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

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.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Chapter 10--Libby

Libby stood on the deck of the Daniel Defoe and watched Skylar carry Mia up the ramp. As soon as he had both feet on the deck, Hez slashed at the ramp's ropes with his knife and kicked the board off the ship.
Better move soon. She glanced around. Skylar and Mia had disappeared inside the cabin with Maricossa and the Professor; Hez and the older kids dashed around the deck preparing for flight while Mrs. Monday kept Leelee and Toddy out of the way.
Libby grabbed Dash as she rushed past. "Hey, listen, tell Sky…" What? Tell him what? Libby dug Hamlet's note out of her pocket and stared at it. How would she explain?
"What?" Dash brushed her tangled brown hair away from her eyes.
"Do you have a pencil?"
Dash pulled one from her vest pocket.
Libby pressed Hamlet's note against her thigh and scribbled, I'm going back for them. We'll find you, below Hamlet's note. She handed the pencil and the note to Dash. "Give that to Skylar when he notices I'm missing."
"You—you're not coming with us?"
"We can't just leave the boys behind." Libby brushed her braids back and retied her scarf tightly. "I'll catch up."
"Maricossa's gonna be mad. So will Hez and Skylar and…geez, Libby, everyone's gonna be mad at you."
"Well, that's just too awful, isn't it?" Libby glanced at Mrs. Monday to make sure she wasn't looking, then swung over the railing. She landed in a crouch and stayed down as the airship began to lift off.
Once it was clear of the dock, Libby dashed for the abandoned longboat. She clambered aboard and turned to watch the Daniel Defoe splash through the waterfall's spray. No one had seen her. She sat on the deck and took a deep, shaky breath.
What am I doing? This is crazy. I can't just take off…I can't…but I can't just leave Hamlet and Brick. Oh stars, what am I doing—
A loud boom echoed into the bunker, only a little muffled by the waterfall. Libby shot to her feet. "The White Tiger!" She jumped over the side of the longboat, braced her feet, and pushed against it. The bottom of the boat scraped along the rocky floor, and the shredded stern left splinters under her feet.
It cleared the floor. Libby jumped in, unfurled the sail, and tried to start the small propeller. It creaked and hissed, shooting steam into the air. She glanced back at it. The outer metal casing, dull brass, had several large dents in it from the grapeshot that had damaged the stern.
"Oh, bother it all!" Libby pounded it with one hand. I need the Professor.
The longboat drifted toward the waterfall.
Libby ground her teeth. She pounded again. "Work, you worthless piece of junkyard scrap!"
The waterfall misted over the boat, drumming on the balloons. Libby shaded her eyes with one hand. Where were they?
Another cannon shot, this time behind her. Libby spun and squinted up at the sky. The Daniel Defoe and the White Tiger airship hung above the waterfall, broadside to each other. The White Tiger ship dwarfed Hez's, and dark wisps of smoke drifted up from one of the guns poking from her deck.
Libby bit her lower lip. "C'mon, Hez, move!"
A cloud of glittering bits shot from the Defoe. Libby rubbed her eyes and looked again. What in Shandor Rei is he shooting at them? Pixie dust?
Whatever it was, it worked. The shards clung to the hull of the White Tiger ship and slashed at the balloons. Libby smirked. Of course, Hez had a plan. He always had a plan.
Maybe that was why he and Maricossa clashed so much.
She turned her attention back to her own boat. It was floating just above the river, carried along by the air currents over the cold water. She wouldn't need the propeller after all.
Libby straightened the sail, made sure it was tied firmly in place, and spun the wheel. The boat rose above the river and soon skimmed along the treetops.
She glanced back for one more look at the airships. The Defoe was chugging away in the opposite direction, and the White Tiger ship was slowly settling to the ground. Libby grinned. For the first time, she was glad they'd brought Hez in on their adventure.
Libby reached to the side of the wheel and inflated the balloons a bit more.
She glanced over her shoulder again. The waterfall had faded to mist behind her, and there was no sign of the Defoe. Her throat tightened, and she fingered a charm on the end of one of her braids.
Skylar's worried face sprang to mind. He'd be frantic that she'd left his protection. And Maricossa and the Professor would be furious. Libby didn't even want to think about how Mrs. Monday would react—after losing Coll, she'd turned to mothering the Library kids. She'd probably be sick with worry.
Was it right of her to be so excited, so elated, at having pulled off her escape when she'd be making so many people anxious? After all, it's not like they were trying to keep me captive. They all just wanted me to be safe. Hez isn't exactly the best influence.
It had all seemed so simple in the Library. She'd wanted to cut the White Tiger's legs out from under it. She thought she'd be able to do that by teaching people to read. Instead, it had gotten them in this mess. I still want to help, but the others act like they don't want me to do anything.
She shook her head, rattling the charms in her braids. No. I'm not going to sit by and let everyone else risk themselves for my kids and my library. She still needed to work out exactly how that would look, but for now, she'd just see this as her first attempt to pull her weight in their little rebellion. Besides, it's too late to turn back now.
Libby shoved the thought from her mind and inflated the balloons a little more. She drifted upward, watching the brilliant colors of the sky slowly fading as the sun sank. She smiled. Everything was so peaceful…
As she sailed on, back toward the city, the sun sank to the horizon. The sun rays gold-washed the leaves below her in rippling waves, making it seem as though she was floating on a sea of dark green and gold. Orange and pink cloud streaks shot across the sky, and even the faint smog that hung over Shandor Rei glittered. The last sun rays glinted off an airship chugging over the city, clearly depicting the snarling tiger's face on the brilliant white balloons. A reconnaissance ship.
Libby's shoulders tensed. She crouched down behind the wheel and quickly toggled the balloon pressure down. Too quick. The boat dropped. Her heart jumped to her throat. She released the switch, but before the balloons could stabilize, the bottom of the longboat crunched into the trees below.
The impact knocked her on her rump. The wheel turned, and the boat listed to one side.
"No, no, no!" Libby scrambled against the tilting deck and jerked the wheel back. The boat stopped leaning, and she heard branches grate against the tiller. Libby poked her eyes over the wheel, keeping herself stiff so the boat wouldn't move, and watched the airship.
It continued its slow circle of the city.
Libby huffed and sat down, biting her lower lip. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? I should've brought someone with me…even one of the kids would have been helpful.
A cool night breeze slid over the boat, rustling the branches and raising goosebumps on her skin. Libby shivered and zipped up her jacket. "Stupid, Libretto Con Brio," she muttered. "Stupid to listen to Hez again."
Because that's what had started this. He'd challenged her, wanted to know why she was following Maricossa and Skylar, why she didn't just strike out on her own.
Because every time I do, Hez, something bad happens. Libby stood up and peered over the railing of the boat. For the most part, the boat simply seemed to be resting on a tangle of branches, but from what she could see in the fading light, the tiller and propeller were completely tangled in some sort of vines.
She groaned and looked around. Then she snorted. What am I doing? There's no one there. No one to help me out of this. Great going, Libby.
A long howl drifted up from the forest floor. Libby hunched her shoulders and clenched her hands into fists. The tension in her muscles felt like it would tear her apart.
She hopped in a circle, her legs stiff, her heels thudding into the deck, shaking her arms up and down in short, jerky movements. "Not good, not good, not good," she chanted. "Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad…oooh, Libby, you dunderhead!"
She stopped spinning.
She pulled up the trapdoor and dropped below the deck. It was almost completely dark in here, but the hold wasn't big. Maybe she could blunder her way onto something that would help. She crouched down and patted the sides of the boat and the floor. Her hand struck something metallic and sent it skittering across the floor.
Libby followed the sound and, searching more carefully, found it. By the shape, it was a medical knife. She tucked it into her jacket pocket and finished exploring the hold. There was nothing else useful to be found, even though she pawed into every corner and cranny.
When she stuck her head above deck again, the sun was gone, and the moon was gaining brilliance in the east.
"But still not enough light to work by," she muttered. Her skin prickled as she looked around again. This time, lit with silver instead of gold, the sea of leaves looked menacing and ready to pull her under.
She shivered. "I suppose it's better than crashing on the forest floor."
By feel, she unfurled the sails and brought them down to the deck, where she built a nest of them and crawled in. She pulled a canvas over her shoulder, curled up, shut her eyes, and tried to ignore the pops, squeaks, and howls that drifted up from the forest.
A snap jerked her awake. Sunlight filtered through the canvas that she'd somehow pulled over her head the night before. Libby sat up and pushed the canvas away.
Longboat. Right. Going to find Brick and Hamlet. She peered around the boat, her eyes fuzzy from sleep. Everything seemed fine.
Another snap, and the boat jerked underneath her. Libby scrambled to her feet. Wha…oh, crashed. In the trees. Right. She staggered to the side of the boat—it was leaning more than last night—and looked over.
The jagged ends of two substantial branches poked out from underneath the boat.
Libby's blood went cold. She looked up at the balloons. They were still inflated. At least if the branches break underneath us, I won't fall to my death on the forest floor. She went to the stern of the boat and tested the tiller and propeller. They were still tangled in vines and branches.
She pulled the medical knife from her pocket and looked at it. It wasn't nearly as good of a find as she'd thought last night—now that she could see it rather than just feel it, she realized it was mostly handle. She pressed the button on the side, and the blade slid out a little more.
Well, it would have to work.
Libby leaned over the railing and swiped at the vines tangled in the propeller blades. She came about four inches short. I need Skylar! Even Hez would be nice. She tried to lean down a little more, and her body overbalanced, her feet swinging off the deck.
Libby squealed and jerked back. The knife clattered to the deck as she landed on her rump. Her heart thudded in her chest. She leaned back, forcing herself to take slow, deep breaths. I could've fallen and died! What in the world…okay, okay, stop panicking. Stop. You're more resourceful than this. Just think.
Libby forced herself back on her feet. Could she get out of the boat, climb down to the ground, and find Brick and Hamlet on foot? She couldn't see how far up she was. Besides, how would they catch up with the others if she left the boat? It wasn't like they could walk to Tianzhu She didn't even know where in Tianzhu they were heading for.
No, that just wouldn't work. She'd have to cut the propeller loose.
She blew out an irritated breath and said, "C'mon, Libby. You can do this." She grabbed the knife, swung her legs over the railing, and curled her toes around the two-inch-wide piece of trim that ran under the railing. Grasping a piece of railing with her hand, she leaned to the side. The vines were within easy reach now, but her arm was already tiring.
"Thanks a lot, Hez," she muttered, sliding the knife under a vine and slicing it free.
The knife was, thankfully, quite sharp. Within a few minutes, the propeller and tiller were both free. Libby climbed back into the boat, opening and closing her hands to work out the stiffness that clutching the knife and the railing so tightly had caused.
She filled the balloons with a little more gas. The longboat slowly rose from the branches. Libby retied and hoisted the sails, and the canvas soon filled with the gentle morning breeze. Libby grabbed the wheel as the longboat began moving toward Shandor Rei once again.
"Can't do anything on my own, Hez? Ha!" she shouted, pumping one fist toward the sky. "Yes!"
The longboat drifted closer to Shandor Rei, and the forest abruptly ended below the hull. Libby swung the boat around and floated above the edge of the forest, keeping close to the trees so she wouldn't attract attention from the city.
A sparse bit of the forest jutted closer to the city than the rest, and as she moved closer, Libby realized there was a tiny clearing, big enough for the longboat, just inside the trees. It was a perfect spot for a meeting place. She spun the wheel and drifted broadside over the clearing, peering down inside of it.
Hamlet popped out into the clearing and started waving his arms. Like she could miss him, the big lug. Libby grinned and waved back.
Brick galloped out beside him, red hair sticking every which way from his head as he shifted from foot to foot.
Libby glanced away to judge the longboat's landing point and release air from the balloons. When she looked back, there was a third person beside Brick, hand raised in a stiff wave.