by Galen Hardesty

Daria sat on the sofa reading Gormenghast. As she turned to page 400, she thought, "If something doesnít start happening here soon, I may start scanning." Daria could scan at over fifteen thousand words a minute, but at that speed, she tended to miss some of the subtler nuances. And to attain that speed, sheíd have to sit at the kitchen table. The light in here sucked, and the sofa was nowhere near ergonomic. But she needed to sit here because she was waiting for a pizza delivery.

Artie turned onto Glen Oaks Lane. He thought he remembered it being a cul de sac, but he couldnít tell from here. Eleven Eleven. It would be on the right. This looked like a quiet residential neighborhood, with nice two-story houses, but Artie felt a vague sense of unease. He pressed on, scanning the house numbers as he went.

Daria started on page 408. She was wearying of reading about dull meaningless court ceremonies and decay processes afflicting ancient stone buildings, atmospherically described though they might be. This thing should have illustrations by Edward Gorey, she thought. Too bad he was dead. Daria began to wonder if the author might also be dead. Maybe of boredom, around page 297. Or maybe he was Prince Charles using a penname.

Ah, here it was. 1111 Glen Oaks. Respectable enough looking place. Artieís vague sense of unease was still bugging him, but there really werenít many times he didnít feel that way. Darn aliens! Why wouldnít they leave him alone? Today had already been a bad day for aliens and general weirdos, and he couldnít afford to abandon another pizza. Artie cautiously continued to case the place from the dubious safety of his car.

Daria heard a faint squeal of brakes from outside, a vaguely familiar squeal, but nothing was visible from her position on the sofa. Helen had called her earlier and told her that she and Jake would both be getting home late, and that she should fix or order dinner herself. After politely listening to Helen explain in great detail how to microwave frozen lasagna (as if), Daria had immediately called Pizza King to take advantage of their one-night-only special, and of the unexpected opportunity to have Mom pay for pizza.

Artie got out, still nervously scanning the area, and went around to the passenger side of his new car. Well, it wasnít really new, but it was new to him, and he was still proud of the great deal heíd gotten on it. He extracted the pizza box, checking to be sure that it was the right one. Large supreme with extra Italian sausage and mushrooms. Right. Artie heard a faint rustling sound behind him. He quickly looked around, but there was nothing there. Nervously scanning right and left, he approached the house.

Daria frowned a bit. The protagonist had just wandered into yet another hitherto-unknown wing of Castle Gormenghast, and the author was describing its architectural style and decorative hangings in great detail, whilst hinting at its advanced state of decay, to be covered more thoroughly later. With a sigh of very little regret, Daria laid aside the massive tome and headed toward the front window.

The lengthening tree shadows angled ominously across the neatly manicured lawn as Artie neared the large white front door. There was a rustle in the shrubbery. Artie spun to the right with the lightning reflexes that had won him fame throughout this sector as one of the most difficult of all humans to abduct. Once more, there was nothing there. The rustle came again, from directly behind him! Again Artie whirled around, almost faster than the eye could follow, and again there was nothing to be seen. Artie quickly reviewed the list of alien species known or rumored to possess personal cloaking device technology. At the same time, his powerful intellect told him that if these aliens controlled this house, they would not have set up the ambush in the front yard. He must make it to the door! Head swiveling rapidly, Artie bravely forged ahead.

Daria stood at the front window and looked outside. Immediately she saw why that squeal of brakes had sounded familiar. Out at the curb sat Tomís old Pinto, a little rustier, a little more decrepit, sporting a magnetic Pizza King sign on the door, but definitely the same car. Then Daria spotted the vehicleís new owner. Halfway across the yard, a frightened expression on his face, Artie was holding a pizza box and looking like he was being stalked by invisible aliens.

A movement caught Dariaís eye. A gray blur streaked from the edge of the yard to the garden gnome and hunkered down on the side opposite Artie. Artie looked in that direction but seemed not to see the small gray form. Behind him, on the other side of the yard, there were rustlings in the shrubbery, and a squirrel crept out onto a branch over Artieís head. Artie spun around, terrified. Daria watched, fascinated.

Suddenly, as if on signal, squirrels appeared from everywhere. They burst out of the shrubbery. They leapt out of the trees. They all made straight for Artie. One landed on his head, another on the pizza box. Artie screamed. Daria ran to the door and flung it open. "Hey, squirrel bait!" she yelled. "In here!"

Making a split-second decision, Artie sprinted for the door, the Gray raiding party right behind him. The Grays! Notorious for their frequent abductions and for their excessive use of probes and implants, the Grays were one of his least favorite alien species, which was saying a lot. A quick flick of the wrist sent the Gray soldier on the pizza box flying, and a lightning fast martial arts move with his free hand stunned the one on his head and sent him crashing to the ground. He dived through the door and into the unknown gloom beyond.

Daria slammed the door behind Artie, then pursued him into the family room. He was shrieking incoherently and batting at a squirrel that still clung to his pants leg. Daria began batting at it herself and yelling, "shoo, shoo!", all the while her little inner observer was laughing at her for being so trite and unoriginal. It worked though. The squirrel did two laps around Artieís trunk, then streaked across the floor and vanished up the chimney.

Miraculously, although severely agitated, Artie had not dropped the pizza box. Daria took it and headed for the kitchen. "Come on back here and Iíll get you some ice water," she said over her shoulder.

"Oh, no!" Artie thought, his delivery boy training kicking in. "The customer has the product, and I donít have the money!" He hurried after the customer.

In the kitchen, Artieís eagle eye spotted the product on the small round table in the far corner, still unopened. The customer was filling a large glass tumbler with ice and water. Artie took up a position at the table, within armís reach of the product.

Daria set the ice water on the table next to Artie. "Here you go. Iíll be right back with the money." She glanced at the receipt taped to the box and headed out of the kitchen.

Artie took a multiple gulp of the ice water, then swiped the glass across his forehead. That was too close, but things were looking up somewhat. Heíd eluded the Grays for the moment, and the customer was apparently about to render payment. But that little nagging feeling was still there. There was something about this customer...

The customer came back, and Artie spotted the bills in her hand. Currency. Excellent. He might be able to hang onto this job after all. He stood and put on his happy-to-serve smile. But then he got a good look at the customerís face, and recognized her instantly. "Aah! Itís you! The Alien Love Goddess!" he cried. His keen eyes began searching for an exit.

Daria thought, "Oh, crap, there he goes. Heís gonna flip out in the kitchen, and Iíll get blamed for the breakage." Thinking quickly, she held up the bills and said, "Donít leave without the money."

This seemed to refocus his mind on the business at hand, as he held his ground and even attempted a smile. Daria placed two bills and some change on the table. "The pizza plus tax comes to $15.37, right? There you are, and this is for you." She handed him three singles.

His face lit up as if he seldom received tips. "Gosh, thanks, Miss! Thatís very kind of you." Then he mumbled, "Unless youíre going to steal my skin again."

"Now, Artie, you know Iím not an alien. Iím just a high school student who doesnít need that kind of notoriety. Donít you remember, you were telling my friend and me about these love goddesses when you delivered a pizza to her house last spring? We were just customers. But then the next week, you were on Sick, Sad World telling that same story, and at the end they showed a doctored picture of us in those silly outfits. Iíve been wanting to ask you why you told those people that, Artie, and how they got hold of that picture of us."

He squirmed and avoided her eye. "Well, um, I have to do an awful lot of research, see, about the aliens and their technology and their latest plans, and itís really hard to keep all the details straight sometimes. Especially when Iím talking to those Sick Sad World people. They ask so many questions, and lots of times they get it wrong, and sometimes itís almost like theyíre putting words in my mouth."

"So stay away from them."

"But I canít! I have to warn the people of Earth about the aliens! Thatís the most important thing, surely you see that! And theyíre the only ones whoíll let me do it!"

"Artie, there probably arenít any aliens. The probability that thereís even one alien civilization in our whole galaxy is only fifty percent. If they do exist, they probably donít know about us, and if they know about us they probably canít get here. Even if they could get here, why would they want to? There are millions of uninhabited worlds they could get to easier. It just doesnít make sense that theyíd be swarming all over earth like you think they are." Daria picked up Artieís empty glass and headed for the sink.

"How can you say that? That capture team of Grays was swarming all over me not five minutes ago! You saved me from another abduction!"

There was a look of gratitude in his moist little eyes. Gratitude and... something else Daria found vaguely disturbing. She refilled Artieís glass and filled one for herself and returned to the table. "Those were squirrels, Artie. Not aliens. Gray squirrels. Native wildlife."

"Aha! If they were squirrels, why did they attack me? Iím not a nut!" At Dariaís look, he blushed and looked away. "Well, you know what I mean."

Daria helped herself to a slice of pizza. Jane had something she wanted her to look at, and she was expecting her to call when it was ready. "I donít know. Theyíre Lawndale squirrels. Ever since the town passed that ordinance that you couldn't kill them, they seem to have lost all fear of man. They tried to mob me a couple of times, when I was working at Nutty World and reeked of nuts. The bunch that hangs around here seems to be mostly interested in my dad. You were just a target of opportunity."

"Why would they be interested in your dad?" he asked.

Because heís almost as big a nut cluster as you are, Daria thought. She said, "I donít know. Okay, theyíre behaving strangely. But theyíre still just squirrels. They fall for simple squirrel traps. Theyíre not super-intelligent aliens. And neither am I. Right?"

A strange look crossed his strange face for a moment, a look that might almost be... loss, or longing. Then he smacked himself in the head and said, "Oh! I remember now! Youíre a clone! I read about you in the National Exposer! It said you were Daria 2, and they showed a picture of you in this cool red sports car with Daria 1! And it said there was at least one more somewhere, named Melody!" (1)

"Artie, if you believe anything written in the National Exposer, or any of those other tabloids, you will never attain a workable grasp of reality. I am not a clone."

Artie looked confused. "But the MIBs use them all the time! Theyíre the best source of intelligence on aliens! And I saw you and Daria 1in the picture!"

"Artie! MIB was a movie. It wasnít real. That photo was of me and my Aunt Amy, my Momís kid sister. Come here, Iíll show you." Daria rose and headed back to the family room. Artie followed. At the bottom of the staircase, she pointed at a photo of Amy in the framed grouping on the wall. "We look a lot alike, but not that much. Our noses are different, and she has curly hair."

Artie squinted carefully at the picture, and then at Daria. "Hmm. Sheís the one in the picture, all right. I canít believe The Exposer didnít check their facts better than that."

"They lied, Artie. Thatís what they do. The whole tabloid industry is based on lying. Facts just get in their way. Now, didnít you say something about other deliveries?"

"Omigosh! Thatís right! My timeís running out! Would you happen to know how to get to this address from here?" Artie fished a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Daria.

Daria looked at the paper and one corner of her mouth turned up slightly. It was Janeís address. "Sure. Go back the way you came, turn left at the first intersection, and it's three blocks down on the left. Two-story yellow house with a metal sculpture in the front yard." She handed him back the slip of paper. "Now when I open the door, you run like hell for the car, and youíll catch those squirrels flatfooted."

Artie went over to the door. He looked up at her with a strange, almost wistful expression. "Thanks a lot. Youíve been very nice. Um, youíre sure youíre not going to download my skin or... something?"

Daria frowned. "Have you heard anything I said? Now git!" She jerked open the door and pointed outside.

Artie scampered for his car. A few squirrels came around the corner of the house and made for him, but he made it handily. The pinto started up, did a u-turn and pulled away, managing to chirp a tire slightly before it straightened out. Daria closed the door.

His last words came back to her, along with that strange look. Slowly, like a million spiders beginning to climb her paralyzed body, the realization crept over her that she, as the Alien Love Goddess, was the star of Artieís unimaginable libidinous fantasies, and had been for some time. Throwing all her intellectual might into the struggle to block that thought, she considered instead the question: "Shower first, or throw up, then shower?"

The phone rang. Daria lunged at it as if it were a life preserver. "Hello?"

It was Jane. "Hey, amiga. Itís ready. Can you come over?"

Dariaís mind galloped off in all directions. She really really didnít want to see Artie again. On the other hand, she did want to see what happened when Artie saw Jane. Ralphing, showering, and pizza would have to wait. After a few seconds, Janeís voice came again. "Daria? You still there?"

"Uhhh, yeah. Yeah, Iím... on my way."


La la LA la la.



(1) From "Too Many Choices" by the great Nemo.