Nemo Blank


Too Many Choices


All characters belong to MTV. Used without permission. This story is not to be sold, but it may be distributed freely, so long as the authors name and email remain. All rights reserved. Enjoy!

I rate this story PG-13. Some Language, Some mild, sexual content. If that sort of thing bothers you, please log off and return to your planet of origin at once.




     Trent mumbled and went back to sleep.


     Trent sat bolt upright and tried to orient himself.


     Cursing, Trent slipped on his pants, stumbled sleepily downstairs and walked out the back door. His mother was there with a big pile of ceramic and pottery works. As he watched, she picked one up and threw it against a tarp draped over a large rock.


     When Amanda picked up the next item, Trent recognized it.

     "No-ooo!" He shouted, lunging for her.


     "Oh, hello, Trent. What's the matter?" Amanda slipped off her headphones and looked at him with the neglectful indulgence that she reserved for her offspring.

     Trent sighed. "That vase was a birthday present to you, from Janey."

     "Really?" Amanda looked at the fragments. "Oh dear. I guess I forgot. When did she make it?"

     Trent felt an unaccustomed wave of anger. "She was ten. I guess you never really looked at it."

     Amanda gestured vaguely in the direction of her studio. "I was so busy that week."

     "Yeah-" Trent bit off his retort. It would just be wasted on her. With Amanda, her art came first. She didn't really understand why anyone could have a problem with that.

     "Well, I'll use the fragments and it'll be reborn as something new." Amanda smiled, slipped on her headphones and smashed another piece.

     Unwillingly, Trent looked up at Janey's window. Sure enough, Jane was looking back down at him with a defeated expression. She shook her head and slid the window closed.

     "Damn..." Trent sighed again. Janey had almost no relationship with her parents. As the Lane children grew up, the younger ones had been left to the older ones to raise. By the time Jane's turn had come, her parents had been on the road so long that they had seemingly forgotten how to connect. It hadn't been easy for him, either, but he had at least gotten to know his father a little. Trent thought that his father was the ultimate flake. To Jane, her father was an odd sort of visitor who sometimes brought her strange presents, but mostly ignored her.

     Trent was unembarrassed about living under the parental roof, primarily because he figured that they owed him. He had to be there to look after Janey.

     "Janey's almost ready to leave home, Mom. When she does, I'll be gone too. I wouldn't smash any more keepsakes, if I were you." Trent looked at her stiff back, turned and walked away.

     Crash! Crash! Crash!

     Unable to get back to sleep, Trent decided to do his monthly chore. He put on his greasy coveralls and walked out to his old Plymouth. He put the front wheels up on a pair of cinderblocks, applied a grease gun to the suspension and steering gear, changed the oil and topped off all of the various fluids. He was sprawled over the raised fender with his feet off the ground, trying to thread in a newly gapped sparkplug, when he felt eyes on him. He extracted himself, turned and his tense expression melted into a welcoming smile.

     "Hey, Daria."

     "Hi, Trent. Taking care of baby?" Daria smiled back at him, then blushed, prettily.

     Trent coughed nervously and turned it into a laugh. "Yeah, a beached baby whale. Jane's up in her room right now. I'll go fetch her for you, so you don't have to talk to my mom."

     Daria raised her eyebrows. "Do I embarrass you guys?"

     "No, she does," he deadpanned.

     Daria looked at him for a beat, then laughed. "Sure, Trent, go ahead. I know all about that."

     Trent put down his socket wrench and wiped his greasy hands on an old grocery sack. "Be right back, Daria," he said as he trotted to the front door.

     "Take your time." Daria watched his retreating form. When he was out of sight, she let out her breath. "Woah. Nice coveralls, Trent."

     "Just think, he's completely naked underneath them!"

     "Ahk!" Shocked, Daria spun around to see Jane, grinning at her.

     "Window shopping?" Jane laughed.

     "Damn! What's the big idea, sneaking up on me like that?" Daria blushed and turned away in a haze of intense embarrassment.

     "Now don't get a rash, Daria. I just happened to walk around from the back yard. You were the one that was too distracted to hear me." Jane smirked at her friend. "Maybe I misunderstood. Perhaps it's the coveralls that you like."

     Daria groaned with embarrassment. "Say one word, Jane, one single little syllable to him about this and they'll be finding pieces of you on the moon."

     "Relax, Daria. My lips are sealed. Jo-Jo the Oblivious Boy will never get a hint from me that you find the sight of him bent over the fender of his dinosaur-mobile, irresistible." Jane started to laugh at her own wit and almost swallowed her tongue when she saw Trent standing behind her by the corner of the house, arms crossed, listening. Thankfully, Daria was still facing away from him.

     Trent fixed Jane with his eyes and shook his head, reprovingly. He looked at Daria, smiled and then faded back around the corner.

     "See that he doesn't. Life is humiliating enough as it is without this constant-" Daria abruptly shut up as she heard Trent calling for Jane.

     Trent came back around the corner. "Oh, there you are. Mission accomplished, Daria. Sort of."

     "Um, Thanks." Daria was still embarrassed, so she clamed up.

     "So, what are you two doing today, Daria?" Trent wanted to put Daria at her ease.

     "Well, I was gonna go look at some cars today, but my dad backed out at the last minute." Daria's embarrassment began to fade.

     "I'm sure that Trent would be happy to help you out, Daria." Jane smirked as Daria smothered a gasp. Trent's rare smile hadn't gone unnoticed.

     Trent, nonchalantly eyeing his partially reassembled engine, shrugged. "Sure, I've got nothing else to do today. Max is sick and Jesse's scouting for new gigs over in Springdale, so there aren't any gigs this weekend. If you like, I'll drive you around, Daria."

     Daria blushed again. "Um, thanks. That'd be nice."

     Jane smiled even wider. "It's too bad that I can't go with you. For some reason, Amanda's decided to teach me how to work her kiln today."

     Trent looked exasperated and Daria grew even more expressionless.

     "Really?" Trent hoped that it was true. Maybe Amanda would finally realize that she had a talented daughter. "Daria, I'm gonna have to finish this up and shower, so it'll be about an hour and a half."

     Daria nodded. "That's fine, Trent. I'll just hang around with Jane until you're ready." She turned to Jane. "Do you mind if I use your bathroom?"

     "Go ahead." Jane smiled at her friend. "Don't worry about my mom. It looks like she's flipped out, but she's really just smashing old pottery so that she can reuse the fragments."

     "It must be nice to have an acceptable explanation for the deranged behavior of one's parental units." Daria grew even more deadpan. "I wish I could think of one." Daria turned and walked to the house.

     Jane's eyes widened. Trent was unmistakably ogling Daria as she walked away.

     "Ooh, so you really do like her!" Jane said, a little shocked.

     Trent glanced at his sister. "Sure I like her. Daria's cool. She 'gets' me. I can talk to her." Trent frowned at Jane. "I can't seem to do it without you popping up and taunting her about it, though. Do us all a favor and lay off, alright?" Trent grinned at her offended look and then got back to work on his car.

     Jane shrugged. It had always been amusing to throw the two apparently emotionless beings together and watch Daria try and deal with her huge crush on Trent. Jane didn't quite know what to make of Trent actually reciprocating. Daria was just so different from the bimbos he usually went for. It bothered her. Daria would get over the crush, but if there was nothing real there to replace it...

     Jane looked worriedly at Trent as he slotted in a new air filter. Daria had very sharp claws. Underneath the cool facade, Trent was a sensitive guy. If she got angry when the real Trent didn't measure up to the one in her imagination, she might unthinkingly lacerate him. He could get some interesting mental scars out of it.

     After he showered, Trent was rummaging around in his closet for clothes. "Dammit, now I've got nothing to wear."

     Jane, passing by his door, stuck her head in and grinned at him. "Just stick a flower behind your ear and go in the towel. I'm sure that Daria won't mind it a bit."

     "Very funny." Trent kicked a pile of laundry that was laying in his corner and recoiled from the smell. "Damn cigarettes. I can't put these back on." The bars Trent usually played were always full of smoke.

     Jane walked over to his closet. "You know, Trent, if you actually washed some clothes instead of waiting for me... How about this?" Jane pulled out Trent's suit.

     "My suit? That's for weddings, court and funerals." Trent shrugged and took the hanger from her. "What the hell. You can forget the tie, though. I just hope Daria likes the Miami Vice look.

     Jane looked at him with an unreadable expression. "Trent?"

     Trent turned back to her. "Yeah, Janey?"

     "Be careful with Daria." Jane looked away.

     Puzzled, Trent furrowed his brow. "What exactly are you saying, Janey? You know that I would never hurt Daria!"

     Jane walked to the door and turned back to him. "I know. It's you that I was worried about. Don't forget to comb your hair, Mr. Butterfly."

     Jane walked away, leaving Trent mystified.

     What's got in to her? Mr. Butterfly? Trent wondered. He laughed and put on his suit. Good name for a band.

     Daria and Trent crisscrossed Lawndale, looking in car lots and visiting private sellers. By six o'clock, Daria had decided on one. When they went back to the lot, it was closed.

     "Damn, it's too late." Trent looked at her. "I guess I could give you a ride over here tomorrow, Daria."

     Daria smiled at him. The ice had been well broken by a day spent together and Daria was getting more comfortable in his presence. "Thanks, but I'm having second thoughts about it. It's just too expensive for a ten year old car. I really do appreciate all the help though, Trent. I hate riding the bus."

     Trent coughed, then managed to speak. "That's what friends are for, Daria." Trent's stomach suddenly let out a loud growl. "Oops, time to feed the bear. Want to have dinner with me?"

     "Uhm, okay, Trent. I'd like that very much." Daria's eyes widened. Did this mean that she was going out with Trent on a date? Nah, thought Daria. Just feeding the bear.

     Trent whipped across into the left lane and turned into the parking lot of Bob's restaurant and lounge.

     The waitress greeted Trent like an old friend and they were immediately seated, even though the dinner crowd was to the overflow point.

     Trent passed Daria a menu, but didn't look at his. "Everything on there is good, especially the fish, Daria."

     Daria pushed the menu back. "You order, Trent. You seem to know the place pretty well." Daria hesitated. "I want to pay, though."

     Trent laughed. "You can pay next time. Don't worry, Daria. I got it."

     "But you've driven me all over town, Trent. At least let me pay for the gas." Daria hated the idea of being a sponge.

     Trent looked at Daria and smiled. Most of the girls that he went out with relentlessly chiseled away at him. "Relax, Daria. I can afford it. Besides, I happen to like your company."

     Daria twitched in shock and then reddened. "T- Thanks, Trent. I like you too." Daria suddenly giggled.

     "What's so funny?"

     "Nothing." She laughed.

     "Come on Daria."

     "I was just thinking that I'll probably spill something, or embarrass myself somehow." Daria looked away and felt a stirring of nervousness. Why had she admitted that?

     "Well hey, Daria, it's only me. I sing 'Ice Box Woman' in public. You can't get much more embarrassing than that. I just hope that I don't drool, or forget to use the fork." Trent wished that Daria would get over her nervousness. It seemed like he had to start over from scratch every time he met her.

     "I wouldn't care about that." Daria looked away. "How do you do it, Trent? Get up there in front of everybody like that without being nervous?"

     Trent laughed incredulously and then decided to answer the question. "I didn't, at first, Daria." Trent searched for words. "When I first got on stage I used to pretend that I was someone else. Then one day I just didn't need to any more."

     "It still impresses me that you can be so relaxed looking when you get up there." Daria successfully fought down another blush. "I get so stiff whenever I have to speak in public. I read a story in a coffee house once and I don't think that I ever looked at the audience after I got started."

     Trent laughed. "Janey told me all about that. She even showed me the story in the paper. You did so well that you started a riot!"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "The football team got a little overexcited. I wrote a story that was calculated to appeal to the semi-moronic and I hit my target all to well."

     Trent looked at her thoughtfully. "You must be a really good writer. Have you ever written any songs?"

     "No. I never saw any point. All I know how to play is the harmonica, and you can't sing and play a harmonica at the same time." Daria suddenly realized that she wasn't nervous anymore. She smiled at Trent, happily.

     Trent gulped and gasped at the same time, setting off a coughing spell.

     "Are you all right, Trent?" Daria looked at him with concern. He was flushed and seemed to be having trouble breathing. What could be the matter?

     "Uhm, yeah, Daria." Trent cleared his throat. "Just embarrassing myself."

     Daria didn't quite know what to make of that. She opened her mouth to inquire further and was interrupted by the arrival of the waitress.

     "Well, are you kids ready to order?" The waitress was a pretty woman in her early forties. She gave Trent a conspiratorial smile.

     Trent smiled back in relief. "Charlene! This is Daria." He turned back to Daria. "Daria, Charlene taught me how to wait tables."

     Charlene rolled her eyes. "I tried to teach him. I'm afraid that Trent's talents lie more in the kitchen."

     "Really? I didn't know that you had a regular job, Trent." Daria said, surprised.

     "It's just part time, until the band takes off." Trent was embarrassed.

     Charlene smiled sympathetically at Trent and turned to Daria. "Chef Raul want's to nominate Trent to attend his old Cordon Bleu school in New Orleans. He thinks that Trent has the gift."

     "Wow! That's impressive!" Daria beamed at him.

     Trent laughed. "I hate to disappoint him, but I just don't see myself as a chef."

     Charlene shrugged. "What's it gonna be, then?"

     "Rock star!" Trent grinned at the two women.

     "Very funny. I mean what do you want to eat?" Charlene's eyes twinkled.

     "Oh, I think we'll have the special." Trent smiled back at Daria. "What do you want to drink?"

     "Iced tea, please." Daria wondered what the special was.

     It turned out to be breaded halibut and potato medallions. Daria normally hated fish, but it was surprisingly good.

     After dinner, when he pulled up in front of her house to drop Daria off, Trent made an odd request. "Please, don't tell Janey about my cooking gig. I'd never hear the end of it."

     Daria shrugged. "Okay, Trent. I won't say anything about it. You know, I don't see anything at all wrong with being a chef. They make good money and I think it's kind of cool."

     "Me neither, Daria. I just don't want to get mouse-trapped into it. I want to really try, before I give up on a musical career." Trent looked at her and felt a pang of worry.

     "Well, thanks for dinner and a wonderful day, Trent." Daria looked at him and blushed.

     Trent smiled. "My pleasure. So, I guess I'll see you around, then?"

     "What? Sure, I'll be over." In a happy daze, Daria opened the door and got out.

     "Bye, Daria." He smiled at her and pulled away.

     That Sunday Trent was sitting on his stool and strumming his guitar. He knew that thinking was usually a mistake, but he also knew that he couldn't stop. He was confused and rattled by the whole Daria thing. He'd just wanted to take her out because she made him laugh and he was in need of cheering up. Trent hadn't expected to feel so attached.

     He sighed. Girls were for fun and games, not to be taken seriously. You didn't let them affect your plans. Daria was... different. Dangerous. She was making him loose his edge, take his eye off the prize. Now he understood what Janey had tried to tell him. Trent knew that he had to back off from Daria, but somehow she'd invaded his mind. That smile. Trent sighed gustily, again. He knew that he was on the brink. It was just chemistry, he told himself. She was magnetic. Time to throttle way back.

     The phone rang and Trent gratefully abandoned his thinking.

     It was Jesse. "Hey man it's all set!"

     Trent sat bolt upright. "Eight hundred a gig?"

     "Yeah, that's our end. He gets the other hundred commission." Jess hesitated. "But we've got to handle expenses too."

     "Eleven percent for him. That's a little high." Trent frowned to himself.

     "The dude is organized, man. He's got maps in his office with dots on them where the gigs are. We just drive from dot to dot and play. He calls it a circuit and the good thing about it is that we get back home Monday through Wednesday." Jesse was a little overwhelmed by the maps.

     "It won't be worth it unless we can get at least four gigs a week," warned Trent.

     "What?" Jesse was dumbfounded.

     "Four gigs'll give us eight hundred a week, each, if we cheat the taxman. That's enough to spend $250 a week on cheap motels and gas and still come out ahead of a straight job. Any less and the band won't last." Trent stared off into space and calculated. "If we pay tax, it won't be enough."

     Jesse wanted it to happen. "We could double up, cut costs. For instance we could all share a ride and-"

     Trent laughed. "No way, man. We'd be at each other's throats in no time. Being on the road is bad enough without having to see each other all the time."

     Jesse sighed. "Yeah, you're right. You'd better come talk to this dude then. I don't know why you sent me."

     Trent coughed and said, "Is he there?"

     "No, I'm on a payphone in the mall," said Jesse.

     "I sent you so I wouldn't get rolled, Jess. You had a number which I didn't think he'd meet and he did. I'd have let it drop. Now I know the ballpark and we aren't obligated yet. I can squeeze him a little." Trent smiled to himself. He'd act like he hadn't spoken with Jess at all.

     "Cool. You better find out what he meant by expenses," said Jesse.

     "I'll be there in about three hours," Trent said, plans flashing through his head.

     "Right. I'll be eating at the Country Kitchen then. Bye." Jess hung up.

     Trent leapt to his feet and headed for his car. It's all starting to happen! he excitedly thought.

     Deep in thought, Daria walked down the main hall at LHS. She had gotten a ride to school that morning from Trent. He'd picked her up as she walked along, and then told her he was leaving town for a while. Daria had never had a boyfriend, but she had the uncomfortable feeling that she had been dumped. But why? Why would he have even been there at that hour? What did it all mean?

     Sandi saw Daria's abstracted expression and smirked. "Look at that. She looks just like Stacy did after she met that guy, Jack."

     Tiffany laughed and Stacy looked unbearably sad for a second.

     Sandi was curious enough to talk to Daria. Usually she didn't, because it was too expensive. "Hey, Quinn's cousin, are those new glasses?"

     Daria walked right past them, oblivious.

     "That girl is sooo weird..." Tiffany stared after Daria in puzzlement.

     Quinn walked up to the group and smiled. "Hiii, guys," she said.

     "Quinn, what's the matter with your cousin?" Stacy inquired. "When Sandi talked to her, she just ignored us."

     Quinn briefly panicked. "Uhm, she must not have taken her pills today. Just ignore her. She'll snap out of it later this afternoon."

     Sandi looked down her nose at Quinn. "I hope that she's not like, crazy or anything."

     Quinn laughed nervously. "Daria's completely harmless. Just a geek." Damn, thought Quinn, why are they talking about Daria? "Did you guys see the awards show last night? I can't believe what some of those people were wearing..." Quinn successfully managed to change the subject.

     "Where were you this morning?" asked Jane.

     Daria started. "Oh, just... Well, I got a ride to school this morning, Jane."

     Jane looked at her, oddly. "You're blushing. Daria blushing can only mean one thing." A wicked grin spread over Jane's face. "Trent gave you a ride to school."

     Daria frowned and looked away. "He told me that he wouldn't be around Lawndale that much anymore."

     Jane frowned. Trent had been acting weird since that Saturday. He had set his alarm clock and rushed out of the house in a tearing hurry. He was up to something alright, but picking up Daria had obviously been planned. "From the way he was acting I kind of thought-"

     "Trent made it abundantly clear that he's not interested. I'd appreciate it if you'd just drop the subject, Jane." Daria turned and walked rapidly away.

     Jane stared after her, mouth open. What the hell was going on? They were both acting like they'd broken up after they'd been going out for ten years.

     Trent took the band on the road that Wednesday and Daria didn't set foot in the Lane house while he was home after that. Jane couldn't get a single word out of either one of them about it.

     Daria woke with a start. Her heart was pounding and she was soaked with sweat. She tried to remember the nightmare, but it faded quickly. She got up and walked to her desk. A small wall calendar confirmed the date. She walked to the bathroom, stripped, examined herself in the mirror and sighed. Still short, plain and well, maybe not quite so flat any more. "Congratulations on surviving to legal adulthood in the Morgendorffer family sideshow. Happy Birthday," she said to her pale, unhappy reflection. Daria dreaded birthdays, with good reason.

     Daria's day was surreal. At breakfast she expected someone to say something, but no one did. Quinn whined and complained nonstop about her terrible need for new jewelry to mach her new dress that went so well with her latest boyfriend's new Mazda. Helen just breezed through with the phone in her ear and waved at Quinn. Daria used her iron will to suppress a pang of sadness when Helen ignored her.

     "So, Daddy, can I have a hundred dollars, pleezzzee, to get the outfit I need?" Quinn smiled fetchingly as she expertly played Jake.

     "Dammit, Quinn! I'm not a machine!" Jake caught himself, suppressed his cheapness and smiled weakly back at Quinn. "I guess that you can take an advance on your allowance, if you really need it." Jake never remembered Quinn's advances when the first came.

     "Thanks, Daddy!" The instant she had the money in her hand Quinn was ready to go. "Well I gotta go to school."

     Jake got engrossed in his paper and Quinn scowled at Daria.

     Eyeing the now oblivious Jake, Quinn turned to Daria. "Daria, I don't want you following me again. Being seen with you could hurt my popularity." She hesitated a little uneasily when Daria made no reply, then left.

     Daria sat, stunned. It wasn't a joke. They had all completely forgotten her birthday, again. Daria decided to drop a little hint.

     "Uhm... Dad?"

     Jake ignored her.

     "Dad, I think you guys may have forgotten my-" Daria began.

     Jake slammed down his paper. "Do you girls think I'm made of money? Dammit, Daria, can't I give Quinn a little help without having to match it all the time? Do you need a damn dress too?" He riffled a torn twenty dollar bill out of his wallet and slapped it down in front of her. "That's the best I can do right now! Now I have to go to the bank this afternoon!" The paper came back up like a fortress wall.

     Daria felt her eyes fill. Dreadfully ashamed of her emotional weakness, she rushed out the door, leaving Jake quivering with fury behind his paper. A few minutes later he curiously picked up his ripped twenty dollar bill, shrugged and pocketed it.

     The day went from bad to worse. Jane was out sick with food poisoning, and Amanda wouldn't put her on the phone. Daria trudged from class to class and not one person said a single word to her all day long.

     When school ended, Daria walked over to see Jane. She knocked and knocked but no one answered the door. Trent was on the road with the band, Amanda was probably lost in an artistic fugue and Jane was undoubtedly in bed. Depressed beyond words, Daria took the bus to the city library and sat reading Edgar Allen Poe until she had to take the bus home at eight.

     Without much hope, Daria walked into the house and looked around. Helen was still at work. Jake was sprawled across the couch, martini in hand, nearly asleep, watching the Pigskin Channel. Quinn was dressed for a date and alternately talked on the phone and paced to the door and back as she watched anxiously for her date's car.

     "Daria, I'll give you twenty dollars if you promise not to answer the door tonight." Quinn had her hands on her hips and was glaring at Daria.

     "Why? Are you expecting the prize patrol with a check or something?" Daria tried to snap out of her depression.

     "God, Daria, why do you think? You look really bad today. I don't want Chet to know that I have a relative like you." Quinn shook her head in disgust. Daria's eyes were red and her glasses magnified them freakily. It almost looked like Daria had been crying. She must have an allergy or something, Quinn mused. "Like, go to your little cell if you're going to be all gloomy." She thrust a bill at Daria and strode away, phone at her ear, busily juggling calls from her admirers.

     Kind of a crappy birthday present but at least it's something, thought Daria. She looked at the bill. It was taped together. Quinn had paid her with Jake's go-away bill.

     Jake snorted and began snoring softly on the couch. Daria walked over, put the torn twenty in his shirt pocket and took his martini glass from its precarious perch. She sniffed it, made a face and on impulse, knocked it back. It was very strong. Gagging, Daria sat the glass down and went to her bedroom. She got ready for bed and then opened her diary and wrote a short but maudlin synopsis of the day.

     The phone rang and Daria ignored it. It was never for her, anyway. After five rings she picked up just before the answering machine would have.

     "Hello?" Daria was still engrossed in her book.


     Daria smiled. "Amy! How are you?" Amy was her favorite relative and it seemed to be mutual.

     "I just got back from Cancun and I seemed to recall that you had a birthday this month. Did your present arrive on time?"

     "No sign of it yet, Amy. I did get your email. Thanks for remembering."

     "Damn! Well, how was the party?"

     "Exactly like last year." Daria felt like crying and was bitterly ashamed of it.

     Amy caught it immediately. "I was in Hong Kong last year. How did you celebrate your birthday Daria?" Amy knew that there was something wrong.

     Daria sighed. "you're going to make me say it aren't you."

     "Spill it, 007."

     "They all forgot. Once again, it was the worst day of the year." Daria savagely bit back a sob. "Dad yelled at me, Quinn told me that I was an embarrassing freak and Mom didn't say one word to me all day." Daria felt relief. Her voice was normal.

     "I'm sorry, Daria." Amy sighed. Daria sounded terrible. "I should have called from the boat and reminded Helen. She's just so busy running around with her head up her ass, being a good little slave for that lawfirm-" Amy broke off. It wasn't her job to make excuses for her scatterbrained sisters anymore. "Look, Daria, I know how you're feeling right now. The same thing happened to me, once. Would you like to come and stay with me for a while?"

     "Yes." Daria was shocked to feel a tear trickle down her face.

     Amy talked for a long time, telling stories about her odd and eccentric boyfriends. By the time they were done, Daria was immensely cheered up. She said goodbye, thought about a summer in LA and quickly fell asleep, reading Poe.

     Trent pulled up in front of the Morgendorffer house at ten. He had been driving for a long time on short sleep and he was tired. As he walked up the path, the door flew open.

     Quinn grimaced. It was beginning to look as if she had been stood up again. "Oh god, not you again. I'm not going out with you so why don't you just qui-"

     "Hey, Quinn. Where's Daria?" Trent averted his eyes. He didn't want to give her the slightest encouragement.

     Quinn sneered at him. "She's in her room. Just go right on up." She looked at his rusting Plymouth. "Can't you park that thing down the street?"

     Trent brushed past her, paused, warily surveyed the snoring Jake and then advanced up the stairs.

     Quinn looked after him with dislike. "God, trust Daria to have a joke boyfriend with a joke car."

     Trent knocked on Daria's door and the door swung open, so he called out and then stuck his head in.


     She was asleep on top of her covers. He walked over to her and took a long, admiring, look. Her glasses were askew and her short terrycloth shorts and T shirt showed off shapely legs and a dynamite figure. He caught himself and shook his head. It wouldn't do for her to wake up and find him standing next to her bed with a big woody. He laughed at himself.

     "Daria? Hey, Daria, wake up. It's me, Trent."

     She softly snored.

     He loudly coughed, shrugged, put the two huge, hand painted birthday cards and gift wrapped CD's on her night table and gently shook her shoulder.

     Daria was deeply asleep, making up for the sleep she had lost the previous nights. She didn't budge.

     Smelling alcohol on her breath, he smiled and shrugged again. She must have been to a birthday party. He stood gazing at her face for a while, then he suddenly removed her glasses and took the book off of her bed. "You're just too beautiful." He felt a tremendous attraction to her and he knew it was time to go. "Happy birthday, Daria. I've got to get out of here before I do something really stupid, like fall in love with you," he said, turning off her light. He paused, sighed, and left.

     When the door clicked behind him Daria smiled in her sleep. "Trent," she murmured and sighed, tremulously.

     On the drive home, Trent felt a wave of intense depression wash over him. Daria was obviously one of the special people. She wouldn't put up with a bum musician for long. If he made it with Daria, he'd have to go legit. Best to try to put her out of his mind, concentrate on the music, at least for a couple of years. If he hit the big time...

     Yeah, right, he thought scornfully. He frowned and turned on the radio. Soon he was singing along with his favorite commercial. "Be... All that you can be... In the US Army-"

     Daria's eyes flew open when her alarm clock clicked. She hated the awful noise that the thing made, so she almost always turned it off before it started. She reached for her glasses and didn't find them in their usual place. Getting up, she groped around and finally found them on her desk. Putting them on, Daria was pleasantly mystified to discover a pair of elaborate birthday cards and gifts from both Jane and Trent sitting there on her nightstand.

     Smiling, Daria went to breakfast. Composing her face, she made some cereal and was ignored by her family, as usual. Helen actually ate, but her one attempt at conversation with Daria was interrupted by the telephone.

     Quinn came downstairs and began complaining about her date not showing up.

     Daria was ignoring Quinn's incessant chatter when she caught something in passing.

     "What did you say about Trent?" Daria wondered if she had misheard.

     "I said, Daria, that you need to make him park that thing he drives away from the house. What if someone thought it was ours? I had to stand outside next to it watching for Chet for at least ten minutes last night. It was so embarrassing..." Quinn went on at length about how embarrassing Daria was to her.

     Daria tuned Quinn out and felt the shock roll through her. Even Quinn or Jake would have noticed birthday cards if they were asked to deliver them, so it must have been Trent who put them on the nightstand. Had Trent been the one who turned out the light and put her glasses on the desk? She remembered her dream, Trent kissing her and calling her beautiful. Daria shivered and smiled to herself. Maybe he did know that she was alive.

     Daria left before Quinn and walked to school alone, as usual, completely unaware that she was smiling.

     Jamie was jogging along the other side of the street trying to get to Quinn's on time to carry her bags, and was transfixed by Daria's smile. He ran right into a streetlight and got a bloody nose.

     Jane lay on her bed and groaned to herself. At least she didn't have the dry heaves anymore. She had nearly vomited up her toenails yesterday and she was still feeling sick. She wished that Trent would come and check on her. The wastebasket near the bed stank of vomit and Jane didn't need anything upsetting her right now.

     Jane sighed and suppressed her irritation. Trent had abandoned his last gig and left the band in Hadlyville when he had learned that she was sick and that Amanda was catching a plane that night. Jane had been in a bad way, covered in vomit and delirious when he got home. He had cleaned her up and patently helped her until the dry heaves had passed. Then he had finished her birthday card for her and delivered it to Daria.

     "Hi, Jane. I hope you don't mind. No one answered the door so I just came in." Daria stood in her doorway.

     Speak of the devil, thought Jane.

     "I'm glad you did. Hey, happy birthday, Daria."

     Daria was already removing the soiled bin liner from the offending can. "Thanks for the card, Jane. I really appreciate it." She took the liner away and soon returned with a fresh one.

     "So what did you score?" Jane felt bad about not going to see her, but she had been too sick.

     Daria flushed a little and shrugged. "Oh, you know, the usual."

     Jane smiled. "Underwear? Scuba tanks? What's usual?"

     Daria looked away. "Well I got a couple of nice cards and a pair of great CD's from the Lane's."

     Jane was puzzled. "Come on, Daria, they had to have gotten you something. What was it?"

     Daria sighed. "Everyone forgot again, Jane. Everyone but you and Trent, anyway."

     Jane was scandalized. "I can't believe it! What do you mean by again?"

     Daria didn't meet her eyes. "A wise woman once told me that birthdays were totally artificial holidays invented by the greeting card industry to stimulate the economy. So it's really not a big deal, Jane."

     "I only said that because I didn't want any kind of sad, pathetic attempt at a birthday party." Jane looked depressed. "They forgot you last year too, didn't they?" Jane was sad for her friend. She had assumed that Daria's parents were better than hers because they were home every day, but now she wondered.

     Daria nodded uncomfortably. "What the hell. Missing the birthday isn't so bad, Jane. In eighteen years they've forgotten four birthdays. That's a success rate of 77%, a solid 'pass' in anyone's gradebook. The trouble is that they'll remember soon and Mom will decide that we need to bond. Talk about your horrorfest. All I need right now is to be cross examined about my life for three hours by lawyer Morgendorffer. Ugh." Daria winced.

     "Which birthdays did they forget?" Jane knew that she was prying, but she was fascinated by the dynamics of a 'normal' family.

     "They forgot the last four." Daria was tired of the topic. "Big deal. If we lived here a couple hundred years ago they would have already swapped me for a horse or something."

     Jane laughed. "Why didn't you say anything?

     Daria flushed. "They never forget Quinn. I'll be dammed if I'm going to make it easy for them. It doesn't matter anymore. Let's just forget about it."

     "Okay, Daria. At least Trent said happy birthday to you. That must have been pretty nice," Jane was still unsure about where the Daria-Trent thing was. Neither would say a word about it.

     Daria shrugged. "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. I was asleep. He sat the cards on my nightstand. All I know is that Trent was the only one besides you who made an effort. I'm grateful."

     Jane smiled. Daria had let a large dollop of honey creep into her voice when she said Trent's name. "To bad he didn't think to bring his spare horse."

     Daria looked glum. "Last night I would have taken a hamster."

     Jane heard a distinctive creak in the hall and knew that Trent was passing outside her door. She coughed and enunciated clearly, "So tell me the truth, Daria, do you like Trent at all?"

     Daria sighed then shrugged. She was feeling very close to her friend and decided to throw caution to the wind. "What the hell. Sure, I like him a lot. He's smart, handsome and very cool. He's the only person that I know who really has his life together. What's not to like?"

     Daria paused and took a deep breath. In a small voice she continued, "The problem is that I'm not exactly the flygirl type that he's looking for. One of these days he'll be a big star, dating half a dozen models and I'll be living in an apartment with four cats, reading about him in the style section of the paper." A look of sadness flickered across her features.

     Jane laughed incredulously. "Trent? Has his life together? Are you kidding?"

     Daria stiffened and launched into a fierce defense. "Trent knows exactly what he wants and he's going for it! Who else do you know who you can say that about? Trent makes his own way. He's a natural leader and he can think for himself. Most of all, he has the courage to take a chance. He might not succeed in being a rock star, but at least he'll have tried. Trent's smart, he'll succeed in something. Real winners learn to take chances, and Trent isn't afraid to do that. He's already a success, and one day everybody will know it!"

     Jane marveled at the conviction that Daria conveyed. She believed in Trent. Jane saw a shadow pass under the door and heard the floor creak again. He was leaving without knocking, which meant that he had heard. Now the ball was firmly in Trent's court. "Okay, Daria, lighten up!" Jane laughed. "I happen to agree with you. I just wanted to hear your opinion."

     Daria shrugged again. "Well, you got it, for what it's worth. Usually the misery chick charges for that sort of thing, but since its you..."

     "So, Daria, why not take a lesson from Quinn? Maybe if you can send the 'rents on a big enough guilt trip you can get some wheels out of this whole sorry mess." Jane didn't want Daria hearing any telltale creaks, so she distracted her.

     Trent went to the basement, plugged in his guitar and began rocking the house. He was filled with happiness, his wavering belief in himself recharged and reinforced a hundred times. As he hit a particularly bone jarring riff he shouted for joy. Daria still liked him.

     Upstairs, Jane clapped her hands over her ears and felt her bed vibrating. Trent had definitely heard everything and was feeling pretty good about it. She felt a sense of triumph. It was time for another nudge. "Daria!"

     Trent stopped playing.

     "Thank god, I thought the windowpanes were going to shatter." Daria pulled at her earlobe. "If he goes bust in the music business he can always patent the sonic paint stripper."

     Jane laughed, then put on a pained expression. "Daria, I'm feeling better but not that much better. I need to sleep."

     Daria stood. "Get well, Jane. Call if you need anything. I'll move along now and let you rest."

     "Daria, could you please stop by the basement and ask Trent to lay off the paint stripping experiment for a while?"

     Daria hesitated then mumbled, "Sure. Later, Jane."

     Jane smiled at her retreating back. She knew that Trent was depressed and hurting. He needed someone solid and smart, someone who could look after him. Unlike the stupid, ineffectual groupies that Trent usually dated, Daria had the brains, loyalty and nerve to make sure that he didn't let himself get hurt.

     Trent could do a lot for Daria too. She needed someone who would love her unconditionally, make her feel valued and appreciate her dark, sardonic nature. Jane knew that Daria marched to the beat of a different drummer. If she added a guitarist to her life, the two might just boogaloo along happily forever. It was frustrating to see two emotionally blocked people that she loved, who so obviously had feelings for each other missing the connection so often.

     Trent was sitting in front of the reel to reel, listening through his headphones to the track that he had just laid down. He jumped when someone touched his shoulder. Turning, he froze as he unexpectedly looked into Daria's eyes.

     "Hi Trent." Daria blushed.

     Trent cleared his throat and forced his mouth to work. "Hey, Daria." He stood, paused awkwardly and continued. "I wanted to say happy birthday last night but I couldn't wake you up."

     Daria hit him with a brilliant smile.

     He blinked and swallowed reflexively. It was totally devastating. Oh, damn, he thought.

     "Trent, I have to tell you something." Daria's face took on a more serious expression.

     "What is it, Daria?" Trent smiled crookedly at her and leaned closer.

     "I just want to say that it means a lot to me that you made an effort." She looked down and flicked her eyes sideways. "Thank you, Trent. Thank you very much."

     "Hey, Daria, I'm glad you liked it. I didn't have much time to shop. It's just one of our promo CDs. You deserve much better." He looked at her and gulped.

     Daria smiled. "It was a great present! Someday when you're a famous rock star I'll be able to drop your name. When no one believes me I'll casually pull out your CD."

     Trent laughed. He already knew that there was no way that he would ever let Daria out of his life. "Yeah and they'll all laugh and say 'Was he really that bad?' And still think you're making it up. I'll tell you what, Daria. When I'm a famous rock star I'll ride to your house on a flying pig and tell them myself."

     Daria shook her head. "Don't say things like that. You sound good, Trent. Not perfect yet, but undeniably better than you did. Just keep up the incremental improvements and one day soon your good band will be a great band." She smiled sadly. "You can't loose, Trent, You're already on the elevator. Just keep playing and don't get off until you're at the top."

     Trent looked thoughtful. "Elevator Music. Hmmm. Great name for a production company." Without thinking, he reached out and took her hand.

     Daria stared at him, wide eyed, and he stared back, amazed at his own boldness. It was like his hand had moved on it's own.

     Take a chance! Go for broke! "Daria... Would you like to go to the rock fight with me? It's a week from Saturday over in Benington." It was the first thing that came to mind.

     Daria gasped, then beamed. "I'd love to go, Trent!"

     "Good!" He smiled in relief. It was so hard not to just kiss her. Thinking rapidly, he came up with a plan. "I'm glad. It's a date then. What do you say we go out, get some dinner and talk it over?"

     "So where are we going?" Daria smiled uncertainly at him, clearly still a little wary.

     Trent looked back at her and marveled at how lucky he was. Nobody had grabbed her away while he was off playing the fool. "Bob's. Right back to the scene of the crime, Daria. I've got some things I want to explain."

     Daria shrugged. I'll definitely have to count it as a real date, this time, she thought. His stomach suddenly growled. Or possibly not, she concluded.

     After they arrived and were seated, Trent reached across the table and took her hand. "I missed you, Daria. I'm sorry I ran out on you like that."

     Daria blushed. "We weren't even dating, Trent. Neither one of us did anything wrong."

     Trent shook his head. "I don't believe that and I don't think you really believe that, either."

     Daria looked away. "Damn. Quit reading my mind."

     Trent chuckle-coughed. "I will if you tell me what you're thinking."

     Daria looked at him closely "Cards on the table?"

     Trent nodded. "Showdown."

     Daria felt a little twinge of panic. "Who goes first?"

     "We'll settle this traditionally, in the ancient fashion of the Lanes." Trent said.

     "Okay, rock-paper-scissors it is." Daria smirked.

     "You know our ways well, oh morning villager." Trent was smiling now, the tension broken.

     "They're simple ways, oh blazer of trails." Trent wasn't the only one who could look up the meaning of a name.

     They stared into each others eyes for a long, searching, minute.

     Trent smiled and opened his mouth. "I-"

     "Hey! Trent! And little, um, Darla, isn't it?" Monique looked high as a kite and very skanky.

     Trent groaned in frustration. "Monique! Look, I don't want to sound rude but right now-"

     Monique leaned in on him. "Whadaya say we go back to your place and get naked, snake-boy?"

     Daria couldn't help it. Trent's absolutely shocked and mortified expression was too much. She started to laugh.

     He furiously stood, pulled Monique's sleeve up her arm and looked at the fresh tracks. "God, girl, look at you, you're killing yourself!"

     Daria gulped.

     Monique giggled. "Nah, It's just recreational. I can quit anytime." Her hands were sliding through his defenses, groping at him.

     Trent felt like crying. The first time he'd met her she'd been high. The second time she'd been suicidal. He'd tried to rescue her over and over, but it never stuck. She'd get straight, disappear, then come back all broken, looking for some TLC. "I can't do this again, Monique. I'll drive you to rehab, but I'm just a friend. A platonic friend."

     Monique giggled. "Platonic? Is that some kinky Greek thing? I'll go for it."

     Daria bit her tongue.

     Trent groaned. "Dammit! Look, I'm with Daria now. We're dating! Were on a damn date! This kind of thing doesn't-"

     Monique leered at Daria. "What, you want a threesome? I'll do it if she will, stud muffin!"

     Trent was really angry now. "Why, you-"

     "Trent!" Daria cut him off. The girl was obviously unstable, clearly looking for a fight and he might just send her right over the edge by giving her what she wanted.

     "See! We're gonna have a-"

     "It's time for you to leave, Monique." Daria's tone was low, soothing and reasonable.

     "You bet, sugar pie. Lets-"

     "Go on home Monique. Sleep off the drugs. I'm sure that you're a very nice person without the chemical additives." Daria smiled at her in a friendly way.

     Monique sighed. "To bad. You're a cute couple. We coulda had a real nice time." She walked aimlessly out of the restaurant.

     Trent laid his head on the table. "Please, tell me that was all some sort of awful nightmare."

     Daria was sadly staring after Monique. "It was, Trent. But not ours."

     "You really handled that well, Daria." Trent was awed by her grace, tact and sensitivity.

     Daria shrugged. "I just didn't give her an opening. She's looking for an excuse to do something crazy. Don't let her get a handle on you, or you'll be stuck with a real mess on your hands."

     They ordered, and the chef came out.

     "Trent! Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you!" He twisted his chief's hat, anxiously.

     "Hey Benny, this is Daria." Trent shook the man's hand.

     "Pleased ta meecha, Daria."

     "Daria, this is Chef Benny Raul. He owns Bob's place."

     "Hi. Charlene told me all about you a few weeks ago." Daria smiled, secretly pleased that they didn't have to talk about Monique any more. "Why not Benny's place?"

     Benny laughed. "Do you know how much a new sign costs? I like to buy these places up, turn 'em around and get out in a couple of years. If I changed the names, half of the better restaurants in the state would be Benny's place."

     Benny unsuccessfully tried to get Trent to go to work for him, and then announced that their meal was on the house.

     After the waitress left, Daria decided to head off any more Monique based conversation. "What's the deal with the rock-fight, Trent?"

     Trent brightened up. "Oh! It's live on KROC, and the first prize is ten thousand dollars. A lot of big agents and producers are going to be around there. The second prize is five thousand and I think third is a thousand."

     Daria smiled at him. They were recapturing the mood. "Think you'll win?"

     Trent shrugged uncertainly. "I'd have said no way just a month ago, but since we went on the road, we're practicing more and playing a lot better." He looked somewhat bitter.

     Daria nodded. "How is life on the road, Trent?"

     Trent sighed. "The term 'living hell' comes to mind. We all hate each other and we all hate music, especially our music, but we're getting good. The band's at a critical point. If we stick together I think we've got a shot at the big time."

     They talked about the mechanics of the trip and made a plan. Daria and Trent ate quickly, both worried about the possibility of Monique coming back.

     When Trent pulled up to drop Daria off, he stopped a little way down the road, just out of the direct line of sight of the Morgendorffer house. It was very private there in the twilight as he turned to her. "Daria... "

     Daria looked at him, thrilled. She knew what he wanted. "Yes, Trent?"

     "Do you kiss on a first date?" He looked hopeful.

     "No, Trent." She smiled at the way his face fell.

     "Damn." He sighed.

     "Trent?" She was smiling broadly at him now.

     "Yes, Daria?" He was entranced by her smile.

     Daria laughed. "This isn't our first date. Remember Jane's birthday? And feeding the bear? I'm willing to count those."

     They melted together. Presently the windows began to steam up.

     Stacy Sandi and Tiffany walked out of the Morgendorffer house to Sandi's car.

     Tiffany paused as she opened the door and said, "Like, who's that? Eww, they're practically doing it!"

     Sandi jumped back out of the car. "That's that 'relative' of Quinn's. What a slut!" She grinned nastily.

     Stacy kept a politic silence. She thought the guy was a dream and was a little jealous.

     Quinn opened the front door and looked curiously at her immobile friends.

     Sandi pointed at Trent's Plymouth and smirked.

     Quinn walked out to the car and her jaw dropped as the Plymouth came into view. "Daria?"

     Trent and Daria broke their clinch and Daria got out. She adjusted her clothes, then waved and blew kisses at a grinning Trent as he pulled away. She walked toward her house, fully intending to ignore the fashion naziettes.

     Sandi called out, "Hey, Quinn's cousin!"

     Daria just kept on walking.

     Quinn called out, "Daria!"

     Daria stopped, turned towards them and answered pleasantly, "Yes, Quinn?"

     "Like, why didn't you answer me?" Sandi asked, angrily.

     "I'm sorry, were you addressing me? I only answer to my name, which is 'Daria' or at least some vaguely descriptive hail. Since I am not in fact Quinn's 'cousin' I feel no constraint to acknowledge that particular label. What can I do for you, Sandi?" Daria was still speaking very pleasantly.

     "Not her cousin?" Sandi was entertained. "What are you to her then?"

     Daria looked at Quinn. "That's a pretty good question, but one that I can't answer. The fly in the ointment, I suspect. Well, people to see, places to go, and all that." Daria took another step.

     "Uhm, Daria?" Stacy was eaten with curiosity.

     Daria turned "Yes? Stacy, isn't it?"

     "Yeah. Uh, who was that guy? I don't remember seeing him around before. Does he go to Lawndale?"

     "That was Trent. He graduated a few years ago." Daria wasn't about to give them a scrap.

     "Is he in college?" Stacy was fishing like mad.

     "No." Daria walked rapidly away from the Fashion Club.

     Sandi turned to Quinn. "So if Daria's not really your cousin just what is she? Better tell us the truth now, Quinn." This was too good.

     Quinn scowled.

     Daria walked out of her house and paused to tie her boot. She became aware of a shadow looming over her and looked up.

     "Hi. Your name is Daria, isn't it?" Jamie was waiting for Quinn, but he had been thinking about Daria ever since he brained himself on the light standard. Daria was definitely worth talking to.

     "Hi, Jamie." Daria snugged her bootlace and stood. "Quinn will be out just as soon as she thinks I'm out of sight."

     Jamie smiled, pleased. "You remembered my name!"

     Daria's lip twitched and she favored him with a sympathetic look. "Well you didn't call me 'Quinn's cousin' so I returned the favor."

     Sandi and the Fashion Club pulled up in Sandi's convertible.

     "Hi um, Daria. Is Quinn ready?" Sandi looked at her watch impatiently.

     "Good morning." Daria strode over and looked in to the heavily laden car. "Going on a little unauthorized field trip today, are we?"

     The three girls exchanged furtive glances.

     "Um, no." Sandi looked at Jamie. "Is this another friend of yours?"

     Daria shrugged. "He seems friendly enough. His name is Jamie. J-A-M-I-E. It's not hard to remember at all. He's waiting for Quinn. Usually there're another two hanging around here on the same mission."

     "Oh yeah." Sandi looked at Jamie. "Sorry...guy. Quinn rides with us today." She honked and Quinn came running.

     "Hii, Johnny! Gotta go!" She was in the car and gone before Jamie could get a word out.

     "God damn! What the hell is it with these girls? I feel like the invisible man!" He was angry and hurt.

     Daria sighed and shouldered her book bag. "I'm sorry about that, Jamie. No one should be treated like that."

     Jamie hesitated, pursed his lips and then said firmly, "That was the last time for me. The price just went up too much." He sighed. "Walk you to school, Daria?"

     She shrugged "It's a free country."

     "Can I take those books for you?" Jamie expectantly held out his hand.

     "I think not. I don't need help." Daria started out.

     "I'm not hitting on you, Daria. I was just trying to be polite." Jamie quickly caught up. "That bag looks heavy."

     "It is." Daria looked at him and then nodded. "I suppose I would be grateful if you carried it for me."

     He lifted the bag off her shoulders and smiled. "I can't believe that Quinn is your sister."

     "Sometimes I can't believe it either." Daria looked at him. He was still hurting from Quinn's offhand rejection. "You really have feelings for her, don't you?"

     Jamie shrugged. "Less and less."

     Daria nodded, thoughtfully. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Mentally she's still about twelve. You guys aren't real to her, yet. You should back off for a while. Find a girl that's not so vain."

     Jamie looked at her. "All the good ones are taken."

     Daria, flattered in spite of herself, said, "Open your eyes, Jamie. There are plenty of girls out there."

     Jamie was smiling at her. "You're the first girl that I've met that hasn't treated me like dirt since I was twelve. I thought that was just how things were."

     Daria nodded. "If you lay around with a doormat on your back people tend to step on you. Fact of life number 231. Face it Jamie, you're a nice guy, but it's the smooth bastard that always gets the girl. That's the guy who'll give Quinn her first divorce in about ten years."

     Jamie nodded absently. "So is your boyfriend a smooth bastard?"

     "No, he's a musician," Daria said, looking away. "He can manipulate though. He got me to pierce my belly button, once."

     Jamie laughed incredulously. "You? Sorry, Daria, you just don't look the type."

     "I'm not. Pretty smooth, isn't he?" Daria smiled at the memory.

     They reached the school and halted outside the doors.

     "I liked talking with you, Daria." He handed the bookbag over with a smile. "You're really pretty cool. Let me know if Mr. Smooth slips away."

     "What? Uh, sure, Jamie." She walked inside, flattered.

     "Hello, Daria. Making new friends?" Jane was there, looking pale and thin.

     "Hi, Jane. Just helping the walking wounded."

     "Wasn't that one of Quinn's pet jocks?" Jane raised her eyebrows. This could be trouble.

     "I think she lost that one today. He's had it with being a toy."

     The two girls walked to their lockers.

     "How did things go with Trent yesterday, Daria?" Jane was curious. Trent had been acting oddly last night.

     Daria looked at her. This was too good to pass up. "Okay, I guess. He gave me a ride home, anyway."

     "That's a good sign." Jane was disappointed, but still determined.

     Daria put Jane off all day, refusing to talk about Trent. As soon as she could plausibly get free she called Trent and they schemed.

     After school, Daria went straight home. Quinn had skipped school again and probably wouldn't be home until six. Daria walked up to the door and saw a note. There was a signature-required package waiting for her at the UPS freight terminal. She called just in time and they were able to make an almost immediate delivery.

     Daria signed for the shipping carton and carried it to her room. She opened it and laughed incredulously. It was a guitar in a hard case. Opening the case, she found a note.

Dear Daria.

I thought of this as the perfect gift for you while I was deep sea fishing. I got you the guitar, now all you need to do is find a guitarist to teach you how to play it. Next time I see you we'll compare our catches.

Bon Voyage!


     Daria laughed and then looked at the clock. "Sorry, Amy, I don't need bait anymore."

     Daria walked over to Jane's, wondering how long she would be able to hold out. After an interminable time spent watching Sick Sad World reruns, Daria felt like she would soon loose her mind from boredom.

     At last, Jane started her usual prodding. "Let's go visit Trent. I left my glue gun down in the basement."

     "Alright." Surprisingly, Daria didn't argue.

     They went into the basement and on the stairs Jane nudged Daria.

     "Dammit, Daria, talk to him this time." Jane was getting tired of Daria's tongue tied act in the presence of the divine Trent.

     "Talk to him?" Daria stopped and gave her a strange look. "That's all it takes? Well, hell!"

     "What's got in to you?" Jane was puzzled. Was Daria joking?

     "Who knows?" she said, mysteriously.

     They got to the basement. Trent was sitting on a small footstool listening to the reel to reel. Jane flicked the lights to get his attention.

     "Hey, Daria, Hey, Janey." Trent took off his headphones and swiveled to face them in profile.

     "Hey." Daria gave her usual snappy greeting, but didn't blush this time.

     Jane looked irritated. "Daria want's to know if you'll give her a ride home tonight."

     Trent shrugged. "Sure."

     Jane gritted her teeth. "Aren't you going to say thanks, Daria?"

     Jane's jaw dropped as Daria walked over to Trent, planted her boot on the footstool next to him, grabbed his goatee, and tilted his face up.

     "You have pretty eyes," Daria said.

     Trent smiled as she pulled his head from side to side, inspecting his profiles.

     "You also have a pretty face." She leaned down, kissed him and then pulled back, considering. "You kiss good, and since I already know that you have a nice butt I've decided that you can be my boyfriend now."

     "That's good enough for me!" He pulled her into his lap and whipped up a Polaroid camera just in time to catch Jane's expression of total wide eyed, slack jawed amazement.

     Jane shrieked and then threw every loose item she could find at them as they helplessly convulsed with laughter. After a while she tired and sat laughing on the futon. "This is great! I knew this would happen the minute I saw you guys together."

     Trent nodded. "I felt the same. So strong that I almost forgot how to play." He kissed Daria. "I knew."

     Daria laughed. "All I remember was desperately trying to talk. I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. My tongue was absolutely frozen."

     Trent looked at her wickedly. "Let me warm you up." They started playing tongue hockey.

     "Well, I gotta go rest. Have fun, hubba, hubba don't forget your rubba." Jane left amid a shower of thrown debris.

     Daria sat in her room trying to get her computer to boot. It was an old 486SX and it had seen better days. Frustrated, Daria paged through her manual and concluded that her BIOS battery was dead. Looking at the tangle of wires that had to be removed before she could open the box, Daria felt like throwing the ancient thing out of the window. She had had hopes for her birthday.

     There was a knock at the door.

     "The iconoclast is in. Enter at your own risk."

     Quinn came in. "Daria, did you talk to Jamie yesterday?"

     "I did." Daria's tolerance level abruptly dropped to zero. "Is that all? Well, bye then."

     "Daria... Are you mad at me for some reason? You haven't been talking! Why?" Quinn had been getting some really bad vibes from Daria for the last few days.

     Daria ignored her and opened her computer book.

     Quinn was a little hurt. "If it's that thing I said about you being a loser... I didn't really mean it! I was just... you know, joking."

     Daria turned and gave her a cold, reptilian stare. "Ha. Ha. Goodbye."

     Quinn would have stormed out except she had to know what had gotten into Jamie. She decided to approach indirectly.

     "What's the matter with that thing?" Quinn looked at it. "Isn't that the one we used to share before... " Quinn trailed off in puzzlement. She had gotten a new computer ages ago. Hadn't Daria? "I thought Mom and Dad got you a new one for your last birthday."

     "I got nothing from them for my last birthday. Why don't you go and call your friends if you want to talk to someone?" Daria was glaring at her, irritated.

     "So we were a little late. I remember a new computer though. Where is it?" Quinn pressed. At least she was talking.

     "Dad's office. Two weeks after I got it." Daria glared resentfully at her old machine.

     "Well, Daria, get on to him about it! He just forgot again, that's all. He forgets things. Maybe you'll get another one for your next birthday." Quinn wasn't very sympathetic. Daria just let these things happen to her.

     "I'm not going to go whining to him. I'll have to fix this one or get a job. I can't do without a computer." Daria looked glumly at her antique. "Maybe I could get a used one that's a little newer."

     "You can use mine. I hardly ever use it." Quinn calculated her moment. "Did Jamie say anything about me this morning?"

     Daria shrugged. "Do you mean 'Johnny'? No, he just said that he wasn't anyone's doormat."

     "Daria! Why did you have to turn him against me? I didn't do anything about that boyfriend of yours! I hope you're happy!" Quinn turned angrily, fumbled with the door, then froze. She saw a shipping box next to the door.

     "What's that?" Quinn bent down and looked at the label. "Aunt Amy sent you a package? What was it?" Quinn looked around and saw a guitar case leaning on Daria's wardrobe.

     "Is that a guitar?" Quinn was getting mad.

     "No, it's my tommygun. Goodbye." Daria rolled her eyes at the heavens.

     "Why did you get a guitar?" Quinn was jealous. She didn't get anything!

     "What's it to you? Get out of here!" Daria's steam pressure went into the red. She stood, brushed by Quinn and opened her door.

     Quinn got mad. "Why should you get something and I don't? It's unfair!"

     "BECAUSE IT WASN'T YOUR GOD DAMN BIRTHDAY, QUINN!" Irritated beyond endurance at the narcissistic little wretch, Daria grabbed her, shoved her out the door and locked it behind her.

     Quinn blanched and stared at the closed door. "Oh, no," she said to herself. This was serious. They had forgotten Daria's birthday, again. Quinn knew that if that had happened to her, the roof would be off. She went into her room to think, but got distracted by her hair and spent the next two hours applying makeup.

     There was a thump on her door.

     "Grub." Daria's surly voice spoke volumes.

     Quinn came down the stairs and looked shamefacedly at her sister. Quinn had thought hard and come to the conclusion that she didn't want to be around when Daria blew. "Sorry, can't eat, Fashion Club meeting tonight. Bye!" Quinn almost ran out the door.

     The Morgendorffers, minus Quinn, sat eating their first family dinner in two weeks. Microwaved lasagna, mixed vegetables and Italian bread. Helen had finished her case and won an immense contingency fee on the settlement. She was happy and expansive, so Daria decided to strike.

     "Mom, I've been invited to a concert over in Hunton this weekend. It will be me, Jane, her brother and his friends."

     Helen looked up sharply. "So you and Jane are going with a group of boys."

     Daria nodded. "Her brother Trent and his band. They're playing. We've gone on trips like this before. Remember Alternapaloosa? It's harmless."

     Helen sighed and shook her head. Going with Jane. If only Daria wasn't so shy. She needed to date more. "Hunton is four hundred miles away, Daria. That's eleven hours round trip on the road. I'm sorry, but it's a little too far to risk driving in one day."

     "We reserved some motel rooms, Mom. The plan is to drive over there Friday, spend Saturday at the concert and come back Sunday." Daria smiled thinly. "So there's no problem with the drive."

     Jake grinned and waved his fork excitedly. "Hey! That's pretty good thinking, Daria! I remember when I drove to Altamont-"

     "Jake!" Helen glared at him, then shifted her gaze to Daria. "Daria, I'm afraid that the answer is still no. Seventeen is just to young for unsupervised mixed overnighters that far from home. I trust you, but not the situation."

     "Will I be able to go on a trip like that when I'm eighteen?" Daria pictured herself winding up the blade of a guillotine.

     "Well, Daria, I suppose so, but-" Helen abruptly looked stricken. She dropped her fork, turned beet red and gasped.

     Chop, thought Daria. Mort la roi.

     "Helen are you all right?" Jake stood in alarm. "Do you need Heimlich? Quick, Daria, what's the number for 911?!"

     "OH MY GOD! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! WE DID IT AGAIN!" Helen wailed. "Daria, I'm so so sorry! OH HOW COULD I..." She sobbed. "We missed it again, Jake! Damn, Damn, Damn!"

     "Who cares? I'm used to it. Think nothing of it," said Daria, rubbing it in with a will.

     Jake stood with the phone, looking puzzled and panicked. "What is it Helen? Is it the taxes? Is it the mortgage? What?"

     "We forgot Daria's birthday again, you lummox!" Helen groaned with embarrassment.

     Jake looked at Daria, grossly embarrassed. "Why didn't you say something, Daria?" His face fell as the real significance of the mysteriously reappearing torn twenty dollar bill became clear in hindsight. "Oh. Shit. Sorry about that, kiddo. Maybe we can make it up. We can celebrate it tomorrow or something. Anything you like, Daria."

     Daria shook her head impatiently. "Just forget it. All I want is permission to go to the rock fight."

     Helen sighed heavily and nodded. "Of course, Daria."

     Daria put her plate in the sink and walked to the door. "Well then," said Daria brightly, "I guess it's all settled now. As hard as it is to leave the warm regard of my loving family, I'm going over to Jane's." Daria shut the door on her parents and rapidly left the Morgendorffer environs. She felt a little bit ashamed of herself.

     Jake put his head on the table. "I guess she has a pretty low opinion of us. Damn it, Helen, one day soon she's going to graduate college and we'll be lucky to see her again!"

     Helen started bawling. "My mother always remembered my birthdays! How could I be so stupid? My God, do you realize that that was it? Daria's last birthday at home and we blew it. We've missed every significant occasion in her life since she was a teen. I'll bet she never mentions a birthday again!"

     Jake cleared his throat, hugging her. "Even when I was at military school I at least got a card." His expression twisted with remembered pain. "Sometimes." He grew alarmed at an associated memory. "Damn, Helen, I hope she doesn't turn into one of those kids that massacres half the town!"

     "Don't be stupid, Jake." Helen sighed. "Daria's way to intelligent for that. We have to make it up to her, somehow."

     "But how? That's what we said last year." Jake shrugged, stumped.

     "Massive bribery." Helen stood. "I'm going to go lie down for awhile, Jake." She walked upstairs, her legal victory ashes in her mouth. She was utterly depressed.

     Jake sat on his couch and thought about Daria. What could he get her? Last year he had gotten her a new computer, the one he was using at work... "Oh, Christ!"

     When Quinn got to Sandi's house for the meeting, her mind just wasn't on business.

     Sandi cleared her throat. "Ms. Li, as you all know, is cracking down on the losers, since these last couple of school shootouts. As part of the new policy all of the loner types have to be pushed into a school activity. I have been like 'ordered' to let at least two losers into the club or we loose our funding."

     "Ewww." Quinn winced. "Why not just make a new club just for them? Call it the friendship club or something."

     Tiffany scowled. "Losers! In our club? Why have a club if you have to have losers?"

     Stacy, practical as always, grasped the nettle. "We should make a list of all of the loser girls in school who look okay but don't know how to dress. Then we pick the two best and train them. That way we could avoid the really bad ones."

     Sandi beamed. "Good thinking! You are like, so smart, Stacy! Just skip writing down this part of the minutes. Ms. Li already made a list. We have to pick three from it." Sandi handed each of them a copy of the list. "Put an X by every name that's just impossible and a check by the prospects. If you just don't know them, leave it blank."

     The selection process was long and arduous. The first time through, between the four girls every prospect had been eliminated. The girls had to make new lists, and eliminate based on a strict criteria of looks. If the girl made it through three screeners, she would be considered. When they were done only five names remained. The last two were the ones Quinn had been dreading.

     Sandi looked at her maliciously. "What about your sister Daria, Quinn? Why did you ex her?"

     Quinn frowned. It was an ambush. "I know her, Sandi. She hates us. She'll never join us." Quinn sighed. "Especially now."

     Stacy looked at her curiously. "Daria's pretty nice. Her and her friend Jane helped me when I got dumped at the Renaissance fair. I like them both and I'd vote for them both to join anyway. She didn't seem like she hated us the other day. Why would she hate us all of the sudden?"

     Quinn looked down, then glared. "She's mad at me. It's not really hate. Daria thinks we're a bunch of shallow-"

     Sandi pushed in. "She helped me out with something too. Why is she mad, Quinn? Is it the cousin thing? I could see how that might make her mad, but she never was mad enough to do anything about it before. What did you do to her?"

     "Alright!" Quinn sighed disconsolately. "We forgot all about her birthday. For the fourth time. She hasn't said anything but she's so mad... She's always been kind of sarcastic but I've never seen her so cold before."

     Tiffany looked astonished. "Wow, Quinn, your family is sure screwed up. They forgot her birthday four times? I'd like, freak out or something."

     Stacy looked upset. "That's pathetic. At least she's got that foxy musician to console her."

     Sandi laughed. "From what I saw Tuesday he's probably consoling her good and hard, right now!"

     Quinn flushed. "Daria's at home right now."

     "She would be per-fect," drawled Tiffany. "I know her from peer counseling. We could enroll her and she would never, ever come to the meetings. Our club wouldn't change and Li would be happy."

     "How about the on campus activities? Li would check up on us." Stacy had a point.

     "It doesn't matter! Daria had enough of that when she was fashion editor in Highland!" Quinn realized that she had said too much.

     "Daria was the fashion editor at her old school? Well, she sure didn't take her own advice!" Sandi was enjoying the humiliation of Quinn. Daria was the big chink in the Quinn armor.

     "She wasn't always like that. She used to dress pretty well until she got that outfit." Quinn was stung.

     Tiffany concentrated. "Like, why did she change?"

     Quinn sighed. "I guess she just couldn't compete with me. She just quit trying to be popular." She stiffened and gasped. "It was after we forgot her birthday!"

     The other three girls exchanged glances. They had considerably more sympathy for Daria now.

     "Well, among the loser crowd she's the best choice. So I say she's in as an alternate." Sandi glared at Quinn.

     The other two agreed, then Quinn went along so that it would be unanimous. "Okay, but I won't be responsible for her. You guys just don't understand how dangerous a brain like Daria can be."

     Jane was next on the list and she also passed. Sandi thought that she looked really alternative, plus she was kind of popular still, from the track team.

     While packing a small bag, Daria picked out an old outfit that she hadn't worn for a long time. She dressed, looked at her reflection and noted how much better she filled it out, now. Digging in a drawer, she found her contacts lenses and pillbox. "Vanity, thy name is Daria." She made a face at herself in the mirror and then went to breakfast.

     "Daria! Why, you look lovely this morning!" Helen smiled. Maybe Daria was finally coming out of her shell.

     "Whatever." Daria really didn't want to speak to her family, so she made for the door.

     "Aren't you going to eat, Daria? I made sausage!" Jake had wanted to speak with her.

     Passing out the door Daria called back over her shoulder, "No time, I'll be back Sunday."

     "Damn!" Jake looked at Helen. "I wanted to talk to her about her birthday. I wanted to see what kind of present she wanted."

     "Jake, Daria's eighteen now. She wants a car." Helen rolled her eyes at Jake's ongoing attempt to deny that time was passing.

     "Eighteen! I knew that, Helen. A car!" Jake gripped his wallet compulsively and thought about the new golf clubs he'd be forgoing for another year.

     "Is Daria gone?" Quinn came in. "I have to talk to her."

     Helen sighed. "I don't think Daria wants to talk to any of us, honey."

     Quinn nodded. "I can't blame her. I was just thinking about it yesterday. Did you know that she only started wearing that creepy outfit after her last birthday in Highland? Whatever you do, don't get her any weird clothes."

     Helen and Jake exchanged glances.

     "Uh oh." Helen suddenly realized that something was up.

     Daria got one block before she was intercepted by Jamie. He was lurking behind some trees on an island of shrubbery left between the two lanes of the road.

     Jamie suddenly sprang into view.

     "Agh!" Daria jumped, startled.

     Jamie smiled at her. "Hi, Daria! Sorry about that. You look great today!"

     Daria was dressed in a red silk collar-less blouse, a black skirt, a red cloth jacket, and red, knee high zip-boots.

     "Uhm, thanks, Jamie. What are you doing here? I thought you'd given up on Quinn." Daria looked at him knowingly. He still had that hooked fish expression. He was obviously waiting on Quinn.

     Jamie looked back at her. Daria was gorgeous. "I guess old habits die hard. I live just a couple of blocks away." He smiled at her. "Let me take that bag, Daria. You can pay me back by telling me if my little revolt had any effect on Queeny."

     Daria's eyes widened in surprise. "That's the attitude that'll get you what you want! Okay, Sparticus, you are definitely in the lead now. She's asking around about you and trying to find out if there's another girl."

     They walked to school, talking about Quinn. In the process Jamie learned a lot about Daria, which was his objective anyway. Jamie had come to the conclusion that all was fair in love and war. And if Daria didn't work out, he still had a line on Quinn. Jamie was determined to get himself a Morgendorffer sister, using any means at hand.

     Jane's eyes widened. Daria was dressed to kill and walking with Jamie again. "Uh oh, Trent. You got competition m'boy."

     "What?" Brittany stood next to her, blankly watching Daria.

     "Oh sorry, Brittany, I didn't see you there." Jane looked back at Daria. "Just talking to myself."

     "Is that Daria? It is! Wow, she looks good for a change!" Brittany looked at Jane. "Stacy told me that she's dating your older brother. Isn't he the one that Daria was hiding from in the Zen that time when she got that rash?"

     Jane sighed. There's no such thing as a secret in this place, she thought. "Yeah, that was Trent, all right."

     "I've seen him play a few times. Daria's lucky." Brittany looked at the approaching couple. "Jamie's really after her though. Trent better watch out!"

     "My thoughts, exactly." Jane shifted from foot to foot and considered warning Trent, then decided that it was none of her business.

     Daria walked up and Jamie smoothly handed her the bag, making tracks. He knew on sight that Jane was trouble.

     "Hii Daria! We were just talking about how cute you look today!" Brittany looked curiously after Jamie.

     "I'll bet. Hey Jane, Brittany. Ready for another day of the horror and pathos that is high school?"

     Jane laughed and Brittany looked confused.

     "I see that your new little friend followed you to school again, Daria." Jane arched her eyebrows curiously.

     Daria shrugged. "Well you know how it is. Pat a stray on the head once and it follows you around until you kick it."

     Brittany giggled. "He looks like a biter to me."

     During her world history class, Daria was called to the principals office. She sat in outer office for a while and then Jane came out rolling her eyes.

     "Look out, Daria, they're instituting full scale mind control!" She left, almost at a run.

     "Ms. Morgendorffer!"

     Daria grimaced and walked into Li's lair.

     Li was standing at a file cabinet with her back to Daria as she came in.

     "Sit down, Ms. Morgendorffer." She turned, saw Daria and gasped. "Ms. Morgendorffer! You look... much improved!" Li smiled. "I am happy to note your considerable stride toward conformance with the new 'All pull together' policy that the district has implemented. Kudos, Ms. Morgendorffer!"

     Li beamed at Daria, pissing her off.

     "Well, how terribly interesting. If that's all..." Daria rose and edged towards the door.

     "Not quite. Sit down." Li walked behind her and closed the door. "We have to talk about your nonconformist attitude, now." Li sat on the front of the desk so that she loomed over the seated Daria. Li liked a good psychological ploy. "In the aftermath of the recent string of school shootings around the country, the District has authorized a psychological evaluation for 'at risk' students. You, Ms. Morgendorffer, have been pointed out by Ms. Manson as having possible nascent antisocial tendencies. You have therefore been selected for evaluation by a licensed therapist."

     Daria's eyes widened, then narrowed into slits. On a dare, she had once applied for and duly received a state license for mental care. A dog could be a 'licensed therapist' in their state.

     Daria put on a reasonable face. "Ah, I get it. Preventive punishment. Join an activity or be forced into a brainwashing clinic. A very modern approach, Ms. Li. Chairman Mao would be proud. My congratulations on your keen intelligence and insight. I would be interested in hearing about the methodology behind-"

     Li jumped at the implication. "Brainwashing! Ms. Morgendorffer! I warn you, this is a serious matter. A rebellious attitude will not be tolerated. Your inexplicable nonconformist posturing has been a thorn in the side of the student body since your arrival!"

     "Nonconformist posturing? It was the poster, wasn't it." Daria glared angrily at Li.

     "That and many other incidents," railed Li. "For instance, there was the incident with Val. A national publication ended up labeling LHS as the center of an insidious teenage 'bummer culture' that is displacing all normal values. Then the disk jockeys. Every one else did their part to show the true face of Laaawwwndale High, but not Daria Morgendorffer! No, when given the opportunity to participate, you had to get up there and absolutely destroy the image of your school! You not only drove the disk jockeys away, several students also left because you had psychologically traumatized them!"

     "Or because there was a sale at Cashman's." Daria grimaced. "In each case, on each occasion, I gave ample warning. Val wouldn't get out of my face. The DJ's wouldn't take no for an answer. I have a simple motto. In short, Ms. Li," Daria leaned forward, eyes blazing, dominating the office, "Don't tread on me."

     Li's eyes widened. "Are you threatening me, Ms. Morgendorffer? Because-"

     Daria leaned back and affected a look of shocked surprise. "Threat? I simply explained my 'attitude,' as you requested. If you recall," Daria smirked, " The motto 'Don't tread on me' was once on the flag. If you're going to label my patriotic sentiments as some sort of deviant psychological aberration, well, I can't do anything about it." But I know someone who can, thought Daria.

     Li looked uncertainly at Daria, trying to gage the depths of her resolve. In truth, Li had been encouraged by the superintendent to get the number of activity boosters up. Li was using the psychological evaluation to browbeat the uninvolved students into activities. The parents of the involved students were ideal political cannon fodder in the various school bond issues on the ballot. Helen Morgendorffer was an influential woman, who could swing a lot of votes.

     Li cleared her throat. "An evaluation will do you good, Ms. Morgendorffer. You have to admit, you are a bit of an 'odd duck' around here. Perhaps a bit of therapy could-"

     "No." Daria was very calm and non threatening. "I won't do it. You can force me to see this so-called psychologist, but you can't make me speak with him. I have no intention of allowing anyone to invade my privacy. Remember, I have a good lawyer on permanent retainer. Keep your thought police away from me."

     Li stared at her, appalled. She had always thought of Daria as stubborn, but inherently tractable. This was like reaching into a cookie jar and finding a cobra. "Ms. Morgendorffer... I don't know what to say to you. I have only your best interest at heart-"

     "I doubt that. I only have a few months left here. It can be a smooth, trouble-free time or it can be an absolute nightmare for both of us. I leave it up to you." Daria got up and moved to the door. "I don't want to challenge your authority or to disrupt your school, Ms. Li, but you are forcing me down the road to total war." Daria stared into Li's eyes long enough to get her iron resolve across, then she left.

     Sweeping the door open, she almost tripped over Andrea, who had been eavesdropping.

     "Way to go, Misery Chick!" Andrea gave her a nod of approbation.

     "Damn!" Daria glared at her. "I am neither a 'Misery Chick' nor any other kind of emotive barnyard denizen. And I am especially not any sort of rebel leader. I fight alone."

     "The Force is strong within this one." Andrea laughed at Daria's expression as she left. "Definitely the dark side."

     She nodded the all clear at Upchuck, who went back to splicing another vampire tap into Li's surveillance system. He wanted full coverage for his bootleg Lawndale-Cam website.

     Li sat stewing in her office for a few minutes and then gestured to the cameras hidden in her bookshelves.

     A thin, fiftyish man, in a tweed jacket entered her office.

     "Well, Dr. Montgomery, what do you make of her?" Li looked at him in irritation. She would rather not have had a witness. On her own, Li would leave Daria alone, but she had been saddled with this clown.

     Montgomery creased his forehead. "A very strong and self assured young woman. I see no reason to provoke her further."

     Li's breath whooshed out in relief.

     Montgomery grinned. "My thoughts exactly. That one is no physical threat of any kind."

     Montgomery finished writing his evaluation. The girl was unhappy, but so were most teenagers. She was clearly very dangerous, but only on an intellectual and professional level. He went to a bookshelf and minutely adjusted a camera angle. "Who's next?"

     Li consulted a list. "Quinn Morgendorffer, Daria's sister."

     Montgomery's eyes widened "Quinn Morgendorffer! Daria's her sister? That explains a lot. Damn, I wish I'd been able to talk with Daria."

     "Quinn is a popular girl." Li scowled. "I know she cuts class, but I can't prove it, most of the time."

     Montgomery winced. "Ah. I know, Angela. Quinn is a client of mine, you see. I didn't know that she went to this school. I'll conduct the interview this time. We'll turn the camera's off, if you don't mind. I have a professional obligation to this girl." Montgomery looked at his watch. "Would you have her report to the conference room, please?"

     Quinn was a real headcase in Montgomery's professional opinion. Brought in by her mother for suspected anorexia, Quinn had proven to be a fascinating patient from the start. On the surface, she was an ideal teenager, but there was a dark underside. Unable to break out of her mold, she used him as a relief valve to siphon off all of her darker thoughts. She was deathly afraid of her peer group finding out that she was more than she seemed. She was clearly an obsessive-compulsive manipulator with narcissistic overtones and a deep seated inferiority complex. The only thing that she wasn't, was anorexic. He looked at his watch and decided to have an extra session here. They could make great progress, now that he'd gotten a look at Daria and finally understood her problem.

     Jane looked at her tray, sniffed it, swallowed and pushed it away. "God, Daria, I don't feel so good."

     "Well, you haven't taken a bite, so it's not food poisoning, again." Daria wasn't too thrilled with the fish sticks either.

     "I'm gonna go see the nurse." Jane looked pale.

     Daria had a flash of anxiety. "Are you still coming to the Rockfight?"

     Jane shrugged.

     Quinn and the Fashion Club walked up to Daria and Jane's table.

     "Daria, we need to talk to you and Jane." Quinn was nervous.

     "Who are you and what have you done with Quinn?" Daria was shocked. Quinn, speaking to her in public?

     Sandi stepped forward. "Um, Daria, we couldn't help but notice how much better you're dressing. You also seem to be gaining in popularity. That's why we want to ask you, and Jane of course, to join our club."

     Daria stared at them, totally dumbfounded.

     Jane cocked an eyebrow at them. "This club of which you speak wouldn't happen to be a bludgeon of some sort, would it?"

     Stacy and Quinn giggled.

     Sandi looked at them impatiently. "I mean the Fashion Club, of course."

     Daria quickly put two and two together and came up with Ms. Li. "Are we the best that you could do? What happened, did the other activities snap up the rest of the misfit crew?"

     Sandi shrugged. "Yes. We were slow. We have to take two los- less popular students in, or face a cut off of our funds."

     Jane suddenly looked interested. "Funds? How much do you get?"

     "The club gets twelve hundred a year in funding. Of course we have to do fund raising to get our share." Sandi saw where they were going, and didn't like it a bit. She always took the lions share of the money. Time to break this off. "You two think it over and tell us your decision. We'll talk to you later." Sandi felt a pang of unease as she led her little flock away from the heretics.

     Quinn stayed with them. "Okay, Daria, what's it going to take to get you to cooperate?"

     Daria sighed. "Quinn, what do you want from me? I don't like those girls. I don't care about fashion at all and I'm already popular with the people that I want to be popular with."

     Quinn opened her mouth and Jane interrupted. "Hold on, there, Quinn. Me and my partner in crime here might be willing to make a show of lowering ourselves to the level of the common Fashion Club member... For a price."

     Quinn narrowed her eyes. This was familiar territory. Jane had opened the bidding, but Quinn knew how to drop the hammer. "How much?"

     Jane smiled. "Oh, I think three hundred could buy our acting services for a few days."

     Quinn gasped. "But that's almost half of the remaining budget!"

     Daria smirked. "Look at it this way, Quinn. You can either have a budget of three hundred, or you can tell us to take a hike and have a budget of zero."

     Quinn smiled, a little unpleasantly. "I'll think it over and we'll talk again, later."

     "She's up to something," Daria said to Jane, after Quinn left.

     "Yeah, but what could she really do?" asked Jane.

     "What indeed?" Daria looked glum. A few possibilities suggested themselves.

     "Take care. I'm checking out." Jane left.

     Daria was in DeMartino's class watching the clock wind down the last half hour of school when the commotion started. First the sound of loud, poorly muffled engines invaded the classroom. Then music. Lorca's Novena, by the Pogues came pumping through the windows of the school.

     The zombied out classes woke up and craned their necks to see what the excitement was.

     Daria, dreading what she knew she was going to see, looked out and cringed.

     Mystik Spiral had come calling. Trent's car was parked in the loading zone in front of the school. Immediately behind him was the newly repainted Tank, equipment strapped to the top, neatly resplendent in its glossy black paint, with Mystik Spiral's name and logo on the side for all to see.

     Trent leaned on his ride and stared at the school with disdain. He looked like a hit man in his brown leather jacket and wrap around shades. Nick sat in the sliding doorway of the van, drinking coffee and Jesse was playing hackysack on the lawn with an empty beer can. Max sat on a transformer box rolling himself a cheap Top cigarette.

     "Trent, there she is!" Jesse pointed straight at Daria, his voice clearly audible throughout the room. "Hey, Daria!"

     "Oh, God," Daria breathed to herself.

     "Chill out, man. She can't leave 'till the bell rings." Trent waved vigorously at her.

     "Oh, yeah. Bummer." Jesse looked at the school, remembered the wasted years, and shuddered. "Bummer city, Man."

     "Sounds like a title, dude." Trent was feeling good. Already, the day held promise.

     "Friends of yours, Daria?" DeMartino glared out the window. "Ah, that's Trent Lane, the incredible narcoleptic boy, and his ever-present sidekick, Jesse 'the moron' Moreno!"

     Daria turned red and the class broke up.

     Brittany giggled as the drummer lit what looked like a joint.

     "I've never seen them before in my life," Daria said. She groaned as Trent laid on his hood and appeared to pass out.

     The PA system crackled to life. "Daria Morgendorffer, report to the office, now!" Li sounded pissed.

     Daria arrived almost immediately.

     Li was furious. "Ms. Morgendorffer! What is the meaning of this!"

     "You called me, remember?" Daria bridled.

     "Go tell your friend's to behave. They are disrupting the educational environment!" Li glared out the window at the oblivious band. Too bad they eventually get away, she mused.

     Daria nodded apologetically. "Um, sure. I know just how to get rid of them." Sour old bat, she thought.

     "Good, do so at once," Li snapped.

     "If you insist." Daria left without a backward glance. She got her bag from her locker and walked out of the front doors, the eyes of the whole school drilling into her back. "Let's get the hell out of here, Trent," she said as she drew close.

     Trent swept her up, whirled her around and kissed her. She kissed him back, as the music switched to Sammy Hagar's Baby's On Fire.

     Trent glanced at the windows. "Come on, baby, were outta here." He took her bag, tossed it in the trunk and bundled her into the car. Facing the windows, he gave the onlookers a mocking bow, waved at Li in an insolent, over-friendly manner, and then led his band away from enemy territory.

     Li squawked in outrage, but they were gone before she even cleared the front doors.

     Laughter began rising from the school, as the bored student body focused on the strange abduction.

     Quinn stared enviously after her sister. "God, trust queen geek-ette to make a spectacle-"

     "I wish I had a boyfriend like that!" Sandi put her hand to her mouth, not believing what she'd just said.

     Quinn, Tiffany and Stacy stared at her, shocked.

     Sandi was unrelenting in her endless search for the perfect rich guy.

     Bobby nudged Jamie with his elbow. "Ha! Frigid my ass. She's a band ho! I'll bet she puts out like a slot machi-"

     Jamie turned, glaring and punched him right in the mouth. The face he saw in front of him was Trent's.

     "So, Jane's not coming?" Daria's question clattered to the floor between them.

     "She's having a little... female trouble, Daria." Trent was a bit uncomfortable.

     "Uh, okay..." What a load that was. Daria wondered why Jane seemed so damn eager to get her into the sack with her brother.

     It was a long haul and they had plenty of time to talk. Daria helped Trent with lyrics, and they talked about the future. Trent told her all about his hopes for the band and about the money that they were finally making,

     Daria told him about her own lack of any clear goals. She didn't even know what she was going to major in, and after taking one aptitude test, she was afraid to take another.

     "It seems to be a tossup between mortician and librarian." Daria sighed. "I guess the honest truth is that my only interests are you, hanging out with Jane, watching sick sad world, reading, writing the occasional story and satisfying my curiosity about things. I'm afraid that if I don't come up with something, I'll have something pushed on me."

     Trent laughed. "That'll be the day."

     They drove in silence for a while, each absorbed by their own thoughts.

     Trent glanced at Daria. She looked really worried. "Look, Daria, you just gotta be still, tune out the world and listen to yourself."

     Daria smiled at him. "I don't like listening to myself. I'm way to sarcastic."

     Trent laughed. "I'm serious, Daria. Don't let anyone tell you what you are or what you should be. Do you know what my aptitude test said I'd be? An accountant. Like hell! What a crock those tests are."

     Daria looked at him, gratefully. Her classification as a future embalmer had hit her harder than she'd let on. "I really admire the way that you're making this band work, Trent. How many garage bands ever get an agent and get paying gigs? Not many. I think that you're the only person that I know who can really say that he's an honest-to-god leader."

     Trent smiled, uncomfortably. He was feeling the burn of touring, and being a bandleader wasn't easy. "Thanks, Daria. I guess I can handle the visionary part, but it's the long hard grind that really gets you down."

     Daria laughed. "You're not the first, Trent. Listen."

     Acrobat, by U2 was on the radio.

     The couple laughed together and both felt a lot better about everything.

     Trent marveled at the way they talked. The other girls he'd dated had been all but unable to carry on a coherent conversation. He would say something that had meaning, and they would either blow it off, change the subject or miss it entirely. But here he was with Daria, right on the same wavelength. It was cool.

     The drive took six hours, and they burned up another three as they stopped for dinner, gas and snacks. It was around eleven o' clock by the time they finally reached the motel.

     They turned in, Daria with her own room and the band in another two. After giving it a little thought, Daria had decided that she wasn't ready to give it up to Trent.

     Trent was a bit disappointed, but he took it philosophically.

     The hall was crowded and noisy. Most of the bands were pitiful. At first, Daria hated it, then Trent found her and they heckled the competition together. She had a little fun on a Friday night for the first time in what seemed like years.

     In the back of the hall, the judges had a table, where they filled out cards that measured the ability and audience response from each band. The prize was big enough so that there was an accountant there to affirm the fairness of the distribution. There were also some producers and agents scattered through the crowd.

     Daria was amazed at the amount of improvement Mystik Spiral showed. The had a new set, a new look and most of all knew how to play. From her position on the wing of the stage it looked like they got a good response from the crowd.

     When they finished, Max announced that he had a date in Lawndale and that he was leaving right away. The band unplugged their equipment from the house system, hurriedly loaded it and cut out. It would be two more weekends before the rock fight ended, and Mystik Spiral had gigs to get to.

     Not wanting to face the pressure of a motel room, Daria and Trent loaded up and headed for Lawndale. It was early on Sunday morning when they arrived.

     When Trent went to drop her off, they sat in the dark of his car and made out for a while. Suddenly, they were shocked back to reality by multiple camera flashes. She and Trent jerked and flailed, finally disentangling themselves. There was no one in sight.

     "What the hell?" Trent was monumentally pissed off.

     "I sure hope that was Upchuck." Daria shuddered. It had to be Quinn.

     "That dude from the swap meet?" Trent furrowed his brow. "If it's him, tell me. I'll make him eat that camera."

     "He's a perverted little shutterbug, but his specialty is the telephoto lens." Daria sighed. "It was probably Quinn. She's trying to get me to do something and she's got potential blackmail now."

     Trent laughed. "You mean that club? Janey told me a little about it."

     Daria smiled at him. "You can laugh because you won't have to hang around with them. They'll try to brainwash me, you know. In a week all I'll care about is how good a car you have and if you can afford to take me to fancy restaurants. She sighed. "I'm gonna have to waste my precious time with those idiots, Trent."

     Trent shrugged. "You're smarter than them, Daria. Just find out what they really want and then give 'em hell."

     Daria smiled. "Ah, Trent, you know me all to well." She leaned over and kissed him again.

     Daria's watch beeped two AM and they finally said goodnight. She watched Trent pull away and stood on the lawn, looking after him. When she went in, she was singing to herself.

     Helen was sitting on the couch. "Hello, Daria. Please, sit down. We just have to talk."

     Daria sighed. Here it comes, she thought. The speech. "Mmm. Kind of late, isn't it, Mom?" She sat and composed herself for a lengthy interrogation.

     After a harrowing, but mercifully short bout of maudlin 'bonding', Daria was able to escape from Helen. When she went into her room, she saw that Jake had finally brought her computer back. It was on, but the monitor had switched itself off.

     Daria walked over and moved the mouse. The monitor clicked on and a note from Jake appeared on the screen.

Dear Daria.

Thanks for letting me use the computer. Sorry to take so long getting it back to you. I had your old hard drive installed so you should be able to find all of your files. You can have the printer/scanner/copier. I got a new one.

Love, Dad.

     Daria smiled. He'd finally remembered. She got ready for bed and then decided that it was too late to confront Quinn.

     Quinn woke up happy. She finally had a handle on Daria. It looked like all of her problems were solved. She got up, dressed, and made her appearance.

     Daria and Jake were at the breakfast table, reading the paper.

     "Good morning!" Quinn pranced to her seat and smiled widely at Daria.

     Daria narrowed her eyes in an unmistakable threat.

     "Good morning, sweetheart!" Jake peeled off the comic section and passed it to her. "I was just telling your sister how you helped me set up her computer!"

     Quinn smirked. "Yeah, Daria. I made sure that scanner thingy worked. I scanned some interesting pages from a notebook that was laying around under your bed. I even scanned and copied some pictures last night! That thing really works good! You can scan things, save them on a floppy disk and upload them somewhere safe, or even put them on a website for the whole world to see!"

     Her diary! Daria glanced at Jake, swallowed and then glared at Quinn. "How very thoughtful. Isn't that all a little technical for someone like you, Quinn?"

     "I learned all about it from the geek at the computer lab. I did it especially for you, Daria." Quinn tried not to show any fear as Daria's eyes burned into hers.

     "I showed her how the scanner worked!" Jake, clueless as usual, didn't notice a thing.

     Helen came down the stairs. "Good morning, girls! Daria, don't run off this evening. We're planning a special family get together to make up for our missing your birthday!"

     "Oh, goody." Daria desperately wanted to beat the location of those files out of Quinn, and now there was no chance to get her alone.

     "I'm gonna give you my present now!" Smirking, Quinn walked over and handed her a large, gift wrapped, box.

     Glowering, Daria ripped it open. "A complete Revlon makeup kit. How very thoughtful." Daria suddenly noticed a blown up color copy of one of Quinn's Polaroid's taped onto the inside of the lid. In the picture, Daria's eyes were closed, her T-shirt was pulled up and the back of Trent's head was visible at breast level. Daria flushed and clapped the case shut.

     Quinn involuntarily stepped back when she looked up. Daria's eyes looked like twin peepholes into the infernal regions.

     Quinn seized the initiative. "Mom, Daria and I we're just talking about bonding yesterday. We decided that we have to get a little closer, and put this silly sibling rivalry behind us. That's why I've sponsored Daria into the Fashion Club!"

     "That's wonderful, Quinn!" gushed Helen. "I'm so happy that you girls are coming together like this!"

     Daria smiled, evilly. "I'm really looking forward to sharing some uninterrupted quality time alone with Quinn."

     Show no fear. I've still got her, thought Quinn. "That's good, because all of your new friends and I are going to give you a makeover and then take you clothes shopping today!"

     "That's just fabulous, Daria. I'm glad to see you finally expanding your social horizons." She pulled out her credit card. "Quinn, You make sure that your sister gets some nice outfits. Daria, go ahead and replace your wardrobe. It's pretty bare and you need new clothes anyway. No more of those awful... combinations you usually get." Helen sensed that Daria was being coerced, but she didn't want to interfere. Yet.

     Later, Daria sat at her computer and tried to find out where Quinn could have uploaded the files. Unfortunately, Quinn had deleted all the history folders in the browser and the entire FTP program that she had used. All that was left were mocking little notepad messages.

     "Come on, Daria, you might as well give up." Quinn stood in Daria's doorway.

     "This is a truly rotten thing you're doing, Quinn." Daria stared at her flawlessly beautiful, much-hated sister. "You gotta know that payback is a bitch."

     "You're not so tough, Daria. Besides, I think it'll be good for you." Quinn walked over to her, and without a word, reached out and took her glasses.

     Daria reddened with fury, and then got hold of herself. "There is a limit, Quinn. Don't make the payoff to big, or I'll just have to frame that damn picture and hang it on my wall. I'm eighteen, after all, and Mom and maybe Dad would come down off of the ceiling, eventually."

     Quinn just smiled. She knew better. Daria would die before she let anyone else read what she'd written in her diary.

     "Give those back!" Daria stood.

     "No." Curiously, Quinn examined Daria's glasses. "You won't be hiding behind these anymore."

     Daria flushed a furious red. "I can't believe you! Have you lost your tiny little mind? I said that I'd try and act like one of your damn clothes-horse friends for Li's benefit. What makes you think that I-"

     "Shut up." Quinn dropped Daria's glasses on the floor and smashed them with her sandal. "I don't care about Li. Or the Fashion Club."

     Daria gasped in shock and fury. "You'll pay for those, you..."

     "I already did. All my life. I read your diary, Daria." Quinn looked at her, coldly.

     Daria slapped Quinn, knocking her down. "You had no right!" she screamed.

     On her hands and knees, Quinn sobbed, then suppressed it. "I have the right to know why you hate me. You won't talk about it, so I had to read that part."

     Daria sneered. "Hate you? Now why would I hate you."

     "You didn't deny it." Quinn stood up and walked back into slapping range. "Go ahead, take another shot if you think it'll help."

     Daria bit her lip and looked ashamed. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."

     "No, that was payback." Quinn sat on the bed. "You're going to be leaving for college in about seven months, right?"

     Daria nodded, dreading the path that the conversation was taking.

     "I was sitting there in my room, thinking about how I forgot your birthday, and all of the sudden I realized something." Quinn stood and looked Daria in the eye. "Once you go, I'll never have another chance to put things right between us. I might not even hear from you again, until someone dies."

     Daria sucked in a breath. "The idea had occurred to me."

     "Well, I won't have it, Daria." Quinn rounded on her. "You're jealous of me. You always were. Even when I was a baby."

     Daria groaned. "Is all this really necessary? What possible good could it do to stir up all of this old trash? Let's just forget about it."

     " Dr. Montgomery says that forgetting about it is the worst thing that can happen. I've always been jealous of you, you know." Quinn sat back down. "You're so much smarter than me that it's like, pathetic. I can't compete with you that way, Daria." Quinn looked up, her teary face twisted in anger. "And you really like to rub it in."

     Daria opened her mouth, but had no words.

     Quinn sighed. "I'm beautiful, Daria. Everybody says so and I know it's like, true. If I could, I'd make everyone beautiful, but I can't. I didn't ask for it and I wouldn't change it if I could. But that's all I have!"

     Quinn looked away, tears flowing freely now. "My grades are terrible, Daria. I won't get into a good college, even if I do manage to graduate on time."

     Daria pursed her lips. "That's not my fault. You have to put in the effort and study to get good grades."

     Quinn grimaced. "Not you. You finish all of your homework at school. There's not one schoolbook in this room. You can read a whole page just by glancing at it and you remember everything. Jesus, Daria, whenever you pay for things you always have the exact amount, with tax, ready to hand to the clerk before he even totals it up. You're a lightning calculator, a writer... Have you ever got less than an A in anything? Hell, what can't you do?"

     "See?" Daria immediately regretted the crack.

     Quinn scowled at her. "Daria, when I was reading that diary do you know how I felt?"

     Daria shook her head, riveted by Quinn's emotional outpouring.

     "I felt like a rain drop that just fell into an ocean. You write things that are so... deep and true. I could never think like that. I can't believe that we're sisters, Daria." Quinn looked at her feet. "But we are. And just like you wrote about me, I hate you and I love you, too."

     Daria sighed. "I should have written that damn thing in mirror Latin."

     Quinn shook her head. "I don't even know what that meant, Daria. You went right over my head, like usual."

     Daria looked startled. "I meant that I should have written the diary with all of the letters in a mirror image, and in Latin. That way you would have to really work at it to read it."

     "Ghad, you can do that?" Quinn looked disgusted. "Of course you can."

     "You aren't dumb, Quinn. As a matter of fact, you're one of the smartest people that I know." Daria took a box of Kleenex out of her drawer and took one, then handed the box to Quinn.

     Quinn took the box, wiped her eyes with a Kleenex and scowled at her. "Yeah, I'm smart. But beside you, smart is jack." Quinn pointed at her bookshelves. "Half of those books are in languages that I've never even heard of, and I'd bet anything that you can read them all."

     Daria shrugged uncomfortably. She could pick up the basics of an occidental language in a couple of weeks.

     Quinn glared at the books. "Look at all that. Philosophy, cosmology, history, politics- if there was a pass-fail test for a masters degree in those things you'd already have one! I'll never be a genius like you, Daria. If I studied for the rest of my life I couldn't learn what you know right now."

     Daria tried to sooth her. "I don't go out much, Quinn. I just read a lot and-"

     Quinn grimaced at her. "Bullshit! You were born a pretty genius and that's that. Just like I was born a smart beauty. I can't compete with you so I never used my brains before. You can't compete with me, so you never used your looks. Dr. Montgomery says that we're mirror images of each other, Daria. That's why I'm gonna force you to learn how to be pretty. That's the only way you'll ever stop hating me for being beautiful."

     Daria sighed. Quinn was right, but too late. She was pretty enough for Trent, and the rest of the world could go to hell. "Quinn, it's really not-"

     Quinn looked at her, almost begging. "Do this thing for me, Daria. I want to have a sister. I don't want to loose you like Mom lost her sisters."

     Daria shrugged and felt a tear drip down her face. "On certain conditions."

     "Anything," said Quinn.

     "You have to let me tutor you and teach you how to study. You have to put in the time to pull up your grades as far as possible this year and get straight A's your senior year." Daria folded her arms and thought of the huge chunk of free time she'd just tossed away.

     Quinn jumped up, beaming. "Done."

     The estranged sister's hugged.

     Daria cleared her throat. "Quinn, now that I'm a volunteer, I'd really appreciate those pictures and files back."

     Quinn giggled. "Yeah, right."

     Daria laughed and patted Quinn's shoulder. "You, Sis, are very sharp indeed."

     There was a knock at the door. "Quinn, Daria, your friends are here!" Jake was happy that his daughters seemed to be getting along.

     "Oh, God." Daria rolled her eyes and prepared for the inevitable.

     "Can't come?" Trent frowned into the phone.

     "I'm sorry, Trent. I can't even move my face. I'm getting my damn pores cleansed." Daria felt like jumping out of the window. She was sitting in a chair in the middle of Quinn's room. Her face was covered with a green beauty mask, and her hair was half bound up in curlers. "Remember what we talked about yesterday?"

     "Hold still, Daria!" Tiffany pulled her hair and plied the curling iron like a professional.

     Trent laughed. "You're kidding."

     "No, It's even worse than I thought." Daria glanced at her captors. "I seem to be some sort of science project. I've spent three solid hours in a being put through a wide variety of interestingly diabolical tortures in the name of beauty."

     The Fashion Club was anxiously clustered around her, worried that all of their hard work might go to waste.

     Quinn took the phone. "Hi, Daria can't really talk right now. She has to be ready for school Monday, so she won't be too big a disgrace to the Fashion Club. If Jane is over there, tell her to come on back, all is forgiven. We hadn't even started on her yet. Bye-ee."

     Trent stared at the phone and slowly hung it up. He went to Jane's room and knocked. "Janey!"

     The door opened a crack. "Are you alone?"

     Bemused, Trent nodded.

     Jane opened the door all the way. "Then come in. But keep your eyes open. They hunt in packs. Once they've marked their prey, they never give up."

     Trent tried not to laugh at the curls that Jane was busily brushing out. "What's up with that, Janey? I just talked with Daria and it got pretty weird."

     "Daria's not sure. I think its Quinn getting back at Daria for sixteen years of biting sarcasm." Jane sighed, looking at her Einstein-wild hair. "I was just too close to ground zero."

     "Why doesn't Daria just tell them to stick it?" Trent frowned.

     Jane laughed. "Aside from the pictures, Daria foolishly left her diary in a locked box in a locked suitcase in a locked dufflebag chained under her bed, where Quinn could get at it. Quinn scanned some really spicy pages, uploaded them to a server somewhere and threatens to make them the prime content of her website."

     "Ohh, that's cold." Trent smirked. "I'm a little relieved. I was starting to wonder if she was ashamed of me, or something."

     Jane shrugged. "Daria just wants her parents as much in the dark as possible. She's sure that when Helen finds out she's dating you, she'll immediately shift her focus from trying to get Daria to date to trying to get her to date someone 'better' than you."

     Trent cleared his throat. "She might have a point."

     Jane stopped brushing and turned to him. "Look, self pity doesn't become you, Trent. You're a free man. Figure out what you want and then go and get it. Just make sure it's what you want."

     Trent chuckle-coughed. "Dammit, Janey, my whole musical career is built on self pity. Don't you ever listen to my lyrics?"

     Jane smiled. "I can't help but listen, Trent. You guy's practice here. Practice, practice, practice."

     Trent nodded. "We do. As a matter of fact, we have a gig at McGrundy's tonight, then its back on the road."

     "How's the career going lately, Trent?" Jane struggled to drag a brush through her frizzy hair.

     "It's work, Janey. I never thought it could be that way, but it is." Trent sighed. "I guess everything has a price."

     Jane shrieked as the brush became irrevocably snarled. "Tell me about it."

     Daria looked at the array of makeup on the counter. "What's all of this crap for, again?"

     "Just stay still. How you could be eighteen years old and still not know how to apply lip-liner..." Quinn expertly applied the little makeup that Daria needed.

     "Now, Daria, as a new member you have to observe a few simple rules." Sandi narrowed her eyes. Daria had cleaned up well, but blackmail or no, Sandi was certain that this masquerade just wasn't going to work out. Once again, Sandi began reeling off a long, complicated list of fashion don'ts, social prohibitions and duties, until Daria interrupted.

     "Basically, everything that isn't forbidden is compulsory, then." Daria sent a small, contempt laden smirk Quinn's way.

     Daria seemed serious to Sandi, Stacy and Tiffany, but Quinn's tuned ear instantly detected the sardonic mockery. Quinn gave Daria a hard look and felt a little shame. It did seem a little... restrictive, now that Daria pointed it out.

     "Daria, you just stick close to us and do everything that we do." Sandi looked at Daria's face and marveled. Quinn was right. Daria could have had a place in the Fashion Club, or any club, anytime she decided to make the effort. The mind-blowing truth was that Daria really, truly, didn't want to be one of the popular in-crowd, or lowing herd, as she called it. It was unbelievable, but some people actually didn't seem to need to fit in. Sandi stole a worried glance at Stacy. Daria's incredibly alien attitude seemed to be causing both Stacy and Tiffany a great deal of confusion. They had expected gratitude, like the Ugly Duckling, or Cinderella, but what they had gotten was pure Number Six.

     Sandi really wanted to get a look at that diary, but Quinn was immovable. No one else could read it.

     Trent almost jumped out of his skin when the alarm rang. He dragged himself out of bed and got ready to hit the road for the gig in Swedesville. Pulling out, he decided to swing by Daria's school. Trent had a sneaking desire to see what she looked like, all dolled up. He could make it before classes started, but Daria had probably already left, since Jane had.

     Trent pulled up to the LHS front drive, looked over and felt his jaw drop. Daria was standing in front of the doors and she was HOT. As he sat staring, Daria was suddenly engulfed in a wave of boys. A guy suddenly jumped in front of her, plowing a path through the crowd and grabbing her hand possessively. He backed off the mob and began shepherding her through the doors.

     Shocked, Trent glared at the terrible scene. Just as he unfroze and swung his door open, he heard the bell ring. Cursing, he watched Daria's new entourage disappear into the school with her. He shook his head and pulled away. This wasn't good.

     Upchuck swaggered into school fifteen fashionable minutes late. Barch darted out of her class as he strutted by, handed him a tardy slip, and sent him to see Ms. Li. He put on a penitent expression as he approached the office, but it was wiped away by the other occupant of the glass walled waiting room.

     Daria groaned to herself as Upchuck approached, leering at her like a maniac.

     "Daria! What a metamorphosis! May I offer you my heartfelt... admiration?" Upchuck oozed his particular idea of charm, culled from the pages of Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler, at her.

     Daria looked at him and sighed unhappily. "Sure. Go ahead. It's a free country, if you can afford a damn good lawyer."

     "You look so... delectable, Daria. I always knew that you had it, but I never thought you would do anything about it. I happen to have an invitation to a yacht party over on the coast next Saturday and I wonder if you might like to accompany me?" Upchuck couldn't wait. He'd loose the oars halfway out to the 'yacht' and if it was a cold enough night...

     Daria's expression hardened. "Not a chance, Upchuck. I'm not flying solo anymore, so lay off, okay?"

     Upchuck was plotting at top speed while he talked to Daria. "Daria, my sweet, surely you know about musicians. A girl at every motel..." He suddenly lost his train of thought, wondering how hard it would be to learn to play some instrument.

     "Upchuck, I'm not your sweet." She smirked. "I'm Trent's sweet. Don't you remember Trent? Do you remember how much bigger and stronger than you he is?" Daria considered having Trent beat him up, regardless.

     "Ah, but he has no head for business. Come away with me, and I'll build you a palace!" Upchuck grinned at her, like a hungry shark.

     "Where would you live?" Daria smirked. She kind of liked fencing with Upchuck. The only good point about him was that he wasn't dumb.

     "Good lord!" Li halted halfway into the office and stared at Daria.

     Without missing a beat, Daria went on the offensive. "Ms. Li. You're right! Yea, for the Lord IS good! Thanks to your proselytizing, I feel a sudden lack of devotion to my previous religious beliefs. Poor old Baal just won't cut it anymore. Wait 'till the Right Reverend Vindaloo Moloch hears about it! Wait till the school board hears about it! Tell me more, oh guru, for I must go forth and spread the Good News!"

     "Hallelujah! Testify, sister!" shouted Upchuck, piously. "I'm feelin' the love!"

     Li looked startled, then angry. "Ms. Morgendorffer, how would you like to be the school choir's lead soloist until graduation?"

     Daria's eyes grew wide. "Uhm, not really."

     "Then shut up! Now for the little matter of your desertion last Friday..." Li swept through the outer office, grabbed Daria and towed her along for interrogation.

     Jane sat in class, bored. O'Neill was wringing his hands and going on about the past horrors of censorship. Jane wished Daria was in class. She would instantly knock the politically correct wind out of this hypocrite by alphabetically listing the books currently banned by the school-board.

     Five minutes before class was to end, a sleek, fashionable Daria walked in and handed O'Neill a note. All the male eyeballs in the room clicked audibly as they focused on this vision.

     Without reading the note, O'Neill went into his new student speech. "Class, we have a new student! Could you introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about your background?"

     Daria stared at him in disbelief. She broke away, faced the class, shot Jane a sardonic look, and began. "Sure. My name is Powers. Melody Powers. I just transferred in from a special sort of school. One that some of you might have heard of before. The School of the Americas is an elite sort of place, specializing in its own unique brand of... political correctness. Some might even go so far as to call it political correction."

     Jane almost died from holding in the laughter. The gullible, awestruck faces around her were priceless. Daria spun them a tale worthy of Ian Flemming at his best. The only other student in the class who didn't fall for it was Jodie, who bit her tongue and stifled hysterical laughter whenever she met Jane's tortured eyes.

     "And that's how... someone... silently took out the Red sentry with just a folded up map, a string bikini and a No. 2 pencil." Daria waited modestly for the applause to die down. "In spite of the enemy propaganda, you couldn't really call us... I mean them, death-squads. Just patriots, defending ou...their continent from the insidious Red Menace. Remember, vigilance is the watchword! The enemy is everywhere! There ARE Reds under the bed. Put a full clip through that mattress if you don't see plenty of dust bunnies. The twin evils of godless Communism abroad and liberal Humanism at home never sleep. So I conclude this introduction by restating the unofficial motto of my dear old school, a treasured sentiment that I've personally taken to heart. 'Kill 'em all. God will sort 'em out.'" The bell rang at that second, and Daria spun on her heel and quickly walked out.

     O'Neill stared after her in utter, moonfaced horror.

     Jodie lost it, and took Jane with her.

     Kevin watched them laughing, suspicion growing in his primitive brain. "Reds," he whispered. Melody needed to know! He'd heard that name before, somewhere. She was against the commies!

     Brittany gripped his arm in sudden fear. "Oh, Kevvie, be careful!"

     At lunch, Jodie and Jane slid into seats on either side of Daria.

     Kevin, who'd been approaching, slipped into a seat where he could eavesdrop.

     "So, 'Melody,' liquidated any comrades lately?" Jane smirked at Daria.

     Daria smirked back. "Don't start any long books, Lane. We've been watching you."

     Jane laughed. "Ah, but so long as the central committee has the documents, you're completely helpless."

     "True. But that will end soon, and there'll be blood on the moon." Daria wasn't exaggerating much. She still meant to make Quinn pay, in spades.

     Jodie sniggered at the banter. Jane had filled her in on the sordid details of the blackmail by the Fashion Club. "Tell us, Melody, when can we expect to get the real Daria back?"

     Daria shrugged. "When those incomprehensible aliens are done with her, I guess. I just hope they don't completely warp her mind while she's under their control. But I do have a master plan."

     "You running-dog capitalist mercenaries always do." Jane noticed Kevin sitting at the next table, his back to them, stock still. She nudged Daria "Our two sides must join forces in the face of this unprecedented alien threat."

     Daria gave Jodie a look and motioned toward Kevin. "As repugnant as it sounds, I must agree. For the duration of this national emergency, I'll refrain from exterminating you Reds."

     "This can't get out," Jodie adlibbed, to everyone's surprise. "Any civilian that finds out has to die."

     Daria shrugged. "Not a problem. I'll get a team of agency cleaners in and we'll just start with the A's-"

     There was a clatter as Kevin dropped his tray and fled, followed by their laughter.

     Jane, sniggering, wiped away a tear. "God, what a ma-roon."

     Jodie finally managed to stop laughing. "Oh, that was so cruel, so bad and so much fun..."

     Daria shrugged. "We won't see him for a while, anyway. That's one small victory."

     "Hey, Daria. Who was that guy that picked you up Friday?" Jodie had been dying to find out. The gossip circuits had been clogged with conflicting stories for the last three days. The idea that Daria had a boyfriend was almost silly. Jodie had always pictured Daria's likely significant other as a mega-nerd mixture of Darth Vader and Mr. Spock. That she had a boyfriend like the one who had picked her up was ludicrous enough to be almost inevitable.

     Daria shrugged. "That was Trent."

     Daria was reluctant to talk about it, but Jane had no inhibitions. She spilled every last detail, telling all, much to Daria's discomfort.

     Finally, Jane changed the subject. "So, when and how are you going to get away from Quinn?"

     "Soon." Daria lowered her voice. "I've got a back door into her computer, and a logic bomb primed and ready. I already erased all of her floppies with a bulk eraser. Whenever she logs off, my sniffer sends her latest history files and passwords to my email. She'll check on the files and then I'll have her."

     "Cool." Jodie stood. "Well, so long as you two are plotting felonies, I'll leave you to it. I'm gonna get into enough trouble as it is."

     "Chicken." Daria smirked at Jodie. If only she'd break loose more often-

     "Uh, oh." Jane suddenly noticed what Jodie had seen. That everyone in the cafeteria was surreptitiously staring at their table. "You're famous, Daria."

     Daria shrugged, serenely. "After the way Trent picked me up Friday, I would have been notorious anyway. This will take their little minds off of that, anyway."

     Sitting at his lonely table, Upchuck listened to his walkman and grinned. Daria and Jane were fun to listen to. Information was power and an FM radio bug the size of a quarter only cost ten dollars. There was one with a nine volt battery stuck to the bottom of Daria's table. Blackmail documents, eh? This sounds like opportunity knocking! he thought. So that's why Quinn had wanted to learn how to upload to a website. Upchuck knew more about computer snooping than anybody, plus he worked part time for Daria's ISP. He already had a record of Quinn's whereabouts.

     That night, Upchuck sat looking at the photos and reading Quinn's excerpts from Daria's diary. He read about Trent, his good points, which were many and his flaws, which were also many. Daria also stated that she loved him, without limits, and that it scared her, without limits.

     Jane got the same treatment. Daria worried about Jane's lackluster grades, her recklessness, and hoped that they could somehow go to the same school. She really didn't know what she'd do without her partner in crime.

     To Upchuck's amazement there was also a short section about him! Daria thought he was smart, and not bad looking, but that he was lost in a fantasy world that existed to sustain an over-inflated ego. She speculated that if he would drop the smarmy attitude, he'd soon be up to his ears in girls. He leaned back and stared into space, thinking hard for a half hour. He came close, but his mind was unwilling to go very far in that scary new direction. Instead he went the old, familiar route.

     Upchuck suddenly leaned back and crowed, "Yeah, baby! She wants me! Trent-Trent, low-rent, now what are we gonna do about you..." He began to hum as he judiciously used cut and paste to edit the scanned diary excerpts. "Ah-Oooah, Quinn, you buxom little she-devil. How could you." He was excited. This thing could work for him on so many levels...

     Trent finished the set and retreated to the bar for a coke. He'd quit drinking after seeing a friend go to seed. Trent gradually became aware that the guy sitting next to him looked familiar. A fan? He wondered.

     "Hey! Aren't you Trent Lane?" Upchuck timed his 'recognition' perfectly.

     "Yeah. Hi." Trent couldn't place him.

     "I'm Chuck. We met at a swap meet a few years ago." Upchuck gave Trent his trademark grin.

     "Oh, yeah. Trent still didn't know him from Adam. "What brings you to these parts, Chuck?" Trent didn't really care.

     "Business." Upchuck swigged his Pepsi. "Hey, weren't you one of the guys going out with Daria?"

     "What?" Trent tried to deal with this bombshell.

     "You're famous, Dude!" Seeing his distress, Upchuck almost felt bad. Almost.

     Trent burned rubber getting back to Lawndale that night. He'd talked to Daria on the phone, briefly, but she said nothing about it. He guessed she didn't have to. The website pretty much said it all .

     The next day, Trent caught Jamie coming out of the mall and brutally clothes-lined him. "Hey, buddy, you're getting a little clumsy there." He leaned down to help him up and kneed Jamie in the jaw.

     Jamie collapsed like a bombed building. "Uhh, wha?"

     Trent helpfully picked him up again and then dropped him right on his head.

     Dazed and reeling, Jamie was half carried to a bench. Trent just stood and smiled at him as he snapped out of it and started to realize what must have happened.

     "Hey!" Jamie was outraged. "What the-"

     Trent took off his mirror shades. His ice cold eyes didn't match the warm smile, at all. "You gotta be more careful, bird dog, you could get hurt, real bad."

     "Wh- Who are you?" Jamie asked, fearfully. Was this guy some kind of mugger?

     "I'm Trent. Trent Lane." Trent's smile turned menacing.

     Jamie abruptly recognized him and felt his balls shrivel. "Wh- What do you want?" Jamie knew what he'd want if their places were reversed.

     "I want to be your friend, bird dog. As your friend I'm gonna give you some friendly advice." Trent brought his face close to Jamie's and glared at him, his glittering eyes filled with deadly promise. "Stay the hell away from Daria, bird dog. I won't tell you again."

     Quinn happily logged on to her new website to upload more photos, and shrieked in horror. Somehow, Daria's diary had gotten out of its folder and onto a page!

     "Ohhhh, god, I'm gonna die a virgin." Quinn hurriedly began deleting files, but even as she did, she knew with a sick, hopeless, certainty that Daria would know and take catastrophic revenge.

     Daria felt the blood drain from her face as she read the site. Then she felt a growing sense of puzzlement. All of the names had been changed, and the diary excerpts had been heavily edited. There wasn't much there that was really very embarrassing. The only thing there that was really bad was a list of Trent's flaws that she'd made back when she was trying to get over him. Her mush laden declaration of love had been omitted. Daria hit the back button on her browser to go back to Quinn's index page. Trent had no computer and seemed to be unaware of the Internet. Perhaps Quinn would survive to adulthood after all.

     Jane answered the phone. It was Daria.

     "Hey, Jane, is Trent around?" Daria was a little worried. He'd been back almost a day and he hadn't called.

     Jane sighed to herself. There was definitely trouble in paradise. "He left, Daria. I don't know where he went."

     "Left?" Daria was dumfounded. Trent had quickly gotten into the habit of telling her of his every move. He hadn't said anything about leaving today.

     "He asked about Jamie." Jane wished that she had caller ID. She didn't want to get sucked into the middle of this. When her best friend and brother were having a quarrel what was she supposed to say?

     "Jamie?" Daria couldn't fit it in. "What does that dork have to do with anything?"

     "Wake up, Daria. Jamie's been following you around like a puppy. Trent must have found out." Jane pulled the phone a few inches away from her ear.

     "WHAT!" Daria was furious. "He's been spying on me?" she cried, angrily.

     "Look, I gotta go. Think about it from his point of view, Daria. Bye." Jane hung up and ignored the phone when it started ringing a few seconds later. Hurriedly, she changed into her running clothes and beat it, three minutes before Daria pulled up.

     Jake shifted restlessly in his seat. His client was drinking heavily and growing more and more maudlin. Jake smiled, and kidded along with him, oozing professional charm. The meter was running. If this idiot wanted to talk football at two hundred an hour, Jake would. After an hour of stupidity, Jake took a cab back to his office. He booted up the computer and made an addition to his report. When he finished, Jake laid down on his couch and thought about Daria.

     I wonder why she's so easy to overlook, he mused. Even when she was just a baby, she didn't cry. She just sat there quietly, never making a sound, even when she needed her diaper changed.

     Jake cast his mind back, remembering how busy Helen was with law school and how hard he'd had to work to pay for it all. He frowned, recalling how often he'd imprisoned the infant Daria in her playpen and slept while he was supposed to be watching her.

     Maybe that was it, Jake thought. Maybe I neglected her. Maybe she cried herself out at an early age and learned her lesson. Learned that Daddy's undependable. Learned that no one really cares. Learned that Daddy's a stupid jerk, just like his daddy was before him...

     After an hour, Jake was paralyzed with guilt. After two hours and a cab ride back to the bar, Jake was paralyzed with alcohol. It was just a bit of good fortune that his old buddy, Tom Price, was also there. After Tom confided that his only son had told him that he wanted to move to San Francisco with his 'partner' and be a toe dancer, Jake told Tom about Daria.

     "Four birthday's?" Tom shook his head. "Damn, Jake, what are you gonna do?"

     "I don't know." Jake shook his head. "Its like Daria doesn't even care anymore, man. What the hell am I gonna do?"

     The guy on the next barstool lifted his head off of the bar and turned to him. "Daria? Daria Morgendorffer?"

     Jake turned and blearily eyed the interloper. "Yeah, my daughter. Say, don't I know you?"

     Trent focused on Jake. "I guess you do. Name's Trent Lane."

     Jake suddenly placed Trent. "Hey! Trent, my man. You took Daria out once, didn't you?"

     "Yep." Trent drained his beer.

     Jake quickly signaled the bartender for another round.

     "Tell me, son, aren't you a little old to be dating high school girls?" Jake raised his eyebrows.

     Trent grimaced. "I was just asking myself that very question. On the one hand, I'm four years older than Daria. On the other hand, she's the only girl I ever met that I ever actually cared about." Trent grinned. "I'll bet that doesn't make you very happy."

     Tom laughed. "Believe me, Jake, It could be a hell of a lot worse!"

     Jake shrugged. "I learned a long time ago that a man can't control women. All he can really do is tear the arms and legs off of any dirty dog that should lay a finger on his daughter."

     Trent and Tom looked at each other and began to laugh. After a minute Jake saw the humor and uneasily laughed along with them.

     "What's your line, Trent?" Tom dubiously eyed a rubbery green pickled egg, then threw it into the ashtray.

     "I'm a musician." Trent swigged his beer. "A singer in a rock n roll band." He grinned at Jake again. "Not exactly your day today, is it, Jake?"

     Jake's head thumped onto the bar as Tom roared with laughter.

     Tom shook his head admiringly. "And I thought that nothing could possibly cheer me up tonight!"

     Jake groaned. "So, my alienated daughter is dating a bum musician. No offence, Trent."

     "None taken." Trent grinned again.

     Jake saw the grin and winced. "What, now you gonna tell me that you did some time or something?"

     Tom and Trent laughed.

     "No, but I'm about to. I enrolled at LCC today, Jake." Trent grimaced. "This is my last month of freedom. Soon, I'll be a student again, get that degree and join the work week." Trent raised his glass. "Here's to shattered dreams, and the shards that keep right on cutting, boys."

     The two older men, both deeply sympathetic, solemnly raised their glasses and said, "Shattered dreams," in unison. They all drained their beers and looked even more depressed.

     "Gotta get respectable for Daria." Trent sighed. "Gotta go legit."

     "Don't worry Trent," said Jake. "It's not that hard. One day soon you'll be middle aged, losing your hair, completely surrounded by your loving family-" Jake stopped and seemed to loose his train of thought.

     "And I'll see that it was all worth it?" Trent was desperately looking for reassurance.

     Jake looked startled, then depressed. "No. One day you'll look back on all of this freedom and scream, just like a little girl."

     Trent choked on his beer. "I'm shit out of luck, then. Daria's invaded my mind and I just can't get her out. So what's the answer?"

     Tom belched and thumped his hand on the bar. "Whiskey!"

     Early the next morning, a cab pulled up in front of the Morgendorffer residence. Jake spilled out in a very liquid state, with Trent climbing out after. Never a big drinker, he had peaked early that evening and then slowed way down. Trent was sober, with a slight headache. Seeing how inebriated the two older men were, Trent had hung around and helped them get home. They had already dropped Tom, now he needed to get Jake home and get himself home for some shuteye. He had an afternoon practice scheduled.

     Jake paid the cabby, and stumbled up the walk. He would have fallen if Trent hadn't helped him. They carefully lurched their way up the driveway, Trent growing more than a little nervous.

     When they reached the door, Jake fumbled with his keys.

     "Have a good one, Jake. I gotta hit the bricks." Trent propped Jake up and stepped away.

     "Smart. Run while you can, Trent." Jake gestured with his keys and dropped them. "Helen's gonna rip me a new-"

     "Jake!" It was too late. Helen was standing there with her hands on her hips. "You're drunk!"

     "Hey, Honey! Look who I ran into! Daria's new boyfriend, Trent!" Jake felt an instant of guilt, but it quickly passed. Helen was bound to hate him anyway and Jake badly needed a distraction.

     Trent jumped like he'd been stung. "Hello there, Mrs. Morgendorffer."

     "Daria's boyfriend?" Helen looked at him closely. "Oh. Hi, Trent. Please, call me Helen." What the hell had Jake meant by that? she wondered, frowning.

     "Sure, Helen. I was just helping Jake along. Well, gotta get going. Busy day tomorrow." Trent stepped away and had to lunge back and catch Jake.

     Helen pursed her lips at the pair. "Thank you, Trent. Would you help me get him inside?"

     "Sure, Helen." Trent helped Jake into the house and up the stairs. Dumping Jake into a chair, he turned to leave and walked right into Daria.

     "Trent!" Daria was amazed. She had thought that she must be dreaming when she heard his voice.

     "Hey, Daria. You look great!" He glanced back at Helen, saw that she was busy with Jake, and swung her away from the bedroom door for a quick kiss.

     The kiss lengthened interminably as Daria backed him into the wall and kissed him back, hard.

     "I've been looking everywhere for you. What are you doing here?" Daria was flushed and very pleased with the kiss.

     "I was just helping Jake get home. We met in a bar, yesterday." Trent was staring at her, totally captivated.

     Helen, who had been surreptitiously watching them in a mirror, let Jake drop to the floor like a sack of dirty laundry. She shot out of the room and rounded on the couple. "Well, well, Daria and Trent. Let's all have some coffee and talk." She grabbed Trent by the arm and practically dragged him to the kitchen table.

     Trent suddenly got an inspiration for a song title. Bunny in the headlights.

     "So, Trent." Helen stared at him, lost in thought for a long moment. "How do you like your coffee?"

     To go, Trent thought. "Black, no sugar please," he said.

     "Daria, would you do the honors?" Helen watched Trent with critical eyes as Daria reluctantly went to the kitchen to make the world's fastest coffee.

     "Well, young man, are you still a musician?" Helen's claws, very much in evidence, came right out.

     Trent sighed. "For a little while longer, Helen. I'm starting at Lawndale Community College next month. I'll get an AA and then transfer to State University in a year and a half."

     "Oh!" Helen looked a little less predatory at that. "What will you major in?"

     Trent glanced at the kitchen and lowered his voice. "Accounting and business administration."

     "Good! I'm glad to hear that you've finally decided to join conventional society, Trent." Helen eyed his tattoos. "Those will be expensive to get rid of."

     Trent sighed. "Yeah. Pretty expensive."

     John Hambly, a junior researcher for Phillip Morris, thoughtfully flipped through the dog-eared Val magazine again. Val was perceptive. He had just completed a months hard research and it was definitely there. A new youth culture, counter culture or bummer culture as Val had dubbed it... Maybe anti culture was the best tag. Whatever marketing decided to call it, the leading edge of this emerging teen trend was all his. He could package it, sell it, use it up... It would make him a rich man or get him fired. "Daria M, bless your cynical little heart, you and me are going places." He kissed her picture, gathered his findings and picked up the phone. He was going straight to the top with this.

     Across the street, at Pasternac, Hovis and Blythe, another researcher was re-reading the same magazine. She was scheduled to make her presentation later that week. She was one among many.

     "And then, they replaced my skin!" Artie was telling his story well. "These space-babes are living among us, harvesting skin, using us as their cattle, breeding with us for hours and hours in our sleep!" He pushed the remote plunger in the rubber bulb and the slide projector clicked over. "This is one of them! Don't tell anyone that I took the picture."

     The mostly male audience perked up as they eyed the screen. Jane's rather sexy and wholly unintentional pose had grabbed their attention. Hours and hours of alien sex didn't sound like a bad thing and besides, maybe synthetic skin lasted longer.

     A combination of Artie's overly sweaty palm and a small gash in the protective rubber of the hand control caused a malfunction. Artie screeched as the remote shorted out with a bright electric flash. The slide magazine of the projector rapidly spun through several frames and then stuck.

     It stopped on a huge, screen filling, extreme close up of Daria. She was staring right through the camera, with a terrifying lack of expression. Her dark eyes seemed to single them out and burn into the soul of each and every schizophrenic in the room. The sudden contrast caught them totally off guard and made them feel that she was rooting out their deepest held secrets in an instant and then dismissing them as unworthy.

     In fact, the picture had been taken with a telephoto lens. Daria was balefully watching Quinn and the Fashion Club.

     "Ahhhh! Turn it off! She can see us! She knows!" The cry was taken up by most of the assembled whackos.

     The room dissolved into bedlam as the former acidhead leader of the Lawndale UFO Network went ballistic.

     His wife, a crystal healer coincidentally named Crystal, began a protective chant. She felt the hard impact of those eyes and could well believe that this was an inhuman being. She needed to consult her coven, but here was a powerful otherworldly being, fully incarnate, if she was not mistaken. She didn't believe in UFOs, but liked to monitor her husband's activities for situations such as this. The poor deluded UFO believers needed help. She would see that her occult circle knew about this presence.

     Artie, shaking his burned hand but pleased at the response, decided that he'd done the right thing. He'd continue to spread the word about the aliens, no matter what it cost. She'd electrocuted him, but he was made of sterner stuff than the aliens knew, except for his synthetic skin. The LUFON website and his television interview were trumpeting this terrible news about the alien seductresses all over the world. He'd been sure to include the details of their unstoppable sexual appetite, super strength and incredible mind control ability. They forced him to think about them all the time, especially the one with the glasses. He'd teach her not to toy with him.

     Daria put the finishing touches on the Mystik Spiral website. She'd been researching the music industry and had a pretty good idea of how to proceed. She was hesitant to intrude, but she could tell that Trent wasn't going to get anywhere without a business strategy. The audio samples, pics, credits, club dates, lyrics, bios and order forms all worked, perfectly. All she needed now was merchandise. If she could get them to burn a CD, then they might have a lever to get themselves off of dead center. She decided to bring it up with Trent, later that night.

     "Accounting!" Daria pulled away, to the far side of the old Plymouth and glared at Trent with pure disgust. "How could you even dream of taking something like that? Was it that damn aptitude test? Have you lost your mind? You don't even know how to balance your checkbook!"

     Trent gripped the wheel and looked at her, guiltily. "Maybe that's why, Daria. I wasn't always totally hopeless and helpless, you know. I took AP math. I had pretty good grades, too."

     Daria looked away, a little bit ashamed. "I'm sorry, Trent. But why? Are you going to just give up on the band?"

     Trent shrugged. "I'll still play locally, for fun. If the band takes off, fine. If it doesn't, well, that's fine too. The thing is, I gotta go where the money is. The day job comes first. Chief Benny's a millionaire and he wants me to go to work for him. He can teach me what makes a restaurant successful, but to strike out on my own someday, I gotta understand business. I never had an opportunity like this before, Daria. This could set us-" He winced. He'd said too much.

     "Us?" Daria smiled. "Getting a bit ahead of yourself there, aren't you Trent?"

     Trent shrugged. "Look, Daria, this has nothing to do with that lame ass aptitude test. You're not going to be an embalmer. The only reason I got pegged as an accountant is-"

     "You picked all C's." Daria almost smiled again at his bewilderment.

     "How could you know... Never mind." Trent's mind boggled. She scared the crap out of him, sometimes. "I just talked to Benny and he said that the best thing to take is accounting. That way, I can talk to the bankers."

     Daria shrugged. "But that still doesn't explain why you want to give up on the band."

     Trent sighed. "Daria, I got out of high school, didn't want to go to college, didn't want to get some lame job and didn't want to join the army. I just didn't want to be normal. So I got the band going. It was fun, I learned a lot about people, but now I have to get something going for myself." He gave her a significant look. "Maybe 'normal' isn't so bad."

     Daria nodded. "Just so that's the real reason."

     Trent shrugged. "We suck, Daria. And I think that we've peaked. I see years and years of touring flyblown bars and cheap clubs in my future, punctuated with short term jobs in lumberyards and janitorial services, if I don't get it in gear."

     Daria took his hand. "You're probably right. I think you could make it as a musician, but I think you could make it as almost anything, if you tried. I guess that I just don't want you blaming me for giving up on your dreams."

     Trent laughed. "Look, Daria, I'm not the only one. Nick got into it with Max, punched him in the head and messed up his hand. He says that he won't be able to play for a while. I don't think that there's really much wrong with it. We're SOL without a bass and Jesse's been dropping great big hints about going to work in his dad's muffler shop. It just made a lot of decisions a lot easier. No band, no plan, Daria. I guess Mystik Spiral just couldn't take the burn of touring."

     "How's Max.'s head?" Daria was smiling now.

     "Rock-like. He's a drummer, after all." Trent pulled her close and kissed her.

     She returned it, with interest. "Still, it's a shame that you guys never burned a CD. It'd make a nice keepsake."

     Trent looked thoughtful. "Hmm. Maybe we could get some studio time... Happy Herb's cousin, Sam the carpet man, asked me to write him a jingle. I get fifty bucks and a rug, but maybe I could beat him out of some free studio time. If Nick's up to it, we could go ahead and burn one."

     Daria smiled and decided not to tell him about the T-shirts. It would just upset him and they hadn't really cost her very much. A week's hard labor at the nut stand had paid for it, handily. Jane had designed the logo, Daria had registered the name Mystik Spiral, forging Trent's signature and then had a small run of shirts made at a local silkscreen operation. It was probably for the best, but she felt a little disappointment. She'd had such plans...

     Trent quickly drove all such worries out of her mind.

     Upchuck sat in the computer lab, humming to himself and replacing a dead hard drive. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a head peak around and then disappear back behind the doorframe.

     Upchuck smiled. He was well aware of Quinn Morgendorffer's dilemma. He was the primary cause of her problem, after all. He was expecting her and she was right on time. "I'm on the hunt. I'm after you. Mouth is alive, all running insiiide. And I'm hungry like, so hungry like, the woooolfff..." he crooned softly, to himself.

     Quinn stood indecisively outside the doorway. She had gone through every other computer geek that she knew of. Upchuck was her last hope. She took a deep breath, put on her most manipulative smile and confidently walked in. "Hi, uh- Charles."

     "Why, it's the delectable Quinn, come to cheer me up in my lonely hour of need." Upchuck favored her with an oily smirk.

     Ugh! Quinn shuddered, then steeled herself. "I need help with my website, Upch- Charles."

     "Well, I have been known to consult." Upchuck studiously examined his fingernails. "What seems to be the problem, my little passion fruit?"

     Quinn looked like she might gag. "I can't get rid of it!" Quinn hated computers and computer geeks. "I delete the files and they never go away!"

     "How... unusual." Upchuck gave her a predatory smile, waiting.

     Quinn stared into his amused eyes and finally stamped. "Ohh! Okay, how much?"

     Upchuck shook his head, sorrowfully. "Quinn, Quinn, my sweet little Quinn. I couldn't take your money."

     Quinn scowled. "Alright. What's it going to take, Charles?"

     Upchuck smirked at her. Ah, the biter bit, he thought, happily. Blackmail was a game he played well. Being nice to someone like Quinn was pointless, so he might as well be bold. "Oh, I don't know. Hey! Let's discuss it over dinner tonight! Chez Pierre, say around sevenish?" He waggled his eyebrows, suggestively.

     Quinn swallowed. Maybe being murdered by Daria was a better option.

     Daria was impatiently sitting in the gymnasium, waiting for Quinn and trying to avoid interaction with her fellow club members.

     Sandi was lecturing on the vital importance of proper research. "And, like, Quinn's tanktop was so last month, Daria. You need to pay attention. You have a whole new, completely up to date wardrobe, but the clock is running. You'll need to stay on top of the latest fashion trends to keep it up to date."

     "Oh, joy." Daria just wished that she could find her real clothes. Helen had completely emptied her closet while Daria was out being re-created by the fashion-bots.

     Li marched up with a resentful looking Jane in tow. "Well, ladies, I see that you still aren't completely assembled, but you have both of your new members present, so I'll authorize the funds."

     "Yeah. They left out the brains," Daria whispered.

     Stacy, the only one to hear, giggled, earning a strange look from Li.

     Sandi smiled a servile smile. "Thank you, Ms. Li. I'm sure-"

     "On a bi-monthly basis." Li gave Daria a skeptical look. Daria's laser-bright, expressionless eyes made her uncomfortable, so she focused on Sandi. "I'll be watching this activity with keen interest." She indicated Jane. "Ms Lane has assured me of her cooperation and I see that incredibly, Ms Morgendorffer is still participating."

     Daria sent a tiny, contempt-laden smirk her way. "Oh yeah. Anything to generate a sufficiency of school spirit. This will certainly keep the number of unnecessary gunfights down."

     Li scowled. "You jest, Ms. Morgendorffer, but security is no laughing matter."

     Jane stomped over and threw herself down on the bleachers, next to Daria. "Who's laughing," she said, darkly.

     Li smiled and turned back to Sandi. "To recap, this organization has been coasting long enough. You girls had better get with the program. Remember, ladies, exclusivity is no longer an option. I want to see real community service!" Li wagged her finger at them and then walked away.

     "Then smack a cop, witch." Daria was a getting surly. She had absolutely no plans to do anything beyond showing up briefly at some public functions.

     Jane and surprisingly the entire Fashion Club, laughed.

     "Well, Daria, I guess this proves that we have no principles left." Jane looked hopelessly at her smirking cohorts.

     Daria shrugged. "The problem isn't a lack of principles. The problem is an overabundance of principals. Hypothetically speaking, if we had to chose, getting rid-"

     "Ware surveillance cameras, Daria," Jane whispered, sotto voice.

     Daria smirked at the camera. "Ah, the beauty and power of synonyms. In our Orwellian little sandbox, all you can do to fight back is to become more patriotic than big brother, or more devious. Fortunately, his Upchuckiness has been at play in the school comms closet again. All that Li's monitors are showing this week is Mexican porn. She hasn't complained a bit!"

     Quinn came in and halted, nervously eyeing Daria. "Uhm, hi, Daria."

     "Quinn." Daria gave her a searching look. Quinn was sweating bullets, obviously worrying about the diary.

     Quinn looked nervously at her sister. Well, she must not know. I'm still alive, she thought. Quinn looked at her friends and managed a sickly smile.

     "Quinn!" Sandi glared at her, sensing weakness. "You were late."

     Tiffany instantly ganged up. "Yeah. Like, very late."

     "Late enough that we're going to call this a missed meeting." Sandi smirked. "Miss two more and you're out."

     Daria shook her head in disbelief. "Well, Sandi, if the meetings over, then we'll be going. Bye, all. Come on Quinn, you have a lot of studying to do."

     Sandi sputtered, but couldn't think of a comeback that Daria wouldn't shred to pieces.

     Stacy stared in disbelief. No one got away from a Fashion Club meeting before sundown, unless they had an approved date. She also needed to study. "Can I come too?" she asked, in a small voice.

     Daria nodded. "Sure, so long as everyone remembers why we're there."

     "Thanks, Daria!" Stacy caught sight of Sandi's furious face and grew very meek. "Uhm, bye, Sandi," Stacy mumbled. The way that Daria consistently thwarted Sandi, along with her whole independent attitude, amazed her. She trailed along, avoiding Sandi's glare and internally rejoicing.

     Quinn flashed an embarrassed smile at her 'friends' and followed Daria and Jane out.

     "Well!" Sandi pursed her lips. Daria had done it again. "Maybe you should just make Daria the president of the Fashion Club." She felt a cold chill when Tiffany just gazed after the majority.

     Jane laughed. "God, I'm glad you're here."

     "The big question is why are you here?" Daria shot her a sardonic glance. "Did you develop a sudden interest in the sartorial arts?"

     Jane frowned. "I developed a sudden interest in graduating. Li made some threats, based on my lackluster grades."

     Daria looked upset for an instant then went back to her usual neutrality. "Is Tom costing you that much study time?"

     Jane had seen the flicker of expression and she was both upset and reassured that her friend still cared. She had been badly neglecting Daria lately. "That's easy for you to say. You don't have to study."

     "Like, really." Quinn blushed at Jane's quizzical smile.

     Daria stopped and looked at Jane. "Well, I'm going to be studying with Quinn and Stacy tonight. You're invited."

     Jane's eyebrows did a mock-incredulous climb. In fact, she had seen Daria display a restrained affection for her sister on more than one occasion. "Well... okay."

     "Good!" Daria led the little cavalcade to her car.

     "Oh, is that yours, Daria?" Stacy was awed. Daria had a cool car!

     "Yes." Daria opened the door of her year-old, showroom perfect, red Infiniti T-top. "Dad got a little bit carried away. I'm probably gonna get a shiny new staple gun for graduation, now." The engine started with a smooth rumble. Daria smiled. But that's all right, she thought.

     Quinn shrugged. She had been incredibly jealous when she saw the car in the driveway, wrapped in a huge yellow ribbon, but now she was use to it. Plus, it meant that Helen would bend over backward to try and be 'fair' when her turn came.

     Helen looked out of the kitchen window and smiled, happily at the sight of her daughters pulling up. Jake and his skuzzy car-dealer drinking buddy had gone way overboard with the car and Helen sensed that Daria had been unwilling with the clothes, but she had to admit that things had turned out for the best. With the new look and increased visibility, she would soon meet a more suitable boy...

     Jake was in his office, cycling through his phone list, networking and making contacts. Picking out a former client and occasional golf partner, Jake dialed him.

     "Hey Ed! Jake Morgendorffer, here."

     "Jake!" Ed Bannerman leaned his portly frame back into his plush chair and smiled. Jake was always up for a few laughs. "You wanna hit the links Sunday?"

     "Sure!" Jake smiled happily. Ed always had a wide variety of golf partners with him and he kept the gambling under control. He always made valuable contacts when he golfed with Ed. They talked for a few minutes and then hung up.

     Wistfully, Jake looked at his calendar. It was a slow month and as it progressed, his workday grew ever shorter. He sighed. The life of a freelance marketing consultant wasn't an easy one. He had to scramble, make some contacts. Helen had out earned him again this year and it didn't make him happy.

     Quinn and Stacy were doing geometry problems, Jane was reading a world history text and Daria was reading The 48 Laws Of Power, by Greene and Elffers.

     Quinn marveled at her newfound abilities. Daria had told her to work the first problem, then showed her a new way of thinking about math. Quinn was a visual being and when Daria had taught them to visualize the problems, everything had come into sharp focus.

     Helen knocked at the door. "Would you ladies like to stay for dinner tonight?"

     Stacy looked abashed. "No thanks. I have to be home for dinner."

     Jane also made her excuses. Like almost every night, she had a date with Tom.

     Quinn shuddered, then reluctantly said, "I have a date, Mom."

     "Oh? Anyone I know?" Helen was a little concerned. Quinn didn't look happy about the date.

     "No." Quinn made a face and walked to the door with her friends.

     Daria saw Jane and Stacy off and then surreptitiously watched Quinn. She didn't act like she was going on a date. When the time came to dress, Quinn simply put on a scarf, big dark glasses and a floppy brimmed hat. She slipped out of the back door. Daria stealthily followed and saw her get picked up by Upchuck.

     Daria smiled. "The wages of sin," she said, to herself.

     "What does that mean, Daria?" Helen stepped out of the shadowed doorway that she had been observing from.

     Daria started. "Ahk! Oh, mom. Just talking to myself."

     "Give, Daria. Now." Helen wanted to know about the sinning part.

     Daria shrugged and explained about the diary, the website and Quinn's blackmail.

     Helen stared, then exploded. "She WHAT!"

     It took Daria almost an hour to convince Helen to let her deal with Quinn on her own, without interference.

     Quinn nibbled at her food, mortified. At least Jacques, the headwaiter, had sensed the situation and seated them at a more secluded table. Upchuck was wearing a white dinner jacket and a bow tie, like James Bond, circa 1962.

     Upchuck ate with gusto and chattered away at her, relishing his triumph. He'd taken the precaution of placing a number of bets with his friends and fellow sportsmen, bets which would handily cover the costs of the dinner. As he ate, he set up the next link in the chain that he hoped would inexorably lead to passion.

     Upchuck began his campaign. "So, my chic little flower, we come to the crux of the matter."

     "Yeah, Up- Charles, what do you want? And you can forget what you really want, 'cause it's never ever gonna happen." Quinn met his eyes, defiantly.

     "Quinn! You wound me. I just want what everybody wants. I want to be accepted, to be popular, to be... well, to cut to the chase, I want to be a stud." Upchuck grinned at her, his immense libido showing. "My halcyon college years approach and you, my dear temptress, have the expert knowledge necessary to make my humble dream into a glorious reality!"

     "Gawd!" Quinn couldn't help it. She giggled, then started laughing.

     Upchuck just smiled along, waiting for her to finish. He'd see who had the last laugh.

     Quinn finally wound down. "What can I do, Charles?"

     "Have you ever seen the movie My Fair Lady?" Upchuck grinned at her. He expected ignorance and he wasn't disappointed.

     Quinn raised her eyebrows in surprise. "No. I don't have time to watch movies. Unless they're movies about cute rich guys, tall, with straight white teeth, perfect hair and big muscles who have their own European sports cars-" She sighed, thinking about it.

     Upchucks predatory eyes glittered. The enemy was exposing her weaknesses, just as he'd hoped! The low, malevolent laugh of the stereotypical villain silently echoed through his consciousness. "See! You begin already! My Fair Lady is about a language professor, who picks up a girl and teaches her all the social graces. Quinn, you're a natural, a social genius for this day and age. I want you to be my professor Henry Higgins and hone my... skills in the fine art of... social intercourse." He smiled at her, his eyes brimming with wicked intent.

     Quinn was amused, wary and flattered, all at the same time. She sipped her tea and regarded the satyr sitting across from her. It was true that he was just tall enough, he had money and he did have straight teeth. What was it about Upchuck that made him such a turnoff, she wondered. It was a real challenge. "How about my little problem then, Charles?"

     Upchuck smiled, urbanely. "I already took care of it, Quinn. I think that we can safely say that those files will probably never pop up again."

     The penny dropped. Quinn laughed and looked at Upchuck with some admiration. "We have a deal, Charles. I guess those files weren't magical after all."

     Upchuck looked at her, thoughtfully. "That remains to be seen, my dear Quinn." He raised his glass. "To a successful enterprise."

     When they left, Upchuck was in a good mood. Instead of the desperate battle of wits he'd expected, It had been fun. He left a big tip and beamed at Jacques on the way out, unknowingly promoting himself to the A list and handily clearing the first hurdle on the road to social acceptance.

     Daria heard the front door open and went to see how a date with Upchuck had affected Quinn. Her eyes briefly widened, then she shook her head, bewildered. Quinn was smiling.

     Daria got up early and fled the house, before Quinn woke up. She'd had enough of the fashionettes to last a lifetime. She put on her new glasses, less bulky replacements chosen by Quinn and her old outfit. She needed a fashion break. She stopped, glanced at her car, then set out on foot. She loved the car, but she hated filling the tank.

     When she reached the crosswalk, she pushed the button for the light and waited. Two men in a maroon Chevrolet pulled up to the corner and stopped at the green light. She glanced at them, wondering why they'd stopped.

     "Hey, Daria!" The passenger spoke.

     She looked up at him, surprised. He was in his late twenties and had a beard. The driver was at least forty, fat and bald. They didn't look right. "Do I know you?" she asked, getting a little worried.

     He smiled. "Sure don't!" He produced a motor driven camera, took her picture several dozen times, smiled again and said, "Have a nice day, Daria!" as the car pulled away.

     She gazed after the receding car, bewildered. "Now what?"

     Two blocks back, the LUFON investigative team excitedly backed up the video tape to see if they had actually managed to catch an MIB incident. Sadly, the tape was blank. The signal source had been set to the aux. input jacks.

     "It's the alien! She doesn't want to be filmed, I tell you!" a shamefaced Artie remarked to his glowering cohorts.

     Zippo tried to start the LUFON surveillance van, but the battery was dead from running the camera, radio's and computers all night long. "Damn! She drained our battery, too!"

     A block ahead, a private detective in an unmarked car also noted the incident. He only knew that his client wanted a discrete report on this kid. The shutterbugs had just made things more difficult. "It's a regular parade out here," he reported to his horrified client in New York.

     With a nagging feeling of being watched, Daria arrived at the Lane house, with relief.

     "Hey! Back to normal." Jane looked around. "No car today?"

     Daria shuddered. "I wish I'd taken it." She told Jane about the photographer.

     Jane frowned. "That's unusually weird. He called you by name?"

     "Uhm huh. Then he shot a whole roll of film with a motorized camera." Daria shook her head. "From now on, I'm driving to school."

     Jane shrugged. "Sounds like a spook. Have you been involved in any political groups? Government spooks used to stake out Penny all the time. She belonged to a bunch of commie front organizations, all worried about the banana farmers down in South America." Jane smiled at a memory. "Don't worry Daria, they're not so bad. An FBI surveillance tech that I caught bugging the house showed me how to draw three dimensional forms when I was six. I made him come in every day for a drawing lesson, after that. He'd change the bugs, then help me with my painting."

     Daria laughed. "Well, besides the flat earth society, I can't think of a thing-" She gasped. "I forged Trent's name on a trademark application! Do you think-"

     Jane rolled her eyes. "Get real, Daria. They'd just throw it away. Maybe it was just some friend of your parents or something."

     Daria shrugged uncomfortably and stuck close to Jane all day, at school.

     White sat in the coffee shop and considered his options. The client wanted full court press on the subject, but it looked like there were complications. He didn't have a leisurely month to dig around in Daria's life anymore, so he needed a more proactive approach. Picking up his cellphone, he called his agency. They needed a man in the school and someone who could move in Daria's circles. This whole thing needed a woman's touch. Besides, she was watching now. She might know his face. He was liable to get rolled by the locals if he hung around the high school with his camera much longer.

     "Daria!" Quinn looked angry. "I thought we had a deal-"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "We do, Quinn. I'm just taking a little break today."

     Sandi walked up.

     "Oh no! Like, she relapsed!" Sandi looked Daria's outfit over, curiously. "I thought you got all of them, Quinn."

     Quinn shook her head. "So did I."

     Daria smirked. "You forgot the laundry."

     "Come on, Quinn. We can't be seen talking to Daria when she's backsliding." Sandi and Quinn walked to the bathroom to primp.

     At the mirror, Sandi said, "Alright, what was in Daria's diary, Quinn? It's time to like, put your mouth where our money is."

     Quinn looked around, then true to form, spilled her guts. "Daria likes us."

     Sandi's mind boggled. "What? You mean-"

     Quinn blushed. "No! Not like that! She just, well likes us all. Thinks we're good people. Said that we all have re- redeeming qualities."

     Sandi looked at her, amazed. "You mean the Fashion Club?"

     "I mean everybody. All the people she knows." Quinn spoke almost unwillingly. "She wrote something nice about each and every one of us in that diary. Me most of all. Daria really likes everyone. She just won't show it."

     "Even Kevin Thompson?" Sandi thought that Kevin was probably the dumbest object on the face of the earth, but he was popular and that made it all right. She already knew from their short acquaintance that Daria truly loathed stupidity.

     "She wrote that Kevin was kind." Quinn smiled. "I think he's kind of stupid, but Daria thinks he's just basically kind."

     "Brittany Taylor?"

     "A match for Kevin. Very kind and likable."


     "Sweet, kind."


     "Basically nice."


     Quinn flushed slightly. "Strong. Decisive. She likes the way you look after Stacy."

     Sandi smiled with pure pleasure. She loved a complement, even second hand. Sandi proceeded to call the roll of most of the student body.

     Sandi shook her head. "Well who'd of thought it?"

     Quinn laughed, uncomfortably. "Yeah, but if she finds out that I blabbed, she'll still beat me with a crowbar."

     Sandi led Quinn off, in search of her cohorts.

     Brittany stepped out of the stall. She was smiling all over, glad she'd eavesdropped. "I knew Daria was a friend!"

     Jodie came out of the other stall. "Just don't tell her, if you want to keep her as a friend."

     Brittany looked confused. "But why?"

     Jodie sighed. She didn't really understand Daria herself. The few guesses that she could make about Daria's personality were just to complex to explain to a simple soul like Brittany. "Brittany, Daria's a little... sensitive. She might get mad and never speak to any of us again, if she knew we had been told her innermost private thoughts. Daria's a lot more comfortable with the dark side."

     Brittany looked at her and nodded, soberly. "My Aunt Liz was sensitive. She had to go to the hospital and then to a home. We don't talk about her anymore. I wouldn't want that to happen to Daria. Do you think that she hears voices, too?"

     Jodie smiled. "Only when people talk."

     Daria and Jane were at their lockers when Li caught up with them. "Ms. Lane, come into my office. We have to talk."

     Daria looked nervously down the street. No mysterious maroon Chevrolet. Just Tom, approaching in his smoke-belching death mobile.

     He pulled up to the curb next to her and got out. "Hi, Daria. How's it going?"

     Daria smiled. She'd begun to see why Jane liked him. "Fine. I was just looking for spooks. There appear to be none in sight."

     He looked confused. "What?"

     Daria explained.

     Tom looked around, dubiously. "Probably some friend of your parents. Want a ride home? Me and Jane are going to my parents summer place in Northport, to spend the weekend. I could drop you-"

     Daria shook her head. "She told me all about it. No, I think I'll make it home okay. The guy just took some pictures. Besides, I wouldn't want to intrude."

     Tom shook his head. "Really, Daria. If you're worried about it, it's no problem."

     "No, you guys have fun. Jane will be along in a minute. Li's got her in the office, trying to get her to put together some free art for the new library. Look, I'd better get going. Bye!" Daria walked away.

     Tom looked after Daria with concern, but looked away a split second before a woman stepped out of a doorway and photographed him. He never saw her take down his license number.

     Kevin and Brittany were driving along in Kevin's Jeep, when they saw Daria dart across the street and dive into some bushes.

     "Eeep! Stop, Kevvie!" said Brittany.

     Kevin blinked in surprise. "Woah! Was that Daria?"

     Kevin hit his brakes. They got out and walked over to Daria's bush.

     Kevin addressed the bush. "Hey, Daria!"

     "Yes, Kevin?" came the embarrassed reply.

     "Why are you hiding?" Brittany was more direct.

     "Because there are strange people following me." Daria felt her face redden.

     Kevin and Brittany looked around, seeing nothing.

     "Well, I don't see anyone," Kevin finally said.

     "Of course you don't." Daria was so mortified that she thought she might die. "Apparently, only I can see them. Is there a black van anywhere out there?"

     "No! Are you waiting for one?" Brittany said, brightly.

     "No, I think I shook them. I'm never walking to school again. I have to go now, while the coast is clear." Daria shot out of the bush like a bullet out of a gun. She'd been running with Jane for almost a year and her intense embarrassment lent wings to her heels.

     "Wow, Daria can like, really move!" Kevin watched her disappear down the street, with admiration. "Those aliens must be pretty scary."

     "Aliens?" Brittany looked at him, upset.

     "Yeah!" Kevin nodded. "I heard that aliens were controlling her! And the CIA is following her around because of it." He looked around, anxiously.

     Brittany's lip trembled. "That's what happened to my aunt. I guess she's sensitive after all. I hope she goes to a nice home." Brittany started bawling.

     Oblivious, Kevin said, "Relax, Babe! Daria's got a nice house. She gets the Pigskin Channel!"

     Brittany smacked him. Neither noticed the black van slowly cruise by, searching.

     Quinn pulled the bill of her cap down so that it hid her face better. Gathering up her courage, she knocked on the huge carved door of the mansion that Upchuck lived in.

     Formally dressed in a red smoking jacket and cravat, Upchuck answered the door. "Quinn! My little-"

     Quinn pushed past him. "Lesson one, Upchuck. No pet names until you've earned the right. You don't own me and you never will, even if I got brain damage and married you someday. I'm not your little passion fruit, sweetie, sugarpie, honeybun, sugarplum, gumdrop or any other overly sweet item. You have to earn the right to call me by a pet name and God help you if it's the wrong one. Remember, I'm the one in control. If you want to get a woman like me in college, you'd better start paying attention to what I like. Quit pushing in before you get an invitation. Now we're going to talk about first impressions. Come on, hurry up. Let's go look at your wardrobe."

     Stunned, Upchuck gazed after her. "Okay... Follow me then, my... Quinn."

     Upchuck's room surprised Quinn. It was clean, neat and devoid of any pornographic surprises. One whole wall was taken up by a bookshelf, upon which was stored his inventory of collectible merchandise. Upchuck enthusiastically showed her his online business, trading in every type of collectible. She feigned interest for a minute, then started on his wardrobe.

     "No, no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no, maybe, no, no, no, no, no, maybe, no..." She quickly threw all of his clothes out onto the floor. Coming to his vintage clothes collection, she eyed it thoughtfully. "Some of this stuff might be useful, but don't try anything on your own."

     She turned to him. "You don't have any clothes, Charles. You don't have any style, either. Come on, we're going to go visit my hairdresser, Dawn. It's time to get you focused. You'd better be grateful. I just hate to be seen dressed like this by real people."

     Upchuck smiled and tried a simple bit of flattery. "Don't worry, you look great in anything, Quinn. If anyone important sees you, you'll just turn that look into the latest instant fashion trend." Score, he thought, when he was rewarded by a smile. Upchuck was a quick study.

     Quinn hurried him along. "Come on, Charles. We haven't got all day. First, we go to Do Rights, then to the Men's Wearhouse, Boutique Manus, Trader Mike's and The Jewell Box. Better bring a lot of cash and a major credit card!"

     Upchuck just smiled. He'd recently succeeded in cornering the world market in Flintstones memorabilia. He was loaded with cash and had his absentee father's platinum card.

     Daria stood panting, leaning back against the inside of her front door. It had taken her forever to work her way home. There were people watching for her, all over the place. She'd snuck through the shrubbery to within fifty yards of her front door, then made a break for it.

     "Helen Morgendorffer's office." Marianne listened, then frowned at Helen. "Yes, I'll put her right on."

     "What is it!" snapped Helen. She was to busy for trivial interruptions.

     Marianne sighed. If only she'd gotten that job at the newspaper office... "It's one of your neighbors, Helen. She says that she saw Daria hiding in the bushes in front of her house today, talking to herself."

     "What!" Helen grabbed the phone.

     Upchuck, now styled and dressed to Quinn's exacting specifications, tried on an expensive watch, while Quinn chattered at him about jewelry balance. He'd already spent a lot, but still hadn't seriously tapped his months trading profits. Indicating a gold arm bracelet, he flicked his eyes at Quinn and made a subtle wrapping motion.

     The jeweler raised his eyebrows fractionally and arranged his fingers to indicate the two hundred dollar price tag.

     Upchuck countered with a one and a five. He figured that she would like the fact that he'd been listening to her lecture on jewelry balance.

     The jeweler made a little circling motion, offering everything for a round four hundred.

     Upchuck stroked his chin. The discount was only thirteen percent. He finally nodded.

     The jeweler eyed Quinn's wrist and arms, called his assistant, then took the watch and bracelet back to size them. Fortunately, Quinn's sizes were already in his files.

     Taking his wrapped goods, Upchuck steered Quinn toward Cashmans. "Since you've been such a good sport today, Quinn, why don't you go and pick yourself out a nice outfit? I'd really like it if you would. I want to repay you." He didn't have to ask her twice.

     Quinn tried on twenty outfits. Humming, Upchuck rocked on his heels, studied each judiciously, read her expression, then carefully tailored his answer to what he saw there. When she was in the dressing room, he said to himself, "Chuck baby, you have arrived. Money can definitely buy happiness."

     "I'm down to these last two, Charles!" Quinn held the dress she'd just modeled for him and whirled around in the other. "Which one do you think is the best?"

     Charles smiled. " Hmm, I like them both. It'd be a shame to let either get away. Let's just get them both, Quinn. Hey! Why don't you just wear that one out?"

     Quinn laughed. "I can't wear this with sneakers!"

     Charles nodded at the shoe department. "That's easily remedied, Quinn."

     Quinn squealed, then threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. "Thanks Charles! You're a cool guy!" Thrusting the garment at him, She ran off towards the shoes.

     Eyes popping over the price tag, Charles muttered to himself, "Thank God I've got the Ruttheimer Midas gene. The war between the sexes is fought with golden bullets." He obediently trailed after Quinn, carrying her things. He had to keep it moving. His dinner reservations were for seven.

     "Poor, poor sap," said the salesclerk, smirking after him. She laughed. It looked like Quinn was back up to three full time flunkies.

     Helen knocked on Daria's door. "Daria? Are you in there?"

     "Only in body," answered Daria, absently. She was scanning the street with Jake's binoculars.

     Helen entered. "Daria, is everything all right?"

     Daria shrugged. "Dad doesn't owe any bookies, does he? Do you remember that time-"

     Helen frowned. She remembered. Jake had left the then six year old Daria with a bookie at a barber shop, as a marker. Luckily, the Packers won and he'd redeemed her. Helen had almost killed him. "You know that your father quit gambling, Daria. Why do you ask?"

     Daria shrugged uncomfortably. "There are people watching me! At least seven people, in three cars and a van."

     Helen felt a thrill of horror. Maybe her father's DNA was kicking in. "Where are they?" Helen looked out of the window.

     Daria pointed at a black van parked up the street. "That's them! Don't let them see you looking." She handed the binoculars to Helen and went to get a cloth to clean the binocular smudges off of her glasses.

     Helen looked through the binoculars and saw Mr. Phelps, the neighbor, climb in with his dogs and drive away.

     Daria came back. "Did you get a look at them?"

     Helen sighed and felt like crying. She'd just represented a schizophrenic man in a lawsuit against an insurance company. Daria seemed to have some of the symptoms. "No, dear. I just saw Mr. Phelps."

     Daria frowned. "I know that a black van was involved! When I was hiding from them today I heard their voices, talking about me, from inside! Something about aliens."

     "Well, don't you worry. I'll check it out, Daria. Why don't you try and get some rest?" Helen smiled brightly and slowly backed out of the room.

     Daria stared after her, confused. Woah. Something's not right, she thought. Picking up the phone, she listened to Helen lean on an admissions nurse to get her an appointment at the mental hospital. Angrily, Daria began throwing clothes into a suitcase.

     "Mystik Spiral?" Kimberly Mack, A&R woman for Columbia Records, felt a frission of alarm. This was the fifth inquiry this week and this one had come from Sid Levinson, at Phillip Morris. Sid was a heavy, heavy hitter. Maybe she had better check this Mystik Spiral out.

     All around the city, industry contacts were being asked about Mystik Spiral.

     Daria pulled up to the Lane house. Trent was carrying his stereo out to his car.

     "Hey, Daria!" He put the stereo in the car and kissed her. "I was just gonna call you."

     Daria nodded at his laden car. "Running out on me?"

     Trent laughed. "No, Just the opposite. I rented a place closer to LCC and work."

     Daria glanced at the Lane house. "Hm. Do you need help?"

     Trent shook his head. "Jesse helped. I've already got the heavy stuff in. I'm just collecting odds and ends, now. Why don't you follow-" He caught sight of her suitcase in her car. "What's going on, Daria?"

     Daria looked a little defeated. "Well, it started with a guy taking my picture..."

     Trent grew agitated as her explanation rolled on. "Damn, Daria! I've seen them around here, too! A black van, right? That weird pizza guy was in it. A couple of those guys stole our garbage out of the can, yesterday! They made a hell of a mess. If I see them around, I'll give them a close encounter of the knuckle sandwich kind!"

     Daria gripped him, thrilled. "It's just Artie and those LUFON geeks? Thank God. I was beginning to think that I might just be losing it. Mom thinks that I'm nuts. I had to get out of there, Trent. Dear old Mom and Dad would have me in a straightjacket, mainlining thorazine before sundown."

     Trent looked at her. "Move in with me, Daria."

     Daria smiled at him. "So, you wanna play house?"

     "No, I wanna play doctor," he said, "But house will do. Come on, its time. Move in with me."

     Daria considered, then laughed. "Who knows what kinds of games we might play? I guess it beats a mental institution. Lead on, MacDuff. Let's go home."

     White clicked on his walkie-talkie and checked on his team. "Report!"

     "One in position."

     "Two... In position."

     "Three, ready" This time it was a female voice.

     White saw Daria get in her car and pull out behind Trent. "Subject is moving. Repeat, subject is moving north."

     Behind Daria, the maroon Chevrolet, a Ford Escort, a red Crown Victoria, A gold Dodge Aerostar minivan, A Toyota Cressida and a black Tradesman van all set out in pursuit.

     "Bingo, Bingo, Bingo," White said, into the radio.

     A large moving van pulled across the road, then stopped in front of the cavalcade. The vehicles waited for an instant, then tried to reverse. White's two chase vehicles blundered around and blocked the road back.

     When he judged that Daria had gotten far enough, White broadcast the signal. "Go, Sheila."

     The van backed up and a red Infinity squeezed through, going back toward the Lane house. In it was a woman dressed like Daria. The followers all hared off after her.

     A Lexus that White thought might belong to the subjects father came down the street, U-Turned at the Lane house and set off after the decoy.

     White laughed. "Tough luck, Jake." White pulled out and made his way to Trent's apartment house. He had the unit next door.

     White opened the door and frowned.

     His unwanted assistant, Millie, was sitting at a reel to reel tape recorder, plugging microphone leads in.

     "What are you doing?" He frowned heavily at her.

     "Setting up an audio cover." She looked at him, surprised.

     "What's our brief?"


     "What does the client want?" He shook his head. She was a college graduate, with a masters in sociology.

     Millie stared at him. "To investigate Daria. We're to gather information on her friends, her family, her likes, her dislikes and her attitude towards popular culture. She's the leading edge of a trend! We want to know everything!"

     He sighed. "Do we want to know what the inside of a cell looks like? Wiretapping is a felony, Millie."

     Millie laughed. "How are they going to know? I won't tell if you don't!" She'd done it like the book said, drilled almost all the way through the wall, leaving only a slight covering of paint and drywall to conceal the microphones pushed in from her side.

     He smiled, coldly. "That's harder to do than you think, Millie. It's an art form. Walls aren't ever of a uniform thickness. The way we did it in the FBI, we'd have a man in the room with touchup paint. If we drilled through and it always happened, we'd just skim over the spot and hide the microphone. You're lucky you didn't hit a power line."

     He smirked "You signed the lease for this place, so you're on the hook, Millie." He picked up his briefcase. "I'm going to the hardware store. I'll make up some skim, drop it off, then check into a motel. If you aren't arrested tonight you're gonna have to break in there tomorrow and make sure that they'll never see those microphones."

     She gaped at him. "But..."

     He smiled with genuine humor. "It's a slippery slope, Millie. You're a sociologist. Don't get your skirts dirty dragging them through the gutter. That's why they hired me." He left.

     Upset, Millie listened anxiously for discovery. Soon, despite herself, she was smiling. Then she blushed and turned off the recorder. She wondered if it was pertinent to the investigation that Daria had really enjoyed losing her virginity.

     Jake sped down the interstate, anxiously trying to keep Daria in sight. Helen had scared him, with her talk of schizophrenia. It didn't run in Helen's family, but he'd seen it before, at military school. A lot of the kids there had had something wrong with them. He wondered where she was going. He didn't want to spook her, she might be seeing things. He thumped the wheel. They'd crossed the state line an hour ago and he was low on gas.

     Sheila Vickers looked into her rear view mirror. She'd have to gas up soon, without letting these rubes tumble. She picked out a truckstop with a lot of pumps. The followers would keep well away from her and she could pay with a credit card.

     Filling up, she was discomfited when a blue Lexus barreled up and an agitated looking man jumped out.

     "Daria! What's the matter Hon-" Jake felt his heart spasm in shock. It wasn't her. "Gah! God Dammit! You're not Daria! Where's Daria! I'm coming, Daria!" He leapt into his car and pulled away, burning rubber.

     Sheila sighed, as all of her followers pealed out toward Lawndale. Everyone in that corner of the state had to have heard. "Shit, shit, shit." She dug out her cellphone. She was blown. White might fire her, over this. Reflecting, she put the phone away. What White didn't know wouldn't hurt him and she could play tourist at company expense for awhile.

     Quinn dialed again.

     Brittany finally answered. "Hello?" She waved at Kevin, laying naked in her bed, to be quiet.

     Quinn heard Kevin whispering and grimaced in distaste. "Hello, Brittany, This is Quinn Morgendorffer. Have you seen Daria today?"

     "Daria?" Brittany began leaking tears. "Oh Quinn!" she wailed, "Poor Daria's sensitive! She was hiding in the bushes from the aliens! She said that the invisible people were after her! She went running away down the street!"

     Kevin leaned over and yelled into the phone. "I saw it too! I heard that the CIA's after her because the aliens are controlling her mind!" Kevin blew crumbs from the cracker that he was eating all over the bed.

     Quinn clapped her hand to her forehead. "Oh, no! Mom wants to put her in Eastern State Hospital for evaluation! What am I gonna do? I can't have a crazy per-" In mid cry, Quinn hung up.

     Kevin heard. "Cool! I never knew an insane person before. Welcome to Nuttyworld! We're just nutty nut nuts! Especially Daria!" He smiled, stupidly expecting Brittany to laugh.

     Brittany stared at him for a shocked instant, calmly replaced the phone in the cradle and then viciously slapped him right out of the bed. Climbing after him, she stalked him as he gibbered and scuttled around on the floor.

     Helen strode into the living room, shouting into the phone. "Yes, officer, she's eighteen, but only just eighteen! She's delusional! No. No, not yet. I was going to take her out to Eastern State- Forty eight hours! Are you serious?" Angrily, Helen hung up. "Quinn! What do you have for me?"

     Quinn swallowed. Helen was really losing it. "Well, Brittany says that when she found Daria hiding in a bush today, Daria said that she was being controlled by invisible aliens and followed by the CIA. Then she ran off."

     "Oh GOD!" Helen began weeping. "Why me?"

     Saturday morning, haggard and exhausted, Millie jerked awake. Her headphones were still on and she heard movement from Trent and Daria's apartment. Her eyebrows rose. "Oh, my God, it couldn't be! Not again!"

     The headboard began rhythmically slamming into the wall, right on the microphone, again.

     Millie unplugged that microphone, pulled it out of the wall and sighed. "I sure hope that they don't break the wall. Not that they'd notice." Once again, she wondered why her sex life was so abysmal. She was only seven years older than Daria, after all. Being on a field study was an eye opener, in more than one way.

     Trent was giving Daria a sensual foot massage, when the duck phone quacked. He reluctantly answered. "Yeah?"

     "Dude! Daria's mom came to my place! She's going postal, man! She says Daria's tripping about spacemen, or something." Jesse had been deeply shocked by his morning confrontation with Helen.

     "Ah, shit! You didn't tell her where we are, did you?" Trent glanced worriedly at his bedroom door. A whacked out Helen bursting through right about now would be seriously inconvenient.

     Daria, nude and happy, smiled, stretched out her leg and pulled at his wispy chest hair with her toes.

     "No. But I swear, she knows I know. You gotta do something, man. I can't take shit like that, this early." Jesse wondered where the girl that had been in his bed had hidden.

     "If you tell her, I'll kill you, Jesse. That's a no shitter." Trent grinned. Jesse and Helen. He'd like to be a fly on the wall at that confrontation.

     "Well, fuck! So, is she there?" Jesse thought so.

     "Yeah. Everything's fine. No spacemen." Trent grinned at Daria.

     "We still gonna record today?" Jesse figured that Trent would blow it off in favor of laying in with Daria all day.

     "Uhm, its tomorrow, Jesse. Eleven o'clock. Later, dude." Trent hung up, met Daria's sultry eyes, grabbed her ankles and pulled her to him.

     Jane, painted in black and white vertical stripes, looked at Tom, painted in black and white horizontal stripes. "Now put on the mask."

     Tom hesitated. "I can't believe you're doing this for a school art project. When you said something from modern presidential history-"

     Jane laughed. "Li will ban it, it'll make the news and I'll have an instant reputation in the art world. It'd have more impact if it was a lesbian thing, but I don't think I could sell Daria on posing for it."

     Tom cleared his throat and managed to speak. "Uhm, right."

     "Well! Did I touch a nerve? Little fantasy of yours? Mask on! Now!" snapped Jane.

     Tom looked at the rubber Ronald Reagan mask in his hand and frowned. "God, what an unbelievable turnoff." His frown deepened when she put on a Michael Gorbachev mask. "Can't we do the angel-devil masks again? That's so dam-"

     "Close your eyes then. I'm sure you'll rise to the occasion. You're the one that wanted a bohemian art-chick girlfriend. Get use to it. Besides, you knew that this was a working weekend!" She wondered what he'd think of the Bush-Saddam, Hillary, ape and pig masks that were next. Tom was in for a long hard day. Jane adjusted the floodlights on the Faux Zebra rug and made sure that the timers were set at the right rate on the tripod mounted cameras surrounding the rug. A photographers daughter, she knew all about it.

     Jane laid down on the rug, looked up at Tom and said, "Come on baby. Do it for art, do it for history," She posed for him. "Do it for me."

     Tom was there. "Well, I guess politics are pretty much out for me, then."

     Jane pushed the starting bulb that controlled her cameras, threw it out of the shot and said, "Who needs politics? Besides, you're wearing a mask. God, I love art! Three cheers for edible paint! Ronnie Raygun and The Final Surrender of Communism. Take one. Action!" The cameras began clicking.

     Lost in a haze of sorrow, Jake forgot to obsess about his golf game. He finished in the low fifties, shocking those that knew him and impressing his new pal, Bill Broson.

     Absently, Jake listened to Bill talk about his microchip business. He was bemoaning the cheap foreign imports that were killing his DRAM business.

     Bill was going on about his problems. "What's a guy to do, Jake? A chip's a chip! Ours are faster, better and more reliable, but nobody can tell them from any other chip!"

     Jake shrugged, uncaringly. "Do like Intel does. Market them like potato chips. Put a sticker on the box that says Big Super Crunch inside. Hell, change the name. Call 'em Potato Chips. Names count, you know. Look at Apple computers. If they'd been called 6440's or some other boring name, they'd be long gone."

     "Potato chips?" Broson was intrigued.

     Jake nodded. "Yeah, Bill. Talk about a commodity. It's just potatoes, yet look at the wide price range that potato chips have."

     "Hmm. Not a bad idea Jake. Potato chips." Bill laughed and questioned Jake relentlessly about how to implement the idea.

     Just as Jake was getting ready to plant a nine iron in his skull, Bill came to the point.

     "Say, Jake. Why don't you come on board as our marketing VP and handle it for us?" Bill searched his eyes and saw absolutely no visible interest.

     Jake smiled, perfunctorily. "I'm pretty busy, Bill. I could help out on a consulting basis, but-"

     Bill went into hardball mode. The less interested Jake seemed, the more Bill wanted him. "No. No outsiders in our tent, Jake. I know it's hard for an old hired gun like you to come aboard as a company man, but we're not an ordinary company, Jake. The rewards are tremendous. I believe in profit sharing. A full unit, stock options, car, house, golden parachute and great benefits. Whattaya say, Jake?"

     "A unit?" Jake laughed. "What's that mean?"

     "Alright, alright." Bill smiled. "If you could be lowballed, I wouldn't want you. A million five, you start a week from Monday."

     "Sure. Send the contract over to my office and I'll look it over." Jake tried to feel triumph, but all he could think of was his mad daughter, wandering in the forest, or in the city, or in a ditch somewhere.

     Bill was impressed with Jake's cool.

     Trent finished the jingle for Sam and saw that they had three hours of studio time left. "Okay guys, let's get it in one. How's the hand, Nick?"

     Nick shrugged. "Useable. Next time I'll use a bat."

     Max laughed. "You've just got delicate little girl hands, Nick." Max.'s only defense in a fight was to curl up and present his head as the only accessible target. It had always worked.

     Trent sighed. The two worst fighters that he knew were the two that always fought. Daria could probably whip both of them. "Okay, okay, settle down. Let's not waste time. Mike, are you ready?"

     The engineer gave them a thumbs up through the glass.

     Trent turned to them. "A one, a two, a one two three four," The band launched into Bummer City.

     Eight hours later, they finished.

     "That was really awesome, guys." Mike, the studio engineer, was elated. He'd stayed on his own time to clean it all up. He had a damn good opportunity for some credits here.

     Trent laughed. "Thanks a million, Mr. Producer." That was the deal Mike had made.

     Mike copied the data to DAT tape format and burned a dozen CD's. "Here's your master. Guard it with your life. We have a backup here, but you never know. If you guys don't mind, I'll burn a few extras, send them to some people I know. This is like a résumé for me."

     Trent shrugged. "Sure. Burn as many as you like."

     Daria broke in. "Don't forget to put the copyright notice on them!"

     Mike looked at her, suddenly worried. "Hey, you guys have registered the name-"

     Daria smiled. "I took care of all that stuff."

     Trent looked at her, amazed. "Cool! Hey, did it cost you anything?"

     Daria shrugged. "You already worked it off, Trent."

     Everyone laughed at Trent, who was blushing.

     Daria continued, "We can offer it for sale on the website, now."

     "Website?" Trent and the rest of the band stared at her, amazed.

     "Mystik Spiral dot com." Daria shrugged. "I did a little research before you guys..." She glanced at Mike.

     "Who's got a computer?" Max wanted to see the website.

     "Got one right here." Mike logged on and found the site.

     "Wow! 2892 hits already!" Daria was proud of the website.

     Trent and the band explored, read Daria's bios and congratulated her.

     "That's just excellent, Daria. Thanks." Trent kissed her.

     "Let's check the mail." Daria opened the mail account she'd established and saw that the mailbox was eighty percent full.

     Mike's breath whooshed out when he saw the mail addresses. "Holy crap! You guys have messages from all of the A&R guys on the planet!"

     Trent's knees were weak. "This Internet stuff is pretty cool, Daria."

     Daria was suspicious. None of the books that she'd read said that the Internet was a good way to reach A&R people. The few WAV samples she had took forever to load and just weren't that good. She'd expected the band to take years to attract any attention from the big labels. She just hoped that what they had was good enough.

     Trent was reading mail. "They all want a demo. How much would it cost to make up about sixty more CD's Mike?"

     "Three bucks a throw, Trent. Sam's cash ran out five hours ago."

     Daria felt a rush of alarm. "Make them pay, Trent! Get the orders first, then have Mike burn the CD's."

     Trent looked up. "But Daria-"

     Mike interrupted. "She's right, dude. The record labels screw artists all the time. Make them pay for what they get."

     Trent looked at Max, Jesse and Nick, who were in the midst of counting their money. "Okay, Daria. You're the manager." He raised his voice. "You guy's cool with that?"

     They hurriedly agreed.

     Mike glanced at his watch. "Look guys, I gotta lock up. I've got a date tonight."

     When they were standing in the parking lot, Daria turned to Trent and said, "I need my computer, but I don't want to deal with the parental units right now."

     The band had been told all about Daria's troubles by Jesse and Trent.

     Max said, "Hey, we ought to like, lure them away from the house, then do a smash and grab, Criminali style!"

     Daria looked thoughtful. "If by smash and grab, you mean carefully removing my computer, in a non smashing anything at all sort of way, then it's a good idea."

     Trent looked at Jesse. "You should be the one to call. Helen knows you."

     Jesse looked alarmed. "Me! She knows where I live, dude! You know her too!"

     Trent frowned. "I live with her daughter, man. That's gonna be traumatic enough as it is, without lying to her to boot."

     Max laughed. "Hell, I'll do it!" He pulled out his cell phone.

     "Let's plan this all out, first." Daria smiled. "You guy's are the best."

     Helen was sitting in her house, trying to concentrate on some work, when the phone rang. She snatched it up. "Hello. Yes? Who's there?"

     Max gulped and his voice cracked. "Is this Helen Morgendorffer?"

     "Yes." Helen had a bad feeling.

     "I'm a friend of Jesse Moreno and I heard that you were looking for Daria." Max started to get into the flow of the lying. "I thought you might like to know, I saw her at the mall a half hour ago."

     Helen gasped. "Where!"

     Max smiled at Daria, who was sitting across from him. "The Food Court."

     Helen sighed with relief. "Oh thank God! Did she look-"

     "She looked fine, Mrs. Morgendorffer. My cellphone is dying, bye" Max hung up and smirked at them.

     "We better vamoose before she gets here," Trent said, standing. They left the food court and took the Tank and Trent's Plymouth to Daria's parents house. They passed Jake, Helen and a rebellious looking Quinn, in Helen's SUV as they exited the parking lot.

     Max backed his van up in the Morgendorffer driveway, opened the back doors and they all went up to Daria's room.

     Daria disconnected all the wires and started handing computer components to the band. They loaded it then went back upstairs. Daria got her books, her desk and her remaining clothes.

     She came out of the bathroom and Jesse was sitting on her bed, tuning her guitar.

     Jesse looked up at her. "I found this under the bed. Cool guitar, Daria."

     Trent smiled. "It looks brand new."

     Daria shrugged. "It is. My Aunt Amy gave it to me for my birthday. It's never been played."

     Trent took the guitar. "Now that's just sad. You have to learn how to play it. I'd be happy to teach you."

     "Not here! Let's get out of here." Daria looked around. Everything she valued had been taken. She scribbled a note on the phone message pad and they went back to the apartment.

     They didn't notice the numerous tails they'd picked up, but White did.

     "They're moving," White said into the cellphone.

     Millie was placing a bug in the electric outlet in Trent's small living room. "Okay, I'm finished here." She was wearing a hands free headset. She looked critically at the wall and shuddered. Every microphone she'd drilled in had been visible. Thank God they hadn't been noticed. "I'm exiting now." She counted her tools, took a careful look around, then left, unobserved.

     Helen arrived at home two hours later. The food Court Manager had recognized Daria's picture and said that she was with a group. She'd gotten him to play the surveillance tape for her and she had immediately recognized Trent and Jesse. Daria was somewhere with Trent, probably cohabiting. She'd sent Quinn to the Lane house several times that Saturday. No one was home and Daria's car was nowhere in sight. Helen was sure that Daria wasn't staying there.

     "Mom! There's a note from Daria on the message pad!" Quinn read it and started giggling. She launched herself up the stairs to call and tell her friends the latest.

     Helen grabbed it and read.

Dear Mom.

Not wanting to be locked up in a mental institution, I decided to seek accommodation elsewhere. The mysterious black van belongs to LUFON, a group of local UFO loonies. Those old rumors about me being an alien have been stirred up again and LUFON is watching me and Jane. Don't worry, they're a pretty harmless bunch. I'm fine, everything is great, I'll talk to you next week sometime, when I'm sure that you won't have me committed.

Love, Daria.

     Helen sighed in relief. Daria wasn't crazy after all. Then she started worrying about Trent. Spitefully, she found herself hoping that Daria had a daughter, someday.

     Jake came in, looking defeated. "I looked all over-"

     Helen interrupted. "She was here while we were out, Jake. She's not crazy after all." Helen explained.

     "Gah! LUFON! I'll kill 'em all!" Jake burned. Crazy people, following his daughter around, putting the family through all of this!

     "Calm down, Jake! First we'll file a complaint. Then we'll get a restraining order, then Daria can just call the police when she notices them." Helen sighed. First, they had to get Daria back. She braced herself. "She's moved in somewhere with Trent."

     Outside, Artie had just connected his new 'Big Ear' parabolic microphone up. He pointed it at the house. Artie heard a mumble, so he turned the volume up all the way.


     Artie ripped the headphones from his ringing ears and cried out.

     In the house, Jake raged, Quinn giggled and Helen sighed.

     White unlocked the door and walked up to Millie. She was asleep, sprawled on the table, headphones on. He sat the containers of Chinese food down and poked her awake.

     "Huh! Oh, it's you." Millie took off the headphones.

     "How's it going over there?" White didn't really care. He had enough for a report and he figured that all of the surveillance had ruined things anyway.

     "How does it go? They go like jackrabbits. I hate this job. I'm gonna go back to school and do something else." Millie shook her head and sighed.

     White smiled. "Jealous?"

     "Yes!" Millie laughed. "God, she's lucky. My big moment took about ten minutes in the back of a car. This girl's pushing back the frontiers of sexology as we speak!"

     White shrugged. "If she was ordinary we wouldn't be here. Pack up after you eat, Millie. We're pulling up stakes."

     Millie stared at him. "We just got everything set!"

     White nodded. "The parade is back. We can't get away with covert surveillance anymore. We have a week's worth of ordinary background. Its time to back off."

     Jane got out of Tom's car. She looked at her dark house, put her head back in the window and said, "Wanna spend the night?"

     Tom raised his eyebrows. "Will I have to wear or do anything kinky?"

     Jane laughed. "Yes and yes. Do you really care?"

     Tom shook his head and got out of the car. "No, just curious."

     "C'mon. I've got Robin and Catwoman costumes left over from last Halloween.

     "Holy hardons Catwoman! What if Batman catches us?" Tom linked arms with her.

     "You worry too much, Boy Wonder. Batman's in Uganda with Mrs. Batman. Narcoleptic boy is probably out defrosting Ms. Freeze in his new lair. That leaves the Bat Cave ours for the foreseeable future." Jane led him into the house.

     "God, I hope so." Tom didn't know if he would ever live it down. His sister and her husband had shown up at the Northport beach house that Sunday afternoon. Jack and Lea had found him, sitting there on the sofa, wearing zebra paint and a horribly embarrassed expression. Jane had come out of the bathroom fully dressed, with no evidence of paint on her, completely unembarrassed.

     His brother in law had taken in the cameras, masks and paint stains on the rug and then laughed at him so hard that he got a nose bleed.

     Jane suddenly stopped and turned to him. "Holy hardons. That's a good idea for a piece, Tom. You could dress as the pope and I could dress as a nun."

     Tom shuddered. "No way. You're gonna get me killed, Jane."

     Jane smirked. "But you'll die laughing, your holiness. It'd get us into the New York galleries. They love anything anti Catholic."

     Anne yawned and checked her email, to see what had accumulated over the weekend. There was one from her old college roommate, now a researcher at Hopwood, Finch and company.

     Carol occasionally steered new talent her way, when she was feeling under appreciated. She opened the email attachment and looked at the color picture. The girl was young, pretty and most importantly, different looking. She went back and read the message.


I was doing some research online and I found a new face for you! This pic is from some sleazy kid's website, called Lawndale Ladies and it profiles the girls of Lawndale High. The name was given as Daria M. (That's all I can tell you!) Her name has been coming up in certain circles as a trendsetter and she's been featured in Val, issue 10 vol 8.


     Anne looked at the picture again. Daria M. certainly had photogenic quality and her rebelliously intelligent, slightly pouting expression was ideal for the new line of casual wear. Anne thought about it some more, then picked up the phone.

     Romonica De Gregory sat in her hot tub and snapped for her houseboy to fetch her another Seven and Seven. Life was good. She had signed another crop of hopefuls to attend her modeling school at five thousand a head and she'd finally paid off her crushing debt to the syndicate. No more favors, or go-go bar 'auditions' for her people! From now on, everything was going to be on the level. Her palmtop dinged and absently, she flipped it open to check her email.

     It was from Anne Hampton, of the Pennyworth-Goode agency. As she read, Romonica grew agitated, then thoughtful. Opportunity knocked, but it didn't beg. She had to move very fast, before-

     "Romonica! I just got the most interesting bit of email!" Claude burst in and wrinkled his nose at her. "Please! don't get up for me, dearie."

     Romonica regarded him, sourly. She'd been stuck with him ever since she'd gotten the loan. He was Big Joey Marino's nephew, entitled to the family's help, but otherwise unwelcome. Without his influence, Romonica knew that she'd probably be working for the Family in another capacity, right now. "So. Anne sent an email to you, too?"

     Claude nodded. "I've got a list of the Lawndale prospects, but there's no 'Daria M.' on it."

     Romonica stood and the houseboy, a muscular young Indian man, held her robe open for her. She noted how his eyes slid away from her and absently decided to get rid of him. "Who is she then?"

     Cloud shrugged. "Someone we missed. Do you remember any names?"

     Romonica laughed. "I only remember important names. Call one at random and ask."

     Claude creased his forehead. "We had to run away from the media, Romonica. Some ridiculously passe army bitch ruined our pitch. All we got was that fat butted football boy and he was far too stupid to be a model."

     Romonica remembered. "Ah yes, the stupid boy with the fat cheerleader girlfriend. The mouth-breather. Call him, Claude. Trick him into telling us who she is. We must sign her first."

     Claude giggled. "That might not be a good idea, girlfriend. Remember, you told me to get rid of him. I didn't want to waste ten hours explaining things to him, so I got rid of him the quick way."

     Romonica raised an amused eyebrow. "Oh? What did you do to the poor fool?"

     Claude smiled. "I just got him out of his clothes for some retakes. He didn't get it. I groped his bum and told him that he was cute. He still didn't get it. I was beginning to get my hopes up. Then I slipped him a little tongue. He was gone in three seconds flat. He didn't even stop to put on his clothes. I keep his football as a trophy on the mantle over my fireplace."

     Romonica laughed, until she remembered that she needed him. "Damn! Well, use the list."

     Daria pulled into the student parking lot and saw Helen's SUV idling by the curb. Sighing, she walked over and got in the passenger door. "Hi, Mom."

     Helen looked at her and suppressed tears. Daria looked grown up. "Well, I'm sorry, Daria. I shouldn't have been so quick to jump to conclusions."

     Daria shrugged. "I guess I did sound a little crazy."

     Helen laughed. "I got a call from Mrs. Klein that afternoon. She said that you were hiding in her hedge, talking to yourself."

     Daria smiled. "I guess that sort of colored your subsequent judgements. I was talking to Roper's dog, trying to keep it from barking and giving me away."

     Helen sighed. "I hired an off duty policeman to find out who those goons are and get rid of them. He's parked across the street."

     Daria nodded. "Artie's right over there." She pointed at the LUFON van, parked near Helen's watcher.

     Helen smiled. "Sign this complaint and he won't be."

     Daria signed. "Well, I'd better-"

     "Daria, where are you staying?" Helen looked at her, in a sidelong fashion.

     Daria thought about lying, but she saw no point in postponing the inevitable. "With Trent. We have an apartment out near the airport."

     "We have an apartment?" Helen suppressed her anger.

     Daria shrugged. "I'm going to be working as a waitress after school, to pay my share of the rent. So yes, I guess you could say that we have an apartment, since we live there."

     "Oh, Daria!" Helen almost started crying. "What about college?"

     Daria shrugged. "Scholarship. I've got the best grades in the state. The Ivy League was bidding for me, the last time I checked."

     "We'll pay! Don't limit yourself, Daria. Your father just got a job as VP of marketing, for Broson Semiconductors." Helen smiled, sadly. "It pays a million five, two with benefits. We're moving to Crew Neck, next month. Your father would be a lot happier about it if you came home and stayed for a while."

     Daria laughed. "Alright Dad! I'll come and see him, after he has a few days to cool down."

     Helen shrugged. "Maybe you're right. But come before he starts, Monday. He needs to have a clear head to take on this big job."

     The first bell rang and Daria got out. "Well Mom, see you later."

     Helen spoke. "Daria?"

     Daria opened the door again. "Yes?"

     "Are you and Trent... sleeping together?" Helen had to know.

     Daria stared. Then she replied, flatly, "In our bed in our apartment, Mom. I've got to go now." She closed the door and walked rapidly away.

     "I had to ask." Helen walked over to her hired cop and handed him the complaint. "That black van." She pointed at Artie's LUFON command post.

     "Okay, Helen. I'll get this processed and get him and his friends taken care of." Cpl. John Shanker had worked for Helen's firm before. He wondered if Helen knew about the other watchers. He'd already taken down their tag numbers. He'd run them when he went back on duty.

     Daria made it to her class just in the nick of time. Everybody in the room was staring at her, including Jane.

     Mrs. Bennett came in, cleared her throat and addressed Daria. "Daria, are you ...feeling alright?" She edged back, nervously.

     Daria smiled, almost imperceptibly. The rumor mill had obviously been cranking away at warp speed. "I'm feeling fine. I couldn't be better, Mrs. Bennett." Daria couldn't resist. "Are those your pixies, hiding behind your legs? Because I've got a big rubber mallet in my car that really does a great job on those pesky little devils."

     Jane smiled.

     Manson shuffled out her cards, then discarded them. She knew better, now. "Ms. Morgendarter, It has come to our attention that you may be, well, having a problem."

     Daria stared back, silently.

     Manson cleared her throat. "Is that the case?"

     Daria shrugged. She enjoyed torturing Manson.

     Manson looked at her with trepidation. "Have you been... seeing things, Deria?"

     Daria smirked. "No, but Daria has."

     Manson jotted 'possible multiple personalities' down. "Sorry, Daria. What have you been seeing?"

     Daria kept her expression completely deadpan. "Trees, houses, cars... idiots."

     Manson sighed. "Have you seen anything unusual lately?"

     Daria let a long moment go by, thinking about her weekend with Trent. She had to smile. "I see you. That's fairly unusual... for this time of day."

     Manson slapped her pad down angrily, then regained her calm. "Have you heard anything unusual? Voices, or whispers?"

     Daria nodded.

     Manson brightened. "What were those voices saying, Daria?"

     "They said, 'Go to Mrs. Manson's office, Daria. We heard that you'd wigged out.'"

     "Daria!" Manson glared. "Are you... alright?"

     "I'm just peachy." Daria enjoyed this game.

     Manson took another crack. "When I asked if you were hearing voices, I meant the voices of people who weren't actually there."

     Daria nodded. "Well sure. Why didn't you say so? I hear disembodied voices all the time."

     Manson perked up. "Good! Now we're getting somewhere! When did you last hear the voices and what did they say?"

     Daria let her have it. "In my car. They predicted rain this afternoon, with clearing later this evening, today's high 57, tonight's low-"

     "Daria!" Manson scribbled out a hall pass. "Get back to class!"

     "Sure. Bye, Mrs. Manson. Bye Harvey, Baal and Lucifer. I'll see you guy's later." Daria walked out, trying not to laugh.

     Manson shook her head, then brightened. At least Daria was over that self esteem problem.

     Daria got back to Bennett's class, took a look at the mish mash of diagrams on the board, then decided to ignore it.

     "How's the loony lady doing today?" Jane took advantage of Bennett's distraction to talk to Daria.

     Daria smirked. "She's fine. She diagnosed demonic possession."

     Jane smiled. "It sure took them long enough to figure it out."

     Jane yawned and poked at her lunch with a spork. "So, how was your weekend, Daria?"

     Daria suppressed a yawn of her own. "Sublime. Yours?"

     Jane searched for the right words. "Abstract. With a touch of cubism."

     "Well, did you do anything for Li's project?"

     Jane smirked. "I started something. I'm thinking of calling it a young artists impression of the Presidency. Li will absolutely drop dead when I spring it on her. It'll definitely get me noticed by the art college's scholarship committees."

     "If they ever look." Daria doubted if anyone would really look at a picture hanging in a high school library.

     Jane smiled. "Oh, they'll look alright. It's kind of exciting. There's a traveling exhibition of youth art touring the country. The local art community approached Li and asked if LHS had anything to offer. Li spun out this big bullshit story about having to cut the art program to pay for the new Library and to make a long story short Li got the exhibition moved to the new Library building. There's a big fundraiser there Friday. A committee of art notables will award a thousand dollar prize for the best new work."

     "That's strange. Li hasn't made any of the usual threats to get us to attend." Daria frowned. Unusual meant bad, most of the time.

     "She doesn't want students there." Jane bounced a rubbery meatball on the table. "She's going for the big bucks. All the area's richest art hounds will be there. We'd scare them away."

     "Oh, good!" Daria looked at the camera on the wall. "I wonder if she got those working again."

     Jane shrugged. "She signed a contract this time, Daria. I have complete artistic independence."

     Daria broke her spork on one of the rocklike tatertots. "She must be getting senile."

     Jane nodded "She thinks that she's got a handle on me. She'd better think again! Hey, by the way, what ever happened with those spooks?"

     Daria looked at her, eyes twinkling. "It was Artie and the Lawndale UFO network. Remember that show? They're after you too, Space Chick."

     Jane smiled. "Oh, good! A nom de guerre! That will attract the media. What a tie in with my big opening. Freaks, geeks and alien chee... never-mind."

     Daria frowned. "Just what do you have planned, Jane? Because if it's as bad as I think it will be, I just want to say, don't use my image." Daria paused, looked at Jane, then relented. "Unless it's absolutely necessary."

     Jane smiled. "Not to worry, Daria. I'm doing a... sort of photo collage. You just aren't Presidential. Not unless you and Trent... nah."

     Daria looked relieved. "Thank god. Trent said that you took all of your Dad's cameras along this weekend. Get any interesting pictures?"

     Jane nodded, happily. "A few hundred shots. I've got a lot of developing to do and a lot more pictures to take. So, you went out with Trent this weekend. Where'd you go?"

     Daria blushed. "Just hung around at home. We went out Sunday and did that jingle for Sam the carpet man. Burned a CD."

     Jane looked puzzled. She'd figured that Trent would spend the weekend luring Daria over to his place. "Trent? Hanging around where Helen could tie in to him? That's weird."

     Daria sighed. "I moved in with Trent, Jane. My Mom decided that I was deluded about the spooks and was calling the men in white. I had to get out, quick."

     Jane gasped. "Hung around at home, huh?" She laughed. "You sure do things in a big way, Daria. You went from no reputation to psycho, commie-killin' CIA space groupie, all in a few short weeks! I've really got to do a new portrait of you."

     Daria shrugged. "You're the one to talk. You and Tom spent the weekend on the cold beach, bird watching, right? And don't forget, you're being stalked by the same people, after all."

     Jane smiled. "Yeah, we did watch the birdie. Look, Daria, you have to be more open to profit potential. I'd just go back and tell Artie where I was going. Then I'd demand a ride and hint that I could be bribed now, to spare certain miserable little earthlings after the big takeover. You have to learn to use these opportunities."

     Daria nodded, solemnly, then paused as if struck. "Maybe you've got something there. I guess those guys who took my picture scared me. They didn't look harmless or local. They looked like convicts. If it'd been Artie, I might have tried some of that."

     "Daria! Are you all right now?" Brittany came up to them, looking relieved.

     Daria started to make a cutting remark, then saw real worry in Brittany's eyes. "Sure, Brittany. I'm fine. Thanks for asking. I got a restraining order against the people who were following me and everything is all right now."

     "A restraining order?" Brittany vacantly twirled a lock of hair. "They were real?"

     Daria stood. It was time to settle the rumor mill down. "Come on. I'll introduce you." She led Jane, Brittany and a discreetly trailing Kevin out of the front doors.

     The black van was parked down the block. Daria walked up and pounded on the side door. "Open up, Artie!"

     Artie slid the door open and stared fearfully out at them. "Don't take my skin!" A confederate erupted from the drivers side door and ran off.

     Kevin grabbed Artie by the shirt and yanked him out. Kevin was bruised and still had a swollen lip. Brittany had administered a good kicking. Someone had to pay. "WHY are you FOLLOWING DARIA AROUND you MISERABLE little DWEEB!" He slammed Artie's back into the van with each word.

     "AHHH! Killer android! Heeeelp!" Artie whined and groveled, demonstrating the immense effectiveness of the strategy.

     "WHY!" Kevin bellowed in Artie's face.

     "She's a Space Babe! They both are!" Artie went into his spiel. He told Kevin about how Daria had taken his skin, about how Daria and Jane could control his mind and how he was warning the world about the menace.

     "Whoa!" Kevin looked at them, then shrugged. He'd heard it before. He went back to shaking Artie.

     Jane climbed into the van and retrieved the videos. They were marked with code letters and short descriptions. "Hey, Artie, what does MIB mean?"

     Artie looked shocked. "Men in black. How could you not know that?"

     Jane smiled. "I'm just an ordinary Earth girl, Artie. Men in white scare me more. Sorry to disappoint you."

     "But... But what about the alien technology in your yard?" Artie looked on the verge of tears.

     "Organic kinetic sculpture. I'm an artist. It's just glued together junk and garbage." Jane smiled at him. "Too bad, Artie. There's no big conspiracy, just the boring old world."

     Artie pointed at Daria. "What about HER! She's no human! She's got all kinds of MIB'S watching her!"

     Daria smiled like an IRS auditor who's just discovered that all of your declared dependents are really goldfish. "Okay, you got me. I'm the Queen of the dark side. Give up Artie. You can't win. We're everywhere. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. All of the world's ills are because of us. We have a new plan that will completely enslave the human race."

     "Woah!" Kevin let Artie go and took a step back. Then he remembered that he was on Daria's side. "Cool!"

     Artie drew himself up, scraped his fractured mind together and bravely faced his nemesis. "You'll never control me!"

     "True, some of you are too brave and mentally strong, but we can control enough of you to make it work." Daria smirked and indicated her friends. "Soon, Artie. Do you like music?"

     "Er, yes! Why, do you control that, too?" Artie stood tall. He was beginning to feel much braver. And stronger.

     Daria gave an evil laugh and Jane stood behind her, looking like a henchwoman. "Yes. And I'm going to tell you exactly how we're going to do it. Through music, Artie. There's a CD available online at It installs the mind control virus. Soon, it'll be the most popular CD in the world! Tremble, puny Earthman!"

     Artie stumbled back. "No, you can't... You... you fiends! I'll tell! I'll spread the word everywhere!"

     Daria laughed, malevolently. "Go ahead and try, Artie. You've been mentally conditioned. You see UFO's everywhere, which is just what we want. No one ever believes you. You'll never be able to break through the mental block! Now go, puny earthling. By the way, there's a tracking device woven into your skin. If you follow me again, I'll know!" Daria smiled at him, evilly. "It'll be off to a short life of slave labor on Omicron Zeta, at the Grand Praetor's human-skin wallet factory for you."

     "I'll get control! You'll never beat me, I swear!" Artie jumped into his LUFON van and sped away, spilling out the video tapes that Jane had stacked next to the open side door.

     Brittany was staring at them. "That wasn't very nice, Daria."

     Daria looked a bit guilty. "Sorry Brittany. I've told him a hundred times that I'm not an alien. I thought that if I told him that I was an alien he might not believe me. Or he would and then he might go find something else to worry about."

     Brittany's face cleared. "Oh, it was psychology. You weren't just being mean, you were trying to help him!"

     "Uhm, yes. That's right, Brittany." Daria carefully avoided Jane's eyes. She'd start laughing for sure.

     Kevin walked up. "Yeah! You aliens sure are brainy! Is it because you eat peoples brains?"

     Daria rolled her eyes. "Yes Kevin. Yum, yum. Hey, it's lunch time!"

     "Relax, Kevin. Daria's a good alien. Your brain is safe, even from the bad ones. Trust me." Jane thrust videos into his arms. "Help carry these."

     Daria picked up a tape, looked around thoughtfully then said, "These might come in handy to make the restraining order stick."

     There was a honk. "Daria! Just who I was looking for."

     Daria ran over to her aunt's convertible. "What are you doing here?"

     Amy opened a door. "Kidnapping you. Hop in and we'll go have lunch."

     Daria looked at the school, shrugged and got in. "See you guys later."

     Brittany stared after them. "God, they look so much alike! Is that Daria's real mom?"

     "Nope. That's just Daria One. She had herself cloned eighteen years ago. Our Daria is actually Daria Two. Then there's Melody, or three as we call her at headquarters." Jane kept picking up tapes, smirking at Brittany's dazed expression.

     Kevin wandered away with an armload of video tapes, mumbling to himself. His poor brain was overloading. Insane alien CIA clones. He badly needed the solace of Ratboy.

     Amy sped along, not speaking.

     Daria cleared her throat and finally said, "I should have checked out."

     "Why change your pattern now?" Amy glanced at her, a touch of wrath visible.

     "Excuse me?" Daria felt a frission of alarm.

     Amy snorted. "You never checked with anyone after you did your little disappearing act, Daria. Believe it or not, some people actually care about you. Some of us were just a tad worried. Jake- Your father almost blew a gasket."

     Daria shrugged. "It didn't stop him from landing a dream job. Besides, I didn't want to see if all the nasty rumors about Eastern State Hospital were true."

     Amy glared at the road. "It stopped ME from... look, Daria. I realize that Helen overreacted, but you have to learn to be more careful of peoples feelings. We're not machines." She had to be careful. In her anger and relief, she could easily let the cat out of the bag.

     They went into a restaurant and ordered. Daria watched her aunt, shocked at the stress that she saw on her face. She cleared her throat, then spoke. "Sorry. I was going to call you. I just... got busy."

     Amy laughed. "Well, I can see how that might have happened. I trust that you are aware of the inevitable consequences of 'getting busy' in an unprotected way?"

     Daria flushed. "Oh, I think I can safely say yes to that. Trent isn't exactly Mr. Popular and I've been rigorously taking my stork repellent since I was twelve."

     Amy shrugged. What was done was done. "So he says. Watch out for groupies, Daria. Any man will stray if it's pushed at him enough." She made a face. "Musicians aren't the easiest people to live with."

     Daria's eyebrows rose. "That sounds like the voice of experience speaking."

     Amy replied evasively, "I've had a fling or three with... a musician. It didn't work out. He brought home a contagious little souvenir from a tour and I left." She leaned forward. "A word of advice, Daria. If Trent stays in the music business and gets successful, never, ever let him tour alone."

     Daria looked shocked. "You mean-"

     "It's all over now. Let's not talk about it." Amy sighed. She hadn't meant to open that can of worms. Especially not with Daria. "God, Daria, looking at you is like looking into a mirror from twenty years ago."

     Daria's eyes widened. "If Mom could have a daughter just like you, then I could conceivably end up with a kid just like Quinn!"

     Amy smirked. "Now you see why I've elected to remain childless. Look at what I could get. Helen or Rita. What a horrifying prospect."

     Daria looked thoughtful. "On the other hand, I could have a kid just like Jane." She flushed. "That's if... Hell."

     Amy laughed. "Hell indeed. Jake's foaming at the mouth over this. Talk like that'd put him six feet under." She grew more serious. "You need to go home, Daria."

     Daria's expression hardened. "No. Not home. I need to visit my parent's house. They would have left me doped to the eyebrows, at the mercy of some god-awful quack in a place that's been featured on 60 minutes, without even checking to see if I really was being followed. Problem, phone-call, solution, then back to work in the shortest possible time, just like that, with dear old dad nodding like his head was on a spring. I could have ended up strapped to a table in the psycho ward, with some witchdoctor solemnly recommending shock treatments, invasive surgery and a cocktail of the latest psychotropic drugs to turn me into Quinn. It's a matter of trust, Amy. Home is where you are when you're with the people you trust."

     Amy looked away and sighed. She couldn't fault Daria's facts. Everything she said was true, but subtly out of context. Helen just believed in hiring experts. She would have never gone that far, without consulting her.

     Jane was in O'Neill's class, when the PA crackled into life. "Jane Lane, report to the office, at once."

     Jane trudged to the office and at the secretary's nod, entered.

     Li stood, looking out of her window, with her back to the door. Without turning around, she said, "Sit down, Ms. Lane. I just had a rather interesting talk with Kevin Thompson." Li turned. "I confiscated some videotapes from him, in the mistaken belief that they were the missing surveillance tapes. Having reviewed them, it appears that Daria Morgendorffer is being stalked by some sort of madmen. When I tried to locate her, Kevin told me, among other incomprehensible things, that she'd been kidnapped by 'that one clone lady'." Li tapped her foot on the floor. "Explain what you can, Ms. Lane. I'm going to call Helen Morgendorffer and get to the bottom of this and I need to have the facts."

     Jane looked uncomfortable. "Well, If Daria wanted you to know-"

     Li smirked. "Summer school, Ms. Lane."

     Jane scowled, then thought of the comprehensive revenge that she was planning. Ooh, but I'm gonna get you, sooo good! You'll never forget me! "Daria's Aunt Amy picked her up in front of the school. Daria looks just like Amy. Thus the joke, 'Daria's a clone'."

     Li frowned. "Go on."

     Jane sighed. "Daria has been acting strangely because she was being followed around and photographed by strange men. It turned out that a local UFO cult, led by a harmless loony, thinks that both me and her are aliens. These LUFON people got that idea due to rumors started by those stupid INS agents telling people here to be on the lookout for illegal aliens." Jane took a deep breath. "Her mother has already taken out a restraining order against these stalkers. Case closed."

     Li leaned forward. "Kevin Thompson said that he got these tapes from 'the little UFO dude,' who ran away when Daria threatened to make him a wallet slave and eat his brain with music. Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if Kevin... Well, that's not pertinent. Were these tapes obtained from this LUFON group that Helen has taken out the restraining order against?"

     Jane nodded. "Artie spilled them from his van, when Daria told him to get lost."

     Li nodded. "Then how do you explain this?" She turned on a monitor and started a tape.

     Artie's voice, came on. "Look, Zippo! It's another MIB!"

     The camera focused on two rough looking men in a Chevrolet, surreptitiously photographing Daria with still cameras.

     Another voice, probably Zippo, replied, "How many does that make? We've identified the FBI, the CIA, the Air Force and Naval Intelligence. Who could this be?"

     Li stopped the tape. "Can you shed any light on this situation, Ms. Lane?"

     Slowly, with a touch of fear, Jane shook her head. "That group isn't what you would call well organized, or cohesive. They must be other UFO believers. I think that LUFON has a website. Maybe Artie's been spreading the word via the Internet."

     Li nodded, slowly. "Thank you, Ms. Lane. You may return to class." Li wrote out a hall pass.


     Li looked up, sharply. "Now, Ms. Lane."

     Jane left, scowling.

     Li stood and looked out of her window again. Suddenly, she jumped. It was Claud, from the Amazon modeling Agency, pulling into a visitors slot. Li called security and charged out to intercept him.

     Bill Block clicked off the Big Ear. He'd only managed to hear a few fragments of the conversation, but it'd been revealing. He rubbed his chin and thought, Hmm, Clone, eh? He'd spotted an out of town PI and thinking to horn in on the case, had started shadowing him. Then he'd noticed the parade. Bill knew that if there was this much out of town talent focused on one mousy little high school girl, there must be one hell of a big story in it somewhere. Bill opened his cell phone, checked, then closed it. A lot of people listened in on cell phones. Better to call the Daily Blaze on a landline. He'd sell his photos and recordings and get the big bucks for breaking the clone story. True or not, it would sell papers. All they needed were quotes. That would be the beginning. There had to be more. A conspiracy or something. A lot more dough in it for Bill Block, PI.

     The editor turned to the reporter. "We got an offer from a PI out in Lawndale. The guy claims that there's a clone living there. He sent pictures. I want you to take a photographer and check it out. The photo's we have are good. Get someone to attribute the story to."

     Quinn shifted in the niche and frowned. She was covertly observing Charles as he put the techniques she'd taught him to use on his first live test. Charles, wasn't the one making a mess of it. He was doing everything right, but Doris was being an absolute bitch, just because she could. Quinn glared daggers at her as she treated Charles with ruthless contempt. It was like he wasn't even human! No wonder he sometimes acted so hostile toward women.

     Doris stared at him, then laughed. "What do you think you're doing, Upchuck? I already said that I wouldn't go out with you and no, I don't want a soda or anything else that you might have touched."

     Charles smiled a gentle smile, the smile of a man who knows that he just stepped on a landmine without setting it off. "To bad, dumpling, it's your loss. Be sure and give me a call if you ever get that stick out of your butt." He walked away.

     Quinn stifled laughter, turned and bumped into Jamie. His face was a mass of bruises. "God! What happened to you!"

     Jamie glared for a minute then sighed. "Your sister's damn boyfriend. He saw me talking to Daria. About you!"

     Quinn laughed, delightedly. "Trent beat you up? You should know better than to go after both sisters at the same time."

     Jamie frowned, pouted and said, "Well, I'm going out with Carol now." He turned and walked away.

     Quinn thought about what she had seen Doris do to Charles, then called after him, "I'm sorry that it happened, Jamie."

     Jamie turned to her, amazed. "You do know my name!"

     Quinn smiled. "Well, duh! Bye, Jamie. Good luck with Carol."

     Jamie smiled wider, then went still. Upchuck was standing behind her, looking at him. Upchuck's mouth was smiling, but those eyes were measuring him for a casket.

     "WellIgottago." Jamie hurried off, in search of Carol. He'd already taken his last beating over a Morgendorffer woman and bad things had a way of happening to people that crossed Upchuck. The last time he'd seen eyes like that had been on Trent, right before the lights went out.

     Quinn looked after him, bemused. "What do you suppose is wrong with him?"

     Charles shrugged. "L'amour, Mon Cherie." He threw the unopened soda away. "Thirsty, Quinn? Can I get you something?"

     Quinn looked at him, perplexed. "You didn't have to do that. I like orange."

     Charles looked at her, smiled a half smile that served to soften the underlying seriousness of his words and said, "I'd never offer you something that I'd offered to someone else. You should only have new things, Quinn."

     Quinn smiled at him. "You say the nicest things. I do like grapefruit better, all cold, fresh from the machine. The J's always hold the can their palms and it's all warm by the time I get it, but you never do that. Now, that thing with Doris wasn't really your fault, Charles. She was just being a bitch. Next time, we'll try someone who isn't such a bitch."

     Charles shrugged, still wondering where the line had come from. Rejection by Doris was something that he could live with.

     Trent smiled as he flipped an omelet in the pan with a smooth twist of his wrist. He was a veritable Bach when it came to eggs. Getting out all the food, hot and on time, was a matter of careful planning and flawless execution. The diner wanted all of his or her parties food delivered at once, in the same state of readiness. He still had four different colored stopwatches slung around his neck, but he was relying on them less and less and hadn't dipped them in the soup all day. He looked at the clock. Things were picking up and soon he'd be back to line cook. Daria would show up, soon. He hoped that things would go well.

     Quinn stood next to Daria's car, waiting. Daria walked up and regarded her.

     "Hey, Quinn." Daria gave her a little smile.

     Quinn looked at her and smiled back. "Hi Daria. Are you going to come home today?"

     Daria shook her head. "No, not for a while. Never permanently. You can have my old room for a closet or something, if you like."

     Quinn smirked. "It's a shrine."

     "Oh, God. Well, I suppose they'll just have to get over it." Daria unlocked her door. "I have to go to work, Quinn."

     "Work! Where?" Quinn felt curiously unwilling to let Daria go.

     "A restaurant." Daria opened the door.

     "Could I ride with you? I need to talk." Quinn looked at her sister, piteously.

     Daria nodded. "I can't give you a ride home, but it's right on the bus route. I'll take you with me if you promise not to tell anyone where it is."

     "I promise." Quinn got in. "So Daria, what's it like?"

     "Excuse me?"

     "Living with a guy." Quinn flushed.

     "It's good. Really good. So far, anyway. No complaints." Daria smiled happily, startling Quinn.

     Quinn sat in silence, then said, "What do you think of Charles?"

     "Who?" Daria glanced curiously at Quinn, surprised by the conflict that was on her face.

     Quinn took a deep breath. "Did you ever know a guy that was kind of a geek with a geek's reputation but you got to know him a little better and now you kind of like him a little like you think about him a lot and wonder what he's thinking because you know that he always is, not like some other guys who can't even bring you a cold soda... Well, anyway, have you?"

     Daria deciphered that and came out bewildered. "Yes... Ted. He used me as a steppingstone to popularity."

     Quinn looked crushed. "Oh! Well that-"

     Daria interrupted. "But that doesn't mean anything at all, Quinn. Unless you're dating Ted."

     Quinn looked scornful. "Gum boy? Phuleeze!"

     Daria laughed. "That'd be the day. I guess you'd date Upchuck, first." Daria's eyes widened as she remembered that Quinn had dated Upchuck. She smirked and instantly dismissed the idea.

     Quinn froze, then gulped, but Daria was watching the road.

     "Yeah, what's with that Upchuck, anyway?" Quinn yawned with elaborate casualness, but Daria was oblivious.

     "To much testosterone and to little shame." Daria had to stop for a train.

     Quinn shrugged. "Maybe Charles just doesn't have any real friends. Maybe he's kind of rude to girls because they always treat him so bad and because that's the only way that he can get them to talk to him at all. Maybe he acts like that so that when they shoot him down, it's not because of him personally. Maybe got treated bad as a freshman because he's kind of a brain and he got himself transferred from that fancy all boy's prep school up in Carlton and it made him all nervous and stuff." Quinn looked back at Daria and flushed.

     Daria was staring at her, in shock. "My God! You had an insight! And it's about... Charles? Charles Ruttheimer the third? You're kidding!"

     Quinn looked away and laughed, hollowly. "Yeah, kidding."

     Daria looked over, compassionately. "Quinn, I don't really know him very well, but what you say makes sense. He seems to be halfway intelligent, He's always ready to help, He likes to be in the center of things and he's got a really, really sorry, macho tough guy bad-boy approach to women. I mean, c'mon. He calls a girl 'toots' and thinks she'll like it. I think that he got his whole approach right out of Mickey Spillane novels."

     Quinn smiled. "Well, he learns quick."

     Daria pulled into the restaurant lot. "Now let's see if I learn quick. Either I do, or this whole exercise in independent living could come to an end."

     Quinn looked at her, without comprehension. Rent was something that she'd never contemplated and probably never would.

     Benny was delighted to see them both. The place was jammed to the rafters and two of the waitresses hadn't shown up. "Daria! Thank god! Quick, get changed and take tables one through six. Who's your friend?"

     Daria halted her rush to the back of the house. "Benny, This is my sister, Quinn. Quinn, this is Chef Benny Raul, my esteemed boss." Daria waved at Charlene and rushed to get changed. It was on the job training time, but she'd seen a lot of waitresses at work.

     "Hiya Quinny! Ya wanna job?" Benny smiled at her, hopefully. Trent was already working like a fiend, the busboys didn't speak English and he hated waiting tables himself.

     Quinn glanced back toward Daria. "Uhm, what does it pay?"

     "We'd start you out at ten, plus tips and in a couple of weeks you'd be up to sixteen. Four hours a day, four till seven, through the dinner hours.

     Quinn calculated, then smiled "Forty dollars a day! Okay! But don't call me Quinny."

     "Great! Catch up with Daria then. She'll help you find a uniform."

     Quinn walked back and of course her uniform fit like it was tailored. Daria looked like a scarecrow. Daria very quickly became an excellent waitress. Quinn was abominable, but got more tips.

     Jake slammed the phone down. "Dammit! Now Quinn's gone! That was one of her friends, looking for her."

     Helen looked at him, then sighed. "Jake, Quinn's probably visiting Daria."

     "Why can't I visit Daria! I can't see why I couldn't go with you this morning." Jake crumpled his newspaper and threw it into the corner. "I'm not the one that was going to put her in the nut house!"

     Helen bit her lip. "We've been all through that, Jake. What would you say to her, if she was here?"

     Jake frowned. "She's not here. That's the point, Helen!"

     Helen nodded. "Imagine, that Daria's sitting in that chair, right there. Now say what you would say to her?"

     Jake glared at the empty chair. "Daria! Go to your room! I won't have you shacked up with that bum like some kind of whore! You're grounded until you turn twenty five!" Jake looked utterly shocked. He'd never imagined that something like that could ever come out of his mouth, in reference to his daughter.

     Helen looked at him, angrily. "And how many years did we live together? Does that make me a whore?"

     Jake sighed. "Helen, I didn't really mean that. I just want things to be back to normal, again."

     Helen nodded. "Me too, Jake, but screaming at Daria and beating up Trent isn't the way to make that happen. All we can do is keep the door wide open for her and hope that she gets tired of him and decides to come back."

     Jake looked lost. "She got another letter from Harvard today. I opened it. They're upping their offer. She doesn't really need us, Helen. She might never come back."

     Helen cupped his chin. "Of course she will, Jake. She's just waiting for you to cool off."

     Quinn was shocked. She'd made forty dollars in wages and $308 in tips. Daria, in spite of handling two more tables, only made $96, probably because of some campers. They were both horrified to find out that they'd be taxed for the gratuity, even if they never got it.

     Trent went straight home and Daria dropped Quinn off.

     "I like being a waitress! I got asked on eleven dates, some of them even worth going on!" Quinn was elated.

     Daria looked at her, levelly. "Oh? So I guess you have a busy week planned."

     Quinn shrugged. "I guess so." She'd turned all of them down.

     Daria yawned. "We'll have to get together this week, Quinn. We have a study session on Thursday, remember?"

     Quinn nodded. "I'm doing better now. I hate being bad at anything, even schoolwork."

     Daria rolled her eyes. "You must be related to Helen Morgendorffer." They pulled up in front of the house.

     Quinn got out and then stuck her head back into the door. "Why not come inside for a minute?"

     Daria shook her head. "No way. Not tonight, anyway. Bye, Quinn, I've got to go, now."

     Quinn shrugged. "See you later, Daria." She closed the door and watched her sister drive off into the unknown. It was a little bit scary, having Daria just leave like that. She'd always been there and now she wasn't.

     Jake heard the car door slam and looked out of the window just in time to see Daria pull away. He ran for the front door and accidentally bowled Quinn over. By the time he got her back on her feet, the car was gone.

     "Dammit!" Jake turned to Quinn. "How is she?"

     "Mu-om!" Quinn spat out a grass clipping. "Fine!" She flounced into the house and was stopped cold by Helen.

     "Yes, Quinn, tell us. How is Daria? Where have you been and why do you smell like food?" Relentlessly, Helen began the interrogation.

     Daria got home and checked the website. There were two hundred orders. She gave a low whistle.

     Trent came in with a sack full of breakfast groceries and saw her at the computer. "Hi, sweetheart. Did we get any hits?"

     Daria turned around, smiling. "Two hundred orders, Trent. At twenty bucks a pop, that gives us... $3000 after production and shipping cost. That's... $750 to you."

     Trent walked up, squatted next to her chair and encircled her waist. "Well, not quite. Out of that $3000, subtract ten percent and then every dime that you've ever spent on Mystik Spiral. Then divide the rest four ways."

     "Uh, okay, but-"

     Trent interrupted, not wanting to hear Daria's attempt at self depreciation, or unwillingness to take what she was owed. "Who ordered all the CD's, anyway?"

     "I don't really know, yet," Daria said. "Let's check the list."

     Jane opened the door to her father's studio and turned on the light. She set her thick sheaf of patterns down and sighed. This was going to take a tremendous amount of work. She looked around at the equipment and then smiled. It was all there. She could do it herself, after all. Walking over, she patted her father's enlarger. It could also reduce.

     Quinn walked out of her house and saw Charles, parked at the curb. "Hi!" She walked up to the Audi.

     "Good morning, beautiful! Want a ride to school?" Charles looked guilty. "Oops. Sorry, Quinn, I know, no big complements. It just slipped out."

     Quinn laughed. "It sounded okay, this time." She got in.

     As they pulled away, Sandi passed them going the opposite direction.

     "Was that Quinn, with Upchuck?" Tiffany blinked in confusion.

     "I... I didn't really see." Stacy gulped. Quinn was committing social suicide.

     "I did. She'd better have a really good explanation." Sandi frowned, perplexed. Quinn was a problem, but with Li on the warpath, getting rid of her might be fatal to the club budget. And truth be told, things would be pretty dull without Quinn.

     "Alright. Today, we'll try Miriam Parker. She broke up with Luke Berger and he's got a new girl. She'll be ready for a new guy to make a move." Quinn looked at her planner. She had three more prospects lined up. "You need to remember the rules, now. Approach with a group, smile, watch for cues, offer to do something for her and above all, move slowly."

     Charles grinned. "Got it. I don't know what I'd do without you." He handed her a little box. "Thank you, Quinn."

     "What's this?" Quinn tore the wrapping off. "Oooh! That's really nice!" She tried the arm bracelet on. "It fits perfectly!"

     Trent slowly typed the changes in his email message and sent it off to the Modoc Records A&R man who'd written him. He hadn't touched a computer in a couple of years, but Daria had taught him what he needed to know. He had over a hundred inquiries and was busily answering them. In all of his replies, he mentioned the regular Saturday gig.

     Corporal Shanker walked up to the parked Chevrolet. The driver had dozed off and the passenger was so busy with his donuts that he hadn't noticed the police car park behind him.

     Shanker tapped on the window and the driver woke up. "Good morning. What are you two gentlemen doing there?"

     The driver coughed and blinked until he could see. "Uhngh. I'm getting to old for this." He handed Shanker his ID card. "We're on the job, Officer..."

     "Shanker. Shadowing the kid?" Shanker looked at them in surprise. He'd expected UFO nuts, not PI's.

     The driver yawned. "It's a living. She's over eighteen and somebody paid to find out about her."

     "Who would do that?" Shanker didn't really expect to find out.

     The driver shrugged. "Client privilege. Can't tell you without you got a warrant."

     Shanker nodded and then handed the card back. "That kid's family draws a lot of water in this town. I think you guys are either pimps or drug dealers. There's no proof, but I have a suspicion. If I keep seeing you guys hanging around the high school and on street corners like this, I'll toss your car. God knows what else I'd find, but I just know I'd find drugs. You guys ought to think about getting the hell out of town, while you still can."

     The driver started the car. "Nice little town you have here, Shanker. Maybe I'll come back someday, on another job."

     Shanker smiled, pleasantly. "Look me up when you do. I'll be glad to show you around and extend the department's every courtesy."

     The driver pulled away. "Well, that's the end of that job. The pay isn't worth the hassle."

     The passenger threw his half eaten doughnut out of the window and rewound his microcassette recorder. Playing back the conversation, it was clear that the cop hadn't said anything directly incriminating. "Yeah. Doing one to five for possession with intent isn't a big part of my career plans."

     Shanker leaned on all of the followers, but the rest stood firm.

     "Wow! We really hit a nerve!" The reporter was excited. Rousted by the local cops! She'd never seen anything like it. At least seven separate groups were watching the girl. The rumors swirling around her were incredible. Maybe she really was a clone!

     Bill Block smiled, modestly. Celebrity inc. was swinging into action and he'd started the ball rolling. "I don't know, Barb. All that I do know is that she'll sell more newspapers than a toilet paper shortage."

     "So how am I supposed to get a group to use as cover?" Charles really hoped that it could be put off.

     "Don't worry, Charles, I'm on your side. Come on." Quinn walked past Jeffy and Joey. Frowning at Charles, they fell in with her like they were in on the plan.

     "Hi Quinn! Can I carry your bag?" Joey smiled hopefully, elbowing Jeffy and jostling Charles.

     "I got you a soda, Quinn! Orange, just like you always drink!" Jeffy smirked. He'd gotten it earlier, just in case. He smelled victory on the wind. He'd outdone Joey, Upchuck wasn't a serious competitor and that bastard Jamie was out of the race.

     Quinn rolled her eyes. She didn't want a warm soda at eight o' clock in the morning, but she didn't want to crush Jeffy before operation Miriam. "Um, thanks, Jeffy. Unenthusiastically, she opened it and took a tiny sip. She shot a sardonic look at Charles. Seeing the mirth reflected in his eyes, she started laughing.

     Jane was leaning against her locker, dark glasses on, sound asleep.

     "Jane?" Daria stared at her, reached out and poked her shoulder, then caught her as she started to topple.

     "Ugh." Jane woke up and removed the glasses. "Oh, it's you." She yawned. "Good morning."

     "What's with you, this morning?" Daria took in the rings under her eyes.

     "Up all night. Working. Need black coffee." Jane stumbled.

     "What you need, is sleep. Wait there." Daria went to the teachers lounge and stuck her head in the door. The teachers all stared at her, like deer caught in the headlights. Daria smiled at them, unintentionally chilling them to the bone. "There's a guy wandering around out here looking for one of you. I think that he's a process server." She let the door close behind her.

     Daria walked a few steps down the hall and leaned back against the wall. A few seconds later, DeMartino cautiously peeked out and then the lounge rapidly emptied.

     "Hmm, guilty consciences." Daria walked back and entered the empty lounge. There was a Snoopy doll on top of the refrigerator. "Hey, Snoopy, you don't mind if I get a cup of coffee for Jane, do you? I thought not." Daria filled one of the large Styrofoam cups with the ultra strong coffee that DeMartino always brewed. She took it back to Jane.

     Daria offered Jane the cup "Here you go, Jane. I got some sugar and creamer packets too."

     Jane blinked in amazement. "You stole a cup of DeMartino's coffee for me?"

     Daria smirked. "I asked permission."

     Jane took the cup, sipped and her eyes shot open. "Wow! No, this is perfect. Thanks Daria. You're a real lifesaver." Appreciatively, she drank the coffee.

     Daria blinked. Just the steam from the cup made her eyes burn. "Is this project really worth losing sleep over?"

     Jane nodded. "This is the best thing that I've ever done. Even if there was no contest, I'd still do it."

     "Contest?" Daria hadn't heard about that.

     Jane blinked. "Yeah. A committee made up of artists, critics and gallery owners are serving as the judges. They're touring the state, looking at student art. First prize is a full scholarship at one of the top art colleges in the nation."

     Daria shrugged. "Well, how far along are you?"

     "I've got about sixty more panels to expose." Jane shook her head. "I've done about seventy."

     "Do you need help?" Daria was willing.

     Jane yawned. "I wish you could, but no, it's exacting work. I don't think there's really anything that you could do." She put on her dark glasses. "Say, Daria, you wouldn't happen to know how to throw your voice, would you?"

     Daria smirked. "I wish. If you start drooling, I'll wake you up."

     The first bell rang and they went to class.

     At lunch, Quinn sat disconsolately with her posse. Sandi had begun the interrogation that morning, overcoming her evasions and carrying on relentlessly, all day.

     Quinn made an impassioned plea for understanding. "He's not really so bad. Besides, if we get him a girlfriend, he'll leave us all alone! Don't you see?"

     Sandi smirked. "Okay, I understand what you're saying. I also agree with you. But what I still don't understand is, why are you helping him, Quinn?"

     Quinn sighed. "Daria's diary-"

     Sandi interrupted. "It doesn't make sense, Quinn. Everybody knows what was in that diary. No one cares. She's got so many stories out about her that no one wants to hear any more!"

     Tiffany smiled. "I heard that she'd moved in with her boyfriend and was being followed by detectives hired by your dad."

     Absently, her mind on her own problems, Quinn said, "No, the detective was hired by my mom, to find out who all of the other detectives following her around are working for besides the UFO cults.

     "WHAT!" Sandi stared. "Then she did move in with Lane's brother. So she's staying at Lane's?"

     Quinn shook her head, brightening. They were getting distracted. "They've got a place out by the airport."

     Artie raised his head and coughed. Evil. Evil loose on an unsuspecting public. Only he could stop it. He cleared his throat, turned on the hot cellphone and dialed another radio station. Everyone had to know better than to listen to the alien beauty's sweet poison. "Hello? KROK request line? I have a request. Never play Mystik Spiral's Viral CD, or I'll have to blow up your transmitter, for the good of the race. This is the Defender, speaking. I'll stamp out all of the alien influence on this planet or die trying! Liberty forever!"

     He hung up and dialed the next station. He had to stop the madness. The cruel laughter of the Dark Queen of Omicron Zeta echoed in his mind.

     Miriam laughed too hard at Charles' little joke and he stepped back, uncomfortably. She was hot, kind of slutty and just not... feisty enough.

     Miriam stepped along with him, getting right into his personal space. She'd show Luke the puke! After she told everyone how much better Upchuck was in bed, Luke would have to stop his bragging! "So what are you doing tonight, sweetie?"

     Charles cast a panicked glance Quinn's way. She turned her back and disappeared into a wall of Fashion Club solidarity. "I've got to study, Miriam."

     Miriam leered at him. "Good! Me too! Wyncha come pick me up tonight? We could study at your place!"

     Charles recoiled, but felt a rising excitement. "Uh, sure. Perhaps a candle light dinner. A small apéritif, followed by some-"

     "Whatever. Come on, Good Time Charlie, let's go find Luke. I need to get something back." She grabbed his belt and pulled him along.

     Quinn scowled furiously after them.

     Agent Frich of the BATF was staking out the apartment that night, when Trent and Daria got home. He noted the other watchers who arrived with them and called for backup.

     The PI's knew Daria's routine, so they called it a night and slipped away to bed before Frich could get a cordon into place. They'd made a deal among themselves and only one team at a time was shadowing her. Their employers didn't know, but it was the only way that it could work. All the PI's cared about was being paid.

     When Agent Loomis, Frich's supervisor, evaluated the new development, he decided to observe for a while.

     Something was fishy here, something more than stupid publicity stunts. Maybe some right wing religious group was mounting an attack on pop culture. Case Purple, a cherished FBI-BATF training scenario, predicted something of that nature in the near future.

     Loomis made a note to have the staff get busy calling radio station managers tomorrow and find out if there had been any unreported threats or rumors about this Viral album. Whoever proved the Purple scenario valid would go right to the top. Maybe it was time to call in some additional manpower and get Washington in on it.

     Charles rolled over and regarded his bed partner, outlined in the moonlight. Miriam snored in a particularly hideous way, like she had a corkscrew through her nose.

     He'd finally done it. His years of diligent research, his persistence in the face of overwhelming rejection, his constant fantasizing about virtually every female that he saw... It was all over. Hole in one. Touchdown. Game, set and match. He sighed. It just hadn't been that big of a deal. Instead of the sublime, he'd found only the banal. No longer repressed, he was depressed.

     Father was in Athens and the housekeeper didn't give a damn. His old roomies back at St. Andrews Academy wouldn't understand. Not for the first time, Charles wished that he had someone to talk to. Maybe he should get a dog.

     He wished Miriam had taken the hint and accepted his offer of a ride home. As good as it had been, he didn't want to put up with her unwelcome presence for one minute afterward. He looked at her, trying to imagine Quinn lying where Miriam was. He couldn't. It could never happen anyway. She'd come up with her club friends and told him that the coaching stopped after today. He'd smirked and made a comment to cover how hurt he was and he'd seen anger flare in her eyes. Then he made the mistake. He'd hit Miriam with his old lines and incredibly, the damned things worked! All that he could figure was that someone up there really didn't like him.

     Miriam let out another whistling gurgle. He gritted his teeth and wrapped the pillow around his head. Quinn would never lie there honking and wheezing, sprawled out like a graceless sack- He caught himself. Whatever her myriad shortcomings, Miriam had given herself to him. He must remain polite, come what may.

     Barbara Bliss and Bill Block were awakened by an early morning knock at the apartment door. They dressed and Barbara answered it. "Yes?"

     The man at the door was black, about forty and looked like an FBI agent from central casting. A younger white man in an identical suit, Raybans and also wearing a white earphone stood behind him. No gun bulge was visible on either.

     Bill smirked. All of these guys dressed up like they were on the board of directors, ever since the X Files came out. If they ever had to wrestle a belligerent skell into a set of bracelets it'd cost them a week's pay for the ruined suit. If Bill was back on the job and wore a suit like that, he'd just cap the guy, every single time. He remembered the days when G-men wore big, reliable .44 revolvers, tough, stain-resistant machine washable polyester suits, rubber-soled steel capped shoes and cheap, wire-frame GI aviator glasses. That was before G-men had turned into bureaucrats.

     "Good morning, sorry to disturb you folks. I'm Agent Loomis of the BATF." He showed his ID. "We are conducting surveillance of a person of interest in this complex and we would like to use your apartment. We would be glad to pay the months rent and put you up in a very nice hotel suite until our work is complete. We would even forward all of your calls." He smiled. It was like winning a contest. They always went for it.

     "Agent, Loomis... did you say? Is it Daria Morgendorffer?

     Loomis' interest sharpened. "What do you know of Daria Morgendorffer? Have you heard anything about the Mystik Spiral Viral album?"

     Barb's eye's widened. "What's that, some sort of computer thing?"

     Loomis shook his head. He'd said too much. "Can we use the apartment?"

     "So it is Daria that you're spying on? Barb Bliss, Daily Blaze. Do you deny that Daria's a clone? How about the alien rumors? Tell us, Agent Loomis, will you confirm that Daria is a human-alien hybrid, part of a government experiment of some kind?"


     Bill took Loomis' picture.

     Loomis gaped, then fled.

     Barb trailed him, microcassette recorder out. "The people have the right to know!" she called after him.

     Bill smirked after the running agents. "Lookit the dumb-asses. What we shoulda done is bugged the place and give 'em the room."

     Barb laughed. "We can make up anything we want. If we learned the truth, well, that would just limit us. It's better to leave things loose. It keeps the controversy alive much longer."

     Bill shrugged. "It still bugs me that we don't really know what the score is."

     Barb let her robe fall. "The deadline is Friday. I plan to write the story today, interview them Friday morning and spend the intervening days scoring with you."

     Bill smirked and then jumped out of his clothes. "I guess ignorance is Bliss."

     "Oh, like I never heard that before." She unplugged the phone.

     Loomis turned to Frich. "Frich! Don't sit there! Get on the phone and check her out. See if she's for real." Loomis thought furiously. He had to cover his ass. Maybe it was time to call in the FBI.

     Frich spoke with the Blaze's circulation editor. As a result, another team was dispatched.

     An underpaid copyboy heard it all, picked up a phone and tipped off the Tattler and the Star. Soon, they were all looking into Daria Morgendorffer and the Mystik Spiral Viral album.

     Researchers began digging into the archives. They got a number of hits, starting with Daria putting Clinton on the spot during the 92 campaign, a furor over poison gas and strip searches, alien abduction rumors and ending with Val magazine.

     Music industry sources were hit with another wave of Mystik Spiral inquiries. Like before, instead of admitting ignorance, they just made a lot of things up and then desperately set out to make them true.

     Charles got out of his car and after a noticeable hesitation trudged around to open the door for Miriam. "Just press the latch and blammo, there you go, a ready made egress from the ol' Chuckwagon."

     Miriam got out, simpered, then giggled in that horrible way that set his teeth on edge.

     "Come on, Good Time Charlie! Let's go see if Luke the puke brought me my charm back." Miriam grabbed his belt and pulled.

     "Somebody needs to," said Charles, under his breath.


     Charles grinned. "I said, the assignment's due. We didn't do it. I need to get to the library and go to work on it."

     "No, Luke first." She increased the pressure until he was afraid that his belt would give way. He suddenly realized that she was quite capable of accidentally pantsing him, right in front of the whole student body. Reluctantly, he followed.

     "Hiii, Luke!" Miriam pranced up to Luke, towing Charles and smirking. Charles felt waves of intense embarrassment as Miriam draped herself over him, with her hands in his front pockets. "Did you bring me my charms that I left at your house?"

     Luke scowled. "Who's the buttmunch?"

     Charles grinned. Time to carry out his part of the deal. Vintage Upchuck, on demand. "Hi there, Mr. Who. I'm Charles Ruttheimer the third and I'm at Miriam's... service." Charles watched in pity as he slowly worked it out.

     Miriam was faster. "Yeah! Service! And lots of it!" She giggled. "Not like you, Luke!"

     "You... you bastard!" Luke wildly punched and kicked at him, then finally pushed him down. "You stay away from Miriam or I'll kill you!"

     Miriam stared. "I thought you were dating Carrie!"

     Luke held out his hand. "No, I'm not! I just wanted to make you jealous!"

     She went to him. "Oh! Luke I-"

     Charles bounced up. "Ah ha! But sadly, It's too late! She has fallen prey to the dark and evil specter that is UPCHUCK THE DAMMED! Muhahahaha! No fair young damsel escapes the insatiable desire of this mad, testosterone flooded beast-man! Guard the women, here I come!"

     Luke looked at him, confused. "Wh.. what?"

     Charles shrugged. "Just trying to spice things up with a bit of drama. Take care, Miriam, Luke. See you around. Have a nice day." He walked away, relived to be solitary once again. Screw school. He had to think.

     Miriam stared after him, uncertainly. "God, Luke, He's like, sorta... weird."

     Luke shrugged. Not one of his punches or kicks had landed. He'd had a few karate lessons and about three seconds into the fight he'd realized that Upchuck had taken all of the lessons and was quite capable of teaching him a big one. "Well, just uh... stay away from him. He's whacked."

     Jake sat in his office, reading about microchips. He was up on most of the business and felt that he could really make a dent at BSC. Suddenly, someone knocked on his office door.

     Jake frowned, rising. The visitor should have been announced. He shared a secretary with the architect in the other offices on his floor. He opened the door.

     "Hi, Dad." Daria stood there, with a box of donuts.

     "Daria!" Jake swallowed the sudden lump in his throat.

     "Can I come in?" Daria asked, nervously.

     "Yeah, Kiddo! You're always welcome!" Jake smiled at his daughter, feeling a huge weight lift from his shoulders. "Hey, look! Donuts!"

     Quinn stood on the steps of the school, amid the swirl of departing students and looked out at the parking lot. Daria was gone, so it looked like she had to catch a bus to work. She scowled. Maybe she'd just quit, after she got some more money saved. Walking toward the bus stop, she suddenly halted. Charles was across the field, laying on a stone bench, apparently either asleep or just staring into the sky. She bit her lip, looked around for Sandi, then walked over.

     She reached him and stood at the end of the bench, above his head, but out of his sight. He was staring up into the blue, seemingly hypnotized.

     She moved and her shadow fell across him.

     Charles spoke. "The dreaded Upchuck is not in today and if you persist in disturbing his corpse, be prepared to pay the price. Leave a message at the sound of the beep." He fell silent.

     "So, Where's the beep?"

     Charles bolted up, smiling. "Well! I thought you faced excommunication if you were seen talking with the ogre again."

     Quinn shrugged. "They're not here. What are you doing?"

     He shook his head and then looked away, embarrassed by his transparent emotions. "Just thinking, Quinn."

     "Penny for your thoughts?" Quinn was a little worried. He didn't look good at all.

     He looked away. He'd been thinking of the bleak loneliness that he kept masked under his usual cheerfulness. "You're overpaying. I was wondering why I keep hanging around this burg. There's nothing here for me. Maybe it's time to chase the white line for a while, until I find someplace... better."

     She sat down on the bench. "Well, maybe you should graduate first. And what about your family?"

     He laughed. "My mother died when I was born and I haven't seen my father since his layover in January. I graduated from St. Andrews Academy four years ago, Quinn. I took the accelerated curriculum, then didn't go directly to Princeton after all. I've got a valid diploma."

     Quinn stared. "Then... Why are you even here?"

     Charles shrugged. "What was I going to do? I was only thirteen and even I could tell that I wasn't ready to be out on my own. I hated that place, so I moved to our Lawndale house."

     Quinn was fascinated. "Thirteen! That means... You must be my age! I thought you were older. But why come here?"

     Charles shifted, uncomfortably. "St. Andrews is like a jail for boys. They have teams of experts who force feed you the curriculum. The faster you learn, the more they make. It's full of crazies. I want to be able to connect with someone besides a few dozen ultra-rich headcases. Being a Ruttheimer isn't all that easy, Quinn. I had to learn everything too fast. I came here to get... socialized."

     Quinn shivered, then shrugged. "You mean laid."

     Charles smiled, sadly. "Mostly. And now here I am. Hooray for me! Now what am I going to do? The old plan, where I morph into 'Super-Chas' the ladies man, is out. That's just not enough."

     Quinn looked at him, troubled. "Do you always have to have a plan?"

     Charles shrugged, looked at her thoughtfully and then pulled out an old silver dollar. "You're right, Quinn. With no goal, there can be no plan. Blind luck can drive for a while. Heads is east, Tails is west. Lucky coin, which is best?"

     Quinn stood, upset. "But... what if you... come to an ocean?"

     He laughed. "I'll cross it. Let's see what the gods have in mind." He flipped the coin and shockingly, she caught it.

     Quinn put the coin in her pocket. "And if it never lands, it means, 'don't go'."

     He stared at her, shocked and just a little hopeful. "Quinn... I just can't stay here. Not with you-"

     She reached out and grabbed his hand. "Well, cheer up, Charles. Since you're not going anywhere, could you give me a ride to work?"

     Charles was happy. Lawndale was paradise and the sky was no limit at all. "You just name it, Quinn! I'll take you anywhere! But what about the three witches?"

     Quinn giggled. "There's really only one. If she keeps it up, I'll just have to drop a house on her."

     The editor tapped his pencil on the desk. "So what do we have on the clone angle?"

     Rich Barnes shrugged. "Nothing really, chief. A quote from some halfwit kid that she's a clone. Amy Barksdale, her aunt, looks exactly like her."

     The phone rang and the editor picked it up. "Yeah?" He got out a pad. "Shoot... Uh huh. Holy crap! Are you sure? Cowabunga!"

     Barnes leaned back. "Well, Jerry?"

     Jerry laughed. "We got a gusher! "Eddie Star! Do you remember Orbital Lawnchair?"

     Barnes shrugged. "Weird band, early eighties, topped the charts for about a month in 1981 with Snake Eye Woman. I remember."

     Jerry leaned forward. "Amy Barkesdale is Snake Eye Woman. She broke up the band and put Eddie into a mental institution."

     Barnes grinned. "Government investigates alien love child of reclusive rock star? This just gets better and better! I smell circulation."

     Trent sat at the desk, playing with the Internet. He'd discovered the search engine and was amusing himself searching for people. He found his parents right away, amazed that they we're both kind of famous. Then he found Jane and Daria, featured on a UFO site. With mounting incredulity, he read a tirade against the Viral album, whatever that meant. The scary part was that Mystik Spiral was named as enemies of humanity.

     Following links, he came to similar sites. Unbelieving, he typed in Mystik Spiral and got over a thousand UFO linked results. Checking a few at random, he found pictures from Daria's site, pictures of them walking together, pictures of his parents house... He gulped.

     Laboriously typing out the URL of the credit card service that Daria had contracted with, he gasped. The number of orders stood at twelve hundred. Logging off, he picked up the phone to call Mike. Maybe he could get a better deal, ordering in such bulk. There was a lot of money coming in. Maybe he'd start a record company to handle it. Since Elevator Music was taken, He'd call it the Viral label, maybe get an alien-head logo for the CD.

     Shanker spoke with Helen. "I have to withdraw from the case, Mrs. Morgendorffer." He handed her a small bundle of cash.

     Helen frowned. "But why? If it's a matter of money-"

     "No. Personal reasons. I just can't... continue." He stood, putting on his hat. "Goodbye, Ma'am. He rapidly left, hoping that Helen wouldn't bear a grudge. He couldn't tell her that Daria was involved in an active Federal investigation.

     Miles Brogan, AIC of the FBI field office that covered the Lawndale region, hung up the phone and thoughtfully looked up at Clinton's picture on his office wall. Whenever someone tried to double deal him, he looked up to the trickster in chief for inspiration. The BATF had a Case Purple situation and they generously wanted to share. The last time the BATF had been generous, the Bureau had inherited their mess and ended up burning a of people in Waco. It had almost destroyed Bureau and desperately strained the credibility of the Justice Department. He'd resigned, along with about a quarter of the FBI's strength, but had been persuaded to rethink his resignation. Now here was the BATF, once again bearing gifts. He sighed and dialed Washington. He wished that the whole situation could just be ignored.

     "Hey, it worked!" Daria sat on Trent's lap, in front of the computer.

     "You better believe it!" Trent laughed. "If these guys don't assassinate us, we'll make a nice little chunk of change off of this."

     Daria smiled. "Them? They need us. Without us, all they have is boring old reality."

     "Still... I wish you hadn't. Crazy people are unpredictable. I think we should move." Trent looked at their picture, prominently displayed on an English UFO website. "And soon."

     Daria stood, frowning. "I like it here!"

     Trent shrugged. "We'll find someplace you'll like even better. What if one of these people decides to make another alien autopsy film?"

     Daria looked thoughtful. "Well, I haven't really gotten all that attached to the neighborhood."

     Outside, Loomis and Fritch sat in a telephone company van, interrogating a private investigator.

     "Okay, Malone, your ID checks out but your story stinks." Fritch glared at him, every bit the bad cop. "Who's your client?"

     Malone smirked. "First Barney Fife and now the singing Feds. Unless you got a warrant, I can't help you, boys."

     Fritch threw his ID card back at him. "We can hold you for forty eight hours, then send you for an official army interview. That's another three days. Then we let you go and a friendly local force picks you up for another twenty four hours. Your client might find himself a new peeper when you disappear for a week."

     Loomis, the good cop, disagreed. "Come on, Fritch. Mr. Malone isn't the enemy, here! We don't really need to know who the client is, just a little bit about the client."

     Malone rolled his eyes. "You guys are total clowns. I was a cop for eleven years. Do you really think that this crap will work on me? You know how it is, boys. You want to get, you gotta give. Now why are you investigating her?"

     Loomis cracked. He had to come up with something, before the tabloid broke its story. "Bomb threats. Someone phoned in a bunch of bomb threats to every radio station in the region. It has something to do with the slacker's band."

     Malone looked thoughtful. It had to be those UFO freaks that were sniffing around after Daria. "Have you got a time stamp on those calls? Daria's been under surveillance for weeks. She spends a lot of time with him, so we have a pretty good record of his whereabouts, too."

     Loomis brightened.

     "But it'll cost you." Malone examined his fingernails, the very picture of a man with nothing but time.

     "Get out, Fritch." Loomis opened the van door. "Go get some more coffee."

     Fritch shrugged, picked up the mostly full thermos and left.

     Loomis watched, to make sure that Fritch had left, then turned back to Malone. "Okay, Malone, what's the catch?"

     Malone smiled. He was about to get a pet Fed for his very own. "Well, Loomis, It's nothing big. I've just got a few FBI files for you to check."

     Loomis blanched, then nodded.

     Malone had his pigeon. "Now, what's this Case Purple crapola?"

     Outside in the dark, Rich Barnes adjusted the small receiver and gleefully listened in. He loved electronics. He could only hear every other word through the cheapo magnetic contact bug he'd placed on the outside of the van, but what he could hear was interesting and a little scary. Sex, clones, rock and roll, secret police, aliens and bombs. He was going to be running with this story for months. Daria would be more famous than Elvis.

     "Wa-la!" Jane let the sheet fall from the wall.

     Daria, Trent and Tom stared, perplexed. What they saw was a huge, oddly blurry group portrait of presidential faces, made up of about 60 square feet of borderless ten by twelve photographs, laid out edge to edge. First came Bill Clinton, on the far left foreground, smiling out of the work, looking like he'd found the cookie jar unguarded. Next, slightly larger and farther back was George Bush, looking serious and dedicated but a little sad. Last, on the right background was Ronald Reagan, looking noble and wearing a laurel crown. The whole thing was done in the larger than life, heroic style found on currency. It would have been perfectly acceptable on the wall of the White House itself.

     "What do you think?" Jane smiled a Cheshire cat smile.

     "Very... nice." Daria cleared her throat. "Li will like it. I'm sure you'll get a good review for the contest."

     "Uhm, Jane, what about the..." Tom looked at Trent. "Never mind." He smiled, intensely relieved. Jane was a real kidder. "I think its great!"

     Trent stared at the painting, perplexed, then he stumbled back with a horribly shocked expression. "Good God Almighty, Jane! You're gonna get arrested! You should be arrested. Both of you!"

     Jane laughed, clapping. "Well, I figure that if two out of three didn't notice, I have a damn good chance of getting this past Li! Part of the deal is that nobody but her gets to see it, prior to the judges. Since Defoe left, there's no one else there with the eyes to notice."

     Tom and Daria stared at Trent, then at the painting.

     "Oh... my... GOD!" Daria suddenly saw it. Each pixel of color was made of a tiny photograph. Each photograph was of a masked couple, tinted appropriately and engaged in some act vaguely symbolic of something scandalous from that president's administration.

     Tom finally saw it and gibbered. "Ohhhhh shit! Shit, shit, shit! SHIT! I'm never ever gonna live this one down."

     Jane laughed. "We're wearing masks, remember? Just tell people that its Daria and Trent."

     "Eeep!" Daria turned blood red. "Don't you dare!"

     Trent shuddered. "Yeah. I don't want to be blamed for this. I didn't even get to do the fun part."

     "This is a great work of modern art, Jane." Daria walked over and shook her hand. "It'll draw a crowd around the block. What an artistic and political statement! The crude reality behind the squeaky clean facade of American politics."

     Trent, looking closely, said, "Where'd you get the Monica Lewenski and... Hey! That's my old Satan Halloween mask!"

     Jane smiled, contentedly. "I liked doing the Clinton administration best."

     Trent heaved, then left in a hurry, closely followed by a red faced Tom.

     "Is that what they're calling it now?" Daria was mesmerized by the picture. "Damn! That looks like fun. I'll have to try that."

     Jane sniggered. "Daria, I think you're going to have to really work at it to get Trent to do anything on that picture."

     Daria smiled, a seraphic smile. "Jane, you'd be absolutely amazed at what Trent will do." Daria had become a dedicated reader of the Kamma-sutra and various other works.

     Jane looked queasy. "Don't sick me up, Daria."

     Daria laughed. "After what you did to Trent, you deserve it. So what's it called?"

     Jane frowned. "I was thinking, Sin Under the Skin. What do you think?"

     Daria stared at the picture for awhile, then answered. "The X Presidents."

     "Ooh! Aah! Ting-a-ling Bada-bing! I christen thee, The X Presidents!" Jane laughed. "Purrfect!"

     Daria, her eyes happening to pass over a Catwoman mask, blushed even redder.

     Jane yawned. "Will you help me hang it up tomorrow? I have a special frame for it in the garage. Tom helped build it, but he'll never show his face at LHS now."

     Daria couldn't help it. She started laughing. "Why not? That'll be the only part that nobody will recognize."

     Stacy shifted her feet and looked at the clock. "Quinn, are you sure-"

     Quinn sighed. "No, I guess she's not coming."

     Stacy was worried. "I just can't figure this math out, Quinn. The test is tomorrow, too."

     "Me either." Quinn was suddenly struck by a thought. "I know someone that can help us."

     Stacy brightened. "Who?"

     Quinn looked at her. "You have to promise to keep an open mind and a closed mouth."

     Stacy looked back, a little uneasily "Okay... But who-"

     "Charles." Quinn braced herself.

     "Charles? Charles who?" Stacy was puzzled. She thought that she knew everyone that Quinn knew.

     Quinn smiled. This reminded her of a knock-knock joke. "Charles Ruttheimer."

     Stacy frowned. "Charles Rut- My God! Do you mean... Upchuck?"

     Quinn frowned and snapped, "No! I mean my friend, Charles!"

     Stacy controlled her breathing. "But... but he's a... always coming on-"

     Quinn shook her head. "Not any more. Let me tell you about it." Quinn told her how things stood.

     Finally, Stacy nodded. "Go ahead and call him. I'd accept help from anyone to pass this test. Even Upchu- er, Charles."

     Charles was sitting at his computer, coding like a maniac. AC/DC was blasting away and the pencil lying on his desk was jumping and rolling whenever a good riff thundered out of his massive speakers. You Shook Me all Night Long ended and in the gap before DT, he heard the phone.

     Absently, still typing with one hand, he picked up, expecting his father. He didn't get many calls on that line. "Hello?"

     Quinn opened her mouth to reply and DT erupted from the phone. "Uh, Charles?"

     "Hey, Quinn!" Charles was elated that she called.

     "Charles, do you know anything about geometry?" Quinn crossed her fingers.

     "For you I'd learn, but fortunately I already know everything about geometry." Charles smiled. Study date. Things were moving right along.

     Quinn sighed in relief. "Would you please come over then and help me and Stacy? There's a test tomorrow and we really need help."

     "You and Stacy?" Charles winced. Crap! He hated Quinn's friends. "Uh, sure. If you want. When?"

     "Right now would be fine." Quinn listened to the music in the background for a second. "That's cool music. I've never heard anything like that before. What's it called?"

     Charles' eyes widened in surprise. "It's just AC/DC, Quinn. I'll be right over, then."

     Quinn liked the music she was hearing. "Could you bring it? I'd like to hear more."

     Charles laughed. "Sure! See you soon."

     "Quinn," Helen poked her head into Quinn's room. "We're going out to dinner tonight with the Brosuns and some other BSC people."

     Quinn shrugged. "See you later."

     Helen eyed her. With Daria gone, the task of supervising Quinn had grown at least a hundred fold. Helen hadn't realized how much she depended on Daria. "Behave, Quinn. Don't invite any boys over while we're gone."

     Quinn shrugged again. "We're studying for a big test. I won't invite any."

     Stacy gave Helen a strained smile. She hated to lie and she wasn't looking forward to Upchuck's presence. he'd never actually made a pass at her, but everybody knew what he was like.

     Helen smiled. "Bye, then."

     Charles arrived and to Stacy's immense relief acted like a real human being. He was good at geometry, easily showing them how to solve the problems. After a while, she unbent and got into the flow.

     Sandi, outraged by the wholesale desertion of the Fashion Club meeting, strode up Quinn's walk to bring her erring flock to heel. As she got closer to the door, she heard a bass thumping away. Sandi looked into the window and recoiled with shock. Stacy and Quinn were dancing in place, watching Upchuck, who was jumping around on the footstool, lip syncing and playing air guitar. The music was as repulsive as the sight. Sandi turned and resolutely left the outcasts. Enough was enough.

     Daria pulled up to the house and peered at it. She sighed, got out of the car and made her way in. "Mom? Dad?" Daria looked around, then went upstairs. Hearing Quinn and Stacy talking in Quinn's room, she debated slipping away, then decided to stay. She'd promised to help Quinn study, then got busy with Trent instead. Putting it off, Daria opened her old door. Everything was exactly the same. She backed out, turned around and ran right into Upchuck.

     "Well, hello there, Daria."


     Quinn and Stacy jumped up and ran to see what had happened. They halted in shock. Charles was rolled up into a ball, with his eyes covered. Daria was kicking him and dousing him with pepper spray.

     "Daria! STOP!" Quinn ran over and grabbed for the spray. "What are you DOING!"

     "Quinn!" Daria stopped, confused. "You... knew he was here?"

     "Are you all right, Charles? Do you need help?" Stacy blinked from the fumes and looked at him, sympathetically.

     "Ooof! Feisty women. Vae Victus." Charles blindly stumbled back into the bathroom and began flushing the spray from his face and arms.

     "Oh, God." Daria flushed, mortified. "Upchuck, I'm so-"

     "Quit calling him Upchuck, Diarrhea!" Quinn almost slapped her sister.

     Daria moaned. "This is so bad it's like a bad dream on Halloween after eating month old potato salad."

     Charles stuck his head out of the bathroom door, a huge wad of tissue paper over his nose. "This? This isn't bad, Daria. You completely missed my eyes. This is just from the fumes. All I need is to get it off of my skin and everything's fine. I'll tell you about bad." He coughed. "Bad, is when one of Barch's 'Take Back The Night' rallies turns into a 'let's kill Upchuck and bury him under the crossroads with a stake through his evil male heart' rally. I swear, I just couldn't help it. I saw them and I just had to yell 'Hey, lookit all the broads!' Those women can't take a joke. The whole mob chased me for five blocks and they all had that spray. I was swimming in that stuff. This is nothing, Daria. Forget about it." His face was red and swelling.

     Daria stifled a laugh. "Look uh, Charles, I'm really, really sorry. That was unforgivable. You scared me. A lot of odd people have been following me around and I'm a little bit jumpy these days." Daria shuddered and silently vowed to never own a gun.

     He sneezed. "Well, I forgive you if you forgive me."

     Daria shrugged. "Done."

     "Good. Everybody's got a nice clean slate, then." He grinned at them and went back to his washing.

     Quinn turned to Daria. "What did he mean, way wikits?"

     Daria thought. "Vae Victis? It's Latin." She smirked. "It means 'woe to the conquered'. You tell me, Quinn."

     Later that night, Helen came out of her bathroom, still happy about how well the get aquatinted dinner had gone. Jake had been relaxed and happy, she'd hit it off with Bill's wife, Maude and everything was coming up roses. She heaved another sigh of relief. The contract would be binding at the end of the month. Even if Jake was fired right away, the golden parachute clause would enable him to walk away with a year's pay. Nothing ridiculous had hap-

     "Auuuggh! Helen! Help! Ahhh my eyes!"

     Helen groaned and wondered what it was this time. She hurried to the hall bathroom and looked in.

     Jake was washing his eyes out. "There's some kind of chemical on the damn towel, Helen! I dried my face and got burned!"

     Helen smelled the towel, then coughed. "Quinn! Come out here!"

     Quinn emerged in her nightgown. "What?"

     Helen looked at her. "Pepper spray, Quinn! What's it doing in the bathroom?"

     Quinn shrugged. "Daria accidentally sprayed it."

     Helen gasped. "Daria was here? Damn! Why didn't you tell us before?"

     Quinn tried evasion. "Mu-om! I have to sleep now or I'll get those dark circles under my eyes!"

     Helen gritted her teeth and thought about how close Quinn was to getting really dark circles. "We'll discuss this tomorrow, Quinn."

     Jane walked toward her locker, then halted in astonishment. Daria stood in the hall, talking to Quinn, Stacy and Upchuck. As she watched, Tiffany hesitantly joined them. The four seemed on amicable terms, so Jane walked up.

     "Hi, all." Jane looked curiously at Upchuck, but he just smiled. His face was red and puffy. "What happened to you?"

     Upchuck shrugged. "Nothing. An accident."

     Daria looked embarrassed. "He was helping Quinn and Stacy with their geometry homework and I came blundering in and accidentally pepper-sprayed him in a dark hallway." She flushed red. "Charles was very nice about the whole thing."

     Taking the hint, Jane smiled. "Not exactly a first for you, huh, Charles?"

     He grinned. "It was a piquant red and black pepper blend, redolent of habanyeros, with just the slightest hint of jalapeno. I rate it at four screams and a whimper."

     "You ditched a Fashion Club meeting to study with Upchuck?" Tiffany looked worried. "What will Sandi say?"

     Quinn shrugged. "That's Charles, Tiffany. And what does Sandi ever say? She'll almost say that you look fat in that dress. Then she'll almost threaten to throw Stacy out of the clique. She won't say anything at all to me, but she'll say something nasty about me to you, then change the subject. The thing is, I just don't care any more. I can't breath like this. If I can't see who I want and do what I want without worrying about her, then what's the point of being popular?"

     Tiffany looked horrified, then thoughtful. Stacy just looked down in the dumps.

     Jane laughed. "Sandi can't kick anyone out. You're the majority. Remember, me and Daria are technically still part of this insipid little cult. We'd side with you against Sandi."

     Tiffany was doing a slow burn. A lot of things were falling into place now that Quinn had torn away the veil. "If she say's I'm fat, let's like, kick her out."

     Stacy gave Quinn an anguished look. "Can't we just... demote her? Make Quinn president? I like Sandi. She's one of us. We uh... need her."

     Daria looked ill. "One of us. Well, as inspiring as these politics are, I- Trent!" Daria's eyes widened with delight and she smiled, happily.

     Tiffany, Stacy and Charles stared. The way that Daria's face had suddenly lit up was shocking. It was unsettling, like having a statue come to life. Quinn and Jane had seen it before, but they still watched the phenomenon with interest.

     "Hey, Sweetheart. There you are. You forgot your key, this morning." Trent kissed her and handed her a key in a little envelope. "I'll be in late this evening. The band's got to practice for the gigs this weekend. You know where it is, if you want to stop by."

     Noticing the surprised faces around her Daria drew Trent aside. "Thanks, Trent." Daria laid her head against his chest. "I like the way you look after me. No one ever really did before."

     Trent looked down at her, stroking her hair thoughtfully. "Of course I do. You're the best thing in my life."

     Daria gave a contented little sigh. "No, I don't want to distract you. I have some work to do on the site. Finish as fast as you can and then we'll practice slow."

     Charles was watching, awed. Love wasn't something that he'd actually seen before. The change in Daria was miraculous. He'd always equated it with a sort of high level business transaction. He turned away, saddened by the emptiness of his life. He was willing to bet anything that Trent had never resorted to blackmail, treachery or pathetic tricks to win Daria. Maybe he should-

     Quinn tapped him on the shoulder. "I feel the same," she said, in an undertone. They aren't like any of us, Charles. We're just... ordinary."

     "Not you." He smiled at her, sadly. "You'll never be ordinary. You're like a bright light and I'm just another hapless moth, happy to beat my brains out just to be near you."

     Quinn's eyes widened. "Wow."

     Daria looked at the large, heavy frame resting on the dolly and sighed. "How do we get this thing up on the wall?"

     Jane puffed, wiped her brow and said, "Good question. I guess we need help. I wish Tom was here."

     Daria shook her head. "Anybody that we get is likely to want to hang around and look at the picture. And we can't call Trent. He won't have anything to do with it."

     Jane smirked. "You need to train that boy, Daria."

     "After the way you traumatized him?" Daria shook her head. "You'll never get Trent within fifty yards of your art again, you know."

     "Ladies, it sounds to me like you're making some deserving male animal suffer. Good work!" Barch strode in and looked at the frame. "What's the problem?"

     Daria explained, leaving out the reason why they didn't want anyone to see the work.

     Barch shrugged. "I'll help you, girls. There's plenty of useless muscle wandering around here. Believe me, they won't hang around for one extra second." Barch walked out into the hall and spied Mack, Kevin and Jamie.

     "You!" Barch froze them in their tracks.

     A few minutes later, the hapless football players, now late for the scrimmage, stood holding the frame while Jane carefully checked it with a spirit level.

     "That's got it, Daria. Go."

     Daria and Jane installed the mounting hardware, then stood back to admire their handiwork.

     "What's it gonna be, Jane?" Mack was intrigued by the hidden multi colored spotlights built into the thick inside rim of the frame.

     "What are you gorillas still doing here! I can find you something to do, you know." Barch glared and they ran like rabbits.

     Barch turned to them. "Now let's get this thing up, ladies."

     O'Neill opened the door, glanced in, bleated in fear, then departed at speed.

     "Call if you need any more help." Barch sprinted after him.

     Jane sighed. "Saved by the belle."

     Daria looked after them. "Poor O'Neill. If she decides that he's just another 'male' after all, he's doomed."

     Jane shrugged. "That's what he gets for riding the tiger. Let's get this thing up before someone else comes."

     They took the actual work out of large cardboard tubes and installed it into the frame. Jane locked the library doors, plugged it in and started adjusting spotlights. Soon, it was done.

     "Now watch, Daria. This is the cool part." Jane flipped a toggle switch on the side of the frame.

     First, a pink light gradually came up and all that was visible were the three presidents. After a minute, different colored lights began strobing. Whenever a colored light fired, the corresponding tiny pictures that made up the presidents seemed to jump out with breathtaking clarity. Then the pink light came back on for a while and the cycle repeated.

     Daria shook her head. "That's incredible, Jane. You really are a great artist."

     Jane smiled, almost shyly. "Thanks. I had good inspiration, all around me." She put up a large painted banner directly under the work. In large, garish, comic book caption style letters, it read, 'The X Presidents.' Then she started to put a big sheet of tinted plastic up in front of the picture. "This'll keep Li in the dark." She accidentally jostled one of the lights out of alignment. "Oops." Jane readjusted the lights and turned it on again. The work went through its cycle and Jane flipped it back off. Suddenly, a jingling clapping made Daria and Jane jump.

     Barch walked up, keys in her hand and tears in her eyes. "Oh. Oh, Jane. What a great, powerful work. It shows just how the male power structure truly rests on the symbolic rape of the female creative force. This is a masterpiece." She suddenly hugged Jane, who looked like she was going to Exorcist hurl. "You really do understand what I've been saying."

     Jane shuffled uncomfortably. "Uh... yeah. Rape structure. That's the ticket. Thanks. Look, if Li finds out about this-"

     "Leave her to me. I've got enough on her embezzling to put her away from two to five." Barch walked up and flipped the switch back on. "I'll give you five thousand dollars for it."

     Jane gasped. "Uh, thank you. It's not for sale, yet. I'm trying to get into a decent art college and this is my application."

     Barch's eyes shown with admiration. "Well, don't worry about your grades, Jane. We'll just 'norm' your transcript. Li will be happy to do that for me. You too, Daria. We'll take care of that lonely B that Morris gave you last year."

     Daria blinked. "Uh, that's all ri-"

     "Think nothing of it. And Jane, the entire Lawndale Women's League will be here tomorrow to show our support during the unveiling." Barch watched the picture cycle again, sighed and left.

     Daria looked at Jane. "The rape of the female creative force?"

     Jane shrugged. "The art is in the eye of the beholder. People project their own meanings. I'll bet that everyone will see something different."

     Daria smiled. "I wonder what Charles will see?"

     Jane winced. "Do you think it's too late for my original idea? I call it dog's playing poker. It's got a hidden message too. They're all cheating." Jane flipped off the switch, then put the plastic sheeting up. The heavy tint rendered the tiny pictures invisible.

     Daria looked thoughtful. "Jane, you'd better make sure that it can't be plugged in. That plastic could burn."

     Jane nodded. "Good thinking. I'll just bundle the power cord up and cable tie it."

     Li came in. "Ms. Lane! I see the picture is up. Oh, that's very appropriate! I can't say that I like the title, but the subject is very much in keeping with the Lawndale spirit. Kudos, Ms. Lane!"

     Jane smiled, widely. "Thank you, Ms. Li-"

     Li wrinkled her brow. "But why the X presidents? President Clinton is still in office."

     Jane cleared her throat. "It's a work for the ages."

     "Very nice." Li walked away, relieved. She'd been a bit worried. The Lanes had been a thorn in her side for years and she was happy to see that Jane was cowed into cooperation.

     Daria smirked. "Yeah, ages 18 and over. But it is in keeping with the Lawndale spirit. Calm and conventional on the surface, underneath it's deceptive, double dealing and ready to explode if exposed to the right stimulus. It really fits. Did I ever tell you that you're a great artist, Jane?"

     Jane shrugged, modestly. "At least they won't forget me."

     "No. They never will." Daria laughed at the seemingly innocuous picture, then helped to cover it.

     Brittany limped to the student lounge and sat down, rubbing her ankle. She’d hurt herself falling off of the pyramid again, toppling off when Ashley had collapsed. Brittany leaned back, groaning. She hoped that she hadn’t broken anything. Her ankle was sore and swollen, but she could still get around on it. She kind of wished that Kevvie had been there to help, except that he’d probably drop her or something.

     She sighed. Ashley was as clumsy as Kevin. That was just too clumsy to be a cheerleader. The little red headed frosh had gone into hysterics after the fall, but since there were no boys nearby, Brittany had slapped her. She grimaced with shame. She'd been overly harsh and not nice. As an act of atonement, she decided to let Ashley stay with the squad, on the condition that she be near the top of the pyramid next time. It was too late in the year to find another cheerleader. Next year…

     Her face briefly twisted into a fearful rictus. There would be no next year. With a bare 1.7 GPA, there probably wouldn’t be any college, either. The only reason that she was allowed to be a cheerleader at all was that Li and Coach were afraid that it would put Kevin off of his game if she wasn't around.

     She knew that she couldn’t pass the state exit exam. She never studied! Failures couldn’t be cheerleaders. Next year, she’d have to go to night school and do nothing but take remedial classes until she dropped out or passed the exam.

     It wouldn't be so bad, but Kevin would be at State. Coach was going to proctor his exam and everyone knew what that meant. He'd graduate, move away to college and hook up with a cheerleader right away. He'd forget her name in a week. Darkly, Brittany wished that she’d broken her neck.

     She looked at the clock. Kevvie would be at least another 45 minutes, if he remembered her at all. Glumly picking up the remote, she turned the room’s big screen TV set on, then noticed that the VCR was playing. Someone appeared on the screen. Brittany squinted. It was Daria! She remembered the tapes that Ms. Li had confiscated. This must be one of them. Lethargically, with the volume muted, she put her ankle up on a footstool and settled back on the couch.

     Artie’s tape of Daria and Trent walking together, eating together, talking together was riveting. Unbidden, Kevin came to mind. Brittany got madder and madder as she compared her QB with Daria’s rock star. Jealously, she watched how carefully Trent treated Daria.

     It wasn't anything big that got her attention. It was the many small courtesies and the obvious respect that he had for her that caught Brittany's eye. He acted like she was the center of his world. Daria treated him the same and smiled all the time that he was with her.

     She sighed, enviously. If only Kevvie was… better. He wasn’t even a good lover. He just went so fast! The other guys weren’t much better. They were all hot to score, but then they took the ball and went home.

     "Brittany?" Daria was at the door, watching the TV with a look of mingled pride and unhappiness. She had thought that all the tapes had been collected from Li. "Why are you watching that?"

     Brittany cocked her head and curled her braid around her finger. "I hurt my leg. I’m just waiting for Kevvie to get done with practice. I turned on the TV and it was just there." She sighed. "You’re sooo lucky Daria."

     Jane came in and saw what was playing. "Hey! It's America's Looniest home videos." She grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. "Let’s get some dialogue here."

     Daria crossed her arms and looked pained. "Jane!"

     Artie's voice-over came on the TV. "Eleven thirty PM. Alien and carbon based love-slave are entering the apartment."

     On the tape, Daria and Trent, Arm in arm, walked to the door, kissed and entered. The tape flickered and a brighter picture came on. Daria, mussed and in a silky black negligee, opened the door slightly, peeked out and then picked up the newspaper.

     "Woo-hoo, Daria! Where did you get that little number? I'll bet that the carbon based love slave likes it." Jane tried not to laugh at her overly sensitive friend, but failed.

     "Damn it! Trent gave me that." Daria grabbed for the remote, but Jane was too quick.

     Jane grinned. "Aww, that's so cute. He's a carbon based love slave that really cares."

     "Eight AM. Alien assimilates information about human culture."

     "What? Where is that, Daria?" Brittany looked a bit shocked.

     "That's where she lives." Jane smirked.

     "Ohhhh." Brittany vacantly twirled her hair, neatly concealing her amazement.

     Daria, now a bright scarlet, feinted, then snatched the remote away from Jane, stopped the tape and hit the rewind. It rewound for a second, then stopped. She tried to rewind it again, but the screen flashed ‘IDX’.

     Angrily mashing buttons on the remote, she demanded, "What’s wrong with this stupid thing?"

     Brittany twirled her hair. "I have one like that at home. Somebody marked their favorite place on the tape! All you have to do is push the index button. The VCR will wind right to it!"

     Daria groaned and pushed play. She watched herself on the tape, in the negligee, getting the paper.

     Jane laughed at her again. "Trying to scoop me?"

     "Just keep it up, Jane. I'll scoop you out a shallow grave." Daria deciphered the remote and fast forwarded past the index mark. The tape stopped again, and Daria pressed play.

     Jane smirked. "Wouldn't it upset the love sla… Oh my Lord!" On the tape, Daria and Trent were getting down and dirty on the living room couch of their apartment. They looked like they'd tied themselves into a big, fleshy knot.

     "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" Shaking with shock and rage, Daria pushed buttons then bolted forward and ripped the tape out of the machine. "God damn that Artie! How the hell did that crazy b-" She took a deep breath, trying to stop her hyperventilating. "How could he film through our window? The curtains were drawn! He must have taped a little camera to the outside of the glass, right at a crack! How DARE - I’m going to kill him!" She stamped away, gripping the tape so tightly that the plastic cracked. "Kill him! Then I’m gonna sue all of those sleazy bastards! ALL OF THEM!"

     Daria screamed, then bolted out of the door, overcome with rage and humiliation.

     "She's a lawyers daughter," said Jane, flatly. "I'd be getting a gun." She decided to let Daria cool down for a few minutes. Daria was likely to commit grievous bodily harm on the next person that annoyed her, no matter how slightly.

     Brittany scowled. "Kevvie and half of the team were in here before practice. If I find out that he watched it… I’ll tell Daria."

     Jane shook her head. "Better start looking for a new tackle dummy then." She sighed. "They probably sat in here and watched it, over and over. Poor Daria." She smirked. "Now I know why they call those little couches loveseats."

     Brittany smiled. "She didn’t look that poor." She twirled a braid. "I never did… I never even heard of anything like that. They looked like… I don't know. Where do you think she learned… oh, your brother. He’s a musician. He probably knows a lot."

     Jane shrugged, good naturedly. "You wouldn’t think that from listening to his old girlfriends. Daria’s been conducting her own research, Brittany. She’s very thorough. And apparently double jointed."

     Brittany looked interested. "Do you mean to say that they have books about that?" She smiled. "If I’d known, I’d have read more than Helen Keller."

     Jane smirked. "There are none so blind as those who will not see, or deaf as those who will not hear, or dumb as those who will not read. There’s a good book called the New Kama Sutra, which you can check out at the city library… Just as soon as I’m done with it."

     Brittany’s jaw dropped. "Did you ever try it like that?"

     Jane flushed. She had, but hadn't been able to achieve the necessary degree of limberness. Tom had almost killed himself. "That’s just a little personal, Brittany."

     "Ohhh, you’re a virgin." She sighed. "I wish I still was. Maybe I’d have studied, instead. I’d have a chance to graduate. It’s hard, being blonde."

     Jane smirked, blinked her blue eyes and silently agreed about the hair color. Her own raven locks came right out of a bottle, but only Tom knew. "Are you studying?"

     Brittany sighed, then answered mournfully. "It’s too late for me. It’s all over in June. I… I won’t be a cheerleader anymore. My whole life just… ends."

     Jane felt a little hollow pang herself. High school was a chore for her, but still… She wasn’t exactly the poster girl for Miss College. Daria would choose between Harvard and Yale. Both had accepted her application and both were offering substantial scholarships. Jane wondered where she would end up. Not in Harvard or Yale, that was for certain. If her art stunt failed, she might end up at Middleton, on the strip-for-tuition plan. "No guts, no glory, Brittany. You just have to set aside a lot of time for study. You still have time to catch up."

     Brittany looked surprised, then thoughtful. ‘Do you really think that I can do it?"

     Jane shrugged. "Sure. It all depends on you. I'd go see O'Neill for some help." She walked out, after Daria.

     Sandi took out her compact and checked her makeup. She had to look her best for this. In a club of six, she was going to get rid of five and recruit three. The Morgendorffer sisters and Jane would be ejected right now. Stacy and possibly Tiffany would be going early next year.

     She already had three replacements lined up, fresh, malleable girls who weren't hopelessly contaminated by Daria. Sandi didn’t intend to have so much trouble during her senior year. Tory, Brooke and Teresa weren't really up to her standards, but Sandi knew that she would be able to work with them. Besides, she would stand out better with them around her.

     The new Fashion Club wouldn't have to worry about competition. Stacy and Tiffany weren't really disciplined enough to maintain their trendiness on their own. Before spitting them out, Sandi planned to thoroughly screw up their little minds anyway. Quinn was the major threat, but she seemed to have thrown it all away and fallen for Upchuck, of all people. Getting rid of her would be easy. She would have consigned herself to the social outer darkness, once everyone knew that she was with the creep.

     The club would lose funding of course, but it was worth the money just to remove the Morgendorffer curse. Li would eventually come crawling back anyway. Sandi's mom, Linda, was the news director for channel seven. Li was always sucking up, looking for some free publicity. Inevitably, Sandi would get her funding back.

     She picked up the phone and called Stacy and Tiffany for an emergency Fashion Club meeting. She bullied Tiffany into having it at her house because her parents were out. Sandi didn’t call Quinn, Daria or Jane, because she wasn’t unmindful of the balance of power. Jane and Daria could be a problem at the meeting. If Stacy switched sides, there could be a disaster.

     Daria opened her door and sat down, exhausted. She'd been on her feet all day and it was time to rest for an hour before she went out with Trent. After staring apathetically at the silent TV for a minute, she roused herself and went into the bedroom.

     Daria stepped into the shower and let the hot water take the ache out of her arms. Rinsing, she yawned, dried off, then dressed for the gig. She sat on the bed, put on her shoes, then laid back to stare at the ceiling. She'd been watching for Artie, but hadn't laid eyes on him all day. She wondered if she should tell Trent. After all, he was in it to. Presently, she began to snore.

     Trent went home to pick up his guitar, elated. He'd gotten the word that there might be an Atlantic A&R man in the audience at McGrundies that night. He got his gear out of the hall closet, then went back in the bedroom and saw Daria.

     She was sound asleep, softly snoring. Trent laid down on the bed next to her and moved his face to within inches of hers. Her unguarded face was beautiful, wearing a slightly skeptical expression, even in repose. He felt a laugh bubbling up and stifled it. Stealthily, he kissed her, careful not to press hard enough to wake her.

     Daria stirred. "Trent… she mumbled, still out. She sighed, then smiled, in her sleep.

     Trent smiled back, feeling an almost overpowering urge to blow off the gig and stay. She was dreaming of him. He carefully eased off of the bed and removed her shoes. He kissed her nose and took her glasses off, putting them in their accustomed spot on her nightstand. Sliding her up so that her head was on the pillow, he jotted a note and put it down by her glasses.

     Collecting his guitar and jacket, he locked the door and left. She liked watching him on stage, but she had little tolerance for the crowd. He hoped that she got caught up on her sleep.

     The claws were out.

     Sandi smiled maliciously at her sycophants and read the riot act. "Such relationships will not be tolerated. When you date a geek it like, reflects on the rest of the Fashion Club, after all."

     She looked at Stacy and sniffed. "Maybe you could explain to me why you chose to spend time with Quinn and," She made a face, "Upchuck, rather than attend yesterday's meeting?"

     Stacy looked near to tears. "I... I had to study! I was with Quinn! Ch- Upchuck just came to he-"

     Sandi smirked. "You should have come to the meeting. Poor Tiffany obviously stayed home to eat, but you have no excuse. Maybe you need to like, rethink your position with the Fashion Club. Then you could hang around with that loser, Quinn, and study all the time."

     Anguished, Stacy gasped and opened her mouth to declare her devotion to the club, when suddenly the memory of Quinn's words to Tiffany that morning passed through her mind.  What does Sandi ever say? She'll almost say that you look fat in that dress. Then she'll almost threaten to throw Stacy out of the clique.

     Stacy's eyes hardened and she closed her mouth. She glanced at Tiffany, who was glaring daggers at Sandi. "Maybe we need to get ourselves a president who isn't such a… a… bitch," she said, vengefully.

     Tiffany stood and took a step closer to Sandi. "Yesterday was my mother's birthday. I ate my dinner and then some cake. Like, what are you trying to say?"

     Sandi stared at them in shock. Daria's influence was behind this rebellion, somehow. "I just meant that if we don't obey the rules, then there's no-"

     "What are the rules about impeaching a president?" Stacy had made her point, so she got in one last shot before backing down.

     "That's it. You're out, Stacy." Sandi had had enough. "You and Quinn both. This is my club. I get the funding and I make the rules."

     Stacy gasped, fury filling her eyes.

     Tiffany took another step toward her. "This is my house. I like, make the rules here. I say, no bitches."

     Shocked and furious, Sandi slapped Tiffany, then knocked her down. Stacy yowled and launched herself at Sandi. The battle royal was on.

     Quinn yawned and closed her book. She felt shot through with virtue, because she’d actually read ahead in her Language Arts book. She started to rub her eyes, then carefully examined them in the mirror. You couldn’t be too careful about lines. She sat and applied her usual raccoon-like beauty mask. The phone rang.

     Absently, Quinn picked up. "Hello?"

     The rage choked voice scared Quinn. "Bitch! This is your fault! I’m going to get even!"

     "Sandi?" Quinn swallowed as the other phone was slammed down. She dialed Stacy, got no answer, then called Tiffany.

     Daria yawned and walked up her parent's driveway. She put her hand on the knob, then paused, uncertainly. Should she knock? She didn't live there, but... Reasoning that she hadn't been kicked out, she opened the door and sat down at the kitchen table.

     Helen came down the stairs, still blinking sleepily. "Daria!"

     Daria nodded at her mother. "Good morning."

     Helen smiled. "Are you-"

     "Just visiting, Mom. Like you asked."

     Helen sighed and smiled sadly. "Jake told me about you visiting him at his office. The donuts were a very nice touch."

     Daria smirked. "I guess eighteen years of living with Dad has revealed his weaknesses."

     Helen smiled wanly. "So, what would you like for breakfast?"

     "Oh, Just toast, please." Daria hated eating in the morning.

     Helen moved into the kitchen.

     Quinn came bouncing down the stairs. "Daria! Good, we need to talk. Sandi and Stacy got into a really bad fight yesterday. Sandi slapped Tiffany and then Stacy and her beat Sandi up, then they like, shaved her head! You should see her! They rubbed Nair mixed with skin lightener on her and her skin turned bright blue! She looks like a giant Smurf!"

     Daria stared at Quinn for a second and then began to laugh.

     Quinn gestured, impatiently. "We called an emergency phone meeting last night and expelled Sandi until her hair grows back and she looks normal. Anyway, we need a new president. The election is today, at eleven and I need for you to be there and make sure Jane shows up because I don't want to win! After what happened to Sandi, I don't think-"

     Daria held up a hand. "Woah there, Quinn. At eleven I'll be at the new LHS Library building. Jane's exhibit is on display."

     Quinn perked up. "Jane has an exhibit? As fellow members of the Fashion Club it's up to all of us to support her."

     Daria sighed. "I don't think that you want to be there, Quinn."

     Quinn looked thoughtful. This was a fairly new look for her. "Could we have a quick election first? Then we could leave, if… anything was going to happen."

     Daria shrugged. "It's your risk."

     "Kiddo!" Jake bounded down the stairs and swept her into a hug.

     Daria hesitated, then hugged him back. Until very recently, she had been unused to casual physical contact. Neither parent had ever shown much inclination for that sort of bonding with her.

     "Are you home for good?" Jake asked, hopefully. He'd missed her more than he'd ever thought possible.

     "No. Just a visit." Daria rolled her eyes when no one was looking. She'd only been gone for a week, but it was nice to know that they missed her.

     After breakfast, Daria drove to Jane's house and knocked. Jane came to the door in a black leather vest over a white T shirt, sunglasses and red shorts.

     "Hmmm, you once said that you used a red top to define a point of focus and draw attention to your face. I guess you want them focusing a little lower today." Daria smirked at her friend.

     Jane laughed. "Every little bit helps. My rep is going to be made today. I need all the attention that I can get."

     They got into Daria's car and went to LHS.

     The knocking was persistent, but Trent had hopes that it would go away. It didn't. He pried open his gummy eyes, got up and shuffled to the door. He swung it open and was X-rayed by a camera flash.

     "Hey! C'mon, man!" Blinded, Trent stumbled back and tried to swing the door shut, but it was blocked.

     Bill lowered his camera and chuckled. Trent was spike haired, unshaven and wearing nothing but boxer shorts covered with leering, green, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy smiley faces. Just the pic for page one.

     Barbara jabbed her recorder at Trent. "Mr. Lane, we're with the Blaze. Is it true that Daria is really a clone?"

     Trent's eyes widened. "What? Clown?" He wondered if he'd heard right.

     Barbara smirked. Time for the money. "Will you tell us if Daria and her original, Amy Barkesdale, have ever met?"

     Still half asleep, Trent was slow on the uptake. "Yeah, but-"

     "Why are you being investigated by the government, Trent?" Barbara didn't want him thinking about his earlier answer.

     Trent gulped. "Uhm, I guess because of the treason thing. But that wasn't me! I wasn't part of that! I was just a kid, they should know that. Penny was the one into all that stuff."

     Barbara gaped. "Treason? Does it have to do with the aliens?"

     "Aliens?" Trent still thought that she was talking about the communist guerillas from El Salvador that his sister Penny had hidden in his bedroom one summer when he was ten. "Nah, couldn't be those goons. They haven't been around since I was a kid. All those FBI guys- Hey… What the hell is going on here, anyway? You're one of those UFO spazzes! She's not an alien, all right? Get out of my door."

     He pushed them out and slammed the door.

     Barbara turned to Bill. "My God, but these people are weird. this story just never quits. We got quote!"

     Trent rubbed his eyes, sat back down on his bed and wondered if he was still dreaming. Daria had left early that morning to visit her family. He yawned and laid back. He'd worked all day Friday, then played his regular gig at McGrundies. Daria had demanded a large block of his time after that. A second later, he was sound asleep.

     "Amy! Tell me it isn't-"

     Amy blanched and hung up the phone, trembling. She'd just had time to hear Eddy's voice and then the old feelings of pain and rage had surged to life with full force.

     She'd loved him to distraction, dedicated herself to him, opened herself to him and he'd cheated. She'd forgiven him, and he'd cheated again. The third time had come when he had given her a case of gonorrhea that had endangered her baby.

     She had packed, emptied all the bank accounts and disappeared from his life without a word. One of the primary reasons that she had grown so estranged from her family was that she hadn't wanted to give Eddie any clue to her whereabouts.

     Eddie had proven himself to be an expert at manipulating the Barksdale women, with the notable exception of Helen. Her mother or Rita would have spilled her guts in seconds. Helen had hated him on sight.

     When she had wavered and broached the subject of telling Eddie about her condition, Helen had always brought her to her senses and talked her out of it. Now it was too late. Daria was Helen's daughter in every way except biologically and Amy just couldn't interfere.

     The phone rang again. Amy looked at her caller ID. Seeing that it wasn't Eddie again, she picked up. "Hello."

     "Ms. Amy Barksdale?"

     "Yes. If you're sell-"

     "My name is Rich Barnes, with the Star. We're running a story in tomorrow's paper that mentions you. I thought I'd run it by you and give you the chance to comment."

     Amy listened, then gasped. "Look, I thought you people gave up on this years ago. No one cares any more! We fought, I left, end of story."

     "So, you deny that Daria Morgendorffer is the love child of you and Eddie Star?"

     "You dirty bastard! Daria's my niece! And even if she was my daughter she wouldn't be a 'love child'. I married Eddie. I swear, if you people-"

     "Married? That never came out. When did you divorce?"

     "Oh- You jackals leave us the hell alone! Write one lying word about Daria and I'll spend everything that I have suing you!" She hung up. The awful truth was, she hadn't divorced Eddie. As much as she hated him, she just couldn't bring herself to do it. Maybe he had. The truth was finally coming out and she would have to face Daria and tell her everything. She wept.

     Barnes hung up and smiled. He dialed his editor. "Hey, chief, I got a new angle!"

     Charles pulled up outside of Tiffany's house.

     Quinn reached over and honked the horn, impatiently. A few minutes later, Tiffany came out, got into the back seat next to Stacy and they left for LHS.

     "Like, why are we going to school? It's Saturday." Tiffany wanted to listen to someone read 'Waif' and gossip about boys, like usual.

     Quinn closed her eyes. Tiffany was an unbelievable idiot. She glanced at Charles, who was grinning at the road, wisely saying nothing. "See something funny, Charles?"

     Charles stopped grinning. "No! Just... chilling." He winced. She was in a rare mood. He was suddenly struck by a thought. What had happened to him? When had he become so… obsequious?

     Quinn snorted suspiciously and gave him a narrow look.

     Stacy smirked at him in the rear view mirror. "Daria and Jane are there. We're going to vote on a new president. Sandi's bald and baldness is a definite fashion don't."

     Charles grinned again, wolfishly. Sandi's misfortunes were remarkably easy to bear.

     Tiffany giggled. "Yeah. Bald as an egg. A big fat rotten blue egg." Tiffany still felt great satisfaction over her foray into cosmetology.

     Quinn worriedly glanced at Stacy. Being Acting President wasn't that great a deal, sometimes.

     Eddie got off of the plane, rented a Dodge and rolled into Lawndale. He checked into the Tradewinds, got into his room and then picked up the phone book. There was only one Morgendorffer in the book. He called, but no one answered. When the machine picked up, he hung up the phone. Sighing, he dialed Amy.


     "I know, Amy. The reporters told me." Eddie felt his heart rate going wild and tried to calm down. "I'm in Lawndale."

     Amy gasped. "Dammit, no! No! She doesn't even suspect! How can you just waltz in and-"

     "I never lied to her, Amy. You and that bi- Helen stole my daughter and I'm going to meet her!" Eddie felt a rush of victory. She couldn't stonewall him anymore.

     "You cold blooded son of a-." Amy was falling apart with dread. What would Daria think? "I had to do it! You were insane, sleeping around, drugging- You didn't care what happened! You almost killed her! Did you really think that I'd ever let you anywhere near my baby?"

     "Almost killed her! How? You never even told me that you were pregnant!" Eddie closed his eyes and tried to imagine that she was there and that everything was like it was back in the good old days, when he was just an apprentice electrician trying to break in to the music business.

     Amy spoke in a monotone. "You gave me an STD, Eddie. I almost lost her. It was a near thing."

     Eddy collapsed nervelessly onto the bed. "G-... god. She's... alright, isn't she? Not brain damaged or anything?"

     Amy managed to chuckle. "No. She's absolutely beautiful and so intelligent that it scares me. She's the best student in Lawndale, if not the state."

     "Christ, Amy." He heaved a huge sigh of relief, wiping tears from his eyes. "I'm so sorry. I know that I can never excuse myself, but I was a drug addict... Am a drug addict. But I haven't been high or touched an intoxicant in fourteen years, now. I think that I've been punished enough. I want to meet my daughter. You can either come to Lawndale and help explain it all or I'll have to do it by myself. We can't let her find out from the tabloids."

     Amy bit her lip. He was right. "Where are you staying?"

     "The Tradewinds. Room 404. It's on route se-"

     "I know where it is." Amy looked at the clock. "I can be there in two and a half hours."

     Eddie tried to keep the building hope out of his voice. He'd see his wife again, at last. "Give me a call when you get back on the road. You can tell me all about Daria while you drive."

     Trent was dreaming. Artie the crazy pizza delivery guy and Saddam Hussain were chasing Daria down the middle of the freeway with giant butterfly nets. He kept trying to save her, but he was stuck in the doorway, handcuffed to Monique's needle scarred, dead body. He looked around for a key or an axe or something, but then Monique opened blank white eyes and started pounding on his head.

     Trent emerged from his dream and heard the loud authoritative knocking again. He waited, but it didn't go away. Pulling on a shirt and pants, this time he put on dark glasses before he opened the door.

     There was a man in a suit standing there. "Hi, my name is-"

     "Not interested." Trent closed the door.

     Agent Fritch stared at the door, dumbfounded.

     Agent Loomis walked up. "Nice work. All you had to do was talk to him long enough to get a voice print." He began pounding on the door.

     Trent was just rolling back into bed when it started again. "That's it!" He felt under the couch and pulled out the 20oz ball peen hammer that he kept there. Frowning at the briefcase that he found, he shoved it back and scowled at the door. "Goddamned missionaries." Trent opened the door. There were two of them now. One was black and too old to be a missionary. "What?"

     Fritch was blushing. He'd heard Trent's mumbling through the door. He did look like a Mormon missionary. In fact, he had been a Mormon missionary at one time, not too many years ago.

     Loomis smirked. "We're here to save your ass, Trent. Not your soul."

     "What?" Trent briefly wondered if he was still dreaming.

     "Loomis, BATF. This is Fritch. Can we come in?"

     "Bat-F? What's that?" Trent was even more confused.

     Loomis sighed and wished again that he had made it into the FBI. "We are with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Mr. Lane. It's a law enforcement agency of the federal government, like the FBI, but older. We are investigating bomb threats received by various radio stations. Your name came up in some of our bombers calls, so we would like to interview you. You aren't a suspect, but you may be a witness. We can do it here, if you would invite us in, or we can do it at the Federal building."

     Trent shrugged and motioned them in. "Sorry, uh, Fritch. There are a lot of missionaries around here and I-"

     "Say no more, I understand completely." Fritch decided that he kind of liked Trent.

     Loomis and Trent sat at the tiny dining nook, drinking coffee as Loomis explained the bomb threats.

     Fritch sat on the couch, listening and absently fidgeting with his pocket bug buster. He'd bought it at Radio Shack after finding the bug on the van. Loomis had almost had a heart attack. He swung the TV-remote sized object around to put it back in his pocket and the LCD graph flickered to life. Astonished, he trained it on the TV and it peaked. He stood and tracked the signal to the power outlet behind Daria's ancient TV.

     Loomis broke off and looked at him. "Fritch, what the hell-"

     Fritch shushed them then pointed at the outlet. He cupped his ear, like he was listening, then pointed at the outlet again. He pulled a small multi tool from his jacket pocket and unscrewed the outlet cover. Nestled inside, neatly tapped into the outlet wires, was a bug.

     Furious, Trent reached for it, but Loomis stopped him.

     He took out a notepad and wrote, 'First, let's go somewhere and talk. If they don't know that we know, we may be able to catch them.'

     Trent nodded.

     Fritch swept the room and found four more bugs. The microphones in the walls were gone, but Loomis spotted the skim and crumbled it away, exposing the empty holes.

     Trent's eyes widened and he carefully examined the area around and over his bed, praying that there was no video. The Internet had proven to be an eye-opener in more than one way. He found a hole in the wall behind the headboard, but it didn't look like a camera could have been placed there.

     Quietly, they left the apartment. Trent knew that he and Daria couldn't live there anymore. He had exceedingly unpleasant plans for any LUFON people that he caught lurking around.

     Quinn waited impatiently for the new library building to open. A small crowd of elegantly dressed people were milling around, looking impatiently at the clock. It struck three, and Li opened the doors.

     Quinn started in and Li snagged her shirt. "This is not a school function, Ms. Morgendorffer. I suggest that you and your friends spend your weekend elsewhere!"

     Quinn put on her most winning smile. "Ms. Li, we're just here to help support Jane. She is a Fashion Club member after all. You made sure of it yourself. We're just going to look at her little picture, talk a minute, then go."

     Li thought about it, then saw a crowd of what looked like reporters approaching. "Just get it over with and get out. Leave the refreshments alone. I don't want to see you here in ten minutes."

     Quinn found Daria and Jane, standing in front of a covered display, nervously eyeing the crowd that was making it's way around the room.

     "Quinn! You're late." Daria gulped nervously and turned to her. "You'd better run for it. Li's going to loose her mind when-"

     "Jane! Daria! Why is that still covered up?" Barch came up, followed by two bristle haired women, who were holding hands.

     Jane shrugged. "I was still nerving myself up for it, Ms. Barch." Actually, she wanted Li to be standing there with a crowd when she unveiled The X Presidents.

     "Well, bite the bullet! There are a lot of women here who want to see-" She suddenly spotted Charles. "You!"

     Charles, in the presence of the enemy, went on the offensive. He smirked his oiliest smirk, buffed his fingernails on his imaginary lapel, blew on them, examined them, then said, "Sorry, ladies, but I like them a little… younger." He grinned, then winked at the short haired blond, practically oozing politically incorrect sexism.

     He felt a blast of alarm when she smiled and winked back at him.

     Quinn giggled, earning a poisonous glare from Barch.

     Barch ground her teeth. "As I was saying before this male creature interrupted, please unveil your work, Jane. No one will interfere with it."

     Jane removed the cover and the plastic, but discovered that she couldn't get the power cord unwrapped.

     Someone took a picture of Daria and Jane, standing in front of the work.

     "No pictures of my art, please! I hold the copyright, and it will be vigorously enforced!" Jane shouted futilely at the man's retreating back.

     Daria blinked the spots out of her eyes and helped Jane find a knife to cut the cable tie off of the power cord.

     Charles stood there waiting for Quinn, bored. Casually, he examined Jane's work. He suddenly frowned, rubbed his eyes then looked again. He looked away, then looked back. Slowly, his jaw dropped. He goggled at Jane, awed by her nerve. He shook his head, spotted Li on the other side of the room and then whispered into Quinn's ear. "Quinn, Come on. We have to go, right now."

     "What is it?" Quinn's eyesight wasn't that good and she had missed it.

     Charles whispered the awful truth into her ear.

     Quinn leaned in close, gawked for a minute, shot an incredulous look at Jane, then said in a penetrating voice, "All Fashion Club people out, right now!" She grabbed Daria's arm and dragged her along a few steps.

     Daria pulled free. "Quinn! Come on-"

     Jane smirked. "She's right. Go while you can. I'm ready for this and you're not. I'm about to become notorious. You don't want any of the kind of glory that I'm going to reflect."

     Daria saw Li leading a group of reporters and art critics toward them. "See ya, Jane."

     Lingering at the back of the room, Daria saw Li start to give a little speech to the bored crowd, standing directly in front of Jane and hogging the limelight. In mid speech, Jane reached over and flipped the toggle switch. In response to the wave of shock that went through the crowd, Li turned around, gave a high pitched little shriek and crumpled into an unconscious heap.

     Jane smirked in satisfaction. Revenge was indeed sweet. Stepping ostentatiously over the groaning heap that was Li, she made her own speech. She opined that she hadn't had time to really finish the work. She thought that there should also be a few images of gratuitous violence thrown in. She took a swipe at Li, by pointing out that the art program had been cut so that the football team could have a new bus.

     Pulling out a camera, she took several shots of the inert Ms. Li. Cameras clicked on her as she reminded them that she held the copyright of the work. Barch's commandettes were wildly cheering her on.

     "Come on!" Quinn shoved at Daria, desperate to get away before she got connected with the debacle.

     A woman shoved a micro-recorder into Daria's face. "What was your part in the production of The X Presidents?"

     Daria's eyes widened. "All I did was suggest the name!" She didn't want to be linked to that.

     Barb smiled. "Did you help with the photography?"

     Daria smirked. "No, go see for yourself." The woman didn't know her from Eve.

     "Sure, Daria," said Barb, handing her a card. Bill took a picture of them together. "Is it true that you're a clone? Or an alien? Or an alien clone?"

     Quinn gaped at her. "You're crazy! Leave us alone!" She pulled Daria along, away from the crazy woman. She had never felt so obscurely threatened in her entire life. "She didn't pose and she's my sister! Bitch!" Quinn glanced fearfully at Daria. Maybe she had posed...

     Daria looked back at Barb, puzzled. "No, no and no. That's all Jane and her boyfriend in the picture."

     "My number's on the card. Call me tomorrow." Barb smirked after them, and then plunged into the growing press feeding frenzy that swirled around Jane. Lawndale was great. The stories just fell right into your lap.

     Quinn went home and sat down on the couch to check on her calls. Skipping over Jeffy and Joey's increasingly plaintive calls, she smiled as she listened to a cursing Sandi promising revenge on the whole world.

     The next one made her forget it, though. "Hello, Ms. Daria Morgendorffer? This is Romonica Demonica, of the Amazon agency. I need to speak with you, quite urgently. It's a matter of money. A lot of it, for you, as a spokesmodel. Please call me as soon as possible, as this opportunity is fleeting!"

     Quinn gasped, then dialed Daria's apartment.

     Marianne's eyes widened at the sound of the woman's voice. She broke in on Helen's meeting with Eric and the managing partner. "Helen?"

     Helen looked up, the flush of triumph still on her cheeks. She had just laid it on the line. She would be made a partner or she would take the twelve serious corporate clients that she had developed and walk across the street to Hayworth and Dunn.

     Helen was the only woman lawyer at the firm who had developed a game plan and gone after her own clients. Many had come to her via Jake, who had an eye for potential winners and always introduced them to his wife, the lawyer.

     Helen was the only associate at the firm who had associates working for her. Her clients were all female CEO's, entrepreneurs with growing businesses and little tolerance for the partnership's golf driven 'old boy' network.

     Helen saw Jake's stroke of luck as her big opportunity. She could no longer tolerate Eric's head games or his bungling interference with the way that she handled her clients.

     "Yes, Marianne?" Helen was glad for the interruption. It was time for them to stew for a while.

     "A call for you, Ms. Morgendorffer. It's Ms. Barksdale. It sounds urgent."

     "Excuse me, gentlemen." Helen left, a small, triumphant smile on her lips. Marianne had phrased it so that it sounded like a new client was calling. The first thing that she would do would be to see that Marianne got a raise and a secretary of her own, even if they did have to go over to the competition.

     The two men watched her as she left. Eric sighed lustfully.

     "Can you head this off, Eric?" The managing partner had already done the math. The partners would take a substantial pay cut if Helen joined, but it was nothing compared to what they would lose when Helen left and took her clients with her. Helen's clients were all on their way up. The work generated by those firms would grow exponentially over the next several years.

     Eric shook his head. "No, Helen's lost her fear. I just can't push her anymore. She almost slapped me the last time that I tried to override her on a matter regarding her client."

     The managing partner looked sidelong at Eric. Eric was competent, but hadn't brought in any new clients in years. His clients were mostly of the faceless out-of-state corporate legal department variety, that hired from the phonebook and cared little about who did their local legal scutwork. Eric specialized in handling a high volume of low value work. He mostly dealt with the new associates, breaking them in to his crushing load of routine work before they were passed on to other, more demanding, partners. He still looked good, but the telltale signs of the closet alcoholic were all there. Perhaps if they got rid of Eric, the financial impact of Helen's partnership could be minimized, he mused. Eric was a good golfer and everyone liked him, but he was by no means vital. He would have to sound out the other partners, but he suspected that they would vote with their wallets.

     The managing partner smiled. Helen could move up, with an ambitious younger woman associate hired to fill her current position. If she learned from Helen, it would bring a lot more business to the firm. A new dog running behind her would keep Helen on her toes and everyone would get richer. No one was allowed to get too comfortable in the firm.

     Helen went into her office and picked up the phone. "Mother?"

     "N- no, It's me. He finally found out, Helen. He's in Lawndale. He's at the Tradewinds." Amy sounded like she had been crying.

     Helen scowled. "Dammit!" Why didn't he just die like all of the other 80's heads? she wondered. "Where are you?"

     "I'm on the road. I'll be in Lawndale in about twenty minutes." Amy blinked back tears and swerved to avoid a board in the road. "The papers know. The Star's going to run the story tomorrow."

     "Come over to the house, dear. We'll talk this through and then go face him down, together." Helen listened to her sister's sobbing and silently raged at the fate that had again brought Eddie Star into their lives. She reassured her sister and then hung up.

     "Damn!" Helen thought about Daria. She had adopted her, but it hadn't been strictly legal. Amy had given birth to Daria using her maiden name and had never told the hospital who the father was. The adoption had gone smoothly. Not even mother knew that Daria was Amy's daughter and not Helen's. Now, everyone would know.

     Helen closed her eyes, remembering. They had been living in California after leaving the pointless, drug hazed existence of the commune. She had been working nights at a diner and trying to get through law school on no sleep. Jake had been working two jobs, days in the mailroom of the consultants, Burns and Lauder, nights and weekends as a maintenance man at a toy factory. They had seemed doomed to fairly meager existence, until one day Amy had appeared from out of the blue, a month pregnant.

     Nineteen, pregnant, sick from heroin withdrawal and carrying two grocery sacks full of wadded up cash, Amy had begged Helen for her help. Seemingly half out of her mind, all that Amy could focus on was keeping the baby out of Eddy's careless hands.

     Helen had been devastated by her usually calm and self possessed little sister's terrible state. Eddy's betrayals had been shattering and had clearly sent her over the edge. Helen, involved in her own little drama, had cut herself off from the family right after Eddie had started hanging around. Helen hadn't liked him at all.

     Amy and Helen had talked it over and decided that adoption was the only way to keep Eddie completely in the dark. Jake had been amenable, especially when Amy had spontaneously kicked in enough for him to open up his own consulting firm. He had been immediately successful.

     Threading her way through the light traffic to the airport, Amy was also remembering.

     Amy had convulsed and sweated away the last vestiges of her heroin addiction in Helen's apartment. After giving birth to Daria, Amy had reluctantly gone through with the adoption, on the understanding that it was only a ploy.

     The next door neighbor moved and Amy rented the apartment, happily serving as first Daria's then Quinn's babysitter. In truth, Daria had lived with Amy. She had read to her for hours, slept with her crib next to her bed and immersed herself in motherhood and self healing. Amy wasn't a natural drug addict. She had quit when she found out about the pregnancy, but regaining her self-possession had taken longer.

     While Helen went to law school, the arrangement had worked out well for everyone. Amy had intensively bonded with her daughter, Helen and Jake had begun making headway toward their goals and all had been well until Eddie had ruined it.

     Eddie lay on his hotel room bed, remembering his only glimpse of his daughter. Eddie had briefly surfaced from the haze of wild sex, drugs and rock music that was his life and had gone looking for the only person who he had ever really cared about. Amy had been in her apartment, reading to her giggling daughter when Eddie had peeked around the open door.

     For a heart freezing moment, he had stood goggling at the baby, absolutely sure that she was his. Then Helen had appeared. Brushing by him disdainfully, she had taken Daria, thanked Amy for watching her, then left.

     He had talked and talked, half persuading Amy to give it another try, when the stupid blonde bimbo had come in and said that she was tired of waiting in the car. Eddie had tried to explain about the bimbo being his nurse, assigned to him as a condition of his release for the day from a clinic, but a thrice stung Amy hadn't bought it.

     That evening Eddie had violently parted company with his doctors and slid back into the nightmare. A year and a half later, he'd come back, drugged and raving, threatening suicide. Fearing discovery and a legal challenge, Amy had fled abroad, heart brokenly leaving Daria behind. Eddy's ample bank accounts were still open to her. She had sucked them dry again and begun her career as a globe trotting professional student. He had never taken her off of the accounts and still used them today. It had always been comforting for him to know that they were still connected, still married. At least legally.

     Helen wondered what she was going to tell Daria. She remembered the accusing little eyes, searching desperately for Amy and finding only Helen. The obsessive searching and the repeated escapes from her playpen had been worrying. Helen had read to her, tried to be with her, but she had also had Quinn and a job by then. Daria had never really gotten over it. The serenely happy baby had turned into a stubborn, suspicious child. In time she'd seemingly forgotten Amy, but she'd always known that something just wasn't right.

     One day, when Daria was five and Helen was brushing Daria's hair, she had seen both children reflected in the same large mirror. She had been pleased to observe that her daughters were uncommonly beautiful. Astonished, she had realized that she now considered Daria to be her daughter, not a package that she was holding for Amy. Sometime in the last two years, a Rubicon had been crossed. If Amy ever came back, Helen would fight to the last drop of blood to keep Daria.

     When she'd mentioned it to Jake, he'd misunderstood, thinking that Amy was coming back for Daria. In a voice thick with outrage, he'd informed her that it wasn't going to happen. Jake hadn't been kidding when he'd adopted Daria. He'd played with Daria every day of her life. He'd loved her since she was a few hours old. Daria was under his roof. She was his daughter in every way that counted and there was just no way that he'd ever let anyone else have her, let alone a couple of flakes like Eddie and Amy.

     Eddie called Amy's cellphone.


     "Amy, are you okay? You're a half hour late." Eddie smiled. At least he could talk to Amy now.

     "I'm over at Helen's. We're talking." Amy sounded resigned.

     "Is she.. Is Daria there?" Eddie felt a psychic jolt. It was the first time he'd ever said the name. It reverberated in his mind like a bell.

     "No. We're discussing the best way to do this. Just... back off. I'll call you later." Amy hung up

     Eddie shook his head, ruefully. She didn't seem to be warming to him very quickly. He looked around the boxlike hotel room with a sudden distaste. Pocketing his cellphone, he left.

     Driving back from his interview, Trent shuddered. Those Bat-F guys had been total maniacs. He'd told them about Artie, that Artie was nuts, but they hadn't wanted to hear about harmless UFO cultists. They wanted Artie to be a white supremacist, or a militiaman. They kept going off about some Case Purple bullshit, about how the Fundamentalist Christians were going to get him because he was a rocker.

     Trent wondered just what kind of IQ requirements the BAT-F had. Why mess with an unknown like Mystik Spiral? Why not Rob Zombie? It was a bizarre idea. Trent had told them that Artie was only a sad lunatic, trying to spice up his nothing little life by recasting himself as the savior of mankind. Trent could understand it. That's what had driven him onto the stage. Better to be something in your own mind than nothing at all.

     Trent climbed out of his car and carefully examined the hair that he'd glued to his front door. It was broken. Fetching a large mallet from under his car seat, Trent burst through his front door, ready to pound.

     There was a note on the table.

     Dear Trent.

     Benny called. A waitress is out sick so I'm taking an extra shift today. See you tonight.

     Love, D.

     Trent looked around the no longer homey little apartment and decided to go find a new home. To hell with the Bat-F. Trent didn't give a shit who planted the bugs, so long as they stopped. He opened his newspaper and turned to the real estate section.

     Jane and Tom came in to the not-so-busy restaurant. Daria waved them to a table. When she finished with a customer, she walked over.

     "Hey!" So you didn't go to jail?"

     Jane laughed. "It was a near thing. When Li came around, she expelled me on the spot. Barch got into it with her and things looked pretty tense for a minute."

     Tom groaned. "Tell her the rest."

     Jane smirked. "I've got Barch's picketers coming to school Monday. They're picketing to let me back in."

     Tom grinned at Jane, proudly. "She made me call around to the churches and right wing groups. There will also be counter picketers and reporters on hand."

     Jane laughed "Can you spell, 'media circus?'

     Daria sat down and laughed out loud. "And here we have Lawndale's own little ringmaster. Good job, Jane. You're going to be a national celebrity by the end of the week!"

     "I need to look up some local laws. I was kind of hoping to get arrested, but the stupid cops wouldn't bite." Jane frowned. "How am I supposed to become America's little feminist-artist high school sweetheart, spunkily fighting her way out of the ignorance and oppression of these redneck suburbs if I can't get the powers that be to do their job? Don't those blind sons of bitches know a dirty picture when they see one? What the hell do I have to do?"

     Daria and Tom both winced, imagining the possibilities.

     Eddie was walking down Dega street, checking the charge on his cellphone and thinking about getting a tattoo. He had 'Amy' tattooed over his heart and he was thinking of putting 'Daria' under it. He looked at his watch. He probably didn't have time.

     His feet carried him into a music store and before he knew it he had a guitar in his hands. He still played obsessively, sometimes all day long, until his fingers bled and he dropped from exhaustion. He had faded from the music scene, but at 39 he was a far better guitarist than he had been at the height of his fame. He had been good then. Now, without exaggeration, he knew that he was the best. Guitar playing was the only addiction that he allowed himself, these days.

     Unthinkingly, Eddie pushed the Alvarez to its absolute limit, playing the complex solo from his 1984 hit, Pure Evil. He added layers until it bore little resemblance to the original. His original had been thought good. This solo was the work of a true monster of rock.

     A string broke, and Eddie opened his eyes. Everyone in the shop was staring at him, eye wide and open mouthed.

     Eddie smiled, then frowned and put the guitar down, giving it a little caress. It was a remarkably sweet instrument for any price. He turned and fingered another.

     "Man, That was incredible." A skinny kid stood there, a beat up Fender in hand.

     Eddie smiled. "Yeah, I've played some." He missed showing off his skill.

     "Aren't you Eddie Star?" Trent stared at him, puzzled. Eddy's eyes were the exact same luminous shade of steel gray as Daria's. He'd never seen eyes like that anywhere else, before.

     "I used to be, but I got over it." Eddie waited for the laugh that that line usually got, but none was forthcoming.

     "You play like a- a god, Mr. Star. Why don't you make a comeback?" Trent was feeling a sense of crushing inferiority. He could work at it for a lifetime and never be half as good as Eddie. "You could blow anyone around away, with that guitar."

     Eddie read his expression and gave him a sympathetic smile. "Call me Eddie. Hey, kid, don't give up. I've been at it for twenty years. I'm a great guitarist, but when I was in the big time I probably wasn't any better than you are right now. I can't even listen to myself on the radio, now."

     Trent heaved a sigh of relief. "Thanks for telling me that."

     "No problem." Eddie sighed. "As to a comeback, well, let's just say that I don't have any incentive to dive back into that particular whirlpool of insanity. Sure, I made the money, but it cost me way too much." He was lucky. He'd always had half of his checks diverted into an investment fund that his brother had managed for him. He was so rich that there was no way to spend it all, anymore.

     Trent took a step back. He couldn't understand how someone could just give up performing. "Don't you miss it?"

     Eddie nodded, morosely. "I'd like to get back into the small time. A little bar, nightclub or pub would be perfect. But if I did... well, pretty soon I'd need crowd control. It's just not possible."

     Trent laughed. "What a dilemma. I'd love to switch problems with you, Eddie."

     Eddie shrugged. He doubted it. "Hey, what's your name?"

     Trent was flattered that a big star like Eddie would ask. "Trent Lane. My band is Mystik Spiral, but we're thinking of changing the name."

     Eddie laughed. He'd been down that road, but Orbital Lawnchair had remained Orbital Lawnchair until the breakup. "Well, It's good to meet you." He checked the cellphone again and sighed. "I need to make a call. Excuse me for a second, Trent."

     While Trent went to buy a string, Eddie called again. "Hello, Amy?"

     "No! Amy's... busy. This is Helen Morgendorffer. Daria isn't home, and according to her sister- my other daughter, won't be home until late tonight. I suggest that you call back around eleven." Helen hung up, happy to have delayed the inevitable. "Prick."

     "Eleven! What am I going to do in this Podunk town until eleven?" Eddie thought that he might just freak out from all the pressure, before then. His addictions were bothering him, for the first time in years. He looked around. People were watching again. He'd nearly yelled it out.

     Eddie looked regretfully at the Alvarez. He'd buy it and spend the day playing, but management usually frowned on electric guitars in hotels. He didn't notice Trent walk up.

     "Um, If you'd like..." Trent cleared his throat, getting Eddies attention. "Well, see, Mystik Spiral has a gig tonight. If you want, you could um, sit in."

     Eddie laughed and picked up the Alvarez. It was like a reprieve. "Sure! That'd be great, Trent. When and where?"

     Trent smiled with pure pleasure. "Well, we didn't practice much this week, Eddie. We were going to meet at the Zen right now, get in an hour of practice, go eat and then show up at seven."

     Eddie nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Just let me get this restrung, find an amp and I'll join you. Where is the Zen?"

     Quinn peeked into the library. Only a janitor was present. She gingerly walked in, making her way to the wall where Jane's... work had hung. There was nothing but the holes where the frame had been mounted. She stamped in frustration. Daria was impossible to locate.

     "Ms. Morgendorffer!" Li hissed, vengefully. "Have you come to see the results of your plot against me? Well, rest assured, I do remember that Lane is a member of the Fashion Club. And that your sister Daria is her friend. I also remember that you were all present when the... The debacle occurred." Li was advancing on Quinn, the light of reason absent from her eyes. "You're all in on it. Yes, you can be sure I'll remember-" Li lunged at her.

     "Eeeak!" Quinn turned to flee and ran headlong into Barch.

     "Eeeeeeeeeak!" Quinn dodged away and was caught by a large, burly, scarred, shaven-headed man in a cheap suit.

     "Calm down, miss." The man glared at Li. "Get hold of yourself, Li. You're not doing your case any good."

     Barch, who had brought in Superintendent Mosley to witness Li's breakdown, smiled. Soon, she would be acting principal, and the school would be run on a more enlightened basis. The boys could be taught the few simple skills that their disgusting race needed and the girls could be properly educated to take up their rightful roles, at last.

     "Let GO!" Quinn kicked him, pulled away and fled. She had to find Daria. The squabbles of insane teachers could wait. She heaved a defeated sigh and trudged back to her mothers SUV. Gingerly, she backed into the street. She'd already been to Daria's place, Jane's house and the city library. Racking her brain, she turned the vehicle toward Dega street.

     Cursing, Mosley rubbed his shin and glared at Li. "Ms. Li, after the reports that I've seen and this additional display of paranoia, I'm going to have to suspend you from your position here, effective immediately."

     Barch stepped forward, confidently. "Well, Angela, don't you worry. I'm sure that the place will be in good hands."

     "Yes, it will be." Mosley took a phone out of his pocket and dialed.

     Sgt. Anthony DeMartino lay in a patch of elephant grass and tried not to move. A column of tiny fire ants was crossing his hand and he didn't want to provoke them. He glared at the path, waiting for Charlie to make his morning appearance.

     Soon, three little men in traditional peasant dress came by, carefully watching for ambushes. DeMartino grinned mirthlessly and let them pass.

     The FNG made a noise and DeMartino glared at him, silently promising an ass kicking when they got back to the firebase. There were monkeys overhead in the three canopy jungle and they would howl if startled. The success of the ambush depended on silence. DeMartino hated FNG's, but then he hated absolutely everyone, except for a few soldiers as mad as himself.

     He'd taken tour after tour in 'Nam because he could barely keep himself from killing the omnipresent morons that he'd encountered back in the world. He'd developed a taste for battle. War was all that he was good for anymore, the only thing that he loved.

     Smiling cruelly, he saw Charlie coming down the trail. When the enemy was in the middle of Sgt. DeMartino's killing ground, he whispered, "Good morning, Mr. Charlie," and pulled the trigger, his burst cutting down three men. All hell broke loose as the rifles and grenades of the squad took their bloody toll.

     The ambush was a big success, but as DeMartino's squad was plundering the corpses, Charley took revenge. A mortar shell came whistling down and struck directly in front of him. Badly wounded, he blindly staggered down the trail, listening to the shouts and wondering if his men would leave him behind. They all feared and respected him, but none liked him enough to risk themselves to save him.

     The phone rang.

     DeMartino woke up in the chair and glared around, his mind coming out of its fugue of memory. He could still smell the stench of fresh blood, cordite, churned up jungle and death.

     Reflexively, DeMartino answered the phone. "Who is it!" He tried to remember where he was. Obviously not Vietnam.

     "Mr. DeMartino? This is Superintendent Mosley speaking." Mosley was a little taken aback by the brusque answer, but perhaps he'd interrupted something important.

     "Yes, sir!" DeMartino racked his brain. He'd been sleeping. He usually didn't sleep. He lost control, became vulnerable when he did. Better to sit in the chair with his eyes wide open, take two to three second catnaps and dream a dream of total reality.

     "Anthony, we have a situation here at LHS..."

     As Mosley explained, the details of his life trickled back into DeMartino's mind. He wasn't a soldier any more. He was something... worse. Something to do with- Oh, God, he was a school teacher!

     "And so it looks like you'll be taking over as the acting principal, Anthony." Mosely anxiously wondered if he was doing the right thing.

     "Right. Monday. I'll need to find a sub to fill in for me." DeMartino brightened. Running a high school was child's play, compared to actually enduring the presence of the slack minded little beasts.

     "Daria?" Helen stood at the entrance to the restaurant.

     Daria came up. "Mom! Aunt Amy? What are you doing here?"

     Amy cleared her throat. "We have to talk to you, Daria. Can you get away from here?

     "It's very important," said Helen.

     Benny looked up, glanced at Helen and then nodded.

     "Okay, Mom. Just a minute. I'll go change." Daria walked to the back and passed through the double doors.

     Benny ambled up to the two women. "Hi! I'm Benny. Your daughter is a real find."

     Both women, looking after Daria, replied absently together in the same tone. "Thanks." They briefly glared at each other, then looked away.

     Benny swallowed. The vibes here were lethal. "Well, things to do." He retreated into the kitchen to hide until the unpleasantness was over.

     Daria came out and walked with them to Amy's car. "So what's the big deal?"

     Uncomfortably, the sisters exchanged a look. Helen began awkwardly, "Daria, did you ever wonder why you're the mirror image of Amy?"

     Eddie listened to a run through of Bunny in the Headlights and grinned. It made him remember when Amy had first introduced him to her mother. It'd been like a job interview, but without the politeness. On the second chorus he came in, backing up Trent and adding a few embellishments. Mystik Spiral had a fat sound with three guitars, but Eddie refrained from taking the lead. His guitar heavy 80's sound would be too easy to morph into. Mystik Spiral had its own thing going and Eddie didn't want to influence them too much.

     Trent and Jesse exchanged awed glances. Eddie was a master.

     When they broke, Trent invited him along for lunch. He wanted to introduce Eddie to Daria anyway. The musicians made their way to Bob's, entered and waited to be seated.

     "Hi, Trent!" Darlene greeted him at the register. She smiled a hello at the band.

     "Hey, Darlene. We need a table for five. One of Daria's would be great." Trent smiled in anticipation.

     Nick looked curiously at Eddie, who's jaw had dropped in shock. The rest of the band didn't notice Eddy's reaction.

     Darlene shook her head, playfully. "Sorry, Trent. Daria went off somewhere with her mother. Can I interest you in any of our other waitresses?"

     Trent was a little nonplused. "Uh, did she say what... Never mind. Sure, table for five."

     When they were seated, Benny came over. "Trent! Hey, what's going on? Is Daria going to be here tomorrow?"

     Trent looked up, confused. "Why wouldn't she be?"

     Benny shrugged. "I thought there must have been some big family emergency. Her mom and a lady who looked just like her came and got her. They looked pretty serious."

     Trent frowned. "I hope it wasn't her dad. He's got heart trouble. That must have been her aunt Amy. They look like twins, according to Jane."

     Trent looked up as Eddie exploded into a coughing fit. He'd been drinking from his water glass when Trent had mentioned Amy.

     "You okay, Eddie?" Nick had caught it all.

     "Uhm, yeah. Just... you know." Eddie tried to calculate the odds.

     "Daria's Trent's girlfriend." Jesse grinned at Trent. "They recently moved in together, so he's still pretty stoked about it."

     "Is that so." Eddie eyed an oblivious Trent, narrowly.

     "Yeah, she's great. Hey, Benny, this is Eddie Star." Trent waited for Benny to make a fuss. "He was in Orbital Lawnchair."

     Benny had been in the Navy in those days, and rock and roll wasn't his thing, but he was a student of human behavior and he interpreted the appraising stare that Eddie was giving Trent correctly. "Hi ya, Eddie. So, do you know Daria?"

     Eddie shrugged. "I've never been introduced."

     Benny gestured vaguely toward the street. "Well, like I said, she just left. I thought you might be an uncle or something, because you look kind of like her."

     Trent laughed. "Benny-"

     "If her last name is Morgendorffer, I'm her biological father."

     Everyone stared at him in amazement.

     Nick broke the silence first. "Woah! Awesome!"

     "What! You and Helen..." Trent swallowed, feeling a little faint.

     "No, Man!" Eddie shuddered. "Amy... My wife, Amy, is Daria's mother. Helen is her aunt."

     "But... why?" Trent was completely lost.

     Nick stood. "Guys, I think we'd better eat somewhere else. Let Trent and Eddie talk."

     Mumbling reluctant agreement, the band and Benny left.

     "Well, It's a long story." Eddie gave Trent a brief synopsis.

     Trent smiled. "Aunt Amy. She talks about her a lot. I've never met her."

     "So, Trent." Eddie leaned forward. "What the hell are you doing with my daughter?"

     Trent paled. "Shit! Jake's been hunting all over town for me, like a freakin' bloodhound. Now I've got another one to worry about."

     "Yes you do, Trent." Eddie suddenly sighed. "I'm not ready for this at all."

     Trent smirked. "That's what Nick said. Look on the bright side, Eddie. At least you don't have to change any diapers."

     Eddie swallowed. Trent had hit a very raw nerve. He'd missed out on everything. "Where do you and my daughter live?"

     Trent shrugged. "We lived out by the airport, but since I found out that the place was bugged..." He shrugged again. "I already moved our stuff over to my parent's garage. There's just my sister there, now. I'm looking for a new place."

     "Bugged! Shit!" Eddie growled, "Probably the reporters."

     "Reporters?" Trent grunted. "It could be a lot of people." He told an increasingly alarmed Eddy about the strange course that Daria's life was taking lately.

     Eddie, for the first time fully engaged in father mode, told Trent to go rent a good place that had security gates and guards. "Look, Trent, I'll pay. I don't want anything to happen to Daria."

     Trent was shocked at the outrage he was feeling. "Look, man, I may not be the richest guy in the world, but I do alright. We don't need any char--"

     "Just fuckin' do it, Trent! If it wasn't for me she wouldn't need protecting." Eddie shook his head at Trent's stubbornness. "You're serious with your band, right? Don't want to be townies forever?"

     Trent, suspicious, nodded. "Yeah, It's what I'd like to do. We've been out on the road and done pretty well. We aren't really that free anymore, though. Nick wants to stay close to his kid, I've got Daria here and ... well, I might not get the chance." His eyes narrowed. "I'd rather have Daria than a career."

     Eddie swallowed. "How do you rate your band? Do you believe in it? Do you think that you're any good?" Eddy's interest was piqued. He'd abandoned Amy to tour, without thought. It occurred to him that Trent was a lot smarter than he'd been, at that age.

     Trent shrugged. "Better than we were. Not as good as we should be."

     Eddie laughed. "That's what everybody says. If you're serious, I can really help you guys. I know just who to call with an offer that they can't refuse. Just help me out with this thing."

     Trent sat still, thrilled. This was it, the express elevator that would bypass the long climb from obscurity. "Uh, okay, then." Trent coughed, nervously. "Yeah. I'd like that."

     Eddie leaned back and smiled. "You guys will have to come out to LA with me. I'll set you up with some decent management. That's the only place where you can get the exposure, without having to go on the road all the time." He loved it when a plan came together. However this initial meeting went, Trent would practically drag Daria to LA. He'd get to know her on his home turf. Maybe he could even get her to live in his house.

     Sandi stalked along the street, Ninjad up in her dyed black paintballing uniform and an old black veil. She was carrying her mother's old, now illegal, stun gun and two extra sets of batteries. She was hunting Stacy, mayhem and head shaving on her mind.

     Sandi had looked at Stacy's house, Quinn's house, Tiffany's, Cashman's, the food court and finally, in desperation, she was checking to see if they were at Daria's place. Unsure of which apartment it could be, Sandi walked along the covered walkway outside the blank doors, listening for Quinn's piercing voice.

     Just as she was about to give up and go stake out Stacy's house, she came to a door with a note on it. Looking from side to side, she parted the veil to read it.


     We have to talk about something very important. Call me as SOON as you get back!


     Sandi tore the note down and cursed. Her prey wasn't there. She carefully closed the veil, not wanting anyone to see her in her terror mask. After she had cried herself out and fallen asleep the night before, her brothers had come in and krazyglued iridescent greenish dragonfly wings from their insect collection around her eyes and on her scalp.

     After he'd stopped laughing, the doctor had informed her that because of the proximity to her eyes and due to the chemicals already present, he didn't want to use the unbinder. She would have to wait until they fell off on their own.

     Since she was already bald blue and scaly, she'd decided to maximize the potential for her confrontation with Stacy. Turning her makeup skills to evil, she had made up her head with a snake-like set of blue-green mottles, put in large, pitch black contacts and was wearing a very realistic looking set of vampire fangs, courtesy of her weeping brothers.

     Artie and Zippo were laying flat on the roof of the apartment building across the street, right over the apartment that contained the BATF squad that was watching for them.

     They were both looking through powerful binoculars, right at her, when Sandi's veil parted.

     "Holy shit! Another type of alien!" Shaking like a leaf, Zippo stood. "Maybe it's a Reculian! Let's get it!" Swallowing, he ran for the trap door to the stairwell.

     Loomis, Fritch and FBI agent Al Davis stared frozen at the horrible figure that'd called on the subject residence. They'd been watching for Artie and joking about UFO's, relieved to be on a dramatically lowered priority.

     "G...God damn! Lets get it!" Drawing their guns, Loomis and Fritch pounded out the door, while Davis made an urgent call for backup.

     Sandi walked around the corner of the building, heading toward her car. Loomis came running up behind her and snatched off her veil.

     Sandi let out a mortified wail. Quicker than a striking snake, she zapped him in the neck with the stun gun.

     Zippo, much faster than Artie, turned the corner just in time to barrel right into Fritch's back, knocking him down and briefly out. Zippo recovered just in time to see the alien horror, squatting over the twitching corpse. It glared at him, hissed and ran away, snatching up its veil.

     Zippo, gibbering, felt something warm running down his leg.

     Fritch's eyes fluttered open in time to see the awful visage close up. He'd lost his gun. "Feh... Fe ... Federal Agent," he whispered, terrified beyond human reason. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fainted.

     Artie came peering cautiously around the corner. He had a healthy respect for aliens. Walking over to the unconscious and dazed combatants, he helped Zippo up. "Who are these guys?"

     Zippo helped himself to Fritche's ID card. "MIB's! And we got their boxtops!"

     Relieving a twitching Loomis of his ID, Artie shrugged. "This one is black. Hey! A black man in black! Is that like a double negative?"

     Zippo rolled his eyes. "Very funny."

     Artie thought so. "His ID is no good to me. Let's swap."

     As Loomis floated back to reality, he heard Artie say, as if from a great distance: "So, I guess the Feds aren't working with the Grand Praetors faction. I wonder how long one of their saucers takes to get back to Omicron Prime?"

     Zippo shrugged. "It could be that they are. Maybe that Reculian was going to kill Daria. Do you think that there's an open split in the Zetan hierarchy?"

     Closing his eyes again, Loomis decided to get out of law enforcement. His father had been a farmer. Maybe it wasn't so bad a life after all.

     Trembling with excitement and joy, Spider Macintyre, a free lance photographer and sometime stringer for the Enquirer, carefully checked his camera to make sure of its precious cargo of digital data. This would make him rich.

     Daria swallowed. The rug had just been pulled out from under her. A little voice rang out in her head, Oh my God, I really AM Quinn's cousin! Her whole story was true! "You... You just left me?" She felt like she could almost remember the confusion.

     Sitting at the kitchen table, Amy felt a hollowness in the pit of her stomach. She'd already explained everything in detail, given all of her reasons and excuses, but in the face of Daria saying 'You left me,' it all rang false.

     Amy sighed miserably. "I did."

     Daria looked over and saw the sad look on Helen's face. Jake had his head in his hands. "Well, at least you left me with the right people." She walked over and kissed first Helen, then Jake. "Thanks for taking me in... Mom and Dad. Now I know that you must love me, because you put up with all of that crap. You could have shipped me over to Amy, any time."

     After the waterworks subsided, Daria turned her gaze to Amy. "So, this Eddie guy. What the does he want from me now?" After hearing his story, she wasn't at all kindly disposed toward him.

     Amy grimaced. "Well, he's turning forty and I guess he's been feeling the urge to reproduce. Here he finds out that he's got a ready made daughter, already past the awkward stages. Lucky, lucky Eddie."

     Daria shrugged. "Oh, I can show him awkward. So send him a picture."

     Helen spoke up. "Don't be so quick to reject him out of hand. He's a very wealthy man. Get what you can from him. He could be... helpful in your life."

     "Helen!" Jake just wanted Eddie out of all of their lives, forever. "I'm a pretty well off guy these days. She doesn't need anything from him."

     Helen smiled at Daria. "No, she doesn't. Just a thought." She didn't want Daria to reject a source of funding out of a misguided sense of loyalty. She knew that Daria wasn't just going to suddenly forget the last eighteen years.

     Amy got up. "Well, that was harrowing. Now for the fun part. Sorry, Daria, but some tabloid rag has the story and its going to come out pretty soon. Maybe tomorrow."

     Daria shook her head. "But who cares? He hasn't been on stage in twelve years. Do they really want to waste that much ink?"

     Amy shrugged. "Eddy's one of those people who just are celebrities. If he was still an electrician, he'd be a celebrity electrician, somehow."

     "Like Trent." Daria spoke without thinking.

     "Not too much like Trent, I hope." Amy sighed. "God, you had to go with another damn rocker."

     Daria looked at her, eyes hardening. "Don't let the transference thing prejudice you, Amy. Trent's just fine. He already gave it all up for me, once. He wanted to go to school and open a restaurant someday. I decided that he shouldn't give up on his music. Not him, me!"

     Helen gasped. "Daria!"

     Jake looked interested. "A restaurant?"

     Amy was shocked. She had been equating Trent with Eddie. "Now that is different. Eddie would have sold his soul for rock 'n roll."

     Helen looked at Jake, darkly. "He did, Amy. Maybe he's managed to get it back. Cut him some slack. No one is perfect. You have to make allowances. Sometimes big allowances."

     Amy scowled. "He's no good!"

     "He's still your husband!" Helen shot back. "If he's no good, divorce him and find a good man! This is bullshit! Find a man or go back to him. This depression that you've been-"

     "Helen! How dare you-"

     "Do you think that married life is a fairy tale? Do you think that any man is perfect? Look at Jake! He never fooled around, but he's pulled some real lulu's! I could have walked out on him with a lot of justification, any time! There are plenty of good men who've tried to take me away. But-

     "Hey!" Jake jumped to his feet. "You're not the only one! I've been chased by lots of women! Lots! Linda Griffin's been after me since we got here! She got past the secretary and chased me all over my office, just last Tuesday! I had to crawl under my desk and hold her off with a chair! Ha! How do you like that, Helen!"

     "What! That bitch! Jake Morgendorffer, why didn't you tell-"

     "Too much information!" Daria stood up, hands over her ears. "La la la la la I'm not hearing this! I'm going, now! Bye, bye!"

     "Daria! Oh, look what you've done now, you bonehead!" Helen turned to him red faced, in full cry.

     Jake leered at her. "So, you are jealous!" His eyes dropped, suggestively.

     Rolling her eyes at the sexual tension roiling the air, Amy slipped by her squabbling sister and brother in law and followed her daughter out. "Where are you going now?"

     Daria shrugged. "The bus stop. I left my car at work, remember?"

     Amy gestured toward her convertible. "Hop in, I'll take you over there."

     They got on the road and Amy glanced at Daria. "Well, what's the plan for today, Daria?"

     Daria sighed. "I don't know. I want to talk to Trent. I feel like I just came unstuck from the world."

     Amy drove in silence for a while. "Do you want me to just leave you alone?"

     Daria smiled at her. "No... Mother."

     Amy gasped, stricken.

     Daria shrugged. "I always kind of knew that you were more than an aunt. I never really forgot you. I just got you mixed up with Mo- Helen."

     Amy started crying, so much so that she had to pull over and let Daria drive.

     Sandi looked into her rear view mirror and broke out in fresh sobbing. Pulling over at a bowling alley, she made her way to the ladies room.

     Andrea finished her coke, saw that her dad was too busy to watch her and crept away, toward the exit. As she passed the ladies room, the door banged open and the most radically gothic nightmare in history almost ran right over her.

     Andrea called after her. "Hey!"

     Sandi turned and stared, challengingly. "What?"

     "How did you get that stuff around your eyes? What is it? God, you look so cool!" Andrea smiled, invitingly and let her eyes roam.

     Sandi managed to keep herself from gaping. "Those are dragonfly wings."

     Andrea gasped. "Mira and Rete just have to meet you. Would you like to come over to the Zen with us? We'd really be grateful if you could give us some... tips."

     Sandi's nose shot up. "I'm like, really busy, but I suppose that I could take a few minutes."

     "You are sooo cool." Andrea gave her a smoldering look.

     As simply as that, Sandi went Goth.

     Daria, keys in hand, turned to Amy. "I'm going to the Zen to meet Trent. This guy Eddie can come over there if he wants to see me."

     Amy nodded. She understood. Daria wanted to meet him on her turf, but in a place that she could easily leave. What she didn't understand about Eddie, was that one second after he set foot inside, he'd practically own the Zen. It was his natural habitat. "I'll get him in an hour or so, then. We'll come over there. That'll give you some time to tell your significant other how things lie."

     Daria nodded. "Thanks. See you later then..."

     Amy smiled. "Just keep calling me Amy. It's better that way, for all concerned."

     "Bye, Amy." Still in a daze, Daria left for the Zen. Someone honked at her, and she remembered her headlights.

     The doors had just opened and the crowd was already getting restive. The DJ set up and began his nightly job of filling in between bands, but everyone wanted the Spiral.

     Daria pulled up, locked her car and made her way to the door of the Zen. Before she entered, she looked up and wondered why so many helicopters were in the air.

     Artie and Zippo were hiding under a bridge, hearing the helicopters buzz the area.

     "Shiiit man! That was the ugliest thing I ever saw." Wading in the river, washing his pants, Zippo shuddered at the memory of the fangs.

     Artie shrugged. "I don't know."

     "What! Didn't you see the teeth and the scales?" He blinked at the awful memory.

     Artie smirked. "She had a hell of a fine little body on her, though."

     Zippo shook his head, sadly. "Jesus Christ, man! You've been hunting these things for one damn day too long! If civilization makes it through the next few days, you gotta get out more."

     "Tell me about it. Every girl that I've met in the last six months has been an alien, or else permanently on the rag, or both." Artie remembered Daria's robotic voice and shuddered. Maybe he could get used to fangs. Being an alien love slave wouldn't be so bad. It wasn't like any humans gave a crap. They only wanted him around to deliver their pizza, anyway. Hell, he could always shut his eyes. "Ever thought of just, like… giving up?"

     Zippo nodded, wading ashore. "Hell yes. We've seen some strange shit, but tonight topped them all. When she bumped off that stupid Fed, I pissed my pants. I wouldn't want to let her get a hold of me!" He wrung out his polyester pants.

     Artie shook his head. "Nah, agent Fritch was moving, and Agent Mosley kept twitching for a long time. She just stunned them, somehow."

     "Ugh. Maybe she bit him. Maybe she's like, poison or something." Zippo pulled out a cell phone. "Think we can risk it? This one is good for a couple more calls."

     Artie shrugged. "I just don't care any more." He stood, listening to the heavy military helicopter flying overhead. "If you turn that thing on, they'll have us."

     Zippo stared at him. "Are you okay, Artie?"

     Artie nodded, absently. "Zippo, Why the hell couldn't you have been born a girl?"

     Zippo smirked. "I was born black. That's bad enough." He frowned. "If I'd been born a girl, my twin sister would have been born a boy. Then she'd be here anyway. So you'd just be in the same boat."

     "Oh? You have a sister? How come I've never met her?"

     Zippo laughed. "I wouldn't let a mutant like you within fifty yards of my sister. Christ, your kids would look like bulldogs."

     Artie squared his shoulders. "Can't argue with that. She's your sister. Let's go find that hot alien."

     "Why?" Zippo shuddered.

     "There's one small step that I want to take for a man, Zippo." Artie smiled, dreamily. "And one giant leap for all mankind."

     Zippo shook his head, sadly. When was Artie going to face facts? Although of different racial backgrounds, they were both hopeless dweebs. All an exotic alien babe would want with a dweeb would be to rip his face off, or to suck out his blood, or something even worse. "Okay, how do we find it- her?"

     Artie smirked. "She's after Daria. We just stick close to Daria and when the other one comes out, we grab her."

     "Then what?" Zippo had a deathly fear of the horror from space, and didn't want to waste any time making plans once they had it.

     Artie shrugged. "Interrogation, identification, TV interviews, dating… live dissection, depending on how the date goes. What else do you do with an alien?"

     Zippo was more practical. "What about the cops? They saw it too. They'll have the same plan. Besides, that slave guy, Trent, said he was gonna chain whip us if he caught us after Daria again."

     Artie thought. "We need disguises." He fished out Fritch's ID wallet and shuffled out a credit card. "We can make our way up the river, get to the van and hit Mort's surplus. We'll get different clothes."

     Zippo reluctantly eyed the credit card. "I don't know, man. We could get into real trouble."

     Artie laughed, and pulled a bush out of the ground. "Can't you hear those choppers? We're already in so deep that we'll never get out, Zippo. We'll be tossed into a hole and it'll be tossed in after us. The only way out is if we have an alien that we can put on TV. Remember, we have a cause. Here, hold this bush over your head when we're in the river. If a chopper comes over, just stay still."

     Gingerly shaking the bush to dislodge any ticks, Zippo eyed the river. "That's a damn good idea, man. How do you know about this stuff?"

     Readying his own bush, Artie smirked. "My dad's a survivalist. Him and my mom live in a bunker in the mountains. They taught me all this survival stuff." He frowned. "It never helped against those stinkin' aliens though." Bastards." Angrily, he set out along the river bank.

     Trent and Eddie were sitting at a small table. The Zen was still mostly empty and recorded music was playing.

     "So how should I play this?" Eddie's nerves were stretched like piano wires.

     Trent shrugged. "Play it cool."


     "Daria's very, very cool. She doesn't go in for a lot of mush." Trent took a drink of his soda.

     "Cool." Eddie felt like tearing his hair out. "Well I'm not cool!"

     Trent smirked "I know just how you feel. She does that to me too." His eyes widened. Daria was approaching from behind Eddie. "Hold on, man. Here she is. I'll test the waters." He got up and intercepted Daria.

     "Hey, Baby." He was surprised when she embraced him, tightly, and kissed him hard. Daria wasn't big on public displays.

     Daria sighed in his arms. "Trent! At least you're still the same. Let's run off to Australia."

     Trent kissed her again. "I'd go anywhere with you."

     "I have some news." Daria led him to a table and sat with her back to Eddie.

     "Me too, Daria." Trent kept a hold of her hand. "What's wrong?"

     Daria sighed, and took off her glasses. Rubbing her eyes, she said, "Well, I just found out that my whole life was a lie. My name isn't even Morgendorffer, and my mom and dad are really my aunt and uncle." She looked up at him, expertly reading him. "And you already knew all that."

     Trent nodded. "I met your real dad in the music store this morning. He seems like a pretty nice guy. I asked him to sit in with the band and when we went to lunch I told him all about you and got a hell of a shock. He's sitting right over there, biting his nails down to the knuckles. The poor dude is freaking out, Daria. Go easy on him, for me."

     Daria turned in her seat and caught Eddie staring at her with a look of incipient panic. She remembered seeing the same expression in the mirror when she'd had to play a flute solo in grade school. She locked eyes with him, and then nodded a hello. "Okay, Trent. For you."

     Eddie stood, stumbled and then walked over to the table. "Er. Well. Hi, Daria. I'm Eddie. Eddie Star."

     Daria stared at him for a long minute and he started to sweat.

     "Hi. I'm Daria. Last name uncertain." She shoved a chair back with her boot. "Why don't you sit down, before you fall?"

     Eddie sat and started breathing again. "Well. I take it that your mother already told you?"

     Daria, still drilling through him with her hard, expressionless eyes, nodded. "Howdy, Pop."

     Eddie smiled, slightly. "Well, it looks like you've been-"

     "Daria! Daria, come on!" Quinn suddenly appeared and had her by the arm. "Those two, Romonica and Claude, are in town, looking for you! They want you to try out as the spokesmodel for Birch-Neumann!"

     "What?" Daria frowned, extracting herself from Quinn’s grip. "Quinn, this isn’t a good time-"

     "A good time? Daria! Were talking the chance of a lifetime here!" Quinn felt hysterics approaching.

     "So you take it!" Daria sighed. "Look, this isn’t the time Quinn." She cleared her throat. "I found something out today. Something really big."

     Quinn looked at Trent. "Oh, God, I’m too young to be someone's aunt."

     Daria snorted. "That’s a problem you’ll never have, Quinn."

     "What?" Quinn looked from face to face, confused.

     Trent finally spoke up. "Daria was adopted. Your Aunt Amy is actually Daria's mother. This is Eddie Star, Your uncle, Amy’s husband and Daria’s dad."

     "Biological father." Daria sighed. "You see, I'm your cousin after all, Quinn."

     "What?" Quinn stared at Daria, then looked at Trent and Eddie, waiting for the punch line. "Are you like, serious?"

     Eddie spoke up. "Yes. Daria’s my daughter." He looked over at her, sorrowfully. "I didn’t even know that she existed until last week, when a reporter told me." He frowned. "The adoption wasn't legal." If he'd found out while she was a minor, he'd have spent millions to get custody.

     "Daria?" Quinn sat, heavily.

     Daria shrugged. "I think so. But hell, I've been wrong so often…"

     Eddie looked at her. "Your real name is Daria Star."

     "Cool name." Trent smiled at her, wondering if that would make her reluctant to change it. Daria Lane had always sounded good to him.

     "I guess that it'll do for now." Daria wondered how she could have her transcripts changed. Daria Star would look better on a diploma.

     Artie put on his cheap sunglasses. "How do I look?"

     "Like a retard. It's supposed to be a disguise, Artie. A guy wearing sunglasses at night draws a certain amount of attention. Try a hat." Zippo tried on a pair of East German Volksarmee surplus trousers. "Wow, these pants have eight pockets!"

     Artie shrugged and tried on a blue nylon jacket. "Cool threads, man."

     When they went to pay, Mort Bekins shook his head at them and cut up the card. "You two must be the dumbest guys that I know. I gotta admit, you do look better though. Got cash?"

     Shamefaced, Artie paid. They stepped out of the store and were lit up by a prowl car shining its spotlight on them. They froze like deer in headlights.

     Marta Jenks had been on the force for two years and was hungry for a promotion. She wanted to get off of the street. Carefully examining the two males, she consulted her description. A black male, eighteen to twenty, five seven, short hair, last seen wearing a Star Trek costume and Vulcan ears, and a white male, eighteen to twenty, five six, last seen wearing an anorak and a shirt with a glow in the dark flying saucer on it. This black male was wearing a black watch cap, a dark blue pea coat, a white T-shirt, olive drab pants and heavy boots. The white male was wearing a trench coat, a pair of heavy boots, navy cut jeans, a green army T-shirt and a pork-pie hat.

     They both eyed her in a way that made her decide that they were just garden variety thugs, with no connection to any UFO cult. No one who wore a pork pie hat would wear a UFO shirt. She snapped off the light and motored on.

     "Cool, it worked! Lets go to the Zen and keep an eye on Daria." Zippo strolled to the van, happy to be free.

     When no one followed, he turned around. Artie was looking at himself in the plate glass.

     "Hey, this is a really cool hat!" Artie cocked it at an angle. It hid the size of his head. The weeks of hiding and surveillance had taken their toll. His big belly was no more. "A hell of a cool hat!" He put on the sunglasses. "Alright! Maybe I ought to grow a goatee!"

     "You only have one hair that grows on your chin." Zippo caught sight of himself in the van window. "Woo! Smokin!"

     "Well, maybe I'll grow it long and wrap it around or something. Can't a man dream?" asked Artie.

     "Yeah, yeah, you're a beauty. Let's go." Zippo smirked as Artie strutted to the van. "Clothes make the man, dude."

     "Or the alien. Look what happened to Daria," Artie said.

     The two LUFON operatives moved out to intercept their subject, at the Zen.

     When they pulled away, a small RV pulled out after them. Spider Macintyre had transmitted the photos of the to the Star, for twenty thousand up front. For pictures of Daria with an alien, the payments would be exponentially higher.

     Trent took the stage, nodded at the band and tapped the mike. "Hey, we're Mystik Spiral, but we're thinking of changing our name. We've got something new for you tonight. Hope you like it!"

     Max started the fast, driving beat and Nick laid down a heavy bass line.

     Dealin' with the devil on a Saturday night,

     Hope I got stones to do it all right.

     Keepin my head down, playin' not to bright.

     Watchin' the game, gettin' ready for the fight.

     Competition's hell on the street of broken dreams,

     You only get one chance to get into the green.

     You gotta be hard, man, you gotta be cool.

     Cause to get outa the trailer park ya gotta break a rule.

     Eddie shouted at Daria. "Is there something about this guy that I should know?"

     Daria blinked. "He wrote that last week. It seems like a long time ago."

     The dying wail of Trent's heavily distorted guitar trailed off and there was some applause.

     Daria winced. "That could have used a little work."

     Eddie just laughed. "He'll clean it up over time. He's got almost a rap-metal thing going there. It's a little different."

     Daria shrugged. "He decided to quit trying to sound like other bands. Grunge is dead."

     "Long live Rock." Eddie shrugged. He'd never seen the difference.

     They finished applauding, then turned their attention back to each other.

     Daria smiled at him. "Okay, your turn."

     They'd been trading questions, one for one. Eddie really liked what he'd heard so far.

     "Okay. Why did you move in with Trent?" He wondered if he'd pressed in too far.

     "I really didn't have much of a choice. Mom… Helen was going to have me committed if I didn't get out of there, quick." She explained Artie and the LUFON irregulars, and her paranoid reaction to being spied on.

     "That's pretty scary. I've been through a few similar situations, with people stalking me. Mostly harmless groupies, but you can never tell when one will come unglued. Ever thought of just picking up and leaving Lawndale, Daria?" Eddie knew that he had to work fast.

     Daria shrugged. "Only when I'm awake."

     "Well, that's cool. Why don't you come on out to LA with me, sometime?" Like today. Eddie thought, nervously sipping his soda. "You can bring Trent, if you like. He could move his band out there. There's plenty of money to be made in LA for a working band. I can get them some good gigs, good management, good representation and all the other things that they'll need." By bundling an appearance, he could get Mystik Spiral some good exposure.

     "UCLA's a good school." Daria looked at him and sighed. "I know he'll make it, but it scares me. What if he does the same thing you did?" She shivered. "I'd just die."

     Eddie shook his head, sadly. "He's smarter than I was. He knows the score. We had a long talk about the things that they pull. I never had anyone to help me like that. I just… got caught in the corn picker. I was a bright kid with a commercial sound, but no one to steer me clear of the rocks and shoals." He smiled at her. "It's a different world now. There's more money, but less of the adulation."

     She looked at him, solemnly. "What happened, Eddie?

     He sighed. "People like us are just meat on the table for the ghouls that feed on talent, Daria. Artists are easy to control through fear. Fast buck agents and producers manipulate us into believing that we can't make it without them. Once they get you tangled up in their web, well, they inject poison to keep you still, while they suck out all the blood."

     Eddie gazed unseeingly into the middle distance. "My agent and his fellow bloodsuckers used to control the talent with sex and drugs. The first time I got shot up, I was asleep on the bus. This blonde groupie just walked up and injected me, right in the neck. I tried… Well, that wasn't really how it all started to come apart for me, but that was the end. I became an animal." Looking away and clearing his throat, he wiped at his eyes. "It ended up costing me everything."

     Daria felt a wave of compassion. "But you're still here, and so am I."

     He smiled. "True, but I missed out on so much. I wish that I'd been the one to buy you a car for your birthday and to teach you to drive it. I wish I'd been able to teach you to play the guitar and to dance, to do all the other things that a father does."

     She smirked. "I can't play the guitar, but I'm told that I blow a mean harp. My Junior Wells has been known to depress an unreasonable parent at fifty yards."

     "Hey, that's great!" He smiled. "Me too! It's in the genes, I guess."

     Jane came in, with Tom. She looked around the sparsely populated club and immediately saw Trent up on the stage, halfway through Hurl. Scanning the room, her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Daria.

     Daria was sitting at a table with a strange man. They were holding hands across the table and Daria was laughing. The man looked on the verge of tears. All in all, it was a shockingly intimate scene, for Daria.

     "What's with that?" Tom was dumbfounded.

     Jane looked closely at Trent. Instead of the murderous jealousy that she expected, his face wore an approving smile. "Something very, very strange is going on here, Tom."

     "I'll say. Hey, isn't that Daria's sister?" Tom pointed out Quinn, who was rapidly talking with a tall, vampiric looking woman.

     Jane tore her eyes away from Daria and saw Quinn.

     "Hmm, curiouser and curiouser. Unless I'm mistaken, that's one Romonica DeGregory." Jane wondered who the man at the table was.

     "And that is significant because…" Tom was bemused. He was acutely aware of his sense of muted anticipation. Jane's tendency to drag him into the middle of excitingly insane situations was growing on him like a drug addiction. Tom tended to plan things out and move slowly. Jane was a pleasant, high voltage shock to his system.

     Jane smirked. "Well, the last time Romonica got her hooks into Quinn, Daria came within a gnats ass of ruining her completely."

     Tom grinned. "Romonica or Quinn?"

     Jane shook her head. "Daria does look out for Quinn, Tom. She just tends to work behind the scenes when she does it. Romonica runs one of those rip-off modeling schools. Daria arranged to shine the light of the local media on Romonica's little scam, causing her to scurry back under her rock."

     Tom's eyes narrowed. The man had just scooted his chair around the table and kissed Daria's cheek, while holding her hand. "He looks really familiar." He took her arm and they moved to a table. "They look pretty involved. We'd better keep back and just watch for a while, until we can figure this out."

     Jane nodded. "Trent will be done in a minute. He'll come over."

     They waved at Trent and took a seat where they could watch Daria.

     Loomis clamped his eyes shut, listening to Fritch's irritating voice echo off the stark white cement walls of the interrogation room. He was babbling about aliens, flushing both of their careers. Davis, safely ensconced within the FBI's chain of command, had disappeared like a fart in a tornado, but not before he'd stated that he'd seen 'an odd looking figure with an apparent facial deformity.'

     The debreifers had taken all of their footage, all of their documentation and were pressing them hard to change their story.

     The debriefing officer turned on Loomis. "What did you see?" He acted like he hadn't already asked that question a hundred times already.

     Loomis looked at Fritch's trusting eyes. God, he thought, I feel like I'm drowning a kitten. "I saw what I put in my report. There was a young woman in a fright mask of some sort. I never really saw her face." He flinched back from Fritch's wounded stare. "We were lured out, expertly ambushed and our Federal badges were taken, presumably by the LUFON terrorists."

     The man sat down, companionably. "Sometimes, Fritch, our eyes and expectations play tricks."

     "Who are you?" Fritch was angry and suspicious. This stranger and his goons had taken over the BATF offices, holding him in the box for hours, trying to get him to change his story. He still hadn't seen a single piece of ID.

     Captain Walker laughed. "You don’t need to know." He was an expert debriefer. The technique that he used was an old one, well known to most policemen and military intelligence agents. The object was to determine the subjects level of veracity by slowly increasing the threat level. Loomis, the old hand, knew the game and refused to play. Fritch's reaction was exciting, however. Walker believed that they had seen something. Maybe at long last, after all the futile years that the team had existed, they might actually have a UFO situation.

     Fritch glared, at last getting the message. "I don't really know what I saw. I was hit from behind and my head bounced off of the ground. I was dazed. I lost consciousness. The whole thing might be a hallucination." He noted the interrogators green army socks, peeking out from his civilian shoes.

     "Oh, that's right! I'll just let you type that up and sign it, Fritch. Then we can all get home." Walker smiled. The psychologists back at Ft. Detrick would love this one. He was beginning to think that he could talk a dog into climbing a tree.

     Artie peered through Daria's windshield. "Yeah, this is hers. He looked at the Zen. "She'll sense me if I get too close. You have to go in there and reconnoiter."

     Zippo shuddered. "That Trent dude might tear my lips off, like he said."

     Artie shook his head. "You look really different without the Vulcan outfit, Zippo. Kinda… cool. Besides, we all have to take risks to save the world."

     "We…You mean me, white man." Zippo muttered as he trudged off, hunched over as if going to his own execution. Trent had frightened them both. He reached the door, took a deep breath, then pushed in.

     "Hold it, my man." A large bald man, a few years older than Zippo was sitting on a stool, just inside the door.

     "Y- Yes?" Zippo looked around, hard, relaxing when he didn't see Trent.

     "Drinking or non drinking?"

     "What?" Zippo had no idea what the man was talking about, but his radio crackled to life just then. "Alpha to Omega, acknowledge, over?" Zippo scowled, wondering why he always had to be Omega.

     "I, uh, need to see some ID." The bouncer looked at Zippo, curiously.

     Zippo hurriedly reached inside his coat, turned down the volume and put his earpiece in. Fumbling he pulled out what he thought was his wallet, then dumbfoundedly noticed was Loomis.'s badge and ID card. Before he knew it, he'd flashed it at the bouncer.

     The bouncer straightened. "Uh, yessir, agent Loomis, here's your card."

     "What's this for?" Zippo looked at the blue card, stamped with a red devil.

     "It tells the bartender that the wet bar is open to you." He looked at Zippo. "Are you after someone?"

     Zippo frowned, as befitted an important Federal officer. "Just routine. Forget you ever saw me."

     "Yes sir." The bouncer non-verbally conveyed his willingness to be a good citizen and inform for the secret police.

     Zippo smirked and strutted over to the bar. He got a beer, ostentatiously flashing his fraudulently obtained blue card. Leaning back on the bar, he took a swig, grimaced at the foul taste and surveyed the rapidly thickening crowd. Glancing up at the stage for the first time, he saw Trent, glaring evilly back at him.

     Zippo inhaled a mouth full of beer, then sprayed it all over a passing girl.

     "Hey!" She glared at him, as he coughed.

     "Uh, sorry." He managed to stop, then really looked at her.

     "Look what you did to my jacket! My dad's going to smell the beer and kill me!" She sighed, resentfully.

     He shrugged, his eyes glued to her chest. "Can I… do anything… for you?"

     "You could bring me a beer!" She gave him an impish smile. "If I'm going to get into trouble anyway, I'll do it right."

     "Hey, no problem. Sit down. I'll be right with you." He got her beer, marveling at himself. He'd never managed to get five coherent words in a row out with a pretty girl before, and this one was like an angel. He followed her to a table. Meeting the eyes of the bouncer, he nodded. He'd totally forgotten Trent.

     Lurking outside, Artie tried to stay close to the wall. The helicopters were still crisscrossing the area, so he lurked in the alley, keeping close to a hot ventilator, to better confuse the airborne infrared sensors. Periodically he tried his radio, but got no response.

     "-And so I said, to this guy, Look, man, she's got coal black snake eyes and inch long fangs! Get a life!" Zippo laughed uproariously at his own story. "And then once when we were tailin' this guy, turns out to be just a PI, but we thought he was CIA-"

     She laughed. "God, but your life sounds interesting. All I ever do is high school activities. So what do you do?"

     He smirked. "Can't say, baby." He leaned forward. "It's classified."

     She smiled. "Riiiight." She was getting pretty buzzed, and she hadn't stopped laughing since she'd sat down.

     "Yep. Life a danger, that's me. One minute aliens jumpin out at me, the next, me jumpin out at them. Gotta watch those Reculians though." He smirked. "Suckers bite ya, knock ya right out." He swigged his beer.

     The bouncer came over. "Agent Loomis?"

     Zippo looked up, warily. "Yes?"

     "I just wanted to tell you, there's a suspicious looking guy hanging around behind the building." He leaned closer, and whispered, "Is he in the FBI too?"

     Zippo nodded. "That's Alpha. Good guy for watching your back." Through binoculars, he thought, cynically.

     "What are you doing? Can I help?" The bouncer was eaten with curiosity.

     "Sorry man, but I couldn't get a civilian involved. Do your job. Keep a close eye on the customers and sing out if any come in with their faces covered. Don't try and tangle with them." Zippo kept a belch down. The beer was passing through.

     "Sure." The bouncer looked at him. "Say, man, How do you become a Federal agent?"

     Kick one's ass and take his boxtops, thought Zippo. "Take the civil service exam, score in the top percentile and then apply."

     "Uh, How-"

     "Details are available at your local Federal building, my man. Now if you'll excuse us…"

     "Uh, sure." The bouncer backed off. "I'll take some coffee out to Alpha."

     "Great." Zippo could care less.

     "So is your name Loomis?" She leaned forward.

     He shrugged. "It is tonight. Sometimes I'm Loomis, sometimes I'm Omega, sometimes I'm Zippo, sometimes I'm just plain old Zachary Xaviar Zimmerman." He smirked. "Man of a thousand faces and all that."

     "God. You're like one of those guys from the X files." She finished another beer. "I think I'll call you Zachary."

     He shrugged. "Fine, with me! Just don't call me Zach." He lowered his tone, leaning forward. "I'm not really a Federal Agent. I just have the ID. So now that you know all about me, why don't you tell me all about yourself?"

     She looked up. "Like what?"

     "Anything. Your name… Whether you have a boyfriend, is he bigger than me... Important things."

     She laughed. "My name is Jodie Landon, I'm eighteen and I have a boyfriend." She frowned. "He's big, strong and smart. Perfect, really. Perfectly gay."

     "Gay?" He was astonished.

     "Fruitier than a rollup." She scowled. "He doesn't know it yet, though. He likes to hang around in the locker room, he's captain of the football team… He never makes a move! Not on me and not on any other girl. Honestly, what's with that?"

     "How could a guy be your boyfriend and be gay? If you were my woman, I'd be all over you, twenty four hours a day." He sighed. "Life is unfair."

     "Do you have a girlfriend?" Jodie looked at him, recklessly.

     "Uh, no. Who'd go out with an alien hunting freak?" He smirked. "Pretty soon, I'll be as crazy as Ar… Alpha."

     She smiled. "Got a place?"

     "Uh, yeah." Zippo tried to remember if his rathole apartment was clean or not. He hadn't been there in days.

     She stood. "Why don't you show it to me, Zachary?"

     He stared. "Yeah! Let's go!"

     She took his arm. "Maybe I can wash my clothes, while I'm there."

     His smile grew even wider.

     Trent finished up, announced a short break and sprinted off of the stage. He single-mindedly searched the room for Zippo, then frowning in disappointment, went to see Jane.

     "Trent!" Jane pushed out a chair.

     "Hey, Janey. Tom. Done anything disgusting lately?" He still hadn't really come to terms with Jane being sexually active. Or apparently, sexually hyperactive.

     "Uh, hi." Tom was still a bit ashamed.

     "Now, now, play nice." Jane smiled at him. "What's with Daria and that guy?"

     "Ha. You're just dammed lucky that Wind isn't here." Trent shrugged. "That's Eddie Star. He's married to Daria's Aunt Amy."

     Tom looked up. "Eddie Star? The rocker?"

     "Yep." Trent smiled. "Remember Orbital Lawnchair?"

     "So Daria's Aunt Amy got married and I never heard?" Jane knew that there had to be more to it.

     "Just about nineteen years ago," Trent looked at the couple with hooded eyes, "Daria's mother, Amy, got married. Eddie… well, Eddie is her father."

     Jane choked on her soda. "Wh… Whaaat!"

     Tom's jaw dropped.

     "Well, you're taking it better than Daria's Cousin." Trent looked over and saw Quinn, talking a blue streak to Romonica. "She didn't believe a single word of it. She thinks Eddie's some kind of pervert, out to lure Daria off to his den of evil."

     Jane looked uneasily at Quinn. "I wonder how she'll react when she accepts it? I mean, she's always been such a competitive little… sister. Most of her character is just a negative reaction to Daria. Now it turns out that she really should have been an only child."

     Trent shook his head. "I don't know. Don't really care, either. As families go, Daria's trading up. I can't even tell you how much better it would be to have Eddie as a father in law. Jake's okay, I guess, but I'd like to hang around with Eddie. He's the best guitarist I ever met."

     Jane's eyebrows shot up and she exchanged a furtive glance with Tom. They'd been talking about Trent and Daria, wondering how long it would be before Trent got worried about her leaving him for college.

     Tom, hiding his smile at Trent's casual revelation of his thinking, looked over at the table. "They really seem to have clicked. So… What's the story here?"

     Jane leaned forward, interestedly.

     Jodie sat in the van, uneasily eyeing the equipment mounted in the back. She was sobering rapidly. "What do you do once you get an alien?"

     Zippo shrugged. "Warn the people, I guess. Put it on TV. Charge people five dollars a look. Hell, I don't know. There's aliens all over and no one seems to care."

     "What can they do about it?" Jodie had already thought it out, but she doubted if Zachary had.

     "Call the army?" He shrugged again.

     "But you say that the government already knows, so why are you wasting your time on it?" She eyed him, carefully.

     Zippo stopped at a red light and thought hard, sitting through a green light. "You know, Jodie, you're absolutely right. I was on my way to MIT, until I met Artie. To hell with this, I'm going to college." He looked over at Jodie, expecting to see her approval, but she was staring fixedly out of the passenger window.

     "What is it?" He looked over, concerned. Her expression was one of frozen horror.

     In the small convertible next to them, Sandi, Andrea and another Space Goth leered up at Jodie, their freshly applied makeup even more chillingly alien.

     Jodie shuddered. "N-nothing. I don't feel so good, Zachary. Can you... take me home?" She wanted to hide under her bed for a while.

     Artie shivered in the alley, vainly calling Zippo on the radio. He finally gave up, and came out to see what had happened.

     He stepped out from behind the dumpster and bumped right into Sandi. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped.

     Sandi quickly hid the rum bottle that she and her cohorts were passing around, and then brought it out. "Oh, it's you. What do you want, butthead?" Sandi glared at him, defiantly forcing the raw alcohol down. She was lying in wait for Tiffany and Stacy, having seen Quinn in the club.

     "Uh, to…" Artie trembled like a leaf then firmed up. "To get even!" He remembered Daria telling him that he was brave. Gathering up his courage, he prepared to jump at them.

     Sandi smiled, chillingly. "Me too!" She stared at the building. "They made me into… this, so they'd better get ready to pay! I'm gonna get rid of them. Like, from now on, I'm opposite!"

     "Aliens read Milton?" Artie gaped. It had been a long time since he'd slept and the Benzedrine was wearing off.

     Sandi sneered at him. "I'm in high school, idiot."

     "Fiends! Infiltrating our schools! Cute or not, NO ALIENS!" Artie attacked, but the alien horror easily defeated him, throwing him against the wall, where he hit his head and collapsed, sitting against the wall, moaning.

     Sandi laughed, drunkenly. The potent mixture of alchohol and drugs coursing through her system made her feel invincible. She'd thrown him easily, just like Barch had taught her.

     "I'll never be your slave, you minx!" Artie glowered, defiantly.

     "Ooh, that sound's like a challenge, little man." Sandi smiled at Andrea, the sexual tension between them thick.

     "Let's beat him up some more, strip him down and leave him here, naked." Andrea was really enjoying herself.

     "Naked? Good thinking, but why waste him?" Sandi smiled, evilly. "I have a better idea. Let's take him somewhere and teach him a lesson." In her mind, she had completely made the transition from school activity president, to gangster girl. The interesting drugs that her cute new friends had shared with her really helped.

     "Do what you will, I'll never give up! Never! I regret that I have only one life to give for my Solar System!" Artie shivered with terror and prepared to meet his end, bravely.

     "Do what we will? You'll never give up? I sure like the sound of that, honey-muffin." Rete leered at him. "I hope you got lotsa spunk, baby, because I got lotsa will."

     Daria opened her eyes, blinked at the familiar cracked ceiling, then sat up. "Oh, hell." She remembered the evening, meeting Eddie, the apartment being bugged… everything.

     Daria rose, then looked at the bare, padded room. Amy had come to the Zen and after a big fight, followed by dancing, ended up leaving with Eddie, drunk and very affectionate. Trent had ridden home with her, only to discover that his entire family was home and there were four kids sleeping in his room. Daria had nowhere to go but home. Trent had ended up alone in the Lane basement, on the futon, trying to avoid listening to Jane and Tom try to explain to Jane's sisters how the two had made the body-paint murals on the hall walls.

     Daria went into the bathroom, got ready for school and then headed down the stairs, slipping out and eating breakfast at a waffle house.

     Pulling up in the school parking lot, she saw Jane's media blitz beginning already. There were a few dozen picketers and counterpicketers, standing around talking, drinking coffee and waiting for the press. They all had axes of their own to grind and they all seemed friendly enough. She didn't like the way that they stared at her though, when she passed by on her way in.

     Brittany was standing by her locker when she saw Daria. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

     "Aauuugh!" Daria took a stunned breath and tried to pop her ears. The high frequency screech had almost killed her.

     Brittany grabbed her arm. "Daariaaa! You're a big celebrity! How come you never told anybody?"

     Daria stared, mulling over the depths of Brittany's illogic. "I thought we all agreed to never talk about that."

     Brittany blushed. "Oh…They copied the… good parts of the tape, but I got it back from Jamie." She opened her locker and handed Daria the tape.

     Daria stared at it, then took it. "Thanks. You're really a good friend, Brittany."

     "Ohhh! I'm friends with a celebrity! Could you autograph my newspaper?" Brittany showed her the front page of the Star. There was a huge picture of Daria, staring out at the world with her usual deadpan expression. The headline read, 'Your daughter's newest role model?'

     Daria swallowed. "This is one of those fake newspapers, right?" Oh please… ohpleaseohpleaseohplease…

     "No, its real!" Delighted to be the bearer of good news, Brittany thrust a pen into Daria's hand.

     Nerveless, she signed.

     It got much worse. Jodie came in and showed her the Tattler. It had almost the same picture, but talked instead about her family background and life.

     Jodie read… "Author, artist and songwriter Daria is the live in of up and coming rocker Trent Lane, fuhrer of Mystik Spiral, a hot new neo-grunge rock band. Free living and wild, Daria is the daughter of rock mega-legend Eddie Star, of Orbital Lawnchair fame. Her spicy and controversial work, The X Presidents, recently debuted in Lawndale, causing a small riot and the brief detention by local authorities of co-artist and model Jane Lane, pictured below." Jodie riffled to an inside page.

     The picture showed Jane, smirking, with one boot resting on Li's back, holding a borrowed camera with a long telephoto lens, in the attitude of a successful big game hunter.

     Daria leaned against her locker, breathing into a sack to stop herself from hyperventilating, surrounded by a crowd of gawking students. She could hear them talking about her.

     "That weird brain chick… Is she really like, famous? Woah! I heard she made porno films for the Internet… Who is she living with?"

     "Hey! " Jane yelled, "Brittany Spears is in the lunchroom!"

     The crowd instantly disappeared, in search of greater celebrity like iron to a magnet.

     "Having fun yet, 'co-artist?'" Jane had the photo of herself, with her foot on Li's back. "Good likeness, don't you think? I thought a bit of performance art wouldn't hurt." She smirked. "Got me in the paper, anyway."

     Daria shrugged. "Sorry, but they printed all that stuff by themselves. They did make up a pretty good story."

     "Ill say." Jane shook her head. "I haven't seen so much bullshit heaped up in one place since I visited my uncle's farm."

     "Now what?" Daria shuddered. "Am I going to have to live up to this garbage?"

     "Nah. Just figure out how to make some money off of it." Jane smiled. "I could really use your help with the protesters. If you're there, the press will pay attention."

     "Sure." Daria looked out the door. "What do you want me to do? Flash them?"

     Jane saw another busload of protesters pull up. They boiled out of the bus and started scuffling with the crowd. "Maybe this is going too far. "We'd better stay inside."

     Daria pushed her way through the crowd, blindly heading for the exit as the first bell rang. The sound of sirens and rioting filtered in through the locked doors.

     "Hold it right there, missy!" Barch darted out of the teacher's lounge, seized Daria by the arm and dragged her inside. "Where do you think you're going? It's not safe out there!"

     Daria stared at the assembled faculty, all halted in mid pre-work bustle. "Where can I go?" She slumped against a wall. "Those tabloids have coast to coast and international circulation in the hundreds of millions. My life is over."

     Barch glared into her face. "You can't hide, so face 'em down! Look the rabble in the eye and spit!"

     DeMartino started, glared blankly into space for a minute, then nodded. "Believe me, Daria. If they want you… they get you. All you can do is make the payoff worthwhile."

     O'Neill, never taking his worried eyes off of Barch, nodded, a copy of the Examiner in his hand."We're all here to support you, Daria." He cleared his throat. "Is it true about you being an experimental…" He trailed off as Barch scorched him with her eyes. "… artist?" Ever since she'd caught him watching the Broncos, she'd been ready to kill him. He'd just been researching, trying to find out what the rules were, so that he could 'rap' with the football players.

     Daria stared at them, then shrugged. "I make a mean mash potato sculpture."

     Manson looked at the clock. "Darla, If I can help-"

     "It's time to get to class, people." DeMartino stood. "Come with me, Daria. You can help me deal with that circus outside."

     The lounge cleared as the bell rang.

     In the office, DeMartino indicated a chair. "Just make yourself comfortable for as long as you want, Daria." He sighed. "I don't know what to tell you, but I'll do whatever I can for you."

     Daria shrugged. "I don't have any idea what to do." She heaved a tremulous sigh. "I need to get out of this place."

     DeMartino nodded. "Think of it as an exercise in tactics. The object is to avoid having your life affected, or only letting it be affected in ways that you approve of." He fell silent. "I was briefly a celebrity of sorts, back in '71." He shook his head at the memory. "I had something important to say, but everyone just tried to use me, to publicize their stinking politics." He pursed his lips angrily. "In hindsight, I see that there was almost nothing that I could do about it. All that I could have done was to be better at using them, to help me achieve my own ends."

     Daria nodded. "Maybe I can just be boring. Make them give up."

     DeMartino snorted. "Forget it. Hiding is never a long term option. You aren't boring, Daria. Even if you were, they'd just make a story up. You are now a celebrity, like it or lump it. You can't just stop being a celebrity. Since you can't go back, go forward. Decide what kind of celebrity that you want to be and use them to get you there."

     Daria sighed. "I feel like a frog hopping across a freeway."

     He smiled, an expression that didn't fit his face. "Race drivers always aim for the center of the wreckage on the track ahead, because they know that at those speeds, indecision is fatal. With everything moving at 200 miles an hour, it will have all spun away by the time they get there. You're in the fast lane now. Take control. Accelerate toward the flames, Daria."

     "Uh!" Trent flailed wildly, dislodging the parrot from his chest. "Jesus wept!"He sat up, wrinkling his nose. Summer's dammed bird was back and had crapped all over his sheet.

     Disgusted, Trent threw the soiled bedding into the washer and climbed the stairs, vowing to get a new place, today, or else get a motel room. Waking up with a giant bird staring you in the eye was just too much.

     Trent climbed the stairs into a boiling pandemonium. Summer was yelling into the phone, Penny's four kids were all screaming, bouncing off of the walls and Penny looked ready to do the same. Amanda was arguing with her, almost losing her temper. He nodded at the proto riot on the way out.

     At the Waffle Hut, he ate brunch and scanned the real estate section of the Sun Times.

     "Is that the devil-man in the paper, Daddy?" Tricia Gupty pointed at Trent.

     "Yes, Tricia. Turn your face away from evil." Mr. Gupty looked at Trent and shuddered. He couldn't believe that he'd actually let Daria baby-sit. He could trace the change in his children's attitude back to her visit.

     Trent, oblivious, found a list of rentals available in Crew Neck and tore it out of the paper. The prices made him wince, but Eddie had been adamant. He never saw the Gupties on their cell phone, or the staff staring at him.

     Daria crept closer to her childhood home, then saw the crowd. Fully a dozen police cars were there, holding back various bands of demonstrators. There appeared to be Wiccans, Christians, UFO believers and a couple of other unidentifiable groups demonstrating. It looked like every reporter on earth was covering it. She swallowed, then withdrew back through the bushes.

     "Oh my God, I'm going to have to leave town." Daria swallowed and went looking for Trent.

     Trent sat in the back of the police car, handcuffed. "What did I do?"

     The cop shrugged. "There's a pick up order from the BATF."

     "Not those guys again." Trent grimaced, angrily. "I'll lose the damage deposit on the apartment for sure."

     "All I know is that there's an APB," said the cop. He didn't care. "So, is it true that you're some kind of a rock star?"

     "Sure thing, chief." Trent lived by a few simple rules. One of them was to always agree with people who wore guns. "I'm the kind of rock star that never sold out. That means that I don't have a quarter for my phone call."

     The cop shrugged. "Tough shit." He craned his neck to watch a low flying helicopter buzz the road. "So, what the hell is going on with all these army guys?"

     "What?" Trent frowned. "What army?"

     "The good ol' dumbass US Army." The cop eyed him in the rearview mirror. "Haven't you seen all the choppers around?"

     Trent shrugged, uncaringly. "They don't mean anything to me."

     The cop nodded, worriedly. "I hope the fuckers didn't spill some germs or somthin' nasty like that."

     "Hey! Those Bat-F dudes told me about this big deal, called Case Purple, where these God-fearing terrorists were gonna like mow down all the corruption and shit." Trent looked out the window, dismissing it. "But it was all pretty stupid."

     The cop swallowed and sped up.

     "Hethllo?" Thomebody?" Artie tugged at the cheap cuffs that secured him to the heavy bed frame. "I couth really uth some wather." He was pretty dehydrated, having been drained of a substantial proportion of his bodily fluids.

     "A thirthy love thlave is a uthleth love thlave, ya alithen bithes!" He swallowed, dryly. "Wha tha hell ith wong ith my thung?" There was something on his tongue. Some horrible alien device, or worse, that was undoubtedly burrowing into his brain.

     "Hey, baby." Andrea saw the cuffs. "Oh! Sorry about that. Gotta have em, to keep you from scratching." She sat down next to him, with a glass of water and a straw. "Open up, let's have a look."

     He opened his mouth, and she peered in.

     "Cute," said Andrea. The ruby skull was kind of over the top, but Sandi had insisted. She put the straw in his mouth, and he drank thirstily, until she pinched it off. "That's enough for now!"

     "I itcth all overth!" Artie suddenly felt himself on the verge of total madness, from the itching.

     "Let me get the novocaine." She started applying it all over his body.

     "Waaa! I"M Thnaked! Urrrfgh! Wath thath for? Pleath, whath on my thung?" Not without considerable ambivalence, he wondered what it was about him that attracted these alien she-devils.

     Andrea smiled, slowly. "You don't remember? I never saw anyone as wild as you were, last night, Sweetie! We had some fun, did some drugs and then went over to Dega street to celebrate with some tattoos! You went whole hog!" She smiled. "We decorated you!"

     "Whath?" Artie cringed in horror. "Oh, thit!" Some vague memories were peaking out, taking an embarrassed look around and sidling shamefaced into his consciousness. They'd done something to him. He'd been so... happy, perfectly willing to do anything they said. They'd said a lot. He flushed red, all over.

     "You're blushing! That's so cuuuute." Andrea laughed. He'd admitted to being a virgin the night before and she'd been happy to take care of that for him. The cocaine, acid and ecstasy cocktail that they'd fed him had put him up on cloud nine. He'd turned out to be quite gallant. Andrea's joy-juice always revealed the person that you really were, underneath. Artie was gallant, Andrea was a bi wanna-be witch, Rete was a punk and Sandi, besides having a huge case of megalomania, was a raving nymphomaniac with pronounced lesbian tendencies.

     "Didth I do ith withth three womenth?" Artie couldn't believe the memories that were flooding back.

     Andrea wasn't conventionally pretty, but she was very adventurous. "Yes, more of a gang-bang than a menage, really. Pretty unusual for your first time." She smiled.

     "Do I hath a thud throuth my thoungue?" Artie gritted his teeth, waiting for the horrid moment of truth.

     "You have studs all over, Stud." She kissed him. "Can't wait to try it out."

     "Thuck! Thuck thuck THUUUUUUUCK! "

     Andrea shrugged, agreeably. "Aren't you feeling a little... tender, with the new piercing and all?"

     "Guhhth. How mathny?"

     "Oh, quite a lot. Eyebrows, cheeks, nose lips and tongue." Her smile turned wicked. "And that's just above the neck. Dixie said to keep you immobile for a week, so no thucking."

     "Whath Thathoees?" Artie prayed that there were none on his face.

     "Well, we planned a lot of stuff, but we couldn't get it all done, so we signed you, in a favorite spot and had Dixie spud it in!" She disappeared from his line of sight. "Well, let's see. 'Property of Sandi Griffin... turn your head... oh, well, that's kind of kinky, right on the back of your neck. That's a cool little dragon on your back. Looks like it's high collar shirts for you, from now on."

     "Where arth the restht?" Artie wondered if he was laying somewhere, hallucinating.

     "Right butt cheek. Don't worry, I'll take care of you, until it all heals." She slowly brought out a long feather, watching his eyes widen and the sweat pop out on his brow. "You'll just laugh it off."

     Daria crept into the hotel made her way to the front desk.

     "Can I help you, Miss?" The clerk's eyes widened slightly, but he didn't say anything.

     Daria was feeling very frazzled. "Yes, please. I'm Daria. I'm looking for my... father, Eddie Star?"

     The clerk smiled, noncommittally. "I'll look in the register." He typed a bit, then smiled. "You're on the list. Ah, he's in room 445, Ms. Star. Would you like me to phone him and tell him that you're coming?"

     Daria was a little dazed. "Y-yes please." Ms. Star? She hugged herself, nervously and walked away to find the room.

     The phone rang.

     Amy opened her eyes, then rolled over. "Aaaaah!"

     Eddie mumbled, then sat up. "Sampson! What's all that yelling?"

     Amy pulled her sheet up around her. "Who's Sampson?"

     "Whu?" Eddie stared at her. "My valet," he answered absently. "Hey, you're real!"

     Amy shrugged.

     Eddie picked up the phone. "Yes? Now? Thank you." He hung up, looking stunned.

     "What is it?" Amy was concerned.

     "Our daughter is on her way up." He sat there, then grinned.

     Amy swallowed. "Oh."

     "I'm told that clothing is usually a good idea when confronting your offspring." Eddie got up and started dressing.

     Amy looked down. "Oh!"

     "You look ravishing, Amy." Eddy grinned.

     "More like ravished." She picked up her bra. "You have a valet?" Amy couldn't believe it.

     "Sampson prefers to be called a butler, but he started out as my valet." Eddie shrugged. "He runs the household. Maids, cook, gardeners, the whole thing."

     "Sounds neat." Amy paused. "When did you get all that?"

     Eddy smiled. "I bought a few good things when I was pissing away millions. A few of them were estates. I need order, Amy. I live a very ordered, very conventional existence." In fact, Sampson was a dedicated butler and enjoyed creating the perfect household. He'd once told Eddie that he had won the overall finest household award from the butler's guild, for 'excellent form.'

     Daria knocked on the door and wasn't very surprised when Amy opened it. "Mom, we have to talk."

     Amy gasped, then ran into the bathroom, sobbing.

     "Oops." Daria closed the door behind her.

     "What happened?" A bewildered Eddie stepped out of the bathroom and walked over.

     Daria shrugged. "I accidentally called her 'mom.' She cries, every time."

     "Oh." Eddie wished keenly that she'd call him Dad, someday. "So, had breakfast yet?"

     Daria laughed. "It's almost noon! Lunch would be nice."

     Eddie shrugged. "We were up-"

     "Don't want to hear about it, but..." she smiled, leaned in and kissed his cheek, "I approve."

     Eddie grinned. "Wonderful!"

     Daria drank her tea and flushed. "Would you quit staring at me?"

     Eddie looked down at his plate. "Sorry, Daria. I've got a lot of looking to catch up on." He kept getting lost in her face, trying to glimpse the child inside her.

     Amy sighed. "If only-"

     "Let's not go there. We've all done things." Daria looked at them, evenly. "If you need to hear it, I forgive you both, unconditionally."

     "God." Eddie shook his head. "You don't know how happy I am to hear that, but forgiveness is a tricky thing, Daria. It's not you. We have to forgive ourselves and forgive each other. That's the hard part."

     "I'm still mad at you, Eddie, but I'll try." Amy said, solemnly.

     "I never had anything to forgive you for." Eddie sighed. "Your boyfriend amazes me, Daria. At his age I was a little farther along in my career, but in terms of my life, I was fifteen years behind him." He looked at Amy. "He told me that he was going to go into the restaurant business if music got to be too much of a hassle. Could you imagine me saying that at his age?"

     Amy shook her head, sadly. "Your ambition was one of the things that attracted me to you, Eddie."

     "Trent had to raise his sister. It gave him a lot of depth." Daria smiled, fondly.

     Amy drank her coffee, very leery of Trent and not wanting to talk about him. "What brought you over here this morning, Daria? Shouldn't you be in school?"

     Daria unzipped her bookbag and handed them each a newspaper. "The riot cut my day a little short, and I couldn't find Trent. Mom and d- The Morgendorffer house is surrounded by lunatics and I'm homeless." She sighed. "I don't know how I'll be able to finish out the year."

     Eddie was gasping airlessly, red faced with outrage. "Why... goddamn them! He yanked out his cellphone. "My lawyers-"

     "Would you like to move in..." Amy looked at Eddie. "Would you like to come out to California?"

     Eddie met her eyes. "There's a lot of room at my place, Daria. Of course with California being a common law state, it isn't really my place. It's half my place."

     Amy nodded, then looked at Daria. "Would you like to come out west?" She looked back at Eddie. "I think we could work something out."

     Trent was in an interrogation room. It was white, with painted brick walls. A battered wooden table with two hard chairs was all that there was. "Hey! Let me out of here!" He looked carefully at the glass wall, but he couldn't see a thing. Trent leaned back in the chair, balancing it on two legs, his feet on the table. The acoustics in the room were very good.

     "Yo ho ho, I wanna know, what the hell I did, not to pass go." Trent hummed a tune to go with it.

     "Big bad bugs drove me out of my bed, wanna sleep with my woman, got a bird instead."

     "Ugly som bitch staring in my eye, Think if I blink, I'm surely gonna die."

     "Eatin' my food when up come a cop, take me away before I eat my chop.

     The door opened and a General walked in.

     "Who the fuck are you?" Trent stared belligerently at the man, taking his feet off of the table and letting his chair legs come back to the ground.

     "I'm General Long." He sat and offered Trent a cigarette. "I'm with military intelligence. We're trying to find out what the fuck is going on around here."

     "Oh good. Tell me when you do." Trent was puzzled. "Why the Army?"

     "That's what I asked." He lit his smoke. "They said that there were fanged space aliens and shit running amok in this town."

     Trent laughed.

     The General smiled. "That's just what I did. So, out of all the people in the reports, you seem to be the only one with any goddamned brains at all, so I'm gonna show our cards." He laid a folder on the table. "How do you like your coffee?"

     Trent opened the file. "Uh, Cream and lots of sugar, please."

     Long glanced at the glass wall.

     A few minutes into the report, Trent started laughing. "Okay, that isn't an alien. There are no aliens. That's just that chick... Sandi Duncan, or something. Looks like she went Goth. Call Daria and ask her, or her sister. Anyway, she's bald and blue because her friends rubbed some chemicals on her that reacted that way. The rest of this stuff... this looks like some old rumors, all started by this Artie guy. He thinks everyone's an alien.

     General Long nodded. "Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Lane. The Army is retreating." He closed the report and handed Trent an envelope. "This is a small token of our thanks. It's list of the people who were following Daria, and their employers. You might want to ask them about the bugs in your home. We've determined, through interrogation of one Zachary Zimmerman, that LUFON wasn't involved."

     "Bull shit! They filmed right through my... Oh, you know, if they really wanted to they could have put that thing up in the light fixture. Maybe you're right." Trent's eyes glittered as he thought it over. "I'm still kicking their asses."

     "I would." The General rose. "You can leave, anytime. The desk sergeant will see you delivered back to your car. Goodbye, Mr. Lane."

     "Hey, General?" Trent stopped him at the door.


     "Just between us, are there any real aliens?"

     The General paused. He had been part of a team in the seventies that had examined several ancient machines of impossibly advanced design, recovered from the sea around a pacific atoll. "Never seen a trace."

     Trent nodded. "That's what I thought."

     Trent pulled up to his parent's house. There was an altercation going on in the driveway. He exited his car and saw Jane's tearful face.

     "How could you do such a thing?" Vincent Lane was angry, shouting at his daughter.

     "Who do you think you are?" Trent's voice was low and deadly.

     "Trent, just leave it..." Jane caught her breath and sobbed. "I just took a pregnancy test, and guess what?"

     Trent swallowed. "I'll be there for you, Janey." He hugged her. His head came up, the light of battle glowing in his eyes. "Back off, Vince. You don't have the right to say anything to Janey about this. You fucked off to Brazil for fifteen years, remember?"

     Vincent clamped his mouth shut and went inside, slamming the door behind him.

     "Oh Trent." She hugged him. If it was a boy, she decided, his name would be Trent.

     "You can move in with us if you want. It'll be hard, but I think-"

     "Don't be stupid. I'm waiting here for Tom. We're going to get married tomorrow." Jane kissed his cheek, happily. "My baby won't be poor. Tom's family is rich, and Tom has a lot in his own right. Enough to see us along until he turns twenty one and gets his money."

     Trent frowned. "But... why the crapmobile?"

     Jane smirked. "It makes a lot of sense if you're a rich guy looking for a girl that doesn't care about your money."


Epilog 1.


     Trent Lane had a short-lived musical career, and a long acting career. He took a bit part for fun and it got out of hand. He lives in Laguna and is as rich as anyone else with a beach house in Laguna. Daria lives with him. They never married, but they have four children. Daria graduated USC and became a television producer, after a long, torturous brush with fame. Everything she ever touched turned to gold.

     Jane is the First Lady of the United States. The X-Presidents hangs in the presidential bedroom. Tom is deathly afraid to let it out of his sight.

     Eddie has made several comebacks since then. Daria now has a blood sister named Helen. Amy settled in and made Sampson's life a living hell.

     Sandi and Andrea still share Artie. They have six kids, all girls. They made quit a bit, selling a magazine sharing the secrets of the 'Space Goth' look. Artie trumped them with a string of best-selling books about his sexual encounters with UFO's, that brought them in a modest fortune. He wants a houseboat, but has no control over anything.

     Kevin passed the exit exam and went to Ohio State. He blew out his knee in his sophomore season and ended up as a heavy equipment operator. He married a waitress named Betty and has a daughter named Yolonda.

     Jake was the only US executive kept on, after Broson Semiconductors was purchased by a Korean company. Jake is good at bullshitting and still makes more than anyone else in the whole company.

     Helen is Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. 'Hang 'em High' Helen is every murderer's worst nightmare. She's still married to Jake.

     Quinn became a spokesmodel for Birch-Neumann by confusing the CEO about her identity. By the time they figured it out, Quinn was on every billboard and in every catalog that they had. It was decided that certain careers were too important to lose. Quinn had a glamorous and highly paid modeling career. She married and divorced singers, actors, sports stars and finally ended up back with Charles. She has a part in one of Daria's TV shows and two kids.

     Brittany finally passed night school and went out to California. She looked up Daria, who got her a part in a horror movie. She played blond murder victims until a producer noticed her and married her. She has two girls that look just like her.

     Zippo went to college and became an astronomer. He married Jodie. Jodie is a congresswoman. They have one son.

     Mack is a doctor.

     Stacy and Tiffany beat up Sandi and Andrea six times that year. Tiffany proved to be useless in a fight, but Stacy had taken Karate for years, before high school. Stacy married Jamie and Tiffany married Jeffy. Ten years later, they switched.


Epilog 2


      Artie walked through the poorly lit park, fuming. The treacherous alien bitches had really gotten him. They'd kept him drugged or handcuffed to the bed for a week, doing unspeakably obscene things to him and to each other, and then they'd just dumped him in the park with a grocery sack over his head. He cursed, miserably. It was sick, disgusting, immoral, and wrong. He desperately wanted to go back!

     It was time to let the world fry in its own grease. He didn't care anymore. He'd been trying to save them from such alien cruelty since he was ten, the year that he'd seen the alien spacecraft hovering over his house. Well, no more. Screw them all with a rototiller. He was going to slip into that anonymous sea of the happily ignorant and-

     For the second time in his life, Artie heard the distinctive sound of an Alorshak antigrav unit. Cursing his luck, he turned around as the huge flying saucer decloaked.

     The chief priest turned to face the sub-minister of propriety and the sub-minister of genocide with all five eyestalks. Speaking clearly, as befitted the historic occasion, he spoke. "The unclean one is prepared for the sacrifice. You may have him ask it the question."

     The two triune beings bowed. "It shall be as you instruct, Holy One. The selected biped will serve as the invitor." The biomarkers placed under the creature's skin had led them straight to it. Strangely, a number of them had been disabled by items of jewelry pushed through the epidermis.

     Artie was seized by the tractor beam and drawn shrieking into a small hangar, loosely attached to the bottom of the saucer. A horror right out of hell oozed forward to face him.

     Nufrik the Pervert, condemned for unauthorized devotion, spoke formally, as befitted the chosen instrument of the destroyer of these vermin. He would be burned to ash after his historic role was played, but if he served the Great Race, he didn't mind. That was what really counted.

     Hoping that his voice sounded formal, as befitted the ears of the soon to be last human, Nufrik spoke to the biped in its own filthy tongue. "Human, you now speak as the voice of your world. We, the Great Race, ask- what do you want?"

     Confidently, he waited for the human to ask for something. The primitive markings and the wicked looking barbs piercing the things disgustingly firm flesh suggested that the species wasn't over-bright. As long as the infectious other-sapience asked the Alorshak for something, there was no onus in destroying them. In the absence of such a one to take responsibility, propriety dictated that the race be left alone, for it was necessary that there to be an invitor to surrender the destiny of its race before the great cleansing could take place.

     Artie stared at the slug, revolted. His anger, though muted by fear, was still strong.

     "What is it that you want from the Alorshak, Human?" Eagerly, Nufrik oozed forward. "We await your request."

     "Nothing! Not one Goddamned thing! Leave us alone! Get the away from our solar system! Let me go, you filthy slug! Never speak to me again!" Artie suddenly realized what he'd done, what riches he'd rejected. His mouth went dry, his eyes rolled up and he fainted.

     Nufrik keened. Failure! In the ten millennia that the Alorshak had been purifying the galaxy, never had a vermin race failed to promptly yield up its right to life.

     The chief priest tapped the sub-minister of genocide with her death wand. Obediently, the being knelt and stopped it's bodily functions.

     The sub-minister of Propriety signed his devotion, venting chlorine for added emphases. Then he assumed the posture of command. "The Great Race must leave this sphere. The creature has acted with great propriety, limiting contamination by stopping itself. It must be returned to its world for proper disposal and the Alorshak may never return. So it is ruled." Once again, he assumed the eleventh posture of respect.

     The priest vented Xenon in frustration. "The great ones hear the ruling and obey." In pique, she touched him with the death stick.

     Artie was levitated back to the ground and the saucer silently left the Earth's atmosphere. In a gesture of disrespect to the humans, the chief priest had the corpse of Nufrek and the temporary hanger that it inhabited, jettisoned into Sol.

     Happy that the loathsome humans would never know that their sun was spiritually contaminated, the priest ordered the quarantine message buoys placed outside the solar system.

     6620, AD.

     The archeologist started the Alorshak computer and searched the few remaining archives. In ancient times, when the 55th Solarian fleet had extinguished the Alorshak, few had cared enough to learn anything about the extinct race, or their victims. Little had remained of their history. The archeologist had a grant from the University of Memphis. After much searching, he'd found an ancient reference to the human race. Excited, he tracked it down.

     The Alorshak had exterminated at least five thousand races. The reason that the humans had slipped through the Alorshak sieve had long been sought. Suddenly, the battered alien holomonitor cleared and a human, apparently an ancient variety of Homo Sapient, Sapiens appeared.

     The archeologist smiled at the cursing primitive sub being and then felt a rush of awe as the scene unfolded. Here then, was the savior of the human and many other races. Forn solidified and sketched a sapiens style salute at the image. When it had been recorded, his people had been happily living in their stone huts in the warm, shallow seas of Home.

     When the commonality heard, it became faddish among the Nargh unifems to wear Artie's archaic sapiens form for a short decalidion, as a memorial. A large moon was formed by Voroghian Trilims into a sculpture of his face. Only the few remaining untransited humans, slightly embarrassed by the reminder of their crude animal past, failed to significantly honor Artie, the Great Denier.


The End.



This wasn't exactly one of my best efforts. Events on the show passed the story by, and I lost interest. It took a long time to finish. So this is for all of you dedicated naggers out there.