I was in a dark place. Far away, I could see a distant circle of light.
So, I was dead.
I felt a rush of regret. So many things I’d wanted to do! I hadn’t built a bridge or flown an airplane or finished memorizing pi! Also my back hurt. Should I still be hurting in my dead state?
“Callie? Can you hear me?” called a familiar voice from inside the light.
“God, is that you?” I asked. I struggled upward toward the light. “Am I dead?”
The voice chuckled, “Would I let that happen to you?”
The light disappeared with a click, and I found myself looking up at Tan. Behind him stood Pippen breathing hard, and next to her stood Conner, wearing the rifle over his shoulder and a look of relief on his face. As full consciousness returned, so did the pain. My ribs felt like one massive bruise, my head throbbed, and my arm was on fire. And I still had a terrible pain in my back. Maybe my spine was broken! Or maybe I was lying on a rock. I gritted my teeth and tried to sit up. Tan put his flashlight back in his medical pouch and helped me. That got rid of the pain in my back, but everything else still hurt. I looked down and saw that my white shirt was soaked with blood.
“Don’t worry,” said Tan. “It’s not yours. Most of it came from that.”
I turned and saw the huge snake behind me. Its head was lying several feet away from its body. Then the body twitched and rolled over.
“It’s still alive!” I yelped.
“The head’s dead,” said Tan. “The body hasn’t gotten the news yet.”
“Zow, Callie!” said Pippen. “You killed a giant snake! I should have stayed here to watch!”
“Pippen came running into the store screaming for me to come rescue you,” explained Conner, “but it looks like you rescued yourself!”
Suddenly I had a dreadful thought. “It bit me! Am I poisoned?”
“No, no!” said Tan enthusiastically. “That’s a constrictor of some sort. It doesn’t have poison fangs, just small teeth to hang on to you while it squeezes you to death! You’re lucky it was just a little snake, or you could have been in real trouble.”
I looked at the wide semicircle of bloody toothmarks on my arm. That was a little snake?
Tan took my bitten arm and bent it back and forth.
“Does this hurt?” he asked. “How about this?”
“Stop that!” I demanded, yanking my arm away. “I’m fine!”
To prove it, I stood up. It turned out I was not fine. A wave of dizziness and pain hit me, and for a second, I wished I was dead again. I grabbed onto Conner to keep from falling over.
“Are you okay?” Conner asked, holding me up.
“I feel like a half-dead idiot,” I said.
“Beats being an all-dead idiot,” said Conner.
“Okay, I can stand on my own now,” I said, and Conner let go of me.
He retrieved his knife from the ground, wiped it clean on his pants, and handed it back to me. He smiled at me like a proud teacher. “Pretty impressive for a first kill, Callie! I think we’re supposed to have a ceremony where I take a bit of blood and mark your forehead, but you’ve already got some there.”
I held onto the knife, not wanting to put it away until we were safely back at the truck. Pippen picked her pink knuckles up off the ground. So that’s what I’d been lying on! With Pippen leading the way, Tan guarding the rear, and Conner keeping me from falling over, I staggered through the jungle, back to the truck.
Tan wanted to fix my arm up right away, but I insisted we all get into Arnold first and lock the doors. Then Tan disinfected and bandaged my arm.
“Must you hum like that?” I grumbled.
Tan grinned. “Sorry. I spend half my day learning how to be a doctor, but I only get to do my job when somebody gets hurt.”
“You’re like a cheerful vulture.”
“All done,” Tan said. “How does that feel?”
“It hurts,” I said. “A lot.”
Tan hunted in his medical bag. “I can give you some pills for the pain.”
“Will they make me sleepy?”
“No pills,” I said, still a little shaky. “We still need to get to Orlando before nightfall, and I’m not sleeping until we’ve found a safe place to spend the night.”
Conner started the truck, and we headed back to the freeway. “What kind of place are we looking for?” he asked.
“Something like a tall building or hotel,” I said. “Tall enough that it gets us up out of the jungle, with doors that are tiger-proof.” Then with a shudder I added, “And snake-proof.”
To take my mind off the pain in my arm, I got out my notebook. Luckily the bite was on my left arm, and I could still write. I wanted to write down the snake attack, but first, I needed to fix the survival manual.
Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation
A survival kit.
A charged car battery.
A sharp knife.
Most of the freeway exit signs were covered with vines. Conner wanted to get out and pull the vines off to make sure we were on the right road.
“No, everyone stays in the truck now,” I said. “Pippen has the map; she’ll find the exit for us.”
With no signs to guide us, this was difficult. “Here! Take this exit!” Pippen shouted. “Um, I think.”
The road grew narrow, and the trees started to close in on us. It didn’t look anything like the pictures of Orlando in the book. I couldn’t see any tall buildings anywhere. The road ended in a blockade of fallen trees. We tried to go back the way we’d come, but ended up lost in the maze of vine-covered streets. It was getting late, the sun was getting low, and I was getting desperate. I noticed the bright-colored birds were gone. The jungle was about to change from the day shift to the night shift, and I didn’t want to be out in it when that happened.
“Is that a building?” asked Pippen, pointing ahead. In the distance, a tall vine-covered structure jutted up from the surrounding jungle. It was an irregular shape, but something about it looked man-made.
“Lets go check it out.” I said.
After a few more wrong turns, Conner finally found a leaf-choked fence with an open gate. We drove slowly through a few twisty turns between low buildings and finally found a wide avenue with buildings on either side.
“This street looks really odd,” said Tan.
I agreed. It was hard to see the buildings with plants growing all over them, but they were definitely weird. The buildings seemed too short. And where were all the cars? The tall structure we had seen earlier was straight ahead of us, at the end of the street.
Suddenly, Pippen yelled out, “Stop the truck!” She yanked the door open and jumped out. Conner and Tan and I followed as soon as the truck had actually stopped moving. Pippen stood in the middle of the street, looking up at the shape at the end. Then she started to laugh. “We did it Callie! We found it!”
“The lab?” I asked. “That can’t be it!”
“No! Not the lab! Don’t you guys recognize it?”
I looked at the building, now just a silhouette against the deep blue sky. It was tall and spiky, and it looked bigger than it had from a distance. “Nope,” I said. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Sorry,” said Tan.
“Something about the shape looks familiar,” said Conner, “but…nah.”
Pippen huffed in exasperation and dug into her pockets. She lit the flame on her pocket torch and hopped up on a vine-covered bench between us and the building. “How about now?” she asked and swept the torch over her head, tracing an arc in the air above the structure.
Zow! I had seen that building before! In dozens of movies in the student lounge back home!
Conner tipped his head and squinted. “Hey, it’s Cinderella’s castle!”
“We’re in Disney World!” I said.
“We found the Lost Kingdom!” shouted Tan.
We parked Arnold on the drawbridge and grabbed as much of our supplies as we could carry. Inside the castle there was a store selling Disney souvenirs and t-shirts. Startled birds flew past us and out the door.
A wide staircase led us up to the second floor, where we found a lobby. The stairs stopped at the third floor where there was a restaurant. The tables were covered in bird poop. “This still doesn’t look snake-proof,” I said with a shudder.
“Let’s keep going up,” said Tan. “Castles always have a room in the highest tower.”
“This is a fake castle, you know,” said Pippen. “There may not be anything higher.”
We found an elevator. That didn’t help us much, but Conner crowbarred open the locked door next to it, uncovering a narrow, winding staircase leading up. Holding his flashlight high, Conner led the way. Pippen whistled an eerie little tune. It took me a few seconds to recognize Maleficent’s theme from Sleeping Beauty.
“Would you stop that!” I hissed. “It’s creepy enough already!”
“Also the wrong movie,” added Tan. “This is Cinderella’s castle, not Sleeping Beauty’s.”
I was hoping that at the top of the stairs we’d find an attic storage room or wiring closet. Somewhere big enough that we could curl up on the floor for the night, safe from the wildlife. Instead we found magic.
At the top of the stairs, through an arched doorway, was a small apartment. There were four beds made of elegant, carved wood. The ceiling was painted with stars that glittered in the flashlight beams. Around the walls were cabinets with elaborate clocks and porcelain statues. There was one special cabinet all by itself. Pippen pressed her headlamp up against the glass and looked inside.
“Cinderelly’s slipper!” she laughed.
I checked the windows. They didn’t open, and everything looked undisturbed. I closed the heavy wooden door, locked it, and wedged a chair against it. “Okay, now I’ll take those pills.”
Tan handed me a small bottle. “Take three of these every six hours, and let me know if the pain gets worse.”
I took my backpack and some water bottles into the bathroom. In spite of the fairy-tale theme of the rest of the apartment, the bathroom was normal. If you didn’t count the bright pink tub. I swallowed the pills, then used a towel to wipe the snake blood off my face, and changed my shirt.
Conner had brought the MRE dinners and some MRE heaters. The heaters are really spiff. You put the MRE and the heater in a plastic bag, pour in a bit of water, and it starts a chemical reaction that heats your food. After dinner we had our now-traditional planning meeting. I spread the map out on a bed. “We know where we are now, we’re right outside Orlando. Tomorrow we find the lab, get the shut-off, and go home.” Then as an afterthought I added, “Maybe on the way home, we can stop by the Kennedy Space Center, over here.”
“What for?” asked Pippen.
“They had these huge solid-fuel rocket engines. They would carry space ships into space and then parachute back down so they could re-use the engine. We could see one of those up close!”
Tan spoke up. “Callie, we’re on a mission to save Jon here. We’re not tourists.”
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. But nobody will be launching rockets again until long after I’m dead, and I wanted to just touch something that’s been in space.”
It was too hot to use the covers or our sleeping bags, so we just lay on top of the beds. I switched my lantern to its low setting to save batteries. The beds were all in different corners of the room, but we could still talk to each other. I was feeling comfy and a bit fuzzy-headed, probably from the pain pills.
“It’s funny how things work out in ways you never expected,” I said. “If Pippen hadn’t wandered off, I wouldn’t have gotten bitten, and we would have made it to Orlando before dark, and we never would have found this place.”
“What was Pippen doing so far from the truck anyway?” called Conner from his bed.
“Trying to find a pet,” Pippen admitted, not a bit embarrassed. “I found the cutest little froggy! He was amazing, yellow and black stripes.”
“Wait a minute,” called Tan from his corner. “The frog was yellow and black and it was out in broad daylight?”
“It didn’t even run away from Pippen,” I said. “I guess it hadn’t heard about her yet.”
“Did you touch it?” Tan asked sharply.
“I didn’t get to. Callie stopped me!” Pippen grumped.
“Callie saved your life!” said Tan. “That was probably a poison dart frog. I’ve read about those. Some of them are so toxic that just picking one up will kill you! The color should have been a warning. Poisonous animals like wasps and salamanders and coral snakes and black widows have flashy colors. It’s like they’re wearing a sign that says, ‘Don’t touch me!’”
“Weird,” Pippen said. “In a jungle with tigers and snakes and elephants, the most deadly thing was a little frog!”
I lay on my bed and looked at the glittering stars painted on the ceiling. Unlike the real stars, these were nearly close enough to touch. We were so close to the goal of our quest now, I felt like I could almost reach out and touch that too. But something was bothering me. It took me a while to work out what it was. “Tan,” I said, “why won’t Jon ever talk about Zero Day? I know he was the test subject for Fixer, but sometimes he acts like…like Fixer was his fault.”
Tan didn’t say anything for a moment, and I wondered if he’d fallen asleep. Finally he answered quietly, “I think Jon was Typhoid Mary.”
“Who?” asked Conner.
“Typhoid Mary,” Tan said. “She was a past person who carried a deadly disease called typhoid fever into a big city. She was immune to the disease herself, but she was a cook, and people who ate her food got sick and passed it on to other people, and then those people got sick and infected others, and soon there was an epidemic and people died. I’ve been trying to figure out how Fixer could have escaped during the demonstration at the conference and then spread all over the world so fast. It doesn’t seem possible. So I think it must have gotten out before the conference. Jon was injected with Fixer weeks before the conference. Maybe all that time he was spreading Fixer to everyone he touched. Jon’s no doctor, but he understands a bit about medicine. I think by now he’s figured he was the one who infected the rest of the world. I think he blames himself for the death of everyone on earth.”
“That’s not fair,” Pippen said. “Jon didn’t know Fixer was contagious or deadly. Nobody did!”
“If Fixer had been spreading for weeks, why did everyone all over the world collapse at the same time?” I asked.
“We don’t know exactly what happened,” Tan said. “But tomorrow, we’ll be going into the dungeon where the black monster, Fixer was spawned. Maybe we’ll find some answers there. I just hope Fixer is asleep and not awake, waiting for us.”