Gritting his teeth, Aerrow winced as the Condor abruptly twisted around him, distorting and warping in a sudden flare of amethyst. Outside the cracked windshield, Terra Rex vanished, a heavily forested landmass instead appearing in its place.
"What in the atmos?" Shocked, the Sky Knight ran his eyes over the unfamiliar area. Thick, marshy forest dominated the terra, dotted by a few large, green lakes and broken, jagged mountains in the distance. On the horizon, he could see a nearby landmass jutting through the clouds. Quickly, Aerrow rethought his plan. If he could not pull the ship out of its death-spiral, he could at least minimize the damage. He clenched his jaw and yanked the helm, now aiming the carrier's nose toward the largest and – he hoped – deepest lake on the terra. While far from perfect, it was nonetheless better than crashing into the wastelands or cratering into a mountain.
"Well, let's hope this works." Aerrow squeezed his eyes closed moments before the ship impacted the water. The ship jolted hard, smashing into the murky lake with a shock so jarring that Aerrow wondered for a moment if he had missed the water entirely. 'Well, I'm still breathing. That's something anyway.' Thrown violently in the crash, Aerrow hit the navigation panel and crumpled to the deck. 'Grrnnn, but not much.' The squadron leader groaned and painfully tried to push himself up, only to collapse again as an excruciating pain flared in his right shoulder, knocking him back to the floor and robbing him of breath.
Forcefully shoving the pain away, Aerrow shakily struggled to his knees. His emerald eyes widened in horror and he ducked as the Condor's entire sunroof tore loose from its frame. Scrambling, Aerrow crouched beside the mission table as the roof hatch came crashing down beneath the weight of the water and stress from the crash. Bits of glass rained down with the cascade of lake water gushing through the large hole.
"Come on, Aerrow. Move!" the Sky Knight gritted out and staggered over to where he could see Stork lying still in the dark, swirling water. His injured shoulder throbbed agonizingly with every movement. He refused to look at it. If he didn't look, then he could ignore the obvious injury. His heart aching, Aerrow bent and scooped the Merb's head from the water with his good arm, relief flooding his frame when he saw the pilot's chest still rhythmically rising and falling.
"Now to get us out of here." Carefully pinning his helmsman's head against his left shoulder and clamping his hand over his nose and mouth so the Merb wouldn't drown, Aerrow fought his way through the cascade of water thundering into the command deck, hauling Stork after him, his injured arm hanging uselessly by his side. The Condor was already underwater, the heavy drag of the lake overhead quickly pulling it down. Kicking with his legs, Aerrow pushed through the shattered windshield and tried to break free of the sinking ship's suction. The foundering carrier drew him back down, and he couldn't make any headway. 'This would be really hard even without my damaged shoulder and unconscious pilot. With those two things, it's impossible!'
'Plan B. Gotta come up with a Plan B.' Retreating back into the Condor, Aerrow squeezed them both back through the hole and bobbed up against the ceiling. A slowly diminishing bubble of oxygen was still trapped here, and he gasped for breath, struggling to keep the helmsman's head also above water. 'Actually Plan B ran out back on Terra Rex. I need a Plan E by now.'
Desperately, Aerrow cast his eyes about for an escape. Bits and pieces of flotsam were now floating about on the bridge, and Aerrow's eye caught on one of Stork's wooden emergency boxes. A stylized sketch of a strato-elf was emblazoned on its top. Frantically, Aerrow snagged the crate and, with effort, pried the lid off. The breathing helmets that the Merb made when the Storm Hawks launched into the stratosphere after Ravess were inside. He managed to grab one, but was unable put it on himself or on Stork without dropping the Merb. He tried to prop his helmsman on top of the crate, but it filled with water and sank. His shoulder really, really, REALLY hurt. He screamed in pain and frustration.
"Okay, okay. Something else . . .. But what?" Aerrow gasped wearily. He was tiring quickly from the effort it took to keep them both afloat, as well as the scorching pain in his shoulder. With consternation, he noted that the air bubble was almost gone. A cinch strap used to hold Stork's emergency preparedness kits in place floated by in the frothing water and a sudden thought struck the Sky Knight. He snagged the strap from the swirling water with his teeth and, drawing in a deep breath, covered Stork's nose and mouth again and allowed the black water to pull them under.
Aerrow and Stork sank to the floor in a tangle of ligan. Struggling to the control dash, Aerrow looped one end of the cinch strap on one of the pilot's custom-made levers then kicked back to the center of the bridge. With a quick prayer, Aerrow yanked the improvised pull cord, grunting in grim satisfaction when he felt – more than heard – the Condor's trick springboard floor cock back with a heavy click. 'Well, here goes everything.'
Stork's booby-trap paused ever so slightly, then suddenly sprung upward, launching the Sky Knight and carrier pilot up through the swirling, dark water, up through the damaged sunroof, and out of the murky lake entirely. Aerrow unwrapped his fingers from Stork's mouth and nose when he felt them break through the surface of the lake and sucked in a grateful breath. As Aerrow soared into the air, a belated thought struck his mind. With Stork clamped in one arm and the other useless, the Sky Knight couldn't deploy his glider wings to ease their passage. 'Okay, this landing is not going to be good.'
Aerrow and Stork plunged back to the terra, hitting and snapping through a canopy of thick branches and vines on the way down. The now-forgotten breathing apparatus and other jetsam snagged in the boughs. An agonizing pain flared through the Sky Knight's injured shoulder as they hit the ground and, with a moan, Aerrow passed out on top of his pilot.
"This is so not cool." Hanging upside down from high in a gnarled tree, Finn twisted around and tried to free himself. A brisk gust snapped him around again, its chill sneaking under his collar and sending shivers up his spine. Large, crenelated leaves rustled around him. The sky overhead looked weird – the clouds drooping in ropy pouches that hung from the bottom of an ominous anvil cloud. Stork would know the specific name for that particular form of doom hanging over him, but Finn only hoped that the impending storm would hold off until he could manage his way out of the tree. The Storm Hawk sharpshooter's ankle was caught in his crashed skimmer's wing joint, and while it wasn't painful, it sure was stuck good. "I've . . . got to . . . get . . . free!" Finn squirmed again, stopping when his gaze fell on the ground. It was a lot farther down than he had realized. "Oh man, why do these things always happen to me?"
The wind suddenly gusted again. With a sickening lurch, Finn's skimmer slid a short distance down the contorted branch that it was precariously balanced on, snapping twigs and shredding the bark. The wingman caught his breath and froze. "Dude, if that thing falls . . .." Slowly Finn pulled himself up and gingerly worked on freeing his foot. With effort, he managed to unstick himself. The skimmer gave another stomach-turning jolt and the entire branch snapped, sending the heavy skyride plummeting toward the ground. Shrieking as he also fell, Finn smacked squarely into another thick branch. His eyes crossed and the air blasted from his lungs in a strangled squeak. Below him, the skimmer cratered into the forest floor, erupting into a raging fireball as the fuel crystals breached their containment.
"Well, that wasn't too bad." Finn caught his breath and, pleased with himself, scrabbled down the branch, clutching at the knobby tree trunk for support. A faint acrid smell caught his attention and he looked down.
"Aargh!" The tree was on fire! With a yell, Finn scrambled down the length of the trunk, then leapt over the flames to the ground. Patting himself all over to make sure he really was okay, Finn breathed out a sigh of relief. Aside from a few scratches and bruises, he was still in one piece. "Yes, I am awesome!" Finn looked around. With a start, the marksman realized he no longer possessed his weapon. He must have dropped the energy crossbow during the crash.
"Uh, hello? Anyone?" Finn hesitated, then amended, "oh, wait. No, not just anyone . . . Storm Hawks only need apply."
Finn paused, listening to the steady buzz of insects and rustling of life. When no one answered, his bravado leaked away and his heart dropped, his joy short-lived. Not only was his skimmer nothing more than a smoking wreck, but he was all alone – and he had no idea where the others were. And he had no idea where he was. He had regrouped around Aerrow as the Sky Knight dived after Stork, and he recalled getting sucked in Dark Ace's warp rift, caught in the Condor's wake, but . . .. "But where am I?"
"First things first." Hastily scooping dirt over the fire to extinguish it, Finn carefully patted out the flames. "Don't want to burn down the forest – because I'm here. Wherever here is, as it certainly isn't Terra Rex anymore." Finn wiped the soot from his hands. "Besides, a smoke signal to the Cyclonians pointing me out is definitely not cool."
"Well, time to get going." The Storm Hawk briefly eyed his smoldering skyride, then left it at the base of the twisted tree. With a final glance at the suffocating globular blanket of clouds overhead, Finn picked his way through the swamp. Though he didn't know where the others were, he had seen the Condor go down. If anywhere, that's where the others would be. He hoped.
"Grrrr! Oh for . . .!" Finn shoved another tangle of branches away from his face, stumbling as his foot sank in a patch of greenish-brown, sticky mud. "Ewww, now that's just wrong!" It was taking a lot longer than he expected to traverse the swampy forest, and he was getting frustrated. The spiky-haired sharpshooter pushed at another moss-draped branch hanging in his face – disgusted when it turned out not to be a branch at all, but a worm-like snake instead. Shuddering, Finn wiped his hands on his pants. A wide, murky lake lay sprawled before him, shore thick with cattails and rushes. Finn breathed a sigh, relieved to be free of the suffocating forest, and stepped from the trees.
"That's what I said," Dark Ace snapped into his communicator. "I want a full Talon squadron posted guard at the crash site 24/7 until all the Storm Hawks are captured . . .. And I don't care how many we lose to the swamp in the process!"
Startled to see the Cyclonian commander here, Finn immediately dropped to the ground, pressing down into the mire and hiding from the Talons. The crimson-eyed warrior whipped around at the noise, but seeing nothing, turned back toward the lake.
"Why bother with capturing 'em?" Snipe laughed, giving his cohort a heavy poke in the ribs. The musclebound Cyclonian drew his crystal energy mace and smashed it into his other palm, a wide animalistic grin spreading on his face. "Let's smush them."
Finn's bright blue eyes widened when he saw Aerrow and Stork, unconscious and tangled together at the Cyclonians' feet – at least he hoped they were unconscious and not dead. His face twisted in anger. He almost rose, but caught himself in time, fists clenched in the mud.
"Believe me, I would like nothing more." Dark Ace sneered, and kicked the fallen forms. He'd much rather finish Aerrow now, but while Master Cyclonis particularly wanted Stork, she also wanted all the Storm Hawks alive. He kicked at Aerrow again and laughed. "Fortunately, Master Cyclonis said nothing about bringing them in whole."
"Oh man, oh man, oh man," Finn murmured beneath his breath. "This is so not good!" He anxiously bit his lip, wondering what to do. Piper was always the one with a plan! A surge of panic buzzed through his stomach and Finn suppressed the urge to run around, screaming, with his hands in the air. He gulped. His blind panic ebbed slightly, the sudden realization that he was the one who had to come up with the plan this time hitting him like a speeding freight carrier. "Responsibility really stinks." Remembering a ploy that he and Junko had employed during an earlier mission, the spiky-haired sharpshooter swallowed hard, scooped up a handful of mud, and squirmed closer.
Without further thought, Finn scrambled on all fours to Dark Ace's parked skyride. With a yell, he let the mudball fly, smirking as the gunky stuff splattered in the crimson-eyed warrior's face. Laughing, he leaped onto the heavily-armored skimmer, cocked back the wing release and kicked up the throttle all the way. Finn blasted off, flying just barely over the treeline and zigzagging in the high winds. "Sweet!"
"Snipe, gather up those two Storm Hawks! I will be right back – after I smear that annoying marksman into submission." Furious, Dark Ace dashed the mud from his eyes and leapt onto Snipe's heli-blade. Snarling, the enemy commander zoomed after Finn.
A cocky grin split his face as Finn careened over the treeline, branches and leaves whipping at his boots. He spared a glance over his shoulder, pleased – and more than just a bit alarmed – to see Dark Ace speeding after him. He was a little disappointed that Snipe wasn't riding with the jerk, but he wasn't surprised. Finn shrugged. He'd just have to take care of one thing at a time. Ripping a strap from his armor, the marksman tied the throttle down, bumped the steering a degree upward, and rolled off the skimmer. He crashed down through the trees, grinning up as he saw Dark Ace flash by overhead.
"Excellent! Finn, you are the man! This plan-making thing isn't as hard as it looks." Finn chuckled, brushing the twigs out of his hair. The Storm Hawks' wingman knew that while it wouldn't take Dark Ace long to realize that he had bailed, it would – with luck – buy him enough time. The Cyclonian commander's skyride was much faster than Snipe's heli-blade, though without a pilot it wouldn't be long before it crashed. Finn just hoped it would stay airborne long enough to give him a decent head start.
Sprinting back through the mucky forest, Finn made his way back to where his companions had fallen. Between bouts of strong wind, clouds of tiny biting insects swarmed around him. "Man, I could really use some of Stork's bug repellent right about now."
"Now that's just creepy." Snipe's lip curled in disgust, a massive shudder rocking his frame. He paced a circle around the fallen Storm Hawks. Snipe reached out a hand to grasp the young Sky Knight, but quickly drew it back. The Cyclonian warily eyed Aerrow's misshapen shoulder, but he couldn't even force himself to look at the blood pooling around the Storm Hawk pilot. He tried again. "Aw, forget it!" Giving up, Snipe stopped and crossed his arms. "Dark Ace will just have to do it himself."
Panting from his long run, Finn crept up behind the bruiser while he was distracted. The marksman casually slipped up next to Snipe, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hi there tall, dark and gruesome." Grinning, Finn waved good-bye and yanked the Cyclonian's emergency ripcord. "Bon voyage!"
"Whaaaaa!" Snipe yelled as the wind caught in his parachute and tore him from his feet. The wind quickly bore him across the lake.
"Good job, Finn," Finn congratulated himself. "Why, thank you Finn. That trick with the parachute was rather clever, if I do say so myself." Now to get his companions out of there before Dark Ace returned. "And boy will he be ticked when he does."
His heart sinking, Finn pulled his gaze away from Snipe disappearing across the lake and dashed over to his fallen companions. Stork had a nasty gash on his head, blood still oozing from the wound, and Aerrow was sprawled on top of the helmsman, his shoulder a deformed lump. Suddenly lightheaded, Finn put a hand to his brow, then fell to his knees next to his companions. Panic rose in his gut. He didn't know what to do. He even knew basic first aid – but even Piper's first aid drills weren't sufficient for serious injury – and this looked serious. Finn grunted. Most first aid was nothing more than bandaging up the wounded to stabilize them and getting them to a doctor – which was impossible here.
"Come on, Finn. Ya gotta get it together." They at least had to get away from this spot if nothing else. Finn carefully checked his teammates' pulses – weak, but steady – and gingerly dragged the Sky Knight off of Stork.
". . . here? . . . still here? . . . not? . . ." The carrier pilot's pale yellow eyes fluttered open and he groaned. "Grnnnn. What happened? the Condor run over me?"
Concern clouding his bright blue eyes, Finn helped Stork as the Merb struggled to rise. Worry turned to fear when the pilot staggered back to his knees as his stomach suddenly rebelled.
"Um, yeah Stork, I'm afraid so," Finn said, worry coloring his voice. The carrier pilot's normally green skin had turned a pallid shade of grey and he was shaking uncontrollably. Finn moved up behind Stork to put a gentle hand on his back.
Sensing the movement even through the pain and nausea, Stork yelped. Spinning around, the helmsman leapt to his feet and defensively hid behind his arms. The quick movement made him dizzy again and the Merb pilot staggered. "What happened? Where's the Condor? What, . . . where? No, no, no . . .. Where. Are. We? Wha . . . wha? No! WHERE. AM. I!" Confused, Stork dragged in a ragged gasp, his breath catching in his lungs. The last he knew, he was on the Condor over Terra Rex. This place looked like . . . looked like . . .. Stork clutched his head in panic, wheezing and struggling to clear the horror from his mind.
"Um, dude, I really hate to interrupt your panic, but . . .." Finn took a deep, steadying breath. "Look, Stork, I don't know where we are or where the Condor is. But I do know that Aerrow needs help, and that Dark Ace . . . and possibly Snipe . . . will be back very soon." Finn peered into the carrier pilot's face, ensuring the Merb's undivided attention. "And I'm pretty sure we don't want to be here when that happens."
Eye twitching, Stork struggled to subdue his terror. Giving Finn the evil-eye, Stork rasped in another breath and shakily moved over to the fallen Sky Knight. He hesitated, warring with the dread choking him, then knelt beside him.
"Well, the joint doesn't seem to be broken," Stork murmured tremulously as he gently probed the injury. "Though Aerrow's shoulder is definitely dislocated. Unless we snap it back in joint before the muscle spasms lock it out of place, we're going to have a cataclysmic problem on our hands."
"We? Oh, come on, man." Finn paled and raised his hands, backing away. "Not cool. Are you sure that we have to?" In his heart, he knew that the helmsman was likely right – after all, it had been Stork who had developed the antidote for him when Cyclonis' canister turned him into a raging, hyperactive were-monster, not to mention that the Merb was rather fond of his books on doom and destruction. The blonde human offhandedly wondered if Aerrow's injury had been in the book the pilot was reading earlier. Finn swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. The thought of having to do that made him ill. "But what if I mess up and make it worse?"
"Make what worse?" Stork's pale yellow eyes seemed oddly out of focus. "What happened?"
Finn stared at the Merb. "Uh, Aerrow's shoulder? Dislocated . . . remember?"
Stork squeezed his eyes closed a moment, then forced them back open. "Right. Okay Finn, you need to support Aerrow's upper body against yourself, then place one hand behind his shoulder and the other on top, like so."
"Like this?" Finn struggled to get himself and Aerrow positioned like the carrier pilot showed him. After a few tries, the sharpshooter had his leader secure. He looked up at Stork to find the Merb's unfocused eyes staring off to the side. "Stork, over here."
"What? Oh, right. Just be ready. I can most definitely say that we really want to do this before Aerrow wakes." Rolling his eyes, Stork shakily rolled Aerrow onto position, and, kneeling, straddled the Sky Knight. He carefully grasped his leader's upper arm with tremoring fingers. "Just place your hands steady on his shoulder, and when I tell you to, push."
"Oh man, oh man, oh man," Finn muttered nervously, shifting his hands slightly, but did as he was told.
"Now." Stork pulled Aerrow's arm hard, forcing the joint back into the socket with a loud, cringe-worthy crunch.
Eyes wide, Finn suddenly paled. His breath came rapid and shallow, and his vision darkened around the edges.
"Don't you dare!" Stork growled at the marksman. He needed the rash sharpshooter awake and able – if Finn fainted, there was no way he'd be able to get both Finn and Aerrow out of there before Dark Ace returned. His voice lowered threateningly. "You faint and so help me I'll feed you to the first bog howler we encounter."
Nodding, Finn gulped and forced himself to take a couple of slow, deep breaths.
The carrier pilot smiled grimly, pleased that Finn actually did as he was told. The helmsman put a shaky hand to his temple. His fingers came away bloody. He was feeling ill again, and his pounding headache made it hard to think. Anxiety squeezed at his chest. "What happened? Why are we here?"
"Come on, Stork, don't zone out on me now!" Finn called forcefully. He was starting to panic at the Merb's alternating fear and confusion. Was that normal for a head injury? "What do we do next?"
Wearily, Stork slipped off of Aerrow, sinking to the ground next to his leader. Dully, he untangled the strap dangling from the Sky Knight's fingers. "Finn, take this and bind Aerrow's damaged arm . . . tightly . . . to his body."
Finn opened his mouth to complain, but a glance at Stork's pained and drawn features silenced the protest. He felt really bad for Stork and Aerrow right now, and he worried about their missing teammates. Curtly nodding, the blonde-haired sharpshooter did as told. "You've been working out again, haven't you, Aerrow? You're awfully heavy."
Stork watched Finn struggle with Aerrow's dead weight, then allowed his eyes to slip closed. His ears twitched, the two small silver rings in his left ear vibrating ever so slightly, and with effort he forced his eyes back open. The Merb looked up, eyes scanning the horizon. The steady thrum of helicycle blades, mingling with the wind in the trees and a few rain drops, oozed into Stork's consciousness and he dropped his gaze back to Finn.
"Oh, good. You fixed Aerrow's dislocated shoulder. I didn't know that you knew how to do that. You should have told me. I could have helped." Confusion creased the pilot's brow, warring with his growing fear. "But if you're done, we should go. Something's coming."
"Just what we need, Stork's brains scrambled." The wingman uneasily watched Stork's confusion slowly retreat as terror shaded his eyes. "Come on. We'd better get out of here. It's probably Dark Ace . . . and he won't be amused." Silently, Finn grasped Aerrow's ankles and began dragging their injured leader back into the shaded forest.
"Foolish human," Stork murmured quiet enough that Finn couldn't hear the observation. He watched the wingman a moment, his mind and body aching with abiding pain – both physical and otherwise. Taking a deep breath, he gingerly lifted the unconscious Sky Knight and disappeared into the foliage, leaving Finn to trail behind.