Still standing in the Condor's exit port, Stork raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blistering sun and warily peered out across the burning sands. Not too far off, the surging sea raked its fingers across the shoreline, scouring the area clean of debris.
"And remind me again, why are we vacationing on a stiflingly torrid, venomous sand flea infested, sweltering beach while the Condor's climate control is shot?" The Merb helmsman's voice rose in pitch and he nervously clutched at the doorframe. "Unless it is your intention to speed up our agonizing and untimely demise by throwing heatstroke into the mix?"
"Come on, buddy, a break on Terra Tropica is not going to kill you." Aerrow ignored his green-skinned friend's muttered 'wanna bet' and shot his pilot a thousand-watt smile. If anyone needed some relaxation, it was Stork. "Besides, after a little R&R, we'll be recharged enough to fix up the Condor as good as new! Not to mention that it'll be a bit cooler in the ship once the sun has set." The Storm Hawk leader gestured for him to join the others and moved to place a hand on the Merb's shoulder.
"True. But sundown is also when the flesh-burrowing-delirium-beetles become . . . active," Stork muttered darkly, his left eye twitching. His pale yellow eyes quivered and Stork shifted away from Aerrow's grasp. "They lay their eggs in your hair, you know, which hatch and tunnel up your ears. The symptoms aren't easy to miss: dizziness, disorientation, headache, impulsiveness . . ." Stork anxiously shifted his weight and peered past Aerrow's shoulder. He allowed his gaze to settle on Finn and Junko, already changed into their swimming trunks and lobbing tightly packed sand balls at each other. Piper and Radarr were already running into the surf, taking cover to escape the onslaught. "Er . . .." Stork dropped his gaze back to his red-haired leader. "Or it might already be too late for some of us. I'll just keep an eye on the ship, if you don't mind."
Aerrow's good-natured laugh cut Stork short. "Stork, it's not torrid . . . I think the word you were looking for is sultry. I thought you hated cold weather. Besides," Aerrow leaned forward conspiratorially, "if you would join us in the water, you'd cool off in no time."
"And risk being bitten by slimer-eels?" Stork abruptly turned back into the ship and snapped the hatch closed.
Sighing, Aerrow stared at the door. How long had it been since the Merb had joined his team? Since its inception really. And yet, no matter how he tried, he still was unable to push through Stork's personal defenses. Aerrow pondered a moment longer, a frown tugging his lips, then turned to join the guys' game of sandball. After all, what better way to train the ol' battle reflexes?
Stork stopped by the viewport a few steps down the Condor's stifling corridors. The silence of the now-quiet engines was only broken by the occasional ping of settling metal. He peered out the window, watching his teammates at play. A twinge of anxiety . . . and regret . . . wormed into his gut and the Merb rested his forehead against the hot glass. The kindness and friendship the others proffered him still surprised the helmsman, and he did wish that Aerrow had persisted in dragging him out of the ship, but . . .. Stork paused to draw a shaky breath, a thin bead of sweat tracing a line down the side of his face. It was dangerous trusting in others. That was one lesson well-learned. Sighing heavily, Stork lifted his head and stalked down the corridor. It really was too hot on the ship. There was work to be done.
"Air conditioning needs to be fixed . . . starboard stabilizers need realignment . . . not to mention that the crystal intake lines are leaking . . . again . . ." Stork wound through the hallways, taking inventory of the necessary repairs and murmuring softly beneath his breath. The last Talon attack had left them with a larger-than-normal repair list, not to mention the ionizing gale that hit the ship yesterday. He passed a doorway, paused, and backpedaled to peer into the small room. "And it would appear that the plumbing has backed up." He eyed the damp floor around the toilet briefly, then tapped the button to slide the door closed and turned back toward his original destination. "Air conditioning first." Besides, it was Finn's turn to clean the bathroom.
Stork paused for the auxiliary room door to swish open. If anything, the air here lay hotter and more stagnant than in the rest of the ship. "Okay, baby, tell me what's wrong." Pushing the long black hair from his eyes, Stork grabbed his case of tools and knelt to pry open an access panel. The board came off with a sharp clang, a puff of dust exploding in its wake.
"Finn . . ." The Merb growled, coughing. The entire climate array was coated in a film of dust, sand leaking down through the toggles and wires to drift on the floor of the unit. The image of Finn and Junko tossing sandballs swam to the surface of his mind. Had the rash sharpshooter been throwing them inside the ship?
Exasperated, Stork drew a steadying breath, blinked the sweat from his eyes, and swept the dirt from the panel. No damage, just a few loose connections. He plucked a sonic screwdriver from his toolbox and tightened the ports. A low whine rose from the array and the helmsman straightened. A nice cool breeze - dusty at first - rushed from the vent. His ears twitched in pleasure, the two small silver rings in his left ear glinting in the overhead light, and Stork allowed himself a small smile at the success.
"Ah, now to make some . . . adjustments." A nervous chuckle escaped his lips. His teammates would be back soon. Why let them have all the fun? Now would be the perfect time to lay a trap for the flesh-burrowing-delirium-beetles.
Stork worked in silence for a time, bypassing a few systems and rerouting a single function from the array. He wiped the accumulating frost from a pair of the system lines and briskly rubbed his hands together. The trap was set. A sudden loud slam echoed from across the ship, followed by a scream. Startled, Stork jumped. "It would appear the beetles are active early today. I set that trap just in time." A slow smile eased onto his face and the helmsman carefully closed the panel and went to see if his captured beetles would make good pets.
Finn's yowls rose in crescendo as Stork neared the entrance bay. Tremulously, he peered around the corner to see Finn still standing in the doorway. The wingman was covered in ice and shivering in his swimming trunks, snow drifting down from the overhead vent as his teammates around him laughed.
The paranoid Merb froze, horrified that his teammate tripped yet another of his booby traps. Meeting Aerrow's startled look, Stork stepped into the room, an evil grin spreading across his face. If his teammates thought that he'd set a prank trap specifically for Finn, so be it. The melting snow would make a mess to clean up . . . not to mention having to reset the delirium-beetle trap, but seeing the look on Finn's face was so worth it.
"I fixed the air conditioning."
Three days on that wretched beach, and Stork managed to not so much as step foot onto the sand. And even then it was only the increasingly violent storms that drove the remaining Storm Hawks back to the confines of their carrier ship. The Merb was quite proud of himself for surviving the dangerous lure of Terra Tropica. The helmsman nervously scratched at the rash that he was sure had broken out on his side. Aerrow had threatened him with the promise of dragging him off the Condor, kicking and screaming if necessary, the next time that they vacationed there. He pushed the future terror off, refusing to think further on it. At least for now, the Storm Hawks were once more under way.
"There you go." Stork gingerly clamped the access port closed on the reinforced glass terrarium sitting on his heavy metal bookshelf. The terrarium took up the entire top of the shelf - his books stacked neatly to either side of it - but the Merb pilot didn't mind. Once his caustic-waxwing-puffball had fed, he enjoyed watching it lightly drift around the confines of its cage. The deadly arthropod tapped once against the side, extending its spiny suckers and pressing its maw against the glass. Stork rapped his knuckles against the cage, dislodging the creature before its acidic saliva could damage the glass and examined the small pulsating crystal set into the terrarium's power source. "Hm. Looks like I'll need a new bolster stone soon."
Caring for his pet unwound the pilot after an entire day spent on repair work. While the rest of the Storm Hawks were willing to help out - Junko especially was good with the heavy nit and grit mechanics - most of the complicated systems fell to him. He dropped a hand to the small chronometer globe on his nightstand. "Sorry baby, the rest will have to wait until tomorrow." Stretching, Stork turned toward his bed and shrugged off his shirt.
"Stork, one of the power crystals in the velocity crystal array is starting to show signs of stress." Piper was already talking even before the door finished opening. The dark-skinned specialist briskly stepped over the threshold. "I can see hairline cracks extending all around the base. I don't think it's critical yet, but I . . ."
Surprised, Stork yelped and spun around to face her, arms raised defensively. Still trembling, the Merb studied Piper, his eyes narrowing when he realized she had been staring at his back. He shifted uncomfortably. No doubt Piper had seen the webwork of thin scars crisscrossing his skin. They were somewhat obscured by the natural pattern of spots dappling his shoulders and arms and the stripes banding his ribcage, but up close they were quite visible. Involuntarily, his left eye twitched. Stork's voice lowered ominously. "Do you mind?"
"Ah, I uh," Piper stammered, cheeks burning, and tugged her eyes away from the pilot's chest. Sure, she had seen Stork in (and out of) nothing but a towel back when Ravess breached the stratosphere with her musical mayhem, but back then the Storm Hawk crystal mage was somewhat distracted by the Cyclonians' attack . . . to say nothing of the Merb's state of undress . . . to notice the fine lines marring his back. "I . . . I think we shouldn't engage the, um, impeller until it's replaced . . . I'll catch up with you tomorrow to discuss it." Piper swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and forced a weak smile onto her lips. Much that she never understood about their helmsman - things not adequately explained by his time spent in the wastelands - suddenly made sense. "Stork, I . . ." She paused, but a single glance at his pale, green face confirmed his desire for her to leave. Without waiting for a reply, she slipped back out the door.
Dragging in a shuddering breath, Stork brought a trembling hand to rub one temple. After a moment to steady himself, the Merb turned once again away from the door. He forcibly shoved the image of Piper's shocked expression from his mind and moved to grab his trance helmet. Instead, a thin sheeting of dust powdering the heavy toolbox he used as a nightstand caught his eye. Annoyed, Stork ran a finger through it. "And that's why I don't like the beach!"
The dark-skinned girl's intrusion momentarily forgotten, Stork wiped the rest of the dust from the table. Perhaps the sand wasn't from the shore. Maybe some sort of noxious critter from the beach evaded his traps and tracked it in or perhaps it was residue from the ionizing gale the Condor had run afoul of earlier. Stork frowned. "I'll look into it tomorrow. That is, if I don't die from scorpion-wasp venom first."
Sighing heavily, Stork picked up the large steel helmet sitting on his nightstand and checked the main and secondary dials set into the front. He had built the trance helmet a long time ago. It calmed the body and slowed the pulse borne of sustained stress that interfered with sleep. But most importantly, it quieted the night terrors that plagued him since before his days in the wastelands. Satisfied the cycle setting was correct, Stork slipped it on his head. He pressed the red button on its side and dropped into an oblivious, dreamless sleep.