"Ring around the Rosey,"

"A pocket full of posies,"

"Ashes, ashes,"

"We all fall down."

                 - Nursery Rhyme from the time of the Black Death.

AN:  The following story was inspired by the movie, '28 Days later…'

     & 'Sliders: The Love Gods,' & 'The Stand.'

Prologue

THE NORTHERN IRAQI DESERTS: 2003

"Jasmine!"

There was a mutter.

"Wake up, wife, we must go!"

She muttered more loudly this time.  "Leeme lone."

He shook her harder.  "In he name of Allah, wake up!"  She recognized the voice.  It was her husband, Shari.  Jasmine blinked open her eyes, and glanced at the clock by her bed.  It was a quarter past 2 in the morning.  She mumbled something and rolled over to face the sound of her husband's voice.

Her husband was deathly pale.  His eyes started and bulged from their sockets.  There were car keys in one hand, and he was using the other to shake her.

"Shari?  What's wrong, what's the matter?"  He didn't say, or want to say.  He looked awfully frightened about something.  "Are the American's attacking our village?"  She knew it was a stupid question, but it was all she could think off.  The American dead line for Sadam to leave wasn't up for another two days.

"In a way," he replied, "In a way, it's worse.  Much worse.  You get dressed.  Get our Daughter dressed as well.  We've got to get out of here."

"Why?"  She asked, getting out of bed.  A great fear had seized her.  Nothing seemed right.  This was like a bad dream.  "Are Sadam's goons planning a raid to locate traitors to the state again?" 

She knew that wasn't it.  She had never seen Shari this afraid before.  She listened to the night air.  Nothing.  No sounds, but the sounds of the desert that lay beyond the town.

"Wife, don't ask questions.  We have to get away!  Far away from here.  You just get our daughter up and get her dressed."

"What about our things?  What about packing?"

This seemed to stop him.  To derail him somehow.  She thought she was as afraid as she could be, but apparently she wasn't.  She recognized that what she had taken for fright on his part was closer to raw panic.  He ran a distracted hand through his hair and replied,

"I don't know.  I'll have to test the wind."

And he left her with that bizarre statement, which meant nothing to her, left her standing cold and afraid and disoriented in her bare feet and bed robe.

Had all that work down at the textile factory made her husband mad?  Testing the wind?  What did that mean?  And where was his idea of far away?  The southern area of Iraq?  Another country? 

Shaking her head, she hurried into the small room, which served as the bedroom for their five-year-old daughter, Ihram.  She quickly roused the sleeping girl and got her dressed.

"Waz wrong, mummy?"  She asked.

"We have to leave, sweaty," she replied.

"Why?"

"Because Daddy said so, that's why."

Her thoughts where interrupted by the sounds of something crashing in the house.  For a second, she thought it was Sadam's goons, hunting for them, but she recognized her husband's curses. 

"The files, the files," she herd him cry, "I must get all the files!"  He marched in the bedroom a few moments later, carrying a leather briefcase, and a torch.  "We must go, now!  We're leaving the country!"

"Are you crazy, husband," Jasmine replied, as they hurried out the front door.  "Sadam will send his troops after us.  Shari!  Soldiers will come after us."

Shari coughed into his hand.  "Not tonight, and very soon, not ever."  He said, and there was a hint of something terrible, hidden in the way he spoke.  "But the point is, wife, if we aren't gone very soon, we won't be leaving the country ether."

"What?"

"I don't know how I made it out of the plant alive to begin with.  A malfunction somewhere in the security system, I believe.  And I don't see why not.  Everything else in that Allah forsaken place has malfunctioned."

"Plant?  Malfunctioned?  Husband, what's going on!?!"

"Wife," Shari said, turning to face her, as he opened the car doors.  "The textile plant that I work for is not really a textile plant.  It's actually a secret biological weapons plant!"

Jasmine was horrified.  "But…"

"Oh, I was plant supervisor alright," he said, as he climbed into the drivers seat.  "But what went on inside, we weren't allow to tell anyone, under the pain of death." 

Jasmine bundled her daughter into the backseat, and climbed into the passengers seat.  Shari coughed loudly, as Jasmine did up her seatbelt, and made sure her daughters was done up as well, before her husband started the engine.

"Where are we going, Daddy," their daughter groaned from the backseat, "I was aseepin." 

"You can be aseepin in the car, sweaty," Shari said, as he put the car into reverse and pulled out of the driveway. 

"Husband," Jasmine asked, looking over her shoulder out the back window, at the black silhouette of the textile plant, looming in the distance.  "What happened?  Was there an accident?"  The look in his eyes told it all.  "Dear Allah, there was, wasn't there!"

"I was playing solitaire," he said, his hands gripping the wheel tightly as he drove off down the road.  "I looked up and saw the clock had gone from green to red.  I turned on the monitor, and…"  He gasped for breath, before continuing.  "And they were all --"  He paused, and glanced up in the rear view mirror at their daughter who was looking back with curious eyes.  "They were all D-E-A-D, down there, all but one or two, and they're probably gone now."

"What's D-E-A-D, Daddy?"  His daughter asked.

"Never mind, Daughter," Jasmine said.  Her voice seemed to come to her from down a very long canyon.

Shari coughed loudly.  "Everything's supposed to mag-lock if the clock goes red.  They got a super computer that runs the whole place and it's supposed to be fail-safe.  I saw what was on the monitor, and I jumped out the door.  I thought the door would cut me in half – it's supposed to shut down the second the clock went red, and I have no idea why it didn't.  Worst part is, I don't have any idea how long the clock had been red for."

"Did it shut down?"  Jasmine asked, a hint of fear creeping into her voice as she spoke.

"Eventually, yes," he replied, as he left the last of the residentially houses of the town, and drove out onto the highway.  "I was almost to the parking lot before I heard it thump shut behind me.  I can't help feeling lucky, if I had bothered looking thirty seconds later, I'd have been shut up in there."

"What was it?  What were you working on?"

"I don't know that.  I wasn't part of the scientists working on it, there for to keep it as secret as possible, only those who actually handled chemicals knew what it was they were making."  His eyes widened as he shock his head.  "But what ever it was, it ki---  It K-I-L-L-E-D them quick."

"What are we going to do once we get to the boarder?"  For the first time since she woke up, she saw her husband smile.  It was a weak one at that.

"I managed to get some of my personal files before we left, evidence to give to the Americans to prove that Sadam is still producing weapons of mass destruction."  He replied.  "That should get us into protective custody and away from Sadam, and --- what ever that was back there."

Jasmine looked over at her husband behind the wheel.  He was hunched tensely over the steering wheel, his face drawn in the dim glow of the dashboard instruments.  In the back seat, their daughter was laying down, sleeping peacefully, and thankfully, had no idea on the horrors of what was going on.

"Don't worry, wife," Shari said, forcing a smile.  "Everything's going to be alright." 

By dawn they were running south across the Desert, and Shari was coughing steadily.

.....................................................................

Love Hina

Keitaro: The Last Man

By Lein

.....................................................................

JAPAN: 4 Weeks Later…

"…Anti-war protestors today marched in the streets of Washington D.C to condemn the war in Iraq.  The demonstrators were orderly, and peaceful, with no arrests or rowdiness.  President Bush was reported having said, 'Even though I don't approve of their message, I approve of their method.'  With Sadam formerly owsed from Iraq, the hunt for weapons of mass-destruction continue.  With help from a former Iraqi scientists, safely hidden away in the United States, the Americans will soon have all the evidence they need."

The remote was aimed at the TV and the channel was changed.

"…Biological weapons were believed used in the northern area of Iraq buy Sadam during the war with the Coalition.  With the body count reaching up to 200.  Surprisingly, all of these victims are males."

The remote was aimed at the TV and the channel was changed.

"…The Yen slid another .009 cents today on the stock market, leading to a panic among investors…"

The remote was aimed at the TV and the channel was changed.

"…Try new Wonder White washing detergent.  It's bound to leave your white's looking as good as the first day they were bought!"

Keitaro smiled, as he lowered the remote and sunk back into the soft fabric of the couch.

"Ahhh, at last," he said, "A non news channel."  He didn't mind that it was a commercial, as long as it wasn't news.  It was all that had been on lately, news, news, news.  Just then, it went back to its regular scheduled program.

The news.

"Hi, welcome back.  In world news today, there has been an alarming amount of flu cases reported in North America, the Middle East, and Europe.  All these cases seem to be confined to the male population.  Authorities are claiming that this is not a terrorist act, as terrorists would use other biological weapons, other than the common cold."

Keitaro grumbled, as he turned off the TV set, and sighed, as his own reflection stared back at him from the blank screen.  He closed his eyes, and relaxed, taking in the surrounding sounds.  The ticking of the clock, the dripping of a tap not quite turned off, somewhere in the first floor.  The chirping of the birds outside.

Suddenly, his eyes flung open, as he heard a female scream rip through the air.

Keitaro leapt up off the couch in fright, looking horrified, as the scream was suddenly replaced by the sound of pounding footsteps, rushing down from upstairs.  The door to the living room was suddenly flung open, and in the doorway, stood a female samurai, carrying a very big sword. Her breath was rapid and deep, and what little could be seen of her face red with rage,

The reason her face was partially hidden, because there were a pair of boxer shorts across the upper part of her face, almost obscuring her raven black hair.

"URASHIMA!!!"  She bellowed, "Can't you hang your underwear up like a normal person, so that it won't blow away!?!"  She ripped them off her face, and threw them down on the ground.

"I—I--!"  Keitaro stuttered, but couldn't think of anything to say.  Motoko was seething with anger. 

"Save me your excuses, you weakling!"  She snarled, and unsheathed her sword, pointing it right at him.  "Your boxer shorts have assaulted me for the last time."  She then raised her sword high above her head, and then brought it down.  "Secret Technique: Air Splitting Sword!"  She cried out, as a wave of Energy suddenly barrelled straight for him.

"Oh boy,"  He managed to squeak, before he was blasted out the closed window, shattering it, as he sailed, spiralling into the air.  He sailed through the air, cart wheeling, and finally came down in some treetops.

"Owwww," He moaned, his back lay across a tree branch.  "Why dose this always happen to me?"

His thoughts were interrupted, when there came a cracking sound.  His eyes widened with fear.  He wasn't able to scream, as the branch snapped and he fell all the way to the ground below.

"You'd think being the only guy living in an all girls dorm would be heaven."  He tried to move his arm, but pain shot up his spine, and he winced loudly.  "It's like treading a mine-field!  One wrong step and, BOOM!"

He moved his leg, which thankfully wasn't broken, and kicked the tree in frustration.  The whole thing shook, and there was a loud snap.  Keitaro gulped loudly, as he looked up into the tree.  There was a massive branch, that had been broken by his fall, but was barely hanging on.  His kick had finally knocked it lose.

It dangled about on a lose thread, then snapped and plummeted all the way down to the ground.  That was the last sight Keitaro saw, before everything went painfully black.

OREGON: USA: 3 Days Later…

Driving along in the fading light with his headlights on, Sargent Greg Burnet of the Oregon State Police hummed a tune to himself.  One hand on the wheel, and the other arm resting half outside the window.  The window was down, and the breeze blowing through, ruffling his short hair, his eyes hidden behind wraparound Bolli cycling glasses tinted like oily water.  He kept the vehicle on the narrow, winding track with the languid ease born of long experience. 

He was heading in a North Westerly direction, following the highway towards his home in Portland.  Now that his shift, patrolling the highway was over, it was time to head back home.

The sudden rumble in the distance of thunder, made Greg glance up at the sky.  Dark, inky black clouds where gathering on the horizon, casting forbidding shadows on the landscape in the distance.  "Looks like rain," he muttered.  "Can't be too careful," he reached one hand over to the tape player, and stopped the tape.  Then reached for the dial knobs on the cars radio.

He turned the switch that activated the car's radio, and began tuning it into a radio station.  Finally, getting something, he leaned back, and listened.  The radio station that he'd just turned to was finishing up with some song from the late eighties, before the DJ began talking once more.

"…In New York, three middle aged men have died in hospital from what Doctors could only describe as the Common Cold.  'These men were very healthy and not ready to die just yet,' one doctor stated.  'We have received hundreds of cases concerning the flu, but none as server as these 3 cases.'  The National Health Department has been called in to asses the situation.  Despite these deaths, the police refused to rule it as a terrorist attack.  Coming up next we have…"

"Never mind that, what about the weather?"  Greg mumbled.  There was a rolling growl of thunder.  The sky was darker, lower, and menacing.  "Yeah," Greg said taking another quick glance at the sky.  "Looks like rain, alright."    

He drove on towards the gathering clouds, listening to two more international news stories, and still, not hearing anything about the weather.  He tried other stations, but nobody told him anything. 

A few raindrops spattered the windshield, and Greg turned on the wipers.  He glanced at his wristwatch.  Nine o'clock.  The sound of the raindrops hitting the roof with a dull plunking sound, motivated him to push in a cassette tape, to try and drown out the rain, and then turned the volume nob up.

The car took a corner, spraying water everywhere.  Greg turned the wipers on to full blast, as the rain began falling in droves.  Greg reached over, and turned the volume up higher, as he continued to drive along.

Lighting lit up the night sky, and the thunderclap that followed actually made Greg jump, and he nearly lost control of the car.  He eased of the accelerator a fraction, just as the car careened over a slight raised section of the road, sending the vehicle into the air for a split second, before bouncing back down on the road with a shuddering jolt. 

He reached over and stopped the cassette tape.  He needed to concentrate.  Rounding a tight corner, Greg spied some blurry lights in the distance.  Starring past the flicking of the whippers, he could make out different colours.  Yellow, Red, and flashing orange.  That looked a lot like…

Suddenly, a figure stumbled onto the road, and collapsed right in his path.  Greg slammed on the brakes, and the car fishtailed on the rain slick road, losing traction in an end-to-end spin, and for a horrified moment he thought he was going to crash into the other car --- he knew he was going to crash --- and he spun the wheel frantically, and the car slid to a stop, the front left tier just a foot from the other vehicle.

He paused there, listening to the rhythmic flick of the wipers.  He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  He looked out to her right, through the distorted image of the passenger's side window, and saw that the other car had run right of the road, and slammed into a power poll.

The rain thrummed loudly on the roof of the car as Greg sat there for what seemed like hours, just staring at the foliage on ether side of the road, and a steep hill on the other side of the road to the cliff.  Not that there was much to see.  Sheets of water streamed down over the sides of the windows, making anything outside to see, virtually impossible.

He reached over, and picked up his car radio.  "This is Sargent Greg Burnet out on route 205, just outside Portland.  I have a single vehicle accident with crash victims.  Over."  He let go of the button. 

There was a few crackles of static, before a voice answered.  "Rodger that, Sargent, Paramedics are on the way.  Over."

He turned the keys in the ignition that shut of the engine, and reached over into the back seat, where the army green coloured umbrella lay.  He then opened the door, and got out of the car, feeling heavy raindrops pelt his head, even with the parker jacket's hood up, it was raining hard enough so that his head hurt.  He then raised the umbrella to the heavens, and opened it up.  

It was a real storm.  The wind howled and tore at him, trying to snatch the umbrella from his grasp, and soaking his clothes.  Greg pulled the hood of the parker even further over his head, almost dragging it down over his eyes and obscuring his vision, as he shivered from the cold.  Then, gripping the umbrella with both hands, he walked over to the crash.

A flash of lighting lit up the surrounding area for him, and he was able to get a better look.  The figure he'd nearly hit earlier, lay just in front of his car, nearly under the bumper bar.  He bent down, and felt the mans pulse.  There was one, but it was fairly weak.

"Hang on, Buddy," he told the man in a soft voice, "Help is on the way.

Greg swore he herd the man moan, but over the noise of the storm, it was impossible.  He had blood streaking down his face, and his neck was swollen.  Suddenly, the man erupted into spastic compulsions of coughing fits.

This startled Greg and he fell over in surprise, crying out.  Greg blinked in surprise, and looked back at the man.  He was now lying on his side, coughing like mad. 

The ambulance arrived in just under an hour.  Some more patrol cars arrive to cordon of the scene, and await the arrival of a tow truck.  Greg gave his statement to the paramedics about the mans condition. 

However, it was all in vain.  The man died five minutes after the ambulance arrived.  The paramedics placed him in a body bag, and prepared a trip to the morgue.

"Poor guy," Greg told another state trooper.  "He was suffering from a cold too."

"Then he shouldn't have been out on the roads," the other trooper scoffed as he shook his head.  "Especially in this weather.  Damn idiot deserves what he got."

"So, who gets to inform his family?"

"Oh no," the man said turning away and heading for his car, "Don't look at me.  I've just started my shift for the night, and I don't want to begin it with this crap."

"Well, somebody has to tell 'em," Greg said, "And I've just finished my shift."

"Then get a rookie to do it," the man said.  Greg was about to reply, but instead let out a loud coughing fit.  "Jeese, I'll organize it," the trooper said, raising an eyebrow, "You'd better get out of this rain, before you catch a cold your self."

"Yeah," Greg muttered, clearing his throat.  "See ya 'round."

Five days later, Greg died just four miles on route to the hospital.

JAPAN: 28 Days Later…

Darkness.

At first, there was nothing but darkness.

That was the first feeling that made it's way into his head.  He was aware of the darkness.  That was, in it's own odd way, a good sign.  It meant that he was still alive.

Then, there were colours.  First there was one, then five, then a dozen, then hundreds. 

Keitaro was swimming in an ocean of colours.  He swam and swam until his arms grew tired, but still he swam.  As he swam he saw a bright light and swam towards it.  The light got bigger and brighter until he swam into consciousness.

Keitaro opened his eyes to a white ceiling. Sunlight - muted by gauze curtains - made it glow with an ethereal brilliance.

Slowly he flexed his hand.  There were marks in his arm, the blue bruises left by needles.  A lot of them. Beside the bed were stacks of white boxes, monitors, glowing LEDs, medical equipment.  A plastic-looking filament led from them to a translucent plastic bracelet around his wrist.

Dazed, he looked around.

Besides the bed and the medical monitors, the room was bare.  A polished wooden floor with a couple of small heating vents, whitewashed walls, white gauze curtains across a window to the left.  There was a closed door in the far wall and to the right a large mirror.  A camera on servos watched him from a high corner.

*Where the heck am I?*

Just then, it all came back to him.  Motoko.  His boxer shorts.  And then, that tree branch fell on him, knocking him out.  He reached up and felt his head.  There were a number of bandages wrapped around his skull.  There was still a slight pain as he touched his head.

He sat up, the sheets falling away.  He was wearing some kind of hospital gown. When he tried to stand up he found the wire linking me to the monitor too short.  He pulled the jack out, causing machines to redline, and lurched across to the window.

The camera did not follow him as he walked.

It was normal glass, not very thick.  There was a wire mesh behind the glass.  Beyond that was a two-story drop to a manicured lawn sloping gently away to a tree line that continued as far as he could see.  Keitaro flipped the latch on the window, and lifted it up, allowing a small cool breeze to flow into the room.

There was nothing outside, that he could see.  He then walked over to the mirror, and rapped lightly on it.

"Hello?"  He called out.  "Is there anyone there?"

No one answered.

Curios, he walked over to the door, and tried the handle.  It clicked, and swung open.  Keitaro blinked a few times, and then cautiously peered out the door.

There was a long hallway that seemed to go on in both directions.  There was nothing in the hallways. 

"Hello?"  He called out again.  No one answered him.  Slowly, he took one step outside the room.  When nothing happened, he took another step, then another, and finally, was walking down the hallways.

The hallways of the hospital were completely deserted.  Things lay here and there, in a neat order, as if nothing much had happened.  It was as if the entire hospital staff just one day walked away from their jobs, leaving the building hanging open.

The lifts weren't working, so he took the stairs.  Still nothing could be found.  He wound his way through the corridors, following the hospital maps, until he came to the lobby.

This place was deserted as well.  Not one soul remained.

"Where is everybody?"  He cried out.  He looked around, and then raising his hands to his mouth, shouted out, "Hey!  I'm a deranged sex maniac who has raped and killed, ten woman!!!"

Still nothing.

"Wow," he muttered, "Something really must be wrong."  Suddenly, he remembered.  "Oh no!  The Hinata Apartments!"  He broke into a full run, "I hope they're still there."

Keitaro burst out the front doors, and ran through the streets.  They were al empty as well.  Nothing.  Not even a cat or a dog remained.  The entire city was a ghost town.  He could see the Hinata building as he drew closer.  With every passing second, he grew more and more frightened. 

Finally, he reached the stairs that lead up to the Hinata Apartment complex.  Keitaro stopped, and sighed with relief.  It was still there, now he would just have to hope it's occupants would be as well.

He took a deep breath, and ran up the stairs, not bothering to stop until he reached the top.  There he stopped to catch his breath.  After a few gasping moments, he looked up at the place.  It still looked the same way it did the last time he saw it.

"Hey, guys!"  He shouted out, "It's me, Keitaro!"  There was no reply.  "Guys!?!"  He called out.  He was stunned.  No, not the Hinata Apartments.  He tried one last time.  "Hey, Naru, can I look through your underwear drawer!?!"

When a full minute had passed, Keitaro's bottom lip began to tremble.  Where was everybody?

Slowly, he walked up to the door, and went on inside.  The whole place was deserted.  He ran upstairs and down.  Looking in all the girls rooms.  Naru's, Shinobu's, Kitsune's, Motoko's, and lastly, Su's.

Nothing.  Every single room was empty.  Not even Tuma could be found.  He couldn't believe it.  He slumped down the stairs, depressed, and even contemplating suicide. 

Finally, he reached the living room.  The place where everything had began.  He looked at the couch he'd been resting on.  One minute, he'd been enjoying a peaceful day, the next; he was in a bad Twilight Zone episode.

"WHERE THE HELL IS EVERYBODY!?!?!"  He shouted out. 

He let out a low sob, and trudged into the kitchen.  Maybe there was still something to eat.  As he entered the dinning room, he spied a half folded newspaper, resting on the tabletop.  Keitaro's eye's lit up, and he rushed forward, grabbing it.  He opened it up, and fell silent.  The headlines said it all.

"SUPER FLU SWEEPS THE NATION!"

He gasped, and nearly let the paper slip through his fingers.  He felt his knees buckle, and he collapsed into a chair. 

"No," he muttered.  "It's not possible.  Everybody is gone.  Everybody!"  He then heard a low sob, and realized, that it came from his own throat.  "Oh Naru," he sulked, "I never got to tell you how much I really cared for you!"

He then walked over to the fridge and poured himself a drink.  The power had gone out, but it hadn't been opened for some time, and there was still some cold air inside.

He trudged into the living room and sat down.  He tried to see if anything was on TV but there was no power, and al that greeted him was the shiny black reflection of his own miserable face.

Instead, he stretched out on the couch, put his feet up, and decided to read the rest of the paper, hoping to find out more on what had happened.

"Members of W.H.O. (World Health Organization) have today declared that the strange and unexplained flu virus that has been plaguing Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the America's is in fact on Japanese soil.  So far, no female cases have been reported, but doctors yesterday pronounced the first death of a Japanese man aged 28 of this mysterious 'Super Flu.'  Mass panic is sweeping the entire country as people are evacuating the larger cities for the country side."

"Oh," Keitaro muttered, as he lowered the paper down.  "That's where everybody has gone."  Suddenly, he sprung up of the couch.  "Wait! Maybe there's a good chance that Naru is still alive out there somewhere!"

He knew it was a long shot, but it gave him something to live for.  Something to do.

He suddenly felt a cold breeze blow through the living room, and he rubbed his arms.  But first, he needed a change of clothes.  He was still in the hospital garb he wore when he woke up.

Keitaro went back up to his room, which was exactly the way he remembered it.  He rummaged through his cupboard for some clothes and foot ware.  Then, he grabbed a backpack, and began to fill it with the few personal items he would need for the long journey.

His Discman, his sketch book, some pacers and extra leads, and last, but not least, his…

Keitaro paused.  His collection of photo both pictures was missing.  It wasn't in the usual place he always hid it.  He practically turned his room upside down, searching for it, but it wasn't there.  Someone had taken it.

Had Naru taken it?

Something kindled deep down inside Keitaro.  That was a good sign she was still alive.  He hoped that was the case.  But then again, why would Naru take it?  She never came out and revealed her true feelings to him.  Just her anger at his clumsiness.

Finally, he decided that it was possible that she took it with her.  I so, she might be still alive, somewhere out there, headed down stairs and began to raid the kitchen, and pantry.  Food was going to be needed for his journey.  He packed some food into plastic bags to seal their freshness, and preserve them for a long journey.

He was finally ready at last, and as he stood in the open doorway of the Hinata Apartment, he realized, he had no idea where he was going to go.

"Arrrrgggggghh!"  He cried out in frustration.  In all his excitement, he realized he didn't have any particular destination in mind.  Grumbling, he headed back inside.  He raided a few cupboards, before he found what he was looking for.

A map of the surrounding area.  Roads, highways, and rail lines.  Any possible destination that Naru might be.

Keitaro moaned loudly, as a sweat drop rolled down his forehead.  Naru could be anywhere.  He wouldn't know where to start looking.  All his things crashed down to the floor, and he swayed a little.

"Damn it, Naru, Where the hell are you!?!"  He shouted, tugging at his hair. 

Day followed day.  Keitaro lounged about the Hinata Apartments, eating what little food was left in the whole building, and even venturing out into the city to look for more food.  There were no signs of life anywhere.  A few birds chirped here and there, but not as many as there used to be. 

He finally managed to find a radio, but could not find anything.  All there was was just static from AM to FM.  Eventually boredom began to kick in, and he found himself cleaning things around the house, windows, the hallways, his room, and even the hot springs.

"Oh Naru," Keitaro muttered, as he collapsed on the couch after finishing his chores for the day.  Even though there wasn't any point to them, they kept him sane.  "Where are you?"

He lit a few candles as the final rays of sunlight sank beneath the hills, plunging the entire city into darkness.  Usually, on nights like this, he'd go up to his room, and look out at the array of lights from the city below. 

Now, it was just a blanket of darkness.

He groaned loudly, and placed a magazine over his face, as he tried to think about anything besides Naru.

CREAAAAK!

The magazine slipped from Keitaro's face, to land softly on the couch.  He looked about.  Someone was inside the Hinata Apartments.  But who?

Slowly, he got up off the couch, and made his way into the kitchen, to get the biggest kitchen knife he could find.  Pulling it out from the drawer, he moved back into the living room, and looked around.

No one was there.  Holding the knife up high, he inched his way over to the steps that lead to the second floor.

Looking around, he saw only darkness, leading up the stairs.  It was then, that someone smashed a Sake bottle over his head, and Keitaro was out cold before he hit the ground.

***

Keitaro opened his eyes to the sound of birds chirping loudly.  He was lying on his back, on a sandy beach.  The sound of waves crashing on the shores made him turn to see the ocean off to his right.

Then, he heard laughing.  Looking of to his left, he saw a group of girls, all sitting down, enjoying a picnic lunch.

It was the entire gang.

"Naru?"  He called out.

Naru got up from the group.  "Well, it's about you woke up, Keitaro," she said, as she walked over to him.  "You've been out for hours now, idiot."

"What happened?"  He asked.

"Don't you remember?"  Naru asked, "Motoko blasted you out the window, and knocked you out when a tree branch fell on you.

"Oh yeah," Keitaro muttered, as he turned to face the sky.  "That's right."  The sudden rumble in the distance of thunder, made Keitaro glance up at the sky.  Dark, inky black clouds where gathering on the horizon, casting forbidding shadows on the landscape in the distance.  "Looks like rain," he muttered.  "Maybe we should be heading inside now?"

"Nope," Naru said, "We're leaving."

"leave?"  Keitaro sat upright.  "What?  Why?"

The gang where suddenly packed up, quicker than he thought possible.  Naru waved goodbye to him.  "You know why, idiot," she said.  "Please don't look for me, Keitaro.  You know why."

"Wait, Naru, don't leave!  NOOOOOO!!!"

***

Keitaro cried out in horror, as he leapt forward.  It only took him a second to realize that was a dream.  His arms were frozen in a grab for an invisible object in front of him.  His eyes were wide, and he was breathing in and out at a frantic rate, and he was covered in sweat. 

This time, he could see clearly.

He was in the Hinata Apartments, lying down on the couch.

"Keitaro?"  Keitaro turned at the sound of the voice.  He blinked a few times at the shadowy figure, and then felt around for his glasses.  "Here," the woman said, handing them to him.  He put them on, and blinked the blurry figure into focus.

"Aunt Haruka!?!"  She raised her fist to correct him, but lowered it.

"Yes, Keitaro," she said with a smile, "It's me."  Keitaro's eyes blurred over with tears, as he suddenly leapt forward and flung his arms around her.

"Oh Aunt Haruka," he bawled out loud, "I was beginning to think that I'd never see you again!"  Haruka stroked his hair, and patted his back, like she would calm a frightened child.

"It's okay, Keitaro," she said, "I was beginning to think I'd never see you again."

"Oh Aunt Haruka," Keitaro said through tears, "What the hell is going on!?!  It's all one big nightmare!"

"Easy Keitaro," Haruka calmed him, "Just calm down."

"I can't," He bawled, "I wake up in hospital and find out the whole place is disserted!  What happened to everyone!?!  Where are all the girls!?!"

"Just calm down, first," she said, hugging him close.  "Calm down."  Keitaro did calm down, and she let go of him, so he could rest back down on the couch.

"I'm sorry, Aunt Haruka, it's just that…"  He paused, felt his head, and then looked back up at her.  "Did you hit me over the head with a bottle?"

"I thought you were a squatter," Haruka said with an embarrassed smile.  "I didn't know it was you."

"What's going on, Aunt Haruka?"  He asked.

"Some sort of virus," Haruka said, "No ones too sure but it's believed to have originated from Iraq.  It was disguised in the form of the common cold, but it spread like wild fire.  First the Middle East, then Africa, Asia, Europe, The America's…" she trailed off.  "Everywhere you went, the air smelled of death.  The doctors tried all kinds of new drugs, but none of them worked."  She shook her head.  "The last thing I heard, before the power went out, was that a strain had finally reached Australia, the last infection free zone in the world."

"Where are all the girls, Aunt Haruka?"  He gulped loudly.  "Are they… dead?"

"No," Haruka said.  Keitaro sighed with relief.  "They all went their separate ways," Haruka said.  "Su left for her home country, Shinobu went looking for her family, and so did Motoko, and Kitsune."

"What about Naru?"

"She left too, Keitaro."  She shrugged.  "But she didn't say why.  She just upped and left one morning."

"I have to go find her," Keitaro said, climbing off the couch.  But Haruka pushed him back down with one hand.

"No you don't," she said, "You've just woken up from a comma, you're in no condition to go anywhere."

"What!?!"  Keitaro cried out, "Why?  I can't sit here, knowing that Naru is out there somewhere!  I have to go find her."

"Keitaro…"  Haruka trailed of again.  "That's not a good idea.  Really."  Keitaro frowned. 

"Why?"

"There's… something I haven't told you yet.  About the plague."


"What?"

"It only affected, men."  Keitaro's bottom jaw dropped like a rock.

"WHAT!?!"

"It only killed the male population of the world.  Not the female population.  We were left untouched."

Keitaro swallowed loudly, as he pointed at himself.  "Y-y-you me-mean, that…"  

"You're the only man left alive?"  She nodded weakly.  "I'm afraid so."

Keitaro got that butterfly feeling inside his stomach, as he suddenly felt smaller than before.  "Oh boy," he muttered weakly, "This is… this is…"  Suddenly he leapt of the couch into a star jumping position in the air.  "FANTASTIC!!!"  He landed back down on the ground with tears running down his face.  "At last, I've never been very popular with all the girls, now I'm the only one they have to chose from.  This means I can get any girl I want!  Wow!"

"It's not something I'd get all excited about, Keitaro," Haruka warned.  "The world is a completely different place now, Keitaro.  It's more dangerous than ever, and even more so for you."

"I, I don't understand, Aunt Haruka," Keitaro replied.  "What do you mean by that?"

"Think about it, Keitaro," she said, crossing her arms.  "You may possibly be the only man alive on the entire planet.  The future of the human race may rest in your very hands."

"Uhhhh…" Keitaro twiddled his thumbs nervously. Suddenly, something came to mind.  "Hey wait a minute, if only the men died, how come I've found no bodies, and why is the whole city empty?"

"Oh, that," Haruka said.  "All the woman in the city decided that having corpses laying about in the streets and buildings wouldn't be very healthy, so they decided to gather up all the dead men and burned them all in one big bonfire, which also doubled as a mass funeral for all the woman who lost their husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, and sons."

"How come I wasn't taken?"

"That I don't know," Haruka said scratching her head.  "The plague hit our city some time after you went into your comma, and we figured that you were dead as well."

"Didn't anyone come to check up on me?"

"There was too much confusion at first," Haruka replied.  "At first, no one knew that the plague only affected men.  When the plague came, we were all frightened, not sure weather we would make it or not, but when it was clear who the true victims were…"  She trailed off, and then turned away.  "We believed you were dead too, Keitaro.  After seeing streets full of dead men, no one wanted to go down to the hospital and see your dead body."

"Wow," Keitaro muttered, "They really cared for me, didn't they."

"Naru cried the most," Haruka replied.  "You should've seen the funeral we had for you.  All the girls pitched in and helped, even Sarah.  It was lovely."

"Even Sarah?"  Haruka nodded.  "Oh God, Sarah," Keitaro covered his mouth in shock.  "How did she take Seta's death?"

"With denial," Haruka replied.  "Although he was away on another dig, she refused to believe he was dead, so after the plague hit, she took of in search of him."

"Didn't anybody go with her?"

"Mutsumi left with here."  Keitaro looked around again at the empty room.

"So, why is the whole city empty?"  Keitaro asked.

"Most of the woman who lived here, couldn't stand to be in the same place where their husbands and little boys had died, and quite a lot of them left after the funeral bonfire."

"So why did you decided to stay?"

"Too many memories here, I guess," she said with a shrug.  "I've poured my life into this place, I just couldn't up and walk away from it.  I guess looking after the place will give me something to do to keep from going stir crazy."

"So, what do I do now, Aunt?"  Keitaro asked.

"I have no idea," she replied with a shrug.  "However, what ever you do decide to do, make sure you think it through.  Remember Keitaro, the world is a different place now, and you're going to have a hard time blending into the background now."

"I… I…" Keitaro stammered.  "Aunt Haruka, I really want to go find Naru."

"I thought just as much," she said with a sigh, and sat down on the couch next to him.  "Keitaro, I'm not going to prevent you from looking for Naru, if you want to, but I'm truly against it.  You could get your self killed, or worse.  But what ever you do decide, I won't stop you."

Keitaro looked long and hard at the floor, then he turned and looked directly at this aunt.

"I have to go find her, Aunt Harauka," he said.  "I love her."

"Very well, Keitaro," she said patting him on the back.  "If that's what you want to do, you can do it.  Just be careful, stay hidden as much as possible, and don't trust anyone you don't know."

"But there's a slight problem, Auntie," Keitaro said in a small voice, "I don't know where to start looking."

"I know I really shouldn't be telling you this, Keitaro," she said with a sigh, "But did you ever think to check her family home?  She might have stopped in to check up on them."

"Of cause," Keitaro cried out, jumping of the couch, "That's it, you're a genius Aunt Haruka," He hugged her, and she just smiled.  He then started rushing about like mad, repacking the things he had packed earlier, getting ready for his long trek.

"You're going to leave right now?"  Haruka said, "But it's already dark outside."

"I'm sorry Aunt Haruka," he replied, after packing up the last of his things, "But the longer I delay, the further away Naru gets from me.  I have to go now."

"Very well," she then pulled out a carton of cigarettes, and lit one, "Oh, by the way, there's a freight train stopping by to pick up some cattle bound for Kyoto, I'm sure you can sneak aboard and get to her family's house much more quicker."

"Thanks, Auntie," he said, giving her a quick peak on the check.

"Just be careful, Keitaro," she said, "Remember what I said.  The world is a much more dangerous place now.  Remember to keep yourself hidden, and for God's sake, trust no one you don't already know!"  Keitaro waved one last good-bye, and was gone.  Haruka blew some smoke out through her nose and sighed.  "He's gonna screw things up, I just know it."

***

Four hours later, Keitaro lay crouched, hidden in the bushes, as the freight train rattle past at an almost crawling speed.  It had just delivered its cargo, and picked up some more.  He watched and waited as this happened.

Now, as the train was pulling out, he saw his chance.  Waiting for the last possible moment, he leapt from his hiding place, and ran up along side the train.  Reaching out with both hands, he grabbed the door handle, and yanked it open. 

It didn't open on his first try, and with a third final tug, it squealed open.  Nearly tripping over his own feet as he did so, Keitaro then threw his pack into the train compartment, and quickly climbed inside.

Once inside, he closed the door, although not completely shut, allowing a small slither of light to shine into the blacked boxcar.  He slumped down against the wall, and sighed loudly, looking out at the darkness, through the small crack in the door.

"Don't worry Naru," he said softly, "I'll find you, I promise."  He yawned loudly, and muttered.  "I promise."  Then, he slumped over, and fell into a haunted, restless sleep.

For three days, Keitaro rode the rail, waiting for the one stop, Kyoto.  Eventually, on the dawn of his fourth day of riding the rail, the diesel train pulled into Kyoto with shunting grunts.

The train shuddered as it crossed the points into the city and the rain ran in streams down the sides of the boxcar.  Sitting alone in the darkness of the car, Keitaro glanced out at the water streaking down in front of the slightly open door, watching the city in the background.

Sighing in relief that he'd finally reached Kyoto, he gathered his things together, and inched over to the door, and looked out cautiously.  He could see no one about.  That was a good thing, for it meant less chances of being spotted. 

Pulling the hood of his parker up over his head, the opened the door just a little, and leapt from the train.  He shivered as the raindrops began to pelt him, and he almost lost control as he landed with both feet on the ground.

His sneakers landed with a dull splat, and his feet sank into soft earth.

"Urrggggghh!"  He moaned, as he lifted up his hands, which he'd used to balance his landing.  Unfortunately, they landed right in the mud.  "Disgusting."  He stood up, and held his hands out in the pouring rain, washing the mud of them, before hoisting up his back pack, and ducking his head, jogged for the nearest shelter.

He nearly ran right into the wall, he was running that fast, and shook the water from him, as he was finally under cover.  Then he looked about, to get his bearings.

"Now, if I remember correctly, Naru's house is on the east side of the city."  He then edges his way around the building, and looking about, dashed across the open plain of the rail yard, towards the nearest building; running from building to building, until he was clear of the rail yard.

Once clear, he made his way towards the city.  There were people everywhere.  Woman that is.  They were walking this way and that.  Some with babies, some with little girls, and others in groups.  All of them looked sad, lost, confused, and alone.

From the safety of an ally way, and with his hood covering his face, Keitaro watched them.  Was Naru among that crowd of people?  He couldn't risk being seen, not now, and not with so many people around.

Instead, he walked along through back allies, keeping of the streets as little as possible.  There were a few times he had to step out into the open streets, but luckily for him, the further away from the train station he got, the less women he saw around.  Which suited him just fine.

Eventually, he reached the residential section of Kyoto.  And the area where Naru's family house was located.  Keeping his head down, and walking as fast as he could, he hurried down the streets. 

As things turned out, it wouldn't have made much difference if he'd walked along with the hood back.  There was almost no life on the streets, as he walked down them.  The occasional cat and dog watched as he walked by, but no people.

The residential area's where almost a ghost town.  Almost.  An occasional woman was spotted sitting out the front of their houses, looking so sad.

Finally, he came to the address he was looking for.  Naru's house.  The house where her family lived.  At last, he was here.  And so was Naru, he hoped.

"Naru," he whispered softly, then taking a deep breath, walked up the garden path, and knocked loudly on the door, and standing back, waited for an answer.

LATE LAST NIGHT…

Haruka lit her cigarette on the stove, as she prepared to make some dinner for the night.  She was proud of the fact that she always kept some extra gas tanks laying around for just the right emergency.

Yesterday, some women got the power back on line, and she now had lights to work with.  Still, there was nothing on the TV.  She cracked an egg into the frying pan, and some bacon.

Suddenly, she spun around, looking from one end of the room to the other. 

Nothing.  No one was in the room.  She frowned, and slowly, turned back to the stove.  That was the fifth time in the past two days she'd felt like some one was watching her.

She didn't like the feeling one bit.

Outside, the wind blew through the trees with howling groans.  Perched on the top branch, a figure clad entirely in black watched Haruka through a pair of night vision goggles.

She lowered them, and picked up her walkie-talkie.

"Come in, Base, this is Number 8 reporting.  Come in, over!"

"This is Base, we read you loud and clear, Number 8.  Do you have anything to report?  Over!"

"Subject is not as his listed residence," the female said, not taking her eyes of Haruka.  "The current caretaker obviously is living there alone.  Over!"

"Damn it!"  The female voice on the other line swore.  "Well, where the hell else could he be?  Over!"

"Don't ask me," The lady in black said with a shrug, "However, I can find out for you, through certain tactics.  Over!"

"Negative on that, Number 8," the other voice said back rather quickly.  "We must remain anonymous at all costs, to reveal ourselves to her may put our entire operation in jeopardy.  Over!"

"Well," Number 8 asked through her teeth, "How else are we supposed to find him?  Over!"

"I'll think of that, Number 8," the female on the other line said, "You just stay put, and keep your eye on that Urashima woman.  Base, over and out."

***

Inside the hospital radio room, the woman with her blond hair done up in a bonnet, and wearing a lab coat and spectacles, put down the radio receiver, and sighed loudly.

"He's not there, isn't he," another female voice from behind the woman said.  She turned around to see a woman with short black hair, wearing a military uniform with the ranking of Major.

"No," she said, getting up, "From Number 8's observations, he's ether been and left, or he never came home at all."

"Swell," the major said, "I just got word from Number 4, that he's not at his parents house ether.  Damn it, I told you, you should've locked his door, or at least placed a guard on duty outside his room."

"Oh put a sock in it, Major," she snarled, "Maybe you don't have any family members to say good-bye too, but I did.  And besides, the young man had been in a coma for a whole month, and with the power out, and no instrument readings, we never knew when he might wake up."

"Well, he did, and now one of our countries precious living males is no where to be found."

"Well, you won't find him if you're going to blame me."  The lady in the lab coat said.  "The kid woke up while we were all at the mass funereal, end of story.  Let's just concentrate on finding him, instead of pointing fingers, shall we?"

"Okay," The major replied, crossing her arms.  "So, he's not at the Hinata Apartments, and he's not at his parents house.  Any idea's on where we might be able to start?"

"We have one possible lead, but it's a long shot."

"Let's here it."

"Alright, Keitaro is… was the land lord of the Hinata Apartments, where he lives.  Of all the residents of the apartments, one girl, buy the name of…"  She picked up a folder, and flipped through a few pages, before stopping on one in particular.   "Naru Narusegawa.  Some of the surviving staff reported that she seemed rather attached to the boy."

"Hmmm, a love interest?  Where is she now?"

"That is unknown," the doctor answered.  "However, she left a few details behind, including an alternate address in Kyoto."

"So it's possible she might be there?"

"Could be, but I can't give a definite answer."

"I'll have some of my troops check it out.  I'll also give them orders to keep it under watch in case our quarry shows up looking for her."  She smiled, slyly.  "We'll find Keitaro Urashima yet."

***