Another ship slid next to ours. There was a clank as a bridge connected the two. The ramp opened. Aubrey stepped daintily into the room, coughed, and put her nose into the crook of one arm. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light.
I nudged Harper who stared intently out the window. He didn’t move. I poked him harder in the ribs. He clenched my hand and pushed it onto the bench. The movement caught Aubrey’s attention.
“Harper,” she shouted, and forgetting the smell, ran to where we sat.
“Thanks a lot,” Harper whispered to me.
“Here, have some gum.” Aubrey produced two sticks, one for Harper and one for me.
“No thanks,” Harper said.
“Chew it,” Aubrey demanded.
She stood back with arms crossed until the wrappers were on the floor and our mouths were filled with the sweet spearmint taste.
“If you survive, you’re mine,” she finally said.
“He hasn’t stopped talking about you since we left,” I said. “He was trying to find you when he was captured.”
Harper kicked my ankle really hard.
“Really?” Aubrey giggled. “Wait here.”
“Why did you tell her that?” Harper looked absolutely furious.
I shrugged. “I thought maybe she’d get you out if she thought. . .”
Aubrey walked back in. The guard caught her arm. “The battle’s about to begin, miss.”
“I just want to give him a kiss, for luck.”
I turned my head so I didn’t have to watch. Jealousy boiled up inside me even though I knew he’d rather kiss a skunk.
She pinched my side. “See ya around.”
I wanted to bust her in the mouth.
We watched her skip off the ship in front of her escort.
Harper spit something into his hand. Before I could see what it was, the drummer bellowed, “Strike oars.”
“I need to know, before we die,” I said. As I lifted the heavy wood, the blisters on my hands burst; a pink mixture of blood and fluid ran down my arms. “How do I find Tristen?”
“You don’t find Tristen; he finds you.”
“But, I need to talk to him.”
“Rest,” the drummer bellowed.
Harper shook his arm, and a white package wrapped in rubber bands dropped from his sleeve. Carefully, he undid the paper and smoothed it open. Smudged black ink in wibbly letters scrawled the words, “Meet me at the x. Love Aubrey.” Further down the page, a map showed many and complex mirror paths to follow to the x that was Aubrey. Taped to the very bottom, a very small key, surrounded by lipstick kiss imprints, gave Harper the means of escape.
Each of the locks on his wrists and ankles opened easily. Next, he tried mine. No such luck. He looked out the window where the other ships maneuvered into battle formation.
“Those Pterodactyls still fly by sometimes. You can jump out the window,” I suggested.
“I might be able to destroy this ship if I stay,” he said.
I wanted him to say that he wasn’t leaving without me. His plan to sink the ship with me still chained to it pretty much stamped out any hopes that we’d get back together. As he considered his next move, his tongue started feeling for the missing lip rings.
“Reach into my pockets,” I whispered.
He looked disgusted. “In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, we’re through.”
“In what world would I ask you to reach into my pockets as a prelude to kissing or anything else?” Disdain permeated every syllable.
“Get in your own pockets.”
“I can’t,” I hissed through clenched teeth and pulled at the chains to remind him of their short reach.
His fingers tentatively moved into my pant pocket. Since I have shallow ones, he didn’t have to reach very far. When they encountered the first object, his eyes opened a bit.
“Don’t smile,” I murmured. “And don’t drop one.”
Piece by piece, he pulled out the tongue post, lip rings, and other pieces that made up his gun.
“Barrel?” he asked.
“Up my sleeves,” I told him.
Popping the bands off my arms allowed them to drop.
“Power cell?” was his next question.
“Why do you think I’ve got my hair in this ridiculous bun? The power cell’s in the middle.” I bent my head down as if resting so he could retrieve the small square. “Take out the bobby pins and hair tie while you’re at it. The tight hair hurts.”
“If I do, they might suspect something.”
“You’re enjoying making me suffer, aren’t you?”
“Just a little,” he flashed me a wicked grin. It hurt my heart.
“Strike oars,” the drummer ordered.
“Cruising speed,” he said, thumping the drums in a rhythmic quick-paced tempo.
“Shouldn’t you go now?” I asked.
“Not yet. We’ve got to wait for the right time.”
“Attack speed.” Upping the tempo increased the movement of the oars.
A loud boom sounded outside. Bits of mirror flew in through the window in front of us. Three rowers split into segments and disappeared.
“Stupid,” Harper said. “He’s bombing his own ships.”
Two more blasts sent a dozen more rowers into oblivion. The ship pitched and bucked.
“Pull in oars!” the drummer bellowed.
I got mine in just before a dragon slid it’s scales against the side of the ship, raking some of the wood into splinters and tearing larger gaps in the window openings. The ship next to us wasn’t so fortunate. Another dragon with red glittering scales and roasting breath dove at its hull. Rowers didn’t have time to withdraw their oars. Raking past, the dragon broke them off like toothpicks, ripping gaping holes where the oars poked through. The downdraft dragged some rowers out so that they dangled from their chains screaming and thrashing like macabre marionettes.
“Attack speed,” the drummer shouted. His hammer beats pulsed in my ears as I struggled to keep pace.
Something crackled overhead. Solar tiles cascaded around our ship. I could hear them slamming into the deck. A loud groan like a door opening on rusted hinges told us the ray above us had been badly damaged.
“Ramming speed,” a gas masked figure from above shouted into the hold. The beat’s tempo was impossible to follow.
“The ship’s going to fall on us,” Harper muttered.
Loud cracking started at the front of the ship. Before I could figure out what it was, the oar ripped from my hands. A fissure in the hull opened until the ship appeared to be splitting in two horizontally. Harper leaped over me as the ship foundered, rolling toward the fractured side. Without him to hold me in place, my body slid along the bench. My hands grasped the chains to halt my downward fall, but inertia was on the side of the enemy. One of my shoes slid off into the chasm that opened as I swung in the open like some crazy acrobat while the battle raged all around me.
I looked up in time to see Harper crawl through the hold onto the deck. A second later, he tumbled past me, his arm around the neck of a soldier that worked vainly to free itself from his grasp.
“Tristen, help him,” I whispered. I don’t know why I whispered. It sounded quiet and peaceful compared to the barrage of destruction raging around me.
“What about you?” a familiar voice asked.
The kid peered at me over the back half of the hull.
“I’m going to unlock you,” he said. “Something’ll pick you up, probably a catfish.”
I wanted to ask him how he managed to get unlocked and why I hadn’t noticed him earlier, chained to one of the oars, but the wrist manacles released. I expected to fall, but I stayed suspended. I forgot, no gravity.
Sure enough, a giant catfish moved under me and lifted until I was on its back. It did not, however, carry me to safety as I expected. Instead, it continued on its mission of raking oars with its fins and swatting ships off kilter with its broad tail. I’d like to say I enjoyed the ride, but I almost passed out with terror.
When the last of Largarus’ ships broke apart, the fish swam to the ground and allowed me to slide off.
I was standing at the top of a subway station. Dragons, pterodactyls, and other beings swam around the wreckage, picking up stranded soldiers and carrying them away. Driverless cars buzzed past, shop doors opened and closed, I was alone.
“Looks like we might be in for some trouble.” A man about my dad’s age with blonde hair and quick blue eyes peered into the sky. Pock marks and scars dotted his cheeks and chin. “You got money for a blaster?”
I shook my head.
“I do, come on.” He gestured for me to follow. A street vendor sold him a device similar to the one I used to own. We made our way to a park bench.
“So, what’s your story?” he asked.
I started telling him everything from Cheyenne’s disappearance to my deliverance from the ship. He whistled and shook his head at the more dangerous parts. I didn’t occur to me until I’d finished that he might be with Largarus.
“Did he survive? Harper, I mean.”
I sniffed a little, and my eyes filled, “I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do now?” His voice was kind and encouraging.
“I’m going to try to find Tristen. Harper said he would find me, but I don’t think he knows how much I need to see him. He’s the only one that can help me.”
“I came into his world and messed everything up. Then I went back to my world and messed everything up even more. I’m hoping he’ll make things right, after he kills me, of course.”
The man took a baseball out of his pocket and started tossing it in the air and catching it. “Wanna play?”
He smiled. When I looked into his eyes, I saw, and I was afraid. And more than being afraid, I was sad. I’d betrayed him. I slid off the bench and put my head on his shoes.
“I am so sorry,” I sobbed.
He knelt on one knee beside me and put his arm around my shoulder. “It is forgiven. It was forgiven the day at the mirror, the first time you called on my name for help.”
“But, I made such a mess, and I hurt Harper, and Sadie’s captured, and the whole world’s going to die.”
He lifted me to sit on the bench and handed me a handkerchief. “Dry your eyes. Don’t cry anymore.”
When I was calm, he continued, “We rescued Sadie from one of the ships. She’s back home with your mom.”
“Oh, thank you,” I breathed.
“The nano virus never made it to any other host.”
“Dr. Quint’s ailment oil. Mrs. L engineered the nano’s to escape under your fingernails. The oil rendered them useless. And the gloves kept them contained. Harper got them out of your closet for me right after Cheyenne sent you through.”
“So, you’re Gene?”
“And the street peddler,” he confirmed.
“Guess it’s time for me to go home,” I said.
“You have some unfinished business,” he looked across the street. Harper emerged from around a corner and walked through the traffic toward us.
“That’s over. I’m sure he’s here to see you.”
“Here’s a new blaster,” Tristen told me. “to replace the one Largarus took.”
I pushed it away. “I won’t be needing that on my side of the mirror.”
By this time, Harper was standing next to the bench.
“Would you mind giving us a minute?” Tristen asked him.
He walked several yards away and stood with his back to us while Tristen whispered something in my ear.
“You can come back now.” Tristen faded before Harper could get back to the bench.
He sat in Tristen’s spot as if that were the most natural thing in the world.
“He found me right after you left,” Harper began. ” After you gave me that message in the mirror, he talked to me again. He told me that he forgave me for disobeying him and kissing you. He said I should forgive you for what you did, since you were truly sorry and tried to make amends.”
I sucked in my bottom lip and waited.
Harper gave me that grin, “Think we could start over?”
“I’d like that,” I whispered.
He leaned over and paused. My body became hyper aware of every place of contact, how warm his leg felt next to me, his fingers laced with mine, his shoulder against my arm. I waited for him, enjoying the anticipation. His kiss told me he forgave me. It was the most breathtaking kiss so far.
“You put your tongue rod back in,” I said.
“You are obsessed with that thing,” he said. “Maybe we should do yours.”
“No way,” I told him.
“So, I guess you’re going back?” He looked off like he always did when faced with a tough subject.
“Not after what Tristen told me.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That nano virus spreads and replicates at human touch. I can never go back, as long as my body has one of the pieces.”