A trio of Christian writers exploring the world of steampunk fiction with a groundbreaking novel trilogy. Come in and join the adventure!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chapter 13--Libby

Libby gripped the rope netting and leaned to the side, hanging ten feet above the Defoe's deck and nearly fifty feet above the ground. From her vantage point, she could see the outskirts of Delfi, white glittering mansions dotted among green hills and jungle.
The ship listed to one side, and Libby tightened her grip. Her braids flew into her face as Hez circled over the city's airship port. Even at this altitude, she could smell the dust and the spices drifting up from the huge market that surrounded the port. Bright-colored tents spread in all directions, the dirt paths sticking like wheel spokes from the hub of the port and disappearing into the earth-toned buildings of the city proper.
The sounds were there too, of people jabbering, metal and pottery knocking together, and the occasional screech of an animal. Somewhere came the sound of a deep, throbbing drumbeat, joined later by a sharp, tinny sounding instrument unlike any she'd ever heard before.
Hez pulled level with the port, a wooden tower sticking several stories up from the city, and began searching for an empty dock.
"There's one!" Dash shouted, pointing to a dock at the very top of the tower.
Libby untangled her legs from the netting and started down. Skylar met her on the deck, carrying a backpack in one hand and tucking something into his belt. She caught a flash of metal.
"Maricossa gave you one of his pistols?" she whispered.
"No, Hez gave me one," he muttered. "He's acting a bit jumpy."
"Not nearly as much as Maricossa will, I guarantee it." Libby leaned over the railing and scanned the ground. "Sky, look, there's an elephant underneath us! A real, live elephant!"
He grinned. "Something tells me you're going to love Tianzhu. Just don't take off on an adventure—I don't want to miss it."
She frowned, but managed to keep her mouth shut. His light-hearted tone said he was joking. But he's been making 'jokes' like this ever since I got back with Hamlet, Coll, and Brick. It's not just joking anymore—he's hinting that he doesn't want me to go off on my own.
Which was sweet, but a little annoying. Why couldn't he just come out and say it, rather than dancing around the subject? Surely after everything they'd been through, Skylar knew he could say whatever was on his mind.
The Defoe settled into port with a gentle bump. Hez tossed a line out, and dock workers immediately scrambled to secure the rope to the dock. One of the men shouted something to Hez, and he replied in the same language.
"Be right back." Skylar turned and ducked into the galley, the top of his head brushing the door frame.
Libby sighed. Sooner or later, they'd have to talk about it.
Hez and the dock worker concluded their discussion. Hez jumped down, shoved the gangplank out to the dock, then came to stand next to Libby.
"We have to wait for the dock master to clear us to come ashore," he said. "Shouldn't be long."
Hez eyed her carefully. "I saw that Skylar talking to you. Ti-borg should be glad you've got a babysitter."
"Stop it."
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the railing. "For what it's worth, I think your trip to pick up the boys was worth it. Both for them and for you."
"I think you're the only one who approves," Libby muttered.
"Hey, you had a better plan than I did when I left the Library." He shrugged. "Don't worry about it. They'll figure out that you can take care of yourself."
The door to Hez's cabin opened, and Maricossa stepped out, carrying Mia in one arm. His hands were encased in leather gloves, and he wore a long-sleeve shirt, despite the sticky heat that already had Libby feeling like she swimming through the air. The Professor followed Maricossa, and at the same time, Skylar popped out from the galley.
"Seen the dock master yet?" Maricossa called to Hez.
"Waitin' on him now." Hez spit over the side of the ship. "I hope your little hideout has an airship dock, 'cause the money for this space is coming out of your pocket, not mine."
Maricossa just narrowed his eyes. "I'll see what we can do."
Libby caught sight of an Indian man wearing a white suit coming up the dock. "Is that the dock master?"
Hex started to stand.
"I've got it, Hezekiah," Maricossa said, heading for the gangplank.
Hez resumed leaning on the rail and watched Maricossa walk carefully to the dock and offer his hand—the flesh one—to the dock master. The two started up the dock toward the central port hub, Maricossa still carrying Mia, the little girl staring around her with wide eyes.
"I'll tell Mrs. Monday to begin readying the children," the Professor said, heading into the galley.
Hez waited until the door had swung shut to say, "Look at that, sis. They actually trust us up on deck, by ourselves. What a rotten mess."
Libby sighed. Here we go again.
"C'mon, admit it. You haven't changed that much over the years. I can tell you're miffed."
The word choice made her chuckle. "Yes, okay, Hez, I'm miffed. I wish they wouldn't make such a big deal out of me going to get the boys."
"That's my sister." He gently bumped his shoulder into hers.  "Tell ya what. As much as Ti-borg won't like it, we'll have to keep our noses to the ground, see if the White Tiger is going to try to come after us. Tianzhu may have kept itself out of the Black Turtle's hands, but that doesn't mean there won't be Cardinal Point Alliance agents trying to flush us—or at least Maricossa and me—out. Maricossa might have contacts here, but he's not really going to be in any condition to jaunt around the city. I've been here plenty of times, and I know who to ask if I want news. If you get tired of hanging around with the Library crowd, just tell me, and I'll make sure a visit to my informants is immediately necessary."
Libby faced him. This was Hez as she remembered him, wheedling her into climbing onto the Library roof for the first time, or digging into the rubble to discover a new room of unexplored books. Hez grinned and held up his hand.
She slapped her palm against his. "Deal."
The streets were even more lively than she'd noticed from the ship. Everywhere, there were bright, vibrant colors—booths covered in red and orange sunshades, gold tracery making the cloth glitter in the sun. They walked past a vendor selling dull, earthen spices, and Libby gripped Skylar's arm, pulling him, Toddy, and Leelee to a stop.
The smells were a weird amalgam—spices, gritty dust and dung from the street, exotic fruits and flowers from the booth next door.
"Whoa!" Skylar grabbed Toddy's arm pulled him out of the street as an elephant trundled past, blue and silver drapings swaying.
A man sat on the elephant's neck, prodding him along with gentle pokes of a stick. Huge basketwork seats hung over the elephant's sides, each seat holding several people, all swaying in time with the elephant's gait.
"An elephant taxi?" Libby pushed her braids away from her face. "Sky, they have elephant taxis!" Across the street, she caught sight of a dark purple sari hanging in the front of the booth. "Look at that, Leelee!"
"Oh, that's beautiful," the little girl whispered, staring at it.
Libby glanced down at herself, trying to imagine how she'd look wearing the dress. She'd left her aviator jacket at the ship, but even so, her wrinkled linen pants and white sleeveless shirt looked out of place. The only thing she was wearing that looked right where the sandals.
Skylar and Toddy gave other exasperated looks and rolled their eyes.
"C'mon, Lib, no time for shopping now. I'll take you when we're settled," Skylar said.
Libby let him guide her away. "I'll hold you to that!"
"Girls are weird," Toddy said.
Leelee smacked his arm. "Boys are gross."
"At least we don't stop to poke our noses into every store. Look!" Toddy pointed ahead, where Mrs. Monday was leaning over baskets of fruit. "Even Mrs. Monday!"
The woman turned back toward him, smiling. "Yes, even Mrs. Monday. But you'll thank me when I know exactly where to find oranges."
Toddy's eyes widened. "We were lucky if we got oranges at Christmas in the library!"
"Ssh, ssh!" Libby hissed.
Mrs. Monday smiled. "No one's paying any attention, Libby. Here…I'll take these two, and you and Skylar can hang behind a little bit." She took Leelee and Toddy's hands and hurried after the rest of their group, now several booths ahead.
Skylar flushed, but slipped his hand around Libby's. They walked casually, just fast enough to keep their group in sight. Libby felt like her head was going to fly off, since she kept jerking around to see all the different sights she could. She was thankful for Skylar's hand around hers, so he could navigate and she could sight-see.
Another booth of bright clothes caught her eye, and she started toward it. Skylar's hand tightened.
Libby jerked to a halt. "Skylar!"
"What?" He looked down at her, his forehead wrinkling in concern.
She pulled her hand away from his. "I'm not a little kid you have to keep corralled! Why did you jerk me back? I looked—there was a clear path, no elephants or anything!"
He slid both hands into his pants pockets and scuffed the dirt with his boot. "Sorry, Lib. I don't mind if you shop a bit."
"It's fine." She started after the library group again, crossing her arms over her chest. The clothes had lost their appeal.
Skylar walked beside her, and she could feel him watching her. Finally, he said, "Libby, why are you mad at me?"
"I don't want to have this discussion here."
"You've been upset over the last couple of weeks. I'd like to know why."
She sighed. "Think about it."
Skylar groaned and tilted his head back. "Does it have to be a guessing game? Toddy's right. Girls are weird."
She heard the joking tone, but the words rub just enough the wrong way. Libby stopped in the middle of the path and put her hands on her hips. "It's not funny, Skylar Bench. You've been making jokes about this for week,s but it's not funny! Coll wouldn't be here if I hadn't gone to get Hamlet And Brick. Mrs. Monday and yhou and the Professor would still be griewving for him, and the kids and I'd vbe heartsick over leaving Brick and Hamlet. But all I hear is that it was 'stupid' and 'dangerous' to go back. Maybe, but Maricossa would've done it if he hadn't been hurt! And I didn't even hear a single thank you."
"Ahh, Lib…"
"Did anyone say thank you? Did they?"
Skylar rubbed the back of his neck. "I thought it was implied…"
"Hez is the only one who approved of whast I did!"
Skylar's face tightened. "Yeah, and that's where I have the problem with it. That's not good, to have Hez approve of something."
Libby snorted, whirled, and stomped off. Her eyes on the ground, she rammed straight into someone and tumbled into the dirt. She looked up as the person passed her, and her heart skipped a beat. The person was wearing a long cloak, with the hood pulled far over their face. She couldn't see any facial features except the glimmer of eyes.
Brown eyes.
Connie had brown eyes.
The person continued on their way without even acknowledging the collision.
"Libby, are you okay?" Skylar leaned down and started to help her up.
Libby jerked away and stood up on her own, brushing dust off her pants. "I'm fine," she growled, staring after the cloaked person. A shiver ran down her back.
She wanted to smack herself. Hez's words about the White Tiger coming after them were getting to her. She was mad at Skylar, distracted, and probably imagining things.
Skylar was babbling something, but Libby interrupted him. "C'mon, Sky. We need to catch up with the others."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chapter 12--Maricossa

Maricossa wanted to scream. He wanted to hit someone. He wanted to shoot himself.
If one more person kindly told him they didn’t need his help, if he heard one more suggestion of “why don’t you just go rest and read a book,” if one more person offered to help him with some paltry task, if his new prosthetic seized up on him one more time, he was seriously considering throwing himself off the Defoe.
As footsteps of varying rhythms and weights thumped across the deck above his head, Maricossa paced in the hold between the rows of bunks, trying to follow orders and stay out of everyone’s way. It seemed staying out of the way was the only thing left to him, at least until he finished healing and learned to use this blasted prosthetic hand.
If he learned to use it.
Groaning through clenched teeth, Maricossa dropped into the bunk Mrs. Monday had assigned him when he moved out of the upstairs cabin, and stared up at the metal parts and pieces now attached to his wrist.
His thumb was still his, normal flesh and bone he could move and feel. His palm and fingers, though, were gone—replaced by machinery. It looked something like an archer’s gauntlet, only made of metal. The professor called it his “new hand,” and assured him that in time he would be learn to use it as well as he’d used his natural one.
Maricossa wasn’t so sure. So far, none of his attempts to use it had ended well.
Skylar had told him to imagine that the metal part was just a glove, that his real fingers were still inside and all he had to do was move them to make the glove move too. He’d tried, over and over. Half the time it wouldn’t move at all. The other half, it jerked into a tight fist and seized up, refusing to relax, literally locking him in the grip of crippling pain. After a very few recurrences of that incident Maricossa had lost all interest in continuing his efforts, despite Skylar’s and the professor’s assurances that he would get the hang of it. Instead, he’d been making do with his left hand.
He was off the pain killers now, not because the pain was gone but because it was easier to cope with than the side effects of the meds. Dizziness and the inability to keep food down simply weren’t worth it. Of course, the pain had its own side effects: he knew he’d been irritable and short with everyone, and he was probably driving them as insane as he felt. He hadn’t slept well in days, and he was unable to do anything but wander around the Defoe, get in people’s way, and think.
Thinking wasn’t a good thing for him to be doing right now. All his thoughts seemed to lead back to Connie, to the realization that he’d been nothing but a tool to her, to the nightmares about her that continued to plague him. Cooped up on board the Defoe and unable to do anything physical, he had no way of escaping the chaos inside his own head.
The creak of a hatch and a pattering set of footsteps pulled him out of his bog of self-pity. What was that phrase he’d read just recently—the Slough of Despond?
Mia peeked around the end of the middle row of bunks.
“Mister Maricossa?” she whispered.
“Yeah, Mia?”
“Are you asleep?”
Maricossa smiled. “No, sweet girl.”
She slipped around the corner and tiptoed towards him. “Hamlet says to tell you supper is ready if you’re not asleep.” She was still whispering.
Maricossa sat up, swung his feet to the floor, and waited a moment. He still had occasional dizzy spells if he stood up too quickly.
Mia approached from the right and started to reach for his hand, but stopped when she realized it was the new mechanical one. Instead, she crossed to his left side and took that hand. Maricossa suspected that the prosthetic hand scared her. It would explain why she’d always been nervous around Skylar.
He let her lead him by the hand to the dining room—a narrow room just off the galley, at the other end of the ship. Small portholes along one wall usually let in some light, but the day was fading fast and the portholes were now on the Defoe’s shaded side. Instead, half a dozen oil lanterns provided dim, sooty light.
Mrs. Monday stood in one corner watching and offering instructions as Dash and Leelee moved along the narrow space between the table and the wall, arranging silverware and napkins.
“No, no, turn the knives the other way, Leelee. There’s a girl. Now, Dashielle, I watched you refold Hezekiah’s map perfectly just this afternoon, so I’m certain you can make that napkin a little neater, wot?”
Mia tugged Maricossa towards the table. “You can sit by me,” she said.
The door at the far end of the room opened and Libby breezed in. “Oh—hey, Maricossa!” she said. “How’s the hand?”
Maricossa wasn’t sure how to answer, so it left it at a half-hearted “Alright.”
“Looked out the window lately?” Libby asked, her eyes wide and a slight smile on her face.
Maricossa shook his head. “Not for a few hours. Why?”
Libby came around the table, turned sideways to slide past him, and pecked a finger on the glass of one of the portholes. “Have a look at that!”
Maricossa leaned down to look out, Mia’s head under his chin as she stood on tiptoe to see too. Dark blue waves spread out hundreds of feet below, marked by only the occasional white breaker. Miles away, a jagged strip of green and tan coastline was visible.
“That’s the Mediterranean Sea!” Libby said. “Can you believe it? That’s the Mediterranean Sea! I’ve read about it in like a gazillion books and now I’m actually looking down at it from my brother’s airship! It’s awesome!”
“If we’re over the Mediterranean already, we must be making fairly good time,” Maricossa said.
“I guess,” Libby said with a shrug, still staring out at the view.
“Hez says the winds are favorable,” Dash spoke up from the other side of the table. “If they keep up like this he thinks we might even make Tianzhu a few days early.”
“Good,” Maricossa said, straightening and turning back to the table.
Hamlet came in just then with a huge platter of something that steamed and smelled delicious. Scarf followed right on his heels, nose in the air and tail waving wildly, licking his chops.
“Eat up, me hearties!” Hamlet said, lowering the platter to the table.
Skylar, Coll, the rest of the kids, and the professor all came into the room. After a few minutes of bumping, jostling, and crowding, everyone managed to get seated. They tucked into the delicious fare and ate while they watched evening shadows settle over the Mediterranean.
By now Maricossa was beginning to get used to using a fork with his left hand, so this meal was a little easier than previous ones had been. The professor admonished him about using his left hand instead of his prosthetic, but he ignored it.
Dash and all the other kids but Mia left as soon as they had finished eating. Hamlet left just long enough to bring a pot of tea in, much to the delight of the professor and Mrs. Monday. As tea cups, sugar, and cream made their way around the table, Mia crawled into Maricossa’s lap and curled up, gazing sleepily out the porthole. Under the table, Scarf flopped down on Maricossa’s feet and heaved a contented sigh.
For a while they all sipped their tea in silence. Professor was the first to speak.
“Well, Maricossa, aside from your apprehension about your new hand, how are you faring?”
Maricossa set his teacup down and stared at it for a moment, trying to decide how he should phrase his answer. “I’ll be better once I can stop being so useless,” he said.
“I suppose you think being able to work around the ship and give orders again will resolve everything that’s bothering you,” Mrs. Monday said.
Maricossa stared at her. It was that obvious?
An awkward silence filled the room, stretching out as Maricossa tried to think of an answer and failed. He didn’t think getting back to work would resolve all of his problems, but at least it would allow him to bury them, push them from the forefront of his mind.
Libby cleared her throat. “So, uh...” The silence was obviously making her uncomfortable, but she seemed to be having trouble finding anything to say. “So, why does that... Connie... always call you Galvin instead of Maricossa like everyone else? Which one is your real name?”
Maricossa clumsily picked up a spoon and stirred his tea. It wasn’t exactly a change of subject, but at least it was something to talk about. And anyway, these people were his family now, so he supposed they had a right to know.
He cleared his throat. “They’re both my real name,” he said. “Galvin is my first name, Maricossa is my last name. Or at least, the only last name I knew until just a few weeks ago. It was my mother’s maiden name, but she went back to it after my father disappeared, when the Bug Wars started. She said it was to protect me. Apparently my real, legal last name is O’Shannon.”
“Aha! I knew you had to be Dominic’s boy!” the professor declared, giving the table a satisfied thump with his hand. “Didn’t I tell you he had to be Dominic’s boy?” he asked, looking around the table at the others.
“Professor!” Mrs. Monday scolded.
“It’s alright, Mrs. Monday,” Maricossa said, in spite of the way his heart was pounding. “Dominic O’Shannon... was my father. I just never knew it until Professor here figured it out.”
“So you never knew your dad?” Skylar asked.
Maricossa shook his head, hoping that would be the end of the topic. He’d never discussed his past with anyone—ever. Having it dragged out onto the dining table like this was beyond uncomfortable.
“So...” Libby twisted one of her braids around her finger. “What should we call you? I mean, if your first name is Galvin and your real last name is O’Shannon...”
Maricossa took a deep breath. “I don’t know what to call myself anymore, Libby. Since... since Mom died... the only people who’ve ever called me ‘Galvin’ are Connie and Sergei. So that’s not exactly something I’m eager to answer to. Now that I know who my father was I’d like to take his name, but O’Shannon feels so foreign, I don’t know if I could answer to it.”
“We could call you ‘Wesley,’” Libby said.
Everyone at the table turned to stare at her.
“What? He always quotes The Princess Bride, so Wesley would be a good name,” Libby said. “It—it was just an idea. Geez.”
“You’ve always been ‘Maricossa’ to us,” Skylar said. “I say just stick with that. Or maybe you could change your name and be ‘Maricossa O’Shannon’ if you want to take your dad’s name but don’t want the ‘Galvin’ part anymore.”
That actually wasn’t a bad idea, Maricossa realized. He was about to say so when Mia, who he’d thought had gone to sleep, sat up and looked at him.
“Or we could call you ‘Daddy,’” she said.
Maricossa’s heart stopped.
Libby clapped a hand over her mouth, snickering. Skylar turned red, the professor looked amused, and Coll and Hamlet exchanged a look.
Maricossa didn’t have the first idea of what to say or do. He looked to Mrs. Monday hoping for some help, but she only gave him a matronly smile, set her teacup down, and pushed her chair back.
“Well, I’m not going to call him ‘Daddy,’ Mia,” she said, “but I think it’s just lovely that you want to.” She stood up and looked at the others. “Why don’t we all go get a start on those dishes, then?”
Coll gestured at the table. “But Mom, all the dishes are still here.”
“Nonsense, Driscoll,” Mrs. Monday said, giving Coll a look that was pure ice. “There are pots and pans to wash. Now come along.” Her tone left no room for argument, and everyone—even the professor—rose and followed her out of the room, shutting the door behind them.
Maricossa looked back at Mia, who stared at him with a puzzled look.
“How come they all left so fast?” she asked.
“Mia,” Maricossa said, his voice thick, “I don’t know what to say. Did you mean that, about... about calling me Daddy?”
She nodded. “’Cause you are.”
“Because I am... what?”
“My daddy.”
“Um—okay, uh...” Maricossa tried to clear his throat, but all he could do was rasp. “Mia, I don’t think you quite understand—”
She nodded rapidly, her pigtails bouncing. “Uh-huh I do, because the daddy I had before explained it to me.”
Maricossa frowned. “What?” His voice was shaking now.
Mia looked down at her lap. “The daddy I had before died,” she said quietly. Then she looked back up at him. “But he said I might get another one someday, ’cause a daddy is the person who loves you and takes care of you and keeps you safe, so I could be sad when he died if I wanted, but I didn’t need to be sad forever. And now you keep me safe.”
Maricossa tried to blink away the tears in his eyes, but they ran down his face instead.
Mia’s forehead furrowed. “Is it gonna make you sad if I call you Daddy?”
Maricossa shook his head, contradicting the additional tears that came. “No, Mia,” he said when he found his voice again. He took a deep breath to steady himself before continuing: “I would be very, very happy if you called me Daddy, sweet girl.”
“Then don’t cry.” Mia reached up and wiped the tears off of his face with her hand, then curled back up on his lap like she had been before.
Maricossa wrapped his arms around her, careful not to bump his new hand, and kissed the top of her head. He’d thought his dreams of having a family of his own were gone when he’d lost Connie. Now he had a family.
He had a daughter.
“I love you, Mia,” he whispered. Only once he said it did he realize that he’d never told her before. He’d loved her like his own child for months, and he’d never told her.
She yawned and leaned her head against him, her eyelids drooping.
“I know.”
After she’d gone to sleep, Maricossa carried her to her bunk in the hold and tucked her in, then headed up to the main deck of the Daniel Defoe.
Hezekiah lounged in the pilot’s seat, one hand on the wheel, staring out at the dark Mediterranean. He turned at Maricossa’s approach, but only long enough to see who was behind him.
“Hey Ti-borg,” he said. “How’re you getting along with the new brass knuckles?”
Maricossa ignored the remarks and sank into the co-pilot’s seat, joining Hez in staring out at the sea. “Dash says we’re making good time,” he said.
Hez nodded. “Cute kid, Dash. Smart too. Picked up map reading just like that. She’d make a good navigator with a little training—”
“Forget it, Hez,” Maricossa said. “How long ‘til we make Tianzhu?”
Hez shrugged. “Another couple weeks, at least. The winds are helping right now, but we’ll have to stop off in Turkey to renew the food and water supply. That’ll take a day at most.”
Maricossa gave him a skeptical look. “Only a day?”
Hez grinned. “It’s pretty easy to get things done fast when you know the right places to stop.”
“I’m not letting you take us anywhere where the kids and books aren’t safe.”
“Don’t worry.” Hez yawned and stretched. “You turning in, Ti-borg?”
Maricossa shook his head. “I’ve done nothing but roam around and sit and sleep since we left the bunker. I’m not really tired.”
“Best news I’ve had all day,” Hez said, standing up and stretching again. “Keep her at this altitude, on that compass heading. I’m hitting the sack.”
He swaggered off towards his cabin, and Maricossa moved into the pilot’s seat.
He held the wheel with his left hand, letting his right rest on his leg. Brass knuckles, Hez had called his prosthetic hand. Not a bad thought, really. Once Maricossa learned to use it, it could be devastating as a weapon. That was actually kind of exciting to think about.
So, as the Defoe sailed through the velvet darkness towards Tianzhu, and his family—his daughter—slept safely in the hold, Maricossa clenched his teeth against the pain and started practicing, moving his mechanical fingers one by one.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chapter 11--Skylar

Dark, wild lines, scrawled in thick strokes, careened across the floor of the lookout nest, surrounding Skylar. Snarling vines choked scenes of city crowds and structures exploding into flames. His hands—shaking, just slightly—were black with the burnt smudges of charcoal, snatched from the galley ash-bin, that now lay in broken, snubbed scraps around his knees.
He swiped a hand across his damp forehead, leaving a broad smear of black.
He was angry. No—too mild a word. He was furious—livid.
How dare Libby pull a stunt like this? He picked up a chunk of charcoal and hurled it over the side of the lookout nest, watching it sail through the air and into the foliage below. The Defoe was moored between two low hills at the foot of the Vuori Mountains, where—in theory—they could keep a lookout for Libby’s return.
Why in the world did she think this was a good idea? If she had only said something—Skylar would have gone with her, or they could have gone back…but no. Impulsive as always, Libby had gone off on her own, put herself in danger—and maybe the rest of them too. If the White Tiger caught her, they could make her tell them everything.
He’d seen that firsthand. His blood boiled to think of Libby in the hands of Sergai’s agents, intent on “extracting” whatever they could.
He tugged at the rag tied around his mechanical left arm, straightening it. It caught on a protruding screw, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. The outer casing that had protected the intricate inner workings of his arm was gone and now protected the tiny gears and springs clicking and whirring in Maricossa’s clumsy new prosthetic.
Not that Skylar minded—not too badly. His mechanical bits had been in place for years. He could stand to be a bit unprotected. Maricossa’s new, raw prosthetic, with its delicate marriage of tendons and bones and metal, needed shielding. Skylar would just have to be more careful for a while, until they reached Tianzhu. The Professor promised to replace everything once they regained civilization.
Though, if Skylar had to work one more bit of dust out of a tiny gear with one of Hez’s compass points…
He huffed a heavy breath out his nose and stared up at the clear blue sky of early evening over his head. He’d been up here almost all day. He didn’t trust himself around the kids—his temper was too foul, and there was nowhere to go cool off. He had to sit. Stare at the sky and the unending sea of green limbs and the great grey heaps of the mountains rising behind him. And try not to worry.
Because, under all of his anger, he was worried—desperately worried. Libby was alone, possibly in danger, and he had no way of knowing, let alone doing anything about it.
Hez was in almost as foul a mood as Skylar. The moment he saw Libby’s note, he started for the wheel, determined to head back and track her down. But the Professor—even as he started toward the cabin to deal with Maricossa’s injuries—intervened.
“We cannot go back,” he said, his calm voice rising above the confused chatter of the kids. The ship’s deck fell silent, and Hez gripped the wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white, but he listened.
“Libretto has taken a risk,” the Professor continued. “Possibly a foolish one—possibly not. However, we cannot risk the lives and freedom of everyone else on this ship. Better to find a place where we can await her return, and, if she doesn’t reappear soon, venture after her from a safe location.”
The Professor didn’t wait to hear Hez agree or argue, but disappeared below to tend the wounded Maricossa.
Skylar hadn’t liked the dark look on Hez’s face. The pirate silently obeyed the Professor’s suggestion, but as soon as the ship was moored, he retreated to the galley to spread his maps and charts on the table, planning a half-dozen rescue routes. And he hadn’t said a word to the Professor about any of them.
With a sigh, Skylar swept up the bits of charcoal he’d been drawing with and tossed them out into the waves of foliage, where they silently vanished. The sky was turning periwinkle with the coming of sunset, and the light wisps of clouds in the west—toward Shandor Rei—were tinged with orange and bright pink. Squinting into the golden light of the setting sun, Skylar wondered—
He lifted his hand to shield his eyes, manipulating the mechanical one to zoom in on a dark shape appearing out of the light. He sucked in a sharp hiss through his teeth.
“Ship,” he breathed. Then, louder— “Ship!” Leaning over the edge of the lookout nest, he yelled below:
Hez burst out of the galley, his pistol already drawn. “Get everyone below,” he shouted. “Skylar, get down here and man a cannon!”
Skylar swung over the side of the lookout nest and clambered down as quickly as he could without his foot slipping from the wooden pegs that made a ladder down the mast.
“It could be Libby,” he said, landing on the deck with a thunk.
Hez was holding a spyglass to his eye. He brought it down with a muttered curse. “It could be,” he growled, “or it could be the White Tiger, or it could be a merchant ship on its way to Zazibay, or it could be another pirate craft. I can’t see with that blasted sun…” he clapped his hand on Skylar’s shoulder. “Battle station, boy. One way or another, we’ll deal with this.”
“What’s going on?” The Professor stepped out of the main cabin and peered quizzically at Hez through his spectacles. “Is there a problem?”
Hez pointed his spyglass at the Professor. “Get back in the cabin, old man—make sure tiger boy stays down. I can’t deal with an invalid on my deck right now.”
“It’s a ship, Professor,” Skylar said, ducking down behind one of the shard cannons and flipping open the lid of the ammunition box. “We don’t know if it’s a problem or not.”
Please be Libby, he prayed, while Hez dashed around unfastening the ship’s moorings. If anyone up there is listening, please let it be Libby.
He had no idea if anyone out there would pay any attention to a scruffy cyborg boy on a small airship in the middle of nowhere, but Mrs. Monday prayed sometimes, so he thought…Maybe.
Then again, Mrs. Monday prayed, and Coll had still died.
He shoved that thought away violently, and squinted into the sunlight. The ship was still quite far out, flying low over the dark green waves of the forest. Skylar fingered a glass shard missile, rubbing his thumb along its jagged edge.
Please be Libby…
Hez, beside him on the gunwales, let out a soft grunt.
“What?” Skylar asked.
“It’s my longboat,” the pirate said in a low tone.
Skylar’s heart leaped.
“Don’t get your hopes up yet,” Hez cautioned. He sighted down the length of his shard cannon. “Just ’cause it’s mine doesn’t mean it’s friendly.”
The sun was dropping lower, a fiery ball of vibrant red skimming the horizon. Black and silhouetted against it came the longboat. Closing his natural eye, Skylar strained, pushing his mechanical eye’s magnification abilities to the max. The gears behind the glass lens whirred in complaint, and he felt the heat build in his eye-socket. Pushing the discomfort aside, he struggled to focus on the longboat, until he thought he could make out—
He bolted to his feet—and staggered, vertigo at the change in perspective painting golden swirls around the corners of his vision. Searing pain stabbed the left side of his head.
“How can you—”
Skylar steadied himself against the railing. “It’s her,” he managed. “I could see her waving.”
“And anyone else on board?” Hez looked up, something akin to concern creasing his brow. “Skylar—you alright?”
“I need to sit.” Following words with action, Skylar folded onto a crate full of shard ammunition. He closed both his eyes, and the pain diminished. “I’ve got to shut this thing off for a while,” he admitted. “Think I overheated it.”
Hez turned back to the approaching longboat. “You’d better be right.”
“No, I mean—I believe you think you saw Libby, but you don’t—”
“No,” Skylar waved a hand. “I mean actually listen.
Hez fell silent, brushing away a strand of dark hair that had escaped his queue.
The voice was tiny, but Hez heard it too.
“Ahoy there, Defoe!”
The pirate let his shoulders sag with relief, and released the lever on the shard cannon.
“It’s her.”
Skylar spread his cybronic hand magnanimously. “Told you.” He didn’t let Hez see his other hand, which curled into a fist. “I told you.”

Libby came about to the port side of the Defoe and—with much bumping and at least one shout of “Watch my ship!” from Hez—got the longboat tied down. Swiping loose hair out of her damp face with a grimy hand, she stepped up and over the railing.
“I’m home,” she announced, just as the younger children tackled her. “Oomph,” she exclaimed, going down in a flurry of arms and legs.
“Libby, Libby, we had a fight!”
“Mr. Maricossa is asleep and I got to see his knifes.”
“There was pirates and we was pirates and stuff was going ever-where!”
“I got a splinter!”
Skylar stood back, relief and anger warring in him. Libby looked up over Mia’s tussled head and met his eyes. Pride and defiance and regret shone in her gaze, and he looked away—just in time to see Hamlet, with Brick close behind, step over the railing.
“Hamlet!” Skylar called, relieved at the distraction. He stepped forward. “Good to see you a—”
He froze.
A third figure climbed over the ship’s rail, wincing, and favoring his left side. His thick blonde hair was slightly too long, and his clothes hung loosely on a frame that had been bulkier the last time Skylar saw him. But there was no mistaking who it was.
“Coll?” Skylar’s voice rasped, and he felt tears sting his eye.
“My boy!” Mrs. Monday shoved past him and gathered Coll into her arms, tears running down her face. “Oh, Coll, oh my boy—you’re alive, you’re alive…”
“He’s alive.” For the second time, Skylar felt like he needed to sit, but there was no handy crate this time. “He’s…he’s alive…”
“Hamlet found him.” Libby extricated herself from the pile of children and stood, taking him gently by the arm. “One of the dockworkers saved his life—Connie’s shot was just barely too high. Missed his heart by inches. Hamlet’s been taking care of him and Brick both.”
Skylar squeezed her wrist. “Libby, I—”
“Please don’t be angry with me, Skylar,” she pleaded. “I had to—I had to go back for them.”
He looked down into her eyes, and lifted his hand to touch the freckles on her cheek. “You could have been captured,” he said. “Or killed.”
“But I wasn’t.” She straightened. “I nearly crashed, and I climbed around on that stupid longboat in the middle of the night without a single speck of light and I found a knife and I saved my boat, and I found Hamlet and Brick and Coll and I got us all the way here because I just knew Hez would hide somewhere like this, and this is the fourth place we looked, and I really think you should be saying how proud you are of me instead of being angry with—”
Skylar laughed. He couldn’t help it. All of the anger and fear he had been struggling to keep down was washed away by a flood of relief and joy. Libby was safe. Coll was alive.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a swift hug, noting the evil eye Hamlet cast his way. He winked at Hamlet—an easy task, considering he only had one eye operational right now—and stepped back.
Libby stared up at him, her mouth ever-so-slightly agape.
“Well,” she said. “Well.”
“This calls for a celebration!” shouted Mrs. Monday, her face reddened from crying, but beaming with such joy that it felt as though all the shadows of night suddenly fled.
Coll, one arm around his mother, and a damp patch on the front of his shirt where she had wept, grinned at Skylar.
“I am a bit hungry,” he said.
Skylar had never heard more beautiful words. He stepped forward, and clapped Coll on the arm.
“Good to have you back,” he said, his voice catching a bit in his throat.
Coll threw his arm around Skylar’s shoulders. “It’s good to be back,” he agreed.
Skylar cleared his throat, and gestured toward the galley. “We’ll let Hamlet have run of the kitchen,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get some good food for a change.” Taking Libby’s hand, he grinned down at her.
Coll, his best friend, whom he had seen shot down in front of him, had returned from the dead. Libby was safe. They had escaped Shandor Rei and the White Tiger.
It was most certainly time to celebrate.

Late that night, long after Mrs. Monday had put the children to bed, Skylar, Hez, the Professor, Libby, Hamlet and Coll sat around the fire that they had built in a clearing beneath the Defoe. It had dwindled to ashes, and the darkness of the woods seemed a safe blanket of protection, hiding them from the eyes of the White Tiger.
Skylar sat on a log with Libby’s head on his shoulder. Her eyes drooped, and he looked down at his right hand. Libby’s fingers fit perfectly, threaded through his own.
“…So Maricossa is laid up for at least another day or two,” the Professor was explaining to Hamlet and Coll. “You saw him at dinner—he couldn’t fight a kitten, let alone a tiger.” He grinned. “See what I said—a tiger? Like the White Tiger—”
“We caught it, Prof,” Coll said with a smile.
“How far is it to Tianzhu?” Hamlet asked, looking up at the Defoe. “I always thought it was sort of on the other side of the world—can we make it in a ship this small?”
Hez picked up a long stick and poked at the fire, sending smoke and tiny sparks into the air. “Oh, the Defoe can make it—she’s sturdier than she looks. It’s a crew I’m worried about. Can these kids handle the voyage? I can’t sail this ship alone. Plus, Tianzhu is at least a month’s voyage from here, and that’s assuming we make no stops. We have enough food and water on board to last us about a week—maybe ten days if we stretch it.”
Libby sleepily raised her free hand. “They can do it,” she said. “They’re hard workers.”
Hez looked at her, and his face softened. He raised his face to the hovering underbelly of his ship, hanging above their heads.
“I believe you,” he said at last. He stood, and extended his hand for Libby to take.
“Get some sleep,” he said, nodding at Skylar and the others. “We sail at dawn.”