Maricossa stared at the book in his hands: The Return of Sherlock Holmes. He’d been aimlessly turning pages for the better part of an hour, but had yet to read more than disconnected words here and there. Instead, he kept hearing words Sergei had told him long ago. “Even the best plan is worthless if you don’t have a contingency plan to fall back on when it fails.”
A contingency plan… they needed one desperately. If one of the kids got sick, or the supplies ran out, or the White Tiger caught up with them, they had to have a backup plan already lined out.
Maricossa had one option in mind, an option that had been part of his personal ‘doomsday plan’ for years. Most of the pieces were already in place. The trouble was, he’d been planning for himself and Connie, not himself, a dozen other people, and several thousand books. The added load made it less ideal. But it was still a plan—the only one they had, and the best they could hope for under the circumstances.
Maricossa jumped, dropping the book on the floor and knocking a computer keyboard off of the ledge where he’d propped his feet. The dog’s bark echoed amazingly well in the cavernous control room.
“Scarf!” Maricossa said, letting out a breath of relief as the dog trotted up to his chair. “You scared me to death!”
As Maricossa reached for the keyboard now dangling from the ledge by its cord, Scarf whined and swished his tail much like Libby swished her skirt when she was nervous.
“Sorry, boy,” Maricossa said, replacing the keyboard and getting up to retrieve the book, “I guess I startled you too, didn’t I? Come here.” He extended a hand, but Scarf wasn’t looking at him. The dog’s eyes and ears were both pointed towards the passage Libby and Skylar had taken to go exploring.
Maricossa listened, but didn’t hear anything. He glanced at his watch. They’d been gone for a while. They were probably fine, but it couldn’t hurt to check.
He pulled his torch from his belt and clicked it on as he entered the passage they had taken. Scarf started to follow him.
“No, stay,” he ordered. The dog hesitated but finally sat down, and Maricossa continued into the passage.
He passed several doors that looked like they had recently been opened, and in a few places he could see footprints, but he didn’t see Libby, Skylar, or the beam of their light.
“Libby? Skylar? You alright?”
There was no answer.
A few minutes into the passage, a flapping blur swooped around a corner and careened in wild loops, disoriented by the light. Maricossa turned the torch off and waited several seconds until the bat regained its bearings and flitted away.
He found a spot where Libby and Skylar had apparently crawled through a partially blocked doorway, but when he shined the light inside, he saw nothing. "Libby? Skylar?"
He waited a few minutes, but there was no answer, so he moved on.
He was glad Skylar had Libby—in general, as well as here in the tunnels. Maricossa knew well what went on inside a boy Skylar’s age when he lost someone he loved. Until Skylar learned to get what was inside him under control and live with it, he wouldn’t want to have much to do with anyone else. If they tried to violate that distance, his instinct would be to lash out.
Libby was the one exception, the one person who might be able to stay close to him while he healed, who could gradually coax him out of the emotional tunnel he was digging for himself. For Skylar’s sake, Maricossa hoped so. He wished he’d had someone like Libby, someone whose nearness didn’t feel like trespassing, when he had lost his mother. It had happened long before he met Connie…
Connie. Maricossa shook his head. She was the last thing he needed to be thinking about now—from this angle, anyway. She belonged on the other side of the coin, and was a danger he needed to avoid. If only he could come to terms with that and stop thinking of her as the lost love of his life.
The passage turned again, this time to the left. Maricossa wondered if Skylar and Libby had lost their torch somehow. Their footprints were close together and scuffed and frequently bumped into things, as though they were shuffling along blindly.
“Skylar? Libby? Can you hear me?” Still no answer. If they had lost their light, why on earth hadn’t they gone back towards the control room? Unless of course they had gotten turned around in the dark and thought they were heading back towards the control room while they were actually getting more and more lost.
Maricossa was beginning to wonder how far they would actually go before realizing they were heading the wrong way, when he saw light ahead. He followed the tunnel around a bend and found a metal ladder built into the wall, leading up to a door. The door was only open a crack, but daylight blazed through the gap.
Maricossa turned off his torch and climbed up to the door. Just as he reached it and pushed it open, he heard a peal of laughter. Libby’s voice was the one he recognized first, but Skylar was laughing too. That, at least, was a good sign.
The door led out onto a wide stone ledge that jutted out from a bramble-covered hillside so steep it was almost a cliff. Libby and Skylar sat with their backs to the door, looking across a deep gorge towards the waterfall. They both had handfuls of blackberries, and looked so happy that if Maricossa hadn’t known they were lost, he would have turned and left without saying anything.
As he stepped outside the door swung on its hinges, squealing loudly. Libby and Skylar turned to look at him.
“Oh, Maricossa! Thank goodness. We hoped you’d come looking for us eventually,” Libby said through berry-stained lips. “This is just like that scene in The Two Towers, isn’t it?” She waved her arm at the vista beyond the cliff. “Welcome, my lord, to Isengard! My name is Meriadoc, son of Saradoc, and this—”
“No, Libby,” Skylar interrupted, popping another berry into his mouth, “I’m Merry, remember? I’ve got too much good sense to be Pippin.”
“Says the boy who got us lost in the first place.”
“You got us lost running from the bats.”
“I only broke the torch, I didn’t get us lost.”
Maricossa smiled. “Skylar, I didn’t realize your ‘Strider’ reference meant having to look after a couple of adolescent Halflings. But regardless of who got you lost, would you like me to get you found?”
Libby’s smile faded. She glanced at Skylar, the ground, and the sky before answering. “I guess so,” she said softly. “It just… I just feel so much better out here in the open. I know it sounds dumb, but…”
Skylar stood and brushed himself off. "Don't worry. I don't like it much either, but…" he shrugged. "I'll try to be better company. Sorry. We can be miserable together. It won't be so bad."
Libby looked doubtful. “Maybe.”
“Come on, then. And no questions about second breakfast!” Maricossa turned to head back into the tunnel, but stopped first to look around. The view stretched for miles, maybe half way back to Shandor Rei—
A tiny sparkle of light caught his attention. Mariccosa froze, his blood running cold as his eyes focused on the hazy, yet distinct, shape of an airship hovering in the distance. The spark must have come from a spyglass. It was too far away to see markings and know whether it was a White Tiger vessel or not, but it hardly mattered. Any vessel could report back to the White Tiger.
“Back inside,” he said, “Hurry!” He held the door open while Libby and Skylar scrambled inside and down the ladder, then followed them and pulled it shut.
“What is it?” Libby asked as Maricossa turned his torch on once again and made his way down the ladder.
“Airship. We have to get back and make sure no one’s outside.”
They raced back through the passages and rooms, following their own tracks back to the control room. Scarf was ecstatic to see them but Maricossa brushed past him and hurried straight into the hangar.
The Daniel Defoe was still moored to the scaffolding, which meant Hez wouldn’t be far away.
“Professor!” Maricossa shouted when he saw the older man walking across the far end of the hangar, “where are the kids?”
“They’re in the kitchen,” Professor called back. “Mrs. Monday is just serving tea.”
“All of them?”
The Professor chuckled. “You don’t think they’d miss her sugar cookies, do you?” He suddenly frowned. "What's wrong?"
Maricossa let out a quick breath of relief. That, at least, was one less worry. "I saw an airship when I found these two. It's far away, but I caught the glint of a spyglass."
“What now?” Libby asked. “We just wait for the airship to go away?”
Maricossa walked to the edge of the walkway they stood on and braced his arms against the railing. “Libby,” he said, “we need to talk. I didn’t want to this soon, but I don’t think it can wait.”
“What do you mean?” Libby said. “Talk about what?”
“Maricossa, Skylar, there you are!” Hez sauntered out of the ship’s hull and down the ramp to join them on the walkway. “Glad to see things are sorted out so we can get back to unloading these books, eh?”
“We’re not unloading any more,” Maricossa said. “Not now, anyway.”
Hez stopped, smile gone, and stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.”
“Wait,” Libby said, “why aren’t we?”
“That’s exactly what I’d like to know,” Hez said, putting his hands on his hips. “I have a crew and clients waiting for me in Shandor Rei—”
“And I’ll tell you when you’re free to rejoin them,” Maricossa said.
“Free?” Hez repeated. “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I take my orders from you. I’m fairly certain that ‘Captain’ outranks ‘Dishonorably Discharged Deserter.’ ”
“Hezekiah Honor Needle!” Libby snapped.
Maricossa left the railing and walked towards Hez. “You make all the cheap jabs you want,” he said, “but I’m in charge of protecting the kids, the Professor, and the books, and if I have to tie you down and gag you to do that, I will.”
Hez raised his eyebrows and kept coming forward. “That might be a bit tough to do, tiger boy.”
Maricossa saw Hez’s hands flexing, the subtle shifting of his shoulders, the slight forward thrust of his head, heard the challenge in his voice. Hez wanted a fight, a chance at the Alpha position. Why not give it to him, if it shut him up?
Maricossa made a point of looking Hez up and down as they both stopped, less than a step apart. He could see the feral energy in Hez’s eyes, the look of a man who had been in fights and liked them. He smiled condescendingly. “Not too tough, I expect,” he said, “a boy whose voice is barely done changing.”
“You take your best shot, if that’s what you think,” Hez said.
As you wish. Maricossa jerked his elbow up into Hez’s chest, sending him stumbling backwards.
The surprised pain on Hez’s face only lasted for a second, gone by the time he regained his balance. “So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?” he said, coming forward again and throwing a straight punch at Maricossa’s face.
Maricossa deflected the punch and used its momentum to turn Hez aside, leaving the back of his arm exposed for the stun maneuver that followed the block.
Hez shouted and spun around to face Maricossa again, pain beginning to blend with the anger on his face. He went into a roundhouse kick, once again aiming for Maricossa’s face.
Maricossa ducked, and Hez’s boot passed harmlessly over his head. The kick’s momentum carried him around to face away from Maricossa, and Maricossa used the chance to kick his thigh, dropping him to one knee. Before he could get up again Maricossa stepped up behind him and hit the side of his neck with a knife-hand strike.
Hez fell face-first onto the walkway, moaning, and didn’t move.
Maricossa knelt next to him and rolled him over. His eyes were wide, blinking every second or so, but he said nothing. Maricossa almost laughed. He’d been where Hez was a fair share of times and knew exactly how it felt.
“Now,” he said, leaning over where he was sure Hez could see him, “I. Will tell you. When you. Are free. To go. Capisci?”
Hez only moaned again.
Maricossa stood up, raked his hair back from his face, and turned around to see Libby tiptoeing towards him, her eyes on Hez and a worried look on her face.
“Is he--okay?” she whispered.
“Oh yes." Maricossa tried to repress a smile. "He’s probably seeing three or four of everything right now, but his faculties will regroup in a minute or so.”
Libby didn’t look convinced.
“I promise,” Maricossa said, “a brachial stun just hurts, it doesn’t harm.”
Libby covered her face with her hands and let out a breath, but it didn’t sound like one of relief. “I cannot believe you did that,” she said, raising her face again. Her eyes were narrowed. "When we’re all stuck here in this lousy bunker together and it’s bad enough without people fighting and you and Hez of all people, I mean, I know he can be a flaming nuisance and sometimes I’d like to clock him myself, but you can’t just—”
“Libby, Libby!” Maricossa said. "Trust me, he needed to get that out of his system and we’ll all be better off now that he has.”
Libby crossed her arms and walked back to where Skylar stood.
“Come on, you two,” Maricossa said, starting for the kitchen at the far end of the hangar. Skylar fell in beside him, and Libby walked on Skylar’s other side, looking none-too happy. “We still need to talk.”
“About why we’re not unloading the books?” Libby asked.
“About why we can’t stay here,” Maricossa corrected, “and why somebody’s going to have to make a trip back to Shandor Rei.”