April cupped her hands around her mouth to amplify her voice. “Greetings,” she shouted, “is anyone there? Show yourselves! We wish to speak with you!”
There was no reply, and Aurora looked back at the spaceship. “There’s probably nobody here, so we should go back to the…”
A distant voice interrupted her. “Ahh, welcome travelers. Forgive my momentary nonattendance, for I was meditating. Do you come seeking peace and enlightenment?”
“Sure,” yelled Sheen, “why not? That and some egg rolls would be great!!”
Aurora sent him a killer look.
“Certainly, certainly,” replied the voice, with a soft laugh. “Please, come inside, my children.”
The front gate swung open, and a squat, pudgy monk dressed all in brown stepped into the doorway. He removed his hood and gave a low bow as the travelers walked past.
“I am Chen-Yu, the new leader of the brotherhood here at Shangri Llama. You’ll be able to meet with the other monks shortly, but since you arrived during our daily meditation hour, they must finish before they can receive visitors. I’m sure you understand.”
“Cool!” exclaimed Sheen, jumping out. “This place hasn’t changed a bit! Well, except maybe for those bushes, and these rocks, that big fancy building way over there…”
Chen-Yu gawked at him for a solid thirty seconds. When he spoke at last, his voice was quick with excitement. “Could it be…the Chosen One? Is it really you, all-mighty? Quick, put your foot behind your head!”
Sheen grimaced, then shoved his foot behind his neck.
Chen-Yu gasped. “By all that is sacred, it is you! You’ve returned to us! You look a bit younger than I would have expected after all these years, but…oh! I must tell the others!” He pulled out a pair of finger cymbals from his pocket and bashed them together. “Attention everyone! Come out! Come see! The Chosen One has returned to us! The prophecies have at long last been fulfilled!”
Libby snorted. “I thought you said they were meditatin’…”
“Nonsense! Who needs meditation at a time like this? Everyone, come quickly!”
One by one, the brothers of Shangri Llama began filing out of the largest temple, and a throng of female monks followed them from an adjoining building. They muttered excitedly as Chen-Yu threw himself at Sheen’s feet.
“Oh great one! After ten long years you have finally returned to take your rightful place. We were beginning to worry that you would not come back, but please accept our humble apologies for doubting you!”
“Oy vey…here we go…” said Aurora.
A woman monk with pretty hazel eyes stepped forward, a plum blossom fastened on the corner of her brown hood.
“Greetings Chosen One, allow me to express the honor I feel at meeting you and your companions. I am Xiu Mei, but please, call me Mei for short.” She turned to Chen-Yu. “Should we not bring them to more comfortable accommodations? Perhaps the Great House would be a suitable location? After all, I believe there is a certain someone there who has been eagerly awaiting another certain someone's return!”
She covered a smile, and Chen-Yu frowned, wrinkling his bald brow.
“But what about the age difference? Our plans can hardly be implemented now!”
Mei considered. “Yes, it is a dilemma. But I don’t think we should worry about it. After all, my sister married a man who was 15 years her elder!”
She covered a giggle this time, and Chen-Yu adjusted the rope belt that rested atop his ample paunch.
“It does not work in reverse. Besides, isn’t that why you joined us, Sister Xiu Mei? To escape an arranged marriage to an older man?”
At this, Mei fell silent, and Jimmy and the others looked around in confusion.
“Care to tell us what on EARTH you're talking about?” he demanded. “Where I come from, it’s considered rude to leave your guests standing around clueless while you have cryptic discussions!”
Cindy joined in. “What's this about 'age differences', and what's with the girl squad? Last time we were here you had, what, one female monk?”
Libby shrugged. “Not that we’ve got any problem with extra chicks…it’s ‘bout time, if you ask me.”
Mei opened her mouth to answer, but stopped short when Aurora interrupted. “We didn’t come here to socialize or to talk about monk gender ratios. We have some important questions for you.”
April stepped forward. “Firstly, how did you survive the onslaught a decade ago? The nanobots deleted everyone on this planet, so how is it that you managed to escape?”
“How many people are living here?”
“And how does your settlement function after years of isolation?”
“Do you know what’s been going on in the galaxy these past ten years?” added Jimmy.
Sheen punctuated the line of questioning with an angry stomp. “And where the heck are my eggrolls?!”
“Peace, my friends,” smiled Chen-Yu. “All your questions will be answered shortly, but in the meantime, have patience. Shall we sit and enjoy a fresh cup of tea together?”
Aurora grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close to her face. “Patience isn’t a word I’m familiar with, tubby. We need to know the answers NOW, and then we need to leave. We can’t put the war on hold while you indulge yourself in deluded prattling!”
Chen-Yu shook his head sadly. “You have much to learn, my young friend. You are full of anger and vengeance, and you will never be happy until you learn softness.”
Aurora stared him down. “Softness? Ugh! What do you know, old man? Have you flown a starship? Have you set foot on hundreds of alien worlds? Have you seen what I've seen? You're just a ridiculous stereotype!”
“Very well,” sighed the monk. “Go on, show me what your grand travels have taught you. Go ahead, my child, attempt to strike me. I can see that you want to.”
She pursed her lips together, then swung at him. Almost instantaneously, Chen-Yu blocked her punch. In an impressive show of acrobatics, she rolled backward, turned, and kicked, but he anticipated her movement and caught her leg. He pushed her off balance, and she fell backward onto the hard cobblestone walkway.
“You have nothing but hatred in your heart, and a true master does not fight with emotion, but with focus and resolve. You must not rely on your feelings when you fight. They will betray you.”
Aurora crossed her arms and looked away, and Chen-Yu shook his head again.
“Well, I suppose it is no use to argue over the matter. At any rate, I believe that I am not the best person to answer your questions. Mei will take you to the main house, and there you will learn what you need to know.”
He bowed and motioned for Mei to walk past. She returned the bow, then beckoned for the guests to follow her.
“Wow,” said Carl, “they sure like to bow, don’t they?”
Sheen nodded agreement. “Must be the national sport…”
The other women fell in behind them, and they proceeded toward an elaborately painted pagoda at the far end of the courtyard. Chinese lanterns hung from the corners of the roof, and bamboo wind chimes produced a tinkling melody.
Libby looked up at the house in admiration. “I don’t remember this buildin’…when did you add it? Those tiers and colored shingles are legit. If I could have my pick of any house in the whole town, I’d go for this one…”
Mei giggled. “How funny that you should say that!”
Several of the women let out a tittering laugh as they proceeded down the stone walkway that led to the elaborate porch. The visitors drank in the beauty all around them to the soft strains of the wind chimes. Libby stopped to examine a butterfly drinking nectar from the chrysanthemum bushes that lined the walkway. She picked a flower and breathed in its fragrance.
“Mmm, I love this place! Smell those flowers!”
As they neared the porch, they heard the sound of rapid footsteps from within. The double doors burst open and a young woman darted through. She was swathed in layers of silken veils that glittered in the sunlight, and a ruby bindi gleamed between her eyebrows. She caught herself on the cedar railing, and her braided black hair swung forward with her movement. Libby looked up and, with a gasp, dropped the flower in her hand. There, less than ten feet in front of her, glittering like a golden idol, stood her future self.
“Mei-girl,” panted the vision before them, “what’s goin’ on? What’s all the commotion?”
“Oh wow…” Jimmy’s mouth dropped open. “It can’t be…”
Sheen’s eyes practically bugged out of his head. “Dude, check her OUT! Sweet mother of Ultralord! Libby, your future self’s a mega-babe!” He rushed forward and got down on one knee. “Let’s get married right now, whaddya say?”
Libby stamped her foot and pointed to the ground beside her. “Sheen, stop proposin’ and get your womanizin’ butt back here!”
“S…Sheen?” Future Libby stumbled backward. “How’d you…? Why’re you so…?”
She looked around at each of the kids, open-mouthed. A moment later she caught Aurora’s gaze, and the two women froze. The wind took Aurora's hair and blew it in a wild arc around her face. High in her scented palace, Future Libby slumped forward against the balustrade, eyes strained with disbelief. The women stood transfixed, as if trapped in that moment: Libby swathed in silk, leaning against the entrance to her golden temple, and Aurora, standing straight, cold, and gleaming in her metallic blue spacesuit.
“C…C…Cindy?” Future Libby took two cautious steps forward, then plunged ahead at a full run. “CINDY!”
She rushed across the gravel, diamond droplets streaming down her cheeks. She dove at Aurora and enveloped her in a crushing hug. Aurora stood like a soldier, stiff and emotionless, except for her trembling mouth. Future Libby pulled back and smiled, still holding both of Aurora’s hands in hers.
“I thought you were dead! You have no idea how glad I am to see you! Cind? What’s wrong?”
Aurora looked like she was about to be sick to her stomach. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she slumped into a half-crouching position.
“You’ve…how long have you been here?”
“Ten years. How long have YOU not been in Retroville? How’d you get away?” She nodded at April. “How’d…whatsername get here? And who’re these freaky little versions of us runnin’ around?” She took one look at Carl and cringed. “And what is up with THAT? Since when did Carl go goth? That’s just plain wrong.”
Carl looked defeated. “Aww, you don’t like it?”
“Well, I suppose the black is kinda slimmin’…”
She turned her attention back to Aurora, who had by that time regained composure. Aurora straightened and stared down at her slightly shorter friend.
“My name’s Aurora now…don’t call me Cindy.”
Aurora hesitated. “But…but I can still call you Libby, right?”
“You can call me whatever you want! I’m just happy to hear your voice again.”
The two women kept right on staring, seemingly bedazzled by each other’s presence.
Jimmy cleared his throat. “Not to interrupt your 'best friends' reunion or anything, but shouldn’t we be getting a move on? You said it yourself: the sooner we get our questions answered, the sooner we can get back to business.”
“Oh…yeah.” stammered Aurora. “Of course. Go ahead…”
“Ya, please. Who the heck are you kids?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” said Jimmy, “but I’ll try to explain as briefly as possible. The five of us come from an alternate universe, We were transported here during a teleportation accident several days ago. We met Aurora and April after arriving, and we’ve teamed up with them to try to win the war currently being waged against my future self, who has become an evil psycho dictator in case you weren’t aware.”
Future Libby rubbed her forehead. “He’s still at it, huh? I thought maybe that Megalomanium stuff would've worn off by now. Still, it’s nice to know. I’ve had no idea what’s been goin’ on, since we don’t exactly get a 'Galactic Enquirer' around here. We have no outside news comin’ in.” She planted her hands on her hips and threw her younger self a look. “Do ya have any idea what it’s like to live with a bunch of monks for ten years? Every day they try to find new ways to bore me to death. Their music selection is whack…I thought my head would explode from all the chantin’ the first year I was here. But I think I’ve made myself useful since then.”
Future Libby seemed to suddenly become aware of the female monks who stood nearby, and she wrinkled her brow at them. “Hey girls, what’d I say to you ‘bout wearin' those frocks when you’re around me?”
“We’re sorry, your grace!”
The women peeled off their brown robes, revealing vibrant dresses beneath. They twinkled with jewelry and exhibited a designer’s eye in fashion accessorizing.
“We don’t want the brothers seeing us this way!” whispered Mei nervously. “It might upset them!”
“Pfft. They just don’t wanna admit that you’re prettier than they are.”
The monks giggled, and Future Libby gestured at the clothing, proudly displaying her handiwork. “Pretty jive, huh? While the monks sat around meditatin’ all the time, I learned to make clothes, shoes, and even jewelry – and I'm a one-woman orchestra with all the instruments I can play. I redecorated a bit too, if you wanna look around.”
Cindy crossed her arms and peered up at the older woman. “Not that this isn’t fascinating, but some stuff needs explaining. Like how you got here for starters, and why everyone seems to treat you like a queen. What’d you do to make yourself so popular?”
Future Libby played with a lock of her hair. “Oh, it isn’t really me. It’s just ‘cause of that prophecy stuff the monks are always rantin’ about.”
“Prophecy?” repeated Carl.
She brushed off the question. “Ya…you guys know most of it. You know, about 'the Chosen One'. Hey, I’m kinda curious about some things too. Cindy, girl, how’d you get out of Retroville? Where’ve you been for the past ten years?”
“It's Aurora, and I promise I’ll give you the full details soon. But first I want your side of the story. Tell us how you got here…when you got here…what your life's been like since…everything. Please. I really need to know. You don’t know how long I’ve wondered what happened to you.”
“Sure, if that’s what you want. Anythin’ you want. You are the guest, after all. After you…”
She opened the door and gave a graceful Asian bow. Cindy raised an eyebrow at her as they walked through.
“Since when do YOU bow?”
Future Libby laughed. “Oh, I’m doin’ it again. Sorry. After livin’ here for so long, I think some of their habits washed off on me. I never thought I’d become a tea-drinkin’, meditating monk-ette, but then again I never expected to see a mini-me runnin’ around either. Life’s funny like that.”
They entered into a spacious room. Sunlight streamed in through the sheer white curtains, which fluttered in the breeze. The room smelled of incense and fresh rain mingled with the scent of chrysanthemums.
“You want some tea?” offered Future Libby. “I was just about to have some myself.”
She led them to a low-lying table covered in a silken tablecloth. A porcelain teakettle steamed in the center, surrounded by various rice and vegetable dishes. Future Libby set out eight tiny cups and bowls, then knelt down on the cushion at the foot of the table. She motioned for everyone to join her. Aurora took a seat at the opposite end of the table; April, Sheen and Carl sat on the left side, and Libby, Cindy, and Jimmy on the right.
Sheen rocked back and forth on his cushion. “We’re eating on the floor! How awesome is this?”
Future Libby covered a little smile, then passed the teapot around. They all helped themselves, except for April, who wrinkled her nose at the brown liquid before passing it on.
Future Libby set the teapot back in the center. “Would anybody like some rice? I've got stir-fried veggies too…”
Aurora waved the offer away. “Sure, fine, whatever. Just pass it all out and we’ll take what we want. And Libby…there’s no need for the manners. We’re on a bit of a deadline.”
“Sorry…I’m used to eatin’ with the monks. Politeness is everything ‘round here.” She folded a cloth napkin in her lap, then looked up at Aurora. “OK, I guess you want me to answer your questions now, right? What do you wanna know?”
“I’ll tell you what I want to know. Can I get a picture of you so I can show Santa what I want for Christmas?”
The others shouted in unison. “Sheeeeeen!”
Future Libby leaned over and smiled, her golden earrings jingling. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed your nerdy little comments.”
She tweaked his nose, and they all stared at Future Libby in disbelief as she took a sip from her teacup.
“In that case,” said Sheen, “let’s get married straight away! What do you say?”
Future Libby stifled a laugh. “Sorry, 'fraid I can't. I’m already promised.”
“Say what?” gawked Libby. “You’re 'promised'? As in…betrothed? To who?”
“To “whom”…” corrected Carl.
Sheen grabbed him by the shirt collar. “Ahhh! Quiet Carl! My woman’s about to marry some other guy! How can you worry about grammar at a time like this?”
“She’s not your woman!” shouted Libby. “She’s ten years older than you, for cryin’ out loud!”
“Will you two chill out?" said Cindy. “Jeez. Think about it for a minute. How can she be marrying someone else? Besides the monks, there are no guys left!”
Future Libby seemed to be enjoying their confusion. “Well, there are at least three I can think of…”
“That’s right,” said Jimmy suddenly. “Alternate Sheen is still out there somewhere.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you implying what I think you're implying?”
Cindy turned to Future Libby. “What? Are you out of your mind? You actually plan to marry that guy? Look at him!”
She gestured at Sheen, who had shoved a pair of chopsticks up his nose and was now doing his best to imitate a walrus.
Aurora curled her lip in disgust. “How can you plan to do anything with him if he’s not here? I’ve been all over the galaxy and I haven’t seen heads or tails of him. I think he’s gone, Libby.”
Future Libby looked down. “That’s what I’m afraid of too. He’s supposed to come back, but…maybe I better start over. I think I’ve done a better job of confusin’ you than anythin’ else. After I give you the full spiel, I think you’ll understand a bit better.”
“I look forward to listening to your angelic voice, my sweet!” purred Sheen.
Libby whispered in Cindy’s ear. “All this flirtin', I don't know whether to be insulted or flattered…”
“Just ignore him, Libs,” said Cindy, turning up her nose. “He doesn’t deserve you anyway.”
“I guess I better go back to the beginning, huh?” Future Libby paused, then looked at the kids. “Do they know what happened with the Megalomanium and all?”
“In that case, I’ll start a little after the beginning…I’ll start with the last time I ever saw Retroville.”
Chapter 18 ->
Guest illustrations by my dear Ely and by Polish artist Razuri-chan