(Waterworld Mermaid Note: If you haven’t already, please read Victory Garden (Part One) first.)
“We don’t have time to figure it out now. Come on.” Amalee dragged him through the shoulder-high maze in Talbot’s garden.
Ethan’s stride was much shorter than in his own body, he stumbled into the prickly greenery. Strands of his – her – long blue hair became tangled in the bushes. Afraid of losing her in the maze, Ethan yanked the hair free, pocketing the bright tufts into the inside pocket of her jacket. Left. Right. Left again. Finally they arrived at the green house at its center.
The humid air inside made the cotton of his shirt stick to his breasts. Fucking hell, her breasts. Hers!
She paused inside the glass door. “Stay here.”
Glancing around, his gaze took in the riotous colors of blooms mixed in with the deep green of ferns. “You took on Talbot’s guard for a flower?”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Ethan grabbed her arm inside his overcoat and pulled her to him, the strangeness of how his now much shorter body – her petite frame – fit against her – his – greater height discombobulating his thoughts further. “If we work together, we’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for faster.”
A frisson of electricity jumped between them and she stopped, still as one of the marble statues in the garden outside. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“Because I’ve been following you for weeks with the sole purpose of delivering you to Talbot.” Shame burned his skin.
She pulled away from him as if he’d struck her. “And that’s suppose to make me trust you?”
“I could have grabbed you at any time, but I didn’t. Couldn’t.” It wasn’t until he’d said the words aloud that he realized how true they were. Stuck inside her tiny body, he saw the world from her perspective and realized he liked the view.
“How gallant of you to spare me.” She squatted low, adjusting to the change in bodies much quicker than he, and scurried through the greenhouse.
He caught up to her as she contemplated a profusion of orchids. “Chances are slim he’ll let either of us live after this.”
“So do you trust me?” Her answer meant far more to him than he cared to admit, even to himself.
“Not in the least.” She plucked up a tall, potted orchid with delicate white blooms and snatched a small gear from beneath it. “But I’ll suffer your presence until Henry figures out how to fix this body switching mess.”
She whirled around and wrapped her arms around him. “Turn the knob on your ankle and find out for yourself.”
Vaporized by the particle conveyor, Amalee tried to resist the pull of Ethan as he invaded her being and teased her senses, pulling at that sensual side of herself she’d locked away long ago. They were separate and entwined as they flew through the air like ghosts through the atmosphere. The calm of the earlier trip disappeared in favor of a desperate need, body and soul, to be with him.
Their spectral selves wrapped around each other. She reached out to touch the auburn wisps of his hair. The pale white of his skin appeared solid in her mind if not in reality. Unable to deny herself any longer, she floated into him and excitement hung heavy, like the tense moment before a thunderstorm’s first crackle. The light inside him brightened, its hue so intense it sent waves of pleasure coursing through her. Bliss consumed her.
Then, with a thump, she landed on the ground. Three facts hit her at once.
One: She was back in her body.
Two: The willow tree where Henry hid with the War Bird lay ten yards ahead.
Three: Talbot’s guards raced toward them, mouths foaming.
Ethan yanked her up from the ground and pulled her toward the trees. “Come on, love. We can’t let the bastards catch us.”
She didn’t just hear his words, they vibrated along an invisible line strung between them. A whirlwind of want swept up from the soles of her feet and flared out of the roots of her hair. The intensity of her reaction didn’t make sense unless – the particle conveyor. If it switched their bodies, could part of their souls have become entangled like vines twisting around a tree trunk?
“We have to move.” Ethan’s strong fingers clasped her hand, strengthening their metaphysical bond, and they ran together as one. The wet grass slapped at her legs as they sprinted toward freedom, toward a tomorrow without Talbot’s oppression.
Henry jumped out from behind the willow tree’s long branches. “Do you have it?”
Amalee tossed him the Thurston gear, a gleam of gold sailing through the blue.
He grabbed it out of the air and disappeared behind the white-gray leaves.
In tandem, she and Ethan spun around and drew their pistols. Like mirror images of each other, they dropped to their knees and fired at the mercenaries bearing down on them. Their gunshots sounded simultaneously in a synchronized burst of violence.
The bullets slammed into the guards, jerking their bodies back as blood blossomed from their injuries. Those hit, withered to dust before they hit the ground. The remaining guards yelped in surprise and dropped back to regroup behind a large yew bush.
“What are you firing?” Ethan’s blue eyes were round with shock.
Amalee swallowed hard. “Copper bullets, you?”
“The same, but I’ve never seen them turn anyone to ash before. What in the hell are these guys?”
She scooted closer to him until not even a skinny ray of light could make its way through. “Damned if I know.”
A whoosh of wind blasted her hair forward and she whipped her head around.
The willow tree’s long, drooping branches stretched straight out, pushed to their limit by the gust of warm air exploding from the clockwork engine of Henry’s War Bird that had been camouflaged by the tree’s leaves. The War Bird’s silver metal wings unfolded and clanked up and down.
“What–“ The rattle and rumble of the War Bird flapping its wings drown out the rest of Ethan’s question.
Explanations would have to wait. Grabbing his hand, she crouched low and they scrambled to the giant metal flying contraption.
From her perch inside the silver War Bird, Amalee scanned the countryside between Talbot’s garden and Victoria City until she spotted the tell-tale gray puffs below. “There!”
Henry spun the iron steering wheel and the War Bird swept left on course for the train. “Ready the eggs.”
“Really, can’t you just call them cannon balls?” Amalee asked.
He shot her a side-eye glare while manipulating the levers that controlled the War Bird’s wings. “When you’re the inventor, you can name them something as mundane as cannon balls. Ready the eggs.”
She and Ethan hurried across the narrow planks to the tail end. She unstrapped the targeting mechanism, locked it into place and pointed to the controlling pulley. “Open the bay.”
Ethan grabbed the pulley and yanked it downward, setting the clockworks in motion. The gears clicked as they turned and the bay doors parted near their feet.
“One hundred yards,” Henry hollered from the head.
Sweat beaded on her forehead as she watched Ethan’s biceps bulge with effort. This was their chance. If they missed this shot, they’d lose their only opportunity to stop the soulinator camera from arriving in Victoria City.
The doors inched open until nearly a foot of sky shone through the open space. Amalee shoved the repeat-action cannon to the center of that patch of sky and connected it to the targeting mechanism. Everything was in place. As soon as the doors cleared the space, the cannon would fire automatically at the train below.
The gears screeched to a halt and the bay doors shuttered still.
Ethan’s muscles strained as he jerked. “It’s stuck.”
“Slow down, Henry, the gears are locked.”
“No can do.” Henry’s words dissolved into a high-pitched cackle. “Ready the eggs!”
Amalee rushed to Ethan’s side, adding her strength to his. The wool of his coat scratched against her cheek as she pressed into his back, her fingers curled around his on the wooden handle. As soon as they touched, the air heated around them and her stomach fluttered as if the War Bird was flapping its great wings inside of her. That spirit part of her, freed by the particle conveyor, pushed against her skin patiently desperate to find a way out and touch Ethan again. Fighting to tap down her body’s reaction, she focused her mind on the pulley, urging it to move, but the damned thing wouldn’t budge.
“Bloody hell,” Ethan panted and gave another tug.
The gears shifted a millimeter, then locked again.
To be so close and fail anyway. Frustrated tears sprung to her eyes and she unwrapped herself from Ethan. She wouldn’t give in to the despair twisting her gut. There had to be a solution.
“What are we missing?” Her gaze searched the gear panel until she found the problem. One of the smaller cogwheels had popped out. “Ethan, stop.”
His hands dropped to his sides.
“The cog, we need to push it back into alignment.” She tried with her hands, leaning all of her weight into it.
Ethan grabbed a large wrench from the tool box nestled under a shelf. “Amalee, out of the way.” He wielded the wrench like a bat and whacked at it.
A thunderous thunking echoed through the metal interior as Ethan battled the stubborn gear, beating it back into position.
Ethan raised the wrench to his shoulder and roared as he pounded away. His guttural cry bounced off the metal bird’s interior, growing louder with each reverberation. He slammed the wrench against the errant cog and it clicked back into place and rotated forward.
“Lay the eggs,” Henry screamed.
Amalee raced to the pulley and yanked it, her heart hammering in her ears, her arms and shoulders aching from the exertion. The bay doors dropped into position. One-by-one, a stream of cannon balls dropped from the back of the bird, iron eggs of destruction plummeting through the sky.
A whump sounded when the first egg crushed the locomotive’s smokestack. The train cars careened off the tracks, landing like a line of fallen dominoes knocked over by an unseen hand. A chain-reaction of explosions rocketed the train below and flames shot upward so high they nearly singed the War Bird’s open bay doors.
“Brilliant. And to imagine anyone ever doubted you, my beautiful bird.” Henry continued to coo praise as he steered the bird in a wide U-turn and they crossed back into the airspace above Talbot’s garden.
The swirling mist inside her arose from its temporary slumber, floating upward it pushed and probed for an escape. It searched for him, for Ethan. Her skin fizzled like champagne bubbles popping when he approached and stood silently behind her. Her vapor whirled around in an excited tornado of joy.
Ethan brushed her hair away from one side of her neck and lowered his lips to the pulse point pounding at a breakneck pace. Her knees buckled and she sagged against his hard chest. Home. Peace. Happiness. A red-orange, sunset aura pulsed around her, bathing everything in its light and warming her.
He pulled a millimeter away. “Amalee.”
Her name vibrated against her sensitive skin and an excited flush burned her cheeks. The red shades deepened, turned the color of an overripe strawberry and she turned in his arms. He stood at least six inches taller and her head fit neatly under his chin. “What’s happening to us?”
“I can feel you without touching you.” He combed his fingers through the length of her hair, coming to rest on the small of her back. “It’s like you’re a part of me.”
“The particle conveyor.” She pushed away from him, hoping physical distance would lessen the need drumming out logical thought.
“I don’t care why. You’re what I’ve been searching for, every bounty I tracked down, every obstacle in my path – everything happened to make me strong enough for this moment. For you.” He dragged her against the length of his hard body. “I knew it even before the particle conveyor. I knew it the first time I smelled the jasmine of your perfume in the Cargill Saloon in Victoria City. Sitting on the other side of you at the bar, all I had to do was clap you in irons and bring you to Talbot and I’d be free of him and his threats. I couldn’t do it. Whatever happened in the particle conveyor only intensified what was already there.”
Unable to answer with words, Amalee grasped his smooth cheeks between her hands and kissed him.
Her mist danced at the physical connection and she rubbed against his muscular frame lengthening herself against him like a cat stretching hungrily under a stroking hand. “Come with me,” she whispered against his soft lips.
She searched his blue eyes for hesitation and saw none. Her vapor’s red aura shivered with happiness, but she had to make him understand what he sacrificed. “If you do, you’ll never be able to come home to Victoria City again without risking death.”
“A life without you would be far worse than that.” He lowered his lips to hers and silenced any lingering doubt.
As the War Bird glided away from Talbot’s garden toward The Resistance’s secret base, Amalee released her hold on the mist and it mixed with Ethan’s indigo vapor, enfolding them in a cocoon of promise.
Come back tomorrow to read the stories behind Semantics by Alethea Kontis and Victory Garden by Avery Flynn.