But Now Is










©2006 The Angst Guy (theangstguy@yahoo.com)

Daria and associated characters are ©2006 MTV Networks



Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: theangstguy@yahoo.com


Synopsis: In this sequel to “Who Once Was Lost,” twelve-year-old Daria Morgendorffer, the only human known to have been kidnapped by aliens, tries to return to a normal life in her new home in Lawndale. Now younger than her sister Quinn, Daria finds fitting into school again is tough—but the trouble has only started. Someone is looking for her and will stop at nothing to find her, and what will happen if she’s found, no one can say.


Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements appear at the end of this story.











Chapter One:

Sensitivity Draining



            Old habits are sure hard to break, Daria Morgendorffer ruefully thought. School was over for the day—but here she sat, trapped in a seminar classroom on the second floor of Lawndale Middle School. I shouldn’t have let that stupid World Literature teacher get under my skin, and I especially shouldn’t have called her a rank, swag-bellied, surly mannered harpy, even if she is one. Shakespeare will be the death of me yet.

            Her cheek twitched beneath her long brown hair. If the boogieman doesn’t get me first, that is.

            It was a Tuesday in early November. A cold wind blew against the windows under an overcast sky. Daria was finding her eight-grade class work to be challenging, which she felt was good. She had also found some of her teachers to be challenging, which was not so good. A thick cloud of notoriety followed her wherever she went—notoriety she could not possibly help—and people reacted to it in different ways. Most were okay with it, in the sense of being only mildly annoying, but she knew that a few felt an irresistible desire to bring her down to earth by poking holes in what they perceived to be her sense of superiority and privilege.

            The World Lit teacher was a prime example. She had made fun of Daria the previous week during class for her six-page report on Russian novels, not believing for a moment that Daria had actually read any. Thus followed the Shakespearean insults. And thus Daria, after a parent-principal conference, was being kept after school to attend a sensitivity-awareness seminar twice a week for the next four weeks. This came despite her parents’ proof that Daria had read at least a half dozen Russian novels and even seemed to like them.

            I don’t have a sense of privilege, Daria fumed, sitting with her arms crossed over her chest as she and the other students in the class waited for the teacher to arrive. I don’t want special treatment. I just want everyone to leave me the hell alone. I won’t argue the superiority part, though. I’m a hell of a lot smarter than that bonehead World Lit teacher. Maybe that’s why the aliens kidnapped me and froze me for three years underground, before I could escape. They knew I was a superior human and they wanted me for . . . for something, maybe their extraterrestrial bug collection. Maybe I was like a rare butterfly with pretty wings. And one day, the aliens will come back and find me and stick a pin through me to make sure I don’t get away again. Or they’ll have me for a snack. There’s not a thing I can do about it, either way.

            Anyone who could have eavesdropped on her thoughts would have thought Daria insane, but the three-year kidnapping part had really happened. At a summer camp in June 1994, she had fallen into a sinkhole. She climbed out after a minor earthquake destroyed the cave, unaware that it was now September 1997 and she was listed as a missing child. Her parents, thinking she was dead, had disposed of all her things, moved away, and gotten new jobs and a new house. Only her sister Quinn had really believed she was still alive, and only Quinn was able to see Daria through the turmoil that followed when she was reunited with her family.

            Over a month after her recovery, Daria was still a top story in the news. She had fallen into the sinkhole at age twelve and a half. When she came out, she was still twelve and a half, having not aged in the slightest. Medical tests had confirmed it. It was now widely believed she had been caught in some sort of high-tech trap set by unknown beings—probably not human ones—who had kept her in suspended animation for over three years until pure luck freed her. Fourteen-year-old Quinn, once Daria’s younger sister, was now her older one; once Daria’s nemesis, Quinn was now her primary support—a cosmic jest without parallel.

            Daria’s notoriety lay in the fact that she was probably the only person ever to have had an encounter with a superior nonhuman intelligence. She was also the only person to have been restored, unharmed, from suspended animation. People read into that anything they wished. The media followed her without end. Paparazzi with telephoto-lens cameras, following her every move, were a common part of the landscape. So were tabloid covers in supermarkets showing doctored photos of her talking to Gray Aliens, Satan, Elvis, or Bigfoot. Adults trying to ask her about UFOs, time machines, the future, and the afterlife were the everyday norm. Most people did not believe her when she said she remembered nothing of those lost three years, which was a shame because it was true.

            Sighing, Daria played with a pencil at her desk and reflected on the irony of it all. Before she fell into the sinkhole, in the days when she was just an unknown kid, she was an outcast. Other school kids thought of her as weird, and she ignored them and had no friends. Now, unquestionably one of the most famous people alive, she was still an outcast, still thought of as weird, and still had no friends. Other students were fearful of her or thought she had made up the whole thing. Bitter at the constant rejection she received, and frustrated at the inability of anyone to communicate with her on her level, Daria refused to make the effort to be nice. She spoke her mind and let the chips fall where they may.

            Which was what finally brought her to the sensitivity awareness class.

            The classroom door opened, and a tall African-American woman entered. She had a short Afro, gold hoop earrings, elegantly tailored clothing, and an annoyed expression. She dropped a notebook on the desk at the front of the classroom and put her fists on her hips. All talking in the room ceased.

            “My name is Michele Landon,” said the woman, with all the charm of a drill sergeant. “I’m your Sensitivity Awareness Scholastic Session teacher for the next eight Tuesdays and Thursdays, not counting holidays. We will cover the basics of sensitivity awareness and why you’re being kept after school to learn about it, if for some reason you can’t already guess. Sensitivity Awareness Scholastic Sessions are for your own good. Though I’m not a regular teacher, I was asked to be your instructor by the principal of this school and the Lawndale Businesswoman’s Alliance, and this is my third time—” She stopped and glared at someone to Daria’s left. “Is something I’m saying funny to you?”

            A boy with a half grin sat up in his seat. “Well,” he said, “it’s funny that the initials for this class . . . never mind.”

            “The initials what?

            His grin faded. “They . . . nothing.”

            “Do you think this class is funny?” said Ms. Landon, her temper skyrocketing.

            “I said, no. I mean, no, ma’am.”

            “You think there’s something funny about me?” she pressed on.

            “No, I was just—”

            “Do I look funny to you? Is that it?”

            “No, honest! I—”

            “Then shut up when I’m talking to you, or I’ll call your parents! Do you understand me?”

            The boy nodded rapidly.

            “I don’t tolerate disrespect in my classroom!” Ms. Landon swung her gaze to take in the whole room. “You’re here because you showed a lack of respect or a lack of sensitivity or basic courtesy or common sense, or you did something else stupid, I don’t care what, and we’re going to fix it no matter what it takes—do you understand me?

            A reluctant chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” and “Yes, Ms. Landon!” followed.

            Daria raised her hand. She suspected it was a mistake to speak up, and apparently so did the girl sitting behind her who gasped and whispered, “Don’t!”

            However, it was too late. “You!” Ms. Landon called, pointing at Daria. “What’s your problem?”

            Daria lowered her hand. “What if someone shows a lack of respect to us?” she said. She meant to talk about her World Lit teacher’s cutting remarks about her honesty.

            “Are you saying I’m not respecting you?” Ms. Landon shouted. “Do you have a problem with how I’m talking to you?”

            Oh, crap! “No, Ms. Landon,” Daria said, wishing she could dig a hole and hide in it. “I meant—”

            “I am not going to put up with this kind of thing!” Ms. Landon snapped. “I don’t have to be here! I used to be a senior vice president at U. S. World, I’m only doing this for your benefit until I can get a nanny for my son and get back into the workforce, and I will not tolerate disrespect!”

            Another Shakespearean insult, a nasty one, hovered on the tip of her tongue—but Daria chose the hard-learned path of wisdom. “I’m sorry,” she said aloud, and meant it. She made a promise to herself to zip her lips from now on when Ms. Landon was around.

            Ms. Landon glared hard at Daria—then, mollified by the apology, turned her attention elsewhere. “Can anyone tell me what the most important part of sensitivity awareness is? Anyone? Speak up, damn it!”

            Something brushed against Daria’s left shoulder. She reached up to feel around—and encountered a scrap of paper being passed by the girl behind her. Carefully taking the paper without Ms. Landon seeing it, she opened the scrap and read: SHE’S VERY SENSITIVE ABOUT SENSITIVITY.

            Daria checked on Ms. Landon, then quietly wrote a reply. HOW AM I GOING TO LEARN TO BE SENSITIVE IF I CAN’T ASK THE TEACHER ANYTHING BECAUSE SHE’S TOO SENSITIVE?

            While Ms. Landon berated several students on the other side of the room, the paper came back. PLAY DUMB. TRUST ME, IT’S YOUR ONLY HOPE.

            Daria groaned and tore out a new scrap of paper, the old one being used up. PLAY DUMB IN SCHOOL, WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE SMART?

            The note came back when Ms. Landon’s back was turned, as she wrote on the chalkboard. IF YOU PLAY DUMB, YOU ARE BEING SMART, it read.

            Daria risked a glance behind her. A tall, thin girl sat there, another eighth grader Daria recalled from her other classes. She had silky black bangs and blue eyes and today was dressed primarily in black, though with a bright red sweater tied around her waist by the sleeves. Their eyes met. The girl smiled at Daria.

            For the first time in years, Daria smiled back at another student. The tall girl then looked at the teacher and quickly motioned for Daria to turn around again, which she did in the nick of time. Ms. Landon was finished with writing down the six most important elements of sensitivity awareness.

            “Get out your notebooks and write this down!” she shouted at the class. “I didn’t put it up here for decoration!”

            Between taking notes, Daria managed to get another note to the girl behind her. TALK AFTER CLASS?






            Daria smiled. This was promising. She wrote back, WHAT’S YOUR NAME?

            The note came back right before class ended.

            ELSIE SLOANE.





Chapter Two:

Knowing Me, Knowing You



            “So,” said Elsie as they waited at the middle school’s front doors for Daria’s parents to pick them up, “what are you in the slammer for?”

            “Sarcasm,” said Daria. “Disrespect. Mouthing off. Being a public nuisance.”

            “Not bad for a newbie,” said Elsie. Her tone became more defiant. “I’m practically a lifer. This is my third time through SASS.”

            “Third? You’re kidding.”

            “Nope. I told someone in the hall last Monday the assistant principal got his yard-work clothes mixed up with his school clothes, and the A. P. was right behind me. After all that, he still doesn’t dress any better.”

            Elsie’s interest in clothing set off alarms in Daria’s head. “I’m not into fashion,” she said glumly. “If you dump me, I won’t hold it against you.”

            “Oh, I’m not into the let’s-all-dress-like-hookers thing,” said Elsie. “I want to be a costume designer in theater—do up the actors for plays, musicals, whatever. I wanna shake things up a little. My dream is to see Hamlet done with Chicago gangsters. Could you see it with everyone in the Mob? Pinstripes, machine guns, the works? The ghost some old guy like Marlon Brando in The Godfather?”

            Daria looked at Elsie with renewed respect. “Yeah,” she said. “I could see that.” She hesitated, then said, “I’d like to be a writer.”

            “Hey, perfect! You do the plays, I’ll do the costumes, and we’ll both rock Broadway!”

            “Yeah,” said Daria softly, already starting to picture it. For the first time in ages, she wasn’t thinking about how miserable life was.

            The driver of a dark blue Lexus sitting outside the doors honked the horn and waved at the girls in frustration through the windows.

            “Oops,” said Else. “That your dad?”

            “Yeah.” Daria pushed open a door and held it for Elsie. “Don’t expect too much.”

            “You haven’t met my family yet.”

            “Hey, kiddo!” said Jake Morgendorffer as the girls got into the back seat. “Mom called from the office and said you were having a friend over. Is this Elmer?”

            Daria clenched her teeth as if in pain.

            “Elsie,” said Elsie in a flat voice. “No one’s done the cow joke for three weeks now. It was almost a record.”

            “El—oh! Damn it! Sorry about that, really! I—ah—I kind of got confused, you know, with—”

            “Dad,” said Daria sharply, “just drive.”

            “Okay,” Jake groaned. “Sorry.” He turned the radio to an oldies rock station and put the car in gear.

            “Sorry,” Daria whispered to her friend, mortified. “I’d like to say I was adopted, but I haven’t found where they hid the paperwork.”

            Elsie shrugged. “He’s not you,” she said. “Tell me about your writing.”

            “Mmm . . . it’s probably awful. I gave up on poetry after one of my teachers said he liked it. I’m trying to do short stories. I haven’t tried plays yet. I’d better get on it.”

            “How do you think Cats would go over if, instead of little cats, they were saber-toothed tigers?”

            Daria considered this. “Would there be blood?”

            “As much as the budget allows. Maybe more.”

            “I’ll buy a season ticket.”

            “People aren’t using their imaginations enough. When I think of all the opportunities that were wasted in The Sound of Music, I could—”

            “Oh,” said Jake from the front seat, “um, El—”

            “Elsie!” said both girls at once.

            “Elsie! Yeah! Your last name is Sloane, right?”

            “Uh-oh,” Elsie said under her breath.

            “Is that Sloane as in Grace, Sloane and Page? The investment firm in Halcyon Hills, with the whole top floor of that big gold cube building?”

            “It’s kind of amber-ish, actually.”

            “Wow!” Jake grinned. “Say, think your dad could slip me a little of that inside information? Give me a few hot stock tips?”

            Daria buried her face in her hands. “I know I’m adopted,” she muttered. “I just know it.”

            “Mister Morgendorffer, he could,” Elsie said calmly, “but it’s kind of like illegal, you know? And he kind of like told me I have to tell him about anyone who asks about that so he can kind of like turn them over to the government for an investigation, like, you know?”

            “Uh—oh! Hey, that was a joke! Heh, heh! Yeah, Ol’ Jakey was just pulling your leg! I don’t need any inside info! Don’t you worry about! I’ve got my own stock-market secrets! Just kiddin’ around, yeah, that’s me. Always making jokes. I’m like that all the time—isn’t that right, Daria?”

            “Look out for the truck, Dad.”

            “What? Where?” The car slowed. “Did you see a truck?”

            “I wish I drank,” said Daria, her face red. “Life would be more tolerable if I did.”

            A few minutes later, the girls closed the door to Daria’s bedroom and dropped their backpacks on the floor. “Homework now or later?” said Daria.

            “Break time first,” said Elsie. “Don’t worry about your dad. Everyone asks that, and I always tell them they’re being investigated, but I never tell anyone.”

            “Damn it,” said Daria. “My hopes are dashed.”

            “Mind if I ask a weird question?”

            “My mom’s sort of strange, too. She’s a lawyer. Dad’s a business consultant.”

            “No, that wasn’t it.”

            “Then it’s probably about Elvis or Bigfoot. They’re married and have a kid now.”

            Elsie burst into laughter and had to sit down on Daria’s bed until it passed. “That wasn’t it, either. It . . . oh, forget it.”

            “Go ahead and ask. I can’t be any more humiliated than I already am with my parents around.”

            Elsie’s expression grew serious. “Do you mind that about my dad?”

            Daria drew a blank. She hadn’t expected this question. “Do I mind what about your dad?”

            “Well, that we’re rich. He makes a lot of money. A lot.” For a moment, Daria thought Elsie looked fearful. “We’re probably the richest family in Lawndale. People sometimes don’t know how to handle that.”

            Daria nodded. That made sense. “Do you mind me being Daria?” she said.

            Elsie looked down at her hands, her fingers interlocked and elbows resting on her knees. “I guess I sort of thought it would be cool to be you, but I got to thinking about it, and I thought maybe it . . .”

            “—wasn’t cool,” Daria finished. “You’re right. It isn’t.” She sat down on the bed near Elsie. “It sucks. I can’t go anywhere without some jerk trying to get me to contact his dead uncle or tell him when Earth’s being invaded. I hate it.” She reflected a moment. “Some of the endorsement offers look interesting, though.”

            “Endorsements? Oh, right.”

            “Yeah. They’d help pay for college, for my sister and for me. On one hand, I’d hate to make money off of something I can’t help, something that’s probably going to kill me in time, but on the other—”

            “Excuse me,” said Elsie, her eyes widening. “What was that you said? About killing you?”

            Daria became quiet. “Well,” she said at last, “I don’t know.” She was quiet again for a while. “I don’t know what they’re going to do when they come looking for me.”

            Elsie blinked. “They,” she said.

            Daria nodded.

            “You don’t really know that they’re going to do that, right?”

            “I don’t know.” Daria’s voice grew softer as she spoke. “I say they were aliens, but they could be anything. I never really saw anything or anyone, just the cave. I only got out of there by accident. I don’t think I was supposed to get out. They might be peeved about that.” She licked her lips. “I think about it a lot, mostly at night.”

            It took time for Elsie to frame a response. “That’s kind of defeatist, isn’t it?”

            “I think the word is realistic. You could put the whole U. S. Army outside our house, but it probably wouldn’t help.” Her shoulders drooped. “If they want me, they’ll get me.”

            “What’s your sister like?” Elsie suddenly asked, leaning back on the bed on her elbows.

            “Oh.” Daria shook herself out of her funk. “Uh . . . she’s all right. We get along pretty well. She sticks up for me against Mom and Dad when things are tense. You might actually like her. She’s into the teen fashion thing pretty deep.”

            “Eh, people like that don’t get into the costume aspect too much. If they can’t wear it and get a boy toy, it’s no use to them.”

            “What did you do for Halloween?”

            “Nothing. Oh, I did put a mustache on my brother when he was asleep. Looked sort of like Hitler if you squinted a lot.”

            “Older brother or younger?”

            “Tom’s older. He’s a sophomore at Fielding Preparatory Academy. It’s a preppie high school on the north side. I’ll probably go next year. Dad says this is my last tuition-free year of education, so I should make the most of it.”

            “What’s he like? Tom, I mean?”

            Elsie swung her legs back and forth as she lay flat on her back on the bed. “Full of himself, acts like he’s Mister Casual Suave. He wears these old clothes and pretends he’s a regular guy who’s half-broke, and when people find out he’s not, he acts like it’s nothing, like ‘I’m not really rich, I’m just like you are.’ He’s such an ass.”

            “How about your Mom and Dad?”

            Elsie sighed. She stopped swinging her legs and sat up, looking at the floor. “The truth is,” she said softly, “they’re okay. Dad’s all right, mostly, when he’s not working or golfing.” Elsie tensed. “I don’t get along with my mom too well. We don’t agree on anything, and we fight a lot.” She got up from the bed and tugged up on her black pants. “I don’t want to be like her, sitting around living off some rich guy I married. She says all I need from college is my M.R.S. degree, then I can do what I want. That so pisses me off. Your mom’s a lawyer, that’s gotta be all right somehow.”

            “Maybe. She works like it’s her religion. You’d think the phone was glued to her head. I know more about her case load than about her.”

            “What kind of law?”

            “Corporate. She works for a little firm that’s—wait, that’s wrong. That was in Highland, Texas. That was before. She’s with a big legal company now, I keep forgetting the name. I can’t get used to how everything’s changed.”

            They began talking about school and quietly settled into finishing their math homework. Afterward, they watched TV.

            “This looks like a rerun,” said Daria.

            “That’s disgusting!” said Elsie, making a face. “I’d never go out with anyone from the British Royal Family, much less all of them at once! Unless they wore that Elizabethan get-up from the 1500s. That was pretty cool. What show is this?”

            “‘Sick, Sad World.’”

            “I think it’s horrible. This must be the worst TV show ever. How often does it come on?”

            “Weekdays about this time for new shows, but they alternate with reruns. The specials are on Sunday nights.”

            “I’ll have to put it in my PDA calendar. Oh, hey—tomorrow they’re talking to Bigfoot’s hair dresser!”

            Elsie’s mother called to say she would pick her daughter up at seven, before the Morgendorffers had dinner. Quinn came back from an afternoon date and was preparing for an evening date when she wandered by Daria’s room and peeked in. Daria made the introductions.

            “If Daria likes you, you’re okay with me,” Quinn told Elsie. “How old is your brother again?”

            “Sixteen,” said Elsie. “He’s kind of—”

            “What kind of car does he drive?”

            “He has to borrow my Dad’s old BMW, but—”

            “I’m free Saturday—no, all day Sunday, yeah. Have him give me a call. Thanks!” She hurried off to her room to put on makeup.

            Daria and Elsie looked at each other. They both shook their heads.

            “Let’s just pretend that didn’t happen,” said Daria.

            “Tom won’t be around much this weekend anyway,” said Elsie. “He’s going out with this girl in Fielding’s science club. She has a meteor-watching project, and he’s helping her with it.”

            “Somewhere dark,” said Daria. “Somewhere secluded.”

            “At the overlook above the abandoned rock quarry.”



            “That would be the Leonids,” said Daria. “It’s a meteor shower that comes every year about this time. It should be an interesting night, if the sky’s clear and they bother to look.”

            “You should come over this weekend. I’m working on this costume and need a little help.”

            “You’ve mistaken me for someone who can sew.”

            “If you can stand in place with your arms out, I’ll get Mom to spring for pizza.”

            “I don’t know if my parental units will agree. They’re a little . . . paranoid.”

            “Mom’s very persuasive. I’ll give her that. Don’t worry about it.”

            “Done, then.”

            “Cool.” Elsie smirked. “Maybe we can go outside and see a few shooting stars ourselves.”





Chapter Three:

Wake-Up Call



            Helen Morgendorffer and Katherine (“Oh, call me Kay!”) Sloane, Elsie’s mother, met for lunch during the week and negotiated all the details of future sleepovers. Over dinner that evening, Helen shook her head. “I had no idea that they were—you know, so—so—”

            “Rich?” said Daria. “Influential? Jocular? Enormous? Purple?”

            “Stop it. Anyway, I gave her our unlisted numbers, the cell-phone numbers, and the code to get past the answering service if they use our old number.” She fixed Daria with a meaningful look. “And we both agreed that this would be the last after-school sensitivity session either you or Elsie would ever need to take—or else. If you get my drift.”

            “Don’t beat me,” Daria said. She pointed across the table at her sister. “Beat her. She made me misbehave.”

            Quinn did not respond, as she was eating her salad. When Helen looked in another direction, however, Quinn good-naturedly scratched her nose with her middle finger while giving Daria a faint smile.

            The week passed slowly enough, but Friday morning eventually came and with it the promise of a night away from home. Putting on her black jeans and boots, forest-green tee, and the gold windbreaker of which she was increasingly fond, Daria went downstairs for breakfast in a good mood. She thought it odd that no one else in the family could tell.

            “I thought you’d be more cheerful,” said her mother as she served microwave-heated, syrup-flavored waffles. “It’s your first sleepover, Daria. I don’t think you ever had one in Highland.”

            “I am cheerful,” Daria replied in a slightly annoyed deadpan. “And I did go to sleepovers in Highland. Don’t you remember the Tysons?”

            “Oh, I remember,” said Quinn, spearing a strawberry on her fruit plate with a fork. “I was there, too. There were six of us, and you read to us from that book. What was the name . . . Valley of the Dolls.

            “Was that a horror movie?” asked Jake, reading the business section of the morning paper.

            Startled, Helen spilled a spoonful of shredded wheat back into her bowl. “You what?” she cried. “Daria, where did you get that dreadful novel?”

            “Library,” said Daria, buttering her toast. “I had an adult card.”

            “But you . . . you were eleven!”

            “You and Dad got me the card, remember? So I could check out books on s-e-x instead of calling you at work to ask about it?”

            “I remember now!” said Jake, looking up from the newspaper. “That was the movie about the dinosaur and the cowboys, right? Only it was called Valley of . . . what was the dinosaur’s name? It began with a G. Damn it!”

            “I remember those s-e-x books,” said Quinn, spearing another strawberry. “Boy, some of those had the funniest pictures I’d ever—”

            “Daria!” said Helen. “You weren’t supposed to show them to anyone else!”

            “I couldn’t keep Quinn out of my room.”

            “You still can’t,” said Quinn through a mouthful of strawberry.

            Daria fixed her sister with a narrow-eyed gaze.

            Teas-ing!” said Quinn in a singsong voice.

            “Anyway,” said Daria with a half-hearted glare across the table, “I am happy about the overnight.”

            “Ah, Daria,” said her father, looking uncomfortable, “remember, when you see the Sloanes—I was only kidding about the, um, you know, the—”

            “The what?” asked Helen.

            “Nothing!” said Jake. “Just a joke, but be sure to tell them that.”

            “I’d bet they’d be willing to forget the whole thing for a small fee,” said Daria, cutting up her fried egg.

            She went to school with a fifty-dollar bill in her pocket. “Any chance we’ll visit a bookstore while I’m over?” she asked Elsie in their first-period history class.

            “I hope so,” said Elsie. “I need some picture books on Japanese theater. I was wondering about an Oriental version of Julius Caesar, only with a ten-minute samurai-and-ninja battle when the conspirators are trying to stab him.”

            The second SASS meeting of the week had been the day before, so they were picked up immediately after school by Elsie’s brother, Tom. It was Daria’s first time seeing him.

            Tom looked good, and the longer Daria looked at him, the better he looked. Cool gray eyes, casually combed brown hair, a rakish grin—Daria bumped into the door of the BMW and dropped her overnight bag as she tried to get in the back seat.

            “You must be Daria,” said Tom in a warm voice. He reached back from the driver’s seat to shake her hand after she was seated. “I’m sure Elsie’s told you all about me. She lies a lot, though.”

            “Good to meet you,” Daria said faintly. His hand was huge, and his grip warm and firm. She felt her face burn. Tom looked like the kind of self-confident, easy-going guy who would later become a secret agent. He could probably shoot a dozen bad guys and never get a wrinkle on his shirt or speck of blood on his tux. He had that kind of cool—in Daria’s suddenly fevered mind.

            Elsie poked Daria in the ribs with her elbow. “He’s evil!” she said in a loud stage whisper. “Eee-vil!

            “Aw, what’s wrong with a little evil?” said Tom with a bright smile. “It makes life fun. That’s what the Borgias said, and look what party animals they turned out to be.” He gave Daria a wink and turned around to start the car.

            “Um, yeah,” said Daria, completely tongue-tied.

            “Remember your promise,” Elsie said to Daria. “You’re going to try on the space vixen costume I designed for Annie when we get in.”

            “This I’ve got to see,” said Tom, pulling onto the main highway.

            Daria thought she would catch fire from embarrassment. The blush spread across her face and downward over her shoulders, upper arms, and chest.

            “Is it too hot in here for you?” Elsie asked, looking at Daria with concern. “Hey, turn on the A/C, driver!”

            “As you command, El Sickie,” said Tom, complying.

            The Sloanes’ house was in the easternmost part of the most exclusive subdivision in Lawndale, Crewe Neck. A narrow road led up a hill and through a woodlot to the mansion, which looked like it could hold two houses the size of Daria’s home. In the back was a playground with a swing set and now-unused wooden fort. After putting Daria’s overnight bag in Elsie’s enormous bedroom, the two girls went outside and sat on the swings, their jackets zipped up against the chill wind and blowing leaves. The sky grew dark, threatening rain later.

            “If Tom goes out with that girl tonight, you know it won’t be for skywatching,” Elsie said, leaning back on her swing and looking at the gray overcast. “It’s just a game to him. Dating, I mean. He’s not serious about anyone.”

            “Hmmm,” said Daria, concentrating on the ground. She felt an irrational surge of jealousy among a host of other emotions, but it was good to know he was just playing the field. Forcing thoughts of Tom out of her head, she tried to sort out what else was bugging her. The visible extent of the Sloanes’ wealth took some getting used to, and Daria felt very out of place within it. I’m no more out of place here than anywhere else in this stupid world, she reminded herself. I’m the odd one, not the Sloanes. Not Elsie—and not Tom. She shook her head, trying to jar Tom out of her mind again. I’m too young for him, anyway. If he could wait for me, though, then

            “The thing that drives me crazy,” said Elsie, “is the game-playing that goes on. Some of it’s cutesy stuff, like Mom and Dad bickering over Dad’s old shoes and why doesn’t he ever get a new pair, and some of it’s serious, like having to go to formal parties and meet people I don’t give a crap about and pretend I’m interested in what they did over the last year, when I know they don’t give a crap about me. Tom’s a lot better at sucking up than I am. One of my uncles calls me ‘Miss Mouth.’ I don’t do half the backbiting he does, though.” She shrugged. “At least they know I’m honest.”

            Daria dug the toe of her boot into the dead leaves below the swing. “I didn’t get along with my parents when I got back,” she said. “My dad thought I might be brainwashed or psycho, and my mom thought I just ran away. Then, then the doctors were testing me and finding out a lot of weird stuff, my mom and I had a big problem. She kind of lost it.” She bit her lip. “Quinn talked to her and got her straightened out, I think, but things are still kind of rough. I don’t think they know how to deal with me some days. I’m glad your mom got them to let me come over. I feel like I’m in this cage sometimes, and—”

            She broke off and looked around. “What’s that?” she said.

            Elsie sat up and listened. “What?”

            “That tone,” said Daria. She got up from the swing seat, a puzzled look on her face. “I can’t tell where it’s coming from.”

            “Is this a joke?” Elsie got up, too. “I can’t hear anything but that weed trimmer at the Robinsons’ place. Is that it?”

            Daria shook her head, her confusion deepening. After a moment, she put her hands over her ears, listened, then jammed her index fingers in her ears to seal them completely shut. She turned in place to face Elsie.

            “I can still hear it,” she said. She waited a few more seconds. “I think it’s inside my head.”

            “Oh, it’s that tinny thing,” said Elsie. “You know, the ringing in your ears. It’ll go away. I get it sometimes.”

            Daria nodded doubtfully. She dropped her hands, and Elsie showed her the rest of the extensive backyard. They went inside afterward when Elsie’s mother called from the spacious back deck.

            “Hello, Daria!” said Mrs. Sloane. She was tall and had short dark hair, piercing eyes, and the most pleasant voice. Her manners were impeccable. “It’s wonderful to see you again! Would you girls care for a snack?”

            “If we have to,” grumbled Elsie.

            “Thank you,” said Daria, still fiddling with her right ear.

            “Is something wrong?” Mrs. Sloane asked, giving Daria a longer look. “Earache?”

            “No. I’ve got some kind of ringing in my ears. Like a tuning fork, high pitched.”

            “Does it hurt?”

            “No. Just weird.”

            “Let me know if it gets to be a problem, and we’ll call your parents. Come on inside, it’s getting too cool out. I’ve got brownies and milk waiting.”

            As they passed through the kitchen, Mrs. Sloane walked over to the radio, which was putting out loud static. “What’s wrong with this thing?” she said. “It was fine just a minute ago.” She twisted the dial, which had no effect, rapped the radio once on the top with her knuckles, then shut it off. “I hate it when I can’t get my talk radio in the afternoons. Go have a seat in the dining room, girls, and let me get the brownies.”

            “She does make good brownies,” Elsie reluctantly confided.

            Daria felt grossly underdressed as she and Elsie took their seats at the long table in the elegant French dining room. Mrs. Sloane seemed very nice despite Elsie’s comments, but Daria understood the political problems arising from supporting either mother or daughter when the wrong one might hear. She discarded the issue and tried pressing on her ears again. The tone continued just as before. It wasn’t particularly loud or annoying, but it didn’t stop. It seemed to come from everywhere at once.

            Mrs. Sloane brought out a small tray with chocolate-chip brownies on it and two glasses of milk. While looking around the dining room, Daria spotted a small television set on a tabletop. “Want to see ‘Sick, Sad World’?” she asked after Mrs. Sloane left. “It’s about time for it to come on.”

            “Sure.” Stuffing a brownie in her mouth, Elsie went over and turned on the set. The picture came up, but the reception was poor. Moving the antenna around did not seem to help.

            “Let me try,” said Daria. She got up and walked over to tweak a few knobs. As she approached the set, the picture got worse until it was a mass of static. Daria frowned and stopped a few feet short of the set.

            “What’s wrong with this thing?” said Elsie, repeating her mother’s words from earlier. She smacked the set with her open hand. “C’mon, work! I command you!”

            “Move back a moment,” said Daria. Elsie looked around, then did so. Daria slowly approached the set. The static grew even worse. She raised a hand and put it on the TV screen—and the picture went completely out. A loud hum came out of the speakers.

            “Whoa,” said Elsie, backing up. “What was that?

            Daria dropped her hand and backed up, too. The farther she got from the set, the better the picture became. When she stood against the far wall, the TV had almost normal reception. She began walking toward the set again. The static quickly returned.

            “Girls?” called Mrs. Sloane from the kitchen. “Are you playing with the TV in there?”

            Daria listened. She could hear the radio playing in the kitchen. A talk show was on. “Does your radio work now?” she called.

            “Yes, it seems to be fine. I never know what’s wrong with these things. They just do whatever they please, don’t they?”

            Daria and Elsie looked at each other, then Daria left the dining room for the kitchen again. As she did, she could hear the talk show on the radio begin to disappear into the hiss of static. “Oh, fudge,” said Mrs. Sloane, looking up from a salad she was making. “I’m going to have to get a new radio.”

            “Wait a minute,” said Daria. She walked into the kitchen, straight for the radio. The static hissing from the radio became worse until it was a loud roar when she stood next to it and moved her hand across the front of the set.

            Daria slowly turned to Elsie, who regarded her with an open mouth. The high tone still rang inside her head. “It’s me,” Daria said, her voice almost a whisper.

            “Back up a moment,” said Mrs. Sloane, watching carefully.

            Daria walked back to the doorway into the dining room. The radio static faded. The talk show came on.

            “Wow,” said Elsie. “Can you always do that?”

            “No,” said Daria. “I never have before.” She put her fingers in her ears again, then looked at Elsie. “I think something inside my head is doing it,” she said. “I think it’s that tone I hear.”

            “Mom!” came Tom’s shout from the stairway to the second floor. “Can you come up here for a minute?”

            “Just a minute, Tom!” Mrs. Sloane called back.

            “Now, Mom! Just come up here!”

            “Tom, we’re busy! Can’t it wait?”

            “There’s something on TV! Come on!”

            With a last concerned look at Daria, Mrs. Sloane left the kitchen for the stairs. Elsie turned off the radio. “Come on,” she said, and Daria followed her back into the dining room. “Stand over there,” Elsie said, pointing to the corner of the room farthest from the small TV. Daria did, and Elsie turned on the TV. She went through the cable channels until she came to a news station. As thin lines of interference ran across the screen, a reporter stood beside a road in a forested area, speaking into a microphone. LIVE FROM CAMP SUNRISE, ARKANSAS read the type at the bottom of the screen.

            Daria’s heart sank. “Oh, no,” she whispered.

            “Shhh!” Elsie turned the volume up.

            “—no comment from the FBI officer in charge at the scene,” said the reporter. “We understand that six workers on the site were injured in the explosion. Most of them are said to have suffered severe cold injuries, including frostbite, possibly from a refrigerant being used in the investigation of the collapsed cave. Frankly, though, I have no idea what the refrigerant would have been used for. It’s not a standard item in any sort of recovery efforts I know of.”

            A woman’s voice-over spoke next. “Frank, thank you, and we’ll get back to you when you have further word on what happened.” The picture changed to a woman anchor at a news desk. “Once again, an explosion is reported to have occurred within the last twenty minutes at the cave in Arkansas near which a missing child, Daria Morgendorffer, was found two months ago. Six recovery workers at the site were injured and are being transported to an area hospital. Stay tuned for further developments. In Washington today, President Clinton called upon—”

            Elsie turned the volume down again.

            “They blew up the cave,” Daria said, her voice dead. “That has to be it.”

            “Why would they do that?” said Elsie. “They were trying to dig it out, weren’t they? To see what was in it?”

            Daria shook her head. “Not them,” she said, pointing at the screen. “The others. To keep everyone from finding what was in there. They’re back.”

            A reply died on Elsie’s lips. She stared at Daria with large round eyes, seeing her anew.

            Putting her fingers in her ears, Daria listened to the tone. She walked toward the TV. The screen began to fill with lines of static until it showed nothing but electronic snow.

            “I’m sending a signal,” she whispered. “Something’s inside me, sending a signal like with radio waves. They did it to me.”

            “Why?” Elsie whispered back.

            Daria looked at her friend. “So they could find me.”





Chapter Four:




            One of Daria’s secret hopes was that she would live to see her next birthday, only six days away on Thursday, November 20th. She and her parents had agreed that she would, for family purposes, turn thirteen that day, though official records would continue to list her as sixteen. The full consequences of suspended animation were not yet worked into the legal system. No matter—Daria would have a birthday once more, and that was the bottom line.

            As she stood in the Sloanes’ dining room, the hiss of static in her ears from the television set, Daria felt a shadow pass over that secret hope and conceal it from view—perhaps forever.


            She blinked and looked at Elsie, returning to the present.

            “Daria,” Elsie repeated, “do you want to call home?”

            “I think I’d better,” Daria said. Her breathing was rapid and shallow. “I’m sorry.”

            Elsie ignored that. “Does it hurt?”


            “What—” Elsie gestured at Daria’s head “—what’s happening with you.”

            “Oh. No.” Her voice sounded faint in her ears. “I still have that ringing in my head, that’s all. Where’s the phone?”

            “In the kitchen. Come on.”

            Elsie showed Daria the kitchen phone, a neo-antique model in the same French style as parts of the house appeared to be. Daria lifted the handset—and her finger paused above the rotary dial. What the hell? After a moment, she remembered how to use it. It felt strange, forcing the dial around in a little circle. A faint buzz of static came from the earpiece (I’m even screwing up the phone system? she thought in amazement), and it took forever for someone to pick up.

            The line clicked. A burst of static came and faded. Daria heard the sound of giggling and shushing on the other end. “Morgendorffers,” came Quinn’s voice.


            “Daria? We seem to have a bad line. I can hardly hear you. You’re still at the Sloanes?”

            “Yeah.” Daria swallowed. “Listen—”

            “Are Mom and Dad there?”

            “No, they’re not here.” Daria frowned. “Aren’t they there with you?”

            “No, they went out to photocopy a huge stack of legal briefs Mom needs for work on Monday, and then they were going to dinner at that French place, Chez Pierre. It’s right next to where you’re at.” Quinn’s voice became very distant. “Jeffy, be careful with that. That’s—oh, no! That was my dad’s! Jeffy!

            That Quinn had a boy over with no one else present, in total violation of every parental rule that existed, was irrelevant at the moment. “Quinn, please! Listen to me!”

            “Wait—just put it down, Jeffy! Forget it! It’s already broken!” Quinn’s voice returned. “What is it?”

            “Something bad is happening.” Static in the line rose and fell. “I think I need to get home, but—I don’t know what I can do about it.”

            Quinn’s tone abruptly changed to older-sister apprehension. “What’s wrong? Did you get your first period?”

            Daria felt her face turn red. “No! It’s not that!”

            “Well, are you hurt? Is someone with you over there?”

            “I’m not hurt, but the news said something happened at that cave I was trapped in, back at Camp Grizzly—Camp Sunrise, whatever it is. There was an explosion there. And about the same time that happened—” How in the world am I going to explain to her what’s happening with me? How is she of all people going to understand it? “—I felt sick. I have this ringing noise in my head that won’t go away, and I feel bad, like something’s going wrong with me.”

            “Hold on!” Quinn shouted. Her voice became distant again. “Jeffy! We have to go get my sister!” A male voice said something Daria couldn’t make out. “I don’t care what your dad said about you being out with the car, we have to go! Are you taking me, or do I have to call Jeremy? I don’t care what his name is! Are you taking me? Then get out your keys and let’s go!” Quinn’s voice became loud again. “I’ll be right there, okay?”

            “Shouldn’t we call Mom or Dad on their phones? They could get me right away.”

            “Mom’s cell phone died and it’s being recharged, and I called Daddy earlier about something but he doesn’t have his phone turned on and I had to leave a message and I am so going to scream at him for it! It’s faster if we get you. We’re on our way!”

            “Okay,” said Daria. She hoped this Jeffy was a good driver. The issue of what he was doing at the house with Quinn could wait. The other end clicked off, and she hung up. Seeing Mrs. Sloane walk back into the kitchen, Daria gave her a depressed look. “I’m sorry everything got so screwed up,” she said. “I swear this isn’t a joke.”

            “Dear, I know. Tom said there was something on the news about . . . well, anyway, we can’t do a thing about it. Did you want to call your parents?”

            “My sister’s coming to get me.” Daria rubbed her ears. The tone carried on in her head. “I shouldn’t have come here,” she said dejectedly. “Everything has been nothing but trouble since I got back.”

            “No way!” said Elsie. “You can come over again some other time. Don’t worry about it.”

            Mrs. Sloane crouched down in front of Daria so she was eye level with her. She put a gentle hand on Daria’s arm. “Daria,” she said, “your mother told me what happened to you, and I still wanted you to come over. It’s not your fault, what happened, and this isn’t, either. I admit I don’t know what’s going on right now, but we’ll find a way to set things right. Okay?”

            Though she did not believe for a second that anything would be set aright, Daria nodded and said, “Okay.”

            “Good.” Mrs. Sloane stood upright. “Elsie, take Daria and her things upstairs until her sister gets here. I’ll call Angier, my husband. He’s at work. He’s supposed to get off at five, but maybe he can cut loose a little early if we need him. It’s only four fifteen.”

            Daria automatically looked out the dining-room windows. Sunset was about five thirty, she remembered, but it was dark already, thanks to the low overcast sky. The view out the window was of the front lawn, taking in the driveway down to the gates leading onto the property. Daria squinted. A white van was parked outside the closed gates. Two men knelt on the van’s roof, holding telephoto cameras aimed in her direction.

            “If I felt like laughing, I’d say that was almost funny,” she said, pointing. “I forgot they might follow us here.”

            “What?” Mrs. Sloane looked out the window as well. “Is that what I think it is?”

            “Say, ‘cheese,’” said Daria flatly. “It makes for a better picture on the tabloids at the checkout counter.”

            “Do they always hound you like this?” asked Elsie, at Daria’s side.

            “Like the sun and the moon and the wind and the stars. Endless and eternal.” She thought. “Hmmm. I should use that in a story sometime.” If I live past tonight.

            “I’m going to call the guards at the gatehouse,” said Mrs. Sloane. “That van shouldn’t have even been allowed into Crewe Neck. It’s ridiculous, grown men behaving like that.” She walked quickly away to the kitchen.

            “We should let them know they’re appreciated,” said Elsie—and she promptly flipped her right hand up, only the middle finger extended, and pressed her hand to the window.

            Daria noticed. “Your picture won’t appear in the newspapers, but you can count on seeing copies of it on eBay by noon tomorrow.”

            Elsie dropped her hand as quickly as she’d raised it. “Let’s go upstairs,” she said, leaving the window. “Bastards.”

            Once back in her bedroom, Elsie closed the door and they walked idly around the room. As she looked at the shelves full of costuming books Elsie had collected, Daria suddenly began to talk about her life—what things were like before Camp Grizzly, and how they had changed afterward. It hadn’t been her intention to talk about it, as she felt she’d been forced to go far overboard in relating the same information to her parents, law-enforcement officers, child psychiatrists, and the like. Elsie listened in silence, looking out a window at the darkening evening.

            A knock at the door stopped the monologue. “Elsie?” called Mrs. Sloane. “Your father’s going to be late tonight. He’s meeting with clients. Daria?”


            “When will your sister be here?”

            “I’m expecting her at any time. We don’t live that far from here.”

            “If you don’t mind, then, I’m going out to the Crewe Neck gatehouse and file a complaint to keep those vultures out of here. I have to do it before the supervisor goes off his shift at six. Tom’s in charge until I get back. Make sure he comes downstairs to answer the door personally.”

            “Can you pick up a pizza on the way home?” Elsie called back.

            “Don’t be silly. We’re having fish tonight, like we always do on Fridays.”

            Elsie made an angst-ridden noise and flopped on her back on the bed, the very picture of preteen disgust with authority. “Whatever!” she shouted. In a more normal tone, she added to Daria, “Just as well you’re going. She’s not the perfect fish chef she thinks she is.”

            “At least it isn’t microwaved lasagna, like we’ll be having,” said Daria. As Mrs. Sloane’s footsteps went down the staircase, Daria glanced at the wall clock. It was just after five. “Quinn should be here already,” she said. “I bet she stopped at a clothing sale somewhere.” Despite her comment, she felt a touch of worry. Quinn was pretty reliable of late when it came to sticking up for her sister. She hoped there hadn’t been an accident. Teenage boys weren’t good risks behind the wheel, especially if they were in a hurry.

            “As long as we’re still here, let me get out the space vixen costume and see what you think of it,” said Elsie, getting off the bed. “You don’t have to put it on. I don’t want Tom to get all drooly over your legs.”

            “Thanks for looking out for me,” said Daria, fighting down another blush.

            “You wouldn’t have anything to worry about anyway,” said Elsie, looking through the clothing in her large-sized walk-in closet. “Tom only goes for girls his own age. He hasn’t finished going through the Rachels, Madisons, Monicas, and Heathers in the sophomore class yet.”

            Figures, thought Daria, feeling downcast. It would look too weird, a high-school guy going out with a wacko eighth grader. Not something the parents would want to see in the society pages of the newspaper. God, listen to me. My hormones must have finally kicked in. She heard a garage door open downstairs at the rear of the house as Mrs. Sloane prepared to leave. “Where’s Tom?” she asked.

            “In his room with the earphones on, probably,” said Elsie, coming out of the closet with a plastic-covered outfit that looked like a cross between a NASA spacesuit and a one-piece Mylar bathing suit with long gloves. “It’s supposed to have boots, but I haven’t found any I like yet. The evil lady in charge of the orphanage in Annie wears it. She’s actually from Neptune and plans to sell the orphans as appetizers to other Neptunians.”

            Though this sounded uncomfortably like one of Daria’s imagined scenarios for her own future, she had to smile. “It has a certain appeal, when you put it like that,” she said. “Cool outfit.”

            “Thanks. I should get a few mannequins, but Mom doesn’t want my room looking like a sweatshop for underage dressmakers.”

            “You know,” said Daria, eyeing the clock again, “we’d better go downstairs in case Quinn gets here. We won’t hear her knocking otherwise.”

            “Yeah.” Elsie sighed and put the costume on the bed, then led the way to the door. “What are you going to do when you get home?”

            “Um . . .” Daria realized she hadn’t thought about that. If the beings that captured her were actually coming back for her, what should she do? She listened to the omnipresent high-pitched tone in her ears. Any beings that could put a transmitter inside a person’s head that couldn’t be detected by x-rays or MRIs were powerful indeed. If they came for her tonight, what would they do to her family? If they would kidnap a child and hide her away for three years, tagging her with an internal transmitter the way humans tagged elk or banded migratory birds, they weren’t limited by thoughts of human morality. They would do what they pleased. Blowing up the fallen cave in Arkansas while humans were nearby fit their style. Humans were not important to them except in the abstract.

            Following the dark logic to its conclusion, if Daria went home tonight, it might result in the deaths of everyone in her family. Staying here would similarly doom the Sloanes. There was no way for her to know, for instance, that she herself was not rigged to explode like the cave must have been. She had assumed she was valuable to her captors, though they might in the end kill her, sacrificing her like a research animal to study her one last time before discarding her remains.

            “Hey,” said Elsie. She snapped her fingers in front of Daria’s face. “You okay?”

            “What? Oh, yeah. Let’s go.”

            Maybe I should run away once everyone at home is asleep, she thought as she followed Elsie down the stairs, her overnight bag in hand. I know how to turn off the house alarm—no, wait, that won’t work. The damn paparazzi will see me right off! Damn it to hell! I wish I’d never come out of that cave!

            At the bottom of the stairs, Daria looked back up, thinking of Tom. She shook her head and went to the front door. “May as well see if Quinn’s here,” she said.

            “She might have pulled around back to the garage,” said Elsie. “Wait, she couldn’t if the driveway gate is shut. It closes and locks automatically when someone leaves.”

            “The car might on the street outside, down the hill.” Daria reached for the doorknob. “She sounded like she was in a hurry to get—”

            The lights went out.





Chapter Five:

The Uninvited



            The world went black. Daria gasped and jerked her hand back from the doorknob. “No way I did that!” she cried. “No way!” She turned around in the Sloanes’ main foyer, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. Faint gray illumination came through windows around the house. A rising wind rumbled against the walls.

            “God, that scared the crap out of me,” said Elsie. She yelled up the stairs. “Tom! Hey, Tom! Come downstairs!”

            A door opened on the second floor. “I know, I know!” her brother called. “I’ll start the generator in a minute!”

            “Start it now!” she shouted back.

            “I’m changing clothes for my date! You start it, Edison!” His door slammed shut.

            “Ooo, he’ll be in trouble!” Elsie growled. “He knows he can’t leave until Mom or Dad gets back!” She marched off toward the kitchen. Daria glanced at the front door, then gave up and followed her friend. They passed through the kitchen to a door that Daria guessed led into the garage. It did; Elsie went through it and descended a few steps to the concrete floor, walking past a spotless new black Corvette Stingray by the kitchen door. The vast garage had space for two other cars, both of which were gone.

            Daria stopped in the doorway. A cold wind blew against her face. Mrs. Sloane had left the wider of the two garage doors open when she drove off to see the guards. The door looked out into the backyard, on the side that turned into a dense woodlot about a hundred feet from the house. The swing set and children’s fort were to the right, she remembered. Dry leaves blew into the garage, whirling in the wind.

            Elsie stopped on the far side of the garage, standing before a large gasoline engine with several large electrical cords leading into it. She checked the gas gauge, then called back to Daria. “Tom’s gonna have to fill the tank up when he comes down. When this starts, it’ll be really loud. You can shut the garage door.”

            Nodding, Daria reached up for the garage door switch. As she did, she again looked out the garage door into the wooded side of the backyard.

            A human figure was coming toward the house.

            “Elsie?” Daria called, her voice rising.

            “Get ready!” Elsie shouted, a hand hovering over a large red button as she tried to shield her ears with her other arm.

            “Someone’s in your yard!” Daria shouted back, pointing. Elsie looked out the garage door.

            The figure moved out of the evening shadows between the trees with a strange, stiff-legged gait, dragging one foot. It appeared to be a man with a camera hanging from a shoulder strap. The camera bounced against his abdomen as he moved. His clothes were stiff, as if made of cardboard. A white substance was spattered over his tattered leather jacket and long beige cargo pants. He was making directly for the open garage, his left hand extended before him as if begging, the other arm held in an odd pose close to his side. An injured photographer? she wondered—but something about him shouted wrong.

            Shut the door!” screamed Elsie. Slapping the red start button, she ran for the kitchen. The generator came to life with a painful, ear-splitting roar. Daria punched the button to shut the garage door—but nothing happened. She jammed the button down in a panic as Elsie fled past her into the house. The foot-dragging man reached the paved driveway. He was all wrong, a rigid-limbed mummy from a bad horror film. He groaned through a mouth that did not close, and then gestured at Daria with his left hand. The camera strap suddenly broke in several places. The camera hit the pavement, shattering the telephoto lens. Fragments of the strap bounced on the blacktop and broke again.

            The garage and house lights came on. With a bang, the garage door began to descend at a seeming snail’s crawl, yet it covered the image of the approaching man and thumped to the ground before he came through. Daria spotted a smaller button below the garage door control that read LOCK, and she hit that one as well before she went inside, slammed the door, locked the knob, and threw the deadbolt.

            Out of Daria’s sight, Elsie continued to shriek as she ran through the house: “Lock the doors and windows! Lock everything!” Daria swiftly checked the kitchen’s many windows and the door to the back deck, found them secure, and then hurried on to the dining room.

            “Hey!” came Tom’s angry shout from upstairs. “What the hell are you doing down there? Cut it out, or I’ll tell Mom!”

            Daria took a different path than Elsie had taken, running into the living room on the side of the house opposite the garage and kitchen. The living room had a large door with a full-length window that led out onto an open porch. She locked the doorknob and the deadbolt, but it was clear all someone on the outside had to do was smash out the window and reach inside to undo the locks. Damn stupid architects! Seeing no immediate cure for it, she ran after Elsie to tell her.

            Elsie was in the kitchen again, dialing the telephone. “Come on! Work!” she yelled at it. Daria started to approach—then remembered her overpowering effect on electronic circuitry. The high tone still rang in her head, though she was no longer paying attention to it. She backed away from the phone—and bumped into someone behind her. Strong hands seized her shoulders as she let out a frightened yelp.

            “What are you two doing?” Tom shouted, steadying Daria after she’d backed into him. “Stop playing around! Is the generator on?”

            “The phone’s dead!” Elsie shouted, pounding on the hang-up switch in an attempt to stir it to life again.

            “Someone’s in the backyard!” Daria said, trying to be calm and rational but still shouting.

            “Where?” Tom walked to the kitchen windows—and stopped short. Elsie looked up from the phone and screamed. Daria reached for the kitchen light switches and shut them all off, flipping other switches until she found the toggle to turn on the outside lights around the wooden deck.

            The staggering man was coming around the side of the house from the garage. He moved more slowly through the grass than on the pavement, but he kept his head turned in the direction of the kitchen windows. Only his left eye moved in his face, the other frozen in place looking ahead, so he seemed cross-eyed. The rest of his features were set rigidly in place, with his mouth open as if shouting. He still held his left arm forward, his fingers outstretched as if pleading. It was clear that he was making for the steps leading up to the deck—and then to the kitchen door.

            “What the hell?” said Tom. He turned and snatched a large cutting knife from a wooden block containing a number of chef’s tools, but he backed up anyway. “Elsie, you and your friend go upstairs!”

            “Daria!” said Daria. “I’m Daria!” She saw something moving through the grass and dead leaves behind the man. It was small and light in color, but hard to see even with the deck lights on. An animal?

            The staggering man reached the steps. Gripping the railing with his left hand, he tried to lift a leg to get up the first step.

            In the next instant, a blast of white fog enveloped him from behind as a loud, high-pressure hiss roared out. Daria, Elsie, and Tom gasped. When the white fog hit the windows, all the panes turned white with frost and broke with a simultaneous crack! Bits of glass rang down on the countertops and floor, but almost all of the panes remained intact, keeping most of the fog back. The door frosted over for a moment, as well as parts of the walls. A breath of arctic cold swept through the kitchen as wisps of fog blew in around the door and through cracks in the windows. Everyone stepped well back, but the chill stung faces and hands.

            The swirls of translucent frost covering the broken windows vanished in seconds. The fog outside cleared in the relentless wind. Two deck lights had gone out, those nearest the staggering man. The man now stood motionless at the foot of the steps, covered in white frost.

            Tom stepped toward the door, knife raised. Braving the deathly chill, Daria carefully crept over to an intact but cracked window to look outside.

            The frost faded from the man as she watched. Stiff as a mannequin, he tilted forward and fell against the steps. When he hit, his body shattered like porcelain. Shards of his arms and fingers and clothing and head scattered in every direction; his torso broke into three large chunks that leaked red. His face snapped off as a single piece. Missing only the nose, it came to rest in front of Daria’s window. The eyes looked dully up at the dark clouds, the mouth still round as if crying out. A dark red stain spread out from below the pale mask, seeping into the wood of the deck.

            Paralyzed with terror, Daria could not even scream. Someone grabbed her and dragged her roughly away from the window. “Upstairs!” Tom shouted in her ear. “Run!

            She was vaguely aware that she was running, Elsie at her side. A single ceiling light illuminated the foyer area. As they approached the stairway leading up, loud hammering began on the front door, and the knob rattled back and forth. “Open this door!” a man screamed outside. “Open this goddamn door! Open it! Hurry!”

            Daria and Elsie came to a stop halfway across the foyer, Tom behind them. All stared at the door in dread, expecting it to be thrown open at any moment despite its three locks.

            Open it!” the man screamed in sudden hysteria. “Oh, God! God, no, please, no no—

            White fog blasted into the foyer around the edges of the door. Frost instantly formed over the door as the wood itself split in several vertical lines, admitting more fog. Windows covered in ice cracked in their frames on both sides of the doorway.

            Daria, Elsie, and Tom fled as the fog shot in. Daria, in the rear, felt a terrific wave of cold pass through her clothing and sink its teeth into her spine and into the backs of her head, arms, and legs. The pain was sharp and intense. She stumbled and fell in the hallway leading away from the foyer, but she got up and scrambled after the Sloanes a moment later. Numbness spread across her back and legs, a burning ache raging at the edges.

            She got into the living room and found Tom clutching Elsie against him, both huddled by a fireplace against a wall. Elsie was crying softly. The hall light gave the room its only illumination. On the room’s opposite side was the door with the full-length window, leading out to the long side porch. Everything outside was now completely dark. Daria stood near the two Sloanes, all three panting from exhaustion and fear. They watched the door and waited, having nowhere else to run.

            Something clattered onto the wood floor of the side porch, moving unseen below a line of windows. Elsie flinched in Tom’s arms, whimpering. He had dropped the carving knife at some point earlier. Daria stopped breathing in fright.

            More clattering and skittering things got onto the porch and made their way across the wood for the door. Nothing appeared on the other side of the window in the door but the darkness. They seemed to be waiting, too.

            It’s the boogieman, Daria knew, him and his helpers. I knew he’d come for me, and he did.

            She stood stock-still and held her breath—but as she waited, a new thought came that caused her breathing to start again.

            He came for me, but I’m not going with him.





Chapter Six:

A Doubtful Redoubt



            Daria quickly looked around the living room for something to use as a shield, a weapon, anything. What could she possibly do? Fireplace tools, lamps, books on a side table—

            The fireplace! They’re using cold as a weapon! My cave was cold! They blew up the cave this afternoon with cold! They use and need the cold! It was a vast jump in logic, but it was all she had. She quickly knelt by the fireplace and flung aside the wire screen in front of it. It was gas fed; the logs were ceramic. Daria found the knob for the gas and turned it fully up. A hiss filled the air with the stink of natural gas.

            Frantic, she stood up and looked for matches. She was on the verge of asking Tom and Elsie when she saw a box of long matches on the mantel, between an old clock and a crystal vase. Grabbing the box, she tore off the cardboard lid and drew one match that accidentally pulled out several more with it. The spares fell to the floor. She snapped the head of her match across the rough striker on the bottom of the box, saw the flare of fire, and stuck the match into the fireplace.

            FOOM! A huge yellow-white flash leaped at her with a rush of hot air, singeing her face and hair. She fell backward on the floor, so startled she couldn’t remember for a moment what had happened. The roaring heat stung her exposed skin and filled the room with light.

            As Daria got up again, she saw a legal notepad on a table and grabbed it. She stuck one end in the flames until the paper caught, then held it out in front of her at the porch door. Balanced between courage and terror, she baby-stepped across the carpet, holding the notepad so the flames along the edge spread and grew brighter. Go away! she thought at the things outside on the porch. I’ll burn you! Go away or you’ll get it!

            The flickering yellow light from the notepad illuminated the porch outside through the window in the door. Dozens of scrambling noises crossed the porch in a moment—and were gone. The wind pressed hard against the house. A piece of glass from a shattered windowpane in the kitchen fell to the floor.

            Breathing heavily, Daria held her pose until she was sure the creatures had fled. She stepped back and shivered, then walked back to the fireplace, looking behind her every second. As she moved to set the burning notepad down in the fireplace, she heard light, fast clattering noises on the porch again.

            In panic and fury, she threw the burning notepad overhand at the door. It struck the window glass and fell onto the thick carpet. The things on the porch ran off in less than a second. Without thinking, Daria dashed over to retrieve the notebook and keep it from setting the carpet on fire. She found herself one foot from the glassed door—and realized how close to death she was. Snatching the notepad, she ran back to the fireplace, shivering uncontrollably for several moments. Nothing had been visible outside except the night, but it was no comfort.

            Daria dropped the notepad on the marble tiles in front of the fireplace and stamped the flames out. She wiped her face with trembling hands, then turned to look at Tom and Elsie. They stared at her with wide eyes, still holding each other.

            “S-s-sort of like the Neanderthals driving the cave bears away, don’t you think?” Daria said, feeling giddy and very close to fainting. The situation was too unreal to come up with anything sensible to say. She took a deep breath and knelt down with her back to the roaring fire, trying to organize her thoughts.

            “What do we do?” said Tom in a cracked voice.

            “We have to stay near the fire, near anything hot,” she said. “I think they need the cold. The thermostat—if we can turn up the thermostat in the house, too, that might keep them away. Turn it up as high as it will go. It might work. They don’t like fire. At least I think they don’t. It’s all we’ve got.”

            “What are they?” asked Elsie.

            Daria felt pins-and-needles prickling across her back and legs. She knew she had taken a cold injury in the foyer, but there was nothing she could do about it. She still felt close to fainting. “I don’t know. I think they’re the things that caught me, three years ago. I think they came back for me. I don’t know why.”

            “I’ll get the thermostat,” said Tom. He let go of Elsie, prying her hands from him, then slowly walked back to the hallway toward the foyer.

            “Be careful!” Elsie cried. She started to follow him.

            Daria got up, swaying from momentary dizziness, and caught her by the arm. “Wait. Let’s turn on the lights in here first. We have to see, and it will give us a little more heat.”

            Still in shock, Elsie looked blankly at Daria before nodding. They turned on as many lights as they could without getting close to the windows or the porch door. After she wiped her eyes and sniffed a few times, Elsie looked in better control of herself. “Now what?” she asked Daria.

            “I guess now we wait for Quinn to—” Daria gasped, horrified that she had forgotten. “Quinn’s coming!”

            “And Mom and Dad!” said Elsie.

            “We have to—crap! We can’t open a window to yell at them! We can’t go outside!”

            “We can go upstairs and open a window up there,” said Tom, “unless whatever’s out there can fly. Can they?”

            “How should I know?” Daria said. “I don’t know what they look like!”

            “They kept you frozen in that cave, didn’t they?” Tom snapped. “Don’t you remember anything about them?”


            “Tom!” yelled Elsie. “Stop it! She doesn’t know!”

            Tom raised his hands and dropped them in a gesture of frustration. “We have to go upstairs and risk it, then. I can’t believe you can’t remember anything!”

            “I was frozen, damn it!” Daria shouted, upset that she was being questioned like this. “How could I remember anything at all?”

            Tom didn’t reply. He stalked off down the hall, with Elsie and Daria following. Daria, the last one out of the room, heard something odd behind her. She slowed, turning her head.

            Something—lots of things—ran across the porch again. They were moving in a single direction, around the house toward the front door.

            They were following her.

            How the hell can they see me through the walls? Radar? X-rays?

            She became aware of the high-pitched tone inside her head.

            Oh, no! I’m still calling them!

            Tom was already in the foyer, walking cautiously toward the stairs with Elsie behind him. Daria came in next—and heard something rustling outside the split front door, on the concrete step. She knew it couldn’t be the man who had been there, trying to get in. It had to be—

            Run upstairs!” she yelled. “Run!

            The Sloanes ran, taking the steps two and three at a time. Many things tapped and clawed at the front door when Daria ran past it. On impulse, she reached out and snapped on the switches for the front lights, then pounded up the stairs after Elsie and Tom. Hitting the lights triggered a new burst of skittering noises on the concrete outside. Don’t let them break the door down! she prayed. Let it hold together just a little longer!

            She made herself stop at the top of the stairs instead of running down a hallway. “Do you have a space heater?” she shouted, though Elsie and Tom were only a few feet away, also looking down the stairs.

            “Yeah,” said Elsie. She flipped on the hall lights, hurried off to the bathroom, and disappeared into it. Tom and Daria were alone then, panting and looking down at the front door.

            “I’m sorry I got on you,” Tom said abruptly. He gripped the railing with white-knuckled hands. “I just—too much is happening. I’m sorry.”

            “I can’t remember anything about them!” Daria said heatedly. “I just can’t!”

            “Okay! I believe you!” said Tom. “You’re doing okay so far, I think. Maybe you know more about them than you think. Recovered memories or something. We just have to keep thinking of things to hold them off.”

            It pissed her off to hear that Tom didn’t believe she’d come up with the use of fire and heat on her own. I’m a lot smarter than you think I am, dope! she raged. Stop being such a jerk!

            “You were going to find a window,” Daria said, electing to change the subject.

            “Yeah.” Tom stood back, then went down the hall to a door and opened it. “Yell if anything happens,” he said.

            “Ha,” said Daria under her breath. If anything went wrong, she planned to scream until she went deaf. It was sounding more and more like the intelligent thing to do.

            Elsie came out of the bathroom with a space heater on an electric cord. “Put it here, at the top of the stairs,” Daria said. Elsie did, and they plugged it in at a nearby wall outlet. Daria turned the heater up all the way, aiming it down the steps.

            “Careful,” said Elsie. “It might catch the carpet on fire.”

            “Damn.” Daria compromised by aiming the heater slightly upward, leaving it in the center of the top step. “That might do it. Do we have anything else hot up here?”

            “Candles?” said Elsie. “Tom’s got some, don’t ask me why. My hair dryer! Will that do?”

            “We really need something bigger and hotter.” Daria sighed and tried to think.

            “It’s getting warm up here already from the furnace,” said Elsie.

            “Good, I hope. Anything to make it—”

            “Should I open the window?” Tom shouted from the room.

            “Wait here,” said Daria. She hurried down the hall to the door and went inside what looked like a guest bedroom. The lights were off. Tom was at the windows on the front side of the house.

            “I don’t know if it’s safe,” he said. “Can they fly?”

            “I told you—I don’t know! Go back out with Elsie, and close the door behind you.”


            “In case they get in, of course!”

            “What about you, then?”

            “Just go, okay? I’ll be fine! Go stay with Elsie and watch the stairs!”

            “I really should—”

            “Go protect your sister!”

            With clear reluctance, Tom left. He did not close the door behind him all the way, though.

            Daria turned her attention to the windows. One story below, the front porch light illuminated a broad semicircle over the yard. A tree’s limbs blocked some of her view, but she could see down the hill on which the mansion rested to the wall around the property and the street beyond. No sign of alien monsters could be seen, which was a relief—but where were they?

            It was hard to tell, but it looked as if the main gate was still shut, and the white paparazzi van she’d seen earlier was parked in front of it. Why the hell would they do that? she wondered. They must have moved up after Mrs. Sloane—oh! Of course! They jumped over the gate from the top of the van! It was safer than scaling over the wall, with those spikes on top of it. Those two guys outside the house must have been—damn those idiots! They ran right into the aliens! Damn them for being such freaking morons!

            Though she had a terrific dislike of tabloid photographers, Daria still felt sick to think of their fate. What kind of stuff are the aliens using for a weapon, anyway? Liquid oxygen? No, we didn’t smell the air get fresher. Liquid nitrogen? It’s inert, won’t explode, and usually what’s used in science experiments showing how roses can be frozen and broken. She thought of the broken-off face of the photographer and shuddered. She didn’t remember how cold liquid nitrogen was, but she knew it was pretty damn cold.

            She was about to move away from the window and talk to Tom and Elsie again when she saw a dark shape move across the white top of the van, then carefully drop over the gate to the driveway. The figure then began walking quickly up the paved path toward the front door, tossing a long mane of hair as it went.

            It was Quinn.

            Heading straight for her death.





Chapter Seven:

Left Behind



            Daria unlocked the window and shoved it open. She didn’t care if the creatures below saw her do it. “Quinn!” she shouted. “Run! Get out of here!”

            The figure below stopped. “Daria?” Quinn shouted back. “Where are you?”

            “The aliens are here!” Daria’s voice arose to a scream. “Get away! They’re outside the house!”

            Quinn looked around her, stepping back. “Where?”

            “Damn it, run! Get out of here! Don’t come any closer!”

            “Daria?” came another shout, from the driveway gate. It was Mrs. Sloane. “What’s going on?”

            Run, Quinn!” Daria shrieked.

            Quinn suddenly did run.

            Toward the front door of the house.

            No!” Daria saw that her sister would be upon the creatures in seconds, if she wasn’t already. But if the creatures really did follow Daria wherever she went—

            Daria ran from the bedroom and bumped into Tom, who was walking back. “What’s going—” he began, but she ran past him, past the space heater, and down the stairs as fast as she could go.

            “Daria! No!” Elsie and Tom shouted, but she kept going. When she hit the floor by the front door, she took off down the hall for the living room again. Follow me! Follow me to the other side of the house! Get away from my sister!

            As she ran into the overheated living room, the fireplace roaring yellow and bright, she heard a skittering and scratching on the outside porch, the noise of things running along below the windows. Terror welled up inside her, but she didn’t stop until she reached the side of the room at the rear of the house. The lights in the living room cast so much glare on the windows it was impossible to see anything outside, and no exterior lights were turned on in this area. Still, unable to stand the possibility she might see something dreadful through the windows, she crouched several feet from the wall, shivering from head to toe. At any moment she expected to feel a blast of frigid wind at her back, but better that than for Quinn to—

            Quinn screamed outside near the front door, a long, piercing shriek from the bottom of her soul. Daria clapped her hands over her ears. Overcome with terror, she burst into tears. Her plan had failed. Her sister had been found and would die.

            Footsteps pounded down the stairs. Someone ran through the foyer into the other side of the house, but not into the garage. The footsteps were too heavy to have been Elsie, so it had to be Tom. An inside door opened, other noises followed, then she heard Tom shout, “Over here! Run!” Confused noises followed, then came the bang of a shutting window. Quinn’s wails echoed through the house, mixed with the thump of footsteps on carpet. “Get to the stairs!” Tom yelled. “Go!” The heavier footsteps then came into the living room. “Daria!” shouted Tom. “She’s inside! Get back upstairs!”

            A rustling noise came through the wall behind Daria, against the outside of the house. Whatever was out there was either getting antsy about the noise or sensed that Daria was about to depart. Something tapped lightly against the glass of the door to the porch. It then tapped twice more, harder.

            “Come on!” he shouted.

            Daria leaped up and ran, hearing the skittering of feet across the porch behind her. Tom led the way down the hall to the stairs, making sure she went before he did. At the top of the stairs beyond the space heater, Daria saw Quinn sitting with her back to the wall, sobbing in hysteria. Dropping to her knees, Daria hugged her sister as they cried together.

            “What’s happening?” Quinn gasped through her tears. “What happened to that man at the front door? What is going on?”

            “It’s all right,” said Daria, holding Quinn’s head against her. “It’s all right.”

            Elsie hurried out of the spare bedroom. “I told Mom to call the police and not let anyone else get near the house,” she said. “I told her something was outside and we couldn’t leave, and she shouldn’t let Dad in, either.”

            Breathing heavily, Tom nodded, trying not to stare at Daria and Quinn. “Good. I’m still afraid those things are going to try to break in, though. I don’t know what’s kept them out this long. They could probably smash through the windows if they tried.”

            “Maybe the heat’s keeping them out, like Daria said,” said Elsie. “It’s getting really hot in here.”

            “I think I’m keeping them out, too,” said Daria, still holding Quinn.

            Tom and Elsie looked at her. “What?” said Elsie. “You?”

            “I don’t think they don’t want to hurt me. They might want to take me alive. If they didn’t care, they would have smashed their way in by now and gotten us all. Maybe they don’t like the heat and light, too. I know they don’t like fire. That’s all I can guess.”

            Tom ran a hand through his brown hair. “I don’t know, either, but I think they’re trying to plan things out, too, like we are. If they do get in, I don’t know what we can do to keep them back. We’re going to have to get out of here. We should get down to the garage and get in Dad’s Stingray and run for it.”

            Elsie’s eyes widened. “He told you to never drive that car or else—”

            “We have to get out of here!” Tom snapped. “I don’t care what he said! I’ll get the keys in the kitchen and we’ll open the garage door real fast and beat it! They can have the damn house!”

            “It won’t work,” said Daria, still with Quinn.

            “Why?” Tom demanded.

            “Because they’re following me. Elsie knows what I mean. I’m giving off a signal of some kind, like a radio signal. I don’t know how or why. They must have put something in me, and they’re homing in on it. It’s me they’re after, not you. If we try to escape together, they’ll get us because they’ll know where I am.”

            “We’re not leaving you here!” Elsie shouted.

            “The only reason they’re here is because I’m here! You don’t have a chance if—”

            “Wait! Wait a minute!” said Tom, staring at Daria. “When you saw Quinn coming, you ran downstairs to the back side of the house because you knew—”

            “Yes, that they’d follow me and not her! I wasn’t trying to run away, I was trying to save her! Don’t you understand? If I go outside with you, they’ll kill you! They’re after me! You’ll have to get out on your own, without me!”

            Except for Quinn trying to stifle her tears, the wind pressing against the walls, and the hum of the generator in the garage below, all was quiet.

            “Elsie,” said Tom in a low voice, “let’s go look out the windows again and see if anyone else is in the yard.”

            “Okay,” she said after a moment.

            “Daria,” Tom went on, “you and Quinn watch the stairs. See if you can think of anything that would help. We’ll be right back.” He then put an arm around his sister and herded her down the hall to the spare bedroom. The door closed behind them.

            Daria brushed Quinn’s long red hair from her face.

            “I’m not leaving you,” said Quinn, wiping her eyes. “No way. You can forget it.”

            “I’ll find a way out,” said Daria. She thought it came out well for a lie. “I’m not going to just stay here. You and the others—”

            “Bull!” Quinn caught hold of Daria and pulled her close, wrapping her arms around her smaller sister. “I am not leaving you!” she said in a hoarse whisper in Daria’s ear. “I waited three damn years to get you back! I’m not doing it again!”

            I shouldn’t have brought it up, Daria thought to herself, though she was grateful to hear Quinn’s words. I have to talk about something else. “We’re in a lot of trouble,” she said. “I think Tom’s right. Whatever’s out there is going to find a way in, sooner or later. It wouldn’t take much. I thought we could keep them back, but it doesn’t make any sense now that I think about it. This house isn’t built like a fort. We can’t risk running back to the main gate, so we’ll have to take the car and pray we get through.”

            “Did those—those things, did they do something to that—that man at the door?”

            “Uh, yeah.” Daria tried not to think of the man’s screams, how he might have looked when they froze him. “They killed another guy out back, too. I think those guys were photographers. Those things, whatever they are, got here a while ago, and we’ve been trying to keep them out ever since.”

            Quinn got to her feet and gave Daria one more hug. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said.

            “I’m glad you’re okay, too,” said Daria. “Is Jeffy waiting at the gate with Mrs. Sloane?”

            “No, and I’m going to kill him when he gets out of jail!” Quinn said in an exasperated tone. “He drove over here like a maniac and got himself arrested right at the entrance for speeding and driving without a license. The cops let me go, so I ran all the way here from the guardhouse. When I got here, Elsie’s mother was trying to get in, but that damn van was parked in front of the gate and the bumper was pushing on the gate so it’s jammed and it can’t open at all. We were waiting for a wrecker when I thought I hear some stuff going on up here, and Mrs. Sloane helped me climb on top of the van and over the gate, and I guess you know the rest. I am so going to kill Jeffy!”

            “Jeez. Let’s get Tom and Elsie and think about getting out of here.”

            “Are the aliens really out there? I didn’t see anything when I was coming up, except—except for that guy at—”

            “They’re there, but they’re following me, not you, so you didn’t see them, thank God. It’s a long story. Can you get the other two?”

            “Sure.” Quinn glanced downstairs and then walked to the door where Tom and Elsie had gone, rapping on it with her knuckles. “Come on out.”

            After a pause, the door opened. “Quinn,” said Tom, “go look out the window. See if you can see anything in the yard.”

            “Uh, okay. Daria, I’ll be right back.”

            “Hurry,” said Daria. The door shut. Daria looked down the hall with a frown. All three of them were in the bedroom now. What was going on?

            Her train of thought was disrupted after a moment when Elsie came out. She walked over and stood by Daria’s side at the top of the stairs. “Anything going on down there?” Elsie said.

            “No. I think your brother’s right, we have to go.”

            Elsie nodded. “Me, too. He’s right about the car. Dad will kill us if we scratch it, though.” Suddenly she began to laugh. “But those things will kill us if we don’t, right? I’m sorry, but I can’t believe this. This is so messed up.”

            “This will only work if I’m somewhere where you’re not. I’ll figure something out.” Nothing came to mind. Daria frowned down the hallway again. “What’s Tom doing in there?”

            “Oh. Uh, we were trying to, uh, signal to Mom. Yeah. He didn’t want to yell at her and, you know, draw attention.”

            “Like we haven’t drawn enough.” Daria shrugged. “I agree. This is really messed up.”

            The bedroom door opened, and Tom and Quinn came out. They did not look at Daria. When the four gathered at the top of the stairs, Daria drew a deep breath. “Thank you, Tom,” she began. “Thanks for getting Quinn in here. I didn’t know what to do.”

            “Yeah,” said Quinn. “Thanks.” And she leaned over, her face up, and kissed him on the cheek. Tom looked startled and blushed.

            The stab of jealousy Daria felt in that moment took her completely by surprise. She tried to push it away. It was not the time for stuff like that, and she felt she shouldn’t think about it anyway at any time. “Tom’s right,” she said, changing the subject, “about what he said earlier about leaving. We have to get out of here as fast as we can. Let’s unplug the space heater and take it with us, in case it keeps those things away. It’ll stay hot for a little while.”

            “I’ll carry it,” said Tom.

            “Let me go into the living room while you guys go to the garage,” said Daria. “Wait! Listen to me!” she added, as Quinn and Elsie began to object. I have to make this plausible. “I’ll go with you, sure, but let me stay in the living room just a minute or two, so you have a chance to do whatever you need to do. Then I’ll run back to the garage and we can leave. I think if I run really fast, it’ll take those things by surprise and we can get the garage door open and get out before they get to us, okay?” I’d never run fast enough to get into the car before the aliens got to the garage door, but they don’t need to know that. I’m not going with them, period. There are worse things than letting the boogieman get you.

            Tom, Elsie, and Quinn looked at each other. “Sure,” said Tom slowly, “we can do that. We’d better go now before anything else goes wrong.”

            At that moment, the lights went out again. Quinn gave a little shriek. Stunned, the four heard the dying rumble of the generator in the garage as it chugged to a stop.

            “Oh, crap!” yelled Elsie in the darkness. “It only had a little gasoline in it! It ran out!”

            “Why didn’t you fill it?” Tom shouted at her.

            You were supposed to fill it!” Elsie yelled back. “Dad told you to do it last week!”

            “Shut up!” yelled Daria. She felt around on the floor, then jerked the space heater’s plug from the wall. “Be careful and don’t fall down the stairs! Let’s go!”

            Tom grabbed the space heater and led the way down the stairs, holding it out in front of him by the base. Flickering yellow light from the fireplace in the living room illuminated the darkness downstairs. They walked as a close bunch, peering everywhere with nervous eyes.

            “Where are the flashlights?” Quinn whispered.

            “In the kitchen,” Elsie whispered back. “I’ll get a couple.”

            The kitchen was pitch black except for the red glow from the space heater’s cooling coils. Elsie found two flashlights and passed one to Quinn, taking one for herself. Tom found the keys to the Stingray, then went to the door to the garage. After listening, he opened it and held the space heater out in front of him. The garage was dark; the door to the outside was still closed.

            Tom put the space heater down. “Elsie, give me your flashlight,” he said. When she did, he swung the light around the garage. “All clear. Come on.”

            Quinn and Elsie began to follow—but they stopped when they saw that Daria stood off on the far side of the kitchen.

            “I’ll be with you in a moment,” Daria said, gesturing for them to move on. “I have to distract the others outside. Go on. I’ll be okay. They’re not going to hurt me.” When Quinn handed a flashlight out to her, she waved it away. “I don’t need it. I can see.”

            Quinn lowered her flashlight. “Daria,” she said softly, “please—”

            “Elsie, Quinn!” Tom shouted, his voice echoing in the dark garage. “Let her go! Come on! I need your help!”

            The two girls stared at Daria for an ageless moment—then slowly, reluctantly, turned and left, leaving the garage door half open behind them. Both relieved and saddened, Daria walked over, shut the garage door, then left the kitchen and slowly went down the silent hall toward the living room. The enormity of what she was doing was finally getting to her. I’ll be left behind, but that’s okay, she thought. Tom bought it, thank God. They’ll have a chance to live because of that. I have to think of that and nothing else.

            She stopped at the entrance to the living room. Nothing was visible through the outside windows. Daria had never felt so alone in her whole life. Swallowing, she slowly walking in, quickly getting as close as she dared to the crackling, snapping flames in the fireplace. She again heard skittering noises move across the wooden floor of the porch, but nothing came into view in the porch door window.

            Very soon, she thought, watching the windows, very soon, I’ll know what the aliens really look like. I only hope that no one hears me scream.





Chapter Eight:

Hell Bound



            All alone now, Daria waited in the living room by the fireplace. She shivered despite the great heat and rubbed her arms through her jacket sleeves, listening to distant noises from the garage as the other three prepared their escape.

            I hope they get Quinn away from here, far away. I want Elsie and Tom to make it, too, all three of them: my sister, my only school friend, and . . . I should leave that next part alone. I saw the kiss. I know what it probably meant. He was so courageous to rescue her, and she was so grateful. They deserve each other. I can’t go with them, but even if I could, even if I wasn’t too young, Tom and I could never be a couple.

            Wait—what is this? I can’t believe I’m even thinking about this junk when we’re right on the edge of such terrible things, all of us about to die. This is the stupidest thing in the world. I have nothing that would interest anyone anyway, much less Tom, even if he can be a twit sometimes. I made the right choice. It hurts, but I did the right thing. It hurts because I know I won’t see them again. This is the real end. I’ll miss my parents, even as messed up as they are, but I’ll really miss Quinn. After all she went through, waiting all those years for me to come back, all she did for me, and now she won’t—

            Daria sniffed and wiped her eyes under her glasses, struggling not to cry.

            I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, right this instant. This is a bunch of bull. This could work out. I really don’t know that it won’t. I’m scared, but I can’t let that get to me. I have to go on with this. I was so ready earlier to not let the aliens get me, and now I’m just a wreck. Get yourself together, Morgendorffer. It’ll be okay. I can stay here by the fire until morning, or until the police or army get here to get rid of these things—but even if the boogieman does get me, even if it doesn’t work out, the monsters won’t get my sister or my best friends. At least I did that. I finally did something good with my life, something good—

            Footsteps were coming down the hallway to the living room. Daria felt her heart jump to her throat. “Wh-who is it?” she called, crossing her arms and backing up to the fire as close as she dared.

            “Me,” said Tom, coming into view. He stopped, glanced at the dark windows, then walked slowly over to her. He stopped an arm’s reach away, looking at her face. “You okay?”

            She nodded rapidly, nervous with him so close, and wiped her eyes again. There was so much she wanted to say—but it was time to ditch the small talk. Best to get it over with quickly. She tried to sound strong and confident as she made her case. “Tom, I want you to go. Take the others and get in the car and go without me. Please. I’ll be okay. Nothing will get in here with me standing right by the fireplace. I’m safe here. Just get Quinn and Elsie and get out of here, now. Please, just go.”

            “We’ve fixed up the car,” said Tom, as if he hadn’t heard her. “We put some old blankets and coats in it that we’ll use for protection in case they use that . . . liquid nitrogen or whatever it is. It’s not much, but it should help. We also poured a big pool of lighter fluid by the big garage door next to the Stingray’s door. We’ll set it on fire and open both doors just as we leave. Maybe the flames will drive them back or confuse them, if they’re waiting for us. It’s worth a try. Like you said, they don’t like fire.”

            “Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll stay here, then, and keep those things away from you.” She gasped, thinking of a new problem. “Wait—how are you getting the garage door open? The generator’s dead.”

            “Oh, Elsie’s going to start it back up again in a moment. I filled the tank up. No more gasoline, though. We’ll get the power back on, then we’ll open the garage door and burn rubber all the way down the driveway.”

            “And the gate! Quinn said it was jammed shut by that van. How are you—”

            “Yeah, I don’t know about that. We’ll figure it out when we get there.” He paused, looking at Daria with steady eyes. “You really are planning to stay behind while we run for it.”

            She nodded her head yes, but not as hard as before. “I have to. Don’t give me a lot of crap about it, either. You have to get them out of here now. Send the police back for me, but you go. You have to. You know it.”

            He looked at her in silence in a way that she thought was very strange. “You are,” he finally said, “the bravest and smartest person I have ever known. I wanted to tell you that.”

            Daria was as surprised as she could get. “Me?” she said. What to say? “No. No, I’m not that brave. I’m . . . I’m . . . not that brave.” She reached out and pushed him gently in the chest. “Please go,” she said. “Get the other two out of here. It would kill me if anything happened to Quinn. It’s the only way you’ll get out. I’ll be okay here, really. Just get the police back here, or the military or something. I’ll be okay. The fire will keep me safe. You have to go.”

            She pushed again, but her hand stayed against his chest. Tom reached up and took it. His hand was large and warm. She felt very small next to him. He took a breath to say something.

            A car engine started and revved up. It sounded astoundingly loud in the house. “Tom!” came Elsie’s shout down the hall. “Tom! We’re ready!”

            “Start the generator!” he shouted back. He looked down into Daria’s eyes and squeezed her hand. “You really are the bravest person ever.”

            Her heart thumped almost as loudly as the Stingray’s motor. “Thanks,” she whispered. The feel of his hand holding hers was wonderful, but it hurt. She would never see him again—not in this world, anyway. The pain was more than she could take. “Tom,” she said, suddenly pressured to say a thing she’d never thought she’d ever say, “I want you to know that I—”

            The generator’s thunder suddenly filled the air. “Go!” screamed Elsie from the garage.

            Tom looked down the hall, then at Daria. In less than a second, he let go of her hand and lunged forward. One hand went across her back, the other just under her hips. He spun as he lifted her off the ground and ran with her down the hall for the garage. Too shocked to struggle, she yelled “Tom!” but could do nothing else.

            She had a last second view of the living room as she was carried down the hall. With a terrific hiss, white fog blasted across the living-room windows facing the porch. Thick frost formed over the entire wall. Every window, lamp, glass picture, and piece of china burst. Shards of glass from the windows clattered to the carpeted floor across the room. Something came through the broken window in the door, knocking out more glass, then another ear-splitting blast filled the entire living room with white fog. The crackling roar from the fireplace went out in an instant.

            By then, Tom’s feet pounded through the kitchen. All the house lights came on again. He jumped the steps down to the garage floor, setting Daria on her feet by the rear end of the rumbling Stingray. The air reeked of exhaust fumes and spilled lighter fluid, and she was deafened by the howl of the generator and the revving of the Stingray’s engine in the enclosed garage. Tom dashed back, shut the door to the kitchen, and grabbed a bottle of lighter fluid by the steps. He sprayed it over the door, then took out a cigarette lighter and touched it off. The lower half of the kitchen door and the top steps burst into flame. He then ran past Daria and knelt by a vast glistening pool on the far side of the garage. She heard the cigarette lighter click—and yellow flames arose in the middle of the garage with a heat flash that scorched her face.

            She started to say something, but Tom grabbed her, spun her around, and forced her head down. The passenger door on the Stingray was open and the seat had been moved forward. Tom shoved her through the narrow opening into the cramped back seat of the car. She crashed into a blanket-covered lump that pulled her close and shouted with Elsie’s voice, “Go, go, go, go, go!” Tom forced the passenger seat back, jumped in, slammed the door, and then picked up a garage-door opener from the dash and pushed several buttons hard.

            Wearing a heavy coat with leather work gloves, Quinn sat in the driver’s seat, leaning forward with both hands on the steering wheel. Through the smoke filling the garage, Daria saw the garage door before them rise just as high as the Stingray’s roof. Quinn took her foot off the brake and trod the accelerator. The Stingray shot forward through the smoke and out of the garage and into the wind and the night. Quinn snapped the wheel to the left to get down the driveway. The Corvette fishtailed, the end swinging wide and throwing Elsie into Daria in the back.

            The boogiemen were waiting for them. Quinn screamed and nailed the brakes, throwing everyone forward. Tom swore and braced himself, his seat belt not fastened. From her place in back, Daria looked through the windshield and had the impression that three or four giant daddy longlegs on fragile, silvery white legs were walking across the driveway in the car’s headlights. Wisps of fog drifted from their high white bodies, from which whiplike tentacles writhed, coiled, and uncoiled. Dreamlike, the spiders pivoted and strode toward the Stingray. Quinn hit the gas and whipped the steering wheel around. The Stingray did a one-eighty, back tires screaming. Daria smelled rubber burning. They took off around the back of the house—

            —directly into the rest of the spiders. Daria saw about a half-dozen giant daddy longlegs ahead of them before Quinn whipped the wheel around once more, heading back the way they’d originally planned. The three daddy longlegs had scattered from the road itself but stretched long tentacles toward the Stingray as it came on.

            The longlegs on the left blasted white fog at the ground ahead of the car. Quinn swerved to the right but ran through part of the fog anyway. The windshield snapped, several long cracks running across it from left to right; the left window by the driver also broke but held together. Deathly cold filled the car and stung Daria’s face. One of the front tires began to thump loudly.

            The Stingray came out of the fog in a skid, with the right side of the car facing down the driveway. Quinn reversed the steering wheel to control the skid, gunning the engine again. Tom shouted something in a panic and pointed to the right side of the driveway. Daria caught a glimpse of more spiders coming out of a dark place within a small grove of trees. These spiders were short and moved with rapid footsteps (the ones on the porch, thought Daria), but they grew very fast as their legs telescoped out and became limber and agile, turning them into longlegs like the others. One of the longlegs started across the road ahead of the Stingray, a third of the way down the hill.

            Quinn pressed the gas pedal down to the floor and hunched up, lowering her head to the level of the steering wheel. “Hang on!” she shouted, and she aimed for the daddy longlegs in the middle of the road. It immediately tried to get out of the way, legs swinging, but one leg was still in the road when the Stingray snapped it off. The broken silvery leg smacked the center of windshield and cracked it into a spider web. Daria turned and saw the crippled longlegs stagger across the yard and come to a stop, missing one of its eight or ten legs but still on its feet.

            With a staggering bang, the car’s front left tire exploded. The Stingray dragged to the left and almost flipped over as it ran off the driveway into the yard, coming in a broad circle up the hill toward the house. Daria saw that the Sloanes’ house was dark again; heavy fog drifted from the area around the garage and from the side porch. They got the generator, she thought, and then she saw several spiders striding across the yard toward them. The closest one launched a brief jet of fog in the car’s direction but stopped and backpedaled as the Stingray roared past and tore sod out of the yard.

            Moving slower now, the Stingray was guided back onto the driveway before Quinn again sped up. The front left tire rim screamed as it dragged on the driveway. At the bottom of the hill were two police cars with flashing red and blue lights, one of them just pulling up. Other cars were present with headlights on. The main gate was halfway open.

            Daria turned to look out the back window and tried to scream though nothing came out. One of the silver-white daddy longlegs towered over the car, keeping pace behind it on its spindly legs. Tentacles uncoiled down from its smoking body toward her face. She thought it meant to kill her.

            In the next instant, Quinn hit the brakes and Daria was thrown toward the front of the car. The back window was punched down and broke, a huge hole showing where Daria had peered upward a moment earlier. Tom’s seat hit her in the back and knocked the wind out of her. She was then thrown to the side as the Stingray skidded and spun. Something banged into the car’s left side and then the rooftop. Daria could not think through the spinning around and chaos and squealing tires and screaming. She felt a terrific jolt as something exploded in front of the car. It was terrifically cold as she was flung about like a rubber ball in the back seat.

            The car came to a rest with creaks and pops, the engine off. Daria was aware she was lying on top of Elsie. Shouts, screams, and running footsteps came from outside. Daria pushed herself up, too dazed to think. Her glasses were missing, and it was impossible to see anything but blurs except close up.

            A gunshot went off near the car, then two more, then a flurry of semiautomatic gunfire. Bullets cracked as they passed over and around the car. Daria sank down, hoping to keep Elsie flat if she came to. Another explosion echoed out a short distance away; metallic pieces clattered to the ground and bounced on pavement with ringing sounds. People ran past the car, shouting, “There! There it went!”

            “Daria?” It was Quinn from the front seat. “Daria?”



            “I think so. Are you?”

            No answer came. Daria pushed herself up again, not too high. Quinn was looking back from her seat, fuzzy in Daria’s vision. Several dark streams ran down from Quinn’s hair across her forehead, into her eyes, and down to her mouth and chin. Tom lay against the passenger door, not moving.

            “Love you,” said Quinn. She tried to smile, then closed her eyes and sank into her seat as if in relief. Her breath came out in a sigh.

            “Quinn?” Daria reached for her sister and touched her face. The warm dark streams on her face stained Daria’s fingertips. Her sister did not move.

            It was very quiet. Then the police got to them.





Chapter Nine:




            The idea of having one of her birthday parties in a three-bedroom suite on the top floor of a high-quality hotel had never occurred to Daria, though it had also never occurred to her that her parents’ home would be unavailable because her family was afraid enemy aliens from space might attack it, that the party would be attended by many more people than in her immediate family, including plainclothes FBI agents, or that she would actually get a flavor of cake she liked.

            “. . . Happy birthday, dear Daria! Happy Birthday to you!” The crowd around the table finished its off-key singing and applauded. Daria allowed herself a trace of a smile as she looked at her cake: chocolate with chocolate frosting and chocolate chips throughout, and thirteen candles on top. It was more than adequate, even if she was technically sixteen. She still looked and felt thirteen, give or take a few months.

            “Better late than never,” she said when the applause died. “This must be the first time in history that thirteen was a lucky number.”

            “Amen to that,” muttered her father. His sentiments were echoed by other parents in the room.

            “And since you’ve all been nice enough to throw this party for me,” Daria continued, “I will do the socially expected thing—but only this once.” Leaning forward, she inhaled to blow out the candles.

            Across the table from her, Quinn also inhaled and leaned forward as if she meant to blow the candles out first. Daria saw this, panicked, and blew them out in a hard, fast breath. Everyone laughed.

            “No cake for thee, thou frothy, common-kissing hedge-pig,” Daria muttered, giving Quinn a mock glare.

            Daria,” growled her mother with a forced smile.

            Her sister sat back in her chair and smirked. “Takes one to know one,” Quinn said. “I wouldn’t want a piece of your higgidy-piggidy cake, anyway, now that you’ve spit all over it.” Quinn’s bandaged head and buzz-cut hair were covered with a colorful bandana, tied in back. She had come through the collision between the Stingray and the longlegs in better shape than she’d first appeared. The other three members of the Fashion Club stood behind Quinn and smirked with her. Sandi Griffin gave Quinn’s shoulder a gentle, congratulatory squeeze.

            “Cake is sooo fattening anyway,” said Tiffany Blum-Deckler knowingly. “If you breathe the fumes, you get calories.”

            “The spit absorbs the calories, though,” Daria said. “I can put more on if you like.”

            A chorus of groans and “Eww!” noises went through the room.

            “Children, don’t argue,” said Helen under her breath as she prepared to cut into the cake.

            “We’re not arguing,” said Daria, matter-of-factly. “We’re engaged in normal sibling discourse.”

            “Makes me wonder what you think of as ‘normal,’” said Quinn, still smirking.

            “We wouldn’t know anything about normal in our family,” said Elsie, standing behind Daria. She turned to her brother, Tom, and added, “Would we, Studley Do-Right?” Tom sighed and rolled his eyes. A bandage covered his right cheek, and his right arm was in a splint.

            Stud-ley?” chorused the Fashion Club with cheerful smiles. “Eww!”

            “Have your fun,” said Tom with wounded dignity. “I’ll consider the source.”

            “I still wish they wouldn’t argue,” mumbled Helen, “especially in front of the . . .” Helen glanced at the television cameraman standing in the back of the group, quietly recording the event for posterity.

            “They’re fine, Helen,” said a husky feminine voice by Helen’s ear. “Let ‘em bicker. My kids fight all the time, and it hasn’t hurt them—far as I know.” The brunette in the business suit at Helen’s side glanced at the cameraman, too. “Remind me to cut out those last comments in editing,” she said.

            Daria shook her head as she waited for her mother to finish putting chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream on her slice of cake. The brunette was Linda Griffin, who in addition to being Sandi’s mother was vice president of marketing for KSBC, a Lawndale TV station, and current chairwoman of the board of the Lawndale Businesswomen’s Alliance. She and Helen had met two months earlier at an LBA luncheon, before Daria was found at Camp Sunrise. Daria suspected that Linda had used her acquaintance with Helen to score the news coup of the decade: exclusive television rights for a year to film the Morgendorffers’ private lives. Though Daria did not know how much the station, its parent company, and the associated broadcasting network had paid for the rights, her mother had been on the phone interviewing accountants all morning, looking for one to manage the new family fortune. It would have been nice to consult me about it first, Daria thought in disgust. Quinn, she knew, would have no problem with it, but Daria was a private person.

            As her mother and father handed cake and ice cream to others in the group, Daria eyed the wall clock. It was twenty till five, and sundown was less than an hour away. She had a certain bet riding with Quinn and fully expected to win it.

            “I thought there was supposed to be pizza,” said Daria as an aside to Elsie.

            “It’s coming,” said Helen, having overheard the comment. “Pizza King said it was running late.”

            “Delivery boy probably got lost,” said Daria’s Aunt Rita. “Probably a college kid who couldn’t find his ass with both hands and a flashlight.”

            Quinn heard this and coughed so hard she sprayed her diet soda into her lap. Her horrified friends quickly began cleaning her up.

            “Shame Amy couldn’t be here,” said Rita. “That must be one hell of an editorial meeting she had tonight to miss this.”

            “Now, I’m sure there was some excuse,” said Helen. She glanced at the wall clock. “I doubt we’ll see her this late.”

            Daria heard and nodded to herself as she ate. She would win the bet, but she was sorry about it, too.

            A knock sounded at the door. The plainclothes federal agent sitting by the door got up and looked through the peephole, then opened the door and then waved the person inside. It was a skinny twenty-something guy with red-brown bangs, a bad case of acne, and a turkey neck. His resemblance to a turkey was further aided by his large, pointed nose, which reminded Daria of a beak. “Pizza King,” he said in a subdued voice, looking around the room. “Sorry I’m late.” He carried an armload of large pizza boxes. Guests in the room quickly guided the young man over to Daria’s table, where he put the boxes down. The boxes disappeared thereafter as everyone grabbed for ones with favored toppings.

            “Here’s the bill,” said the pizza guy, pulling a wadded yellow paper from his shirt pocket. He had a geeky voice, too. Daria noticed his nametag read “ARTIE.” He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him.

            Jake Morgendorffer handed Artie a few twenties. “Keep the change, son,” he said expansively. “It’s my daughter’s birthday!”

            “Thanks,” said Artie. He folded the bills and put them in his shirt pocket without looking at them. He was looking at Daria instead. “Um . . . you’re the girl who was on TV, right?” he asked.

            “Depends on which show you were watching,” Daria replied. His stare was making her uncomfortable.

            “The, um, thing about the aliens,” Artie said. “On the news.”

            “That’s me,” Daria said with a sigh. “However, my sister over there, this gentleman here—” Daria indicated Tom “—and the girl behind me, they’re the real heroes. I was only along for the ride.”

            “She’s too modest,” said Tom. “However, I’m sure if you give her a dollar, she’ll autograph your stomach.”

            The Fashion Club broke into giggles at this. Daria gave Tom what she hoped was an especially fierce glare, but he seemed unaffected and winked at her.

            “I thought it was you,” said Artie, nodding. He never took his gaze off Daria. “That was, uh, pretty interesting.”

            “Weren’t you on TV yourself?” asked Elsie, looking Artie over carefully. “I seem to remember you or someone like you on ‘Sick, Sad World’ a few weeks ago, one of the reruns.”

            “Oh,” said Artie. He shrugged. “Uh, yeah, that was me,” he mumbled. “It wasn’t anything.”

            “You said you’d been kidnapped by aliens,” said Daria, remembering now. “You were at a UFO convention in Middleton that I missed.”

            “Yeah,” said Artie. “It wasn’t anything. It was just the Grays, the usual thing. You know how they get. I gotta go. Got more deliveries. Uh, have a good night.”

            “Thanks, Artie!” said Jake. He reached in his shirt pocket. “If you ever get your own business and need some consulting, here’s my card!”

            “That young man was kidnapped by aliens, too?” a wide-eyed Helen asked Daria as Artie left.

            “That’s what he told Sick Sad,” said Daria. “It wasn’t anything like . . . whatever. Who knows.”

            “He looked embarrassed,” said Quinn. “Maybe he made up all that stuff about being kidnapped, and now he’s faced with the real thing, and he’s sort of, like, uh-oh.”

            “Uh-oh!” Sandi repeated. “Nerd alert!” More giggles followed.

            At five sharp, Linda Griffin checked her watch. “I’d better wrap this up and get going,” she said. She pulled out her notebook and flipped it open. She read down several lines, talking a step toward Daria. “Let’s see. You don’t hear that musical note or tone in your head anymore, right?”

            “Mmm?” Daria swallowed her mouthful of cake. “Sorry. No, I don’t. It stopped while the police were taking me to the hospital. After it quit, the cops could use their radio, so I know I was broadcasting something. They never did figure out what or how. The skull x-rays came out normal.” She shot a glance at Quinn to see if a comeback was in the works, but her sister was talking to her friends.

            “Ah-ha,” said Linda. “And, let’s see. Quinn, you don’t have to go back to Cedars of Lawndale for a checkup until next Monday, right?”

            “What? Oh, right,” said Quinn. “I think I’m fine, though.”

            “I’ll go with you to your appointment!” said Sandi. “I’ll be your moral support!”

            Daria discretely coughed upon hearing the word “moral.” No one noticed.

            “You’ll be in school that day, dear,” said Linda, “but I might be able to twist Ms. Li’s arm a bit to get you out, if we work mention of the school into that day’s story. She always likes that, promoting ‘Laaawndale’ High. It’s her weak spot.” She read more notes, talking to herself. “I have everything about the lie-detector tests, and about Tom, Elsie, and Quinn planning the escape and rescuing Daria from herself. . . . hmmm.”

            Daria looked up with a real glare. Thanks a lot! she thought. Didn’t you understand anything about what I said about that signal I was giving off? I couldn’t be near the others because it attracted the aliens! You—oh, forget it.

            “You know, Mrs. Griffin,” said Tom, glancing uneasily at Daria, “in all fairness, Daria was—”

            “Yeah,” said Elsie and Quinn at the same time. “She—”

            “The FBI and ATF won’t talk to me, so I can’t get anything there,” Linda went on, oblivious. “I’ve got the police report on the Sloanes’ house, the broken power and phone lines—”

            “Frozen and broken,” Tom put in. “And about Daria, that tone—”

            “Right, frozen . . . such a shame about those two photographers. One of them was in Bosnia for a year, and then he comes home and this happens.”

            A pall fell over the group at the table. Any mention of the two dead men was sure to kill conversation.

            “Yeah,” said the TV cameraman, looking at the clock. “Shouldn’t we be going? Sundown’s coming.”

            “Just a minute,” said Linda, still reading notes. “Yes, that’s about it for now.” She shut her notebook and gave Quinn a broad smile. “And congratulations, dear, for your masterful handling of that car. Two kills on alien monsters with one sports car!”

            “One and a half,” corrected Quinn. “I only broke a leg off one, and the other one fell over the car and blew up when I stopped because the gate wasn’t open wide enough.”

            “You still got two of them, and the Lawndale police got only one. You’re the real heroine of this story!”

            Quinn looked uneasy and glanced at Daria. “That’s not true,” she said. “Daria—”

            “And I understand the police aren’t going to prosecute for your lack of a license.”

            “Bless their hearts!” said Quinn with sincerity. “They are just the sweetest guys! But as I was saying—”

            “Where did you learn to drive like that?” Linda went on.

            “Oh, I learned to drive on dates,” said Quinn easily. “You know, like when you go out for dinner but your date has too much to drink, even though he’s like underage and not supposed to drink, or he’s playing one of those stupid videogames and you want to go home but he doesn’t, and he like hands you the car keys and is all like, if you want to go, just go, and so you do, you know, and he’s like all mad about it later because he had to walk home, but you’re like, hey, you said I could go, right? I mean, you know? And some guys are like, hey, let me show you how to drive, only they’re like putting their arms around you so it gets kind of cramped and hard to steer or—”

            “Quinn, dear,” Helen interrupted, “could you go see if my purse is in my bedroom?”

            “Yeah, it is,” said Quinn. “Anyway, it gets—”

            “Go check again,” said Helen firmly. “Now.”

            Quinn groaned and got up. “Fine,” she said, and she left. Her friends started to go with her.

            “Sandi?” said Linda, putting her notebook away and glancing at her watch, and then out the windows at the sun near the horizon. “We’d best be going. Have to meet with the station manager and newsroom staff.”

            “Mom, do we have to go now?” Sandi asked, looking irked. “Quinn’s going to—”

            “Now, Sandi! Kids, honestly. And thank you again for inviting us, Helen. You are such a dear.”

            After the Griffins left, the party broke up quickly. Parents around the room gazed at the setting sun and herded their children to the door. “Hope to see you back in Sensitivity Awareness next Monday,” said Michele Landon primly. “Jodie, Rachel, come along.”

            “It was good to meet you,” Jodie Landon said to Daria as they shook hands goodbye. “Good luck on having a less exciting life.” Jodie was a tall teenager with dark skin and cornrows in her hair, a sophomore honors student at Lawndale High. Daria took an immediate liking to her because Jodie was not only direct and honest, she also didn’t expect anything from her, unlike many well-wishers Daria had met lately.

            “Thanks, and good to meet you, too. You have my e-mail.” Daria looked at the sullen Rachel, Jodie’s sixth-grade sister, who had stayed in the background and said nothing all evening. “See you in middle school next Monday.”

            Rachel glanced at her, then nodded, looking down. Daria knew she wasn’t a particularly good student, and she wondered if this caused problems at home with their high-pressure parents. As the Landons were leaving, Rachel stopped to adjust a shoe, then pulled a slip of paper from dress pocket and ran back to give it to Daria. She hurried off immediately afterward. Daria read the slip: CALL IF YOU WANT. A phone number followed. Daria shrugged and tucked it in a pocket. Several people had given her notes like this. She kept them all. One never knew what the future would bring.

            In no time, the party was down to the Morgendorffers, Rita Barksdale, the two Sloane children, and the FBI agent by the door—and eight-year-old Tricia Gupty and her parents. “Thanks for inviting me!” Tricia said with a broad grin, her blonde bangs wagging. “It was great! Too bad my little brother had to do his Bible homework, ‘cause he would have loved it.”

            “I’m glad you had fun,” said Daria impassively, “and don’t spend your ten thousand dollars reward money all in one place.”

            “Oh, I’ve already given it away to feed homeless people!” said Tricia gaily. “I got six national and local awards because of it, I got in the newspapers and on TV, and the home-school association is giving me an honorary dinner, too! Next time you get lost, let me find you again so I can get more money to give to charity!”

            Daria rolled her eyes. The relentlessly cheerful Tricia was credited with finding Daria at a children’s camp several months earlier, when Daria escaped from her confinement in suspended animation. Cruel fate had arranged for Tricia to hail from the same town Daria’s family now called home, Lawndale—and, worse, the Guptys lived only a few blocks away. “Fine,” Daria said. “Whatever.”

            After the Guptys left, Daria turned to Quinn and held out her hand. “It’s five twenty p.m.,” she said. “Do you know where your fifty dollars is?”

            Quinn made a face and reached into a pants pocket. “I was sure someone would stay past sundown,” she said. “Bunch of chickens. Although Sandi wanted to stay. She only left because her mother—”

            “She didn’t put up a fight,” said Daria. “We’re everyone’s best friend in the daytime, but they’re going to run off after dark.”

            “Daria, don’t be so cynical,” said her mother, piling up the used paper plates. She stopped and looked around. “I thought the hotel had people here to help with cleaning up.”

            “They left when everyone else left,” said Daria.

            “Oh, this is getting ridiculous.” Helen put down the paper plates and marched over to a phone. “I’m calling the concierge right this minute.”

            “Don’t worry. I’ll clean up,” said Jake, picking up the plates and tossing them into a wastebasket. “Hey, where’d that big trashcan go, the one on wheels?”

            “The hotel people took it with them when they left,” said Daria.

            “Damn it! Helen, this stinks!”

            “I’m on it,” said his wife. She tapped her foot, the phone pressed to her ear. “Come on, pick up. Oh, hello? Concierge? Just what kind of fly-by-night operation are you running here?”

            “We can hang around,” said Elsie, taking a seat by Daria. “Don’t we count in this bet?”

            “No,” said Quinn, still digging through her pockets. “Your family’s staying in the hotel with us, so you can’t run away like everyone else can.” She tossed a bill to Daria and looked around the room. “I hope Aunt Rita’s in the bathroom. It would bum me out if she left, too.”

            “They’re afraid of meeting special visitors after dark?” asked Tom.

            Daria and Quinn both nodded with sad faces.

            “I guess I am, too,” said Elsie, “but if it’s going to happen, it’ll happen. I should have brought my Barbarella knock-off outfit along. Maybe the aliens would get into space vixens.”

            “After seeing them,” said Tom, “I rather doubt it.” He looked at Quinn. “By the way, you know we’re being given a new car, right?”

            Quinn looked surprised. “Really? I thought the insurance covered it.”

            “Well, not the car, no. And Dad said the insurance company might fight us on whether having aliens destroy your house came anywhere under our homeowner’s policy.”

            “That sucks,” said Quinn. “I wonder if that will do anything to the insurance rates in Lawndale because we live here.”

            “Bet you another fifty it does,” Daria said glumly. “Anywhere, where’s the new car from?”

            “The Corvette company. It seems that using one of their vehicles to escape the house skyrocketed their sales. They said they couldn’t buy advertising like that anywhere.”

            “At least someone’s getting something good out of this mess,” said Daria. “I had some endorsement offers, but the ones Quinn’s getting lately blow mine out of the water.” She glanced at her sister. “You deserve it, though, I have to admit.”

            Quinn had the decency to blush. “You do, too,” she said. “People can be such jerks. This guy called last night and said—”

            A knock sounded at the door. The FBI agent checked through the spy hole. He turned to Jake and Helen, who were still arguing over the telephone with the hotel management. “This lady familiar to you?” he called.

            Jake came over and peeked out. “Oh!” he said. “Yeah, let her in!”

            The agent did so, and a woman with long wavy brown hair and round eyeglasses came in, carrying two shopping bags. “Did you start the party without me? Damn that traffic!”

            “Aunt Amy!” cried Daria and Quinn, getting up at once to run over and hug her.

            “Sorry I didn’t think I was coming,” said Amy, putting down the bags to put an arm around each of her nieces, “but I managed to reschedule the meeting at the last minute, and I jumped in my car and broke the speed limit all the way over here.” She turned to the FBI agent. “If you’re a cop, you didn’t hear that.” The agent only laughed.

            Rita returned from the bathroom, and a joyful evening began. Quinn tried to get her fifty-dollar bet back from Daria, but Daria said Amy was family and didn’t count, and Quinn didn’t press it. More cake and pizza was eaten, birthday presents were opened, and Daria found herself in possession of many new books and articles of clothing. She was monetarily well off to boot. She had the fifty dollars her father had given her a week ago to bribe the Sloanes, too, but she decided not to mention it to anyone.

            Helen and her two sisters decided to go down to the hotel bar and talk, and Quinn elected to go with them. Daria begged off, feeling very tired. Elsie and Tom had left for their parents’ suite down the hall earlier that evening. Only her father and the FBI agent remained behind.

            “Damn, I guess I do have to clean up,” said Jake, surveying the mountains of debris from the long party. “Stupid union regulations.”

            “What regulations?” Daria asked, chewing on a cold crust of pizza.

            “Something about not doing involuntary hazardous duty without ten times normal pay, or something like that. Your mom’s got them in her sights, though. We’re taking them to court about this.”

            “Dad, we’re taking over three dozen people and groups to court right now for all sorts of things. Mom’s not even going to work anymore, she has so many people to call to schedule court dates.”

            “Yeah, but you gotta make the bastards pay sometime.” Jake rubbed his chin, then looked down at his daughter. “Happy birthday, kiddo,” he said.

            Daria looked up at him and nodded. “Thanks, Dad-o.”

            Jake sighed. “You know, Daria,” he began, but his voice ran out for a moment. He looked around at the FBI agent, who sat by the door reading a magazine, then he took a seat next to his daughter. Daria looked back with mild interest, expecting him to hand her more money as a secret dad-to-daughter present.

            “You know,” he began again, “I’ve not been that good a father to you, since you got back. Hell, I don’t think I was all that good back when you were with us, before you went off to—well, to camp that summer. I . . . I’ve thought a lot about it, over the years, and since you got back.” He was silent for a few moments.

            Daria said nothing. She stopped eating pizza crusts. Her father had never talked to her like this.

            “I blame my own dad for some of it, but, hell, it’s really up to me, isn’t it? I should have listened to you more and done more things—”

            “Dad,” Daria interrupted, glancing at the FBI agent, “you don’t have to go into this—”

            “Well, yes I do, and I have to say it now,” her father said. “I have to say it before I never get the chance to say it and spend my life regretting it. I have to say what I wish my own dad had said to me. You’re a great kid, Daria. You’re a hell of a lot smarter than I’ll ever be. You’ve been through . . . I guess I’ll never know what you’ve been through, what a complete nightmare it’s been, coming back and finding everything changed and, well, finding that your mother and I—well, that we’d thought you weren’t coming back—”

            “Dad,” said Daria, her voice cracking. To her shock, she was close to crying. “Dad, stop. It’s okay.”

            “No, it isn’t okay. You’re my daughter. I’ll never have another one like you. I shouldn’t have given up on you the way I think my own dad gave up on me. It was wrong, and I’m sorry as hell for it, but I can’t do anything to make up for it except be there for you, from this day on, no matter what you need or want from me. I don’t mean money, though if you need that you can have it, too, but I mean, just if you need me to talk or just be there, or whatever you want. Do you understand?”

            It was impossible to speak, as her throat had closed up, so Daria got up and went to her father. He hugged her and began to cry himself. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry for not being there for you.”

            They hugged for a while more, then Jake kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll never get another kiddo like you,” he said. “You’re the greatest.”

            Daria sniffed and wiped her red face. “Thanks,” she said. “It really—”

            Another knock came from the door. They turned and saw the FBI agent get up, magazine in hand, and peek outside. “Not again,” the agent sighed. He grinned at Jake and Daria, then opened the door. “I don’t think anyone ordered it, but we’d—”

            A loud hiss sounded at the same moment that a cloud of white fog and snowy spray blasted over the agent, knocking him backward. When he hit the floor, his arms, head, and most of his clothing shattered, and his torso broke in half.

            Daria had not finished screaming when her father snatched her up and ran to one of the suite’s bedrooms and shoved her inside. “Lock the door and call nine one one!” he yelled—then he slammed the door.

            But he stayed outside.

            Panicking, Daria looked about for the phone. Her father shouted in the other room; furniture was knocked over. Spotting the phone on the far side of the room on a table, she ran to it and picked up the handset.

            A hissing blast sounded through the door and walls. She spun about, the handset to her ear but the emergency number undialed.

            White fog drifted under the door into the bedroom. The temperature fell sharply. She shivered and watched the fog dissipate and waited for her father to come back into the bedroom.

            Furniture moved in the other room. Someone then walked across the floor to the bedroom door. After a pause, the doorknob turned, and the door opened.

            She had forgotten to lock it.

            Still wearing his Pizza King outfit, a young man with a facial resemblance to a turkey stepped in and grinned at her. He held a gray gunlike device in his gloved hands, aiming it at the floor.

            “Freeze,” Artie said softly, and his grin broadened into a laugh.





Chapter Ten:

Window to the Underworld



            Artie stepped into the hotel bedroom and kicked the door shut behind him. He never took his gaze from Daria. His breath misted the air. Fog drifted from the narrow, frost-covered mouth of the gray weapon he held with both gloved hands. The long, bulky weapon was slung over Artie’s shoulders on a jury-rigged rope sling. Odd projections and stubs sticking out from the weapon’s surface in random places gave the weapon an incomplete look, as if it had once been a part of a larger mechanism.

            “Hang up,” said Artie. The gun’s smoking barrel turned in her direction.

            Her mouth dry, Daria replaced the handset with trembling fingers.

            Artie lowered the gun and walked over. “Turn around,” he ordered. “We don’t have any time. They’ll be up in a couple minutes when they figure out something’s wrong, and they’ll be pissed.” Impatient at Daria’s hesitation, he spun her around with one hand, then shoved her up against a wall. After unslinging the weapon and tossing it on the bed along with his gloves, he took a roll of gray duct tape from his Pizza King jacket pocket. He then grabbed her hands and wound the tape around her wrists until they were tightly bound behind her back. “I love this stuff,” he said as he worked. “They say duct tape holds the universe together. It’s like the Force from Star Wars, but I don’t remember how the rest of the joke goes.”

            Once he was done, he ripped off the end of the tape, then pocketed the roll. “We’re taking the express route out of here. Do only what I tell you to do, okay?” He turned her around so she faced him. “You understand me?”

            Daria looked up at Artie and thought of her father. She knew he had to be dead, though she couldn’t yet admit it aloud. As clueless as her dad often was, he had genuinely tried to make amends with her, and then he had sacrificed his life so that she might escape. That connection with him had meant everything. He had cared about her, and she had the strength to go on without him because of that.

            Artie, however, had no hold over her, no matter what he threatened to do. He had just murdered her father. There was nothing he could do to her that would be worse than that.

            Daria fought down a deep ache of grief. Her fears faded as she got control of herself. She would take life moment by moment, and do her best to stay on top of the situation. Later, when it was safe, she would let herself mourn her dad.

            But as for Artie . . .

            “I asked you a question, kid!” Artie shouted. “Are you going to do what I tell you to do?”

            Daria’s eyes narrowed, but she nodded. “Yeah,” she whispered.

            “Okay, good. Stand there and don’t move. And don’t try to run, either.” Artie put on his gloves and slung his weapon over his shoulders again, then reached into his other jacket pocket and pulled out a small gray box with a sliding switch on it. “I may as well tell you I’m not working for fairy-tale critters like the Grays. I made up that stuff for the tabloids and TV news. It was fun, but it was a bunch of horse manure, if you didn’t already know.” He looked around the room, then held the box out in the direction of one wall and pushed the switch. “Let’s see if this works.”

            For a second or two nothing happened. As Daria watched, however, a black dot appeared in the middle of the air over the floor. The dot grew rapidly in size until it was a vertical disk several feet across.

            “Most excellent,” said Artie with a smile, pocketing the box. “I’m finally getting the hang of it.”

            To Daria’s astonishment, the disk was a floating window that looked into an unlit room. She saw a smooth rock floor on the other side, but no walls and no light, except what passed through the hole from the hotel room to illuminate the new area. The disk grew until its bottom touched—and easily passed through—the floor of the hotel.

            What the hell is that? she thought. A wormhole or dimensional gateway, like in science fiction? Where the hell does that lead?

            Artie grabbed Daria by the shoulders. She suddenly realized he was going to shove her through the hole, and she struggled to escape. “Stop it!” he shouted in her ear—then he pushed her ahead of him, running at the hole’s center. They went through it and abruptly dropped a short distance to the floor on the other side. Daria stumbled and fell, unable to catch herself because her hands were tied. A little luck was with her. Though she banged her left knee hard, lost her glasses, and had the wind knocked out of her, she didn’t strike her head on the rock-hard floor.

            The air was stale and smelled like broken stone. As Daria moaned from the excruciating pain in her knee and lungs, she heard footsteps approach. “Damn it, be careful!” Artie shouted at her. “I didn’t want you to get all busted up!” He reached down and pulled her roughly to her feet by one arm. She couldn’t put weight on her bruised leg without feeling like her knee would buckle, so she tried balancing on her right foot. Her chest ached as she breathed.

            The room suddenly got darker. Daria raised her head, her eyes streaming with tears. The hole in space, fuzzy-edged in her vision, was rapidly getting smaller. She heard men shouting on the other side, outside the bedroom door in the hotel. The hole suddenly shrank to tiny size and vanished. All was dark. She sat down hard on the floor before she lost her balance and fell, still wheezing and groaning from pain.

            That was a gateway! Where are we now? How did he do that? What other devices does he have? Is he really human?

            “Should’ve turned the light before I left,” Artie grumbled nearby. “It’s what I get for being in a hurry. Wait here.” He walked a few steps, then Daria heard a cigarette lighter click. A moment later, Artie held the lighter aloft in an ungloved hand. “There it is,” he said, and he walked away. Moments later, a brighter light came on.

            They stood in a large square room whose walls had horizontal bands in shades of gray and tan. Daria’s myopia made it hard to tell more. Artie had activated a lantern that Daria guessed was battery powered as no cord led away from it. It sat on the floor against a wall. The room seemed empty otherwise.

            “Didn’t you have glasses?” Artie asked, walking over as he put his glove back on. He got Daria to her feet again, then said, “Oh, here they are.” He bent down and picked them up. Daria thought about kicking him, but he still had that big gray gun, and she had nowhere to escape. Artie examined her glasses. “They’re not broken,” he said, and he put them back on her face with clumsy gloved hands.

            Events were getting weird and moving fast, but Daria made herself pay attention. Getting her glasses back confirmed that the room was large, about thirty feet across, and carved out of solid rock with a flat, twenty-something-foot ceiling. The walls were roughly hewn, obviously not natural. An open tunnel was visible in the direction they were heading, square in shape and about a man’s height high and wide. The gray floor was mostly smooth but had small rocks chips and dust scattered over it. It looked like limestone.

            “Let’s go,” said Artie, waving her on toward the tunnel. She tried hopping to stay off her left leg but almost fell. Artie frowned at her. “Jeez, I hope you didn’t bust anything. Is it your leg?” She nodded, and he looked scornful. “Well, that was stupid. You should have been more careful. I can’t carry you. Look, you’re just going to have to get going as best you can. Here, fine, I’ll hold your arm. Don’t try anything. We’re heading for that way out.”

            With Artie acting as her support, Daria limped toward the tunnel. It appeared to run for about twenty feet, ending in a smooth wall. Artie got her into the tunnel, then stopped and let her lean against the wall while he went back and got the electric lantern. As he returned, he motioned for her to continue ahead of him. “Keep moving,” he said. “It’s not far.”

            Daria maneuvered down the tunnel with short hops, bumping painfully into the rock at her side. As she went, she heard a low rumbling all around her—and she froze. “Earthquake!” she shouted in panic, remembering the one she’d survived in Arkansas. “It’s an earthquake!”

            “Keep moving, I said!” Artie snapped in annoyance. “It’s just a damn train!”

            “What?” Daria’s breathing slowed. The rumbling continued through the rock, but the ground did not shift and the walls and ceiling did not collapse. “A train?” she repeated.

            “Yeah. Man, that really had you going! You should have seen your face! Keep moving!”

            Though stung, Daria kept herself from a smart retort. He had the gun and her hands were tied, after all. Were they in a mine dug below an active railroad line? She began limping on her own, using the tunnel wall for support, until she reached the wall at the end.

            “Pretty cool, huh?” said Artie. “I had this place fixed up about four years ago. It would blow everyone’s mind if they knew it was here. I love it. Just push on the door.”

            Daria looked the featureless wall up and down, then raised her injured leg and gently pushed on it. The wall swung open, clearly a door. Beyond it was a vast, dark space, much larger than the previous room. Cold air enveloped her, making her shiver. The floor was made of relatively smooth gray limestone that showed signs of having been carved.

            As Daria hopped out, the light from Artie’s lantern fell past her upon several objects only twenty feet away, standing in the darkness with fog drifting from their high bodies: six silvery-white daddy longlegs.

            No!” Daria gasped. The echo reverberated through an enormous space. She backed up into Artie, felt her knee give way, and fell down with a painful thump on her posterior. For a few moments, she saw stars.

            “Hey, watch it!” Artie shouted. “Jeez, you almost knocked me down!” He stamped off with the lantern to a spot to the left of the row of longlegs, where a table and chair stood, surrounded by various boxes, crates, bags, and shelving units jammed with assorted items. Here, Artie put down the lantern and deposited the gloves, gray gun, and items from his jacket pockets. He flipped a few switches on a control box near the table—and most of the gigantic room lit up.

            Daria blinked against the glare from numerous bright floodlights. The longlegs were motionless, even their tentacles dangling limp as noodles. The smoking central body of each longlegs was perhaps eight feet off the ground, supported by numerous stiltlike legs. They showed no interest in her or anything else.

            As her eyes adjusted to the light, Daria saw that they were in a huge chamber inside a deep mine or quarry. Vast rock pillars, each as wide as a tractor-trailer, rose to support the three-story-high ceiling. The wide aisles formed by the pillars stretched away in every direction except toward the wall behind her. Lights had been mounted halfway up many of the nearby pillars, the cables from them running down to a large gray object the size of a refrigerator, about sixty feet away. The wall behind her had several other doors like the one through which she had entered the chamber.

            “How do you like it?” Artie called to her. “Cool, isn’t it? My secret hideout. Kind of like being a kid again, huh? Hey, you may as well make yourself comfortable. Don’t try running off anywhere, though, because there’s nowhere to go. We’re sealed off in here. The quarry’s closed. Plus, if you did disappear—” He pointed to the row of longlegs “—I’d get one of those things to go find you, and you’d regret it.”

            Daria shivered again, only partly out of fear. The temperature in this vast chamber was close to freezing. She wondered if the cold came from the smoking longlegs. With a grimace, she tried to get to her feet, but her left knee was still bad. If she could get her hands free, she reasoned, she might be able to use something as a crutch—if she didn’t try to kill Artie first.

            “You weren’t the only one who got picked up in one of those little people traps, you know,” Artie remarked from his open workspace. He was rummaging through the contents of a cardboard box. “I got a little story to tell, if you’ve got the time. Just kidding. You’ve got the time, I know. Listen up, and maybe you’ll learn something, for whatever good it does you.”





Chapter Eleven:

The Outers’ Limit



            “The Outers never catch many people,” Artie said, still looking in the cardboard box. He talked quickly, as if he’d been waiting for this moment for ages. “The traps aren’t set to pick up more than one person each every few years, maybe every century, no matter how many people walk over them. They open and close up pretty fast, and once they close, it’s like solid rock over them, like there wasn’t any hole there at all. Your trap in Arkansas sounds like it was that kind. The cryogenic robots on the inside do the rest—sedate the specimen, make the necessary modifications, put it on ice, then wait for someone to pick up the package later. I’m pretty sure the Outers have shipped folks away from Earth, but not that many or else we’d have noticed it. Maybe a few hundred total. You got lucky. I’ve no idea what the Outers do with the rest. That’s what I call the aliens, by the way: the Outers. Seemed the best name for them, for a lot of reasons.”

            He pulled a small gray cube from the box and examined it, then pried a cover off and began inspecting the insides. “You know, the easiest way to think about this whole thing is to think about those trenches in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “Think about all those weird fishes down there in the abyss, where there’s no light and the pressure’s crushingly huge and it’s cold as hell. Think about all those bizarro-land fishes, never knowing there’s anything at all in the universe except themselves and their little canyon bottom. They don’t know about sunlight or planets or anything, because if they try to go up too far, they die. So they stay down there in the cold and the dark, and they’re content.” He put down the gray cube and looked at Daria. “You following me so far?”

            Daria nodded. Her knee was beginning to throb. She tried to focus on his monologue to take her mind off the pain.

            “Good.” Artie sniffed, looking down at the table. “So,” he continued, “one day the fishes see this big thing coming down from the black heavens. It’s really a submarine, but to the fishes it’s like some weird giant fish. They can’t tell if it’s alive or not. And then comes this diving robot, even weirder than the submarine, and soon all sorts of strange things are down there in the trench, poking around, taking samples, that sort of thing. The fishes might think those things are alive, or maybe they’re different species of weird fish, but all those things really are, are tools. The fishes can’t see the people inside the submarine or the people way up on the ocean’s surface, controlling the diving robots from ships. The fishes are totally ignorant. They can’t even guess at what those people look like, much less guess at what the people want.”

            He looked intently at Daria. “Do the people in the sub or on the ships want to live down there in the trench? Hell, no! They’re just curious, poking around and looking at stuff, taking movies to show around back at the lab. They don’t want to take over the trench. It’s too alien and hostile to them. People couldn’t live in ocean trenches if they tried, and they wouldn’t do it even if they could. The fishes can have the damn abyss. They just have to get used to being filmed, poked, and sampled now and then, and maybe accidentally squashed or cut up in a propeller once in a while. Otherwise, life goes on as always.”

            Artie raised a finger. “Now, suppose some of those fishes down there in the trench, they happen to be smart. They have the potential to make things, get themselves out of the trench if they tried long enough. They can maybe build their own submarines, sort of, or even make vehicles to explore the surface world. That changes things. The people building the subs, that might surprise them. Maybe they’d think that was pretty cool, and they’d want to communicate with the fishes. Who wouldn’t?”

            He paused, frowning. “Only they don’t. They never do. The people keep out of the way of these smart fishes but keep spying on them, sampling a tiny few of them in traps, keeping their distance, never showing themselves or their tools if they can help it. Maybe they catch a few smart fishes and experiment on them to see what potential they have.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Daria, then he became serious again. “Why hide, though?”

            Daria almost attempted an answer, but Artie cut her off. “‘Cause maybe those people are afraid of the fishes from the trench. Maybe—just maybe—those people have some vulnerability, and they’re scared it will be found out. They’re scared that those smart fishes might figure out their weak points, and then there’d be hell to pay if the smart fishes got mad about how they were being treated. Maybe those people spying on the smart fishes are afraid of being discovered, afraid there might be a war. Why be afraid? Maybe there aren’t many people doing the spying, like a little colony of them, not billions but a few hundred on a little island. And maybe the smart fishes are kind of scary, warlike, prone to shoot first and ask questions later. That would be something, wouldn’t it? A really cool scenario.” He nodded. “I thought so, too.”

            He really likes the sound of his own voice, Daria thought. She felt she was following his line of reasoning fairly well, but she avoided commenting on it. He might get angry, and she couldn’t afford that.

            “The Outers, they like it way out there in the cold and the dark, hanging around the outer planets like Jupiter and all that. I don’t think they’re from around here, actually, but from some other star system. Beats me how they got here. They’re not natives, though. I’ve looked at a lot of the Outers’ stuff, and that’s pretty much what I’ve figured out. I think I know where they’re hanging around these days, too, their own little island. They don’t like our space probes and stuff coming around them. Makes them nervous about being discovered, I think. I bet that probe that went up last month really—” He cut himself off and rubbed the back of his neck. “Anyway, they don’t really want our planet, or any of the hot little rock balls next to the sun where it’s too hot to live. I caught a whiff of air inside a couple of things I think had been to their living areas, whatever those are like, and that almost burned my nose out. It was like inhaling maximum-strength window cleaner. They must need ammonia in liquid form like we need water. Protein and ammonia chemistry, maybe. Beats hell out of me. Just a guess, anyway.”

            Artie sighed and looked at Daria. “I’ve been thinking for years about what I’d say if anyone found out about this place. Guess you’re the winner.” He chuckled. “You freak out way too much, though. Can’t even tell if you’ve got any brains. Maybe I’m wasting my time. I dunno.” He picked up his gray gun. “Don’t go anywhere or try anything stupid. I have to get some more helium. We’ll talk more when I get back.” With that, he walked off down one of the aisles in the cavern.

            Helium? Does his gun use liquid helium? Daria forced away thoughts of her father and tried to be rational. She had thought the super-cold stuff that the gun and the longlegs sprayed around was liquid nitrogen, which she’d seen at a science fair back in Highland. A chemistry teacher at the science fair had told her that liquid helium was far colder than liquid nitrogen, almost at absolute zero.

            Her attention swung to the motionless longlegs. If those things sprayed liquid helium but could stand around in Earth temperatures, doing nothing, they could not possibly be alive in any sense unless they had the most bizarre chemistry. They had to be robots, using Artie’s analogy of deep-sea fish—the humans—and people with submarines—the aliens. Had robots, then, attacked the Sloanes’ home? If so, who had been guiding or programming them? The Outers? Artie? She suspected the latter, given their halting, overcautious attempts to get her. Artie could have retrieved the longlegs afterwards with the gateway device, however that worked. That would explain why no one found any moving longlegs.

            A glance at the longlegs nearby confirmed Daria’s suspicions. One of the longlegs was missing half a leg, snapped off about five feet up. That’s the one Quinn rammed. Attacking the house must have been Artie’s doing, since there don’t seem to be any aliens around here at all—unless he’s one of them, though I’m not sure he is. He must have been pretty mad when he lost those two longlegs. The thought gave her a small measure of satisfaction.

            Getting nervous, she looked in the direction Artie had gone. If he was using liquid helium, how was he able to keep himself from freezing to death when he used it? He had those big gloves and possibly protective gear under his clothes. Maybe the gun was made of material that didn’t transmit heat or cold, so it was safe to hold. But still, the super-cold spray would . . .

            “Oh,” she said in realization. She remembered the analysis done of her blood back in the hospital in Arkansas, shortly after she escaped from the cave where she’d been kept in suspended animation. The doctors had said she had a kind of biological antifreeze in her system, a chemical that kept her cells from freezing at very low temperatures and supplied them with oxygen when she came out of her three-year coma. Did Artie have that in his system as well? Liquid helium might be dangerous, but he could better tolerate being near it. Using it as a weapon was still stupid, though. Perhaps he hadn’t figured out any weapons that were worse than that.

            She also remembered the chemistry teacher’s warnings that liquid nitrogen and liquid helium could cause suffocation when they turned to gas in large amounts, pushing the oxygen out of an enclosed area. However, she, Quinn, and the Sloanes never stayed long enough in one place at the Sloanes’ mansion to get bad effects like that. Could that antifreeze supply enough oxygen to a person’s cells to stave off suffocation?

            Frustrated, Daria looked down at herself—and a new question arose. Why wasn’t she cold anymore? She could tell it was cold in the cavern, but it didn’t bother her as it once did. And hadn’t she taken a bad cold injury at the Sloanes’ house during the attack last Friday, when the aliens sprayed the photographer at the front door? She had forgotten about it until now because her back hadn’t hurt once since then. Neither she nor anyone else had mentioned seeing any terrible scars or dead skin on her, anywhere.

            That chemical’s back in my bloodstream! she realized. I must be generating it inside me! How the hell can I do that? Did the alien trap mess with my insides more than I’d thought? Or did Artie do that?

            She had no answers. As she waited for Artie to return, she began to think of her father. It was the wrong thing to do, because it hurt so much it made her want to cry, and crying was the last thing she wanted Artie to see her do. She squashed her eyes shut, concentrating. I will get out of this. I will be brave and get out of this. I will stay on top of things and wait—something will show up. I’ll wait for it. I’ll never give up.

            Once she was in better control, she began to work on her taped wrists. Nothing was in view that could be used to cut the bonds. She tried twisting her wrists around to loosen the tape, but that didn’t work, either. He must have had practice at this, she thought.

            Artie reappeared after a few long minutes. “Still there, huh?” he called. He put the gray gun on the table and walked over toward her. “Hey, you want to see another one of those smart fishes that got caught? One that didn’t get away, I mean, like you.” He grinned. “Or like me.”

            Daria had half expected this, but she had to ask anyway. “You were caught, too?”

            “Yeah, but that’s a weird story. Can you stand up?”

            Daria managed to get up on one knee after a struggle. Her swollen knee was killing her. “No,” she said.

            Groaning, Artie walked over and pulled her to her feet. “Don’t try anything,” he warned. He began to guide her toward one of the doors along the wall behind her. She limped along with her teeth clenched against the pain.

            “So, are the Outers here?” she said as they went. It was the question uppermost in her mind, but she wanted to think about something besides her knee, too.

            “Nah. They come and go. They haven’t been back in a few years, not that I know. Maybe they had budget cuts and couldn’t afford the trip, who knows. They left their stuff behind, though. Probably didn’t think anyone would find it. Ha.” He brought Daria to a stop beside one of the doors. “I’m kind of proud of this,” he said with a goofy grin. “You gotta see it. You know that alien trap that caught you, how it had the preservation and cryogenic mechanisms in the floor to keep you on ice all those years? I built my own little preservation chamber here a few years ago, just to see if I could do it, and I caught something and put it in there to see if it worked, and it did!”

            Daria’s gaze went to the door. “You caught someone?”

            His expression darkened. “Yeah, but there was a purpose to it. I wasn’t just screwing around. It was a real experiment, okay?” He let go of Daria and let her stand on one leg, then reached for the door, which had no handle. “It’ll be cold at first, but you’ll get used to it. I bet you’re already used to it, just like me.”

            Artie rapped hard on the door with his fist. A seal around the door popped, and a puff of ice crystals blew out as the door came ajar. He got his fingernails into the crack and then pulled the door open wide. A thick wave of fog rolled out. For a moment Daria was chilled to the bone, then the chill passed and she felt almost normal—except for the knowledge that she obviously wasn’t normal anymore. She wasn’t sure if she even counted as human, despite what the medical tests had showed.

            After peering inside, Artie stepped back and gestured for Daria to take a look. She feared he meant to push her into the room, but she was curious as well and took the risk. Hopping closer, she stopped along the wall by the doorway and peeked around the corner. Beyond the door was a very small room, a little over fifteen feet across and filled with rapidly dissipating fog. The visible spots on the floor were perfectly smooth, though the walls were rough rock. After a moment, Daria recognized the floor as being the same kind of material on which she had awakened when the earthquake had freed her from suspended animation several months ago in Arkansas. Preservation and cryogenic mechanisms, Artie had said.

            A moment later, Daria’s startled attention shifted to a body on the floor, half shrouded in mist. It was a lightly tanned teenage girl around Daria’s age. She appeared to be asleep on her back, her arms and legs straight at her sides. Her chest did not move, and cold fog hovered undisturbed over her red lips. The girl wore a rumpled black T-shirt, gray jogging shorts, and battered red sneakers with tube socks. A red headband was stretched over her forehead and short black bangs. Dark bruises showed on her right cheek and both arms.

            Daria turned her head to read the red lettering on the shirt: MYSTIK SPIRAL. Was that a rock band? She had no idea.

            “She was a fighter, I’ll tell you,” said Artie, remembering. “Damn near killed me before I chloroformed her. She’s been on ice for three years now, my best experiment. Kind of a souvenir.” He gave Daria a toothy grin. “And I think I know some tourists who’ll want her for their collection.”





Chapter Twelve:

Nothing Personal



            Daria looked down at the girl’s body in the mist, trying to grasp what Artie was saying. “You’re . . . you’re giving her away to the aliens? The Outers?”

            “Well, yeah, sort of.” Artie quickly pushed the door shut to once more seal the girl in, then pressed hard on it with his hands. “Can’t leave it open too long, or she’ll start to thaw out. Want to keep her on ice a little while longer.”

            “Why? What did she do to you?”

            Artie looked annoyed. “It’s not what she did, dope! It’s not anything personal. It’s just—it’s a lot bigger than that, okay? You don’t get it!”

            “Then explain it to me!” Daria said, her temper flaring. Her aching knee was driving her crazy. “I’m not stupid! I understood what you were saying about the Outers not wanting to take over Earth and all that. Just tell me why you’re going to give her to them. Don’t they have enough of us already?”

            “It’s not that! Damn, you’re so—” For a moment, Daria worried that Artie’s temper would get the best of him, his acne-marked face was so red. “Why am I even talking to you? You’re just a kid!”

            I’d better tone it down. If he gets really mad, he’ll be a lot worse than Mrs. Landon could ever be. “What I meant was,” Daria continued in a softer tone, “why help them at all? They captured you, too, right? Doesn’t that make them your enemy?”

            “I’m not helping them!” Artie shouted. “And no, they’re not my enemy! I’m using her as a . . . uh, uh—” His anger faded into confusion “—what the hell do they call that, when you give something away so the person who gets it will do stuff for you—it’s like bait, but it begins with an L, uh—”

            Daria leaned back against the rock wall, taking the pressure off her injured knee. “You mean leverage?”

            “Uh, almost, but—”

            “A loss leader?” Daria said, not believing this was what he meant.

            “Yeah!” Artie’s face cleared, and he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! A loss leader, so they’ll want to do stuff for me! That’s it exactly!”

            “I see,” said Daria, who did indeed see. He was a sociopath and insane. Despite a terrible urge to try to rip the tape off her wrists so she could punch the living snot out of Artie, she kept up her patter. “A loss leader. You want the aliens to think you’re helping them because you’re giving them something for free, but instead they’ll end up helping you.

            “Yeah! You got it!” Artie almost jumped with excitement. “The smart fishes are going to bait the people on the island! That’s it!”

            “Ah,” said Daria. A sarcastic retort would have to wait. Artie was dangerous beyond belief. “In a way, then, that girl . . . who is she, by the way?”

            “Oh, I don’t know, some smart ass who used to jog around town. Middle schooler, I think. She was such a skinny little wus, but man—” He gingerly touched his nose “—she was one mean kid. I wasn’t going to kill her or nothing, I just wanted—”

            “The experiment.” Daria knew in that moment she was going to try to stop Artie, even if she had to kill him. How she did it was unimportant; she had to try. She looked past him at the small headquarters he had made for himself with the table, chair, shelving units, and cabinets. She couldn’t use the liquid helium gun, she couldn’t use a club, kicking him was useless, and she couldn’t—

            Her eyes widened. Yes! “Can I sit down over there?” she said, nodding toward the table. “My leg hurts a lot.”

            “What?” He looked back and considered her request. “Yeah, for a little while. It won’t hurt.” He took her by the arm and reluctantly helped her over to a spot near the table, then got a crate for her to sit on. He sat in the folding chair by the table.

            “Thanks,” she mumbled. She wanted to ask him to take the tape off her hands, but he wouldn’t, and it would make him suspicious. Talking would relax him. “Go ahead with what you were saying. About the experiment, I mean.”

            “Oh. Not much else to tell. I used the transporter to get near where she sometimes went jogging, and when she went by, I grabbed her, finally knocked her out. The chamber I built myself, using stuff from the trap that caught me. Works pretty well. One of the robots fixed her up, and in she went. Her brother was in a band around here, I think. Man, she was one mean kid. The world’s definitely better off without her.”

            Daria nodded, saying nothing. How can I be so calm around this psycho? I must be way too cynical for my own good. “If you were looking at her as some kind of bait, then what was your hook?”

            The surprised look on Artie’s face was replaced by laughter. He looked even more like a turkey when he laughed than he did normally. “That was good!” he said, slapping his thighs. “You’re getting it! Today’s your birthday, right? You’re twelve?”

            “Thirteen.” And thanks to you, you nut bar, it’s the worst birthday in history.

            “You’re pretty smart for thirteen. Yeah, there’s a hook. I thought a lot about it. You remember what I said about those smart fishes being kind of vengeful about how they were being treated, right?”

            “I can well imagine,” Daria said dryly.

            “Well, my hook is that I’ve got their stuff and I can use it, and they’ll have to give me more stuff if they want anything else from this planet. They shouldn’t have left it lying around. I’ve been messing with the Outers’ stuff for a few years. I was already into aliens and reading science fiction and stuff before they got me, you know? So I was ready. I was the smartest kid in Burkittsville, probably the whole state, too. An earthquake got you out of that trap, right? That was pure luck. Me—” Artie looked inordinately proud “—the Outers let me out on purpose.”

            “On purpose?” She blinked. “Why?”

            “I think ‘cause they knew I was so smart, you know? They wanted to see if I was as smart as they were, the Outers. You know how scientists are always trying to find out if dolphins or chimps are as smart as we are?”

            “Yeah, I get it,” said Daria. “You’re saying the Outers tried that with you.”

            “Yeah, exactly. Turns out, if I recall correctly, there’s no way to tell with dolphins. They’re just too different from us to know if they’re smarter or we are. Maybe that’s the thing between humans and Outers. What they call intelligent and what we call it, maybe that’s two different things. I still got all their stuff, though, so I guess I was smarter than they thought.”

            I should do be a news reporter, do interviews. “How long did the Outers have you . . . preserved, before they let you out? And what did they do?”

            “Oh, that’s a story. You know how old I am? You won’t believe it. I’m forty-seven. Is that wild? Forty-seven, I swear it. I mean, I’m twenty-eight as far as what I remember and how I’ve aged, but I was born in nineteen fifty-two, August first. I lived with my aunt and uncle, not too far from here on a farm over in Burkittsville. That’s in central Maryland. My aunt and uncle were total asses. They didn’t like me ‘cause I was too smart, I guess. Living on a farm was the pits. It was boring as hell. I wanted out of there, but they wouldn’t let me go, so I kept getting into trouble when I wasn’t reading stuff. Then when I was seventeen—that was in September, nineteen sixty-nine—I was out in the woods messing around, cutting school, and I got caught in a preservation chamber. I thought it was a cave, and I walked right into it, never knew what hit me. Just like you did, I bet.

            “When I woke up again, it was nineteen eighty-six. I didn’t know at first what year it was, though. One of those spider-robots—” He pointed to the line of longlegs “—was waiting for me. Man, I was shaking, but I was ready for it. I thought, aliens! Yeah! So this spider-robot starts trying to communicate with me. It was slow going, but it gave me food—don’t know where it got it, but anyway, we went through this long, long time in the cave, working with some weird machines the Outers left behind, and after a while—”

            “Left behind?” said Daria. “You said something about this before, that—”

            “Look, just let me tell this, okay? I don’t know all the answers, but I know more than you do. Just let me finish, all right? Okay, then. Yeah, the Outers were here once, but they left. I think they come and go, and when they’re gone they make their robots do their work, except when I’m using them. I guess the Outers aren’t too picky about me using their things, which is cool. Anyway, yeah, I think they finally stopped coming by ‘cause they didn’t like Earth all that much, and maybe there were too many people around. Maybe they were the flying saucers people kept seeing all those years, and now you don’t see them so much anymore. Anyway, I never saw a one of them.”

            Daria had trouble believing the aliens would blithely let Artie play with their godlike technology. It wasn’t likely they’d forgotten about what they’d left behind, either. Did they want Artie to use their stuff? Maybe he was doing their work for them without knowing it. If so, he certainly wasn’t doing it very well. Perhaps the extraterrestrial schooling he’d gotten had also unhinged him. A definitive answer would have to wait. “I’m sorry to interrupt again,” she said, “but you said you thought you knew where the Outers were hiding out.”

            “Oh, yeah.” Artie nodded, but his manner became deceptively casual. “Yeah, I think so. If they lived on big planets like Jupiter, they’d have a hard time getting from place to place, you know? ‘Cause of the intense gravity and all. They’d never get away from their homeworlds. And they’d probably be floaters in that big atmosphere with no real ground below them, sort of like balloon-fish or jellyfish. But if they actually get around in space and make stuff, they’d have to live on a solid surface that’s not too gravity-heavy. Anyway—” He shrugged “—it wasn’t that hard to figure out.”

            He’s not going to tell me where they are. He said something earlier about a space probe launch last month that might upset the Outers. I wonder if . . . Daria filed it away for later. “Go ahead. Sorry. You were talking about being let out of the trap so they could see how intelligent you were.” She resisted adding a sarcastic comment or two, but only for the sake of self-preservation.

            “Yeah. We had a sort of school going. I would say things or draw pictures or point at stuff, and the spider-robot would draw pictures back, and it was sort of like talking, a little. Plus, I had to work with a lot of these weird machines. I left those back in the cave in Burkittsville. I hated them, they gave me headaches. Anyway, I told the spider-robot who I was and what I knew, and about Earth and America and all that, and it was going along pretty well—”

            “You told the aliens about Earth?” Daria couldn’t help it. “Didn’t you think that they might use that—”

            Anger filled Artie’s face. “Oh, knock it off! They already knew about us, okay? What’s your problem?”

            Daria shoved the issue aside. It was too late to do anything about it now. “Okay, forget it. Sorry. Go on.”

            Artie managed a look of wounded dignity. “You’re sounding real high and mighty, like you’d know what to do if you were me! As if you’d really know!”

            “Okay! Forget it! I shouldn’t have said anything!” Not to a megalomaniac nut bar, anyway.

            “All right then. Anyway—and this was my real point, okay?—anyway, they were teaching me, and one day the robot stopped working. Didn’t do a thing. I couldn’t figure out why. Budget cuts, like I said, but who knows. They stopped trying to communicate with me, so I was on my own after that. That was, um, nineteen eighty-nine. Anyway, I learned how to work a few of the Outers’ little gadgets. Later, I started experimenting and figured out how to run some of their bigger stuff. I had the robots going again seven years ago, and the transporter kind of working about then, off and on. It wasn’t all that hard. See, everything the Outers have runs on telepathy, sort of. You have to hold one of their things, their machines, or else stand real close to it, and you think about what you want it to do, and then it does it—well, some of the time. It didn’t work for me at first, I think, because none of this stuff could read my mind, but that changed after the spider-robot was working with me for a while.”

            Daria cautiously raised a hand. When Artie gave her the go-ahead, she said, “Why would they want to do that? Show you how to use their stuff, I mean.”

            “Oh.” Artie frowned. “I don’t know, really. I mean, the robot never tried to show me how to work stuff like the transporter. I’d pick up the transporter box and nothing at all would happen, at first. But I kept working with that weird equipment the spider-robot was using to communicate with me, and after I was on my own, I realized I could figure their stuff out.” He stopped, thinking back. “Maybe the robot was experimenting on me, doing something to my brain like making me smarter, or maybe the machines I was using changed so they could read my thoughts. I don’t know. Whatever it was, I started to make stuff work. I had the transporter box one day—”

            “Is that the thing that makes the holes in the air, from one place to another?”

            “Uh, yeah. I named it after that thing on ‘Star Trek’ on TV, you know? It’s not the same thing as on the show, but it does let you get from place to place. Anyway, I had the transporter box, and I was messing with it outside in the spring of nineteen ninety, and suddenly I got it to work. It’s still kinda hard to do. I can visualize pretty easily where I want the transporter to lead me to, but I keep feeling like the point where that hole appears is moving all the time, and I can’t figure out what’s making it move or why it’s moving. I can’t explain it any better than that. Anyway, when you pick up the transporter box, you see in your mind where the point’s going to appear, and when you get the point where you want it, you push the switch and it appears.” He shrugged. “If it hasn’t moved off, I mean. Just lately I’ve started getting it to work like I want it to work. It’s hard, but I’m finally getting it, like I did in the hotel. That was almost perfect.

            “Anyway, when I could use the transporter so I could move stuff around, I’d already figured out how to make the spider-robots go places and do things, and how to keep them pumped with liquid helium so their insides and computer brains kept working right, and I made myself that helium sprayer, so I thought, what am I going to do next? I had to get out and get a job by then so I could eat. Man, the world had sure changed a lot since nineteen sixty-nine, but I figured it out. I’m smart, like I said. My aunt and uncle had moved, but that was okay. After a while I was working in restaurants in the area part-time. It was a bear getting a job, ‘cause I forgot my Social Security number, and I didn’t want people looking me up and saying, where have you been since sixty-nine, man? I mean, it was a pain in the butt, but some places didn’t care and they paid me on the sly like I’d come up from Mexico or something. Anyway, when I heard they’d closed the rock quarry on the south side here in nineteen ninety, I thought, hey—perfect place for a secret hideout, right?” He grinned in triumph. “I moved all my stuff over to this end of the state, and here I am!”

            When they closed the rock quarry on the south side? Daria’s eyes widened. There was an abandoned rock quarry with a railroad line running through it on the southwest side of Lawndale. She was right under Lawndale at this very moment! “Yeah,” said Daria faintly. “Cool idea. Good one.”

            “You bet! I used the transporter to move my stuff out of the trap chamber to here, and after that I kind of started turning this place into my own Fortress of Solitude, like Superman had in the comics, you know? I got a lot of stuff in here, and I got the robots to help put everything up. It’s been kind of fun, going around using the transporter to rip places off. I don’t do it around here so much, but I rip off a lot of stores around Oakwood. I hate that town. I got fired from three different places there, for no reason at all. I was asking the people I was working with about aliens, if they’d ever seen any of them, ‘cause I had the idea that if I pretended I’d been captured by fake aliens—those imaginary Grays that everyone talks about—I might run into people who had met the Outers, and they could give me more information about them, you see?”

            “I see,” said Daria. “People aren’t very smart, are they?”

            “No, they sure aren’t. I got on TV a lot, though. That was cool. I acted silly sometimes, but they ate it up.”

            “I saw you on ‘Sick, Sad World.’ That was pretty . . . interesting.”

            “I guess. I saw you on television, too, when they found you at that kids’ camp. I’ve been following your story almost every day.”

            Things fell into place in Daria’s head. “You’ve been trying really hard to find me, haven’t you?”

            “Uh—well, yeah. Sure. I couldn’t get near you ‘cause of all the police and reporters and security people and stuff, and those damn photographers were always around, but yeah.”

            “Did you make that radio signal go off inside my head last Friday? That tone I kept hearing?”

            Artie hesitated, then shrugged and nodded. “Yeah. The Outers have some way of making their specimens—the people who get caught in those traps—send out what I call a ‘find-me frequency’ in the event they escape or can’t be found. I don’t know how they do it, but they implant this little tiny transmitter in the back of the skull. It works for a little while, then it sort of wears out and dissolves in your blood. I figured out how to turn your transmitter on with the equipment here, then I knew where you were, and . . . well, you know the rest. I got a little rushed, though, looking for you. It was supposed to rain that night, and I didn’t want the robots to ice over. That would be a pain.” His expression darkened. “Losing those two, though, that was way worse.”

            “Did the photographers get in the way that night, too?” she casually asked.

            “Hell, yeah! They started taking pictures of the robots! I was just trying to get to see you, you know. And the government’s digging around in that trap in Arkansas, I had to stop that, but I got delayed ‘cause the government had too much stuff around there for me to just pop in at first, and I was trying to find you, too, but I couldn’t get your ‘find-me’ to turn on. I had a couple of spider-robots sneak up to that cave in Arkansas Friday and spray around some helium, but I guess I didn’t do a good job of it. I’ll have to try again later.”

            And murder anyone who gets in your way, like my father and my friends and everyone else. “Can I ask you something else?”

            “Yeah, sure. What?”

            “Why did you want to find me? What in the world do you . . . did you want me for?” As she was speaking, Daria suddenly thought of the girl in the preservation chamber—and she realized exactly what Artie had wanted her for.

            “Why’d I want you?” Artie looked away, avoiding her gaze. “Well, hell, I was just curious, you know? I wanted to talk, that’s all. I mean, you’d been in the news a lot, and I wanted to see what you were like, get to talk a little, like we’re doing now. That’s a stupid question.”
            “Ah,” said Daria—but what she thought was, You lying bastard! You wanted to catch me and make me a part of your “loss leader” gift to the aliens. You thought because I’d escaped from their trap, the Outers might know about it and want me even more, and you’d ingratiate yourself with them if you could give them two human beings up front, free of charge. Then you’d figure out a way to ask the Outers for favors, maybe in exchange for more bodies. You were going to ship me off with the other girl as soon as you caught me. You were going to do it last Friday night, but everything screwed up. You got frustrated then and tried to kill me, making that longlegs punch out the rear window of the car when we were escaping. And you’re going to ship me and that other girl off tonight, once you get tired of showing off. You murdered my father and those photographers and the FBI agent who was helping us and God knows how many other people, and it doesn’t even bother you to think about it. You joined the aliens’ side, betraying humanity, but you’re even more of a monster than the Outers are.

            But if you thought that girl you kidnapped was one mean kid, boy, you haven’t really met me, have you?

            “That little gray box you had at the hotel, the box with the switch—that’s the transporter?” Daria said suddenly, shifting her seat on the crate. She forgot about her aching knee.

            “Huh? Oh, yeah. That’s over here.” He got up from his chair and walked over to the table. Daria carefully stood up from the crate, balancing on her good leg, then gritted her teeth and began taking short hops over to the table where Artie stood. Everything hinged now on Artie getting the chance to show again how great he was. He moved to one side as she approached, but he continued looking through the items on the table.

            “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve got all kinds of weird stuff here. Don’t touch any of it. Huh, guess you can’t with your hands stuck together like that. Anyway, this here—” He picked up a familiar gray box with its sliding switch “—this is the transporter. I can’t believe this little box does so much. See, I’m holding it, and in my head I can see a sort of big three-d map showing where I am and where the dot is, and I can move the dot around by concentrating on it, but—jeez, you know, it’s still moving on its own, so moving it by myself is so hard to do, even after all this time—”

            Daria hopped to a spot beside a seven-foot-high open metal cabinet next to the table. The cabinet’s shelves were completely filled with machine parts, cardboard boxes of tools, and alien gadgetry. On the top shelf was something that looked like a lawnmower engine. Noting that the cabinet was only one foot wide, she positioned herself with her back to the shelves, feigning interest in the transporter Artie showed her. It was no doubt important, but not half as important as what she was about to do.

            “—Okay, here, let me see if I can do this,” said Artie. “I have to be careful, ‘cause I don’t think there’s any kind of safety mechanism on this. I mean, I could open up the transporter to the bottom of the ocean, and the water would blast right through here, ‘cause the pressure there’s so huge, much bigger than the air pressure here. It would shoot in here like a giant fire hose!” He glanced at her with a mischievous grin, then held up the box, looking away from her. “This must have one hell of a power source. I bet I could go to Pluto with this. I can’t believe one little box does all this, you know? It’s almost like a weapon in itself. You’d never think a thing like this could be dangerous, but in the wrong hands, it—”

            Behind her back, Daria’s fingers gripped one of the metal cabinet shelves. It was now or never. Help me do this right, she prayed—and then she leaned forward hard, gripping the shelf.

            The heavily overloaded cabinet lurched and tilted. She felt it pass over its balancing point—and fall, her fingers still pulling it down on her—

            —and on Artie, who was right in its way.





Chapter Thirteen:

Connections Made and Broken



            Because she stood close to one end of the cabinet, Daria thought she could dodge out of the way at the last second after she had pulled it down on Artie. Her plan, however, went awry when she held on too long to the cabinet in an effort to give it additional momentum. When she felt the cabinet hit her back, she realized her mistake. She tried to throw herself out of the way, but she fell on the rock floor on her side, her legs still under the cabinet, and had her wind knocked out once again.

            Chance saved her. The upper part of the cabinet smacked the unsuspecting Artie across the shoulder blades, smashing him flat across the table before him. The engine-block device formerly on the cabinet’s top struck the back of his head and banged his forehead hard on a metal box on the tabletop. The table’s legs collapsed two seconds later, but by that time Daria had wiggled out of harm’s way. Machinery falling from the shelves bruised her hips and legs, and the fall reinjured her knee, but she crawled away grateful she could still move.

            Grimacing, she managed to get up on her good knee and survey the damage. Almost buried under the cabinet and its former contents, Artie had only his head, shoulders, and right arm free. His eyes were closed and he did not move. Daria crawled to the cabinet and found a sharp metal brace on the back, then backed up to it and rubbed the tape on her wrists over the edge, her heart was in her throat all the while. Artie did not regain consciousness, fortunately.

            The tape gave way, and she ripped it free of her hands as she struggled to her feet. Dazed and swaying, she rubbed her wrists and wondered if Artie was dead, unconscious, or faking. The latter seemed unlikely, as he was clearly bleeding now from head injuries; red streams ran down over his face and eyes. The transporter device had been knocked from his hand; she spotted it a few feet away and limped over to pick it up, stuffing it in a jacket pocket after a moment’s inspection. The liquid-helium gun was caught beneath the cabinet with Artie, but it was out of his reach and she did not want to touch it and risk activating it.

            After removing every tool or device within range of Artie’s free hand, Daria stepped back and surveyed the scene. She swallowed, feeling nauseated. She had never deliberately hurt another person in her life, except for a few angry if harmless wrestling matches with Quinn. Artie had more than earned his punishment, but she still felt guilt for what she’d done—just not a terribly deep sense of guilt.

            “I’d do it again,” she said aloud to Artie. “If you get up, I’ll stomp you flat.” The show of bravado made her feel better, and after a cautious glance at the inactive longlegs, Daria limped off toward the door in the rock wall behind her, behind which was the girl that Artie had kidnapped and preserved years earlier.

            By the time Daria got to the door, she was so weary from pain she could do nothing more than fall against it for support. She was deathly afraid she’d permanently damaged her knee joint. When she could manage it, she pounded on the door with both fists to loosen it, as she had seen Artie do. Ice crystals blew out around her, but the door didn’t open as she was still leaning against it. She realized this and stood back on her good leg, then tried again. It took several more poundings—always checking to see if Artie was up again and the longlegs were shut down—before the door loosened enough for her to open it.

            Cold fog fell out and swamped her. Shivering madly, she tried to kneel on the smooth floor, but her knee gave way and she fell over the girl hidden in the mist instead. “Sorry!” she gasped, then got up on her hands and knees. The cold floor felt very soothing to her bad knee, and relief flooded through her as she searched for the girl’s limbs. A hand, a leg, the other leg—Daria quickly caught hold of the girl’s feet and began to drag her out of the preservation room. An ageless minute later, the girl was free, though still unconscious.

            The black-haired girl in the jogging outfit was very tall, very thin, and strikingly pretty, with high cheekbones, sharp features, and thick black hair that was much longer than it had first appeared, as it was held up in back with a clip. Only her front bangs had been visible. Her eye makeup and lipstick were intact, and she had gold stud earrings in her pierced ears. The bruises on her face and arms turned out to be smudges of grease, though pale scars and scrapes covered her arms. Daria thought it was little wonder that Artie had decided to kidnap this particular girl for his experiment, which she fervently hoped went no further than merely freezing the girl.

            Daria bent over the girl, rubbing one of her hands. “Hey!” she called, unsure whether to shout or talk normally. “Wake up! You have to get up! Are you okay?”

            Just when Daria feared the girl might be in a real coma, the girl’s eyes fluttered and blinked. She inhaled and coughed, then looked up at Daria with huge brown eyes. A quizzical expression came over her face.

            “Hey,” she said.

            “You have to get up,” said Daria quickly. “I don’t think we have much time. Do you understand me? Get up!”

            The girl nodded—and then her eyes opened wide with fear. She tried to sit up, but she fell back instead, her hands clutching her head in pain. “Is that guy here?” she cried. “That Artie guy? He tried to—”

            “Artie’s knocked out!” Daria said, glancing back to make sure. “I don’t know how long he’ll be down. We have to get out of here!”

            “He’s knocked out?” the girl repeated. She rolled over and got up on her hands and knees, trying to get her bearings. “Ow, my head! What happened? Did he put me in that refrigerator again?”

            “He did, but I got you back out. We’re safe for the moment, but we have to get out of here. Are you okay?”

            “I dunno. Everything’s spinning around and around. Man, I wish it would stop. Can you help me up?”

            The girl was taller than Daria by over half a foot, but thin to the point of being anorexic. At first, she clung to Daria for support, which was difficult for Daria because of her bad knee. “Oh, man,” the girl moaned. “Oh, man. That son of a bitch, I can’t believe he did that to me. We used to get pizza from him. Where did you say he is?”

            “Over there, under that pile of junk.” Daria pointed. “He’s pinned under those shelves.”

            The girl squinted in the indicated direction. “I’m not like a bad person, you know? But I just want to beat the sweet bejeezus out of him. He jumped me when I was like jogging in the park, and he stuck this smelly rag right over my face, and I woke up in this really cold room and I got out, and we were in this same cave, I think, but he jumped me again and we got into this big fight and he gave me some kind of drug and stuck me back in there. He said the refrigerator wasn’t working right and he had to fix it, and then he just dumped me back in there. He was telling me all sorts of lies and just making me so mad. I just want to knock his freaking head off, and then I want my dad to come get me.”

            “What’s your name? Mine’s Daria Morgendorffer.”

            “Monique,” said the girl. “Monique van der Wals. What day is it?”

            Monique? The name was familiar. Daria remembered rumors in middle school about a local girl with that name who had vanished some years ago. Most people thought she’d run away. “It’s Friday, November 20th.” She stopped herself before she named the year. “It’s my birthday,” she added lamely. “When did Artie kidnap you?”

            “It’s November? Oh, man! I can’t believe it! November, really? He grabbed me in September, on September the, um . . . I forgot the day. It was two weeks right after school started.” Monique straightened, still holding her hands to the sides of her head. “Sunday. It was on a Sunday morning, early. I was . . . I was out jogging to clear my head. I drank too much beer the night before. I know I’m not supposed to, I’m underage, I know. Wooo.” She took a deep breath and held it, then let it out. “Thanks, thanks so much,” she told Daria. “Oh, man, that’s the last time I ever get wasted like that. No more bingeing. Hey, where are we? I mean, like, where is this cave?”

            “We’re in the old rock quarry in Lawndale. I don’t know the way out. Listen, what year did he get you?”

            “What year? What . . . nineteen ninety-one. Oh, you know what? He told me when I woke up that one time that it was nineteen ninety-four. He said I’d been asleep for three years before the refrigerator stopped working. He was telling me all sorts of lies like that. He told me that—”

            “Monique? Listen to me.” Daria waited until the taller girl looked at her. “Monique, Artie wasn’t lying. I know it’s hard to believe, but you have to trust me. You’d been asleep a long time. You were in sort of like a coma, in that . . . in that refrigerator.”

            Monique stared at her, her large eyes growing larger. “What?”

            “Monique . . . a lot of time has gone by,” Daria said. “It’s not nineteen ninety-one anymore. That was six years ago. It’s nineteen ninety-seven now, in November. He kept you frozen in here all that time. I got caught and frozen, too, by . . . by people helping Artie, but I was caught in nineteen ninety-four. I didn’t get out until a couple months ago. I’m serious!”

            “Nineteen ninety-seven?” Monique’s face sagged in disbelief, and she stepped back. “No way! No freaking way! That’s . . . that’s six years! No way!”

            “Listen, we have to get out of here before he comes to! It’s really important! He’s done a lot of bad things, and we have to let people know about it. Do you know how to get out of this place?”

            “No! I don’t even know how I got in here! What are you talking about, nineteen ninety-seven? It’s still nineteen ninety-one, isn’t it? You said November? Ahhh!

            Monique’s face filled with fright. Daria turned to see what she had seen: the row of longlegs.

            “What the hell are those?” she yelled.

            “Look, just forget about them for now! They aren’t doing anything yet! Look, I hurt my knee. Can you help me get over to where Artie is? We have to look around for a map or something to get us out of here!”

            After a long stare at the longlegs, Monique nodded. “Okay,” she whispered. She and Daria then put arms around each other, and together they walked and limped toward the makeshift headquarters Artie had set up. “What are those things?” Monique asked, looking back once.

            “They’re robots,” said Daria, and she grunted in pain. “We’re okay as long as they’re not doing anything. Keep going.”

            “Are you kidding me about the year? I can’t believe I’ve been gone that long. That can’t be right. What about my dad? My dad’ll be crazy if I’ve been gone even a couple days without calling. Do you know my dad, Mike van der Wals?”

            “No, my family just moved here a few months ago. It’s a long story. Just get me to that table.”

            As they approached, Monique slowed, seeing Artie. She stopped by a shelving unit to let Daria get her own footing, then carefully walked over and inspected Artie.

            “Is he still alive?” she asked. “I can’t tell if he’s breathing.” Her face hardened. “I so want to kick him right now, I really do. He really hurt me when we were fighting. I wanted to kill him.”

            “No! Keep out of his reach,” said Daria. “Make sure he’s not getting up!” She began to look around for a map of the cave system or notes to the same effect. Nothing like that could be found. It finally occurred to her that if Artie had lived here since 1990, he wouldn’t need a map. He’d already know his way around. Searching was useless.

            “Hey! There’s a phone!” said Monique. She picked up a handset and held it to her ear. “Oh, man! It’s dead! It’s still got batteries, though.”

            “Does it turn on?” Daria called, hobbling over. “There should be a ‘call’ button if it’s a cell or portable phone.” She spotted a portable phone base and noticed a number of electronic boxes attached to it. The labels on the boxes told her the phone line was rigged to be untraceable. A piece of paper stuck to one box with tape had the numbers for local time and weather reports, three phone-sex services, and something called the UFO Updates Hotline.

            Monique pressed the buttons on the phone handset to no avail. Daria began to trace the wires back from the electronic boxes. “It’s unplugged,” she said. She spotted a phone jack on the end of a long wire, crouched down with some difficulty, and plugged the system in. “Does it work now?”

            “Yeah! Thanks!” Monique quickly began dialing a number. “I’ve got to call my dad!”

            Daria waited as Monique held the phone to her ear, her face alive with excitement. Even at a distance, though, Daria heard a series of tones, then a recorded voice came over the handset: “The number you have reached is not in service at this time. Please hang up and check the number again before dialing.

            “What?” Monique stared at the handset as if it had bitten her. “That’s my home phone number! I know it is!” She dialed it a second time, but got the same recording. “Damn it, what’s wrong?”

            Your dad moved, thought Daria, but she knew better than to say that. “Dial nine one one! Get the police!”

            Monique dialed, but a loud busy signal came over the phone. “It’s not supposed to be busy, is it?” she said. “I thought someone was supposed to answer this number all the time.”

            Daria took the phone from Monique, hung up, then punched in 911 again. The phone still registered a busy signal. “Something big must be happening,” she said. “A lot of people must be calling about . . . oh, I know what it is. It must be about the hotel. Artie kidnapped me tonight at a hotel, after he . . . after he . . .” She stopped speaking. Her gaze went to Artie, still nearly buried and motionless.

            She had almost forgotten that he had killed her father this evening.

            Monique looked at Daria, then at Artie. Whatever she thought Artie had done to Daria, she didn’t say. “He’ll get his,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. He’ll get his. I’ll make sure of it. Can I try the phone again?”

            Daria handed the handset to Monique without comment. Her gaze fell on Monique’s T-shirt. “What’s Mystik Spiral?” she asked dully.

            Monique looked down at her chest, then dialed 911. A busy signal came on. “It’s the band I’m in,” she said, hanging up and dialing again. “We just started it. It’s actually Trent and Jesse’s band. They’re in ninth grade at Lawndale High, Trent Lane and Jesse Moreno. I play bass guitar, but I’m eighth grade. We need a really good drummer. Do you play?”

            “Huh? No. I can’t play anything.” Daria put her hands in her jacket pockets. She felt the transporter device, a wad of money she’d gotten for her birthday barely an hour before, and—a slip of paper. She pulled the paper out.

            CALL IF YOU WANT, it read, with a Lawndale phone number below that.

            “Give me the phone!” said Daria quickly. Monique did, and Daria dialed the master phone number for her home. She got only a recorded message, without even the chance to leave her own message afterward. Her mother, sister, and aunts would not likely be home yet from the hotel. She thanked God they’d missed the chaos of Artie’s attack. Hanging up in frustration, Daria then dialed the number on the paper.

            The phone rang once before someone picked it up. “‘Lo,” said Rachel Landon in a tired voice. “Rachel.”

            “Rachel? This is Daria,” said Daria. “Rachel—listen carefully. This is very important. Do you have a pencil and paper there?”

            “Daria? Hi. Sure, just a moment.” After a pause, the phone picked up again. “Are you still at your birthday party?”

            “No. Rachel, something terrible has happened. I’m not joking. I really need your help. Please, go tell your parents that I’ve been kidnapped.”

            A gasp. “What?

            “Rachel, please help me! Another girl and I were kidnapped, and we just got to a telephone. We’re in a lot of trouble, and we need help right away. We’ve tried to dial nine one one, but we can’t get through, and we can’t get anyone at our home numbers to pick up.”

            “Kidnapped? Oh, God, no! Are you okay?”

            “We’re kind of banged up, but we’re okay at the moment. I think we’re being held in the old quarry on the south side, by the railroad line. We’re in a kind of cave in the quarry, and we don’t know how to get out. Please write this down and tell your parents. Don’t hang up the phone, either! Keep us on the line!”

            “Did . . . did the aliens do this?”

            Daria glanced at Monique, who couldn’t hear what Rachel was saying. “It was a guy working for them. His name is Artie, A-R-T-I-E. I don’t know his last name. He was pretending to be a pizza delivery guy. He killed some people at the hotel tonight, including my—” It came back and hit her. Daria’s face scrunched up, and she burst into tears. “He killed my dad!” she howled, and she stood with the phone to her ear and bawled until she couldn’t see.

            Monique carefully took the phone from her. “Hello? Who is this? Rachel, listen, my name is Monique van der Wals. No, she’s still here, but she’s really upset. Listen, Artie kidnapped me, too, and I need to talk to my dad! Write my name down and get someone to call my dad right away, please!” Daria heard Monique spell out her name and give her phone number. “Sure, go get your parents now! Please hurry!”

            Daria forgot about her knee. It didn’t matter any more. She wrapped her arms around her middle and cried until she was hoarse. She felt someone tall put two arms around her, and she leaned forward and buried her face in the taller person’s Mystik Spiral T-shirt. Monique said nothing as she held the smaller girl to her.

            When Daria could speak again, she heard someone shouting over the handset, which Monique had put on a nearby shelf. “Get the phone,” she mumbled, pointing to it.

            Monique picked it up. “Hello? Mister Landon? This is Monique van der Wals. I’m here with Daria . . . wait.” She looked at Daria.

            “Morgendorffer,” muttered Daria, who had done this many times in the past.

            “Daria Morgendorffer. We need your help, okay?” She paused, listening. “No, I swear to God, this isn’t a joke! No, Mister Landon, really, my name is Monique—” Stunned, she pulled the phone from her ear. “He hung up on me!” she said in astonishment. “He hung up on me, just like that!”

            Daria took off her glasses and wiped her eyes on her jacket sleeves. Her nose was running, but she didn’t have anything to wipe it on. She looked around for a rag after she put her glasses back on.

            “He really killed your dad?” Monique asked, lowering the phone.

            Daria nodded. She gave up and wiped her nose on her hand, wiping it on the back of her pants. It hardly mattered, she told herself.

            “I’m going to kick that son of a bitch right in the head,” said Monique, her teeth gritted. She punched in 911 on the phone again. “I’ll kick him good right after I—oh!”

            “Nine one one emergency,” said a woman’s voice over the phone. “Do you need police, fire, or rescue?”

            “Yes!” shouted Monique. “Oh, man, thank God we got you! We need . . . police and rescue, I think! My name is Monique van der Wals, and I’m with Daria Morgen . . . uh—”


            “—Daria Morgendorffer, and we’ve been kidnapped by—”

            “Hang up the phone,” said a faint, steady voice.

            Daria and Monique looked up at the same time.

            His face streaked with blood, Artie was watching them with one eye open. He was still nearly buried under the cabinet. Daria noticed one of his shoulders was moving, the one for the arm buried under the cabinet.

            About a hundred feet beyond him, one of the longlegs robots shifted, then stepped away from the line of its other siblings and began walking slowly toward them. Freezing fog drifted from its spider body as it came.

            “Ma’am?” said the woman on the phone. “Ma’am, are you still on the line?”





Chapter Fourteen:

Extreme Measures



            Despite its smaller size, the approaching longlegs robot looked to Daria like one of the Tripods from a science-fiction trilogy she’d once read, or a Martian war machine from The War of the Worlds. Strangely, in the backwash of her grief, she felt no fear of it. It’s just a tool, like Artie said, she thought. It’s a tool and nothing more.

            Her gaze shifted to Artie, who stared back. She knew he was controlling the robot with a device he’d found with his hidden hand. He obviously meant to kill them.

            A curious sense of detachment came over her. She mourned her father, but she had something important to do that had to be done now.

            “Are you still there?” called the emergency operator from the phone in Monique’s hand.

            The shelving unit by which Monique had left Daria was jammed with tools and electronic parts. Daria reached up and seized the handle of a claw hammer, pulling it free.

            Should we run?” Monique yelled, pointing at the robot with the phone in her hand. “Is this bad?

            Balancing on her good foot, Daria swung the hammer back and clumsily threw it at Artie. The hammer went wide and struck another shelving unit, but Artie saw it and flinched.

            The longlegs robot stopped, rocking on its multiple legs. Then it came on like a freight train.

            With a cry, Monique dropped the portable phone and bolted.

            Daria snatched another hammer and flung it overhand at Artie, not waiting to see the results. The robot was seconds away from her. She grabbed a pipe wrench and threw it, then a long screwdriver, a circuitry board, and a baseball-size piece of steel machinery that slipped out of her hand and fell a yard away. She was reaching for a battery-operated power drill when Monique grabbed her from behind and shouted “Run!” Daria pivoted on her bad knee, shrieked in pain, and went down like a sandbag, taking Monique with her. They yelled and struggled to get up and looked to see where the robot was.

            The longlegs had stopped about forty feet away, tentacles swinging back and forth under its smoking central body.

            Artie wasn’t the same as before. His bloodied face was illuminated in the floodlights above, his head thrown back and mouth open and eye half-closed.

            The second hammer lay on the ground a few feet from his head.

            Monique got up and tried to pull Daria away, but she resisted. She instead crawled over to the portable phone, hissing through her teeth when her bad knee touched the ground. The phone handset’s plastic casing had split when it was dropped. The line was dead.

            “Daria!” Monique shouted. “Let’s get out of here! C’mon, let’s go!”

            Daria looked at the longlegs, then at Artie. She put down the broken phone. I’m not done yet, she thought, and she slowly crawled toward Artie, dragging her bad leg. It took forever to get to him.

            Monique’s voice echoed through the cavern behind her. “Hey, Daria, what are you doing? Hey! Come back, okay?”

            With a large, bloody-edged bruise forming in the middle of his forehead, Artie was badly injured but still breathing. Daria retrieved the second hammer and held it at the ready. I should kill him while I’ve got the chance! He can’t stop me! I can finish this now! However, even when she believed she had to kill him if she ever wanted to feel safe again, she found herself unable to do it. I don’t have to look. It would be like pounding a nail in, she told herself. It would be the easiest thing in the world. Just close your eyes and hit the bastard a good one. You have to do it. He deserves to die for what he’s done. Hit him as hard as you can, just one time! Do it! Coward! Chicken! Do it for your dad! Do it!

            The hammer lowered in her grip. Coward. The hammerhead tapped the rock floor of the cavern and rested against it.

            “Damn it,” she whispered in defeat.

            She then noticed Artie still wore his Pizza King jacket. Hammer at the ready in case he regained consciousness, she used her free hand to pull the jacket out from under the cabinet, until she could get into the pockets and get at the roll of gray duct tape. She fished his buried arm out next. Several minutes later, Artie’s hands and wrists were thoroughly taped down to the top of the cabinet on his back, his arms spread-eagled. She could not find the device he’d used to control the longlegs robots, hidden as it was under the heavy cabinet, but she hoped it wouldn’t matter with him out of action.

            Her work finished, Daria tried to get to her feet. It wasn’t possible. Her knee was too swollen and painful to be moved. Monique came over and helped her up.

            “Can you get that folding chair from over there?” Daria asked. “I want to sit next to him and keep an eye on him.”

            “Are you sure it’s safe here with that thing?” Monique nodded at the spider-robot. “Don’t you want to go?”

            “It isn’t safe anywhere around here, but I can’t go anywhere with my leg like this. I just can’t. Look, if you want to find a way out, that would be great, but find a flashlight and leave me here.”

            “Are you sure? What if that big bug over there starts to do something?”

            “It won’t as long as Artie’s knocked out. He was controlling it.”


            Daria sighed. “Monique, trust me, a lot of stuff has happened since you got kidnapped in nineteen ninety-one. I can’t explain it all, but trust me, everything’s a mess now.”

            Monique looked at the longlegs. “Am I dreaming, or did we like get invaded or something? Is that it?”

            Daria thought about her answer. “Yeah, invaded,” she said in a low voice. “Something like that. Not everyone knows about it, but yeah, we did.” She pointed to the robot. “That’s one of the aliens’ robots. Artie joined the aliens’ side and was helping them. He can’t make the robots do anything as long as he’s tied up like this. I think we’ll be okay for a little while, but we will have to find a way out as soon as we can. I just can’t do a thing right now. I have to rest. It’s been too much.”

            “Oh, man.” After a moment, Monique gave Daria a warm hug. “You know,” she said, “I don’t understand any of this, but if you know what’s going on, I’ll just follow along after you, okay?”

            “Okay. The chair, please, before I scream.”

            Once she was seated, Daria slumped down with her head back and eyes closed, waiting for the pain in her knee to recede. She held the hammer across her lap. Artie was within a hammer’s reach of her.

            “Your knee’s all green and black,” Monique said in a low voice, making a face as she inspected Daria’s leg. She rolled Daria’s pants leg down and stood, hands on her hips. “What do we do now?”

            “Get the phone again,” Daria whispered. Her head was filled with a red haze. “Maybe we can fix it.” She opened her eyes. “Is there any aspirin around here?”

            A check of the area turned up a first-aid box. Daria took three aspirin with a drink from a plastic gallon jug of water that Monique located in a cabinet full of junk-food supplies.

            “Just like a guy to have nothing but pretzels and chips,” grumbled Monique. She surveyed the cavern. “Wonder where he put the bathroom? I don’t need it, but it does make you wonder, huh?”

            “In any direction, a long way off, I’ll bet.” Daria stuck her hands in her pockets. She felt the transporter device and pulled it out. A small gray box with a sliding switch. Another tool. She wondered if the aliens had made it for themselves or for Artie. It looked awfully simple.

            This must have one hell of a power source, Artie had said. I bet I could go to Pluto with this.

            “Or to my backyard,” said Daria. She held the box up, looking for any sort of printing or markings on it.

            “Say what?”

            The box was unmarked. “Nothing. Sorry.”

            “Hey, listen, will you be okay here? I want to look around for a bit, maybe see if there’s a way out. I won’t go too far, okay?”

            “Sure. I’ll be fine.” Daria inhaled through her teeth, glancing at Artie. Her grip tightened on the hammer in her lap. “If he moves, I’ll nail him.”

            “Cool.” Armed with a large flashlight and the damaged portable phone, Monique left, though with several long looks back at the nearest spider-robot. Also peeking in the robot’s direction at times, Daria returned to looking over the transporter box. It didn’t make sense for such a tiny, simple-looking device to be able to do so much, yet she’d seen it work with her own eyes. It’s a remote control at best, nothing more, she thought. Well, maybe. I shouldn’t second-guess alien technology, but it’s my guess this thing is like a TV remote, sending the user’s commands to the gateway-making unit, wherever that is. The energy needed to connect two places in space, even if they were a block away, would be huge. Artie was right, this must have one hell of a power source. I can’t even imagine how someone would calculate the energy it would take. Hmm. No controls but the button. Artie said the Outers’ tools worked by telepathy, so maybe

            She held the device up so that the longlegs was visible above it and Artie’s face below it. Okay, little box, she thought, do something telepathic. Nothing happened. Maybe I have to think about where I want the gate to open. Artie talked like it created only one gate, but there’d have to be two, wouldn’t there? One end opens in one place, and the other opens somewhere else. So, if I wanted one end of the gate to open, um, ten feet away from where I’m sitting— She concentrated.


            Figures. Well, Artie did say he had to go through a lot of training in order to . . .

            She blinked and jerked her head. Moving spots and lines were appearing before her eyes, in front of the control device. After a moment, they vanished.

            Was that—? She concentrated again, thinking about opening one end of the gate near her.

            The moving spots and lines returned after a second. They seemed to float in front of her face, but when she took a hand from the controller and waved it through them, they vanished. Her fingers touched nothing. Feeling unnerved by the sudden display, Daria set the small gray box on the rock between her feet and stared down at it.

            Was that a hologram? No, there’d have to be a projector and something solid for the image to reflect from. Was that all in my mind, then? How could it do that? Artie said it took a long time for him to . . . oh, right, he also said he thought the Outers might have been fixing the devices to read his mind—and maybe other human minds, too. Why would the Outers want to do that? Well, if they wanted humans to act as their agents, that might make sense. Super-powered middlemen of evil, yeah. Artie was peachy. But how could the Outers trust people to do their bidding? Artie was a total fruitcake, maybe from the start and maybe from hanging around the Outers’ mind-reading machines too long. He really screwed up the attack on Elsie and Tom’s house last Friday night, got two machines blown up and all their parts confiscated by the government. That wasn’t good for their side.

            She winced and tried not to think about her aching knee. Artie said this device could be a nasty weapon. I can see that. Open one end in outer space, and wherever you open the other gate, everything there gets sucked out into the void. The ultimate vacuum cleaner. It might even work on Quinn’s room.

            But why give something like this to Artie?

            She looked up at the former Pizza King delivery boy. He was still unconscious.

            If it were me, why would I, an alien being, give super-technology to a nut bar? If I had any brains at all, I wouldn’t do it. He could attack me with it, for one thing—unless I was sure he couldn’t turn it on me. Or unless I was overconfident and ignored the negative consequences, like humans thinking deep-sea fish were no threat to them, using Artie’s analogy. Or I wasn’t there managing things and had left either a stupid flunky or an automated system to respond to emergencies. Or I was insane. Hmmm. I’d have to be insane to work with Artie—unless his nuttiness worked to my advantage somehow. Beats me.

            Moving along, Artie said he didn’t think there was a safety mechanism on the gateway opener. That doesn’t make sense. Maybe the Outers led him to believe that, but they were just testing him to see if he’d try to do something stupid with it, like attack them. His attack on Elsie’s house wasn’t very bright, but it wasn’t disastrous. Well, wait—it was, wasn’t it? Alien technology was finally revealed. Police shot at a longlegs robot and blew it up, and Quinn ran into one and broke its leg off, right before she stopped the car too fast and one fell over us and exploded. So that was a bad thing for the aliens, right?

            She frowned. Play contrarian, though. What if the aliens had intended that they be discovered in some way, and the spider-robots were, for them, cheap throwaways? Why would they want to let us know they were out there? Is there any situation in human history analogous to this?

            Daria shifted in her seat, grimacing as bolts of pain went out from her swollen knee. Why would you want a potential enemy to know that you existed? Your enemy would get ready to attack you, and then

            Her face cleared in surprise, and her mouth made a round O. Of course! It might be a situation like the one I saw discussed on that show about the Cold War on the World History Channel. Americans and Russians used to probe each other’s air and sea defenses to get the other side to respond. A lone plane or sub would move in too close to the enemy’s borders, then would flee if detected. Each side could then find out how well its enemy’s early-warning systems and military defenses worked. It’s like stirring up a hornet’s nest from a distance to see how many hornets might attack you, and how they’d do it. Maybe the Outers decided it was time to see what we were capable of doing if we got scared or angry. Artie did say the Outers didn’t like our space probes coming by them, maybe because they were afraid we’d find them. That must have been the Pioneer and Voyager probes that went by the outer planets all those years ago. He said something about a space probe that was launched last month, one they wouldn’t like at all . . . I sort of remember something about a space shot from the news, but I can’t remember the details. Damn!

            Okay, so maybe the Outers let Artie play the fool, create some chaos, stir things up a little to see what we’d do, how we’d respond. I’ve no idea how they’d monitor all that, unless they pick up our radio signals and listen to our news. That could work. They’d be getting an earful now, I bet. I wonder if the Outers know me personally after all the news about me. Could be. Don’t like to think about that. Anyway, Artie got things into a tailspin, and now the Outers are watching how we react to it.

            But are the Outers really out around here, on Earth, or did they go away and leave something less intelligent behind to monitor things? More to the point, is this gateway-opening device all-powerful, or does it have limits? Could I link Earth to Pluto, like Artie said? There should be some power restrictions on this, but what are they? Only trial and error would reveal that—but if the Outers thought I was using this to attack their homeworld or bases, wouldn’t they be upset? They weren’t upset about the longlegs’ losses, I think—that might even have been part of their plans, if they wanted to see what we’d do if we found alien devices on Earth—but a homeworld is something else. How would they even know if I was attacking them, though? This is a remote control. Surely it sends its signals somewhere else, like to the gateway generator itself, wherever it is.

            Oh, forget this. We need to get out of here, and now. Let’s see if I can open a gate to my backyard and get the hell out of this dump.

            Daria chewed on her lower lip, then lowered her right hand to pick up the gray box and try to activate the gateway.

            The machines might be able to read thoughts

            With a gasp, Daria jerked her hand back and looked up at the spider-robot. It was still motionless, about as far away as a house is wide.

            Good Lord! she thought in horror. I almost let it read my mind! It’s probably been reading my thoughts from the second I first picked it up! If I touch it, it might know exactly what I’m thinking!

            Daria didn’t dare bump the gray box with her boots. She managed to scoot her chair back several feet to stare at it from a distance. Cold sweat ran down her face.

            What do I do now? I can’t pick it up again without risking the Outers knowing everything I know! Even if I’m wrong about most of what I’m thinking, they’ll know I’m on to them in some way. Artie was their buddy, but I’m not! The worst thing would be if I knew where they were based in our solar system. Artie said that would really bother them, to know they’d been discovered, but he thought he’d figured out where they were. He almost told me, but he held back. If the Outers had read his mind, they’d know if he knew, but he didn’t want to attack them—he wanted to help them. Hmmm. He thought they lived among the outer worlds: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, et cetera, but they wouldn’t live on a gas giant—too much gravity. That makes sense, so where would they be? Pluto? A comet? A moon of a gas giant? Where was that probe that went up last month going?

            And just like that, she remembered. Her eyes grew wide, and she put her hands over her mouth.

            Saturn! The nuclear-powered space probe that went up last month on that big rocket, Cassini, it was going to Saturn—to explore Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan! The only known natural satellite with an atmosphere! Oh, my God, is that it? Titan? Is that where the Outers live now?

            “Hey, Daria!” called Monique from a distance. “Everything okay over there?”

            “What?” Daria called back, her throat dry.

            “You okay?”

            “Uh, yeah! I’m okay!” Unless I pick up that thing again! But I can’t leave it here!

            “I’ll be there in a minute, okay? I didn’t find anything. This cave is really big!”

            “Okay!” Daria called back. Monique wasn’t bright, but she was sweet. And her desire to kick Artie in the head was well appreciated.

            Daria finally decided to take off her jacket and use it as a sling to carry the device, so it wouldn’t touch her. She couldn’t stand leaving it behind, as powerful as it was. If Artie ever got hold of it again—no, that could never be. Better, maybe Monique could carry it—no, she might pick it up and it would read her mind. No good. Daria groaned and knew it was up to her, busted knee and all. Maybe it would not be telepathic over a short distance, but who knew?

            Taking off her jacket and laying it on the ground, Daria managed to bump the transporter device onto the jacket with a nearby broom while sitting in her chair. (At least Artie wasn’t a total pig, she thought.) Before she picked up the jacket ends, she tested the device by thinking of opening a gate nearby. No dot-and-line pattern appeared, so she felt she was safe from its mind-reading. She picked up the jacket sleeves and held the device out at her side, still sitting in her chair. Again, a test showed no dot-and-line pattern. She felt a touch of relief and more in charge of the situation.

            “Hey!” called Monique, walking back. “Anything happening?”

            “No,” said Daria. “You see anything?”

            “Man, I can’t even find the other walls,” said Monique. “This place is freaking huge, you know?”

            Daria managed to get out of her chair and balance on one leg. Her bad knee felt as big as a basketball. “Let’s go. I don’t think it’s safe here after all.”

            “What are you going with your jacket?”

            “I wrapped something up in it. I don’t want to touch it, but I think it’s important. I’ll bring it with us, if you can help me move.” Is this going to work? Can I hobble and not drop the device or bang it into me?

            “Sure, okay. Here, lemme help.” Monique got a good grip around Daria’s back, and with one of Daria’s arms up around her neck, they were able to set off at a reasonable if slow pace. Monique carried the large flashlight in her other hand, and Daria carried her jacket with the device wrapped inside it. “Where to?” Monique asked.

            Daria nodded down a long row of pillars. “That way,” she said. “If anything happens behind us, we’ll be able to see it.”

            Monique glanced back. “Cool. Are we gonna leave Artie there?”

            “Can’t think of anything better to do with him.”

            “I can.”

            “Let’s let the police and FBI have fun with him. We have to get out of here A.S.A.P.”

            “You think something bad’s gonna happen?”

            “I don’t want to wait and find out.”

            “Yeah. Good point.”

            They proceeded down the long avenue for what seemed like an incredible distance, leaving behind the well-lit areas and entering a realm of seemingly infinite darkness and gloom. Every footstep echoed from the pillars around them. Daria, worried that the transporter device was still able to read her mind, found to her dismay that she could not control her own thinking. Hey, aliens! cried an annoying voice in her head. Guess what? You live on Titan, don’t you? I’m going to tell the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, NASA, FBI, White House, police, “Sick, Sad World,” and everyone else about you, and we’re going to fry your damn planet for screwing around with us! Think that’s a joke? Look for the magical mushroom-growing missiles, on their way soon! See if you dork around with our species again!

            “Are you okay?” asked Monique, huffing from her effort. “You sound like you’re mumbling something.”

            “Sorry,” said Daria, panting. “Overtired. I get like that.”

            “I’m going to write a song about this,” said Monique. “I’ll see if Trent and Jesse will play it. It might be a hit. My big brother’s in a rock band in Oakwood. He’s in college there. Maybe my dad went to live near him. You have any brothers or sisters?”

            “One sister,” said Daria. “Older than me. It didn’t start out like that. She got older than me when I was frozen. I can’t explain it. I’ve had a really stupid life.”

            “Man, I hope this isn’t really happening, you know? Like, my dad will be so freaked out, I don’t know what he’d do if I didn’t come home. It kind of scares me.”

            “Let’s not worry about it. We’ve got plenty of other things to—wait.” Daria turned her head, having heard an echoing clatter. “Stop! Something’s happening!”

            They stopped and looked back.

            The spider-robot nearest Artie was lifting the cabinet that covered him, pulling him up by his taped arms.

            “Oh, crap!” Daria gasped, letting go of Monique. She promptly lost her balance and fell on her rear. “Ow!”

            Even dazed, Daria had a perfect view of what was happening to Artie, almost a football-field’s length behind them. The spider-robot’s tentacles reached down and pried his arms free of the tape with one easy jerk each. Artie came to and cried out in pain. The robot then flipped the cabinet aside and lifted Artie with its coiling tentacles.

            And it tore him to pieces as he screamed. Red splashed everywhere.

            “Oh!” cried Monique, backing up. “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!”

            Dropping his bloodied limbs and headless trunk, the machine pivoted with a smooth motion. Though it had no eyes that Daria could see, she knew where it was looking. Artie did say that a spider-robot was walking around, training him before he learned to control it or the other ones, she remembered. It was the Outers, then. They were back in control.

            Abruptly, all of the longlegs robots began to move. They fanned out, walking casually in Daria and Monique’s direction. The lead robot waited until the others caught up, then they moved in formation, two across and three deep, toward the two girls in the darkness of the cavern.

            Lying on the rock floor, Daria reached over and grabbed her jacket, then grabbed the transporter device. They already know where I am. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m dead . . . but they’re going with me.





Chapter Fifteen:

Shatterer of Worlds



            Monique tried to get Daria to her feet, but Daria pushed her away. “Run and see if there’s a way out!” she shouted, pointing in the direction they had been heading. “Let me try to work this thing!”

            “Forget it! Drop it and come on!”

            “Run, damn it! Find a way out for us!”

            Monique took off. Daria didn’t blame her for a second. One of us has to survive and tell everyone what happened. She forgot the matter as she concentrated on the transporter.

            What can I do with it? To her amazement, she came up with a plan in seconds. Artie had supplied all the data she needed. He mentioned being rushed Friday night as he hunted for Daria with the longlegs robots, because it was supposed to rain later and he didn’t want the cryogenic robots to ice over. That would be a pain, he’d said.

            Later, while talking about the transporter device, he’d said, I don’t think there’s any kind of safety mechanism on this. I mean, I could open up the transporter to the bottom of the ocean, and the water would blast right through here, ‘cause the pressure there’s so huge, much bigger than the air pressure here. It would shoot in here like a giant fire hose!

            Putting this together, Daria knew all she had to do was open a gate between herself and the approaching longlegs, open the other gate deep under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean east of Lawndale, and presto! She’d have six huge ice balls, each with a spider-robot in the middle. Or maybe they’d short out and blow up. Either outcome was fine, as long as Artie was right when he’d guessed no safety mechanism existed. She’d know the answer in a few seconds.

            Gate! I need a gate about a hundred feet in front of me, facing the robots! Dots and lines appeared in front of her face. One dot was actually square; she realized it was the position of her control box. Another dot was a round one brighter than the others, and she intuitively knew it marked the potential position of her first gate—but it kept moving out of her range of vision, forcing her to mentally retrieve it. What the hell is going on? she wondered. She concentrated on grabbing the dot and pulling it to keep it in place in the center of her vision, ahead of the square dot, but something else pulled on it, dragging it away in a curving motion. It was like trying to throw a basketball through a hoop while riding a roller coaster, only she couldn’t see the track ahead and could not compensate for her motion.

            Daria held the transporter device close to her face and, with the greatest effort of will, fought the forces dragging the gate-dot askew. The dots and lines moved in chaotic patterns at first, but gradually she realized the extra dots showed projected future positions of her dot, where it would wander if she did not concentrate on it. The lines had something to do with the forces working against her, but she could not make sense of them. She got the idea she had to place the gate-dot on a pathway in time and space that would let her open it exactly when and where she chose. It was frustrating beyond belief, and she couldn’t imagine why she couldn’t just point the box and say, “I want a gate there!” Damn aliens!

            When she finally thought she had the first gate placed, she pushed the sliding switch and sensed that the first choice was locked in. The spider-robots were at this point seventy-some yards away, striding toward her without hurry. Could they tell what she was doing? Maybe they were on automatic: kill all live beings. She couldn’t afford to think about it for long.

            Resisting the urge to throw the box aside and flee in panic, Daria tried to concentrate again. The Atlantic Ocean! Fifty miles east of here! But how deep? The image of the dots and lines changed, as if she were pulling away from the display. Now she sensed a huge, translucent background surface, flat but slightly curved outward, and with various dips, bumps, and ridges running through it. A map of the Earth? Daria was vaguely familiar with Maryland’s Atlantic coastline, but the translucent map looked wrong for that. Abruptly she realized it was a topographic map, but she was looking at the coastline at a tilted angle. She mentally rotated the map so north was upward. The surface map now made sense—but she then realized she’d forgotten about Chesapeake Bay, Delaware, and Delaware Bay. Move the second gate farther east! One—three—no, five hundred miles! Way out there, damn it! And down! Way down! Ocean bottom! She saw the drop-off of the continental shelf, dragged her gate-dot beyond it, and headed down fast.

            But how deep was the Atlantic Ocean? Half a mile? Two miles? Daria hadn’t a clue. She tried to get her second gate dot near the bottom on the translucent map for extra pressure to spray the robots, but the dot moved and twisted and turned, pulling away. It tore at her nerves.

            She saw the six spider-robots over the top of the transporter control unit in her hands. They were just over fifty yards off. Fighting an urge to cry, Daria focused on the dot, pushed it down—and gave up. She slid the switch forward, locking the second gate-dot in place, wherever it was. It was now or never.

            “Freeze!” she screamed in triumph, echoing Artie. As the word came out of her mouth—

            —a brilliant yellow jet shot from a hole in the air near the ceiling of the cavern. A roaring thunder filled the air. The yellow jet fell across one line of spider-robots. Huge white explosions consumed three longlegs and toppled two others as the jet splashed into them.

            A tremendous wave of heat scorched Daria’s face and hands, causing her to cry out. The bright jet widened into a river and became a blinding waterfall of fire that sprayed and spread out in every direction where it struck the ground. Stupefied, Daria saw a spider-robot try to escape, but its legs sank into the rippling lake of glowing yellow-orange and it fell, the central body exploding into steam and shrapnel. The entire cave rumbled as the hellish waterfall continued. Flames leaped dozens of feet into the air.

            For a few seconds, Daria watched in terror. Had she opened the gate into a volcano? No—she realized she’d missed the sea bottom in her haste and had opened the second gate miles below it, somewhere in the upper mantle of the earth! The abandoned rock quarry was filling with superheated magma!

            Stop it! Stop it! Shut down! she mentally shrieked at the transporter box. The gate vanished, the searing waterfall ceased, but the rumbling continued as the magma lake flattened and spread out, sweeping around rock pillars as it covered the cave floor. It rolled toward Daria as well.

            Before she was aware of it, Daria got to her feet and ran in a hop-skip movement as fast as she could go, in the direction Monique had gone. She was barely aware of her bad knee. Some electric lights behind her went out, then all of them darkened at once after a bright flash and an explosion. Artie’s power plant—be it human or alien—had gone up. She knew Artie’s camp would be gone as well, with all of his alien artifacts and him, too. The loss of the lights hardly mattered, as the orange glow from the magma illuminated everything. The heat became more intense behind her until she thought her hair and clothes would catch fire at any second. Still, she thought she had a chance to escape the sea of molten rock, if she could only keep moving fast enough.

            A rubble pile one story high took shape out of the darkness ahead, surrounding a gigantic pillar where a long-ago bulldozer had left it. Daria limped-ran for it, thinking the sounds of the magma behind her were growing louder. She jammed the transporter control box in a wide back pocket of her dark jeans, then climbed the rocky debris as quickly as she could in the poor light. The going proved slow and treacherous. She fell countless times and bruised her ribcage and limbs. Some rocks were too large to scale, and the footing on others was uncertain. Nonetheless, she continued upward, scraping her hands bloody and ignoring the returning pain in her left knee as best she could. She did not dare look back.

            An eternity later, she reached the top of the rubble pile and the pillar rock itself. There, her energy gave out. She collapsed on the rough top of a boulder, trying to breathe with lungs full of knives. It was then that she did look back and saw, to her surprise, that the orange magma had come to a halt about twenty-five yards from the small hill on which she sat. Daria flattened herself against the boulder to escape the searing heat. Her face felt sunburned and raw, her clothes and hair close to smoldering. The air itself carried a thick burnt smell that stung her throat.

            Out of nowhere, she grinned and tried to laugh, but she coughed herself hoarse instead. As much of a surprise as the magma had been to her, it had certainly been more of a surprise to the longlegs and the Outers that built and ran them. That’s for what you did at the Sloanes’ home, she thought, still grinning. That’s for killing the photographers and wrecking the Sloanes’ mansion and scaring us to death. I only wish I could give you more to remember me by. I still owe you for my father.

            She roused herself and sat up, then winced, reached back, and took the transporter box from her back pants pocket. This mess had gone on long enough. It was time to escape. She raised the small gray box in her hands.

            But where was Monique?

            Daria looked about with rising anxiety, but she saw and heard nothing around. Her throat hurt too much to try shouting, and loud cracks and pops echoed throughout the cavern as limestone broke in the terrific heat.

            I can’t go hunting for her like this. I should open a gate to the surface and get help, then. She nodded without enthusiasm and concentrated on the box. A gate, opening toward me—she then remembered the magma spill—no, a gate opening away from me, at ground level—she gazed in the direction she’d been heading—about . . . oh, crap, this isn’t going to work. I’m too tired to get down from here. Well, I’ll have to get down. And I shouldn’t put it too close to me, because I don’t know what would happen if it appeared in my middle. Would it cut me in half? Eww. Like I’ve really got a choice. Okay, I need a gate about, um, ten feet below me and thirty feet over, and—huh?

            As the dots and lines appeared, Daria knew something was wrong. Many more lines were present, and the dots were blurry. Is the transporter box broken? Please, no! She mentally pulled back from the abstract scene, keeping her gate attempt active. A second series of blurry dots had appeared very close to hers, set within a translucent map that appeared to be of her underground surroundings. The new dots drifted and wavered, but grew steadier. The curving, swirling lines showing interfering forces were packed together. What the hell’s going on? Oh, damn it! That’s another gate! Someone’s opening a gate near me! Damn damn damn, it’s the Outers!

            On impulse, not knowing what the Outers were attempting, she tried to force her gate to appear first. It was harder to concentrate than before, as she was exhausted, and her dot patterns wavered all over the place. Both series of dots became blurrier, curving away like out-of-focus pearl necklaces the harder she concentrated. The present position marker for both gates swung close to each other and seemed to touch—

            Daria blinked and flinched, feeling a prickling of strange warmth. She thought there had been a flash of light, but she saw no afterimage. The dots and lines vanished. Gritting her teeth, she concentrated again on opening a gate—and found no other series of dots was present with hers. The lines were spaced farther apart as well. Had she driven off the attempt to open a gate in the cave? It was impossible to tell. She sensed that she was very tired, mentally as well as physically, and it was affecting her accuracy. If she tried to open a gate for real, it could pop open anywhere, most likely miles away.

            Still concentrating, she tried to relax. I just need to catch my second mental wind. That’s all. Just a little rest, and I’ll be . . . uh-oh.

            Her line of dots became blurry and began to curve. As before, a second series of dots appeared. Another attempt was being made to open a gate in the quarry cave. Daria summoned what was left of her energy and tried to make her gate-dot pass over the other one. When it did, she again sensed a faint sort of warmth and felt her skin itch, with the odd sensation of an invisible flash. Without warning, she shivered and felt cold. That was weird, she thought. I wonder what it was. At least they know they can’t take me for granted.

            Unless they shut down my gate machine.

            Daria began to worry. Where was the gateway-creating machine she was using, anyway? Were the aliens trying to use hers, or did they have their own? It was likely they had their own, but who knew? How could she find hers?

            After a moment, she mentally pulled away from the dots and lines. The regional topographic map came into view. As it pulled back, Daria saw the outward-curved outline of North America, from the Pacific continental shelf to the Atlantic. To her surprise, the map was dotted here and there with symbols, all of the same type: a small point-down triangle. She pulled back farther, saw the sphere of the Earth before her, and noted a large number of triangles, some of them point-up. Shaking her head, she pulled back farther, saw the Earth shrink—and then saw the Moon appear from the right side.

            And on the Moon’s lower hemisphere, near the bottom, was a curious symbol: a thin ring with a second ring inside it. Is that the gateway machine? She swiftly focused on the giant satellite, her gate-dot moving in on the bull’s-eye symbol as close as she could get it. Craters, mountains, valleys, and plains appeared, but without shadows the lunar surface looked more like the relief map of a badly painted tennis ball. Could I create a gate there, if that’s the gateway machine? She began to concentrate on setting up a gate—and to her astonishment, no lines of resistance appeared. The series of dots she usually saw was now just a single dot she felt she could place anywhere.

            My God! Is that my gateway machine? Reflection brought realization. Am I trying to place gates relative to the location of the main machine, using this little remote? The Earth rotates, the Moon goes around the Earth in an elliptical orbit tilted to the equator, I’m north of the equator and the gateway machine is on the Moon’s south pole—no wonder I can’t get this thing to work right! The lines of resistance show how many ways everything’s moving, and it’s almost too much to handle! I have to compensate for relative movements in all directions non-stop, unless I put my gate somewhere on the Moon, where there’s no movement at all relative to the machine. That double-ring symbol is my gateway machine! They put it on the Moon to keep us from getting to it easily!

            Daria felt a little goofy by this point, as well as noticing a mild case of nausea building inside her. What a stupid way to run a gate-making system! Why don’t the damn Outers use computers to do all this work so I can just point and click to create a gate? Is it against their religion? Are they accustomed to doing this kind of math in their heads? Do they not have computers at all? Are they—what the hell?

            A new series of dots had appeared almost over the bull’s-eye. The Outers were attacking her gate-making machine.

            “Crap!” Daria yelled, and immediately concentrated on placing her gate-dot right over the main intruder dot. It was a snap to do it. Both dots vanished. This time, Daria felt nothing occur out of the ordinary, which was a relief. However, when she wiped her forehead, she noticed her skin was clammy. She felt increasingly chilled and nauseated, too. What’s wrong with me? Did I get a virus? What rotten timing! I hope I’m not really sick. I’ve got a lot to do. Those damn Outers are trying to get a gate either near me or at my gateway machine, and they could wipe me out in seconds if they succeeded and brought over some kind of army. She shivered. Man, I really have the flu, don’t I? This sucks. I have to keep it together. I can’t believe I’d get sick right when I’m blocking their gates. This is the worst luck of all. I have to do something while I still have the presence of mind.

            Another series of dots appeared over the lunar double-ring symbol. Daria disrupted it almost by reflex. It’s time to do something radical. If I’m going to be sick, I have to move fast. Time to diddle with the homeworld, I guess. Are the Outers on Titan? Guess I’m going to find out. Wonder why Artie never thought of doing this—or maybe he did, and didn’t want to tell me. Who knows?

            Pull back, get the big picture. The Earth-Moon system suddenly receded. As the double planet grew tiny, other worlds swam into view. The gargantuan mass of the Sun appeared; she marveled at it, then began looking around. Venus, Mercury, that must be Mars over there . . . ah. A large planet surrounded by thin rings and numerous small worlds appeared on the fringes of her vision. Jupiter and satellites. Wow, nice astronomy lesson here. Sort of like my own planetarium. I’m glad I read ahead in my science books. Oh, that must be . . . whoa.

            A large world smaller than Jupiter had appeared, one also surrounded by myriad satellites—and large rings. Yes! Gotcha! One Moon-sized world among the many was very apparent, because it was so covered with symbols it was impossible to separate them. Daria swiftly narrowed her focus on the world, which she knew had to be Titan. The world grew in her vision. It was impossible to count the symbols covering its surface.

            Jackpot! She swept in and readied a gate without even thinking what she intended to do next. The lines of interfering force were many. Saturn’s way out there, moving slowly around the Sun, and Titan’s moving around Saturn, and my gate’s moving around the Earth, which moves around the Sun, blah blah blah. What a mess. Just place the gate anywhere around there and

            The lines of force around her dot suddenly became more closely packed and warped. She checked her view of space around Titan, but she found no sign of a gate opening there.

            Oh no, oh no! The gate’s opening back in my cave again! No!

            She prepared to drag her current gate back to Earth and defend herself—but she changed her muddled mind. Screw it! I’ll never get this chance again! She drove at Titan, the gate-dot whipping in every direction, and tried to place the dot on the world’s surface. She slid the switch on the transporter box forward, but she had the idea the gate-dot went deep instead. No time to check! She changed her space-map perspective, hurling back to the inner solar system—and suddenly had no idea what to do next. The damn gate’s about to open here! They’re going to clean my clock if I don’t do something!

            The massive Sun came into view.

            The Sun. Yessss.

            She drove toward it, a new gate forming in her mind. A miss will be as good as a hit, she thought. The Sun’s so big, what difference will it make where I open the gate? I’ll throw a little light on the subject. That was funny. Warm things up for the Outers in the outer darkness. Make it hot for them.

            The Sun grew large, then larger, then filled her vision—and then she was inside it, past the strange prominences rising from its surface. I’m diving to the bottom of the Sun. That would make a great song title. I should write song lyrics. I must be near the bottom now—seem to be around the middle somewhere. Good enough. Why do I feel so out of it? Doesn’t matter. Now

            A grand roaring sound filled Daria’s ears. She looked up from her small gray box. A hole had appeared in the air in the semi-darkness of the cave, a hole hovering over the great orange lake of magma.

            The hole was full of stars. Trillions of them, set in black. The Outers had linked her to the vacuum of space in an effort to kill her. As a violent wind came to life around her, she looked down at her gray box and the lines and dots around it, slid the switch home, and joined the second gate to the first, the core of the Sun to Titan. This is for my father, you evil sons of bi

            A hurricane seized her and tried to tear her from her perch. Screaming, Daria rolled over and jammed the gateway device into a crevice, then tried to dig her hands and feet into the cracks between the rocks in the debris pile. Dirt and gravel stung her face and hands; dust blinded her and filled her hair. Winds howled like a demonic chorus in her ears, thundering and vibrating her bones until she couldn’t think. The hurricane swept away her glasses, voice, and reason, tore her clothes, and dragged her fingers bit by bit from their purchase. She felt the entire debris pile shift under her and knew she was leaving Earth for infinite space and sudden death—

            —and just as swiftly as it had come, the hurricane roar fell in volume. The debris pile rumbled and resettled, pinching Daria’s fingers painfully. She yelped and managed to free herself with badly bruised fingers. As fading winds roared around her, she turned her head and saw no hole in the air, no stars. The magma, oxygenated by the winds, glowed yellow again.

            Did I get them? Did I stop them? What happened? Dizzy, she laid her head on a rock and passed out.

            Some time later, she awoke, disoriented and sick. Her stomach lurched. Oh, no— She turned her head to one side and threw up until she couldn’t throw up any more, then lay on the top of the debris pile gasping for air. Memories of where she was and what had happened returned. She was chilled to the bone and feeling feverish. Something was dreadfully wrong. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I had radiation poisoning. It’s just like the books say it would be. That would be funny. How could I get that? I got sick when I was blocking the incoming gates. I wonder if doing that made radiation explosions that . . . uh-oh. Guess I sort of blew that one. No wonder I

            She threw up again. When she could breathe, she knew she was living on borrowed time. She saw her life go by and was sorry it was over with so soon. Thank God she had a sister like Quinn, and had found a friend like Elsie. Too bad she wouldn’t know Monique better. Too bad she didn’t have more time with her Dad, after he changed. Too bad her mother hadn’t completely come around before this happened and turned into a better mom, but at least she’d been on the right track. Too bad. So many regrets . . .

            The control box. She stuck her left hand into the crevice where she’d hidden the box and dug around. After a few moments, her fingers touched the smooth surface of the device. With an effort, she was able to drag it free, though its surface was badly scratched. She dizzily concentrated on the box. Dots and lines swam in her vision—It still works! she thought, feeling glad but quite out of it.

            The gate she’d created was still operating, too, she could tell. She mentally turned it off. Whatever had happened was over with. With any luck, the Outers were over with. And she was over with, too. She closed her eyes and waited to die. A long time passed.


            Now what?

            “There she is! Look up there!”

            They’ve found me.

            They’ll find my box.

            Her fingers carefully tucked the box back into the crevice and clumsily swept dirt over it. Only she would know where it was. If she lived, she could get it back one day. If not, it was probably for the best.

            Lights flickered around her. Footsteps approached.

            “What the hell is that? Lava?”

            “Get fire hoses down here, now!”

            “Can we get a ladder? Do we need a ladder to get up there?”

            “What the hell caused that tornado?”

            “Jesus, is a volcano coming up in this place?”

            “Daria! It’s Monique! Are you okay? That girl Rachel called nine one one and got the cops out here, and they found me when I was banging on a locked door and got me out, and then it got super hot and then there was this horrible wind, and are you okay? Daria? Daria?”

            Someone climbed the debris pile toward her. She was too tired to see who it was.

            Let me sleep. It’s my birthday. Let me sleeee—

            When she awoke again, she was on a stretcher in darkness. It was cozy and she was secure, but she was still cold. Large figures loomed around her, brushed against her. A mask covered her lower face. The air flowing into her lungs tasted sweet.

            She opened her eyes. Above her was the night sky, cold and clear. Almost overhead was a bright dot among many. She searched her addled memory and came up with the dot’s name: Saturn. She had looked it up days ago, when reminded of the Leonid meteor shower that Tom had meant to see with his date. Saturn was high in the southern sky at this time of year. Saturn . . . now, why was Saturn so important to her, all of a sudden? What—

            The bright dot of Saturn grew brighter, then brighter still. It happened very fast. The planet blazed and became a miniature sun, a pinprick of brilliance that hurt the eye.

            As the rescue workers carried Daria to the back of the ambulance, she looked up at the brilliance and moved her lips.

            Did you like my piece of birthday cake? she asked. Was it served cold enough for you? You liked things cold, I remember. I don’t think it is cold there now, where you are—where you were, I mean. Pity you didn’t put safety devices on your gate machine, but we don’t put them on our airplanes and cars to keep us from crashing, and our nuclear reactors sometimes melt down, so maybe we’re no better. We’ll have to fix that, someday. Don’t want to make your mistake again. Not ever.

            She was loaded into the ambulance. A nurse tried to talk to her, but her words made no sense.

            I wonder if Cassini will find anything when it gets to Saturn in 2004. It would be interesting to know. I’m sorry I won’t see it.

            The nurse’s face loomed over her. It seemed near, and so far, far away.

            Hope the other side is better than this one. Hope I see my dad soon. Hope I . . .

            She closed her eyes. The world faded away and was gone.





Chapter Sixteen:

Out of the Frying Pan



            With no awareness that any time passed, Daria Morgendorffer awoke. Her eyes fluttered and opened to a blurry whiteness above. She lay on her back, comfortable and warm. Memories trickled in, and she soon remembered everything up to the point she was being put into the ambulance and—


            “Daria?” After a moment, her father’s face appeared over her. He smiled. “How’s it going, kiddo?”

            Heaven. Thank God. She smiled.

            “Daria!” A moment later, Quinn’s face appeared beside their father’s. She wore a robin’s-egg blue kerchief over her close-trimmed red hair. Then her mother’s face crowded in, bent down, and kissed her on the cheek.

            Daria’s smile faded into puzzlement. Why are they here? Are they dead, too? The puzzlement turned to concern. Did something happen that killed everyone before I died? Oh, crap—was it something that I did?

            “How are you feeling, dear?” asked her mother, stroking Daria’s hair. Tears ran down her face.

            Quinn picked up Daria’s left hand and kissed it. Daria stared at her left arm, now close to her face so she could see it clearly. An IV tube was taped to the inside of her forearm. She also became aware of a pressure in her groin. When she moved her legs experimentally, she was mortified to find that she had a catheter inside her. Her left knee ached, too.

            Not heaven! “Dad?” she whispered, squinting to see him better.

            “That’s me!” said her father. “You’ve been out for a long time. We didn’t know if you’d—”

            “Jake,” said Helen in a warning tone.

            “Oh, Helen!” He grinned. “Welcome back, kiddo!”

            Daria continued to stare at her father, her thoughts in turmoil. “I thought . . . I thought that Artie . . .”

            “Oh, man!” said Jake with feeling. “That was a knock-down, drag-out! I threw a lamp at him but missed, then I ran into the other bedroom to get something else to throw at him and draw him away from you, which didn’t work because he blasted everything with that damn snowmaker of his when I went around the corner, and I felt so bad afterward because—”

            “Jake,” said Helen quickly, “don’t—”

            “Oh, it’s okay, I’m over it and everyone knows what happened already!”

            “Jake! Don’t upset her!”

            He shrugged it off and continued talking to Daria. “I couldn’t get out of the bedroom, and it was so cold I had to hide in a closet.” He held up two heavily bandaged hands, a pained expression on his face. “I’m afraid I lost a few fingers, and I got frostbite on my legs, but I made it.” He lowered his hands, brightening. “It’s so good to see you. You have no idea.”

            Daria’s amazement gave way to joy, though she tried to hide it behind her usual deadpan. “Good to see you, Dad” she said, her eyes tearing up. Her gaze went from one family member to the other as she rubbed her eyes, hoping no one noticed. “Actually, I can’t see you very well. I lost my glasses—” She remembered the gate opening to outer space, her glasses ripped from her face by the wind to fly toward the stars “—somewhere.”

            “Oh!” cried Quinn. She left the bedside, then returned with a small case. She popped it open and took out a new pair of dark-frame glasses with elliptical lenses. “Let me!”

            Daria gave them a dubious stare, then let Quinn put them on her face. The room and her family jumped into sharp relief. The prescription seemed to be the right one, though the shape of the lenses would take some getting used to. She was surprised to see how weary and old her parents looked, her father in particular. Quinn, too, had changed. Daria searched for a word—mature, Quinn looked more mature.

            “Thanks,” Daria said, electing not to complain about the shape of the lenses. It was probably Quinn’s doing, to make her sister look stylish. She sniffed, still fighting down a happy cry. “Where are we?”

            Jake, Helen, and Quinn exchanged looks. “We’re . . . we’re at Andrews Air Force Base,” said Helen in a cautious tone, looking back at Daria. “It’s near Washington, D.C. We’re at the base hospital, Malcolm Grow. We’ve been here for a week, waiting for . . . you to recover.”

            “An Air Force Base?” Daria blinked. “Why?”

            Again, the family exchanged secretive glances. Daria figured it out for herself. “Because of what I did to Titan?” she said—and was sorry she said it, the instant it came out of her mouth.

            Jake, Helen, and Quinn stared down at her, their faces turning white. For long seconds, they didn’t move or speak. When the moment passed, her mother reached down and ran trembling fingers through Daria’s hair. Her movements were stiff and frightened. “Shhh,” she said.

            Biting her lip, Quinn edged in front of her mother and bent over Daria. She kissed her smaller sister on the forehead, then, on the pretense of giving her a hug, put her lips by Daria’s ear. “Don’t talk about it,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.

            Daria swallowed. Her admission about Titan had changed everything; she could feel it. Her family was afraid of her. God, please, let me take it back! she cried inside. Let me do that over again! I’m sorry I said it! Please give me another chance!

            “We love you,” said Helen. Her eyes were glazed with fear. She reached over and tucked the edge of the soft blanket around her daughter’s neck. “You need rest.”

            “That you do!” said Jake, his voice quavering. “We could all use a good rest, I’d say.”

            Daria was frightened, too. Something else was going on, but her parents and Quinn weren’t going to tell her. “Wh-where are you staying?” she said.

            “Oh, on the base,” said Jake. “They’ve been very helpful, the Army—I mean, Air Force people here. Sorry, we’ve met so many of them, I get them all—”

            “Jake!” hissed Helen. Her tone became soft again as she looked back at Daria. “Are you hungry?”

            Daria licked her lips. “Um—a little.”

            “Mom, Dad?” said Quinn. “Could you check with the nurses and guards outside and see if maybe she can have something to drink? Fruit juice or milk or something? I’ll stay here with her.”

            Guards outside? thought Daria. Quinn’s warning me of this?

            “I’ll go,” said Jake, pulling away.

            “Mom, go with Daddy, okay?” Quinn pressed. “See about getting her brunch, maybe a little leftover turkey.”

            Helen gave Quinn an anxious look. “Well . . . all right.” She squeezed Daria’s arm. “We’ll be right back.”

            “Great,” said Quinn. Daria and Quinn watched both parents leave the room. When the door shut behind them, Quinn turned and bent over her sister again, her arms going around Daria’s shoulders. “Hug,” she said, and Daria pulled herself up to comply. She felt very small next to her teenage sister, especially when Quinn’s long arms went around her shoulders and pulled her close.

            “I love you,” Quinn said, kissing Daria’s cheek again. She again put her lips right at Daria’s ear, hugging her close. “Don’t talk,” she whispered, her voice barely a breath. “They’re listening.”

            They? “Who?” Daria whispered back.

            “Shhh. Don’t talk.” She let go of Daria and eased her back on the pillow, then pulled back to look her smaller sister in the face. Their noses were inches apart. “Rita, Erin, and Amy are here with us,” she whispered. “That girl you found, Monique, is here, too, and the Sloanes and the Landons. They’re all here.”

            Daria’s confusion deepened. It must have been obvious on her face, because Quinn leaned down to kiss her cheek once more, cupping a hand around Daria’s chin to pull her face close.

            “Everyone who’s been around you is being kept here in the hospital,” whispered Quinn. “They moved everyone else out and moved us in. We can’t leave.”

            Oh, no. Oh, my God. Did they find the transporter box, too? “Did—” she began, her voice too loud.

            Four manicured fingers jumped to Daria’s lips, covering them. After a moment and another kiss, the fingers moved away. Quinn pulled back, a warning look on her face.

            Daria swallowed. What in the world had been going on while she was unconscious? How long had she been out?

            Quinn’s hand stroked her sister’s cheek, and she ran fingers through Daria’s long brown hair. “I’m jealous now because you’ve got all that hair and I don’t,” she said. “Can’t wait for mine to grow back. The nurses did a good job washing your hair. You smell good. They use a nice skin softener here, too. Mom and I got to help with your sponge baths.”

            I’ve gotten sponge baths? Daria colored with mortal embarrassment. Well, it’s not that important. I can live with that. Maybe. After all, I have that catheter, so I don’t have to get out of bed to use the bathroom. . . . uh-oh. I wonder how they handled it when I had to—ugh! “What day is it?” she whispered, changing the subject.

            “Friday. Oh, the Friday after Thanksgiving. The twenty-eighth.” Quinn cleared her throat and gave her sister a meaningful gaze. “You were out for a long time, healing up. When they found you, you were really sick.” Quinn was silent for a moment, then said, “We thought you were going to die.”

            Was it that bad? I guess it was. It felt horrible. Was it radiation sickness? I don’t know if I should ask. Wait—if I was that sick, how did I get better so soon? My knee still hurts a little, but . . .

            Quinn took a deep breath and let it out. “A lot of people want to talk to you.”

            Daria nodded. That figured. “Okay. Maybe later. I’m . . . really tired.” She reached for Quinn’s hand. She had other questions she had to ask, and only one way to ask them. “Kiss?”

            Quinn caught on. “Sure.” She leaned down and hugged her sister again, putting the side of her face to Daria’s mouth.

            The door to the room opened as she did. “Oh, sorry to interrupt,” said Helen, walking in with Jake. “She can’t have anything but water for now, but she can have soup for dinner, if she wants. I mean, if you want, Daria. Sorry.”

            Discouraged, Daria pulled back from Quinn and relaxed on her pillow. “Chicken broth would be nice,” she said. “Have you been at the hospital since I got here?”

            “Well,” said her mother, her manner suddenly wary, “we . . . moved here on Monday, after . . . after your condition improved.” Daria noticed her mother wasn’t looking at her as she spoke. “Everyone’s been helpful to us—firm, I would say, but . . . helpful. Wouldn’t you say so, dear?” She looked at her husband.

            “Absolutely,” said Jake. “Absolutely. Almost like we’re on vacation.”

            “Almost,” muttered Quinn, snorting.

            “Quinn,” said Helen with a glare.

            A silence filled the room. As her parents sank into chairs near the bed, Daria thought over her future options. “How long will we be here?” she asked. “Until I recover?”

            “Ahh . . .” Her father appeared to be on the verge of speaking, but he received a warning look from Helen. “Just think of it as a vacation,” he finished.

            Oh—we’re going to stay here indefinitely, probably until the government decides I am not a threat to the United States or the planet Earth, Daria thought. The jig is up, anyway. I know anyone listening in would have heard what I said about Titan. They must have figured something was up when they picked me out of a quarry full of magma, and Titan blew up a little while later. They might even have found some of the Outers’ artifacts that survived the magma, or—worse—that transporter box. God help us if they mess with that thing. The longer I wait, the worse it will get.

            She looked at the door to the room, wondering who was on the other side, and made a decision. “Call them in,” she said. “Let’s get this over with. I’ll talk.”

            “Daria,” murmured Quinn, shaking her head slightly.

            “It’s okay,” said Daria. She reached for Quinn’s hand. “I love you,” she said, and she meant it. She had never been the demonstrative sort, but something big was about to happen, and this was a thing that needed to be said at the outset, in case it could not be said later.

            “I love you, too,” Quinn said, and she bit her lip. “Be careful.”

            “Okay,” said Daria. She looked at her parents. “Please tell whoever’s waiting to talk to me to come in.”

            “Are you sure you don’t want to wait until you’ve rested?” asked her mother.

            “No, Mom,” said Daria, and it came out in a rush. “Earth has been invaded. Artie, that pizza guy, was helping the aliens, but they killed him.” She swallowed at the memory, knowing she had had a part in it, then went on. “The aliens are trapping human beings all over the world for experiments or something, I don’t know what. Plus—” The next part was hard “—plus when the aliens tried to kill me, and when I thought Artie had killed Dad, I attacked their homeworld with one of their machines and blew it up.” She turned her head to the door, her hoarse voice rising. “But if I didn’t blow up their homeworld, we’re going to be toast! I really need to know what’s happening, so please come in and tell me!”

            Quinn stood frozen by her bedside. Her father sat and stared.

            “Oh, my God!” gasped Helen. She clutched her chest, half rising from her seat. “Daria, my baby! What—”

            The doorknob turned, and two people entered: a man and a woman about fortyish in age, wearing dark, well-tailored suits. The man had a white shirt and a coiled wire running to a radio in his left ear; the woman, a white blouse and no radio. They nodded and waved in a familiar way to Daria’s parents, whose shock faded as they returned the greeting with glum deference.

            The woman seemed to be in charge. She was tall, with short, light brown hair, cold blue eyes, and a no-nonsense manner. The man with her was taller and steel-eyed, with a hard, lined face and receding brown hair with the gray dyed out. He carefully shut the door behind them and stood against the back wall, facing Daria.

            “I believe you called,” said the woman dryly, walking to the foot of Daria’s bed. “Daria Morgendorffer?”

            Daria nodded, feeling her bravado waver. Get it over with. Tell them everything. Everything, that is, except

            “I’m Special Agent Kristen Wild, Federal Bureau of Investigation.” She indicated the man with her. “This is Special Agent Gerald Hardesty. If you want to talk with us, we’d love to hear from you, but—” Her gaze went to Jake and Helen “—we should speak in private.”

            Jake and Helen started to get up from their chairs.

            “No,” said Daria. “I want my parents here. And my sister.”

            Everyone stopped and stared at her, then looked at each other. “Miss Morgendorffer, that’s not a good idea,” said Agent Wild. “Your family will be perfectly safe. They’ll be escorted—”

            “No. I want them here with me.”

            Agent Wild stared at Daria for a long moment. “I guess baby talk won’t do,” she said evenly. “Miss Morgendorffer, you are probably not aware that on November twentieth, just over a week ago, a national emergency was declared by the President of the United States and both houses of Congress. We are finely concerned about the immediate survival of this nation, not to mention the rest of the human race and the planet we live on. We would very much like to speak with you in private about—”

            “My parents and my sister,” Daria repeated. “I’ll talk if they’re here, but not if they’re not.”

            “Daria,” said Quinn, “maybe it would be better if we—”


            “Miss Morgendorffer,” said Agent Wild with an edge in her voice, “perhaps you don’t understand what is going on. Everyone in the world is aware of what happened to Saturn. Hundreds of millions of people saw the explosion in the sky, a week ago Thursday, and everyone has been treated to hourly broadcasts on it on every channel and station. Word has gotten out that you and perhaps beings from other worlds are somehow connected with it. To say that the national mood is fearful is an understatement. Your family and all other people who knew you in more than a passing way have been housed here for their own protection. We cannot guarantee their safety or yours otherwise. There have been many death threats, not to mention civil unrest and even rioting worldwide.” She gestured at Daria’s parents. “Anything you tell your family about this situation could endanger their lives. I am as serious as I can be. The more they know, the worse you make it for them.”

            Damn it! Daria swallowed. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” she said, making her own voice hard, “but they can’t leave anyway, right? And even if they didn’t know anything, no one would believe that, right? What’s the difference?”

            “The difference is,” said Agent Wild, “you are putting their lives in further danger.”

            “I’ll stay,” said Helen suddenly. “Daria, please, let everyone else go. I’ll stay with you.”

            The two FBI agents did not object. Daria would have preferred Quinn had stayed with her, but she suspected her lawyer mother would be a better companion for what was to come. “Okay.”

            Quinn leaned down and gave Daria a swift kiss and hug, then went to the door with her father, who gave Daria a pat on the arm before he left. When they opened the door to leave, Daria saw the hallway was crowded with soldiers carrying assault rifles and body armor. All of them looked grimly back at her.

            Helen got up and walked over to Daria’s side, taking hold of her daughter’s hand. “I’ll act as your legal counsel,” she said.

            “Miss Morgendorffer,” said Agent Wild, with a glance in Helen’s direction, “your mother may offer you legal advice, but under the provisions of the War Powers Act and special instructions from the President and Congress, your rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination no longer apply. Your mother knows this and objects, but with all due respect, her say-so no longer matters. Martial law is in effect in the United States, and certain Constitutional rights have been suspended or restricted for the duration of the emergency. We believe our national survival is at stake. We have to have answers.”

            Daria felt the muscles in her face tense. “Don’t threaten me,” she said, her voice rising.

            Agent Wild started to reply, then appeared to subside. She never took her eyes off Daria. “I was not threatening you,” she said in a low, careful voice. “I apologize if it sounded that way. We are more than a little desperate for information, and we hope very much that you will cooperate and tell us what we need to know.”

            Daria let herself relax a bit. “Like what happened to Titan?”

            “That would be a good start, if you like.”

            Sighing, Daria nodded. “Okay. Do you want to take notes?”

            “We have other people doing that for us,” said Agent Wild. “May I begin the questions?”

            “Yes,” Daria mumbled. She was sorry now that she’d gotten so angry, but the agents’ manner irked her. Helen squeezed Daria’s hand in support.

            “Can you tell me if, in your opinion, the United States or the Earth is in danger at this time?”

            “Yeah. We are. I think. What . . . I’m sorry I have to ask, but what happened to Titan?”

            “We were going to ask you that, but we need an answer to the first question first, please.”

            “Uh . . . yeah. If any of the aliens survived, they’ll be mad, and they’ve got some big toys.”

            “What kind of toys? Do you mean weapons?”

            “I don’t know, but I believe yes. Artie had worked with their stuff for years, and he could figure out only a little of it, like that liquid helium gun. I think he fixed that one up from somewhere.” She made a face. “I’m sorry about what happened to that agent who was in our room. He was a nice guy. I was sorry what happened to him when Artie . . .” She let it go.

            Agent Wild’s expression was solemn. “Thank you, but please go on about the aliens. Are they a threat to us now?”

            “I have to know first what happened to Titan. It’s kind of important in order to answer your question. Did I blow it up?”

            “Were you trying to blow up Titan?”

            “Yes, I was. I connected it to the Sun, somewhere around the core. The aliens were trying to kill me at the time.” Daria ignored her mother’s gasps. “They’d opened a gate in the cavern that went to outer space, I guess so they could suck me out of there, but I opened my gate first into the Sun. I was trying to . . . this must sound really weird.”

            Agent Wild nodded slightly. “You connected Titan to the Sun?”

            “Yeah. I was using one of their devices—” Careful! “—that made, um, wormholes, gates, I don’t know what to call them. They could join any two points in space together, like through a window, in the middle of the air or anywhere. About Titan—?”

            “As I understand it,” said the agent, “there is a rocky core left, but it’s much smaller than it was. Everything that was above it—the atmosphere, any ice or liquids—all that is gone. Whatever happened to Titan also affected the rest of Saturn’s system. Some of the smaller satellites were damaged or destroyed, the rings are mostly gone, and part of Saturn’s atmosphere was blown off into space. Some photographs from Hubble suggest Saturn turned briefly into something like a giant comet. You can easily imagine the concern that we felt when this was discovered.” She tilted her head. “You said you connected Titan to the Sun?”

            “To the core of the Sun. I don’t know how hot that is, but I thought the pressure there would blow the heat out onto Titan. The aliens were trying to kill me at the time, and I wasn’t feeling well, either, so I was sort of rushed and I didn’t know if I’d gotten it right.”

            “If I remember the astronomy course I took last summer,” said Agent Wild, “the core of the Sun is supposed to be over twenty-five million degrees Fahrenheit. The explosion that was witnessed at Saturn lasted almost an hour.”

            “Oh,” said Daria after a pause. She remembered passing out after setting up the gate. The destruction had been more thorough than she’d intended, then. The rings were gone, too?

            “And you used what to join the Sun and Titan together?” the agent prompted, jarring Daria’s thoughts.

            Careful. “It was a little box like a remote control that could create gateways in space. Artie used it to get me out of the hotel and into the quarry cave. I took it away from him when I pulled a cabinet over on him. He had my hands tied up, and I fell down and hurt my knee—Mom, stop squeezing my hand like that. I’m okay.”

            “Did he hurt you?” Helen blurted, her face alive with fear and horror.

            “No! No, Mom, no, he didn’t hurt me, not like that. He was pretty crazy, I mean really crazy, but he didn’t hurt me. He was trying to bargain with the Outers—that’s what he called them, the aliens, he called them the Outers. Anyway, we had a fight, and I got the gate-making thing away from him—he called it a transporter box—and that’s what I used when the aliens tried to attack me. I was trying to get a gate between the cave and my backyard at home, so Monique and I could escape, but the robots attacked us—”

            “What robots?”

            “Those spider-like robots that were at the Sloanes’ house. Artie was controlling them. Those were the Outers’ robots, but he had taken over their stuff. When they killed him—”

            “Artie is dead?”

            “Yeah. They . . . one of the robots just . . . tore him apart, and then they came for me, the robots, and I tried to open a gate to the ocean to make the robots freeze because they were cryogenic, but I opened the gate into the Earth’s mantle instead because I was rushing too much, and the magma wiped out all of Artie’s stuff and the robots and Artie, too, I guess. That’s where the lava stuff came from. I know I must sound crazier each time I open my mouth. You have to believe me, this is true.”

            “Under the circumstances, I can’t afford to not believe you,” said the agent. “You said Titan was the aliens’ homeworld?”

            “Artie thought it was. I saw a map of it with the gateway-maker, and it was covered with buildings or something. I’m sure it was their homeworld here in the solar system. Artie said he thought the Outers were from somewhere else, another star system I think, and made a small colony here, on Titan. They were afraid of getting closer to the Sun, like to Earth, but they were studying us. They captured me and other people like Artie and Monique to use us for experiments or zoos or something, I have no idea what.”

            “Was Titan the only place in the solar system where the aliens had bases?”

            “Uh, no. They have a lot of them on Earth. I remember—”

            “On Earth?” said the agent, started. “Here on this planet?”

            “Those aren’t bases where the aliens live, though,” Daria corrected. “They’re like unmanned bases. You know. Anyway, I saw them on the map. I think all their bases on Earth are people-traps. I didn’t see anything other than that.”

            “Could you view each planet in the solar system with that gate device you were talking about?”

            “Yeah. Only Earth and—” Not the Moon! Not the gateway-maker! But what if some aliens are still there, on the Moon, by the machine? Can I risk it? Probably not. “—Titan had symbols on them. And the Moon, near the south pole.”

            “The Moon? Earth’s Moon?”

            “Yes. I think it was at the south pole. I don’t know why.”

            “And symbols meant alien bases were present?”

            Daria nodded.

            “And, other than the Earth and Moon, only Titan had those symbols?”

            “Yeah, only . . .” Daria stopped dead, her eyes widening. Oh, crap!

            The agent noticed. “What is it?”

            “I, uh, I didn’t check the planets beyond Saturn,” she said in a faint voice.

            “Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, comets?”

            “Yeah. I didn’t—oh, damn!”

            “So there could be more alien bases, in your opinion, on the other outer worlds or their moons?”

            Daria spoke quickly. “They would have to be on the moons, Artie said, because they needed gravity to live and work on. They couldn’t live on the gassy planets like Jupiter, because there was no surface and too much gravity.”

            “Okay, then,” said Agent Wild, “could—”

            “Triton?” said Agent Hardesty. It was the first thing he’d said so far. Daria guessed he was getting feedback through his ear radio, from other people listening to the conversation. Agent Wild looked at him, then turned to Daria, waiting.

            “Triton?” Daria repeated. “The moon around Neptune?” Holy cow! That’s another big satellite, like Titan was! I forgot all about it! “Uh . . . I don’t know. It makes sense, but I didn’t check it. Or Pluto or anything farther out. I’m sorry.”

            “Where is the device you used to open the gateways?” asked Agent Wild.

            Daria took a deep breath. Do it right. Don’t let anyone else get it. They don’t know how to handle it. “I threw it into the magma after I blew up Titan.”

            “Where were you when you threw it?”

            “I was . . . I was by the pile of rocks, holding on to one of them. When the gate going to outer space shut off, I guess because Titan was gone, I threw it as hard as I could, then climbed up the rock pile to get away from the magma. It was really hot and I was afraid it would flow toward me.”

            “We’re at two,” said Agent Hardesty. He was looking at Wild. “We have to go to a briefing.”

            “Two? Okay.” Agent Wild sighed and put out a hand. “Thank you, Miss—”

            “Daria,” said Daria.

            “—Daria. We’ll need to talk with you again today, probably this afternoon or evening.”

            “Okay. What’s ‘two’?”

            The two agents looked at each other. Hardesty listened to his ear radio, then nodded to Wild, who turned to Daria. “That’s Defense Condition Two, DEFCON Two. It’s a state of military readiness. We’ll be back soon.”

            The door closed behind the agents. Helen looked at Daria in confusion. “DEFCON Two? I remember hearing something about that during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was about your age at the time. Doesn’t that mean something like we’re ready to make a nuclear attack?”

            Daria looked in the direction the agents had gone. “Yeah,” she said, remembering her history. “If we go to one, it means we’re at war.”





Chapter Seventeen:
An Intermission Before the World Ends



            The agents did not return right away, and as the afternoon wore on, Daria became restless as well as more nervous. The idea of going to war against the aliens frightened her, especially if she did not have that transporter box handy to help out. She wondered if anyone else but her could use it. Could only people who had been captured and “reworked” use it, like her and Monique? Could anyone use it? If the latter was true, it would be a disaster if the box fell into anyone else’s hands but hers. Only she knew how it worked and what it was capable of doing if mishandled. Should she tell the FBI about it? The issue stressed her out.

            She talked a nurse and her parents into letting her get out of bed to walk around, using the IV stand as a support. Several doctors visited her and confirmed that, when admitted, she did have what appeared to be radiation poisoning. She was healing from it at a rapid pace, however, which mystified the doctors though it pleased them and everyone else. They deftly avoided discussing her condition further.

            The hospital room had no windows, which Daria found depressing. Not in the mood for TV, she paced back and forth until she could take it no longer. “Can I go for a walk?” she asked her mother and father, who were reading paperback novels in their hospital chairs.

            Both looked up. “No,” they both said at the same moment, then returned to their books.

            “I’m really bored. This is worse than sitting through a pep rally.”

            Helen picked up a news magazine and handed it to her daughter. The cover showed an artist’s rendition of Titan exploding. “This is a new one, I think.”

            Daria eyed the cover and made a face. “No, thanks. Did I hear right, that other families are here, too?”

            Helen blew out a long breath. “Yes. No one is taking it terribly well, though.”

            Jake put aside his marketing techniques handbook and got up. “I’ll see if she can have visitors,” he said.

            “Check with that colonel, the one with the mustache,” said Helen. “He seems to be in charge.”

            “Righty-right! Be right back, kiddo.”

            “Thanks, Dad,” said Daria.

            When her father opened the door to leave, Daria peered down the corridor at the soldiers there. They eyed her, she eyed them, and then the door closed. “When will Quinn be back?” she asked, turning to her mother.

            “Rita and Amy were going to spend some time with her over lunch,” said Helen, lowering her romance novel. “The other families get together for meals. We’ll join them when you’re feeling better.”

            “I’d be surprised if they wanted to have anything to do with me, after all this crap,” muttered Daria.

            Helen did not answer right away. “I think . . . everyone would be delighted to see you,” she said at last. “I know Elsie and Tom would, and Monique. She is an interesting girl.”

            From the way her mother spoke, Daria understood that not everyone would be happy to see her. “Did Monique find her father?”

            Helen put her book aside, looking sad. “We had bad news about that. Her father died in a car accident in Lawndale two years ago. Her parents were divorced, and they’ve not been able to contact her mother. Monique does have an older brother in Oakwood. He’s come to visit her once, but he’s married now and has a little boy, so he can’t stay long. She’s been staying with the Sloanes or with us. I believe her brother wants custody of her when that can be worked out. I gave him some advice on that.”

            “How are the Landons taking this?”

            Helen sighed and looked at the wall. “Mrs. Landon isn’t taking it very well, I’m afraid. Mr. Landon—Andrew—has been better about it, but he’s very upset, too. I hardly blame them. Michele wants to go home, and Andrew wants to get back to his business. Mr. Sloane is much the same way. He and Andrew spend a lot of time together. They’ve been very kind to us. Jodie Landon has been the sweetest thing, helping everyone out. She’s kept our spirits up.” She hesitated. “Rachel has asked about you every day. She called the police to get you out of the quarry. I’m afraid Andrew thought your call was a prank at first. He was very sorry about that.”

            “It’s okay. I’d like to see Rachel, if I could.”

            “Dear . . .” Her mother sat forward in her chair and tried to think of the right words. “Michele was very shaken by what happened, and she would rather Jodie and Rachel did not visit with you right now. I’m sure she’ll get over it in time, but we shouldn’t push it.”

            “Anyone else mad at me?”

            “Daria, no one is mad at you. Everyone’s just . . . taken aback, I’d say. So much has happened, it’s been hard for everyone to handle. People are . . . well, because of the news, they’re a little—”

            “Afraid of me?”

            With an unhappy look, Helen nodded. “A little. Some more than others. They’ll get over it once you’ve recovered and they’ve been around you more, I’m sure of it.”

            “Are you afraid of me?”

            “Why, no! What a silly question! Of course I’m not afraid of you!”

            “Why are you jiggling your leg and talking so fast in such a high voice?”

            At that, Helen stopped jiggling her leg and got up. “Now you’re being ridiculous,” she said as walked around, searching for something. “I know the TV remote is here somewhere. I wish I could call the office and see how things were going. They let me have an indefinite leave of absence, but I don’t know how long they think ‘indefinite’ is.”

            The door to the room opened. “Hey!” called Jake as he came in. He was followed by several children. Elsie and Monique went straight to Daria, calling her name, and embraced her in a long hug. Daria was unused to shows of affection and felt embarrassed—but she was also pleased, even if she would never say so aloud. It was a struggle for Daria not to burst into tears.

            “I sort of thought something weird like this would happen,” Elsie said. “I knew when I saw you in that sensitivity class that being your friend might drag crazy stuff along, too, but that’s okay. It’s worth it.”

            “I can’t believe that,” mumbled Daria, sandwiched between the girls.

            “You never believe anything that’s true,” said Elsie with a smile. “Like about Tom being evil.”

            “Thanks, sis,” said Tom, standing nearby with his hands in his pockets.

            “And thanks for getting me out of that cave and whacking Artie for me,” said Monique to the top of Daria’s head. “My brother’s coming back this weekend with his family. I hope you can meet them.”

            “Okay, sure. Um, I’m sorry about your father.”

            Monique said nothing except to hug Daria tighter.

            “Careful of the IV tube,” warned Jake. “Let me get that out of the way. You have some other people here to see you, too.”

            Elsie and Monique let go of Daria so she could look. Rachel Landon waited by the door, her hands behind her back.

            “Rachel’s dad let her come up,” said Jake uneasily. “Don’t tell her mother about this, though, or else she’ll—well, don’t tell.”

            “You okay?” asked Rachel nervously.

            “I’m better,” said Daria. “You saved my life. I owe you everything.”

            “Oh. It’s okay.” Rachel and Daria looked at each other awkwardly.

            “Jeez, do I have to do everything?” said Elsie, marching over to Rachel. She caught Rachel by the arm and pulled her over to Daria, and they hugged.

            “Thank you so much,” Daria whispered. “I can’t tell you how glad I am for what you did for me. I thought I was a goner.”

            Rachel said nothing but hugged Daria harder.

            “Time for a group hug,” said Tom, herding in Elsie and Monique and preparing to join in as well.

            “Girls only, Tom,” warned Elsie. “Go hit on someone your own age.”

            “I’m not hitting on anyone!” he protested. He turned to Helen. “You’re a lawyer, right? Defend me!”

            “I’m a corporate lawyer, not a criminal one,” said Helen with a smirk. All the girls laughed.

            Tom turned red but smiled, too. “I’ll go downstairs and join my parents for some vending machine food,” he said. He gave Daria a warm smile. “Good to see you on your feet. Nice glasses, too. You look sharp.”

            Daria blushed down to her feet. “Thanks,” she said. “Have a good lunch.”

            After Tom left, the girls sat on the bed and talked about the last week, mostly about the boredom they felt being confined in the hospital. All were aware their conversation was being monitored, but none cared. Rachel stayed a few minutes longer before she felt she had to go. “My mom’s kind of tense about stuff,” she said by way of apology.

            “I understand,” said Daria. “Hope we can talk later.”

            “Me, too.” Everyone gave Rachel a goodbye hug. “Tell me if I can do anything else, okay?” she said to Daria before she departed.

            “I will,” said Daria. “Count on it.”

            Monique left with Rachel, the two of them hoping to get lunch. Jake served as their escort. Nurses came to take Daria’s vital signs. Daria and Elsie got up on the bed again.

            “So, compadre,” said Elsie after the nurses left, “what next?”

            “I don’t know.” Daria hunched over, examining a scar on her right arm. She looked up with an eyebrow raised. “Compadre?”

            “I got it from a movie. It means partner.”

            “My Spanish is a little rusty. My French isn’t much better.”

            “‘Compadre’ is the only Spanish I know, except for food things like taco or burrito.”

            “To answer your question again, I don’t know.” She grimaced. “I have a lot to think about.”

            “Are they going to attack again?”

            “You mean those spider-robots? Those were controlled by Artie, the guy who kidnapped me.” Daria rubbed her nose. “Although the Outers could control them, too. That worries me; unless the Outers were right here on Earth, and I don’t think they were, they have a really fast communications system.”

            “Monique said the Outers were the aliens who were invading us.”

            “That was Artie’s name for them, but yeah. I don’t know if they’re going to attack us, if any of them are left. I have no idea. It would help to find out. I know a way to do it, but . . .” She looked downcast. “Crap.”

            Elsie looked on with understanding. “Something you have to do?”

            “Yeah. It’s going to be hard.”

            “You need to do it now?”

            Daria nodded. “You’d better go. I have to talk to the FBI guys.”

            “Daria?” called Helen from across the room. She lowered the magazine she’d been pretending to read. “What’s wrong, dear?”

            “My signal to go,” said Elsie, sliding off the bed. “Call me when it’s over.”

            “Wait.” Daria got off the bed, too, then gave Elsie a quick hug. “You are the first friend I’ve ever had,” she whispered.

                “You are the weirdest and the best, compadre,” Elsie replied with a smile.

            As Elsie left, Daria walked her to the door. She held it open after Elsie was out of sight down the hall.

            The soldiers regarded Daria with interest.

            “Can someone get those FBI agents for me, please?” asked Daria. “I have something important to tell them. It can’t wait.”

            One soldier tapped the man beside him. “You go. Leave your weapon with me.” The other soldier took off at a run.

            “Thanks,” said Daria. She let the door close.

            “Daria?” Helen walked over and put an arm around her daughter. “Talk to me.”

            “I have to tell the FBI guys something,” Daria said. “The sooner I do it, the better.”

            Helen knelt down to look Daria in the face. “What is it?”

            “We have to go back to that quarry cave,” she said. “I left something important there, but I don’t want anyone else to touch it, or it could make a disaster like no one would believe.”

            Her mother stopped breathing. “Is it that thing you said you used to . . .”

            “To destroy Titan, yes. I didn’t throw it in the magma. I hid it. I was afraid someone would use it and blow everything up, like happened to Titan. We need to get it back right away. I don’t think the aliens who are left have something like that, or else they would have used it on us by now. It’s the only advantage we have against them. If we don’t get it, I think we’re doomed.”

            “Oh.” White-faced, Helen looked away from Daria to the door. They could both hear the sound of running feet in the hallway outside. Suddenly, she hugged Daria close with a desperate need. “I love you,” she said. “I love you, baby. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you before, about what happened to you. I was wrong.”

            After a moment, Daria reached up and gave her mother a gentle hug back. She had not done that since she was in first grade. It was all the time they had before the door opened and the FBI agents came in.

            Nothing will ever be the same again, once I start using that device, Daria thought as she looked up at Special Agents Hardesty and Wild, breathless from their dash. Even if we win the war, it’s the end of the world we knew. And I’m the one responsible.

            She swallowed as her mother released her and stood.

            “Hi,” said Daria to the agents. Her voice was small but carried well. “I guess we’d better go save the earth before someone else blows it up, huh?”










Author's Notes II: Most of the author’s notes for this story were given in the notes for the previous one, “Who Once Was Lost.” Speculations by Isaac Asimov on methane-based alien life were used as the basis for the aliens herein, the information coming from his science essay, “We, the In-Betweens” (from Is Anyone There? Ace Books: New York, 1967, pages 196-201).

            It was originally planned for this to be the second book of The Outers Trilogy, but a fairly strong and widespread negative reaction to the SF elements herein has caused that project to be set aside. If there is ever sufficient interest in the third volume, it will be assembled and done from the notes on my computer. Perhaps an outline of the third book as it would have gone could be attached to this tale one day.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty for pointing out an automotive error in the original version (Corvette Stingrays do not have back seats) and catching on to the “can’t be liquid nitrogen” thing; Kristen Bealer and M. J. Pollard for straightening out some cross-universal confusion and becoming official Alterniverse Time Cops; Aaron “Hiergargo” Adelman for unknowingly offering a great change to a plot point early on (Monique); Mistress Thea Zara for catching the Blair Witch Project reference; Nemo Blank for intriguing speculations that affected the story’s development; Kristen Bealer, Kara Wild, Gerald “Brother Grimace” Wright, and Galen Hardesty for not minding too much that I named FBI agents after them [smirk]; and Brother Grimace and Mike Xeno for straightening out the DEFCON system.

            Finally, I acknowledge the points made by Mike Nassour, Renfield1969, Kristen Bealer, Kara Wild, and many, many others, who liked the relationships part of the story but did not care for the aliens and hard SF. If a later rewrite of this tale is done, this will be the route the story takes to its ending. Cheers!





Original: 05/19/04, revised 04/08/05, 06/04/06, 10/04/06