It was a tense ride. Hez was correct—their longboat was far lighter than the White Tiger’s craft, but the larger boat stayed in sight the whole way back to the bunker.
“They won’t catch us,” Skylar muttered to Libby, glancing over his shoulder at the looming menace behind them. “But this’ll be a squeak.”
She looked up from where she was kneeling in the gunwales beside the injured Maricossa, and bit her lip. Skylar put his hand—the flesh-and-bone one, not the metal one—on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “Mrs. Monday and the Professor will take care of him,” he assured her, hoping it was true. He cast a look back at the pursuing craft. “He’ll be fine.”
Hez, at the tiller, shouted through the wind to Skylar. “Hey, ’borg! Get him—” he jabbed his chin at the semi-conscious Maricossa “—ready. We’re going to have to make this fast.”
Skylar gritted his teeth at the pirate’s epithet and started helping Maricossa into a sitting position on one of the benches. “Wake up, Maricossa,” he grunted, heaving the larger man’s arm over his shoulder. “You’re going to have to help me a bit here.”
Maricossa groaned and opened his eyes. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said, breathing heavily. He let Skylar hoist him onto the bench, and then hunched over his wound, which had bled through the bandages in places. “…I don’t think.”
Over the prow of the longboat, Skylar could see where the long silver line of the Shandor plunged over into an abyss of spray and mist. The bunker waited, and he clenched his metal fist with a clack, hoping everyone was ready.
They had to be ready.
Hez swept over the top of the waterfall and dropped the longboat down, using the currents of air off the water to spin the boat until the prow faced the large gap in the wall of water. Through the spray, Skylar could see the Defoe waiting, and small figures milling about.
With what seemed like painful slowness, Hez brought the longboat into the cavern and set her down—none too gently—on the stone floor. “Mrs. Monday!” he shouted, throwing a rope over the side and leaping after it. “Professor!”
Skylar grabbed Maricossa’s arm around his shoulder and stood, heaving the injured man to his feet. “Lib,” he grunted. “Go get the kids. I’ll take care of—”
“Right.” She leaped over the edge of the longboat and started calling the children together, shepherding them onto the Defoe and forming the older ones into an assembly line to load the supplies from the longboat into the larger ship.
“Hezekiah?” The Professor was shrugging into a sweater as he came, and his eyes opened wide behind his spectacles, taking in Maricossa’s condition. “Oh, my,” he tutted. “We should treat that immed—”
“No time.” Maricossa stood upright, and released Skylar’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Get those kids aboard.”
Skylar nodded and dropped over the side of the longboat, reaching back to grab and armful of goods to carry. “The Professor will take care of you,” he said to Maricossa, casting a worried eye on the older man’s blood-soaked bandages. If they lost Maricossa now, after finally coming to trust him… And that wound was worse than he was letting on.
Maricossa cradled his injured hand and gritted his teeth. “Go on, Sky,” he said. “We don’t have time.”
True. The blue sky was still bare of enemy ships, but they couldn’t have gained more than a thirty minute lead on the White Tiger. They’d be here soon.
Skylar started to turn away, but Maricossa added, “And Skylar—find Mia. Please.”
“I will,” Skylar promised.
“Skylar?” Mrs. Monday appeared from the makeshift kitchen at the back of the cavern, wiping her hands on a towel. “What’s going on?”
“We have to get everyone onto the ship,” Skylar answered, hefting his load of supplies over his shoulder. “The White Tiger are on their way.”
She threw the towel over her shoulder. “Everything is loaded—we just need what you brought, and the children.”
The next ten minutes were a flurry of action as sacks were unloaded from the longboat and stashed away as quickly as possible. Skylar saw the Professor help Maricossa up the gangplank and into the captain’s cabin, but he had no time to worry about the injured man. Some of the smaller children were crying—Mia, in particular, had curled into a ball in a corner of the cavern and was sobbing inconsolably. She refused to board the Defoe, and no one could quite reach her.
Looking around in vain for Libby, Skylar knelt next to the tiny girl, his metal parts clanking in protest. “Mia,” he said, trying to sound gentle even as his mind screamed that the other ship was going to be here in seconds! “Mia, come out, please?”
Sobbing, she refused, shaking her head vehemently.
“Mia—I’ll take you to Maricossa,” Skylar pleaded.
Her little eyes, brimming with tears in a reddened face, looked up at him. “Maricossa?”
Heartened, Skylar nodded and extended his hand. “Yeah—Maricossa. Come on, I’ll take you to him.”
She looked at his hand doubtfully for a second, and then—to Skylar’s relieved sigh—she took it and allowed him to pull her from her hiding place. He hoisted her onto his hip and jogged back to the Defoe.
“That’s everyone!” he shouted up to Hez, stumbling onto the deck. “Let’s go!”
Hez slashed a rope with his dagger and the gangplank clattered to the ground. “Strap yourselves in, kiddos!” he roared. “Below deck!”
Skylar carried Mia to the captain’s cabin and pushed the door open. Inside, Maricossa was sitting hunched on the edge of the bunk, grimacing at the balding top of the Professor’s head. The Professor examined Maricossa’s bandaging, and shook his head.
“I can’t take off the bandages right now,” he said. “As soon as we’re off and safe, I’ll take care of it, but for now you just need to lie down and—”
“I can’t lie down,” Maricossa protested, trying to push himself to his feet. The Professor grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back onto the bunk.
“Boy,” he said in a firm voice, “You have lost far too much blood to be waltzing around in the middle of a daring escape—not to mention the fact that you’re going into shock. Now lie down.”
Skylar let Mia slide off his hip and onto the floor. “Stay in here,” he told her. “Don’t come outside, no matter what, ok?”
She nodded up at him, tear tracks still marking her cheeks.
“Skylar,” Maricossa said, “We have to get the books—the kids out of here. We have to…” He swayed woozily, shaking his head in frustration.
Skylar, unnerved to see Maricossa—usually the strongest of them all—so shaken, stepped back. “We’ve got it covered,” he lied. “Just…” Just get better, he wanted to say. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
He left before Maricossa could say another word, taking a deep breath as he stepped back into the chaos on the deck. The Defoe was lifting, moving toward the entrance of the bunker, her balloons straining at the ropes and the sails starting to flutter in the updraft of air from the waterfall.
“Skylar!” Hez shouted at him from the wheel. “Get up here!”
Skylar hurried up the deck, joining Hez, the older children, and Mrs. Monday.
“We have maybe ten minutes before they’re on us,” Hez said, throwing levers and spinning the wheel. Above their heads, various ropes and connecting pulleys clicked and shifted. Hez jerked his chin toward six small cannons lining either side of the Defoe’s deck—three on each side. “It’s going to be a fight. We’re lighter and smaller, but they’ve got heavier artillery. That’s good and bad—good, because it makes them even heavier and slower. Bad, because we don’t have the firepower for a fair fight.” He grinned darkly, and a maniacal gleam shone in his eyes. “So it’s a good thing I don’t fight fair.”
Skylar laid his hand on the nearest cannon. It was oddly small, and rather than being made of iron it was… “Leather?”
Hez nodded, fastened the wheel in place, and leaped down to the main deck. “Watch and learn, lubbers,” he said. He flung the lid off a small trunk that sat fastened to the deck beneath the leather cannon.
“Leather—again, it’s lighter. Also, you’ll see here—” he grabbed a handle that protruded from the side “—no firepower. This is all in your arm. You crank this lever, the belt inside moves—reciprocating gears make it fast enough to work—and it shoots these.” He reached into the trunk and pulled out a small, shining shard. Skylar and the others leaned closer.
“Is that glass?” Mrs. Monday exclaimed.
Hez nodded proudly. “My own invention. The shards slice up the balloons—that’s what we’re aiming for. Slash those gas-bags, and their ship goes down.” He looked around at the ragtag bunch, and sighed.
“What I wouldn’t give,” he bemoaned, “for my own crew back again. Instead, all I’ve got are you bunch of wet-behind-the-ears kids.”
Mrs. Monday raised her eyebrow at him, and crossed her arms over her chest.
Hez shrugged. “No offense, lady,” he said, “but I’m a pirate. Not a babysitter.”
They didn’t have time for this, and after weeks of complaining, Skylar didn’t have the patience to deal with Hez’s attitude. He stood and came nose-to-nose with the pirate, grabbing Hez’s shirtfront in his metal fist.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” he said, his voice as cool as he could make it, “We have a battle to fight. This is not the time to be complaining about what you don’t have.”
Hez narrowed his eyes. “Let go of me, ’borg,” he ordered.
Skylar tightened his grip. “The name’s Skylar.”
There was tense silence for a second, and then a slow grin spread across Hez’s features. “Let go of me, Skylar.”
Skylar released him, and the pirate stepped back, tugging his shirt straight.
“Alright,” he said. “You’re my crew now. Here’s the plan: don’t hurt my ship, do as much damage to their ship as you can, and don’t die. Everyone take a cannon, familiarize yourself with how it works. You have—” he checked his watch. “Five minutes.”
The White Tiger ship was faster than they had anticipated. Skylar, looking anxiously off the port stern, shouted as the Defoe broke over the top of the mountain.
Hez cursed and threw several levers at once. “We’ve got to stay above them,” he shouted. “Get your cannons ready!”
The enemy fired first.
She was a large ship, equipped with four large balloons painted black with a white claw arching over their curved surface.
“It’s the Ares,” Hez shouted. “I’ve seen her before.” Skylar was just close enough to hear him add, more quietly, “Never had to fight her before.”
Skylar swallowed and adjusted his grip on the wooden handle of his cannon, waiting for the moment when he could line his muzzle up with the Ares’ black balloons.
“Mrs. Monday!” Hez shouted. “Get up here!”
The matronly woman scurried up the stairs to the wheel, and Hez shoved it into her hands. “Hold it just like this,” he ordered. “Do not let her turn an inch to the right or the left.” Then he sprang away, leaping to grab hold of a rope that hung from the balloons above. He scurried up to the golden roof of the silk-covered balloons and began to unfurl some extra canvas that hadn’t been loosed yet. Task completed, he dropped with a thump to the deck beside Skylar.
“That eye help with your aim any?” he asked, gesturing at Skylar’s glass-and-brass eye.
Skylar tapped it. “I can hit a starling with a rock from three rooftops away.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Hez said. “But I’m going to hope it was a yes. Let’s see how good you are at hitting an airship that’s coming at you. I want you to aim for the balloons—go for the center. I’m depending on you—make it through this, and I’ll make you my gunner. Capisce?”
“Got it.” Skylar sighted down the length of his cannon. “Um, Hez?”
“They’re coming around.”
The Ares had swung out wide, and was now heading directly for the Defoe, every inch of canvas unfurled and catching a westerly wind that brought them rocketing toward the smaller craft.
On the deck of the Ares, men scuttled about, and a boom! exploded in a poof of grey smoke.
Then another. A cannonball whistled past just under the Defoe’s keel, a clear warning.
“They’re firing!” shouted Dash.
Hez cursed, spinning to rush back up to the forecastle and take the wheel from Mrs. Monday. “Man the cannons, troops!” he roared. “And hold on to your hats!”
The Defoe, with Hez at the wheel and the controls, began to rise, her lighter weight outracing the bulk of the Ares. The larger ship raced closer, but couldn’t get enough wind under her to meet the Defoe, and instead passed underneath.
“Fire!” shouted Hez from the controls. Skylar and the children cranked their cannons, sending a rain of shining glass shards raining down on the larger ship. Several of the shards pierced the taut surface of the balloon, and Skylar heard shouts and curses coming from the other crew, who couldn’t bring their ordinary cannons to bear on a ship so much higher than them.
He shouted, exultant, and reloaded his cannon. The first time he had shot, it had been willy-nilly at the general direction of the oncoming hulk. This time, he took a deep breath to steady his hand—which was shaking with adrenaline—and closed his right eye.
Viewing the world in green and gold highlights through his mechanical eye, he blinked twice, the metal eyelid clacking together. Focus… Zooming in, he made out a place where three of their previous shots had ripped a loose triangle on the surface of the balloon. Not enough to rip a hole, but a single shot to the center ought to finish the job.
He aimed his cannon, tracking the massive balloon as it traveled under the keel of the Defoe, judging his distance. Zing! The shard fired off straight and true, zipping through the sky with the sun glinting off its jagged surface to pierce directly through the target.
With an audible woosh, the Ares began losing altitude. The hole—probably only a handbreadth wide when Skylar first shot—ripped open with the force of released pressure until it gaped six feet long.
Hez leaped from the captain’s wheel and landed next to Skylar, slapping him on the back with a whoop. “You’re hired, mate!” he shouted. “There she goes!”
Sure enough, the Ares was sinking down through the layer of clouds below, taking the enraged crew of White Tiger agents with them.
The children cheered and immediately started telling each other their own versions of what had just happened, elaborating as they went. Skylar, a grin splitting his face, turned to look for Libby.
“Lib?” he called.
Hez glanced around. “Is she in the cabin?”
“She wasn’t when I took Mia in.” Unease tickled Skylar’s belly, nibbling away at his jubilation.
“Libby!” shouted Hez, his voice roaring out over the deck like an order to reef sails or drop anchor. “Libretto con Brio!”
No answer. The children looked at each other, falling silent.
“Skylar?” Dash said, hesitant. “She didn’t come.”
The words hit Skylar like a punch in the gut. “What?”
“She stayed behind. She said to give you this.” He/she stepped forward and drew a scrap of paper from his/her pocket, holding it out to Skylar.
He took it, and read aloud, “We're fine. Don't worry. Let us know the plan. Check in at the grocery, we spend most of our days there. It’s signed ‘Hamlet.’” At the bottom, Libby had added in a hurried scrawl, I’m going back for them. We’ll find you.
His hand dropped to his side, and he desperately scanned the cloud-draped horizon with his mechanical eye, as if Libby might be coming as he looked. It was in vain.
She was gone.