing the ship – pretty much whenever he wasn't actively at the helm.
Stork twitched, fighting a sudden surge of anxiety. Involuntarily, his eyes darted to Aerrow, who was leaning casually against the bridge railing. Since saving the rest of the squadron from being changed like Dark Ace, he'd felt uneasy around the rest of the team – especially the Storm Hawks' Sky Knight.
With a pop, a rip, and a screech, Radarr detached from the windshield. Stork ducked as the small copilot flew overhead, leaving a patch of light blue fur stuck to the window.
"Don't worry, Radarr. I've got you!" Both Aerrow and Radarr went down in a tangle of arms, legs, and tail – and taking most of the Storm Hawks down with them. His teammates knocked against one of the Condor's steam-work pipes before collapsing to the deck. With a shrill whistle, a thin, white puff burst from the bent pipe.
"Got it!" Junko yelled. The Wallop easily straightened the pipe. A chorus of laughs and giggles erupted across the bridge as everyone untangled themselves.
"Don't we endure enough terror, destruction, and ruin without actively inviting it?" Eye twitching, Stork dampened his finger and turned another page of 1001 Terrible Inflictions and the Hopeless Means of Fighting Them without actually reading the entry on parasitical-marrow-rot-blight. The Merb pressed two fingers to his temple, suppressing the low buzz of anxiety that haunted him ever since he had faced Master Cyclonis in the Cyclonian empress' lathestone-induced nightmare. The whole parasomnia ordeal had reopened old wounds and stranded certain memories too close to the surface of his mind. Past memories best left there – in the past.
"Come on, Stork, it's our turn!" Finn jumped up. His clenched fists vibrated near his face with barely contained enthusiasm. "Gimme your best shot!"
'Finn's been angling to get paired up with Stork's challenge for the entire game.' Watching his wingman, Aerrow shook his head, a wry smile touching the corner of his mouth. Not only was playing Truth or Dare fun, but it made for excellent team training. The Sky Knight sighed. 'And boy, it's needed now more than ever.' Aerrow thoughtfully pursed his lips, his bright green eyes running over his squad. Perhaps his helmsman's obsessive repairs to the ship was a good thing. He didn't know why, but it seemed that the Condor had been the Cyclonians' center target, unlike normal when he drew most of the enemy fire. For the last few weeks, they had been literally hounded by the Talons.
That in addition to the fact that Cyclonis' minions were also outdoing themselves wreaking mayhem all over the atmos. Aerrow's eye fell on the tactical map spread on the mission table, brightly-colored flags marking each spot where something had been hit. 'Somehow they've managed to steal countless of Atmos' landmarks without a trace. The crystal processing plant from Terra Nord, the Sky Knight council building from Terra Atmosia, the entire Wayside . . .!'
Piper caught the squad leader's glance and raised her eyebrows, pointedly rolling up the map that was sitting on the round mission table. She shook her head. He'd promised not to worry about the Cyclonians during their game night – they all needed the break.
Aerrow flashed the crystal specialist an apologetic smile – which abruptly faded again as his gaze fell on Stork. The Merb helmsman was shaking, the book in his hands trembling with his efforts to maintain a casual mien. Aerrow grunted, a frown tugging his lips. Stork was nothing like the other Merbs they'd met. If anything, the perpetually nervous pilot was a polar opposite from the young Sky Scouts and the Merb who had transported them to and from the Condor. Eyes narrowing in concern, Aerrow crossed his arms, his frown deepening. The only time the carrier pilot seemed to be back to normal – if what Stork was could even be classified as normal – was when he was at the helm.
Unaware of his leader's scrutiny, Stork cocked an eyebrow at Finn. The spiky-haired marksman was literally bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Hmmm." He pretended to consider, then with a dismissive wave turned back to pretending to read his book. "Not interested."
"Not interested?" Finn's whole demeanor sank, his face a study of disbelief. "How can you not be interested? Stork, Truth or Dare is like your all-time favorite! Okay, so you, like, always choose Truths to minimize the risk of 'meeting an untimely demise' . . . which I might add, is totally lame because you have no secrets for the rest of us to ask about . . .."
Finn paused in his tirade long enough to hop over the back of the couch, landing seated beside Stork with his feet up on the round mission table in his 'Cool Dude' pose. Sure, the Merb pilot was as dull as drying paint – so much so that the rest of the team was hard-pressed to come up with any new questions at all. But that was beside the point. Finn put a hand on Stork's book, pressing it down to ensure the helmsman's undivided attention. ". . . but your Dares are absolute killer, dude!"
Startled, Stork flinched away from Finn, but before he could move from the couch, Junko bunged up on the other side of the helmsman, smashing the green-skinned Merb between the two of them. "Ooooh yeah! Like when you dared us to tape 'I'm with stupid' . . . and 'we're doomed' signs on Ravess' and Snipe's backs! Ha, ha, with arrows." The thickly-built Wallop took a breath to calm his laughter. "And then . . . and then Dark Ace came up between the two and so the arrows were pointing right at him!"
"Oh, yeah! That was great!" The assembled Storm Hawks – sans Stork – burst out laughing at the remembered mayhem. Piper had even brought her camera. The resultant picture was priceless enough to win extra points and the game. The photo was still hanging on Aerrow's wall as a trophy of one of their best game-training nights ever. Of course, leaving a copy of the picture for Master Cyclonis only sweetened the Dare even further.
"So, Stork? Give me a really good Dare. Like last time!" Finn clasped his hands and favored the Merb helmsman with his very best puppy-dog eyes. "Pleeeeease!"
"No. Thank. You." Pale yellow eyes twitching, Stork sucked in a steadying breath and snatched back his book. He un-wedged himself from between Junko and Finn.
'Now that's unexpected.' A thoughtful frown tugged at Aerrow's lips. Despite the marksman's annoying behavior, very few could resist Finn's puppy-dog eyes. And yet Stork did. 'Brushing off Finn like that is like kicking a puppy!' Aerrow watched as Stork nervously backed toward the large glass timepulse globe, his shoulders spasming. Despite the game's ship-wrecking potential, they were playing on the bridge instead of in the hangar bay like normal because the carrier pilot flat-out refused to leave the helm. Not only did their training games provide plenty of opportunity for improving their skills and relieving tension from battling Cylconians; those were just side benefits really, it primarily provided bonding for his squadron family.
'But it's failing.' Aerrow's eye settled on the Merb's face. He was dismayed to see Stork look longingly at the door. 'At least where Stork is concerned.'
Sensing the pilot's immanent flight, Radarr tugged at a lock of Aerrow's spiky red hair and chittered in his ear. Almost subconsciously, the squad leader shifted over to the doorway leading to the rest of the ship, effectively blocking his helmsman's retreat. He wouldn't abandon Stork to face whatever was bothering him alone.
The Merb's eyes locked briefly with his Sky Knight's and he cringed. It maybe wasn't fair that his gut reaction instinctively associated Cyclonis' nightmare-Aerrow with the real one, but life wasn't fair – it was just fairer than death, that's all. A sickening knot of dread clenched his gut and Stork looked away. He anxiously clutched his book to his chest and forced his eyes instead to the Storm Hawks' sharpshooter. "Fine. Finn, I dare you to retrieve a class b, reverse thread Rex Guardian wingnut from the assorted spare parts storage unit in Junko's room."
"What? Where's the fun in that? I want something exciting, challenging, something to get the old blood pumping! Something heroic!" Finn jumped to his feet and struck a grandiose pose. He held the posture a moment, but slowly deflated when nobody said anything. "Go fetch a wingnut from Junko's closet. Sheesh, I had more of a challenge getting the trance helmet replacement parts than this. It's even lamer than Piper's slimer crystal Dare."
"Have you seen Junko's closet?" Piper interjected and tapped a finger on his chest, irritated that Finn criticized her Dare. "Trust me. It's all the danger you can handle."
"Hey!" Junko objected. "My closet isn't that bad . . . uh, usually."
'When it comes to targets, Finn is spot on, but when it comes to people, he often misses the mark.' Aerrow found himself tuning out his team's banter. It hadn't taken many Truth or Dare sessions for the Storm Hawk leader to realize that Stork chose to answer Truths, not because he hadn't any secrets, but because the Merb was so reticent that his teammates really didn't know the right questions to ask. 'It's all too easy to assume, really, that he has no secrets,' Aerrow pondered. 'And if we ever chance to hit upon one, Stork manages to answer without really answering.' Aerrow's eyes narrowed. He remembered Piper asking Stork why he was so nervous all the time. The carrier pilot efficiently sidetracked them all with a question of his own: Wouldn't you be if you had the mental capacity to fully realize how tenuous one's grasp on life really is?
Aerrow shook his head, murmuring to himself. "Man, I just wish I knew the right questions to ask." Sighing, he plucked Radarr from his shoulder and set the lemur-like creature down beside Piper.
"Stork? You know we're here for you, right buddy?" Aerrow moved up beside his pilot. He reached out to place his hand on the Merb's shoulder, but stopped when Stork flinched even before contact. Finn was right about one thing, Truth or Dare was one of Stork's favorites. Usually the Merb was a horror during this game, because the Dares he issued were so suicidal. In fact, the rest of the Storm Hawks even had a running 'dare' of always choosing a Dare from Stork instead of a Truth. Until now, the system really worked. Aerrow expected Stork to have Finn fetch the wingnut from Harrier's personal skyride without the arrogant Rex Guardian knowing and then returning it the same way – or more likely from the Colonel's private racing yacht. "What's wrong?"
Stork fought the sudden surge of panic clenching his chest. A defensive sneer curled Stork's lip. "Is that your Truth?"
Ignoring Finn's indignant 'hey, it's still my turn,' Aerrow held up a hand to silence the sharpshooter. The changes in Stork's demeanor worried him. He could pinpoint when things changed with the helmsman – their last stop on Terra Tropica when the Condor's air conditioning failed – but he could not identify why. 'We all were out of sorts back then . . . heck, I even entertained the notion of a treaty with Cyclonis . . . but of course, we didn't seriously consider it.' Except for his bad dreams – something about a whip that was still somehow disturbing – nothing had happened. The Sky Knight wondered if the night terrors his helmsman experienced while his trance helmet was broken had anything to do with it. Determination and compassion warred in the Sky Knight's emerald eyes.
"If that's how you want to play it. Yes, it is."
Quavering beneath his leader's stern gaze, Stork instinctively hunched his shoulders, hiding behind the black curtain of his hair and struggling with the answer. Involuntarily, his left eye twitched. Perhaps he really should tell his leader of the lathestone attack, but – it was so hard to trust. Stork jittered a step back, pressing his back against the Condor's timepulse globe. Besides, what would be the point? And once his Sky Knight realized that his own dream was ripped straight from his pilot's memories? A bunch of awkward questions, pitying looks, and – in the end – nothing accomplished.
Breathing out a nervous sigh, Stork dismissed Aerrow's question. He already installed filters in the Condor's ventilation system to avoid crystalline contamination again. He'd taken care of the problem, fixed what was broken. It was best to ignore the whole thing and try to move on.
Stork turned back to his book, yelping when an alarm suddenly blared. Lunging for the helm, the green-skinned Merb checked the readout. It showed a massive energy spike off the starboard side. At the same time, a small light on the dash began flashing incessantly – a distress signal. Relief flooded through his frame, washing the anxiety from his gut. "Huh. Saved by impending doom. Go figure."
"Uhh, we've lost the distress signal." Pulling back on the helm, Stork cut the impeller as soon as the frozen peaks of Terra Edmontonia rose into view. Another massive energy spike registered at the same time a flash of amethyst flared along the icy surface of the terra before quickly fading. Frowning, the carrier pilot pulled into a low-fly path over the snowy terrain, muttering to himself and scanning the terra below them. "Um, correction. We've lost the whole research base."
"Grr! Too late again!" Slamming a first on the bridge rail, Aerrow moved to peer out the Condor's windshield. Stork was right – the entire vehicular research center was missing, the ground where it had stood scooped clean of rock and ice alike. He rubbed his stinging fist. "How are they doing this?"
Finn and Junko were already seated at the starboard and port crystal blaster cannons, but they had no targets. Aerrow signaled them to stay ready just in case.
The Storm Hawk leader turned to face his crystal mage. "Piper, can you get a reading? Any way we can track their movements? They've been running circles around us!" The few days' lull in the Talons' thieving streak had been all too brief. If past performance was any indication, the Cyclonians would hit anywhere from two to four more targets, then again fall silent. A determined frown tightened Aerrow's lips. The Storm Hawks were going to catch them before that happened.
"Already on it, Aerrow." Piper clutched her long-range crystal analyzer in one hand and held Stork's peepers to her eyes with the other. "I don't think . . . wait! Here it is!" Excited, Piper tossed the multi-lensed binoculars to Aerrow and checked the dial on her analyzer. "I'm picking up residue from some sort of highly tuned beacon crystal. If I can calibrate the crystalline matrix to resonate with the residual emissions . . .." Piper trailed off, running calculations through her head. A sudden, bright smile lit her face. She tapped in an equation, then briskly stepped over to the helm and showed the analyzer readout to Stork. "I can do better than track them, Aerrow. By tracing the unique energy signature of the targeting crystals we can predict where they will strike next, which will be . . .."
"Terra Aquanos!" Shifting away from Piper, the Merb helmsman gritted his teeth and hit the impeller. The Condor blasted forward, the sudden movement of the ship knocking his teammates from their feet. "Heh, heh. Strap in, everybody." Stork warned belatedly, an evil grin spreading over his face as the carrier jetted through the clouds. "Warning of potential doom due to excessive G-forces."
"Right. Strap in." Finn wryly picked himself up off the deck floor and pulled himself back into the cannon's operator seat. He and Junko had barely pulled in the cannons in time to avoid them being ripped off with the speed. "Give us a little more warning next time, will ya?"
"Hang on!" The craggy, watery terra home to the Neck Deeps squadron rose into view and Stork hit the retro blasters. Movement at the cloudline caught his eye. A squad of Cyclonian fighters orbited the base of the terra once, then vanished in a streak of amethyst, snagging a massive chunk from the terra's support pillar along with them. "The Talons have breached the columnar basalt! We have a 98.7% chance of catastrophic doom pending."
Quaking, the mostly aqueous terra jolted sharply, then slowly listed to one side. A huge crack snaked up from the damaged support, dropping chunks of stone and debris to plummet through the clouds and spilling water into the wastelands. A low tocsin alarm rose from the damaged terra and the entire fleet of resident ships scrambled to launch into the air.
"Stork!" Aerrow shouted and lunged toward the helm, but the carrier pilot had already shoved the Condor toward the falling terra. The green-skinned Merb hit the grapple moor release, snagging a jagged peak with the ship's docking cables in an attempt to slow the terra's plunge. He hit the reverse thrusters and kicked on the impeller, grimacing as the Condor's engine whined under the sudden drag.
"Come on, baby . . .." Panicking, Stork threw back his weight, straining at the helm. The overhead lights on the bridge flickered as the shuddering engine array labored under the load, then overheated. A cascade of steam-work pipes popped all over the bridge. "It's. Not. Enough!"
"Emergency stations, everyone!" Aerrow yelled as the Storm Hawks scrambled to patch the whistling pipes. Junko held the pipes in alignment while Radarr sealed them. "We can do this!"
"Correction – that's now a 100% chance of catastrophic doom!" Grunting at his Sky Knight's words, the carrier pilot nonetheless cut all subsystems, rerouting all available power to the engine block. He wasn't convinced. Beneath their feet, the Condor shuddered again as it quickly and steadily dragged toward a hideous, ship-shattering death in the wastelands. The crack in the terra's basin widened, the stream of leaking water abruptly mutating into a roaring cataract. Clouds of steam billowed up from the wastelands where the water hit the scorching lava, buffeting the Condor with sudden thermal turbulence.
"Glad ta see ye, Storm Hawks. Thanks ta the time ye've bought us, we've got our fleet launched." The deep voice of Tritonn, the Neck-Deeps' Sky Knight, crackled over the com system. "Steady on. We be coming up ta larboard." The squadron's carrier ship, the Skyquod, surged up through the billowing steam, harpooning the rock and lending its engine power to the Condor's. To either side, an entire fleet of deep-sky fishing vessels followed suit. The crack of harpoons locking into stone rang over the tintamar of shattering rock and rushing water. Painfully, Terra Aquanos' terrifying slide to the wastelands slowed, finally stopping altogether before sluggishly reversing direction.
"We need to plug that leak!" Aerrow turned toward Piper and the crystal specialist nodded briskly. She scooped the forgotten slimer crystal from the floor, digging frantically through her pockets.
"On it." Piper triumphantly pulled out a bright red eruption stone and a tallow congealer crystal. The crystal mage swirled the three crystals together, sprinting toward the ship's onboard cannon. With a final tap, the dark-skinned girl stuffed the dully glowing stones into the cannon's crystalline intake. "Finn, nail the crack!"
"Got it!" The blonde-haired sharpshooter leaped back into the seat, swiveling the cannon and bringing its nozzle to bear. He pulled the trigger, and a chartreuse mass of rapidly-expanding gunk erupted from the barrel. Sweeping the fountain of goo over the fissure in the terra, Finn efficiently sealed the breach, a cocky grin on his face. "Chicka-cha!"
"Aaand, there goes the cannon." Stork muttered beneath his breath. The Condor's energy cannon would be unusable until he cleaned the gunk from it. Relieved that the situation was looking somewhat less cataclysmic, the Merb pilot let out a shaky breath. He snagged Piper's long-range crystal analyzer from the floor with one foot. He checked the readout and, verifying that the Neck-Deeps had the situation under control, released the carrier ship's grapple moorings and zoomed off again.
"Whoa! What's up, Stork? The Neck-Deeps might still need our help in disaster cleanup." Junko smashed against the wall, cratering Finn beneath him. The Storm Hawks picked themselves up off the floor again, only to get knocked from their feet when Stork abruptly hit the emergency All-Stop button. The Condor's safety chutes and landing gear deployed, jerking the carrier ship to a halt.
"Ow," holding his head, Aerrow pushed up from the floor. "Huh? Whoa!" His bright green eyes widened. Seen through the windshield, an entire squadron of Talons swooped in for a strafing run over Terra Rex. The Storm Hawk leader's eye caught on a flash of crimson and he sprinted for the skimmer launch deck, scooping up Radarr as he ran past. "We actually made it to a strike-point before the Dark Ace could take it out. Skimmers, now!"
Wincing as Dark Ace blazed across the Condor's nose, Stork retracted the breaking chutes and landing gear, then shoved at the helm and sideswiped the enemy fighters away from the mountainous terra. In the corner of his eye, he saw the rest of the Storm Hawks take to the air.
"Curse it!" Dark Ace scowled, visibly displeased with the sudden appearance of the Storm Hawks. They couldn't afford to miss this objective after the screw-up at Terra Aquanos – they were aiming for an underwater settlement, not the support column. Master Cyclonis wanted cowed terras to rule, not demolished ones. He banked his skimmer hard, trying to dodge around Aerrow.
Aerrow pulled his twin lightning blades and leapt onto the wings of his skyride. But instead of drawing his own sword and meeting the challenge, Dark Ace rolled his Talon Switchblade Elite into another dive for the terra surface.
"What the . . .?" It wasn't like the Dark Ace to refuse to face him. 'He must really be serious about nailing his target.' Grim determination etched itself on Aerrow's face. "That's not gonna happen!"
On the ground, the Rex Guardians tried to scramble and join the battle, but the Talons strafing their landing strip kept them pinned down. At Aerrow's signal, Piper dove down to assist them.
Stork's eyes widened as he surveyed the scene. There were a lot more enemy fighters about than normal. "Yep, we're doomed . . . again."
The sharp staccato of energy strikes beat against the forward plating, and the pilot yanked the helm sharply to the side, smoothly rolling the Condor out of missile range. The horde of Talon skimmers broke off their attack, but a few banked with the move, shadowing the carrier ship. An evil grin sliding onto his face, Stork pushed on the throttle, igniting the Condor's crystalline engines and frying the unfortunate enemy vehicles caught in the blast. A bouquet of Cyclonian parachutes blossomed behind him. "Heh, heh, heh. Tailgating is hazardous to your health."
"Cool move, Stork. Saved me the trouble of smacking them down myself." Rocketing past on his skimmer, Finn flashed the helmsman a complimentary finger-pistol before turning back to the battle. The spiky-haired sharpshooter popped a bolt into the retractable crossbow mounted on his ride and drew a bead on an enemy fighter.
"Bogey at 6 o'clock! Right on Finn's tail." Seeing Snipe's heli-blade suddenly rise behind the wingman, Stork gripped the helm tighter. A sharp knot of anxiety slammed into his gut. It was unusual to have more than one Talon commander overseeing a battle. If Snipe was here as well as Dark Ace, the Storm Hawks really had their work cut out for them. The carrier pilot jabbed the com-link open and tried to warn Finn. But instead of connecting with the Storm Hawks' wingman, only sharp, arrogant violin music echoed through the line. "What? Ravess is here too? What do the Rex Guardians have that brings all three of the top Talon Commanders?"
Off the starboard, Junko rose up behind Snipe. Together the Wallop and the marksman tag-teamed the bruiser of a Cyclonian and harried the small fleet of Talons under his command.
"Not the Rex Guardians, Storm Hawk." Plum colored lips pulled back into a sinister smile. With Dark Ace and her dear brother to mess things up, Ravess was sure that the Storm Hawks would manage to disrupt the mission – and when they did, she would have a peace offering for her master. She wouldn't destroy the Condor; Master Cyclonis' standing orders were to capture the Storm Hawk alive. Ravess loaded her bow. "I'm coming for you."
Pale yellow eyes widening in panic, Stork looked up to see the musical perfectionist bearing straight into the Condor's flight path, a haughty smirk coloring her lips. Her personal violinist flew behind, accompanying the commander and usurping the Storm Hawks' communication lines with tonal discord. Stork briefly struggled with a surge of unpleasant memories, then he wadded up the fear in his gut and shoved it aside. It was only emotion, after all. Anger and determination took its place. At least while fighting, the troubling memories wouldn't bother him. The Merb locked the Condor's onboard blasters onto the Talon violinist jamming the airways. He pulled the trigger, blasting the sucker and sending him and his airway-jamming violin parachuting into the wastelands. The Storm Hawks needed to be able to communicate with each other. He yanked his eyes back to Ravess.
The Cyclonian perfectionist drew back her bow, a trio of obsidian-tipped arrows leveled directly at him. A portion of Stork's mind noted that the ebon stones capping her arrows were not their usual color. "Ohhh crud. This can't be good."
Alarmed, the helmsman shoved the Condor into a nosedive, but the Cyclonian's crystalline arrows still glanced off the carrier, beating a triplet on the ship's hull. A sudden, syncopated, deafening bang heralded a blinding strobe burst of light as Ravess' flashbang stones struck the Storm Hawks' ship. The impact cracked the Condor's windshield and shattered the gauges on the bridge.
"Aaaaah!" Suddenly flash-blind, Stork shook his head. He couldn't hear himself scream. The world had gone silent, save for a high-pitched ringing in his ears. Emitting a silent groan, the green-skinned pilot gritted his teeth, visualizing his last position and bearing. He knew where he was – the only trick was to figure out where everybody else was – and to avoid running down anyone he cared about. Shaking, the Merb pilot leaned on the Condor's baritone horn, blaring out a warning to his teammates that he was coming through. His deafened ears couldn't hear the ship's horn, but he could feel its vibration through the deck underfoot.
Neatly looping around, Aerrow dived in to help Junko out of Snipe's pincer attack. He swung his ride in front of the Cyclonian bruiser, and cut back on the throttle. "Radarr, try and distract Snipe for a minute."
The small copilot chirped in agreement and wildly dug through the storage compartment of his sidecar. He plucked his ever-handy wrench from the dash and chucked it at the huge Cyclonian firing up their tailpipe. The heavy tool smacked Snipe between the eyes, making them cross, and the Cyclonian commander swerved, momentarily out of control.
"Good work, Radarr," Aerrow congratulated his copilot and swept his gaze across the battle. Below him on the airstrip, Piper and the remaining sky-worthy Rex Guardians finally finished off their Talons and headed for the skies. A pleased grin found his lips. They were winning. Aerrow kicked up his speed, turning sharply when a deep horn suddenly sounded. The rest of the Storm Hawks scattered.
"Finally!" Dark Ace gritted, scowling. He pushed his skimmer into a dive, managing to slip past Aerrow while the noble Sky Knight was distracted by his teammates.
"What the . . .!" Snarling as the Storm Hawks' carrier pilot plowed right through his squadron, scattering his minions, the scarlet-eyed warrior fumbled his hold both on his skimmer and on the targeting crystal. He regained control of his ride, looping over the Condor's observation deck to avoid being smacked from the sky. His eye caught on the Merb at the helm, and an evil laugh erupted from his throat. "So, you want to keep me away from Terra Rex? Fine. I'll just send a present to Master Cyclonis instead . . . a nice big one!"
Dark Ace slipped beneath the carrier ship and slapped a pulsing beacon crystal on the hull. He would initialize the warp crystal array, snagging the Storm Hawk to where his empress could do as she pleased with her new toy – soon. He just wanted to wait a moment, to see if he could trap Aerrow as well. He pulled back up beside Ravess and gestured to the musical commander. "Take the fight out of him."
With a smirk, Ravess drew her bow back again, releasing her coda of doom.
"Come on . . . clear up already. I'd like to see the doom I'm heading for." The cacophony of battle slowly oozed back into semi-coherent sounds, and Stork blinked, willing the painful spots dancing before his eyes to clear. His vision slowly sharpened – to show both Ravess and Dark Ace dive-bombing the forward deck. "Uh, never mind."
Ravess' arrows hit the Condor squarely on the forward plating. The already-damaged windshield shattered into a fine webwork of cracks, and steam-work pipes burst all across the bridge. Fighting to maintain control even though he was again deaf and blind, Stork shakily reached for the high speed impeller. The two Cyclonian commanders were right in front of the Condor. He'd ram them out of the sky! With a metallic shriek, a hunk of armor plating suddenly tore free from the Condor. A hot flash of pain flared along Stork's temple as the metal bashed through the already-damaged windshield and blasted him from his feet, smashing him from consciousness.
"Stork? Stork! Pull up!" Seeing the carrier ship list alarmingly to one side, its nose dropping toward the terra, Aerrow flicked the com line open. The violin music was gone, but in its place was nothing but silence from the Condor. Peering through the carrier's shattered windshield, the Sky Knight could see that the Merb was not at the helm. "Storm Hawks! Form up and cover me, Stork's down. I'm going in."
The Storm Hawk leader flashed past Dark Ace and Ravess, disgusted at the Cyclonian commanders' looks of glee, and paced the decent of the plummeting carrier. Leaving control of his skimmer to Radarr, he leapt onto the Condor's observation deck and snagged the metal railing. The Sky Knight wrestled over to the damaged window, struggling against the tearing wind. Careful to avoid the jagged edges, Aerrow heaved himself through the breech in the glass.
"Stork, say something." Aerrow's heart skipped a beat when he saw his helmsman lying on the shuddering deck, a nasty gash on his temple and a crimson pool spreading under his head. Shoving away the urge to check if the pilot was even still alive, the squadron leader lurched over to the console and grabbed the helm. If the ship cratered into Terra Rex, it wouldn't matter whether Stork bled to death or crashed and burned.
"Come on, . . . pull up!" Sweat beading on his forehead, Aerrow yanked the wheel back, attempting to pull the carrier's nose up and ease the ship's fall. Terra Rex rose relentlessly to fill the viewport. "How in the atmos does Stork do this?"
The Sky Knight had never really before realized how strong his helmsman must be in order to manhandle the Condor the way he did. It was as if Stork had a special bond with the Condor to get her where he needed her, and to do what he needed her to do. They were running out of time. Aerrow looked out the window. If he could just find Radarr, he could grab Stork and jump for it. The danger was too great to trust to his glider wings; the wind of the Condor's passing would suck them down with the carrier. Even if they did survive, it would leave them extremely vulnerable during the battle. The Storm Hawk leader scowled as his gaze fell upon Dark Ace pacing the plunging carrier ship on his skimmer, an eager glint in his eye and a vile smirk on his lips.
"See you soon, Aerrow." The crimson-eyed Cyclonian threw a mock salute to the young Sky Knight, then held up a small crystal-studded control box and depressed the button.