Author's Note: This is something I've been working on for a while, and now I'm trying to decide what to do with it. I could leave it as a one-shot, but I'm considering writing Stork's entire backstory in snippets like this. I may post more if enough people express interest in reading it. Either way, I might as well share this.
(Warnings for dysfunctional family violence. I own nothing. These are merely products of my not-a-little-obsessed mind, and are not to be taken as canon.)
The bog howler was roaring, its face frozen in a grotesque expression of fury, red eyes bulging, saliva flying from its wide-open jaws. Stork felt his insides curdle with fear. Yet he couldn't stop staring, his eyes wandering away to read the text only to be drawn back to the photograph, taking in every exquisitely terrifying detail - from the mad light in the howler's eyes to the mud and algae that matted its filthy pelt. He was almost as horrified by the thought of the germs that must be growing all over the beast as by the beast itself.
'The bog howler is the largest member of its family,' the text beneath it stated calmly. 'Native to Merbia, it has been exported to several other terras due to the Atmos-wide trade in dangerous animals for circuses and fighting rings. It is poorly suited to the former, being nearly impossible to train without mind-control crystals, and many exported animals have been dumped on abandoned terras, where they thrive in the most hostile terrain. The most sizeable population of bog howlers outside of Merbia is found on Terra Gruesomus, where-'
Again Stork found himself staring at the picture. He'd never seen a bog howler in person, though occasionally he'd heard the call of one, away in the wildest depths of the swamps. Part of him wanted to glimpse one. Just a glimpse, mind you - from a nice safe distance. Not that any distance on Merbia was terribly safe.
'-not truly carnivorous, bog howlers are opportunistic feeders and will eat anything they can catch. Lacking sharp teeth or claws, they kill their prey by simply ripping it apart. Though primitive and savage, they show some rudimentary intelligence in hunting. Howlers have been known to lie in wait near Merbian snares and traps, devouring anything unlucky enough to fall into them.
'Bog howlers typically bear two or three young at a time. They are able to feed on their own from birth, but require parental protection from predators for the first few months of their life. Gestation is about three months-'
The young merb startled, almost falling out of the tree. His book flew into the air and he scrambled to catch it before it could fall into the swamp below. By the time he regained his grip, his heart was pounding - not just from the adrenaline rush, but from the voice calling his name.
"There he is. Told you he'd be up some tree." The voice shouted up at him again. "You better get back in here! Dad wants that water heater fixed RIGHT NOW!"
Stork's ears flattened. Crap. The heater. He was going to fix it; he'd just lost track of time a bit. Not that his uncle would care for that excuse...
Quickly tucking the book into an abandoned musk-squirrel nest in the trunk (one of the many convenient hiding places he had found for his belongings), Stork came down the tree as fast as he could, avoiding slick patches of moss that could send him plummeting, colonies of mushrooms that might or might not blast toxic spores at him if disturbed, and the occasional venomous spider web. This was one of his safer hiding trees, but it was still Merbian, and accordingly hostile. At least those hazards kept anyone from wanting to come up after him... usually. Even Drake was standing well away from the tree when he landed (carefully, lest he step on the wasp-adder burrow among the roots) and brushed himself off, checking his clothes for hitchhiking vermin. The last thing he needed was to be caught bringing fire ticks into the house.
"You're so in for it," Drake informed him, grinning from ear to ear with delight. The oldest of Stork's cousins, at almost thirteen - three years older than Stork himself - he was a miniature version of his father in nearly every way. Same sickly yellowish-green skin, same sharp hatchet-like face, same perpetually narrowed eyes that gave a deceptively lazy expression. His hair was black instead of reddish-brown, but otherwise he was Crane all over again, and his smile angered Stork almost as much as it frightened him. His brother Egret, a year younger and a hundred watts dimmer, stood right behind him as usual, aping his grin in the most thuggish-looking way possible.
"So what? I'm always in for it," Stork shot back, but kept a few feet of distance between them as he said so. Drake was big for his age, a lot bigger than Stork, and he was quick with his fists. Luckily he was in good spirits this time, so he just laughed. Egret laughed about three seconds after him and for twice as long, until Drake gestured for him to shut up.
"I bet you'd be even more in for it if I kept you out here a while." Drake's narrow eyes glittered with eager malice. "Dad wouldn't believe you, you know."
That was certainly true. But as usual, Drake's brilliant plan left a lot to be desired. "Hope you like cold water, then," Stork said, still keeping his distance. "Cuz if he kills me, you'll have to fix that thing yourself." And they both knew Stork was the only one in the family who could be considered handy with a wrench.
The smile disappeared, and Drake's eyes narrowed. "Get out of here before I kick your ass." He stepped aside and pointed angrily in the direction of the house, as if he hadn't been the one blocking the way in the first place. Stork didn't stick around to gloat, but took off as fast as his legs could carry him.
The house was close by - much as he preferred to escape it, Stork wasn't suicidal enough to wander far on his own, with the wilderness all around. Calling it a "house" was really more of a compliment than it deserved. Like so many of the semi-permanent structures on Terra Merbia, it was made from the wreckage of a crashed airship. The storms that wracked the terra delivered a lot of those. Most were smugglers, pirates and the like, risking the skies over Merbia to try and avoid authorities along the heavily trafficked trade routes. Few crews survived the crashes, and those that did usually didn't live long enough for the merbs to find them. The abandoned wrecks, flight-worthy or not, became Merbian property. Those that couldn't fly made decent homes, with a few modifications.
This particular wreck had been a small cargo freighter, with storage space taking up most of its bulk and a tiny cockpit crammed in the front. The cargo bay was now the family's living space. The engines had detached from the main wreck and were now connected to it by wires, their crystal energy generators supplying power to what few household appliances Crane's clan possessed. It was mostly Stork's job to keep those appliances running. Nobody else wanted to do it, and Crane complained that outsiders charged too damn much for repairs.
At least it gave them a reason to keep him around.
When he opened the hatch that served as the family's living space, he instinctively ducked. The first swing missed him, but Crane grabbed his shoulder to keep him from dodging again, and slapped him twice across the face. The second slap was a backhand and made his lip start to bleed. Stork flinched, but didn't cry out; he didn't want to provoke his uncle any further.
"Skulking off again? Thought I warned you." Crane let him go - or rather propelled him with a rough shove towards the water-heater closet. "Get to work then, and the bog help you if there's no hot water by dinnertime."
Shaken, but knowing it could've been a lot worse, Stork scurried off to grab the family's battered toolkit before having a look at the heater. He was pretty sure he knew what was wrong with it. It had acted up before, and he was an old hand at fixing the thing by now. He unscrewed the wall panel it was hidden behind, grabbed a flashlight and crawled into the hot, cramped space.
Sure enough, one of the thermo-couplers was loose, just like last time. Stork didn't have a replacement part, so he pulled out a roll of duct tape and wrapped it around the connector as tightly as he could. It would have to do for now. He tested the other connections and control valves, checked the water level, and inspected the pipes for cracks or patches of rust while he was at it. Everything in the house was old and corroded, and it was better to spot problems before they could blow up into catastrophes. Besides, as long as he was working on something, the rest of the family would leave him alone.
Well, most of them.
"Wha're you doin'?" Stork almost banged his head on a pipe at the sound of the high-pitched babyish voice. Curlew. The youngest of Crane's clan - not even five yet - was standing a few feet away, watching him with bland innocent curiosity. His eyes were rheumy and his nose still a little snotty from a recent illness, and Stork fought the urge to assault him with a pack of sanitary wipes.
"Working," he said shortly. "Go away. I can't play right now."
"Can I work, too?"
"No!" he burst out, then sighed. "Just... leave me alone, won't you?"
"Come away from him," said his grandmother sharply as she walked by. "Let him get on with mending the damn thing - it's all he's good for. Go play with one of your brothers." Grasping the small child by the arm, she tugged him away. "And you," she called back at Stork, "quit bothering the family when you're supposed to be working!"
Stork clenched his fists until his nails gouged his palms. Once he was sure she couldn't see him, he made a rude gesture - one of several he'd learned from his older cousins - at Crane's mother. I hope you break your leg in a sinkhole, he thought savagely in her direction. I hope a bog serpent swallows you alive. I hope razor-billed crows rip out your eyes and leave you staggering around the terra until you fall into the Wastelands.
Throwing his tools back into the kit with an angry clatter, he crawled out of the alcove and replaced the cover panel. Hopefully it would be a while before the stupid thing broke down again. It'd be a lot easier to fix if Crane would buy replacement parts, but as long as Stork could keep it limping along with duct tape and spit, that wasn't going to happen. He'd have to try the local scrapyard instead. Maybe he'd get lucky and find a broken-down water heater with intact thermo-couplers.
Yeah, and maybe Crane's mother really would break her leg in a sinkhole, and maybe the Guardians of Atmos would swoop down and rescue Stork from this wreck one day. Might as well hope for that too, while he was at it.
With the last bolt in place, he glanced around furtively. Nobody was watching him. It wouldn't be wise to stick around while Crane was in a mood - sooner or later he'd get back to him. If Stork snuck off and disappeared for a few hours, his uncle would usually lose interest. Not always, but usually. He replaced the toolkit as quietly as he could and slipped toward the door.
He almost made it.
"Where're YOU going?"
The voice made him leap like a scalded cat. He turned to see Ibis' face peeking at him around a corner, all lit up in that nasty little smile of hers. Crane's little angel. Stork stared back at her in silent, pleading horror. Don't-
Her grin widened, then opened to show gapped teeth as she yelled. "DAD! HE'S SNEAKING OUT AGAIN!"
He didn't return home until it was almost dark. By that time, he hadn't heard anyone shouting his name in a few hours, and hoped they'd given up on the pursuit. There wasn't much of a pursuit to begin with. His uncle's legs were longer, but Stork was agile and a fast climber, and nobody wanted to trouble going up after him. Easier to just wait him out. He had to come back sooner or later. Even his family was preferable to spending the night out in the swamp, and they knew that.
As the sun began to set, Stork crept back to the wreck like a fugitive, all his nerves on end, eyes darting at every shadow. He slipped in through the hatch without so much as a creak and, as soon as the coast was clear, scurried silently toward the ventilation shaft that led to his room.
Stork slept in the cockpit of the wreck, a cramped, dusty space that nobody else wanted to claim. He'd bolted and welded the door shut long ago. The only way in was through the ventilation duct, which was wide enough for him to crawl through, but not for an adult merb to follow. Only after he'd dropped down into his sanctuary and replaced the vent cover did Stork relax, his nervous tension escaping in a sigh of relief as he sank to the floor.
There wasn't much room in the cockpit, even after he'd ripped out the seats and half of the flight controls. One seat was now propped in a corner and served as a reading chair, leaving just enough floor space for a small merb to lie down on. He didn't have a mattress, just a few old blankets that had been handed down or scavenged. The rest of the family slept on mattresses, of course. But judging from the discoloration and questionable smells of those moth-eaten lumps of bedding, Stork thought he was probably better off. Anyway, merbs had evolved to sleep in trees - a blanket-strewn floor was a luxury by comparison.
Behind some of the wall panels, where Stork had long ago ripped out all of the useless wiring, was storage space for his few belongings. There he hoarded cans of non-perishable food, bottles filled with fresh water, not-quite-depleted fuel crystals scavenged from the junkyard, a small space heater that he'd repaired himself, a solar-powered reading lamp he'd built from scratch, an auxiliary set of tools, a couple of cans of disinfectant, and a collection of books. Some of the books had belonged to his parents, and Stork had brought them back when he first came here. Others had been traded for favors, or for money that he'd earned from other favors; still others had been salvaged from dumpsters and rummage sales; and more than a few had been outright stolen, mostly from school. Books were all that he had, aside from building and tinkering, and in this place they'd become his only friends.
But he wouldn't take just any book. Nearly all of them were non-fiction. Stork had little use for fantasy, or romance, or tales of adventure he'd never experience himself. Instead he read about machines, about wildlife, about weather phenomena and crystal matrices and medicinal herbs. This being Merbia, many of these books had a morbid, cautionary tone, and went into great detail about the dangers associated with their subjects. Stork collected the darkest ones he could find. The 101 Most Dangerous Creatures on Merbia. Perils of the Black Gorge. Deadly Storms and How They Form. Wrecked in the Wastelands (A Survivor's Story). The Ten Worst Places to Visit on Atmos... And so on.
Having retrieved 101 Creatures from its hiding place in the tree before he returned, Stork placed it carefully back with the rest of the collection. He wasn't in the mood to read any more about bog howlers just now. He was pretty sure he lived with worse monsters than any found in the books.
Instead, he stood up and turned to the helm.
Despite the limited room, Stork had left part of the helm intact - even repaired it as best he could. Now, as he often did, he placed his hands on the tiller and let his mind drift. He wasn't much of a daydreamer, but as he closed his eyes, reality receded and a vivid fantasy engulfed him. He could feel the wind beneath the ship, the healthy hum of the engine, the gentle tug of air currents. He felt the ship bank gracefully as he leaned on the tiller, responding obediently to his command. He saw the terra far below, left behind him like a bad dream... and above him, endless racing clouds luring him on toward the horizon.
The glass of the cockpit had shattered in the crash. Stork had bolted scraps of steel hull over it, lest animals or the elements try to find their way through, but he'd left a small patch of intact windowpane uncovered, high up in one corner. When he opened his eyes, he was looking right at it. A single cloud drifted by, tinged with fire by the last rays of the setting sun. Take me with you, Stork thought as hard as he could. I'll fly anywhere, as long as it's away from here.
But the cloud moved on, and left him there on the dead ship, with his hands on the useless tiller. The dream faded. Stork released the helm and sank to the floor.
"Not yet," he said aloud as the light faded from the sky. "I don't have wings yet."
He reached blindly into his library and pulled out the first book his hand closed on. His nocturnal vision could just make out the lettering on the cover: 35 Quick n' Easy Murk Raider Recipes (free wooden spoon included!)For a long moment he just stared at it, not really seeing. But then, by habit, his hand found the lamp, and flooded the small room with light.
Soon the darkening sky visible through that small window was hidden by swarms of maddened insects, dashing themselves against the glass in a single-minded attempt to reach the light. But Stork buried his nose in the book and didn't glance up again, not once.