As Jimmy and Cindy dejectedly retraced their steps, Sheen and Libby were making their way past the rippling field of flowers.
“Check it out, babe! This has gotta be the biggest bouquet of flowers in the history of ever!” He whipped out a bundle of sloppily-arranged chrysanthemums.
“Just what are you plannin’ to do with those?”
“I’m gonna give ‘em to Carl…”
“But why? Isn’t he allergic to flowers?”
“Shhh! That’s the whole point!”
“You’re one of a kind, Sheen,” she grinned. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand that weird little mind of yours.”
“That’s OK,” he shrugged. “I’ll never understand you either. Women are too complicated for us simple-minded man creatures.”
“You know that's right!”
Libby laughed as they continued on down the path. They neared a bend in the road, and Sheen dropped his bouquet and darted into a clump of flowers. He reappeared a moment later, holding a single red chrysanthemum.
“For you,” he said, bowing. “A single red flower in an ocean of white.”
She touched her hand to her chest. “Aww, that’s so sweet! I can’t believe you spotted that in the dark! I’m really…hey, what’s that?” Libby pointed ahead to a tiny flicker. “It looks like a lantern…Sheen, come on!”
She grabbed his hand and they darted down the path, the light growing closer with each passing step. At the end of the trail, a plum blossom tree was shedding petals like pink snowflakes. Two figures occupied the bench beneath its protective arms, bathing in the glow of a single Chinese lantern. One of the figures lifted an arm, and the blue light glinted off her bracelets.
“Shh, slow down,” whispered Libby. “It’s Aurora and future me.” She motioned for Sheen to follow her behind a boulder. “Let’s try to get closer so we can hear what they’re sayin’.”
“Libby, why the sudden Jet Fusion spy routine? Shouldn’t we just go say hola?”
“No! They’ll never act natural if they know we’re here. Come on, let's hide behind that funny lookin' tree.”
They crept through the flowers until they came to a knobby pine about ten feet away from Aurora and Future Libby. Libby heard a noise behind her, but her scream was stifled when one clawed hand clamped over her mouth.
“Shh!” hissed April. “It is only me! Do not scream and give away our location.”
“April? What are you doin’ here?”
“I am observing. What are you doing?”
“Snooping,” answered Sheen.
“We are not! We’re observin’ too!”
April looked down in amusement. “I see.”
The three turned their attention to Aurora and Future Libby, who seemed to be very deep in conversation. Aurora’s face was not visible from their position, but she was hunched forward, as if in pain.
“…can’t do it Libby,” came Aurora’s voice through the night air. “I keep thinking…sooner or later it's gonna come to blows. How can I do it, Libs? How can I beat him? I can’t beat him…”
“Then don’t think of it like that. Think of it like you're saving him. Or think of it...like you're cleanin' up a mess. 'Cause girl, I know a mess when I seen one, and boy am I lookin' at one now.”
Aurora let out a tiny laugh. “Libby…I’ve…I’d forgotten what it felt like to have someone just get it. You might guzzle tea and bow like a loony, but you haven’t changed a bit.”
Back behind the knobby tree, April sighed. “She really is amazing…”
“Huh?” asked Libby.
“The older you. I have been watching for awhile now, and their conversation has left me stunned. Aurora has opened up more in this last hour than she has during the past ten years. Aurora would laugh at me and insult me for being weak if I were to engage in such a conversation, and yet…look how closely she is listening now.” April gazed down sadly. “I cannot compete with this woman, who reminds Aurora of the pleasanter days here on Earth. Is that the price I must pay for her to be happy? Must I lose my closest friend?”
April looked back at the bench as if expecting an answer, but Aurora was no longer there. A bolt of green fire streaked past April, and with a startled yelp she turned a perfect back flip into the gnarled branches of the tree. Sheen and Libby dove out of the way, kicking up a pile of dry leaves in their wake.
“Who’s there?” cried Aurora, blazing with flames. “Show yourself!”
April yelled down from the top of the tree. “It is only me! Stop shooting at everything that moves!”
“Ugh, April! How many times have I told you to stop sneaking around in the dark? It’s just plain creepy!”
April hopped down. “I am sorry. Old habits die hard.”
“Well, it's probably a good thing. If you hadn’t come along we would have stayed up all night gabbing. Let’s head back to the main house now, what do you say?”
“You are not angry at me for spying, then?” said April. “You do not intend to reject me in favor of someone better?”
Aurora looked bewildered. “What are you talking about? Why would I do that? Now let's get a move on before it gets any later.”
April broke into a smile, then fell into step beside her friend. The trio walked together, shoulder to shoulder, their steps falling in synch. Hair swinging, jewelry jingling, laughter on the air, the three of them chattered amongst themselves as they disappeared down the gravel path. For a moment, they looked like ordinary young women out on a stroll through the park, as if the last decade was nothing but a bad dream. As their voices faded into the distance, Libby pulled herself up and planted her hands on her hips.
“Would ya look at that.”
Sheen spit out a clod of dirt. “Phht! Ptt! Ugh, twice in one day!”
“Aurora thinks she’s so alone, but she’s got two of the best friends a girl could wish for. Look at the three of them! Adorbs.”
Sheen glanced at their retreating figures. “I’ll say. I wonder which one of them would win in a tap-dancing contest?”
Libby face-palmed. “We're done here. Let's go.”
Sheen and Libby walked back together through the moonlit gardens. When they arrived at the main house, Cindy and Jimmy were nowhere to be found. April crouched, half hidden in the shadows on one side of the porch, her breath like smoke in the cold. Her narrow eyes followed them as they walked past her to the doorway.
“Hey April. Where is everyone?”
“Libby has taken Aurora on a tour of the house, and Cindy has stalked off into another one of the buildings. I have not seen Jimmy. Carl is in the bathhouse…wait, no. Here he comes now.”
Carl, accompanied by his monk escort, appeared from within a cloud of bathhouse steam. He clutched a cup of tea in his pudgy fingers, and his head-to-toe goth had been replaced with another look entirely. He was dressed in a long purple kimono embroidered with plum blossoms and swirling clouds.
Sheen’s eyes practically bugged out of their sockets. “What the…? Paahhaaaahaha! Nice dress, Carl!”
“It’s not a dress, it’s a bathrobe!”
“Actually, you’ both wrong,” corrected Libby. “It’s a Japanese kimono.”
“Kimono, dress, same difference! It’s purple, Carl! Purple!”
“So?” said Libby. “Ain’t Ultralord purple?”
“Yeah, but Ultralord’s clothes are a manly purple! That dress is definitely not manly!”
“Manly purple?” she repeated. “Do you even hear yourself?”
Future Libby and Aurora appeared in the doorway, and April bared her teeth in a grin. “Check it out, girls. Carl’s new outfit is even better than the last one!”
All three of the women burst out into catty laughter, and Carl turned red in embarrassment.
“Stunning outfit, Carl!” said April. “This one makes you look even more fearsome than the last!”
They snickered some more, but Carl seemed to buy the ruse. “Really?”
Sheen covered the word with a cough. “Gullible!”
“Bless you, Sheen!”
As they cackled some more, Future Libby called out to the woman accompanying Carl.
“Sun-Hi! Would you do me a favor?”
“Certainly! What do you desire?”
“Tell Chen-Yu to call the others and meet us for a conference in the main temple, OK?”
“Yes my lady, at once!”
She took off at a full run to the largest temple, and a moment later the metallic sound of a gong shattered the nighttime silence.
“That’s the summons gong,” explained Future Libby. “It means we all gotta go meet up in the main temple.”
“Uh, Libs, mind telling me why you just called in the cavalry?” grumbled Aurora. “Do we really need to sit around and gab with all these monks? I’d rather see more of the grounds with you.”
“I need to tell them that I’m leavin’…plus, don’t ya wanna find out how the monks survived the nanobots?”
Aurora and the others followed Future Libby to the largest temple. They pushed aside the silken draperies and proceeded into the main chamber, where Chen-Yu was waiting for them. Orange-scented incense was heavy on the air; flickering candles illuminated the room in alternating splashes of gold and black.
“Welcome, my children,” said Chen-Yu. “Please, sit down.”
One by one, the other monks arrived. They took their seats in a circle, in the center of which Chen-Yu placed a smallcandle. A closer look around the gathering revealed many familiar faces, all except Jimmy and Goddard’s.
Chen-Yu spread his arms wide. “The meeting of the monks and the great Chosen One will now commence. We shall continue until the candle in the center of the circle burns out. When that time comes, we will return to our rooms for the night.”
“Chen-Yu,” said Future Libby, “before we start the whole 'Chosen One' bit, there’s somethin' you should know. This Sheen here isn’t the REAL Chosen One…he’s…he’s a divine messenger.”
“A divine messenger?” Chen-Yu repeated. “What are you talking about, my dear? This is clearly the man we have awaited. He can put his foot behind his head. I have seen it myself!”
“What are you talking about?” whispered Aurora harshly. “He’s not a 'divine messenger'…”
“Shhh!” she whispered back. “I’m tryin’ to explain it in terms the monks’ll understand.” She turned again and met their confused gazes. “I know he looks like him, but the REAL Chosen One is my age, and he’s in trouble! This one’s just a messenger. These people came here to tell me what’s been goin’ on…and now I need to leave with them.”
There was a collective gasp among the monks.
“But my lady,” stuttered Mei, “what will we do without you? Who will the Chosen One marry?”
“Surely you must be mistaken!” cried Sun-Hi. “You cannot really mean to leave us!”
Chen-Yu quieted them with a wave of his hand. “Silence, you two. Let her speak.”
Future Libby took a deep breath. “I have to go with these people. I have to save Sheen. If I don’t, he won’t ever come back. Please! Let me go look for him! I can’t sit around and wait anymore!”
“She’s telling the truth,” said Aurora. “Sheen really is missing. I’ve been all over the galaxy, and I haven’t seen him. Please, let her come with us. We need her help in this war…we need her help to defeat the Dictator.”
“Ah, so that’s it,” purred Chen-Yu. “You want her help in the war. Well let me assure you, our Libby is a peaceable young woman with no talents in the arts of destruction. Take your problems elsewhere! The monks of Shangri Llama are not interested in the troubles of the outside world!”
“How can you SAY that?” shouted Aurora, voice rising. “Do you have any idea the kind of suffering the Dictator has inflicted on this galaxy…on this planet? He is solely responsible for the destruction of the Earth! Do you know what that’s been like for everyone? For Libby? For ME? How dare you decide the fates of so many people while you sit around all day in your comfy buildings and sip tea! You’re disgusting!”
“That anger of yours is most disagreeable, young lady.”
“You must find inner peace,” offered one of the monks. “Only then will you be happy.”
Aurora jumped up and burst into green fire. “UUUGHHHH!! How DARE you lecture me like that, you pompous windbag! This isn’t about happiness, it’s about survival!”
Future Libby laid a hand on her friend. “Sit down, Aurora. I can handle this.”
Aurora’s legs folded beneath her. Her mouth settled into a resigned pout, little bits of flame still dancing around her shoulders.
“I’m goin’, Chen-Yu,” said Future Libby gently. “Please trust me. I know what I’m doin’. It’s not about war, and it’s not ‘bout killin’…it’s about settin' things right. I’m gonna save Sheen. I’m gonna save everyone.”
The monks exchanged glances.
“Well, I cannot stop you,” said Chen-Yu at last, looking back and forth at the faces of the two women. “And if all that you say is true, then I suppose that we will all be better off in the end. So go, fly off in that metal ship of yours. But please, come back to us as soon as you are finished. Return to us with the Chosen One by your side.”
“I will do my best,” Future Libby said, bowing her head. “I promise.”
Sheen inched forward and tapped the candle in the center of the circle with his foot. It tipped over, and the flame winked out.
“Well, would you look at that!” he said. “So…since the candle’s out, can we leave now?”
Carl nodded. “All this incense is irritating my asthma.”
“All right,” chuckled Chen-Yu, “if you really wish to go to bed, we can adjourn early.”
“Before we do,” interrupted Aurora, “I get to have my question answered. How did you escape the nanobots all those years ago? Everyone was hunted down. How did you survive?”
“Simple. We had placed ourselves into a deep state of meditation, so deep that our life signs were barely recognizable as being human. The nanobots never even detected our settlement. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there were other isolated rural populations that survived as well...”
This was news to Aurora, and she had to pause a moment to digest the information.
“Unless you have any other questions about the past,” he finished, “I would like return to my quarters as well. That rash on my back is acting up again.”
None of the monks seemed taken aback by this, but the visitors wrinkled their noses in reaction to such an unexpected and unsavory comment. Future Libby turned to Aurora and April.
“Come on girls, you can stay in my room tonight. We’ll have a good ol’ fashioned sleepover, just like old times!” She slipped an arm around Aurora. “I hope you came ready for a serious 'truth or dare' session...”
“Don’t you think we’re a little old for silly sleepover games?” asked Aurora.
“What is 'truth or dare'?” inquired April. “Is it a battle ritual of some kind?”
“Heh, you could call it that! Come on sweetie, you've got a lot to learn.”
Future Libby linked her arms through theirs and the three headed off toward the main house. She turned back and winked at the kids as the distance between them grew.
“You kids can sleep on mats in the living room. They're actually pretty comfy. I’m sure Sun-Hi would be happy to set them up for you.”
“Yes my lady! At once!” Sun-Hi dashed away, and Libby let out a loud yawn.
“Well guys, I don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m about ready to pass out.”
“Same here,” said Cindy. “A good night’s sleep would be nice for once.”
Sun-hi’s breathless, overly-enthusiastic voice rang out from inside the main house. “Your beds have been prepared! You may retire for the night whenever you wish, oh great ones!”
Cindy looked exasperated. “That woman doesn’t let up, does she?”
“Total flunkey,” agreed Libby.
Sheen, Carl, Libby, and Cindy returned to the main house to find the interior looking like a posh hotel, with sleeping mats made from the finest silk.
“Wow, Sun-Hi,” admired Libby, “you sure know how to set up a room. You may be a flunkey, but you're an awesome one!”
Sun-hi beamed with pleasure. “Thank you! I am happy to have served you!”
She waltzed out the door, and Sheen did a cannonball onto his cot. “Man, this is great! I want a Sun-Hi for my house! Then I’d never have to clean my room or make my bed again! She’d do it all!”
“Dream on, Sheen,” said Libby. “You’re not ‘the Chosen One’ back at your house.”
Cindy leaned against the door frame, hair flipping in the wind as she peered out into the moonlight. Libby walked up beside her.
“Aren’t you going to bed, girl? You must be bushed.”
Cindy’s manner was distracted. “Where do you think Neutron is? I haven’t seen him since…well…”
“We had a fight back in the garden, and I think he was pretty upset. He didn’t even come to the meeting with the monks.”
“Don’t worry about it, Cind. I’m sure he’s just workin’ overtime on the antidote or somethin’. Come on, you need to sleep.”
Cindy reluctantly crawled under the silken sheets of the farthest cot. Libby turned out the lantern, and the room vanished from sight. Cindy tossed and turned, then stopped, anchoring herself to the sensation of the bedding beneath her shoulder blades. As her vision adjusted, she turned her attention to the ornate carvings on the ceiling, watching as the patterns swam in feverish circles, dancing, mocking, taunting. She snapped her eyes shut, but even in the complete darkness of her own mind she could not escape the sight of him beneath those gingko trees.
-> Chapter 21