The clouds cleared below them, and the outlines of long-abandoned buildings thrust into the sky. The Desperado sank past them and alighted on a patch of dry ground in the middle of what used to be the town park.
Aurora switched off the engines. “Let’s get this over with.”
Jimmy called for Goddard, and April led the way out of the ship. The breeze smelled of springtime, and Sheen and Carl threw themselves onto the earth.
“Land! Sweet Land!”
“I’ve missed you so much!”
Sheen kissed the ground. “My one true love! Never shall I part with you again! Oh how I…eck…ach…ugh! Phhht! I swallowed a dirt clod!”
He hacked on the mouthful, and the others took in their surroundings without comment as the grass rippled in the wind.
“It feels so…empty,” said Cindy.
“And quiet,” whispered Libby. “It hurts to listen.”
A yellow butterfly floated by on a current of warm air, and Aurora shivered. “Well, here we are. Among Earth's forgotten ruins…was the trip here worthwhile?”
“It will be once we get to my lab and I collect a sample of the Cryptococcus neoformans. Can we get going please?”
Aurora motioned for him to lead the way, and he opened the rusted gate and exited the park. The trees were all in bloom and birdsong was on the air, but beneath their calls was a chilling silence.
“Look ahead at the outlet shops…” he pointed.
The travelers walked into town in a speechless procession. Cars, some broken and overturned, lied scattered about in the road. The outlet stores, once bustling areas of human activity, had already begun to succumb to nature. Plants sprouted from the sidewalk cracks, and the doors to the shops creaked open and shut in the wind. Jimmy and the others passed by the House of Pants, a crooked advertisement for low prices still clinging to life in the window. Startled by their approach, a family of raccoons scuttled under a nearby café table, where an abandoned chessboard, the pieces locked forever in mid-game, sat waiting for its players.
“It’s like everyone just disappeared in the middle of what they were doing,” said Cindy.
“That’s because they did. The Nanobots deleted everyone without warning…people had no time to react. They were there one minute, and simply gone the next.”
April pointed to a large building coming up on their left. “Aurora, is that your local educational facility?”
The kids froze in their tracks, for less than a hundred feet in front of them was Lindbergh Elementary school. The statue out in front had collapsed and was hidden beneath a carpet of fallen leaves; dirt and windblown litter strewed the walkway. The playground was in complete disrepair. Most of the equipment lay broken and rusted, except for a single swing that swayed in the breeze and one teeter totter that creaked up and down, as if still ridden by the ghosts of long-dead children.
Sheen tried to crack a smile. “You know, I always thought it would be wicked cool to see our school trashed, but this isn’t what I had in mind.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” shuddered Cindy.
“I can still picture everyone here…it’s so weird.” Libby pointed as she spoke. “Look…over there’s where Britney and the other girls used to jump rope. And Nick and his posse are sittin’ on the steps…and there’s Butch, beatin’ up poor Oleander for the fifth time.”
Cindy nodded. “I know what you mean. Even though everyone's gone, I can still feel their presence somehow.”
Aurora’s sharp intake of air startled everyone, and they swung round to see her hastily backing away.
“We need to go. I need to get out of here now so…so…let’s go to Neutron’s lab. Then I want to leave. I want to leave for good.”
The kids resisted the urge to go check out the Candy Bar, and they made their way to Jimmy’s street instead. Memories hung like cobwebs; each familiar sight called to mind long-ago friendships and rivalries. They came to a stop in the street between Jimmy and Cindy’s houses, and Aurora stared up at what remained of her home, the once cheerful pink paint peeled and the shutters hanging askew.
Aurora wrapped her arms around herself. “There’s something so eerie about coming back to a place you once lived. You're one of your own memories.”
Jimmy fidgeted uncomfortably. “If it’s OK, I’m going to pay a visit to my lab now and see what’s left. I’ll be back up soon…”
He turned and dashed into his backyard, then disappeared into his clubhouse. Aurora climbed the steps up to her house. She laid her hand on the doorknob, and it swung open.
“Funny,” she murmured, “it’s not locked…”
She set one foot inside, and a dust cloud rose in plumes from the floorboards. She took another step, hesitated, and then quickly backed out.
“What is the matter?” asked April.
Glass smashed somewhere behind them, and Aurora whisked around. Sheen had thrown a rock through the front window of Carl’s house.
“Sheeeeeeeeeeen!” cried Carl, holding his head. “You broke my window! My dad’s gonna be so mad!…”
“Chillax, dude! Your dad está muerto, remember? Besides, I’ve always wanted to do that! Ha! I think I’ll do it again!” He pitched a rock at the other window, and it shattered. “Check me out, babes! I’m a hot-blooded Mexican vandal…and nobody cares!”
“Cut it out, Sheen!” protested Carl. “I might step on a piece of the glass and cut my foot!”
“Sheen, you shouldn’t go breakin’ other people’s stuff,” said Libby. “Go throw rocks through your own windows.”
“Why don’t you just throw a rock at your head and do us all a favor?” huffed Cindy.
“Sheen!” hissed April, advancing toward him. “How dare you destroy someone else’s property?! Show some respect to Carl’s departed family!”
The voice that responded was strained almost to the point of being unrecognizable. “No. He’s right, April. Houses are nothing without the people who used to live in them.”
April looked over and found Aurora staring up at her bedroom window.
“They’re monuments to no one,” she shouted, voice rising, “and I won’t let my house stand another day!
She jumped backward and hurled an energy bolt at her house…then another, then another, then another. She flung them at the roof, the walls, the door. Her blasts created cinder-rimmed holes wherever they hit, and chunks of debris flew out into the rising smoke. The roof collapsed into a pile of ashes, and with one spinning kick Aurora crumbled the front wall. She leaped forward and rapid-fired on any furniture still standing inside.
“DAMN IT ALL! I…won’t…suffer…any…longer!!”
A huge orb of energy coalesced between her hands, and with a final cry she sent it hurtling at the house. When the dust cleared, only a pile of wooden splinters and a heap of ashes remained.
Aurora gasped for breath. “I’ll destroy them all!”
She swung round and flung another bolt, this time at Jimmy’s house. April squared herself in front of Aurora and diverted the blast with her arm.
“Enough. You need to stop now.”
The two women stood locked in mid-motion, Aurora half stooped over, her breathing coming in gasps. She looked up at the alien woman through terrified, angry eyes, then lunged forward and embraced her.
April smoothed her ruffled hair. “Shhh, do not worry. We will leave soon enough.”
Aurora buried her face against her friend’s shoulder, and the kids stared on in a state of shock. Jimmy reappeared, holding a vial full of a speckled gray substance.
“What’s all the commotion about? I heard some explosions and…Holy Heisenberg! What happened to your house?”
Aurora knelt down and sifted the remains through her fingers, and April quickly stepped in.
“Did you obtain the fungus?”
“Oh…yes. Yes I did. Turns out there was quite a bit of it growing in the sewers near my lab. It's a pretty hardy species, but I’m still worried that it won’t survive long enough for me to use it in the antidote, so I’m going to have Goddard preserve a portion of the sample. Here boy!”
Goddard bounded over to his master, and Jimmy rubbed his head. “Good dog! I’ll need you to access your liquid hydrogen tank and freeze-dry this sample for me, OK?”
“Bark…grr bark bark!”
Jimmy placed the beaker on the ground, and Goddard’s back unlatched and a spray can appeared. He blasted the fungus with a burst of liquid Nitrogen, and it froze solid. He then grabbed the beaker with a pair of tongs and stowed it away in his back compartment.
“One more thing, Goddard,” said Jimmy. “Run a quick analysis scan to make sure the fungus is still alive…sometimes the freeze-drying process can be a bit faulty. And don’t bother to do a specific search for the fungi’s DNA structure, because I don’t know if it’s in your database. Just run all your DNA scanner systems and hopefully something will come up besides our life signatures.”
A scanner appeared on Goddard’s chest, and he began the search. When it finished loading, it bleeped loudly, and 'life signs detected' flashed across the screen, which transformed into a map of Retroville. A little red dot began to flash for each member of the group. A yellow dot appeared inside Goddard, and Jimmy heaved a relieved sigh.
“Good, good, the fungus survived the freeze-drying process. Now if we…”
Goddard’s screen beeped again, and the words 'life signs detected' appeared for a second time. However, instead of centering on Retroville, it zoomed out to a map of North America, and then to a 3-D image of the Earth. The globe rotated on the screen and thirty or so red dots began to flash in central Asia. Goddard started barking like crazy.
“What the…? Goddard, what did you just do?”
“Bark bark bark bark!”
“Calm down boy, that’s absolutely impossible. There’s no way that reading is correct.”
Cindy leaned over for a closer look. “Reading? What reading?”
Jimmy pointed to Goddard’s screen. “Goddard’s scan is indicating human life signs in central Asia, but there’s NO way…”
Aurora appeared behind them. “WHAT? What did you say?” She pushed the others aside and grabbed Jimmy by the shoulder. “Show me.”
Jimmy pointed, and Aurora bent over and squinted at the image.
“Your scan is WRONG,” she said emphatically. “Everyone was deleted by the Nanobots.”
“I have no doubts about that. Don’t worry Aurora, I’m sure it’s a mistake. Goddard, re-run the scan.”
He cleared the screen and repeated the scan, but the thirty red dots continued to flicker.
Jimmy clenched his fists in frustration. “Ugh, I don’t understand! Maybe if I…wait a minute. Goddard, zoom in on those life signs. That spot on the map looks familiar.”
He panned in closer, and the name of the location flashed on the screen. “Shangri Llama!” he gasped. “That’s incredible…unthinkable! It looks like the Nanobots did miss some people after all. The monks of Shangri Llama are alive!”
“You’ve got to be kidding…” said Cindy.
“You mean Master Hong and the rest are still around?” Sheen grinned wildly. “In that case, I think it’s time for 'the Chosen One' to make a house call!”
Aurora swallowed a few times before speaking. “Neutron, are you absolutely sure about this? I mean, how could anyone have escaped? The annihilation was absolute…”
“This is indeed a remarkable discovery,” agreed April. “We need speak to these individuals immediately. Perhaps we can learn the secret of their survival.”
Sheen assumed a vaguely martial-arts-like position. “I can already answer that question: mad Kung Fu skills, that’s how!” He judo-chopped Carl on the shoulder.
“Ow Sheen! I bruise easily!”
Sheen stuck his foot behind his head, then whirled around and bowed to Libby.
“Will you be MY Chosen One?”
Libby rolled her eyes, and Jimmy scratched his chin in thought.
“I don’t think Kung Fu skills are enough, Sheen,” he said after a moment. “Hand-to-hand combat is useless against the Nanobots. I think we should fly over to Asia and investigate.”
Aurora’s expression of uneasiness instantly changed to one of anger. “Are you all crazy? We don’t have time for this! We need to finish that antidote, remember? Besides, what can the monks teach us that we don’t already know? By now I’m a black belt in multiple martial arts, and I’ve mastered Tai Chi and deep meditation. What are they gonna show us…the proper technique for drinking tea? Or maybe they can instruct us in the ways of peace and understanding while the war rages on around us and people die!”
“I understand your objection,” continued Jimmy patiently, “but it’s not like we’ll be wasting too much time. The Desperado can get us there in a matter of seconds. Believe me, I know it’s hard for you to be here, but we could learn a lot from this trip, and I....”
“Fine!” she yelled explosively. “Jeez! We’ll go see the lousy monks if you really want to. Just get off my back!”
Everyone retreated a step from the force of her anger, and Aurora began fiddling with her watch communicator. “I just activated the ship’s remote autopilot. It’ll fly overhead and beam us aboard any second now.”
Sheen pumped his fist into the air. “Sweet! Does it hurt?”
An instant later, the ship materialized out of the cloud line. With a flash of light and sudden lurch, they all found themselves back inside the cockpit.
Sheen’s gaze jerked around the room. “What the…whoa! We’re back in the ship already? Cool! Television rocks!”
“It's teleportation, Sheen.”
“No, no, I meant what I said...”
Aurora punched some coordinates into the autopilot, and the ship rocketed upward into space. It hung in a suspended orbit as the earth rotated below.
“Look!” Libby pointed out the portal. “There’s Asia comin’ up over the horizon. Asia…you know, that’d make a pretty jive name. I think if I ever have a daughter…”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “Libby, focus please.”
The ship started its descent, and Jimmy began making adjustments to the autopilot.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” said Aurora.
“I think we should land a little outside of town. A big ship like this might frighten the monks.”
“Might frighten the monks,” she muttered with a sneer. “…neh nah neh neh…”
The Desperado hovered for a moment before setting down on a grassy plain just outside of Shangri Llama. There was a whoosh of air as the interior decompressed, and the group made their way out of the ship. Ahead, the silhouettes of the temples rose up into the cloudless sky.
“Sure has been awhile…” said Aurora.
Sheen scratched his arm. “Not really. I was just here fighting Yoo Yee a couple of months ago…”
“I meant for me, idiot.”
Libby peered ahead. “Should we try to go in?...”
-> Chapter 17
Chapter illustration contributed by an anonymous fan