Defenders of Neopia: The Vacation - Part Two
It had become very dark in the past half hour. Mercifully, there were powerful streetlamps at very regular intervals, and although no one seemed to be out and about, it was easy enough to find the house.
“Here we are,” called the driver, a gloomy grey Gelert. “Number 329. Don’t leave anything in the Motorcraft. The Neolodge is not responsible for items left behind. Be back in three days.”
They carried their bags up to the house; Dalynne procured the key; it turned in the lock, successfully opening the front door. “Which is just as well,” she muttered, “since that friendly driver of ours has probably driven off already.”
Jason found a lamp and turned it on. He gave a low whistle. “This place is pretty big.”
It was. It was a spacious, modern design, and the hall – which they were standing in – opened into a beautiful kitchen, complete with brand-new appliances and sparkling marble countertops. There wasn’t much furniture, but that was not unexpected; the great-aunt must have given most of it away in her will, Jackal thought.
“Well, I knew Aunt Isabella was rich, but I had no idea she was this rich,” remarked Dalynne. “Anyway, we’d better find the bedrooms. I suppose they’re upstairs.”
“Yes,” Jason called down from the landing. “They’re up here – three of them. Perfect. You two do what you like, but I’m going to sleep, and what’s more, I call the last room down.”
Jackal and Dalynne followed him upstairs, lugging their bags along rather wearily. Somehow traveling had been more draining than expected. Even Jackal, who did not generally require much sleep, felt her eyelids drooping. She was glad to flop down onto a soft, luxurious bed and surrender to sleep.
“Delicious, Jackal,” pronounced Jason, finishing off his burned pancake. “You certainly can cook. Say, how’d you like to make me some more of those?”
“Well, let’s see you do better, Chef Bonju.”
They had discovered, upon waking, that there was no cereal and no bread in the house. They had further discovered that Dalynne and Jason had no more idea how to cook than Jackal, so she had tried. It had not been entirely successful, although if you looked very closely at her production from all angles, you did perceive the vague suggestion of a pancake.
Dalynne snorted with laughter. “How did you get it this shape? I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s almost a star...”
Jason got up and brushed off his hands. “I’m going to go find a better place to eat, like maybe a restaurant, or somebody’s house who knows how to cook...” He ducked Jackal’s swipe. “Who’s coming?”
“I think I’ll stay and look around the house,” Dalynne said. “Bring me back something.”
“How about you, Jackal? Come on, don’t make me go alone – who knows what I might run into?”
“I’m not sure, Agent 65 Shoyru. Maybe neighbors? Or petpets? Yes, I’ll come with you. Fyora forbid that you should be unprotected.”
They set out down the street. The houses were set at very regular intervals and all looked very much the same, which in Jackal’s opinion detracted slightly from their otherwise definite appeal. The other odd thing was the silence. It was more than just quiet; there was no noise at all. She saw nobody and heard nothing. Most of the blinds were drawn and a few lights were on. Everywhere it was clean and well-kept. But still, it was almost as though there was simply nobody here but the two of them.
“Quiet, isn’t it?” she remarked.
“Very. I’ve heard of noise ordinances, but this is overdoing it a little... Let’s follow this street all the way up and see if we hit a main one with shops and stuff. It’ll be nice to see someone.”
“It’s as good a plan as any,” she agreed. And it was. The sun was shining brightly and she could not shake the feeling that there should have been children playing on the lawns, somebody shouting, somebody going to work...
“Oh dear,” Jason said glumly. “Look.” She looked; the street ended in a cul de sac up ahead.
“Something tells me we may have been going the wrong way,” she said dryly. Suddenly she had a flash of inspiration. “We could try looking at one of these newspapers.”
To all appearances, the Neopian Times had just been delivered; there was one on the curb in front of every house. Jason bent over and picked one up. He looked it over quickly, looked it over again, and shrugged. “Today’s date.”
Jackal had been half-expecting some months-old date, foreshadowing some terrible catastrophe that had taken place here and wiped out all civilization. That was what came of being a Defender, she thought sardonically. You started seeing mystery and adventure in everything, particularly where it wasn’t.
Still, it was odd. “I’m going to try something,” she announced, then screamed as loudly as she could.
The shriek echoed from house to house, but that was as much response as it received. It was almost as though nobody had heard – or, stranger still, as though no one lived here at all. She felt a slight shiver run down her spine. It would almost have been more comforting if the weather had been stormy and sinister; it would have seemed more natural, somehow. But the sun was shining brightly in the cloudless sky, and everything looked just as it should.
“There’s something going on here,” said Jason finally, his voice quiet. Something about the realization of being so entirely alone made noise seem almost obscene.
“There’s no evidence of that,” returned Jackal. “Not exactly. We could very well be bending everything to this theory of ours. It does look like something might have happened, though,” she conceded after a moment, looking around. “My guess is that these houses became unusable for some reason and had to be evacuated, but there are probably a million explanations.”
“Yes, probably,” he agreed, “but I don’t like it either way. I feel like someone’s watching us.”
“Now you’re just being paranoid,” she replied. “There’s no need to alarm ourselves, but it’s getting near lunchtime. Either we head back up this street to try to find the main one again, or we go back to the house.”
“Back to the house,” said Jason quickly. Courage had never been his strong suit, as far as Jackal knew. She couldn’t help wondering why he had decided to become a Defender in the first place. Probably for the glory, like most of them. Jackal – well, she wasn’t entirely sure what dragged her back to it again and again, but she could certainly name a few things she liked about it – the thrill, the action, the pride of a job well done – that outweighed the glory.
They started back up the road, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Presumably, at least. Jackal could not be certain about Jason, but whatever the case, neither of them spoke.
She watched a newspaper blow across the pavement and realized that she had not seen anybody come out to collect them. There was no need to share her speculations with Jason, as none of them were precisely positive, but she couldn’t help feeling that something must have happened here. Could it have been some kind of epidemic? She hadn’t heard of any in the area, but it was always possible, in which case they could be in danger at this very moment... Or maybe some kind of a kidnapper or – but no, this was an entire town. It wasn’t so easy to wipe out a few hundred people all in one blow, particularly without a single one of them becoming suspicious. And there were no boarded windows; no traces at all, in fact, of anyone having left in a hurry, save for the total absence of people anywhere.
“I think,” she said slowly, and Jason jumped. A newspaper fluttered across the street in front of them in the breeze. “I think we should get in touch with the Neolodge on the Telecom and go home tomorrow, unless we find some sign of life. It won’t be very fun here if all the food we have is burnt pancakes.”
“That’s a good idea,” he agreed, the relief very audible in his voice. “Let’s not wait till tomorrow; let’s just do it when we get back. Better safe than sorry, you know?”
“More or less. This is the house, isn’t it?”
It was a little hard to tell; they did all look so very much the same. But Jackal had been careful to imprint number 329 in her memory. Sure enough, the door was open, and Dalynne was there when they got in, rummaging through a large box of papers in the hall. “Oh, you two are back,” she exclaimed, getting up and brushing off her paws. “Let me tell you, I’m glad to see you – but where’s the food?”
Jackal looked around as Jason explained. The house was big, a little empty, but altogether quite nice – what was it about it that bothered her so much? As far as she could tell there was nothing wrong with it at all, but still she felt that there was something wrong. It was an irritating feeling. She couldn’t quite pinpoint it and, she told herself, it was probably entirely irrational, brought on by her state of mind. That was one of the first things they taught you in Defender training: Never let what you expect influence what you experience. It was called the Expect-Experience Dictum, and it had been the first question on the entrance exam. Shake it off, Jackal. There’s nothing here and nothing wrong.
Dalynne was getting out her Telecom. Actually it was a Virtupets Telecommunication Device XX15.1, but it was in standard Defender usage and the name shortening was hardly unexpected.
“All right,” she said, turning it on. “Let’s get out of here.”
Automatically, she had already begun the call before she saw the message flashing on the screen:
RECIPIENT IS OUT OF RANGE.
“We must be too far out,” Jackal said bleakly, and nobody disagreed.
To be continued...